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The Whole Language Reading Philosophy


Q. How does the Whole Language style of teaching reading work? How does it compare to the phonics-only type of instruction?


Think of it as the "liberal" style of teaching reading, while systematic, intensive, explicit phonics is the "conservative" style.


Whole Language basically teaches kids to look at words as "pictures," while phonics teaches them to break words into their parts - the alphabetic letters, and the sounds those letters represent.


Whole Language treats English text like Chinese text. In the Chinese language, each word is "read" as a pattern - as a whole. Phonics, on the other hand, treats each word as the sum of its individual parts, and those individual parts are noted and decoded.


Whole Language relies on the "gestalt." That's an educational psychology term which relates to the notion that a child can scan text and guess at words while still gleaning meaning adequately. Ed psych researchers noticed how adults "scan" whole chunks of text without perceiving each individual letter in each individual word, but still gleaned the meaning accurately and rapidly. They presumed that children would be able to "scan" whole sections of simple text in the same way. Unfortunately, despite decades of teaching reading with Whole Language methods, brain research has thoroughly debunked that idea.


However, Whole Language is firmly rooted in most schools. This belief in the magical ability of children to "scan" words and put the meaning of text together in their own way is based on "constructivism," the idea that children learn best when they are encouraged to put together their own understanding of text, not "restricted" to trying to understand the author's intention accurately.


In order to glean the meaning by scanning the text, children are taught a host of reading "cues" to use in "constructing" the meaning of the text. The skills of phonics - the word-sound correspondences - are just one of those "cues." Other "cues" in Whole Language include illustrations, context, whether the word is at the start of the sentence or the end of the sentence, and so on.


You can see why kids' eyes move all over the text, while with phonics, they go left to right and top to bottom. It could be argued that with Whole Language reading instruction, reading is more "fun" because the interpretation of the text is left up to the child, and feelings and emotions that come from looking at the illustrations and make mental connections on their own, rather than simply decoding the text, are more enjoyable. It's like the difference between looking at paintings, or reading a page of text.


Phonics, in contrast, relies on a belief that accuracy is best. The phonics philosophy is based on the notion that it is best to break down the English language into its basic building blocks - the alphabet - and teach children the relationships between the sounds those letters make and the written symbols that represent them. The goal is to give the children critical thinking ability, which comes from the ability to understand and analyze text quickly and accurately.


With Whole Language, kids are given pre-engineered books called "basal readers." These books are criticized as "nonsense books" by phonics advocates, since they are not really stories with plots and characters per se, but only written to include the sight words that the children are expected to memorize and therefore "read" upon encountering them. Basal readers are carefully written so that they include a particular set of sight words that the children learn to memorize and easily recognize. The children experience more success earlier on because they have the words on those lists down pat.


However, after a few years of school, a Whole Language reader's vocabulary is typically only one-tenth as large as a phonics reader's. This is because of the emphasis in Whole Language programs on sight words that are merely memorized and not analyzed and decoded.


Good phonics instruction relies on basal readers, too, but they are pre-engineered to give the students practice in decoding the phonograms. So after the first year or two of phonics-based basal readers, the child's decoding ability has created a much bigger vocabulary, and the child is able to decode a whole library full of books. Meanwhile, students who began reading with basal readers that are based on sight words, not the phonograms, only know that relatively small set of sight words, and they are left far behind the phonics-trained readers.


Another key difference: Whole Language schoolbooks are heavily illustrated, and often very engaging and beautiful. Children are taught to use the "picture cues." If they can't read a word, they can look at the accompanying picture, then go back to the word and try to guess or discern the meaning. So if the word is "skip" and the picture shows a jump rope, the child might decode the word as "jump." To a Whole Language teacher, that would be acceptable. However, to a phonics teacher, accuracy is of primary importance. And in the later grades, when the illustrations disappear, children who have become dependent on "reading the pictures" are lost, or at least at a disadvantage to phonics-trained readers who don't need the illustrations to capture the meaning.


Whole Language learning materials are typically far more expensive than those for a phonics reading program. That's not only because of the lovely illustrations which typically accompany the stories. Also, Whole Language curriculum requires a lot of "consumables" - worksheets that can only be used once, for example. With Whole Language systems, districts purchase a scheduled sequence of reading materials and lessons, and also the basal readers.


With phonics, you mainly need the teacher's manual, phonogram flash cards, chalk and chalkboard or markers and dry erase board, the spelling rules, a spelling notebook, paper and pencils. For books, the phonics learner can use regular school library books, although phonics-keyed basal readers are useful in the early grades as well.

Homework: Book, The Whole Language Catalog, by Whole Language gurus Kenneth S. Goodman, Lois Bird and Yetta Goodman.


By Susan Darst Williams Reading 05 2008


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