Phonetics vs Whole Language: How Best to Teach Reading

Once again, I learn that balance is everything. I’ve long extolled the virtues and benefits of instilling phonetics first in students learning to read. But I’ve pointed out that these phonetic skills must be in service of reading comprehension. We must give students the ability to decode words first, then they must learn to interpret those words in the collective groups we call sentences and paragraphs. More importantly, if we are to set them on a path of lifelong learning and imbue them with a thirst for knowledge, we must teach them to enjoy reading.

The studies showing that “whole language” students score better on standardized tests would’ve shocked me, had it not been clear in the text that even in these classrooms, there is an emphasis on developing phonemic awareness. Clearly, with a solid phonetic foundation in place, the “whole language” approach instills the desired love of reading in students. This doesn’t strike me as contradicting my approach, but rather as validating it. From phonetics, we must move forward to creating students who comprehend and enjoy what they read, rather than simply enabling them to recognize words.

We have to make them aware of what a gift this reading thing will be, how much joy they will derive from using this skill. We have to make them aware that “Curious George” will lead them to grasp the concepts of Plato, to laugh out loud at the writings of Mark Twain, to be transported and to share the experience of a Welsh mining family in “How Green Was My Valley,” to make the remarkable acquaintance of Atticus Finch in “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

I think there is an underlying factor that many may miss in interpreting the findings of the studies which identify whole language students as superior academic achievers. The whole language approach, being the newer of the two ideas compared here (whole language versus traditional methods), will inherently stimulate greater excitement in its proponents and practitioners. It is the new, fresh idea that’s going to shake up the system and take the world by storm. Conversely, there is some degree of intrinsic inertia in the traditional tried and true methods.

While this will be true for both methods, most of the burnout cases will be teachers who have taught the same way for year after year; they will exhibit a greater propensity to lack a spark in the classroom, and to teach by rote. So part of the impact of the whole language approach is the full engagement of the educators who employ it. By its very nature, this newer idea will fire up those teachers who enjoy the dynamic, who seek to make all things academic fresh and alive – and they will pass this enthusiasm to their students.

At the end of the day, however, I feel there is only one real approach here; the rest of it is labels. The approach that works – whether you call it “whole language” or “traditional phonetics” or “the semi-Socratic with less cholesterol method” – requires a teacher willing to give students a sound phonetic base with which to decode the language, and then a reason to love reading and learning. A fully energized teacher will make an impact in a student’s life, using whatever learning methods the school board deems appropriate.

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