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Teaching a Child to Read

Amber Kingery

ENG 321

Baker College

Teaching a Child to Read: Phonics VS. Whole Language


Nicknamed the “Great Debate” by journalists, this debate of teaching sound letter

correspondence (phonics instructional approach) versus whole words (whole language

instructional approach) has sparked the passion of linguists, educators, and researchers. Over the

past three decades, teaching a child to read has become one of the most controversial topics

among the educational field. Linguists, educators, and researchers have debated and studied three

instructional approaches: phonics, whole language, or balanced literacy instruction. Recent

trends in research and instruction show that a balanced literacy approach, integrating phonics

instruction into the whole language, is the most effective way to teach a child to read.

Currently, a major setback in reading instruction is that it is not working; American

students are no longer proficient in reading. One-third of our American students are less than

proficient with literacy (Feng & Maddox, 2013). The NAEP, National Assessment of

Educational Progress, reports that only thirty-four percent of students are proficient in reading by

fourth grade. Figure 1 below shows the fourth-grade reading scores over the span of thirteen


Figure 1. Trend in fourth-grade NAEP reading average scores

Between 1992 to 2015, the average scores show a very slight improvement in proficiency

(NAEP, 2015). The NAEP’s summary shows that little progress has been made in instruction for

the average reader in American schools; actually readers are less than proficient. Research shows

that using a blended approach of sound recognition and comprehension skills support proficient

readers, yet many classrooms are not using these research-based strategies (Pressley, 2006).

Strong supporters of phonics despise whole language learning. Others are taking a mix of both

approaches in a cohesive blend. According to research and theory, which of these three

approaches to teach students to read is most effective, and why?



Attitude about phonics instruction Phonics instruction is the chronological, precise

instruction of letter-sound correspondence. It helps students learn to read by recognizing that

each letter creates a sound, and when letters are strung together, they make a word (Feng &

Maddox, 2013). The five different ways of teaching phonics instruction are analogy phonics,

analytic phonics, embedded phonics, phonics through spelling, and synthetic phonics. Analogy

phonics helps students connect unknown words to familiar words. Analytic phonics helps

students by analyzing letter-sound relationships in order to prevent isolating sounds while

reading. Embedded phonics embeds phonic skills into reading text. Phonic through spelling

involves selecting letters for phonemes. Synthetic phonics is converting letters to sounds and

blending them to make the word sound (National Reading Panel, 2017). When these aspects of

phonics are taught systematically with appropriate timing, these methods are successful.

In a phonic classroom, the teacher organizes letters and sounds into a sequence (Feng &

Maddox, 2013). Phonics instruction claims to teach all children to read by second grade and

tends to show quick progress in students. Because the natural alphabetic way, or the phonetic

way, is the English language works, supporters of phonics say it allows for strategic learned

skills to read any word (Price, 2017).

Phonics instruction is not a complete reading program because it lacks comprehension,

fluency, and reading strategies. Critics argue that phonics instruction lacks connection to the

purpose the of learning the letter sounds. Students who received phonics instruction from

kindergarten through sixth grade are “able to decode, spell words, and to read text orally, but

their comprehension of text was not significantly improved” (National Reading Panel, 2017).

The missing comprehension piece in phonics instruction is a crucial skill of reading.


Phonics is crucial to learning skills such as decoding new words and spelling.

Educational author Louisa Cook Moats, in her nationally recognized article, Whole Language

Lives On: The illusion of "Balanced Reading" Instruction, disproved the whole language theory

evidence. The article claimed that the nation’s poor reading scores are due to teachers

implementing the incomplete whole language instructional approach in their classrooms.

“Students who are not taught properly are less able to sound out a new word when it is

encountered, slower and less accurate at reading whole words, less able to spell, less able to

interpret punctuation and sentence meaning, and less able to learn new vocabulary words from

reading them in context.” (Moats, 2000). The whole language theory lacks the ability to help

students decode new words, spell, and interpret.


The whole language instructional approach was originated by psychlinguists Ken and

Yetta Goodman at the University of Arizona. In a whole language-based approach, teachers

emphasize the meaning of texts versus deconstructing the parts of words, like phonic does. It

combines pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar into an organic flowing learning experience

through the use of “content rich literature and a print rich environment” (Feng & Maddox, 2013).

The learning experience is student-centered, where the teacher allows the student to drive their

own choices of mastery and to determine hot to reach their goal. The purpose is for the reader to

establish a meaning and understand language as a whole, and once, the student masters the whole

then, they start to study its parts. This approach celebrates teachers who create their own

classroom curriculum. Reading, writing, speaking, and listening are blended into lessons that

allow for mastery before the student moves on to learning about the parts of language. Massive

amounts of research suggest that the whole language classroom is able to progress much faster

than a phonics classroom. A leader in the field, Constance Weaver, strongly believes in rapid

progression of skills in reading using this approach: “This is because everything is interrelated,

with the learning of skills and strategies taking place within authentic literacy events, and

literacy events taking place within the exploration of themes and topics in what have traditionally

been considered curricular areas separate from reading and writing.” (p.37)

Critics opposed to this approach argue that success is rare and imposes impossible

demands on students: progress is slow and poses it too many obstacles. Many states blamed

failing reading scores on schools implementing whole language instruction (Palmaffy, 1997).

Bruce Price (2017), educational leader, claims that whole language instruction requires teachers

to teach students an average of 300 sight words a year. the pace is impossible. “Even if this pace

can be achieved, these students know only 6000 words by the end of high school, and are only

semi-literate. Judged by its own claims, whole word doesn’t work.” (Price, 2017).

