STEPHANIE KOWALEWICZ asks ‘Is learning to read as easy as a-b-c?’

As a literate adult, recalling the events of the last month can prove thoroughly challenging, let alone remembering how, at the tender age of three, we learnt to acquire the linguistic phenomenon of reading.  Nevertheless, this concept is presented to children on a daily basis and through a variety of means, received with the aggravation and applause of many.  As a result, the superlative method to teach children to read is highly contested.

Whilst various methods are available, two techniques have appeared on the curriculum throughout the past century – ‘the whole book method’ and ‘phonics’.  Each passionately favoured, the two methods present a modern dichotomy and a war of words, each with a variety of strengths and weaknesses.  So, which one is more successful?

Although flying the flag for the government’s curriculum, phonics has received scepticism and uncertainty.  Based on the notion of individual letter sounds, teamed with the happy faces of Jolly Phonics, synthetic phonics aims to teach children different graphemes in the hope that blending, segmenting and grapheme phoneme correspondence (GCP’s) will result in phonemic awareness.  In consequence, children are able to recognise specific patterns within a word and apply those to other words with similar phonemes.  This further supports text recognition skills and writing.

As Biff, Chip and Kipper draw arms to fight the battle, it is clear to see why.   Faced with the words <recalcitrant> and <pusillanimous>, many of us would draw upon our knowledge of graphemes and phonemic clusters, suggesting that the techniques obtained during our early development are both memorable and transferable.  Villaume & Brabham (2003: 478) argues that ‘students who understand the alphabetic principle know that the sounds of spoken words are mapped on to written words in a systematic way’.  Furthermore, it has been proposed that ‘phonics instruction is an essential component of beginning reading instruction’ (Villaume 2003: 478).

So, why is there a debate?

The ‘whole book method’ (or ‘look and say’) enabled children to learn via a variety of mediums and with context.  In doing so, it encourages sight-reading and fluent, competent readers.  This is particularly important when considering the limitations of phonics. David Crystal, in favour of the ‘whole book method’, recently estimated that although ‘80% of words are phonetically regular, 20% are exempt’ (cited by Reedy, D).  An example includes the grapheme cluster /oo/ which can appear as both <book> and <moon>.   This suggests that children require more than phonics to read both accurately and effortlessly and can be achieved through the medium of ‘whole books’, where words are presented in a context-specific and structured way.  Moreover, Smith (2004: 145) argues that ‘the most that can be expected from a knowledge of phonic rules is that they might provide a clue to the sound’, implying phonics alone is not sufficient. 

So, where do we go from here?

Whilst both methods prove useful yet flawed, it seems only logical to present a united front when teaching children to read.  Clearly, although occasionally successful, most children do not learn with identical methods. With this in mind, isn’t it time a varied and diverse curriculum, including whole books, was accepted?

STEPHANIE KOWALEWICZ, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Reedy, D.  Viewpoints: Teaching children to read. [Available at: ]

Smith, F. (2004) Understanding Reading: A psycholinguistic analysis of reading and learning to read. (6th ed). New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Villaume, S. & Brabham, E. (2003) Phonetics instruction: beyond the debate. Questions and Answer, Volume (56) Issue 5 pp.478.



One thought on “STEPHANIE KOWALEWICZ asks ‘Is learning to read as easy as a-b-c?’

  1. Zoe Lewis says:

    Zoe Lewis says: March 31, 2013 at 10.45 am
    Literacy education, above all other learning components, is paramount to a child’s education. There is no easy way to teach children to read and as mentioned in the blog, a number of methods have been debated, especially ‘phonics’ and the ‘whole book method’ (or ‘look and say’).
    Evidence shows that if ‘phonics’ is taught concisely, it is the most successful way of teaching the young to read. Through the method of ‘phonics’, children are able to, first, identify the correct sounds that individual letters make, second, distinguish the sounds that different combinations of letters make, such as ‘th’ or ‘ch’ and third, blend these sounds together in order to make a whole word.
    Although many people are in favour of ‘phonics’, there are those who strongly oppose it, suggesting that the strategy deprives children of word meanings. For many words in English, for instance ‘read’ or ‘close’, the most effective method for accuracy is to read them from the context in which they have been written. I suspect, children who have only been exposed to the phonics reading method, while they may know how to phrase words, they will not know how to comprehend them.
    For the consistency of learning, I would agree that the ‘whole book method’ should be included in the curriculum. Children require a balance of reading strategies and ‘phonics’ alone is simply not enough.

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