Let me first give you a brief overview of the whole language approach to learning how to read and then we’ll discuss how phonics fits into all of this.
According to Merriam-Weber’s definition, the whole language, sometimes referred to as the whole word, approach is a “method of teaching reading and writing that emphasizes learning whole words and phrases by encountering them in meaningful contexts rather than by phonics exercises.”
The “controversy” arises because this method teaches a student to recognize whole words without having to phonetically sound out each letter. Proponents of phonics-based learning claim that teaching a student to “memorize” the shape of a word is akin to learning a symbol and the student will only be able to read memorized words, leaving them helpless when presented with a word they’ve never seen before.
This is also called sight reading. In the English language, there are some words that are not phonetic and must be memorized, but fortunately most words can be learned or sounded out if you understand the phonics rules.
Unfortunately, many of these phonics-based proponents don’t fully understand is that the whole language method is much more than just sight reading. If you’ve read anything about the “reading wars”, the debate about which approach to learning to read is best, you’re probably wondering what else there is to know about the whole language method. Well, I think the most important aspect of the whole language method is that its focus is on providing a comprehensive literacy environment that combines speaking, listening, reading and writing so that the meaning of what a child is reading is understood.
Basic phonics instruction, although just one component of the whole language classroom, is part of the method since children are taught to interpret the meaning of what they are reading.
More formal phonics instruction has been developed and has been seen as an improvement on the previously used method of learning the approximate sounds represented by letters taught by the whole language approach.
Because phonics is considered an “analytical” approach to reading where students must “decode” or analyze the letters, letter combinations and syllables in a word the student is not necessarily focusing on the context and thus the meaning of the word.
In 1997, the National Reading Panel began a study to determine the best method to teach children to read. In 2000, the Panel found that effective reading programs teach phonics, phonemic awareness, reading fluency, reading comprehension, and vocabulary.
There really is no longer a debate over which method teach. The Whole Language method is best for teaching reading fluency (i.e., sight words), reading comprehension and vocabulary, while the phonic-based method is best for teaching, well, phonics and phonemic awareness.
The real question now is how to we work with both of these methods to give our children the strongest foundation in reading.
Children should be taught sight words while also learning how to decode new words using phonics. This is what all children are being taught in kindergarten and first grade and beyond. As a teacher of young children, you should also be incorporating both of these methods when teaching your baby or toddler to read. Here’s are two good resources to get you started:
Children Learning Reading Program – a learning to read system developed for very young children, using e-books and audio clips.
Little Reader – a comprehensive learning system for babies and young children, utilizing an easy to use computer-based software program. They also sell systems for teaching math and music to young kids.