Early Reading Methods

Phonics vs. Whole Language - What system should you use?

When you're ready to start teaching reading to your child, there are several programs available on the market. There are also a variety of methods used by teachers and homeschooling parents. So how do you know what to do and where to start? Despite all the hoopla over new reading methods, there are essentially two approaches, or a combination of the two. These are:

  • The phonics method
  • The look-say / whole-word / whole language method

For decades, reading wars have raged among proponents of these two approaches. Linguists, educators, politicians and parents are all actively involved in this debate over reading methods.

Whole Language Method

This method goes by different names: whole language, look and say, sight reading, or whole word. It is as much an educational philosophy as a reading method, for it emphasizes capturing meaning over systematic decoding of sound parts. The whole language emphasis considers language a natural phenomenon and literacy a natural function.

With the whole language method, children are taught to recognize the sight of the whole word, rather than its letter parts. Theoretically, the method goes from the whole to the part. Flash cards and graded readers are features of this approach.

While this method can lead to early success in reading and writing, it is today considered insufficient in itself. Having not learnt the phonetic decoding system, children face difficulty when deciphering new words, for they cannot deconstruct them. Critics have argued that this method is responsible for the emergence of reading disabilities, which did not exist in the past when children of different ages studied together in one classroom. They also assert that such an approach forces children to learn English as if it were Chinese. Many politicians, particularly in the United States, have blamed whole language reading instruction for falling literacy rates. Proponents of the system point to other factors as responsible for the decline in reading abilities.

Nevertheless, it may be helpful to use the whole language method in a limited way to teach children a number of very common English words such as 'you' and 'the', which do not follow phonetic rules. Relying on the whole language method alone could leave holes in a child's reading abilities.

The Phonics Method

Phonics is one of the oldest and most well-known methods for teaching children to read and write English.

In phonics instruction, children are taught the sounds of the letters. What is important is that the child comes to associate the shape of the letter with the sound it makes. Once individual letter-sounds are mastered, children are taught how to blend them together to read words. Similarly, children taught through the phonics method can learn how to spell correctly by sounding out the word.

Because mastering the sounds of letters may be boring to young children, it is important to keep lessons short and lively. A variety of reading games should be included to keep the child engaged. It is also necessary to utilize phonetic readers, particularly in the early stages, to help the child master phonetic patterns.

If you'd like to understand the issues in greater depth, get a hold of the nationwide bestseller Why Johnny Can't Read by Rudolph Flesch, which explains the controversy over the whole language and phonics systems in depth. It also provides a short phonics-based teaching program for parents to follow with their children. Even though this book was published in 1955, it still provides an excellent overview of the issues concerning reading instruction.

Tips for Teaching Children to Read through Phonics

  1. Teach the sounds of the letters before the names of the letters. For example, in phonics it is important to know that the sound of the letter B is "buh" . This will help the child to read. Knowing that the name of the letter is B is irrelevant.
  2. Teach the child writing and reading at the same time. Younger children can "write" in a pan full of rice, in sand, or in finger paints.
  3. Teach the short vowel sounds first. This will enable children to read simple words such as cat, hot, up, met, or pig , rather than more complex ones such as name, seem, boat, ice, or cute.
  4. Train your child's ear to the sounds of language. Play games to help your child identify the beginning sound of his or her name and of common words such as baby, mama, dog, and so on.
  5. Incorporate all the senses whenever possible. Cut out felt letters, make clay letters, or paste pictures of animals or items beginning with a specific letter / sound.
  6. Eat your words! There are many edible products that could promote literacy: Alphabits cereal, alphabet spaghetti, alphabet cookies, or alphabet fries. You could also "write" edible messages in mashed potatoes on a coloured plate.