Which is a better way to Teach Children to Read whole Language or Phonics – Phonics

Phonics is a widely used method of teaching children to read. It differs greatly from the method of rote memorization that many of us were taught. It is no longer acceptable to simply memorize the spelling of words, but rather to learn graphemes, or the connection between spellings, and their sounds. There are of course words that do not follow the basic patterns. These are called “sight words”, or “high-frequency words” and include words such as where, who you, and them. Along with phonics, children learn to memorize sight words. Doing so helps children’s reading fluency. Phonics requires children to learn the connections between letter patterns and the sounds they represent. Since not all letter patterns sound the same, phonics instruction requires the teacher to provide students with a core body of information about phonics rules, or patterns. The idea that letters represent sounds is the initial lesson children must learn. This idea is called the “alphabetic principle”. Some letters in English regularly use one sound, such as b, m, and d. However, the alphabetic principle does not represent all of the spellings in English. Therefore, children have to learn that not all patterns follow the “one letterone sound” principle. The connection between spelling and sounds is called sound-symbol correspondence. When learning by phonics rules, it is not enough to teach children that “ough”, for example, makes the sound “uf” as in the word “tough”. Children must also learn that “ough” can use the long “O” sound as in the word “though”. In other words, children must learn a selection of these patterns known to be most consistent and most widely used. “Phonological awareness” can be described as being aware of the various speech sounds such as syllables, onsets and rimes, and phonemes, all of which when combined, construct words. For example, in the basic word “sit”, children learn that each letter [s], [I], and [t] each have their own individual sound. This phonemic awareness plays a vital role in children’s reading acquisition. Children who have phonemic awareness do not have as much difficulty learning to read as children who do not have phonemic awareness, which alone supports the importance of using phonics instruction within the context of authentic reading and writing. Children learn to read in various stages of literacy development, and differing instructional methods are used at each stage.

Starting with the Emergent Stage, young children, typically between the ages of 4 and 6, are already developing insights into the written language. At this stage, sometimes called the “preliterate stage”, children begin imitating and pretend reading. In other words, children may look at a book familiar to them, and as they look at the pictures on the pages, they will often recite what they believe the words are saying, based on both the pictures on the page, as well as remembering some of what was read to them at another time (Bear, 92). At this point, children do not read or spell conventionally because they have little understanding of how units of speech and writing are related. They do know a few characteristics of writing. During the early emergent stage, they know that the pencil marks of the page and they know how to hold the pencil. Children are basically drawing and scribbling on the paper, and this is their idea of writing. Moving to the middle Emergent stage, children learn that writing is done by linear movement across the page and they begin to write letter-like forms. By the Late Emergent stage, children are using more letters and they have some letter-sound correspondence. For example, they may write the letter “d” for dog, understanding that “d” makes the beginning sound in the word. Children at this stage are beginning to use random strings of letters, but often confuse them. They are actually inventing spelling at this stage and using one or two letters to represent a word (Bear, 92). They may begin to write “dg” for “dog” now rather than just the beginning sound of the word. Based on what children know at this stage, instructional methods to enhance their learning include teaching phonological awareness, alphabet knowledge, beginning sounds or letter-sound knowledge, and the concept of word in print (Bear, 94). These concepts are best taught by word activities such as picture sorts, rhyming games, and finger-point reading. These activities should be fun, as well as educational, to keep children interested and to lessen the chance of becoming frustrated. For example, children love to rhyme words. A teacher might play a game with children where the child is given a word and asked to think of words that rhyme with that word. They might extend this rhyming activity by putting their words into a song or chant. Of course, these rhymes don’t need to make sense, and actually, children at this stage will likely have more fun with pure nonsense. With picture sorts, a child may be given several pictures and asked to sort them. This can be done either by explaining to the child how they should be sorted, but can also be accomplished by allowing the child to sort them any way they feel appropriate, which lends to more creativity, and hopefully more fun. For example, a child given a set of animal pictures may choose to sort the animals by their color or the number of legs they each have. Another child may sort that same group of animals by their beginning sounds. For example, “cat” and “kangaroo” may be grouped together because they have the same beginning sound. “Dog” and “frog” may be grouped by a different child because they rhyme. Children should be encouraged to sort any way they feel is correct. Later the teacher may give specific instructions on sorting, such as whether the animal lives in the water or on land, or in a house or on a farm. All of these sorts allow children to learn the concepts of words and will enhance their ability to read.

Children at the Letter Name Alphabetic stage are beginning to read. Children typically enter this stage during first grade. They are beginning to learn words and actually read text, but the students know only a small number of words. At the Early Letter-Name Alphabetic stage in reading development, children usually know most letters of the alphabet and are able to write beginning consonants for words (Bear, 132). They are also learning some sight words such as “the” and “is”. Middle Letter Name-Alphabetic children are successfully spelling short-vowel words such as cat, dog, mom, and dad. When a child reaches Late Letter Name-Alphabetic, they are spelling many more short vowel words, as well as most consonant blends and digraphs (Bear, 132). Frequently occurring long-vowel words, such as bike and ride are easily spelled at this time also. . Based on what children know at this stage, instructional methods to enhance their learning include use of personal readers and word banks, study of word families, and study of short vowels. With personal readers, children can underline words they know and add them to their word bank list. The study of word families is important because if they realize that they can spell the word “sip”, they understand that they can successfully spell other words like hip, lip, nip, zip, tip, and sip because they already know the beginning consonant sounds. Learning short-vowel words can be accomplished in many ways, such as by word sorts. Children can be asked to sort words by their short-vowel sound of a, e, i, o, or u.

