Combining Phonics with whole Language – Phonics

How would I choose one or the other? It is like asking me if I would prefer a car with brakes or headlights for a night time journey. I would in fact, prefer both.  I have opted to write for phonics because while I feel both sides have merit. I do believe phonics is the indispensable foundation for reading success. Whole language works fine where the child already has good phonemic awareness, but that awareness is key to reading readiness. Reading instruction without phonics is to me like a house without a foundation. Most builders tend to lay the foundation first, so that is where I start in teaching reading.

I have always been a strong supporter of phonics. I  teach my own children to read with phonics, and have tutored others. But my son is currently teaching himself to read with whole language. Still the phonics I have taught him form the foundation for him to teach himself from. Both methods have advantages and disadvantages. Some children will have difficulties with either method, many of these children will do better with the other method. This of course leads to parents thinking whatever method helped their child is best, but no two children are the same or have the same learning style. And of course it is always very possible that when a child learns to read suddenly with a new method they are also taking advantage of skills form the method used previously.  

Most children brought up in home with a love of books and plenty of exposure to good literature will learn to read by either method. Almost all children who love books and do not have a significant disability will learn to read sooner or later no matter which form of teaching you use, or even with very little to no actual instruction such as in some unschooling families. The question then remains, which method will most benefit the more disadvantaged child. the one whose home is not full of interesting books, who doesn’t watch his parents read, and doesn’t listen to a stack of stories every night? In this case I would have to say phonics, but first I explain the two methods strengths and weaknesses.

 Whole language:

At its best whole language is taught through a love for literature and books. Children are read to frequently and learn many stories by heart. I watch my own son sitting quietly with books he already knows, his lips moving silently as he says the words to himself, he is in fact teaching himself to read. he is learning these words purely by sight, as he learned his first printed words, to recognise his name, the words Mom and Dad, and even the “stop”, “play” and “save” required by video games.  Children listen to the same stories so often that they recognise many words before being taught to read. Some children very effectively do teach themselves studying each word as they recite the stories to themselves from memory. In other cases, simple books are used, with limited vocabularies and a large amount of repetition. These books are read to the child, and each word is pointed out until the child can read the book on his or her own.Then the child moves up to the next book with a few more words. Flash cards may be used, but only in a very limited scope, and if possible combined into fun games. We use flashcards to help my son play hangman, but there is no pressure and he can quit whenever he gets bored with it.

At the same time a child is learning to write, and parents or teachers help the child to write their own stories, which they can then read over and over. As a child writes the word, most parents would sound it out even if not teaching phonics. Most children in a home rich in literature will know the basic letter sounds without being taught from hearing so many alphabet books, playing with alphabet blocks, and more recently electronic toys that teach letters and sounds.

The advantages to this method are that the child learns to love books, reading comes easily and naturally, and becomes something a child associates with one on one time with a parent or teacher. The disadvantages are it does not completely work in a class room, not without a lot of parental support. It takes a vast amount of individual time and attention, and many children will not learn to read until a much later age with this method. Some children however do not manage to break the code through whole language alone and are effectively disabled by a lack of full literacy for life. Children who come from homes where books are not a part of every day life are far less likely to succeed with this method, and these parents may be less likely to intervene and offer other forms of reading support if needed.

Whole language at it’s worst consists of pointless drills with flash cards, often far before the child is old enough to have any real desire to learn to read. Children will often struggle to interpret the cards to please a parent or caregiver, but their brains are not ready to process this information and many believe this may encourage dyslexia. This method is common in nurseries where I live and children can often point to the desired card before they can speak properly. The downside is, most of them hate books, and up to 75% will not reach full literacy by age 16, but they are far ahead of most children at age 3. Even taught at a later age, frustration is common especially among boys. Books become associated with failure and disappointment.Writing also becomes an unpleasant task and often causes real pain as young hands are forced to write page after page of words to help in memorisation. Again, some children never crack the code and are labelled learning disabled rather than teaching disabled. With a hatred for books and reading, the motivation to try to learn later is often non existent. Still it is quick and easy for the instructor and most children will show some results very quickly as well. Children can and do memorise words with no knowledge of the alphabet, or even word meaning.

