Phonics & Whole Language

 

Overview

Of the 64 reviews, 14 considered topics related to phonics and/or whole language. Published from 1976 to 2002, the findings of these reviews are mixed. Concerning phonics instruction, which  emphasises direct instruction in letter-sound associations and how to use these associations in reading new and familiar words, research suggests:

Phonics instruction is more effective if provided systematically and balanced with instruction in both letter-sound associations and letter sequence-rhyme associations.

Phonics instruction may be best delayed until children have developed the necessary vocabulary and skills.

Whole language instruction (also known as “literature-based literacy instruction” or “language experience instruction”), on the other hand, emphasises child-centered instruction, teacher empowerment, integration of reading and writing, and natural language experiences as opposed to direct instruction in isolated skills. Research on whole language suggests:

Direct instruction in letter-sound associations is not actually necessary for young children to learn letter-sound associations and may not even be appropriate for young children.

The use of literature in teaching is related to the development of oral and written language, and may also have a positive effect on children’s attitudes toward reading.

A whole language approach seems to be more effective prior to formal reading instruction.

Overall, there is a good deal of consensus between supporters of the phonics and whole language approaches. The main issues that separate the two camps are largely those of direct instruction in phonics versus learning language naturally. According to one review, relevant evidence is leaning towards direct instruction.

Finally, two reviews considered research related to the letter-sound association aspect of phonics, noting that children with more developed auditory skills tend to be better readers, as are children with more developed sound-sight matching abilities.


Chew, J. (1997). Traditional phonics: what it is and what it is not. Journal of Research in Reading, 20(3), 171-183.

The association between sounds and letters in English is often irregular. The letter c in come does not sound the same as the c in cereal. It has been argued that because of these irregularities, traditional phonics instruction, in which children are specifically taught sound-letter associations, presents children with unnecessary learning difficulties. However, research suggests that traditional phonics instruction is indeed an excellent way for beginners to read words. Children taught traditional phonics learn to cope with word irregularities much faster than children taught with a rhyme-based approach to phonics.  

    

Snapshot

 

Ehri, L.C., Nunes, S.R., Stahl, S.A., & Willows, D. M. (2001). Systematic phonics instruction helps students learn to read: evidence from the national reading panel's meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 71(3), 393-447.

 

Phonics instruction teaches letter-sound associations and how to use these associations to read words. When provided systematically, phonics instruction helps children learn to read more effectively than does non-systematic instruction or instruction without phonics. Phonics benefits reading, spelling, and comprehension in many readers, and effects persist even after instruction ends. Specifically, phonics helps younger students at risk for reading disability and older students with reading disability, although it fails to enhance reading among low-achieving older readers. As well, the impact of phonics instruction on reading is greater in the early grades than in the later grades. Encouragingly, research shows that systematic phonics instruction contributes to higher reading outcomes in both low and middle socioeconomic groups. Additionally, delivering instruction in small groups and classes is as effective as tutoring. In short, systematic phonics instruction is effective and should be included as part of a balanced literacy program to teach beginning reading as well as to prevent and remediate reading difficulties.        

 

Snapshot

 

Fox, B. C. (1976). How children analyze language: Implications for beginning reading instruction. Reading Improvement, 13(4), 229-234.

 

Beginning reading instruction tends to assume that children understand basic language terms, such as word, sound, and letter. However, findings suggest that children learn the meanings of such terms as they are learning to read. For instance, most children do not need to be taught to segment words and sounds in speech, but do need to be taught the labels given to the different speech units. Thus, teachers need to be careful not to confuse a child’s inability to talk about a language task with an inability to do the task. Teachers can help children better understand language terms by planning varied reading experiences. Findings also show that children learn word-speech associations easier than letter-sound associations, and these results taken together suggest that phonics instruction should be delayed until children have developed the necessary vocabulary and skills.

 

Snapshot

 

Gambrell, L. B., Morrow, L. M., & Pennington, C. (2002). Early childhood and elementary literature-based instruction: Current perspectives and special issues. Reading Online, 5(6), 26-39.

 

Literature-based literacy instruction emphasises the use of quality books in activities such as reading aloud, individual reading, and discussions of literature. The use of literature is related to the development of oral and written language, and may also have a positive effect on children’s attitudes toward reading. Children who are read to daily over long periods of time scored better on measures of vocabulary, comprehension, and the ability to understand words by sight. Reading to children in small groups was found to offer as much attention to each child as one-to-one reading. Small-group reading also resulted in greater comprehension by the children than one-to-one and whole-class reading. Those interested in implementing literature-based literacy instruction should familiarize themselves with quality children’s literature, and should create early childhood classroom environments rich in quality print materials, with both story books and educational texts.

 

Snapshot

 

Goswami, U. (1999). Causal connections in beginning reading: The importance of rhyme. Journal of Reading Research, 22(3), 217-240.

 

Phonics instruction teaches print-sound connections and how to use these connections to read words. There is some debate over how best to teach children phonics skills, particularly concerning at what level phonics should be taught. Some say that phonics should be taught at the level of individual sound-letter associations. Others say that phonics should be taught with letter sequences and rhymes. However, there is no evidence to suggest there is one best approach to teaching phonics. Overall, it is important to take a balanced approach to phonics instruction, teaching children letter-sound associations as well as letter sequences and rhymes, and helping children to use patterns from the words that they already know to decipher new words.

 

Snapshot

 

Jeynes, W.H., & Littell, S.W. (2000). A meta-analysis of studies examining the effect of whole language instruction on the literacy of low-SES students. Elementary School Journal, 101(1), 21-33.

