Phonics vs. Whole Language

February 15, 2015

When your child nears reading age, you will start to hear of different approaches to learning how to read and spell. The two main camps are the phonics approach and the whole language approach.  Over the years, teachers have gone back and forth about which is the best way to teach a child to read.  But let’s face it, all children learn differently and what suits one child may not suit another.  Here is the low down on each approach. . .

Phonics: The idea behind phonics is to teach children the sounds that each letter or letter combination makes.  They then learn to blend these sounds together into syllables and eventually words.  The theory is that if you give children the rules for the English language, then they should be able to apply the rules to any word and be able to read and spell that word. Since about 15% of the English language doesn’t follow the rules, though, the non-phonetical words have to be learned individually.

A characteristic of phonics is explicit or direct teaching.  Students are taught exactly what sound a letter or group of letters makes and when to use it.

If you know a little about the Orton-Gillingham approach, you’ll recognize that O-G uses phonics.   Teachers generally agree that phonics is the approach that works best for children with language-based learning difficulties.

Whole Language: This approach to reading and spelling is based on the idea that understanding the whole word in context leads to better comprehension of the story being read.  Children who learn well with this approach don’t need the direct instruction that is so necessary for children with language-based learning difficulties.

Children who learn easily with the whole language approach have the natural ability to apply generalizations from one situation to the next.  For example, they may be given a book with a picture of two kids running down a grassy green hill and read, “Dick and Jane run down the hill.  See Dick run.  See Jane run.”  Yes, the Dick and Jane books embody the whole language approach!

A child who doesn’t have a reading difficulty reads a Dick and Jane book a few times (with support at first) and soon applies the following components of English with remarkable accuracy:

  • Use ck after a short vowel, as in Dick, stick, pick.
  • In the combination of vowel–consonant–e the final e is silent and the vowel makes a long sound, as in Jane, bite, these, mute, hose
  • The combination ow says /ow/, as in how and cow (Later, the child will discover that ow also says /o/ as in snow.)
  • Words that have a short vowel and end in the letter l need the l doubled, as in hill, pill, spill.
  • The vowel combination ee says /e/, as in see, tree, flee.

That is a lot to discover! Of course, the child can’t necessarily identify those components of our language in so many words but is starting to learn to apply them all the same.

Unfortunately, the whole language approach is not successful for all children.  Adults who were natural readers as children and easily learned to read with the whole language approach often find it very difficult to understand why this approach doesn’t work for their child. Everyone’s brain is wired just a little differently, so a child with a learning disability or learning difference may struggle with the whole language approach yet thrive with the phonics approach.

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