Whole Language and Phonics: the other side of the coin

Welcome back!  We looked at whole language in our last article.  Today we’ll examine phonics.  Is it a magic potion?  What’s so great about phonics?


Phonics, as you may know, is basically a method of teaching reading and spelling which focuses the beginning reader on the relationship between sounds and letters.  Incorporated into a typical phonics programme are identification of letter sounds and names, blending of letters and learning special letter combinations.


decoding with phonicsPhonics is built upon the fact that English is a phonetic language.  In other words, English words can be broken up into component sounds, which can be represented by a set of symbols (the alphabet).

With phonics, we first teach the child the relationship between sounds and letters.  Then we teach him how to put those sounds and letters together to make words.  Of course this is just a basic analogy.  When it comes to the actual doing, it can get more complex!

Think of it this way:  you are given a code.  That code represents a word.  If you can learn what each symbol in the code stands for, you can decode the word.  Ah, and that, my friend, is one of the ever-present words buzzing around in phonics discussions.  It’s a lot about decoding.  Written language is seen as a code that represents speech.  The key to the code is knowing the relationship between the alphabet and the sounds they represent.


What phonics can do Phonics gives a beginning reader a systematic, reliable way to make meaning from text. We’re talking about identifying words.  (Don’t get confused here, we’re not talking about reading for meaning.   That refers to higher comprehension, making connections between the story and oneself and drawing conclusions based on what is read.  It’s a whole different ball game… have I lost you? :))  Phonics also provides a means for any reader (both beginning and mature readers) to decode text with accurate pronunciation and proper spelling. Yes, I too still use phonics nowadays, when I’m reading and writing.  It has never left me!

Mr Q– and the bay bai

Earlier I mentioned that English is a phonetic language.  Let me qualify that statement:  it is phonetic, but it is full of irregularities.  Recently, my younger siblings made a field trip to a factory in Woodlands.  When they came home, they told me an interesting story.  Mr Q–, their tour guide decided to spice up his speech by delivering a harangue about the English language.  I doubled up with laughter at his grievance:  he wrote standby on the whiteboard and asked for the pronunciation.  Of course, the children supplied /stand-bai/.  Next, he wrote baby on the board, and turning around, said with an expression of perfect innocence, “Bay… bai?”  He has his point. 

Harlina once posted a poem that illustrates this point perfectly.  Take a moment to read it and enjoy your laugh!

It wouldn’t take you long to realize that this puts phonics into a rather difficult corner.  Do you teach one pronunciation as regular and all the rest as irregular?  Do you teach each sound as a special sound on its own?  Is there a place in phonics for this after all?  Yes, phonics is only a tool.  It is a tool to help beginning readers get a firm footing in English.  Some phonics programmes defeat their own purpose by introducing so many rules and patterns to be memorized that the child might as well learn through whole language!  Be reasonable.  Remember why the child is learning phonics in the first place.  It is not a study of English syntax.  It is a tool to help him master reading.


There are hundreds of phonics programmes floating around out there.  How do we choose?  Which one is the best?  Will just any one do?  Don’t they all teach the same thing?

There is a reason why some phonics programmes don’t work well.  And yes, there is something worse than a whole language approach: it is an incomplete, unsystematic phonics programme.  If a child is to learn and use phonics, he must be able to use it with perfect confidence.  Nothing is worse than an incomplete, confusing code.  Not only does it turn the child off, but it also creates an uncertainty that leaves him afraid to use it.  So when you choose a phonics programme, please ensure that it follows a systematic sequence, one that builds on what has already been taught, and does not contradict itself.

Phonics is like medicine.  Take the right ones in the right combinations, and you have a wonderful, useful thing.  But confuse the prescriptions and you end up in ICU.  We want your child in university, not ICU!  All the best!

Coming up next:  a balanced comparision and some conclusions. By the way, in case you’re wondering, I’m now in the midst of doing a course in early childhood… that explains the low frequency of articles nowadays! ;)


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