Phonics vs. Whole Language

Over the past two decades, there has been a cultural war over two ideologically distinct methods of teaching reading — phonics and whole language. A phonics-based approach focuses instruction on learning to connect letters and letter combinations with their corresponding sound and provides students with specific strategies for decoding by sounding out familiar words. The teacher relies on direct instruction, using a well-developed and highly structured curriculum with carefully planned, sequential lessons.

Whole language instruction focuses on providing a literature-rich environment and emphasizing comprehension skills. Reading and writing is incorporated throughout the day in the context of lessons in other subjects. There is emphasis on both oral and silent reading and reading authentic literature. Lessons may be fluid and theme-based, rather than tied to a set curriculum.


“Whole language” is not the same as whole-word teaching, which was the hallmark of the “look-say” method popular in the mid-twentieth century. With “look-say,” children learned new words through repeated exposure and repetition in “Dick and Jane”-style basal readers.

Pros and Cons

Dr. Maria Carbo, founder of the National Reading Styles Institute, points out that neither phonics nor whole language will reach all children. She points out that phonics programs are good for children who have analytic learning styles and benefit from systematic teaching. Whole language programs are more suited to children who have strong visual, tactile, and global learning styles who do best in an environment emphasizing hands-on learning and peer interactions.

Your child with dyslexia doesn't fit into either of these molds. It is true that she probably has the overall learning style that thrives in the enriched atmosphere of a whole language classroom; but unlike her peers, she won't be able to absorb the tools and strategies needed for reading merely through exposure. On the other hand, as much as she needs specific help, the sequential teaching of phonics is geared to her weakest learning pathway.

Benefits of Both Methods

The debate over phonics vs. whole language makes about as much sense as arguing over whether you should feed your child only meat or only vegetables. Good reading requires that students have a variety of skills. The research is unequivocal: Students learn best when they are taught with programs encompassing both phonics and whole language. Students taught only phonics tend to have better decoding skills, but weaker comprehension skills. Students taught with whole language tend to have stronger comprehension skills, but weaker decoding skills.

Just as you need to provide your child with a balanced diet, he must also have balanced reading instruction. In fact, your child needs more than phonics or whole language; he needs instruction that covers all of the elements that are part of reading. He needs to be taught to focus on how a word sounds, how it looks, and what it means. He needs practice to develop reading automaticity and fluency. And he needs an array of strategies to support comprehension, build motivation, and to keep him engaged.

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