Phonics & Whole Language
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
©2007 by Canadian Centre for Knowledge Mobilisation. All rights reserved.
It has long been argued that learning to read, like learning to understand spoken language, is a natural phenomenon. It has often been suggested that children will learn to read if they are simply immersed in a literacy-rich environment and allowed to develop literacy skills in their own way. This pernicious belief that learning to read is a natural process resulting from rich text experiences is surprisingly prevalent in education—despite the fact that learning to read is not only unnatural, it is one of the most unnatural things humans do.
There is a difference between learning to read text and learning to understand a spoken language. Learning to understand speech is indeed a natural process; starting before birth, children tune in to spoken language in their environment, and as soon as they are able, they begin to incorporate a language. If the linguistic environment is not sufficiently rich or if it is confusing, the innate drive to find a language is so strong that, if necessary, children will create a language of their own (examples of this include twin languages and pidgin languages). Given the opportunity, children will naturally develop all of the essential comprehension skills for the language to which they are exposed with little structured or formal guidance.
By contrast, reading acquisition is not natural. While the ability to understand speech evolved over many, many thousands of years, reading and writing are human inventions that have been around for merely a few thousand years. It has been only within the past few generations that some cultures have made any serious attempt to make literacy universal among their citizens. In fact, reading and writing requires explicit instruction.
If reading were natural, everybody would be doing it, and we would not have to worry about dealing with a ‘literacy gap.’ According to the National Education Assessment Statistics, more than 60 percent of Junior High pupils in Ghana lack even the most basic reading skills. These staggering numbers provide evidence that reading is a skill that is quite unnatural and difficult to learn.
Many who claim that reading is natural also claim that children should be given time to develop reading skills at their own pace. This is a double-edged sword because, while it is true that children should be taught to read in developmentally appropriate ways, we should not simply wait for children to develop reading skills in their own time. When a child is not developing reading skills along with his or her peers, that situation should be of great concern.
Over time, the gap between children who have well-developed literacy skills and those who do not gets wider and wider. In the early grades, the literacy gap is relatively easy to cross, and with diagnostic, focused instruction, effective teachers can help children who have poor literacy skills become children with rich literacy skills. However, if literacy instruction needs are not met early, then the gap widens—the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer—until it gets so wide that bridging it requires extensive, intensive, expensive, and frustrating remedial instruction. The gap reaches this nearly insurmountable point very early. Research has shown that if a child is not reading grade-appropriate materials by the time he or she is in the primary four, the odds of that child ever developing good reading skills are slim. It is still possible, but it is much more difficult, and the child’s own motivation becomes the biggest obstacle to success.
It is common for schools to buy an off-the-shelf reading program to address their reading instruction needs and trust that the program will solve their school’s literacy issues. Typically, these programs are designed to address a single part of the overall reading curriculum (for example, phonics programs or phoneme awareness programs or reading motivation programs), but often a school purchases a program with the hope that it will be a cure for the school’s low reading achievement.
There are a few programs that, if properly implemented, could help a school move in the right direction, but nothing could ever take the place of a knowledgeable and talented teacher.
Although such reading programs can be a useful part of a larger reading curriculum, no reading program by itself has ever been shown to be truly “successful”—not with all children and all teachers. And no reading program by itself has been shown to accelerate all children to advanced levels of performance. A Research has repeatedly indicated that the single most important variable in any reading program is the knowledge and skill of the teacher implementing the program, so why do we persist in trying to develop “teacher-proof” programs? Some would argue that it is our overdependence on such programs that prevents us from cultivating more knowledgeable and effective teachers. To achieve success for all children, teachers must become extremely sophisticated and diagnostic in their approach to reading instruction, and substantial resources must be devoted toward professional development for teachers. Every child is different: A program cannot be sensitive to the varied and rapidly evolving learning needs of individual children, but a knowledgeable teacher certainly can.
