Whole Language vs. Phonics Instruction - What is the Difference?

In elementary education, there are two main approaches to teaching young students how to read: Whole Language and Phonics instruction. Although considered somewhat controversial, it is important to understand what Whole Language and Phonics Instruction is, and how these methods can help children read. In addition, parents must be aware of the characteristics of both learning programs for the added benefit to their children. In some cases, one program may be better suited to the needs of a child, however, most children benefit from a blend of both learning programs.

Phonics Instruction

The nineteenth century gave birth to a traditional theory of learning that was the foundation for phonetic reading. To put it simply, the theory showed that children needed to break down a complex skill, such as reading, into its smallest components for easy comprehension. Basically, this means that children need to break up sentences by words, then down to the letters in the words for pronunciation. For instance, a child will look at a word and dissect it into each letter's sound. Next, they pronounce the word. As they continue, they learn how letters sound when grouped together. As a result, they learn to pronounce unfamiliar words that look intimidating to them.

Whole Language Instruction

Whole Language learning programs focus on less rigid tactics for literacy. Generally, less time is focused on repetition learning. In fact, it focuses on the flow and theme of the text, emphasizing meaning and relating to young students. Students do not sound out words as they do in phonics. However, at times, they use creative writing to make stories. While most of the spelling is completely incorrect, it helps the student learn the process of writing and reading. Students are then encouraged to decode each word through the larger context of the story they wrote.

Comparison Between Both Philosophies

Phonics Programs tend to help students with better word recognition, spelling, and pronunciation. By "sounding out" the words through letter recognition, young students memorize how to read the words in front of them. Whole language does not have a written formula to follow, so word identification often is like guesswork for children. However, if only Phonic learning is used, children have major difficulties in reading comprehension, as well as having issues with the creative writing process. Whole language teaches better understanding of text.

Which is Best for a Young Student?

Although this is a highly debated subject, most educators agree on a middle ground that both Phonics and Whole Language Reading Programs are beneficial. When using both programs, a young student has a more holistic approach to reading literacy. In addition, the combination of techniques ensures proper pronunciation, spelling and word identification as well as reading comprehension and creative writing. Auditory learners benefit from Phonetics, while visual learners connect with Whole Language.

The best approach for literacy is a combination of both Whole Language and Phonics instruction. While there are several benefits to both schools of thought, each program has its own unique characteristics.