Phonics vs. Whole Language Learning: Why Not Both?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.


Jenny Byrne · May 3, 2013 at 8:27 am

Guessing words is not a very good idea! It may be fine with ‘I have a toy’ but not when a reader needs to know the difference between antibiotics and amphetamines. Anyway, once a child has graduated from elementary reading books have few pictures (and not always related to the adjacent text) and sometimes a word has no context to guess from. What am I going to do with this sentence if I am working on whole words and have been discouraged from using phonics (English is 85% phonetically regular and phonics has little to do with phonetics being a mapping of sound to letter strings) – ‘[Francoletta spoke to the the marquess before he was decapitated’? Or, indeed, anything like it. Books are about a variety of things, stories are infinite and not always set in the present. Quatracento Italian settings would throw up not only a variety of names (Lucrezia, Francesco etc) but also titles and places and ideas which will be unfamiliar words. How do you guess them? Context is useful for meaning, not for reading.

    Tammy Bennecke · May 3, 2013 at 9:32 am

    Thank you Jenny, you are absolutely correct. Phonics skills are certainly more critical to a child’s successful reading of more complicated material. I agree that reading the words does not imply comprehending the meaning of what is read. This strategy of guessing from context is more appropriate for young learners who may need additional resources to guide their learning, hence the labeling of “alternate reading strategies.” Excellent points made! 🙂

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