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The Reading Wars: Phonics vs. Whole Language vs. Balanced Literacy

Updated: Sep 26, 2022

For many years there were two main approaches to teaching reading -- Whole Language and Phonics. Each one represents a very different philosophy and emphasis of skills.

Whole language

On one side of the debate there are "whole language" teachers who believe that teaching reading isn't rocket science. They believe kids learn to read naturally just like how they learn to talk. Since children learn to talk by being surrounded by spoken words, they could learn to read by being surrounded by written words - that is, books.

If your child is being taught by a whole language teacher, you probably notice their classroom is filled with lots of books and your child is encouraged to find "just right" books that they can read on their own.

Whole language teachers usually provide phonics instruction on an as needed basis. Instead, emphasis is placed on recognizing "whole words" by memorizing lists of sight words.

When your child is first learning to read, their books will most likely have repetitive text and illustrations to support the text.

All Kinds of Faces, Reading a-z

In a whole language classroom, when your child comes to an unknown word, they are taught decoding strategies such as looking at picture clues, using context clues from surrounding words and sentences, or using the first letter of the word.

Many whole language classrooms have posters like these to help your child remember the strategies.


On the other side of the debate are "phonics teachers" who believe kids need explicit and systematic instruction to effectively learn to read.

If your child is learning to read in a phonics classroom, their teacher is helping them "unlock the code" by understanding that one or more letters can represent speech sounds. For instance, the /b/ sound in the word bat is represented by the letter b and the /ch/ sound in the word chat is represented by the two letters ch.

Your child learns the letter sounds in a specific order and then learns how to blend the sounds together to read words. They read decodable books to practice reading those specific sounds. Once your child has "unlocked the code," they are ready to read a variety of children's books.

Balanced Literacy

In the 1990s there was an attempt to combine the best of both approaches through Balanced Literacy. Unfortunately there isn’t any true consensus on what constitutes balanced literacy. Some educators took this to mean that phonics would be introduced in the early grades and then students would be transitioned to whole language instruction. For others, it meant implementing a reading workshop during which students worked on a number of activities including word work, vocabulary, guided reading with a teacher, and independent reading.

Caught in the Middle

While adults have been debating reading instruction, our children have suffered.

Reading Is Fundamental Literacy Network

But many Americans weren't aware of the the impact of the reading wars until a few years ago.

A Pandora's Box is Opened

In 2018 Emily Hanford, an education reporter, published a podcast episode which argued that schools were failing students because they were not using research-driven methods to teach reading.

According to Hanford, "Scientific research has shown how children learn to read and how they should be taught. But many educators don't know the science and, in some cases, actively resist it. As a result, millions of kids are being set up to fail."

Schools and publishers of reading instruction programs were ignoring 50 years of research - that is, the science of reading - concluding that children do not learn to read how they learn to talk.

Hanford went on to say that teachers are not at fault because teacher preparation programs do not teach them about the reading science.

Hanford re-ignited the debate between the two reading camps. Whole language followers disregarded Hanford because she was not an educator. Those who believed in phonics were delighted that she was exposing the truth to the public at large.

The Aftermath

Since Hanford's report, there has been a push to implement the reading research in both classroom instruction and teacher preparation programs. A movement called the "Science of Reading" (SoR) has swept the nation.

Read more about SoR in this blog post.

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