The Whole Language vs.
Phonics Debate


The worldwide debate about reading concerns not just when to teach reading, but also how to teach it. There are two main schools of thought - the whole-language school (which emphasizes the recognition of whole words), and the phonics school (which emphasizes the development of the skills needed to decode words).

Traditionally, children were taught phonics - they would learn the alphabet and the sounds made by the individual letters followed by letter combinations. This would enable a child to sound out any word she encountered. From the time reading first appeared in American schools until the second quarter of the 20th century, this is how reading was taught.

In the 1930s, the whole-language movement was born. Advocates abhorred the drudgery of phonics and spelling drills. Instead, they said, children should be raised to love reading and literature. Teachers should emphasize the meanings of words over the need to sound out each letter, with phonics "mini-lessons" given on an ad hoc basis. As the new movement gained ground, phonics lessons were progressively eliminated from American schools.

In the 1950s, an unusual book appeared on the US best-seller list - and stayed there for 37 weeks. Written by Rudolf Flesch, Why Johnny Can't Read shocked parents and teachers by pointing the full finger of blame for the country's falling literacy rates at whole-language instruction. Flesch's book describes the nightmarish scenario of a classroom of children who must rely entirely on memory and guesswork in order to read:

The child pays no attention to the word, but notices some other condition which serves as a cue. For example, a child who had successfully read the word "children"on a flash card was unable to read it in a book. He insisted he had never seen the word before. He was presented with a flash card of the word and was asked how he recognized the word as "children." He replied, "By the smudge over in the corner."

Over the next several decades after the book's publication, scientific research would consistently show that children need phonics to read fluently. Yet, whole-language instruction would prove difficult to shift from the American classroom. It is only recently that phonics has begun making a comeback. And while whole language and phonics are often pitted against one another, it is possible to combine the two in teaching your child to read.

Why teach whole language?