Phonics or whole books: Do we have to pick a side? MEGAN DAVIES investigates

Learning to read is clearly an important part of our early years but is there a right and wrong way to teach children to read? Currently phonics is viewed as ‘the right way’ and because of that, it is the only way that four to five year olds are being taught. Not only are they being taught how to read using this restricted method, starting in 2012 they have also been tested on it! It is compulsory to teach it and compulsory to test it.

These tests involve the child reading a list of real words and non-real words (pseudo words) and using their taught skills of sounding the phonemes out and blending them together in order to ‘pass’ the test. Although the non-real words can cause confusion to those able to read real words and the fact that these children are only five years old, if they do not reach the standard that is expected of them, they have to re-sit the test. Surely a test suited for children who do well using the phonics method is unfair to those who find phonics mind boggling and mind numbing. What makes this worse is that the children who cannot learn to read using ‘the right way’ are then labelled as underachieving rather than being taught another way. Surely a test taken at the age of four shouldn’t determine a child’s literacy ability when it only tests one method, which in turn is a limited way of teaching children to read.

The ‘best’ way to learn to read has alternated between both the phonics approach and the whole book approach over the years with different methods being preferable depending on current views. Although phonics is the encouraged way to teach children how to read now, in the 1930s and 1940s the ‘look and say’ approach was the stronger focus (Krashen, 2002). Alternating the methods every forty years does not make one ‘right’ and the other ‘wrong’. Even though my mother and I were taught to read using different methods, we can both read perfectly well, so why are they always pitted against one another?

Phonics is criticised as being unfair as it doesn’t allow children to read using context, yet the whole book approach is criticised for not teaching children to decode new words. In short one size does not fit all in the reading debate and nor should it. Restricting a child’s learning due to the fact that the government prefer one particular method appears foolhardy. If a child learns a certain way they should not be punished for falling behind when they are unable to grasp one of the methods that can be used to teach them to read.

Clark and Rumbold (2006, p.8) suggest that pleasurable reading leads to better attainment and writing ability, better text comprehension and grammar as well as greater self-confidence as a reader.  A whole word or whole book approach allows children to read for meaning and enjoyment. However, it is claimed studies have shown that phonics is the most efficient way to drive up literacy scores and this evidence can be seen in the Rose Report (2006). The phonics approach is said to allow children to decode words in a systematic way meaning they can read words they may never have seen. The debate always focuses on the methods used, but should the importance of the scores and the teaching method used take precedence over the children themselves?

Do we all have to pick a side? Is it always going to be phonics vs whole books or is there a more effective way to teach children to read without hindering those with a different learning style? Maybe a mixture of phonics and whole words is the answer. Both methods have been criticised and always will be criticised as unfair to children with a different learning style. This suggests that one approach is not superior to the other and that a balance between the two methods is the fairest and most effective way to teach children to read (Willingham, 2015, p28).

MEGAN DAVIES, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Clark, C., & Rumbold, K. (2006). Reading for Pleasure: A research overview. The National Literacy Trust. England.

Krashen, S. (2002). The reading debate: has phonics won? Retrieved November 2015.

Rose, J. (2006) Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading. DfES Publications. Nottingham

Willingham, D. (February 2015). And the victor in the reading wars is… Times Educational Supplement, pp. 24-28.


One thought on “Phonics or whole books: Do we have to pick a side? MEGAN DAVIES investigates

  1. Patrick Bentley says:

    I agree with the proposition that enjoyment is the key. But how to measure?

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