Whole Language and Phonics: a balanced analysis

Hi and good morning, friends!  It’s been awhile since I’ve had the chance to sit down and pen my thoughts… life’s getting busy!  The thoughts have been rolling around in my brain, though.

Now that we’ve gotten an overview of whole language and phonics, let’s take a step back and weigh the arguments.  It would be oversimplification to say that the debate has been focused on whole language and phonics only.  On the contrary, there have been many parties in this debate:  the basal readers advocates, the language experience advocates, the linguistic advocates… the list goes on.  However, for the purpose of our study, we focused our attention on just these two elements.

My reason? Despite the many different parties involved in the debate and the many different sides of the argument, there is a discernable line that separates them into one of two camps:  those who favour a code-emphasis approach and those who favour a meaning-emphasis approach.  Of the various parties, phonics and whole language (and their variants, for there isn’t a strict recipe for either!) are two of the most common in Singapore.  Phonics favours the code-emphasis, while whole language favours the meaning-emphasis. If we can understand the philosophy behind the two approaches, we can easily decide between these two.


Basically, a meaning-emphasis approach advocates reading for meaning, right from the start.  Consequently, it focuses more on understanding the story, infering meaning from the context and making connections between what is read and real life.  In contrast, a code-emphasis approach focuses on the relationship between sounds and letters and on breaking the alphabet code to discover words.

The question we’re asking, then, is, which approach to reading instruction is better?

Let’s ask the expert…


To answer it, we turn to the extensive research done by reading expert Jeanne Chall.  We look at Chall’s study because she stands out among researchers for her unbiased studies.  Here are her findings in condensed form:

  1. There is no evidence that a meaning-emphasis approach creates a greater love for/interest in reading than a code-emphasis approach does.
  2. It is impossible to totally eliminate reading failure:  Both meaning- and code-emphasis will produce some reading failures.  These failures, evidence indicates, are also strongly influenced by individual children’s personal characteristics.  However, overall, meaning-emphasis tends to produce more serious reading failures than code-emphasis.
  3. Findings show that children who are taught with a code-emphasis approach become better spellers and readers. It indicates that success in early reading depends more the knowledge of letters and sounds  than on oral language abilities and a high intellegence quotient.
  4. Children taught to read through code-emphasis have stronger comprehension skills when they are older, compared to those taught through meaning-emphasis.
  5. Whenever reading failure was encountered, all studies focused on teaching a child to decode (via a code-emphasis approach), and reported success in helping the child to read normally through decoding.

So.  What do YOU think?  It is especially telling that whenever any programme encounters reading failure, it reverts to a code-emphasis approach to solve the problem.  What does this tell you?  In fact, researchers nowadays are suggesting (with evidence too!) that a meaning-emphasis approach actually causes and aggravates educational dyslexia (reading failure caused by the teaching method).  You can find the links at the end of this newsletter.


I agree with their reports.  While I do not agree that all dyslexia is caused by faulty teaching methods, I submit to you that meaning-emphasis creates the perfect enviroment for educational dyslexia.  I have seen it in my students.  Here’s a story, and I’ll end for today.

I once had a student who came to me for phonics lessons.  He was already in Primary 2 by then, could read and write reasonably well, and had learned through a meaning-emphasis approach.  He was NOT dyslexic.  Within the first three lessons with him, I figured out his problem:  because he had learned to recognize words as wholes with no consideration for their sounds, he could not hear the sequences of sounds in the words.  As long as all the correct letters were in a word and the beginning letter was correct, he would not notice it if the letters were mixed-up (a common problem for dyslexic children).  Thus, lobster could be spelt “losbter”, and he would not notice the error.

While a child with a code-emphasis would immediately recognize that “losbter” was incorrect because of the mixed-up sequence of sounds (los-b-ter), one with a meaning-emphasis and a whole-language approach would not.  Why?  Because his mental checklist does not include sound sequence, only the following: all the letters were included, the first and last letters are in place and the general shape of the word corresponds to the shape of lobster as he was taught it.

He recovered somewhat from his educational dyslexia; but up till the time he left my class, he was still not able to fully rely on phonics and decoding to spell and read accurately.  Initial reading instruction is very influential and very, very deep-seated.  So my strongest advice to youFor his sake, make sure your child starts out right.  It will affect him for the rest of his life!

Further Reading

Newsweek and dyslexia

Dyslexia, Reading Difficulties “Caused”

Thank you for reading!  If you found this article helpful, feel free to forward and share this article to others!


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