Phonics and whole language are two approaches to early reading instruction stemming from different assumptions and cultural values. In the 1980s and 1990s, a “reading war” raged between advocates of each approach. Although policy makers currently favor phonics, whole language advocates have not conceded defeat.
The whole language movement began in the United States in the early 1970s, championed by Kenneth Goodman and Frank Smith. Based on the assumption that learning to read is a natural process, like learning to talk, whole language advocates argue that children immersed in personally meaningful literacy activities will figure out for themselves how to read and spell. They encourage children to use context clues to guess at unknown words and to invent the spellings of words they can’t spell. Skills are taught in context when needed. The emphasis is on comprehension and the development of a positive attitude toward reading and writing.
Phonics approaches emphasize early systematic instruction on the spellings of various sounds, enabling children to sound out unfamiliar words. Advocates assume that once children can read words fluently, comprehension will follow. Phonics programs typically rely on teachers delivering preplanned sequential lessons. Over time, such lessons cover most of the spelling patterns that children are likely to encounter. The majority of words in assigned reading materials are ones that children can recognize or sound out based on the spelling patterns they have already learned. Phonics advocates criticize whole language approaches as being too haphazard.
Since the 1950s, authors such as Rudolph Flesch, Jeanne Chall, and Marilyn Adam have promoted phonics. By the mid-1990s, whole language was blamed for low reading scores in California, and phonics was beginning to defeat whole language in the reading war, at least among policy makers. Then, in 2000, the Congressionally appointed National Reading Panel published a review of research on reading instruction that supported intensive, systematic phonics instruction. With federal funding tied to the use of research-based pedagogy, states and schools began to adopt intensive phonics programs.
Whole language advocates have several objections to mandated, intensive phonics instruction. They believe that children in phonics programs spend too much time on phonics drills and not enough time actually reading. Although whole language teachers are willing to teach phonics, they object to phonics programs that require teachers to follow scripts, thus eliminating professional decision making and adaptation to individual learners’ needs. Most importantly, they believe that the research base supporting intensive phonics is inadequate and ideologically biased.
Whole language instruction is consistent with the constructivist notions that people build understandings through experience and that meaning cannot be imposed by others. Many political and religious conservatives object to constructivism and favor pedagogical approaches that transmit traditional culture and values. Therefore, many conservatives favor phonics programs because they teach children standard spelling and interpretations of texts.
Evidence shows that academic achievement depends more on having a skilled, thoughtful teacher than on having any particular instructional method. An outcome of the reading war is that decisions about reading instruction have been shifting from classroom teachers to policy makers. It may be that neither phonics nor whole language, when imposed on all teachers and students, will lead to optimal achievement.
- Allington, R. L. (2002). Big brother and the national reading curriculum: How ideology trumped evidence. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
- History of the Reading Wars: http://www.pbs.org/weta/twoschools/thechallenge/history
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