Reading for meaning or de-coding? GENEVIEVE KOUTSOUMANIS explores phonics and whole language literacy approaches


Choosing the correct method(s) to teach children to read has been an ongoing controversial issue, with two opposing sides in the debate: phonics and whole language. However, the question we need to first consider is: what is reading?

Leipzig (2001) states that “[r]eading is a multifaceted process involving word recognition, comprehension, fluency, and motivation […]. It is a process in which we make meaning from print”. The areas in which reading instruction divides people regards to what extent we should focus on each of these elements of early literacy. Pro-phonics advocates believe in developing the child’s reading skills first, with a strong focus on coding (i.e. segmenting <cat> into the separate sounds /c/ + /a/ + /t/ before blending it back into the whole word). Whole word advocates believe in a strong focus on learning to make meaning and comprehend the text through learning to read whole words. Ultimately, both are needed for a child to be able to read efficiently, but the main debate is to what extent a certain method should be used. Keeping this in mind, I feel an area to focus on is how both sides of the debate help children to learn to comprehend texts as this is an essential part of reading.

In 2005, the UK Government introduced systematic synthetic phonics as the main method for teaching literacy. Children are expected to learn the phoneme- grapheme correspondence (the sound and letter relationships) before being able to segment and blend the sounds. The Department for Education (2013) supports phonics as the most effective way of teaching children to read. In addition, the Government stated that children who learn reading through phonics do better than those who were taught using alternative methods (DfE, 2013).

However, Torgerson et al. (2006) found that “while there is an association between synthetic phonics and reading accuracy, “the weight of evidence on reading comprehension was weak, and no significant effect was found for reading comprehension” (p.10). This suggests that while phonics can be useful for children to be able to understand the connection between sound and print, there is not much evidence to show that children understand what they read. Furthermore, Lyle (2014) criticised phonics for putting too much emphasis on decoding and stated that “when we read, we care about meaning and not decoding – we want to understand what we read, not merely to decode words.” (p.4).  Therefore, teaching children early on with phonics (and not emphasising that reading is meaningful) suggests a flaw in the current way phonics is taught, particularly as the phonics screening check is done without contextual clues, in isolation and with non-words (also known as pseudo/alien words like ‘tord’ and ‘geck’).

On the other hand, whole word is a method that puts a strong focus on words having meaning (Davis, 2014). Whole language supporters argue that “students in these classes do better on tests of reading comprehension, with no difference on skills tests” (Krashen 2002, p 2). Unlike phonics supporters, advocates of the whole language approach claim that children will gain phonological awareness as they go (Willingham, 2015). Whole language advocates could therefore argue that their approach not only teaches the skills of reading, but also supports comprehension.

However, the whole language approach does not provide the child with a strategy for unfamiliar or new words. Phonics, on the other hand, provides children with a strategy for figuring out new words and once a child has decoded a word, they can then use context clues to confirm what they have read. Therefore, whole word alone does not necessarily teach children effectively.

Dombey (1999) stated that “Phonics is an essential element in literacy learning, and for the vast majority of children it needs to be taught. But phonics on its own will not teach a child to read” (p.10). Phonics can be useful in helping children begin to decode texts and read the words but without sustained attention to meaning and comprehension, children will struggle to become competent readers. However this discussion is far from over and it will continue to engage and interest  those who search for the way forward in the teaching of literacy but for now, what do you think?

GENEVIEVE KOUTSOUMANIS, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester


Davis, A. (2014). To read or not to read: decoding Synthetic Phonics. Impact: Philosophical Perspectives on Education Policy, (No. 20).

Department for Education, (2013). Gov UK.

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

Krashen, S. (2002). Defending Whole Language: The Limits of Phonics Instruction and the Efficacy of Whole Language Instruction, Reading Improvement, 39 (1): 32-42.

Leipzig, D. H. (January, 2001). What is reading? WETA.

Lyle, S. (2014). The limits of phonics teaching. School Leadership Today, 5 (5).

Torgerson, C.J., Brooks, G. & Hall, J. (2006). A Systematic Review of the Research Literature on the Use of Phonics in the Teaching of Reading and Spelling. Nottingham: DfES Publications.

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


2 thoughts on “Reading for meaning or de-coding? GENEVIEVE KOUTSOUMANIS explores phonics and whole language literacy approaches

  1. Katie Broomhead says:

    Great blog Genevieve! A lot of detail and good coverage of such a current topic.
    What do you personally think is the best way to teach children in their early stages of life to acquire and understand language fully?

  2. James Rodger says:

    I think you make some really good points here, Genevieve.

    As you rightly point out, neither approach appears to be effective when implemented on its own. Personally, I don’t remember which method I was taught with when I was younger, but nevertheless agree that a combination of the two is the most appropriate formula to strongly develop a child’s reading ability.

    I think the criticisms you make of phonics teaching are highly thought provoking, particularly your reference of Lyle (2014). Personally, I believe it’s important for a child to understand what they read, and not simply be able to correctly pronounce what they are saying. In terms of vocabulary, this can surely aid their progress both in and outside of literacy?

    Nonetheless, the criticisms you mention regarding whole word approaches are equally as important. I particularly agree with the comment you make regarding its inability to teach children new words. I believe this skill is an important one for a child to have, again regarding their academic progression. Additionally, I believe that a greater knowledge of a wider vocabulary could even benefit the child’s confidence in both speech and reading.

    On a whole, I think the opinion of most, including myself, involves implementing an approach that incorporates the two methods alongside one another. Whether this successfully happens, we will have to wait and see.

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