SARAH HORSFIELD unpicks the minefield that is the ‘phonics’ versus ‘whole language’ approaches to literacy

Although the government is keen to promote phonics as the best way to teach our children to read, is this actually case?

So what are the two approaches to the teaching of reading and spelling? The ‘phonics’ approach is associated with sound-symbol correspondence and word structure, whereas the ‘real books’ approach, is where children ‘learn to read by reading’ and there is a greater emphasis on the meaning of the written language.

The Department of Education suggests that ‘phonics is a way of teaching reading quickly and skilfully’, and they suggest that an advantage of phonics is that ‘almost all children who receive good teaching of phonics will learn the skills they need to tackle new words’. It is their view that the phonics approach is better than other methods, for example, ‘look and say’. They also provide a screening check to check each child’s progress which they state ‘is carefully designed not to be stressful’.

The screening check involves reading a word list to test each child on his/her abilities, and while it is advantageous to assess children’s reading skills, there are also some ethical issues with testing young children and giving them a ‘pass’ or ‘fail’.  There are also some problems with the ‘non-words’ that are used in this test as some groups of letters can have more than one possible pronunciation, making it hard for children to work out which pronunciation it is. In some cases children, who have good reading skills, refuse to read these ‘non-words’ on the basis that they are not real words, and as such are failed on the basis of these words. A more appropriate method of testing may be to ask children to read a short story which incorporates the phonic segments that are being tested.

Although the government promotes the phonics approach, there are a number of issues that are associated with this method. Dombey (1999:12) suggests that the spelling system in English is too complex for the phonics approach to account for. This could be a problem because some words in English are spelled the same, but pronounced differently. Another problem that she identifies is that what appears to be easy for proficient readers, can seem very different to young children, who operate on a different logic. Dombey also makes the point that ‘there is much more to reading than learning phonics.’ As such, she suggests that a ‘whole to part’ approach to phonics may be more appropiate.

To summarise the views that I have come across when researching phonics, on the one hand, the majority of people seem to agree that phonics is a positive stage in the development in reading development. However, there are also some extreme views that phonics is the one and only, one-size fits all approach to teaching our children to read. Still, even those who support the whole books approach seem to agree that phonics is beneficial.

So what is the answer? It is my opinion that the phonics approach is a valuable strategy when teaching children how to read, however, I am not convinced that it is a superior method, and therefore should not be the only method that is encouraged and employed. Also, it is my view that children should be treated as individual cases, and be taught using methods to suit their personal requirements.

SARAH HORSFIELD, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK



Department of education [online] Available at:

 Dombey, H. (1999) Picking a path through the phonics minefield. Education 3-13: International Journal of Primary, Elementary and Early Years Education, (27)1, pp.12-21.


One thought on “SARAH HORSFIELD unpicks the minefield that is the ‘phonics’ versus ‘whole language’ approaches to literacy

  1. Nicky Pollard says:

    Sarah puts across a number of interesting arguments about the phonics versus real books debate. One of the problems Sarah identified with the phonics approach is the use of a screening check which is used to access children’s reading abilities. Problems identified include the refusal of children with a high ability to read the ‘non-words’ and the possibility of confusion caused by the possible different pronunciations of the nonsense words. Additionally, the test has been criticised by teaching unions who suggest that using made-up words in the test can be detrimental to children of all abilities by causing ‘frustration’ to those who can read, as well as, causing confusion to children with special needs and speakers of English as a second language. I am agreement with Sarah when she suggests that a different method of testing might be more appropriate as a way of testing children’s reading skills, for example, reading a passage from a story. I am also of the view that children taking the test at such a young age may suffer from a lack of confidence if they fail the test.
    I am in also in agreement with Sarah when she comments that the phonics approach should be used in conjunction with other methods of teaching reading and writing. The reasons for this are as Dombey (1999: 12) states that children of a young age do not process information in the same way as older children who are proficient readers. Additionally, problems can occur when children attempt to pronounce ambiguous words that are irregularly spelt.
    Whilst it appears that the Department of Education are keen to promote the use of phonics in teaching children to read I think more research needs to be conducted into the benefits of using a combination of real books and phonics approaches.

    Dombey, H. (1999) Picking a path through the phonics minefield. Education 3-13: International Journal of Primary, Elementary and Early Years Education, (27)1, pp.12-21.

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