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

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

Advocates of phonics instruction believe reading is not a natural process; it must be taught explicitly and systematically. The primary focus is on correctly decoding words by using letter- sound relationships. Students read decodable texts which provide practice with the letter sounds or rules just learned. Words are read automatically as the sound symbol relationship is internalized. Comprehension is achieved because the text is read precisely as written.

In contrast, whole language proponents regard reading as a natural process similar to learning to speak. Decoding skills are taught as needed while students are reading; the emphasis is on comprehension and connecting text to the students’ experiences and previously read stories. Early readers have predictable and repetitive text and illustrations provide clues to words. Children are encouraged to use picture clues to figure out words by what looks and sounds right. Students memorize sight words and use word families to help them recognize words while reading.

The pendulum swung from whole language to phonics and back again for decades as experts debated the best approach.

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.

While the Reading War rages on students are caught in the middle:

  • two-thirds of the nation’s 4th graders read below grade level

  • 37% of students graduate from high school reading proficiently

  • 43% of adults in the United States are functionally illiterate

Clearly how we’ve been teaching reading hasn’t worked.

We must move from old notions and look to the research about how children learn to read.

We must inform our instruction by continuous observation and assessment.

We must be able to teach according to students’ needs, not by a prescribed order of lessons.

We must stop fighting over ideologies and do what’s best for our children.

Look for an upcoming post about how to do just that.

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