ELEANOR QUANBROUGH considers the relative strengths of phonics and whole language approaches to literacy

Remember when you first learnt to read? The different levels of books in different colours, and how the teachers never used to put them in rainbow order so as not to hurt your feelings if you weren’t quite up to scratch? Well think before then, at the start of it all. How have we become the fluent readers we are today, in order to read this fascinating piece I’m writing right now?

It all refers back to ‘phonics’ vs. ‘whole books’ approaches to literacy. Both methods are taught within schools, yet one is being favoured by the Government, this being the phonics method. This teaches children to break words up into phonemes, in order to pronounce, spell and read a word. They are taught in stages, starting with the simpler sounds, in this case, s, a, t, i, p and n. They also use Jolly Phonics, a fun and child friendly method which teaches all 42 letter sounds in a specific order which support learning, as opposed to being taught alphabetically.

Despite phonics being the preferred method of teaching, the whole-book method is what many of us believe we were taught with at a young age. This is where children recognise whole words or sentences rather than individual sounds. They are repeatedly told the word name while being shown the printed word, with sometimes a picture being accompanied. This teaches them to ‘sight read’ recognising it through pattern recognition, without needing a conscious attempt to break it down. This allows them to build up a larger and larger vocabulary of whole words over time.

Despite the two methods both seeming perfectly acceptable ways of learning, there has been an on-going debate regarding which is more beneficial. Phonics has the advantage of being structured, helping children of different abilities, as well as those with learning difficulties, work their way up to harder words. It is also proved the most effective method for learning to read.  According to Ehri, Nunes, Stahl and Willows (2001: 393), ‘research shows that systematic phonics instruction contributes to higher reading outcomes in both low and middle socioeconomic groups’. The skills learnt with phonics are transferable, due to the fact that they are learning through text recognition., meaning that in turn, it leads to the ability to read and write.

The whole-book method, also known as the ‘look and say’ method, is said to help children become more fluent, competent and accurate readers as they learn to ‘sight read’ words, as it has been proven that many people do not read all the letters within a word, but rely on sentence structure and word shape. Crystal estimates that 80% of words are phonetically regular, however 20% are exempt, resulting in the whole book method to be used as a substitute in such cases.

Although both methods have been proven to aid children to read, can it be considered that there has been no definite evidence that one is more effective than the other? As both methods have been used effectively over 60 years surely it would seem logical to incorporate the two, or even better, base the method depending on the child in question? How can we distinguish which is the most suitable method when in most cases, it depends on the child? Children learn in extraordinary, yet different ways, with different abilities and strengths. Is one teaching method suitable across schools at one time for all children? It sounds absurd when it is put like that.

ELEANOR QUANBROUGH, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

BBC News. (2013). Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-19812961

Canadian Centre for Knowledge Mobilisation. (2007). Available at: http://www.cckm.ca/CLR/phonics.htm

Ehri, L.C., Nunes, S.R., Stahl, S.A., & Willows, D. M. (2001). Systematic phonics instruction helps students learn to read: evidence from the national reading panel’s meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 71(3), 393-447.


One thought on “ELEANOR QUANBROUGH considers the relative strengths of phonics and whole language approaches to literacy

  1. Abbie Hudson says:

    It is clear that every child is different, and has various strengths and weaknesses. This is why teaching today is carried out in many ways to account for this. Teachers plan lessons to suit a range of learners, be it kinaesthetic learners who have the opportunity to carry out tasks for themselves or auditory learners who prefer to listen to the teacher explain and learn in this manner. So why should teaching children to read be any different and only focus on one single method? As you said, this is absurd. The whole-language method has clearly been successful as the majority of people have been taught to read using this. It ensures that the reader has a clear understanding of what they are reading, unlike phonics. Phonics is great in the sense that children have the ability to pronounce most words they may come across and can tackle more demanding words however; this does not mean that they understand what they are reading. As stated by Rosen (2010), ‘English is not written in a consistently ‘phonic’ way’, so learning to read using this method will not teach a child to read everything they come across. Additionally, people read for pleasure or to gain knowledge, we read for the meaning and without whole language theory, this cannot be done.

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