I recently published a post about teaching phonics. Phonics is the building-blocks of language, and most often the first thing taught to children. In ESL education, phonics is often taught to help second-language speakers learn to produce the sounds in English. Students are typically taught to produce sounds, and break up words into syllables before they are taught to read.
There is another approach to teaching reading called the “Whole-Language Approach“. Whole-language is a constructivist approach to education; constructivist teachers emphasize that students create (construct) their own knowledge from what they meet. Using a holistic approach to teaching, constructivist teachers do not believe that students learn effectively by analyzing small chunks of a system, such as learning the letters of the alphabet in order to learn language. Constructivist instructors see learning as a cognitive experience unique to each learner’s own perspective and prior knowledge, which forms the framework for new knowledge.
The whole-language approach focuses on making meaning from the text, rather than focusing on the individual sounds and syllables. Students are taught to read whole words and develop their pronunciation skills through this manner. It puts an emphasis on cultural integration, diversity of literary genres and styles, as well as use content from other areas such as science, social studies, or math (sometimes you gotta learn to run before you can crawl, right?). Whole-language instructors also encourage a love for reading, and focus on guided reading activities, and reading aloud. Students are encouraged to participate in group reading sessions, as well as individual reading time.
Writing also plays a large role in whole-language instruction. Teachers who use this approach exclusively do not place heavy emphasis in the early grades on spelling and grammar. The whole language approach emphasizes children’s efforts to make and seek meaning in language; correcting errors places the focus on technical correctness, which is not where whole language teachers believe it should be. The effective whole language teacher “hears and sees through” the child’s errors, using the information gained for formative assessment, then creates experiences that help the child to acquire the correct structure and form.
There is some debate among educators and researchers about whether phonics or whole-language is better to teach reading. While it may seem like a good idea to teach children to read whole words, it overlooks spelling, basic pronunciation and does not help students who are dyslexic. Students with dyslexia and other language processing disorders need explicit instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, and decoding in order to improve their reading skills. The whole language approach works for many students, but explicit and systematic phonics instruction works for students of all levels (and greatly decreases spelling and pronunciation errors).
In 1997 the National Reading Panel held a debate to settle the disagreement. In 2000, the Panel released its findings, stating that there are five essential components that must be taught in an effective reading program: phonemic awareness, phonics, reading fluency, vocabulary development, and reading comprehension.
Which approach do you think is more effective?