Phonics on the other hand starts with the smallest pieces of information and build its way up.Some schools, such as Montessori, will teach the sound of letters, rather than the names, so children grow up seeing a letter “b” and immediately associating it with the letter sound. Others will teach letter names and sounds together, but the focus is on learning the sound for each letter. It then becomes very easy to sound out soft vowel phonetic words and many children will spontaneously discover this in what Montessori referred to as a reading “explosion”.It is very much an explosion of knowledge in that everything just clicks into place all at once. This is in fact the way I learned to read at age 5, and I still remember it very clearly. I was a non reader at breakfast pouring through books before teatime. For other children it will be a more slow steady and progress, and for some children, learning to read with phonics will take years.

 With phonics at its best the child is surrounded by books games and activities that teach the letter sounds. No attempt at reading instruction is made before a child knows and can identify all of the basic phonemes, or letter sounds. rhyming is also taught through songs games and rhyming stories and children learn to make rhymes far before learning to read as well. a child who understands what phoneme is represented by each letter can easily be taught to combine phonemes into simple words like “c-a-t” and “s-a-t”. They quickly see the relations between rhyming words so a child who can read, “cat”, “hat” and “sat” will be able decode “bat” and “rat” as well.Of course the English language has many words that are not phonetically correct and little by little children learn to recognise these sight words as their reading vocabulary grows. Phonics provides a valuable base from which to decode any unfamiliar word though, and study after study has concluded phonetic readers do score higher in reading tests, and do better in all areas of academics, not surprising as reading skill are required for all subjects. Phonics takes the guess work out of reading and gives children are strong tool towards future reading success.

 The downside is that not all children start school with the same level of phonemic awareness. Children from literature rich home will already know their letters and sounds while others will hardly realise what a book is for. In a bid to force everyone onto the same playing field, countless drills and worksheets are often introduced, boring children and making them lose interest in learning. Another problem with phonics is the stories tend to be very dull and fail to inspire children to read.

 Age is also a major factor. many children will simply not be ready to learn through phonics at a very early age.  In fact I believe the move to see children reading at increasingly young ages has pushed the whole language method on schools.  Most 2-4 year olds are just not able to read phonetically. Very young children often grow frustrated with learning so many rules and steps before being able to actually have the success of being able to read something. Phonics, taught solely in schools takes a long time. Schools are wanting children to read at earlier and earlier ages, and at the end of the day, the bottom line for most schools is placement on the SAT’s rather than a long term love of reading or literacy. More and more pressure gets piled on children from a very early age. Perhaps we need to have a little bit more patience and instead of rushing for the quickest method to get children reading, wait a bit longer for the best. Phonics does depend more on a child having reached reading readiness than rote memorisation of flashcards does.

 My own children have learned and will continue to learn through both whole language and phonics. My children learn the letter sounds from a very early age. Even my youngest, just two knows “I” is his letter,”M” is Mommy’s letter and so on. They learn rhymes from a very early age too through rhyming books and songs. Later we play rhyming games. When my children have reached a level of readiness for reading instruction, it always phonics I start with, building words with alphabet blocks, showing them how to sound out “m-a-t” and”s-a-t” with Bob Books by Bobby Lynn Maslen ( a phonics reading programme) and the world famous, “Hooked on Phonics”. But, at the same time, I am happy for my son to sit and memorise words on his won from favourite stories. At age 5 he is able to read only soft vowel words with one or two syllables phonetically.  But I watch him as he chooses a book he knows by heart and silently mouths the words as he moves his finger across the page. I know he is learning these words by sight, and I am well pleased. I think being self taught is the very best form of learning whenever possible.   My son loves the whole language books from Oxford and they make him want to read. We have great fun with them and his enjoyment of the books and sense of pride and accomplishment are strong motivating factors for him to learn more.  By combining the two methods, I believe my son is enjoying the best of both worlds.

More important than which programme we use though, is the fact that we read very often. I read to the children at bedtime and during school hours, we read on holiday and at the doctors. I have even read to them while they are in the bath. We love books, and make books fun. I am in no great rush with them. They will read when they are ready. It is more important to me that they love reading, than learn to read at a very early age. They have a very wide variety of types of books, and a large number of truly great pieces of children’s literature. I do want my children to read well, but I also want them to be well read. As Mark Twain said “The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.” …

If forced to choose one method to teach reading, I would opt for phonics. But whole language may very well be the best way for a child to teach himself to read. I think it is time we call a truce in the reading wars and find ways to use the best of both methodsfor the benefit of all children.