Phonics vs. Whole Language

Published April 1, 1998

The phonics-based approach to reading instruction starts with a child learning the sounds of letters and then using this explicitly learned decoding skill as a basis to progress to reading words on a page and understanding their meaning. The whole-language approach flips this sequence, starting with the child understanding the meaning of words on a page and then using this to develop intuitively learned decoding skills.

Research supports phonics, not whole language. After an extensive review of the literature, Maggie Bruck, associate professor of psychology and pediatrics at McGill University in Montreal, reported she had been unable to find “a single example published in a major peer-reviewed journal that showed that whole language worked.”

“If learning to read unfolds naturally, why does our literate society have so many youngsters and adults who are illiterate?” asks reading research expert G. Reid Lyon, chief of the Child Development and Behavior Branch at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.