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