If you were in elementary school in the 1980s or 90s, and you struggle with reading, it’s probably because your teachers used the whole language learning approach. Thankfully, whole language learning since then has, in many cases, been replaced with phonics.
First, I must define my terms. Phonics is a method for teaching reading using the sounds of letters, combinations of letters, and syllables. You can read a more in-depth description here. Basically, if reading instruction focuses on “sounding words out,” it’s probably phonics-based. Not all phonics curricula are created equal, of course. Some are more methodical and complete than others.
Whole language learning focuses on teaching reading through recognizing words as a whole, in which students learn to read words from context. There is not breaking words into parts and decoding them. You can read more about it here. The emphasis is to spend a lot of time reading to and with children. The theory behind the whole language approach is based on the work of Noam Chomsky. He asserted that language acquisition is natural and, therefore, does not need to be explicitly taught.
The human brain is wired for language. Oral language, that is. Children naturally learn to speak and understand oral language simply by being exposed to enough of it. Reading and writing are not quite as natural, as evidenced for the need for writing systems to be invented. This is the basic reason why reading and writing have to be taught explicitly and oral language does not (at least for an individual’s native language).
You have probably figured out that I am firmly on the phonics side of this debate.
Recently I read an essay from Frank Smith called “12 Easy Ways to Make Learning to Read Difficult *and One Difficult Way to Make it Easy“(the second essay). As an early elementary teacher, I was interested in getting more ideas about how to make my reading instruction more effective. The beginning part of this essay was whole language nonsense, though he does make good points about child development in general. I would like to address Smith’s ideas point by point.
- Aim for Early Mastery of the Rules of Reading – Smith asserts that there are not rules for reading, which is quite preposterous considering that English is an alphabetic language. He also claims, with no evidence, that no child has ever learned to read by using phonics. I have personal experience with students that shows the exact opposite. I have been working this year with a first grader who could barely read at all. After a few month of explicit phonics instruction, her reading ability has increased exponentially. It’s true that not all children need explicit phonics instruction. Some children seem to learn to read as naturally as they learned to speak. This is not true for all children. Some children, especially those learning English as a second language, need explicit phonics instruction to be successful.
- Ensure that Phonics Skills are Learned and Used – Smith claims English is too irregular for phonics rules to assist students. This is blatantly untrue. I’ve seen students decode words that you wouldn’t think a child of their age would be able to read, by using phonics rules. He points out that fluency is one of the main goals of reading instruction, and claims that phonics is too cumbersome to aid fluency. Certainly fluency takes time, but so does any other worthy endeavor. A student who struggles with phonics will not necessarily acheive fluency any faster with the whole language approach.
- Teach Letters or Words One at a Time, Making Sure Each New Letter of Word Is Learned Before Moving On – Well, it does make sense to introduce new letters or words just one or a few at a time, that way students can actually remember the new information. As Smith says, teachers don’t need to stay on that same word until it is completely mastered; rather, students will learn better by being able to compare it to other words. On this we are in agreement. I also haven’t seen any phonics curricula that states you must focus on one letter or word until it is completely mastered before introducing any other letters or words, so this argument seems rather like a strawman to me.
- Make Word-Perfect Reading the Prime Objective – Another strawman. This is not a phonics thing. This would be the result of a teacher who is a perfectionist. Naturally, demanding perfection of our students is counter-productive.
- Discourage Guessing; Be Sure Children Read Carefully – It’s fine for children to make an educated guess at an unfamiliar word, but surely Smith understands that we do need to teach children to think? If a child is attempting to read the sentence “I see a truck,” I would discourage a child from guessing if they guess “boy” or “the” or something similarly unrelated in the place of “truck,” and instead use phonics and/or context clues to come up with an answer that makes sense.
- Insist Upon Accuracy – Smith points out that learning involves making mistakes. Of course learning involves making mistakes. Every good teacher knows that. Phonics is perfectly compatible with creating a safe environment for students to fail in the process of learning. The classroom culture has more to do with the teacher than the pedagogy.
- Provide Immediate Feedback – Smith says that giving immediate feedback to correct a child’s reading interferes with fluency and reading comprehension. Again, he is associating an undesirable practice with phonics even though the two things aren’t necessarily related. I leave it to the teacher’s discretion to know when to correct a student and when to let the error go in favor of letting the student figure it out.
- Detect and Correct Inappropriate Eye Movements – I’ve never heard of a teacher doing “eye drills” to make sure students are looking in the right place. Maybe he’s referring to finger pointing?
- Identify and Give Attention to Problem Readers as Soon as Possible – He says that our expectations of students should be age-appropriate, and they should be given age-appropriate reading that is engaging. Here I agree with him.
- Make Sure Children Understand the Importance of Reading and the Seriousness of Falling Behind – I’m really thankful I don’t know teachers like the ones Smith knew, all hellfire and damnation if you ever made a mistake in class, or *gasp* fall behind. Certainly it is not a moral failing to develop more slowly than one’s peers. It’s important to keep in mind that all children develop at a different pace.
- Take the Opportunity during Reading Instruction to Improve Spelling and Written Expression, and Also Insist on the Best Possible Spoken English – So, no discussion of spelling or written expression allowed. So, I guess we’re not allowed to discuss alliteration, or similes, or any other kind of figurative language, either, during reading instruction, since those are part of written expression. If we come across words or phrases that tie into what we’ve been talking about in spelling, writing, grammar, or any other subject, I very well might highlight it during our reading lesson, because making connections between subject areas helps students really learn the material and develop critical thinking.
- If the Method You Are Using Is Unsatisfactory, Try Another. Always Be Alert for New Materials and Techniques – Here Smith explains that trying new techniques too often confuses children and prevents them from learning. I do think that teachers should always be open to ways to improve their instruction, and furthermore, there is a happy medium between providing consistency in pedagogy and mixing things up when needed. Individual teachers are in the best position to make that call.
One Difficult Rule for Making Learning to Read Easy – His one difficult rule is an interesting one: “Respond to what the child is trying to do.” His explanation for this is that learning to read is largely intuitive, as is teaching how to read. Children should simply spend a lot of time reading, and they will learn to read, he states.
Now, this is true for some children. Some children will learn to read seemingly effortlessly no matter what techniques are used. But that won’t work for all children.
Certainly, more time spent on reading, especially of quality reading material, is a good thing. But some kids simply need phonics. As the number of English language learners in our classrooms increase, the need for phonics will only grow. The whole language approach does offer some good ideas and insights, but can never replace phonics in terms of effectiveness.
- “Whole Language: Origins and Practice” by Greg Shaffer
- “Language Acquisition” from Psychologist World (summary of theories on how we acquire language)
- “Language Learning” from the National Science Foundation