The Phonics Debate

The Phonics Debate

"Good teachers are aware of the need for drawing children's attention to words and letter combinations....At the same time, there is no substitute for children's own reading of real books and their own questions about how words work."

David Booth


Which way should I teach reading, "Phonics" or "Whole Language?"


You should do what's best for your student! And in my opinion, what's best for your student is to refrain from limiting yourself to any one philosophy.When my sons were young, I read what both Benjamin Spock and Penelope Leach had to say about raising children. Their approaches were quite different from each other, and often conflicted. Sometimes I felt that Leach's philosophy was more appropriate, and sometimes Spock's. I was glad that I could view different questions through both perspectives.

Have you noticed how we all learn in different ways? I like to outline my textbooks as I read, while one of my former professors is glad that she'll never have to make an outline again! We do all learn in different ways, and if we recognize it, we are better able to assist our students.

Many students intuitively know how letters, or letter groups, represent certain sounds. Other students need to be taught these connections more explicitly. In fact, many studies suggest that struggling readers may be the students most in need of explicit letter-sound, or phonics instruction. Some students intuitively know how to gain comprehension from what they're reading. Other students might view reading as a simple recitation of words and need to be guided in deriving meaning from text.

All students need to learn to write. But for many students, writing is excellent way for them to learn to read!

The International Reading Association cites research and recommends that reading teachers be armed with a variety of methods, and the freedom to determine which ones are appropriate for their own learners. You can download the full text of "Using Multiple Methods of Beginning Reading Instruction" on the IRA's web site.

The Learning First Alliance also outlines Components of Effective, Research-Supported Reading Instruction, concurring that reading instruction should not be limited to any one methodology.

In the 30 minutes or so that you have to tutor each student, I hope that you'll include more than one activity. Of course, you'll want to do some reading together in an enjoyable book. You should also include spelling, writing, or word family activities each day--your students will find them a welcome and effective change of pace. And remember that many students who just can't seem to get the hang of reading are often the ones who need to work with letter-sound patterns the most.

Just remember to keep your instruction flexible according to your students' needs, and you'll see that they will improve--and start to enjoy your sessions together, too.