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Teaching Reading: Whole Language vs. Phonics

If you are homeschooling your young children, chances are you have been reading up on teaching strategies, research, and methods for teaching at home. Teaching reading is one of the most written about subjects in education. Over the years, what is considered to be the best approach for teaching a child to read changes. These different approaches are almost like fads that come and go.

There are two reading instruction methods that are most prominent today. Each has its proponents and, as an instructor in your own home, you should understand the pros and cons of each. The two most common types of reading instruction are phonics and whole language.

Phonics

Phonics is the older and more traditional way of teaching a child to read. It’s probably how you learned to read. Phonics is the relationship between letters and their sounds. When learning to read this way, a child learns the sounds associated with each letter and different groupings of letters. He then learns to connect those sounds within a word and read the word. The approach is technical and requires direct instruction and memorizing of patterns and rules.

When teaching your child to read through phonics, you will need to instruct him on the sounds of not just individual letters, but also the differences between short and long vowels, open and closed syllables, digraphs and dipthongs, and other technical terms. Of course, you don’t have to teach him the terminology, but you should be familiar with it yourself. You will also have to teach your child those frustrating words that don’t fit the rules. In phonics, they are called sight words, because children learn them by sight rather than sounding them out. These include words like you, who, and were.

In traditional schools, children are usually taught phonics from kindergarten through the second grade. They learn consonants in kindergarten. In first and second grade, they add in vowel sounds and combinations of two and more letters including common word parts like –ing. By second grade, they are reviewing and practicing phonics to become more fluent readers. Of course, as a homeschooler, you can teach your child phonics at a pace that works for him. If he is ready at age four to start learning, there is no reason why he shouldn’t. And if he needs more work with phonics at age six and seven, you can teach him more.

Whole Language

The whole language approach to reading instruction is more recent. It is also more of a philosophy than phonics. The underlying idea of whole language is that children should learn to read in a natural way, as they learn to speak. Proponents of whole language believe that phonics is unnatural and can possibly stifle a child’s curiosity and desire to learn.

To teach a child to read by whole language, he should be immersed in books and written text. The idea is that the child will eventually begin to read as a result. It is critical that a child learning in this way is given picture books. The child is expected to use images to work out the meanings of the words as well as context. The term whole language arises from the fact that this child is not breaking words down into sounds, rather looking at whole words and making meaning from them.

Whole language is part of a philosophy of teaching called constructivism. Followers of constructivism believe that children learn best by creating or constructing their own knowledge from their surroundings. This gives a child a lot of freedom to learn at an individual pace and in a way that is unique to that child. When using constructivism, it is very important that a child is given a wide variety of materials like books, videos, toys, games, and even field trips to construct their knowledge.

Which is Better?

The ultimate answer to that question is that it depends upon individual situations. However, there are some concrete conclusions that can be drawn about each reading instruction method. Many studies have been conducted about the efficacy of different instructional methods.

Recently, the National Reading Panel reviewed studies of phonics. They came to several conclusions:

  • Teaching with phonics is most effective when done in a systematic and direct way. This means that there is a correct way to teach phonics. If you are planning to use this method, you will need to read up on it.
  • Phonics improves children’s spelling and reading comprehension and benefits all children regardless of socioeconomic status.
  • Phonics instruction benefits children who struggle to read.
  • Phonics should be part of a more complete instructional strategy that includes teaching vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension.
  • Research on the effectiveness of whole language is harder to find. Some studies that proved how well it worked have been debunked, while others show that it works well in combination with phonics instruction. Certainly, most educators agree that there are some positive aspects to whole language. It allows children to learn at their own pace. It lets a child read and learn about what interests him. It encourages reading by being less boring than rote phonics memorization.

Phonics and Whole Language Together

The best news for you is that you do not have to subject your child to the swinging pendulum of reading instruction in a public school. Children in public schools receive minimal individual instruction and learn by whatever method that school or particular teacher believes is best. You know your child, and you can teach him to read in the way that is best for him.

Many educators would agree that a combination of phonics instruction and whole language learning is very beneficial. Start teaching your child phonics as early as you can to give him a good base of knowledge. But, also allow him to explore books on his own. Provide him with a variety of picture books on different subjects so he can choose to read what he likes. With plenty of research on your part and an individualized approach, your child will be reading in no time.

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