There is an adage that if you think innovation is expensive try complacency. I hope to have succeeded in explaining this adage after this write up. I have followed in recent times the argument for the extension of basic education to the secondary level.
I am disappointed in the myriad of seasoned education specialist in Ghana who have kept mute about this. But, I guess they can equally be forgiven, giving the culture of political colorations that greets any reasonable contribution to national discourse in Ghana.
I spent a considerable part of my working life in education in rural and peri-urban communities in Ghana. I have seen the danger of which thousands of Ghanaians are exposed to on daily basis. These dangers include lack of understanding of national issues, lack of good farming practices, hygiene, environmental degradation and personal grooming and care. These are attributive of lack of education. Must we continue to develop such a challenged society? I deeply appreciate the need for improved infrastructure at the basic level. Giving the inconstant nature of the Ghanaian politician, anyone who relies on that promise is doomed for disappointment. Improving access does not hinge on building classrooms alone. There are countless number of classroom blocks in communities in Ghana vacant yet these communities have lots of children loitering in and about. Access includes quality teaching and learning, and most especially affordability.
In the Ghanaian context, I think affordability out stages the rest of the components to access to education. Ghana’s problem today is the high number of illiterate and uneducated population. The United States of America introduced the ‘no child left out’ Act in 2001. The purpose of the act is to increase access to education and also provide quality minimum basic education to American children. The highly sophisticated American child understood perfectly that the opportunity cost of not going to school is hitting the street and making a lot more dollars at peril of their lifes. But the opportunity cost to the America economy is the danger of huge uneducated population. I think this is the danger Ghana may get into if we do not put our house together.
Again, in Ghana our need currently is affordability. Many people are making a lot of money by either travelling outside to do menial jobs or doing petty trading. Others simply cannot square up their financial numbers together. Life for many Ghanaians is becoming short, nasty and brutish. Education is no longer attractive. The journey to the university is long and cost so much. The school fees for three terms of a child in the secondary school saved at a micro finance company can buy a person a taxi cub or start a business. What will be the situation in the next twenty years?
There is a story of a young edu-preneur who have in the last three years set up low cost private schools around Accra and central region. The infrastructure is good and these schools are very affordable. In fact they are more affordable than the government schools. The experience of this young man had convinced me that affordable education is possible.
Let me suggest a few things. The ministry of education and the stakeholders in education should come up with a blue print indicating the number of schools to be constructed yearly the number of community secondary schools we need as a country by adding up population numbers, the minimum assessment standards by grades and practical quality assurance and monitoring plan.
There have been a number of interventions that has over the years been supported by international agencies. These programmes designed with local content and brilliant sustainability plan attached to them. Why has the GES gone mute about them leaving politicians to decide what to do for education? The QUIPS/ILP programme, UTTDBE, GAIIT, CEP, EQUALL and lately NALAP were all interventions geared towards quality improvement. The technocrats should make these available to the politicians and together decide the way forward for Ghana’s education.
The Ghana Education Service is known to be a job for life. Teachers in the lower primary do not attend in service trainings. The service does not inspire research and innovation. National best teachers do not have a forum to share good practices. The monitoring and inspectorate division have been tainted with corruption and apathy. This worrying situation comes closely at the heels of lack of resource and motivation for the committed few to work effectively. The government can partner low cost private schools across the country by giving them support in terms of training as well as technical help so they can complement government efforts.
We can manage affordable schooling while we consciously work at the quality and infrastructure. The need for educated society is urgent. It cannot wait. Giving the pace of Ghana’s infrastructural development, it will take about 40 years for the nation to get our education infrastructure to about 70 percent capacity. You cannot imagine the number of people who will be cut off from the twenty first century goodies. What I want the politicians and technocrats to add to the free senior high school argument is a blue print on improving quality and infrastructure this will square up the policy and Ghana is the winner.
Last week, i toured some schools in the Agona West and the Gomoa East district. There were many classrooms as well as many children. The children were ready to learn, of course, they were in school. were the teachers ready to teach?