Whole Language vs. Phonics

Whole language reading instruction (also known as "look-say" or "sight" reading) is the most widely used method of teaching reading in the U.S. and many other countries. Its development dates back to early in this century (for more information, see our upcoming book Turning the Tide of Illiteracy), and its continued use is based on two factors, one factual and one . . . emotional.

First, researchers learned that experienced readers grasp the meaning of entire words at a time. Further, when children talk they use complete words without conscious attention to the individual sounds that make up those words. Why, therefore, should children be taught to read as was the norm at the time by teaching them the component sounds of words. Whole language "founders" believed that children should, then, be taught from the beginning to read whole words.

Second, whole language is said to be "literature-based" because students are expected to learn these words by "reading" them as teachers read stories aloud. After they have thus "read" them enough times they will recognize them and be able to read themselves. This sounds much more compassionate than the drill and repetition necessary to intensive phonics instruction. Drill and repetition, after all is boring and would inhibit proper emotional growth of children. Furthermore, learning to read while being exposed to more interesting stories will give young students a greater appreciation for great literature.

Unfortunately, both points are based on faulty reasoning. And, like Outcome-Based Education, experimenting with new concepts upon an entire nation of children without any verifiable proof of a concept's effectiveness has proven a grave mistake for millions of children in several generations. Illiteracy has been growing for at least four decades, and yet whole language continues to be used.

On point one, it is true that readers recognize familiar words as a whole. And, yes, many students learn to read for themselves the words they thus learn. But how do we read UNfamiliar words? We must deconstruct written words into their component sounds before we reconstruct the way the complete word sounds! Moreover, although children often are not aware of the individual sounds of words, they spent several years imitating and practicing sounds around them before they were able to speak whole words.

And, two, while drills and repetition can be boring for adults (especially including the teacher!) children like repetition. My five-year-old son can happily jabber the same word or phrase or song 20 times in a row as easily as two. (It would require scientific notation to represent how many times I've heard the phrase "One, eight hundred, ninety-four, Jenny") At that age repetition is a game! It is no different than any other behavior we must teach our children -- sometimes both emotional and intellectual growth require some . . . difficult transitions. We want our children to be independent thinkers, but they still have to live within a community, and until they are mature enough to make their own decisions, we have to make those decisions for them, no matter how painful those decisions might be . . . for us adults. Drills might even be boring for some. But compare that short-term inconvenience with the alternative of illiteracy or, at best, discomfort with the written word. In a world with growing reliance on communication, that leads to a nation incapable of competing, or, perhaps, even surviving.

The simplest explanation I have come up with is this:

Except for the passing coverage that most whole language basal reading programs give to phonics (or teachers who sneak in phonics when they're not supposed to), or children who infer phonics rules themselves, we would all need someone else to tell us the sound of every new written word we encounter.

Put simply, whole language does not work, and there is ample experimental evidence to prove it and little or none to the contrary.

The only universally effective method of teaching reading is through the use of intensive phonics for a period ranging from several weeks or months to about a school year, depending upon student age and ability. For specifics about a wide range of research dealing with whole language and phonics, see Preventing Reading Failure Examining the Myths of Reading Instruction. Once students have learned the phonics skills that will serve them throughout their lives, don't hesitate to have them practice their reading skills with mainstream children's literature as possible to help them see how exciting and meaningful reading can be.

Turning the Tide of Illiteracy points out that both Cuba and Israel discovered they had high illiteracy rates after using whole language methods. Both solved their problem by returning to intensive phonics. Fortunately for them, both are small, authoritarian nations; once they find a solution, they can implement it nationwide almost immediately.

A much larger nation, with a tradition (perhaps dying) of distaste for autocracy, the U.S. can't do that. In fact, most academicians who support phonics are often prevented from publishing their work in professional reading journals.

Another book Retarding America The Imprisonment of Potential is based upon a study of children and young adults in the juvenile justice system. It probably won't surprise you that there is a very high rate of illiteracy among that group. But children who learn to read well while in the system have a markedly lower recidivism rate than the rest who don't. Unfortunately, most teachers in both our juvenile and adult prison systems predictably teach reading the way they were taught to -- using whole language.

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