Educators have long debated whether phonics-based or whole language-based instruction leads to the most effective reading instruction.
Those who argue for a phonics-based “bottom up” approach point to the importance of auditory skills and phonological awareness in reading development. Knowing basic phonetic rules helps children learn to sound out words they might otherwise not know.
Those in favor of whole language, or a “top down” approach, see phonics instruction as perhaps slowing the process down, and argue that beginning readers should focus on meaning and vocabulary in a literacy rich environment, learning to recognize entire words as whole units.
Today, however, there seems to be consensus that no single approach is best for every child. The International Reading Association has stated that effective phonics instruction is important as part of a complete reading and language arts program. It is necessary, but it isn’t the only piece.
Most educators now use a district-mandated language arts curriculum that incorporates a balance between the two strategies, understanding that phonics instruction can be beneficial for learning letter sounds and for deciphering new words. Then, as developing readers become more proficient, instruction can rely less on phonics and more on whole word recognition. A variety of strategies are taught and children are exposed to many forms of literature.
Keep in mind that if your child is struggling with learning to read, any supplemental help you get should include both phonics and whole word instruction. Online reading programs like Red Apple Reading, for example, teach reading with a combination of phonics, sight words, and word family lessons. In this way your child is getting a balance of both phonics and whole language instruction, increasing the likelihood for reading success.
As your child becomes comfortable with sight words, you can encourage the transition toward whole word reading. Once your child has the phonics skills to attempt to sound out longer words, he or she will quickly discover that most words are not phonetically regular! This can lead to frustration–but can be an opportunity to introduce alternate reading strategies, such as:
- Guessing words from context: If your child encounters an unknown word ask him to make a guess about the word, based on what would “make sense.” For example, if you are reading a book called “I Like Toys,” and the first sentence is “I have a (toy),” and your child cannot sound out the word toy, remind him of the title of the story. You can also give a phonics “hint” by pointing to the “t” at the beginning of the word and making the /t/ sound. With the beginning sound and a prompt to think about what word would make sense, a child will most likely be able to produce the correct word.
- Looking at pictures: Using the same example, if your child was stuck on the word “toy,” you could point to the picture accompanying the text and ask your child to guess based on what is illustrated.
- Skipping and returning: In the example sentence, if a child knew or guessed the words “I,” “a,” and “toy,” but was stuck on the word “have,” you could suggest a “skipping and returning” strategy. Tell your child to skip the word “have” and read the rest of the sentence. Then return and look at the sentence as a whole, reading it as “I /h/— a toy.” Then ask your child what word would make sense.
As your child encounters more new words through reading, the words will become increasingly familiar, and will soon be read automatically. This will enable your child to read more complex text and longer and more complicated words.
What are your thoughts on the best strategies for teaching reading? We’d love to hear from you.