 

“Whole language” literacy instruction emphasises the use of whole literature texts (that is, not adapted, abridged, or segmented), student choice within assignments, and natural language experiences as opposed to direct instruction in isolated skills. “Basal” instruction, on the other hand, uses abridged and segmented literature as well as specialized “basal readers” (texts written specifically to teach certain reading skills), class-wide teacher-chosen assignments, and substantial instruction in isolated skill sets. Research suggests that early elementary school students of low socioeconomic status benefit more from basal instruction than from whole language instruction. 

 

Snapshot

 

Kavale, K. (1980). Auditory-visual integration and its relationship to reading achievement: A meta-analysis. Perceptual & Motor Skills, 51(3 Pt 1), 947-955.

 

The better children are at matching visual information with corresponding sound-based information, the higher (in general) are their levels of word recognition, oral reading, reading comprehension, and reading ability (but not vocabulary). The link between sound-sight matching abilities and reading is stronger for normal readers than for reading/learning disabled and culturally/economically disadvantaged readers. Overall, general intelligence levels explain only part of the link between reading skills and sight-sound matching abilities.

 

Snapshot

 

Kavale, K. (1981). The relationship between auditory perceptual skills and reading ability: A meta-analysis. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 14(9), 539-546.

 

Children vary in their development of hearing-related skills, such as the ability to remember sounds, or the ability to match sounds with visual information.  The level of development of hearing-related skills is related to reading achievement. Specifically, the higher a child’s level of auditory development, the greater the child’s level of reading achievement. This relationship is explained only partially by a child’s level of intelligence.    

 

Snapshot

 

McGee, L., Charlesworth, R., Cheek, M.C., & Cheek, E. H. (1982). Meta-linguistic knowledge: another look at beginning reading. Childhood Education, 59(2), 123-127.

 

In learning to read, children’s understanding of language may be just as important as their ability to use language. Young children’s awareness of the language and arrangement of information in stories facilitates early literacy. Direct instruction is not necessarily essential to helping  children develop knowledge about stories, rather, children need opportunities to enjoy many kinds of informal story experiences.

 

Snapshot

 

Moustafa, M. (1993). Recoding in whole language reading instruction. Language Arts, 70(6), 483-487.

 

Direct instruction in letter-sound associations is a common teaching practice. However, direct instruction in letter-sound associations does not actually seem to be necessary for young children to learn letter-sound associations. Moreover, instruction in letter-sound associations may not even be appropriate for young children. Rather than using letter-sound associations when trying to read unknown words, young children are more likely to figure out problem words by comparing them with print words that they already know. Thus, instruction should work to increase the number of print words that children recognize.  Indeed, “whole language instruction,” which by nature uses whole literature texts and natural language experiences such as shared storybook reading, reflects this idea.        

 

Snapshot

 

Richardson, E., & DiBenedetto, B. (1977). Transfer effects of a phonic decoding model: A review. Reading Improvement, 14(4), 239-247.

 

The ability of a child to sight read new words not yet taught is an important skill for the development of literacy. Instruction in letter-sound associations results in children being better able to decipher unknown words. This process is considered a “transfer” of skills, in that the knowledge of letter-sound associations helps with word-decoding. Note that it is not necessarily important at what level letter-sound associations are taught (i.e., for individual letters or letter groups). What is important for the transfer of skills to occur is that the associations be taught through direct instruction. Additionally, instruction should also be provided on how to blend sounds together.       

 

Snapshot

 

Shaw, P. A. (1991). A selected review of research on whole language. Journal of the Wisconsin State Reading Association, 35(1), 3-17.

 

“Whole language” literacy instruction emphasises the use of whole literature texts (that is, not adapted, abridged, or segmented), student choice within tasks, and natural language experiences as opposed to direct instruction in isolated skills. A whole language approach seems to be more effective in kindergarten instruction. The findings with older children vary. Overall, the author emphasises that there is no one best way to teach reading in all possible contexts.

 

Snapshot

 

Stahl, S., & Miller, P. D. (1989). Whole language and language experiences for beginning reading: A quantitative research synthesis. Review of Educational Research, 59(1), 87-116.

 

A “whole language” or “language experience” approach to literacy instruction emphasises the use of whole works of literature as texts, and natural language experiences as opposed to direct instruction in isolated skills. The goal is to use language in meaningful contexts to bring children into language naturally. “Basal reading” instruction, on the other hand, uses abridged and segmented literature as well as specialized “basal readers” (texts written specifically to teach certain reading skills) and emphasises substantial instruction in isolated skill sets. Overall, studies suggest that the two approaches are equal in their effects. Whole language programs, however, seem to have a slight advantage when used prior to formal reading instruction (i.e., in kindergarten). As children’s needs shift, whole language programs gradually become less effective.   

 

Snapshot

 

Stanovich, K. E., & Stanovich, P. J. (1995). How research might inform the debate about early reading acquisition. Journal of Research in Reading, 18(2), 87-105.

 

Whole language teaching emphasises child-centered instruction, teacher empowerment, integration of reading and writing, and natural language experiences as opposed to direct instruction in isolated skills. Phonics, on the other hand, emphasises direct instruction in letter-sound associations and how to use these associations in reading new and familiar words. The authors of this review suggest that an ongoing dispute between proponents of the two camps has hurt literacy teaching and learning, and so they attempt to resolve this dispute. Overall, there are a number of educational practices that could be agreed upon by both sides, such as the importance of good child-centred literature, and the importance of early writing experiences for teaching children how language works. The issues that separate the two camps are whether direct instruction in phonics skills is necessary for learning to read, and whether children can learn written language naturally. On these points, the evidence leans towards the phonics camp, suggesting that phonics-related skills are critical for early success in reading and that instructional programs emphasising spelling-sound decoding skills result in better reading outcomes. In conclusion, movement towards an evidence-based approach to literacy instruction that combines aspects of both whole language and phonics approaches is recommended.            

 

Snapshot

 

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