When my choice came down to an either or situation, I chose the Whole side. My reason for the choice is that we, as teachers, deal with the whole child in their learning process.
From my experience, both whole language and a phonics program are needed. The need is determined through the student and whatever teaching style creates a learning experience for that student. When a teacher experiences a class of emergent readers, the class usually numbers around twenty students. That means twenty different personalities, twenty different learning styles, and multi intelligences that confront the classroom teacher. Each student will learn at their own pace and succeed when they are ready. What works for one may not work for the class, and what works for the class may not work for one.
Often, school districts decide what curriculum will be used and how it will be presented. There are situations that come about where what is decided just doesn’t work for every student. The teachers have to allow for all learning styles when planning and presenting lessons.
Teachers are exposed, through seminars or other training sessions, to many different approaches for teaching reading. Once they have learned and stored the training and information from the different seminars, teachers need to use those resources to create a learning environment for the new readers.
When the teacher knows the students and the different learning styles for each, s/he can begin to develop plans that address the needs of the particular class. Enter differentiation! Using my own experience as a teacher, I found that the whole language approach allows for differentiation. The students that show need for a different way to learn seem to emerge sooner in the whole language method. Their needs may be: phonics, sight words, using hands-on to create a concrete way to construct words and sentences, or any or all of the above. The teacher learns what works from the child. They are usually the best source for how they learn.
Another consideration in choosing phonics or Whole Language is the teacher’s personal teaching style. How teachers teach often reflects how they learn. I use the present tense, learn, since teachers never stop learning. The teacher needs to be comfortable with the method s/he is using to teach reading so that a comfortable environment develops.
Becoming aware of the many learning styles that are in the class helps the teacher plan and deliver a reading lesson effectively. Often, the teacher must adjust his/her teaching style to capture the class. The Whole Language method can create a learning environment that intrigues and involves all students at once.
After introducing a story, the contents, the vocabulary, prior knowledge and interest level can be used to address the different ways that individual students learn and retain the lessons in the curriculum. This can be explained as the whole to part learning and phonics are a necessary part of a Whole Language method.