Whole Language and Phonics: what it is

So what’s the big fuss about? What’s the difference, and what does it matter?

More accurately, why should I be bothered about it?

Here’s a little series on phonics, whole language and the age-old debate.  I promise, no jargon.  Let’s stick to plain English and see what we can learn.


Long before many of us were even thought of, there has been a vigorous debate among literacy educators over the best method with which to teach reading.  On one side of the fray are the whole-language advocates, and on the other are the phonics advocates.

Of course you know on whose side I stand; but don’t stop reading yet!  I’m not about to hammer the whole-language advocates to pieces.  The purpose of this series is to arm you with information that would enable you to decide how to help your children or students. Of course, we cannot hope to cover a debate that has raged for so long (and promises to rage on as long as human life and education continues on this earth), within a series of newsletters.  But here are some of the key facts and figures in this debate.

A name that inevitably comes up in any discussion of this debate is leading researcher in reading education Jeanne Chall (1921-1999) (Professor of Education Emerita at Harvard).  Chall first published a report called Learning to Read in 1967.  In this report Chall stated, with evidence, that children who are taught to read with a systematic phonics-based approach learn better and have better reading comprehension when they are older, compared to children who are taught to read with a whole-language approach.  Later findings supported her original discoveries.  Chall’s discoveries received a cold reception when they were first published.  Later however, her work was recognized and credited for what they were.


As a general principle, the whole-language approach focuses on reading for meaning (comprehension), while the systematic phonics approach focuses on understanding the relationship between the letters and sounds of the language (the alphabetic principle).


The logic behind using a systematic phonics approach is based on an understanding of reading behavior.  As a matter of fact, beginning readers do not read the same way mature readers do. When children first begin to read, they read for sound, not meaning.

Chall’s studies repeatedly showed that children who are taught to read for meaning (whole-language approach) often start off with better comprehension, but rapidly begin to lose out as early as Primary 1 and 2.  In contrast, children who are taught to read using phonics and the alphabetic principle may have slower beginning comprehension (in kindergarten), but swiftly pick up and surpass the reading comprehension skills of their whole-language counterparts by the time they reach primary school.

Now perhaps, you have a better understanding of why so many of our children in early primary are having problems with reading comprehension passages?

Coming up next:  Do you wonder why schools across the globe started using the whole-language approach, then?  We look into the origins of whole-language in our next article. I think you’ll be surprised!

Have any feedback?  Any questions about this debate?  Do share your thoughts in the comments box below.  I’d love to hear from you!  Like this read?  Feel free to forward it and share!


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