Teaching Reading: A Phonetic or Whole Language Approach?

By John Van Der Brink

Reading: What really is reading? Some may define reading as the process by which one recognizes words - word recognition.

Is reading, word recognition? Or is there more? Is it also important for students to associate thoughts or ideas with the words they read? Think of it - a child may decipher the word for t-r-e-e, but does he associate what he "read" with the thing that has a trunk, and branches, and leaves? Are associated thoughts part of real reading?

Educators have long agreed that real reading includes thoughts, but they have long argued about what is the best way to teach real reading. Some more traditionalists use a phonetic approach, where children learn the sounds of certain letters, and when they see those letters in combination, they learn to blend those letters, and this forms a word. As they become comfortable forming that word, they learn to think about its meaning, and so decoding leads to thought, or real reading.

Many reading programs are primarily based on a phonetic approach to the teaching of reading. In the early grades, children learn that certain letters make certain familiar sounds which they repeat in unison and separately until they can almost do it in their sleep! Then if you were to visit a classroom you would see how even the toughest of words can be "sounded" out, discussed on context, and children's working vocabularies grow. Almost any words can be sounded out - even ones that are not spelled phonetically when exceptions to the rule are learned. This is the traditional approach to learning to read and proponents of this system argue that children are most successful by using this approach.

Yet in recent years, another approach to learning to read has become increasingly popular. According to the National Right to Read Foundation, about 85% of our elementary schools use what is known as a "whole language" approach.

Proponents of the whole language approach strongly react against a basic phonics approach to reading. They levy several criticisms against it.

  1. The English language is not easily acquired by phonetic attack. Too many letters and sounds have exceptions to the rule. A rule has to be substituted so often that it is confusing.
  2. Phonics tends to produce slow, word by word readers.
  3. Emphasis is on the mechanics of reading rather than on the "thought-getting" of reading.
  4. Reading tends to be uninteresting because it is unrelated to real "thought-getting,"

Beginning around 1915, and really catching on much more in recent years, is the idea that there is a much more interesting and meaningful way of learning to read. This approach, called the whole language or meaning approach, says that children can learn to recognize several words as easily as they can some letters, so rather than feed the words to them letter by letter, we should provide for them a complete word so they can focus immediately on meaning. So whole language people would organize the grade one classroom differently. They would teach 50-75 words by sight method, with someone telling the child each word. They would use a story method approach with a very short story read to children, picking out key words, putting them on an experience chart and examining new words in relation to memorized ones. When phonics is necessary, it would by analysis rather than by synthesis.

Practically, this means that whole language people say that children learn to read much as they learn to speak. Instead of children being presented with a list of words to decipher phonetically, (after some initial phonics) they would be presented for example with a story. After discussing the story, they may agree that some key words were bike, boy, store, man and ball. These words would then be placed on the board and studied for their spelling, etc. Words and language are not taken from an artificial list, but from the children's reading experience. And there is also a lot of emphasis on writing. Communication is more important in whole language than correctness, ideas more important than precision.

Whole language means that you immerse the child with reading and with writing, and, just as he learns to speak, he will "pick up" the words that are relevant for him to read. And as he grows and matures, his vocabulary necessarily increases as his world expands. Proponents of phonetics are severely critical of this method, Some even hold it responsible for the growing illiteracy in our country. They are appalled at the seeming acceptance of inaccuracy in order to achieve comfort and self-confidence. Furthermore, they claim that whole language is humanistic. They claim it is based on the principle that a child does not need rules and structure in order to learn, that given the right environment, learning will just come naturally. You may have heard of the book entitled, "Why Johnny Can't Read." This book is an argument for the phonics approach and accuses whole language approach of many of the academic ills we have today. Today, there is again a shift towards a phonetic approach in some circles.

Defendants of whole language cry treason. Phonics they say emphasizes academics, empty - intellectual - academics, at the expense of a pupil's emotional and social development. Phonics people march staunchly onward, hog washing the humanistic trends of emotional and social concerns. And so the war wages on. How can we make sense from it all?

Perhaps a program which is primarily phonics-oriented is best. However, the teachers in the classrooms should not be exclusively phonics-oriented. We should use a phonetic approach to word study, but it should be amply supplemented with stories, experience charts, sight words, word comparisons, writing and writing skills, etc. to make language relevant. Both systems have something good in them as long as we do not get carried away with their dangers. Words are to be read, to be read accurately, but words are never an end in themselves. Words are for communication. That must be our goal. This is God's purpose for language. That is why He has given His Word, that is may be clearly understood. Luther's purpose in teaching children to read was so that they may learn the Word of God. What a great wonder and blessing it would be if our children would learn to read it, but also that its message would be savingly applied to their hearts. Then the ultimate purpose of all education would be accomplished.