Children at the Within Word Pattern stage are at a transitional point between labored reading and writing and the stage when they can read almost any text. During the early stage of Within Word Patter, children are spelling short vowel sounds correctly and they are starting to learn silent letters that mark long vowel sounds, as in the word bike (Bear, 172). Once a child reaches the middle Within Word Pattern stage they know common patters such as CVCe and CVVC patterns. Moving into the late Within Word Pattern stage, children also learn long vowel patterns in one-syllable words. Based on what children know at this stage, instructional methods to enhance their learning include teaching word sorts to contrast long and short vowels, including CVC, CVCe, and CVVC patterns, homophones, word hunts, and word study notebooks.

The Syllables and Affixes stage of reading and writing development usually takes place during fourth grade. Children at this stage are considered intermediate readers and writers. In early Syllables and Affixes, students know blends, digraphs, vowel patterns, complex consonants, and sight words (Bear, 205). Once they learn doubling and e-drop with inflected endings, and syllable junctures, they are considered in the middle Syllables and Affixes stage. The late Syllables and Affixes stage happens when children know their vowel patterns in accented syllables and unaccented final syllables. The most important instruction at this stage is teaching structural analysis, engaging students in how word elements, such as prefixes, suffixes, and base words combine. Based on what children know at this stage, instructional methods to enhance their learning include examining words for their parts and removing the affixes. Once the prefix and suffix are removed from a word, children can look at the base word to see if they know what it means standing alone. This makes defining the word with is affixes a much simpler process. This is also the stage in which students should begin using dictionaries to provide the meaning of unfamiliar words. Students also learn how to change base words when adding inflectional endings such as ing, ed, er, and s.

Children at the Derivational Relations stage of reading and writing are considered the advanced stage. This usually takes place beginning in the fifth grade and readers remain in this stage throughout the 12th grade. Students at this stage are able to add on to a base or root word with prefixes and suffixes, and derive a number of related words. Students can spell most words correctly, are aware of vowel patterns in accented syllables, and know how to double and drop the “e” at syllable junctures (Bear, 232). In addition, these advanced spellers are familiar with common Latin suffixes and prefixes. A Derivational Relations speller can somewhat easily begin with a noun, and change its form to its adjective, verb, and adverb form. For example, a student is given the word alphabet and asked to change its spelling to form different parts of speech. Most spellers at this stage know that this noun can be changed to alphabetic (adjective), alphabetize (verb), and alphabetically (adverb). Even at this stage, word sorts are still a useful tool. Word sorts that would be beneficial to advanced spellers and readers are those that add suffixes, alternate vowels, and sort by roots. Vocabulary notebooks are important at this phase because they not only list a word, but also record the word and use it in a sentence. Students would have to look at word parts and think about their meaning, and use the dictionary to clarify any unknown or unfamiliar words, allowing growth in vocabulary, and in turn, increasing spelling, reading, and writing skills.

It is important that teachers know how to integrate the instruction of spelling/phonics into a school day schedule. Students need predictable routines and what is expected of them each day of the week. In primary grades, I would choose a different type of instruction each day of the week, but keep the weekly schedules the same. The first thing I would do is familiarize children with the concept of sorting. I could do this many different ways, but would choose to incorporate the concept into other content areas. As an example, my children may be studying animals at the time. I could ask children to sort the animals we are learning about by the number of legs they have, or even by whether the animals live on ground, in water, or both. This not only exposes children to the concept of sorting, but also adds to their study of animals. Another example might integrate our mathematics study into sorting. Let us say that the children are learning about money. I may have them sort quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies under their respective categories, and then count the total number of each coin they have. After I am confident that the children understand the sorting concept, I would introduce the words to my children on Monday morning. This would be in the form of a word list that children can cut apart for later sorting. After the introduction of the words, along with an explanation of how the words should be sorted, I would ask students to return to their seats and begin sorting their words independently. The children would be asked to sort the words again at home that evening with their parents. Doing so would make parents aware of the word lists their children need to be practicing and learning for the week. On Tuesday, students sort again for about 10 minutes. I would walk around the room, monitoring children’s progress in their sorting activity, and making note of any difficulties a child may be having. As a group, the children would then be asked to read their sorts and explain why each word was put into a particular category. This gives the children an opportunity to practice verbally pronouncing the words, and gives the children plenty of exposure to hearing each word. Any pronunciation problems can be corrected at that time if necessary. Wednesday would be the day that children practice writing their words. This could be done in pairs, with one child reading each word while the other writes it, and vice versa. By this time the children should be familiar enough with the words to start Thursday with a word hunt. Children would be asked to look for additional words that follow the same spelling patterns as the words they are learning that week. They would add these words to their word study notebooks. On Friday, to finish the lesson, children would be assessed on the words. This would also be the day that games would be introduced and played. The games can be a reward for their hard work and learning during the week.

The weekly activities I have listed integrate phonics and spelling into reading, writing and different content areas, such as mathematics and science, and allows for a well-rounded weekly study schedule.


Bear, Donald R., Marcia Invernizzi, Shane Templeton, and Francine Johnston. Words

Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling Instruction. Merrill/Prentice Hall, 2007.