If the English language were fair, fish would be spelled ghoti: gh as in “rough,” o as in “women,” and ti as in “observation.” Learning phonics is an important part of learning how to read, but it can only take the learner so far. The whole-language approach has benefits that are not found in the phonics approach, and so the whole-language approach should be emphasized when teaching children to read.
As the old linguistics joke of how “fish” should be spelled illustrates, the English language is notorious for its lack of one-to-one correlation between the letters in a word and the sound of the word. “Sounding out the word,” as the phonics approach teaches, only works for simple words. Obviously, it is important to know the mechanics of words, but that should only constitute a few lessons when learning how to read.
Reading is more about word comprehension than phonemic recognition. It is difficult for adults to remember what it is like to learn how to read. For those who have learned a second language later in life, it is easier to see what learning how to read is like, but it is still not something that people tend to analyze within themselves. When one ponders on the task of reading, one realizes that there is a whole lot more that goes into the task than recognizing the words. Margaret Matlin in the Basic Reading Processes chapter of her book, Cognition, points out: in order to put it all together and gain something from reading, there are a lot of processes associated with reading, including holding information in your memory, creating mental images to better understand what you are reading, and referring to your schemata of how the world works. Knowing how a word sounds is only the first part of reading. For a reader to actually accomplish anything, they have to be able to keep the words in some sort of context.
The whole-word approach has the added benefit of increasing students’ desire to learn. The phonics approach only teaches about the sounds of words, but the whole-language approach works with words in context, so students jump in with stories. One of the best ways to teach a child to read is to read aloud to them while they are in a position to see the words. This allows children to connect the words they hear everyday with how the words look. While phonics provides a foundation for reading, it takes the whole-language approach to bring students to a higher level of comprehension, and teach them that reading is not about sounding out words, but extrapolating ideas.