Whole Language vs. Phonics

Whole language is based on the belief that learning to read is identical in process to learning to speak since writing is just “talk written down.” Spoken language develops in whole word units. It is not taught in a controlled or sequential manner – the child absorbs it through exposure to people speaking to him and around him.

Whole language proponents, therefore, believe that children will develop the ability to read through exposure to good literature, and the ability to spell will automatically follow. Just as spoken language progresses through developmental stages to fluency, reading and spelling will naturally develop into their correct and fluent levels through usage.

The classroom activities are child-centered. Children are surrounded with reading material, sometimes with controlled vocabulary which become sight words; and sometimes with stories with highly difficult vocabulary. They are often involved in writing down stories about real or fictional experiences. Their writing is not corrected for spelling or grammatical errors because it is believed that such correction would hamper their desire to write.

In short, they believe that reading and spelling abilities will develop with encouragement and support.

Phonics, on the other hand, is based on the belief that learning to read is fundamentally different from learning to speak. Although we hear words as a single unit, we don’t see them that way. Reading is first decoding, or making sense from separate written symbols strung together. These symbols represent sound units, or phonemes, which combine in different ways to form meaning units, or morphemes.

Phonics proponents believe that children should be given direct and sequential instruction in the mechanics of reading. They believe that only by giving children a “map” of the specific phonemes and the rules for applying them will those children learn to read and spell properly. They do not believe that reading and spelling ability just develop, they actively teach the necessary skills to children.

Classroom activities are structured, with the teacher providing active instruction and practice, correcting errors in decoding and spelling immediately, and reinforcing phonics rules. The reading material used is selected to give children practice in applying the phonic skills they are currently learning. It is believed that before children can read to learn, they must first learn to read.

In short, reading and spelling skills need to be systemically and sequentially taught.

Pedagogy is the science of education. It contains the givens that we know about how people learn. While there are many differences in learning rates and styles, universal principles do exist.

The Limits of Memory

Memory is a necessary part of learning. Students must know something before they can apply, evaluate, extrapolate, analyze or synthesize it.

But while necessary, memory is the weakest link in the learning process. Our brains are much better at working with information than they are at storing it. For example, we can calculate the size of rugs for our home, but we can’t remember the exact dimensions of every room.

Whole language requires children to commit to memory every word they read. Each word is a separate unit, so each word must be individually remembered. Reading successfully depends entirely on how many words a child can memorize.

Phonics requires children to commit 44 phonemes to memory, along with the finite number of rules for applying them. Words are combinations of phonemes, so they don't need to be stored individually. They can be decoded again and again. With practice, decoding becomes automatic – the child does it without consciously thinking about it. Reading successfully depends on how well a child works with information.

Phonics relies on the strongest link in learning – the mind's ability to process information. Whole language relies on the weakest link – the memory.


Have you ever met someone and mis-heard his name? From then on, every time you saw him, the wrong name competed with the right name in your head. That's because your mind does not easily erase information already learned. The old adage about doing something right the first time recognizes that it is twice as hard to “unlearn a mistaken concept and relearn the right one” as it is to learn a concept once – correctly.

Phonics instruction concentrates on helping children do it correctly the first time. Spelling or reading errors are immediately pointed out, analyzed, and corrected. Children are not given the opportunity to learn an error, so teachers are not faced with the doubly difficult task of “unteaching” the wrong spelling or pronunciation before they can reteach the right one.

Whole language assumes that children will develop into good spellers. Errors are not corrected, so inaccuracies are learned by the children. In fact, most children repeat their mistakes – reinforcing the error in their minds. Those inaccuracies must at some point be “unlearned” before the child can learn the correct spelling or pronunciation.

Phonics follows the easiest path to success in learning – teaching children to do it correctly the first time. Whole language follows the more difficult path to success – requiring children to complete the two-step process of “unlearn and re-learn.”

In 1990, the Orton Dyslexia Society held a special symposium on reading. At the event, Sylvia Onesti Richardson, M.D., of the University of South Florida, described the beginnings of “Whole Language”:

In this country, the first “look-say” book was The Mother's Primer (1835) by Thomas Gallaudet, the primary educator of the deaf in the United States at that time. Gallaudet reasoned that, since deaf children cannot hear the sounds of the language, it is difficult for them to make sound-symbol correspondence, so he presented pictures with words and sentences under them for the children learn as wholes…This was picked up by Horace Mann, who was at that time Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education, and who disliked the Alphabet approach.

The look-say method, then, was developed as a special educational tool for children who lacked the ability to learn through normal processes. This educational “medicine” was then given to children who were not educationally “sick.” If a doctor prescribed medicine for well children, he would be charged with medical malpractice. There are no such safeguards in education.

Dr. Richardson continued:

The Gallaudet primer was introduced by Horace Mann in the Boston public school system and was popular with the teachers for quite a while. Mann was also one of the founders of the first state owned and operated teacher training institution in the United States. The students there, teachers-to-be, were taught to use the whole word method for reading instruction.

Marilyn Jager Adams, who was commissioned by Congress to review the research on reading, told that same group that the attitudes underlying whole language are anchored in Frank Smith's books, Understanding Reading, first published in 1971, and Psycholinguistics and Reading, published in 1973. Ms. Adams then examined Smith's arguments:

Smith's Premise: Skillful readers do not attend to individual words of text.

Adams’ Response: Using computers, researchers have analyzed eye movements and found that normal adult readers do not skip over a significant number of words in meaningful text regardless of its ease or difficulty.

Smith's Premise: Skillful readers don't process individual letters.

Adams’ Response: Skillful readers automatically and quite thoroughly process the component letters of text. And each time, they reinforce and strengthen their processing ability. But to the extent readers skip, gloss, or guess at unfamiliar words, they lose the opportunity to strengthen that skill, making their reading less fluent.

Smith's Premise: Spelling-sound translations are irrelevant for readers. The fluent reader ignores the occasional word that is not in his sight vocabulary, because one in five words can be eliminated from text without effecting its overall comprehensibility.

Adams’ Response: Comprehension depends on effortless and speedy word recognition. If a reader must stop to decode, guess, or skip a word, he loses the thread of the sentence. As text become more complex, the most unfamiliar words hold the most information (e.g. Physicians use the antibiotic called penicillin.) So the reader who skips the words that are unfamiliar is left with no meaning, and the reader who tries to guess the words from the context finds the context contained in the unfamiliar words.

Smith's Premise: Don't teach children about spellings and sounds.

Adams’ Response: Skillful reading depends on rapid and effortless recognition of letters and of sounds; skillful readers habitually generate and frequently rely on spelling-sound relations; and the insights and observations on which such mastery depends are not natural – they must be taught. Such mastery enables independent word learning.

Adams is not alone. The National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) directed a thirty year, $200 million research study on reading instruction conducted through 8 major universities. The findings confirmed the necessity of implementing these Principles of Reading Instruction.

  • Teach phonemic awareness directly in kindergarten.

  • Teach each sound-spelling correspondence explicitly.

  • Teach frequent, highly regular sound-spelling relationships systematically.

  • Teach students directly how to sound out words.

  • Teach students sound-spelling relationships using connected, decodable text.

  • Teach reading comprehension using interesting teacher-read stories.

  • Teach decoding and comprehension skills separately.

In other words, effective reading instruction is based on systematic phonics, taught from the kindergarten level on.

Copyright 2001. National Parents Commissin. All rights reserved.

Peg Luksik, Ph.D., is the president of the National Parents Commission.

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