Reading Wars: Phonics vs. Whole Language Instruction

Phonics vs. whole language instruction in the community.

Parents of young readers might be confused when hearing about the “reading wars” over how best to teach children to read. Since the 1980s, there has been a conflict between proponents of explicit phonics instruction (part of the structured literacy approach) and those who favor the whole-language approach.

Here’s what you need to know to find peace in the war:

Phonics-Based Reading Instruction

Phonics-based reading instruction is a methodology for teaching young children to read and spell words. The teacher introduces a series of spelling rules and teaches the child to apply phonetics (how the letter combinations sound out loud) to decode words based on their spellings. Phonics attempts to break written language down into small and simple components.

Whole Language Reading Instruction

In the simplest terms, “whole language” is a method of teaching children to read by recognizing words as whole pieces of language. Proponents of the whole language philosophy believe that language should not be broken down into letters and combinations of letters and “decoded.” Instead, they believe that language is a complete system of making meaning, with words functioning in relation to each other in context.

Hybrid Approach

It is rare to find reading instruction that is purely whole language. Most teachers of whole language reading use “embedded phonics.” This is a technique wherein children are instructed in letter-sound relationships when they read text (as opposed to being taught the relationships in isolation prior to practicing reading). This is an indirect method of using phonics instruction. Whole language reading instruction requires that students memorize words so that they can recognize them on sight. These are called “sight words.” Embedded phonics instruction is always conducted using literature to provide context, and teachers use this reading strategy when the opportunity presents itself, rather than systematically and in isolation from literature.

List of reading strategies

What Does the Research Say?

In explicit phonics instruction, children learn the rules as well as the exceptions to them, and they are not taught to memorize words. Reading researchers have verified that memorization of sight words has not been proved to increase reading fluency (the speed with which a reader can read and comprehend text).

These “reading wars” over phonics vs. whole language instruction have been debated for more than a hundred years, primarily due to the complexity of the English language. Horace Mann argued that phonics should not be used at all. The Dick and Jane readers that many parents may remember fondly were an outgrowth of the anti-phonics movement of the middle twentieth century. However, by the 1950s, phonics began to increase in popularity due to the number of students who had difficulty with the “look/say” approach to reading used in the Dick and Jane reading series.

The debate has shifted over time since the introduction of the whole language philosophy of teaching reading. The whole language approach, which emphasized identifying words using literary context and barely focusing on sounds, could not be reconciled with the phonics focus on individual sounds’ correspondence to letters and letter combinations. For that reason, a polarized dichotomy arose and created a raging debate. Congress commissioned panels to study the teaching of reading and the U.S. Department of Education conducted its own research and reviews.