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Learning to read: phonics vs. whole word techniques
Q: My first grader’s teacher believes in using phonics to learn to read instead of whole word techniques. Which do you think will help my child learn more appropriately? Are there advantages to one? What should I do at home to help her learn?
A: Your question has been around for at least half a century, and yet it is still a difficult one to answer. Although it may sound flippant, probably the best answer to the question of which approach to teaching reading is best is “both.”

For centuries, the traditional approach was essentially a phonics approach—that is, helping children learn that certain squiggles on the page stand for certain sounds and that those sounds can be put together to make words. Understanding the relationship between sounds and their symbols was referred to as “cracking the code.” Great efforts were made to help children learn the names of the letters (A, B, C, etc.) and the sounds they made. The next step was to find those symbols or letters in words, “sound them out” and combine them to produce words. (The fact that many English letters can be pronounced several ways, sometimes even in the same word, doesn’t help any!)

Somewhere around the middle of the last century, researchers began to challenge the wisdom of phonics drills as an exclusive approach to the teaching of reading on grounds that it encouraged word recognition at the expense of comprehension. After all, went the argument, it does no good for a child to be able to recognize sounds and shapes if the meaning of what is written is not grasped. So instruction techniques began to stress looking at the whole word, possibly only guessing at the sounds it contained and concentrating on the meaning of the message. Testing for reading competence shifted from word recognition to comprehension.

Today there is a blending of these methods in most reading instruction. Good teaching involves the integration and utilization of both approaches. Phonics training definitely helps children learn to spell; without it, children often do not become good spellers. Furthermore, phonics training often is essential for children for whom reading does not come easily. On the other hand, some children find phonics tedious and difficult. They need the freer approach to find the joy in reading that is essential to becoming a good reader.

As to what you can do to help your child, continue to participate with her in a wide variety of reading activities. Even though she will be learning to read by herself, continue to read to her. Early readers often lack the skill to read quickly and effortlessly enough to enjoy the humor or drama in a good book. As she gains more skills, the two of you can share the reading of a good book: you read a couple of pages and then she reads a page. Make trips to the library a regular part of your week to let her experience the wonderful world of books. Encourage her to tell stories to you and help her write them down if she has trouble spelling some of the words. Finally, let her see you reading and come to accept the importance of reading for a full and successful life.