Although it seems much research supports the phonics instructional approach, theorists

and philosophers show bias toward the whole language instruction approach. Chomsky, Piaget,

and Krashen are of the pioneers.

Piaget was a proponent of whole language theory. Jean Piaget, pioneer theorist in child

development, believed that language is developed through experiences and it is gradually

attained naturally. Piaget’s belief directly aligns with a whole language approach where spelling,

speaking, listening, reading, and writing are all taught in unity and organically.

Noam Chomsky argued that humans acquire their language that they hear and interact

with first. He believed that humans have an internal grammar with subconscious rules about how

their language works. In summary, he believed that human acquire language naturally through

interaction and experiences (Freeman, 2014).

Inspired by Chomsky, Stephan Krashen proposed a theory in 1982 that stated students

need comprehensible output, messages students use to easily comprehend concepts, in order to

quire and understand the written and oral language. Krashen suggests that teacher should use The

Natural Approach and use techniques, such as visuals and hands-on experiences, to create

connects to the concepts (Freeman, 2014).


Over 10,000 studies of the great debate were published in educational journals on the

approaches of teaching reading by 1967 (Kame’enui, 2004). Recently, evidence based research

supports teaching phonics and whole language instruction. In theory, English does not have a

one-to-one sound symbol relationship, which does not allow for only using phonic instruction to

teach a child to read (Reyhner, 2008). Language also needs needs to be taught all at one time in

one balanced cohesive experience. Thus, the balanced literacy approach mixes both phonics and

whole language into a mix of both. In a balanced literacy classroom, students are moved in an

organic flow from modeled reading, shared reading, guided reading, and independent reading.

The teacher models mini lessons and shares phonics strategies while exploring rich literature.

Students benefit from this mixed instruction as shown in the studies below.

In a twenty-one-week study conducted by Roxanne L Sporleder of nine classrooms 151

first grade nonreaders, readers, and Title I students received varied instruction approaches. Three

classrooms followed phonics instruction, three classrooms followed metacognition techniques,


and the last three did indirect phonics instruction. Each teacher followed a basic reading program

and differentiated instruction.

At the end of the twenty-one-week study the results show no classroom was superior in

the ability to recognize and write letters, to identify sounds of letters, and to hear phoneme

segmentation. The results also proved that using word families is successful in increasing reading

ability by taping into prior knowledge. “However, the three classrooms that introduced students

to the letter representations of phonemes and engaged them in reconstructing the orthographic

code by spelling words before ever reading them, scored significantly higher in basic reading

skills, total reading ability, and spelling achievement. This approach was more effective than

either the direct phonics classrooms or the indirect phonics classrooms.” (Sporleder, 1988). It

also more effective than using word families to increase reading and spelling achievement.

Ultimately, the blended approach showed an overall higher reading abilities and skills.

A more recent study conducted in 2013 by Jay Feng and Krissy Maddox, analyzed the

effects of phonics instruction and whole language instruction on a group of twenty-one first

graders over the course of four weeks. The group of twenty-one first graders were divided into

two groups, the first receiving only phonic instruction and the second receiving no phonics

instruction. After the course of four weeks, both groups showed fluency improvement.

Additionally, the phonic group had greater growth in spelling precision. When the results were

analyzed by Maddox and Feng, they came to the conclusion that phonics should not be taught

without some whole language component. “It is recommended that a literacy approach should

combine phonics and whole language into one curriculum, but place greater emphasis on phonics

development.” (Feng & Maddox, 2013). Whole language allows for comprehension and fluency

growth, while phonics ensures fluency and spelling growth.



The “Great Debate” controversy sparked many theorists, educators, and linguists for over three

decades. Although much interest and research has accumulated, little has been done to

implement reading instructional approaches that improve students’ ability to read. National test

scores show little progress of students’ ability to read at or above their grade level, therefore a

change in reading instruction is demanded. Reading instruction, as NAEP scores summarize in

Figure 1, is not successful if the pieces and parts of language and not strung together to

understand the whole text, rather deconstructing its parts. According to research and theory

provided, a balanced approach with both whole language and phonic instruction to teach students

to read is most effective in teaching a child to read.



Feng, J. & Maddox, K. (2013). Whole language vs. phonics instruction: Effect on reading

fluency and spelling accuracy of first grade students. Savannah: Georgia Educational

Research Association Annual Conference. Retrieved from ERIC website

Freeman, D. E., & Freeman, Y. E. (2014.). Essential Linguistics (Second ed.). Heinemann.

Kame’enui, E. J., Simmons, D., Coyne, M. D., Harn, B., & McDonagh, S. (2004). Beyond the

Phonics vs. Whole Language Debate.

Moats, L. C. (2000). Whole language lives on: The illusion of "Balanced Reading"

instruction. Washington, DC: Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

National Assessment of Educational Progress. (2015) Nation’s Report Card: 2015 mathematics

& reading assessments. Retrieved from


Trend in fourth-grade average reading scores. (2015).


National Reading Panel. (2017, May 10). Phonics Instruction. Retrieved from Reading website:

Palmaffy, T. (1997). See Dick Flunk. Policy Review, .86(December).

Pressley, M. (2006). Reading instruction that works: the case for balanced teaching. New York:

Guilford Press.

Price, B.. (2017). Whole Word versus Phonics. Retrieved from http://www.improve-

Reyhner, J. (2008). The Reading Wars. Northern Arizona University.


Sporleder, R. (1998). A comparison of three approaches to literacy acquisition: traditional

phonics, whole language, and spelling before reading.

Weaver, C. (2002.). Teaching Reading and Developing Literacy: Contrasting Perspectives.

In Reading Process and Practice (Third ed.).