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Whole Language vs Phonics

The Debate Continues...

Wherever I drive, I always keep my eyes open for those bumper stickers that will give me a chuckle or two. Some I have seen even opened my eyes, and made me sit back and seriously consider what I just read.

One such sticker that comes to mind is the one seen on the back of a Ford Escort. "Im hoked on foniks" was staring at me from the black bruised bumper. The vision immediately entered my mind. Was the mother in the drivers seat concerned with her elementary school child's reading and writing instruction, or was she just poking fun at the commercials aired for Hooked on Phonics?

I knew the question was valid. There is a battle going on in America on whether or not to use Whole Language, Phonics, or a combination of both to teach our children how to read and write.

In order to draw a conclusion, you need to look at both Whole Language and Phonics.

The Whole Language system teaches children to guess at words by looking at the pictures on the page, to memorize a few dozen frequently used words (called site words), to skip over words they don't know, to substitute words that seem to fit, and to predict the words they think will come next.

Many schools give high marks and happy report cards to children who are good at guessing and memorizing words, so parents don't realize that their children are being taught to guess instead of to read. Self-esteem is a higher priority than literacy.

Whole Language fans think that children can learn to read as easily as they learn to speak and that kids will learn to read through exposure to reading without the need for much instruction. One of the supposed benefits of Whole Language instruction is the chance it gives students to write "extended text." Translated, this means kids don't have to worry about spelling and grammar.

Youngsters are allowed to use "invented spelling" if they can't spell a word. Their "creativity" will not be marked wrong.

But how this method plays out leaves kids at a real disadvantage. Take the example of 6-year-old Pablo who read this story to his class: "If I would have magic beans, I would save the beans. And when I save the beans, then I will give them away. The End." Using inventive spelling, however, he wrote, "if i wd hf mg isc I wd save then been and one I save the bes then I wd g thm way the end"

How is it happening that public school systems are abandoning phonics and substituting a guessing system? It's rather easy to date and track the Whole Language system from its official adoption by the state of California in 1987. California is a model for other states that want to be "progressive." But Whole Language was not a new idea in 1987; it was just a new name for the system that was already in widespread use called "whole word" or "look-and-say."

The failure of Whole Language is beginning to surface due to results of studies being released.

The "evidence," according to Patrick Groff, professor of education emeritus at San Diego State University, is purely anecdotal. "When you equate two classes as much as you can and run them through for a year, the classes taught in a direct and systematic way will beat the whole language class every time," Groff said. "It is little wonder they don't want to look at the evidence."

A two-year study of first and second-graders in California's Inglewood Unified School District compared phonics to whole language instruction. By the end of the second grade, phonics students scored more than a year above grade level in word recognition, passage recognition and vocabulary. In the ability to sound out and pronounce new words, these students scored almost four years above grade level.

Another study was directed by University of Houston educational psychologist Barbara Foorman. It is expected by many reading researchers to become a turning point in the long-running but unproductive debate between advocates of phonics and those who favor the whole language approach.

The study, conducted at eight schools in the Alief Independent School District was presented in Sacramento, CA at a legislative hearing on teaching methods. The study comes down solidly on the side of concentrated phonics as an early foundation in teaching children to read. Gains for students taught the phonics way averaged twice those notched by students taught using whole language.

Conducted among 374 first and second-graders lagging behind academically, the study found that students exposed to intensive phonics performed at the 42nd percentile on a nationally administered standardized test, while those in whole language classes were at the 23rd percentile. Another group of kids who were taught phonics, but mostly using on the words appearing in their reading, ranked just slightly better, at the 27th percentile.

"What we're doing here...is getting these economically disadvantaged low achievers almost up to the national average with just good classroom instruction," said Foorman. "The percentiles that the whole language kids end up with are indicative of a reading disability. Foorman chairs a reading task force for the Houston Independent School District.

The results of studies and lack of success in whole language instruction has opened eyes in California. On September 12, 1995, the California legislature passed unanimously legislation referred to as the ABC law. The law states: "The State Board of Education shall ensure that the basic instructional materials that it adopts for mathematics and reading in grades 1 to 8, inclusive, are based on the fundamental skills required by these subjects, including, but not limited to, systematic, explicit phonics, spelling and basic computational skills. It is the intent of the Legislature that the fundamental skills of all subject areas, including systematic, explicit phonics, spelling, and basic computational skills, be included in the adopted curriculum frameworks and that these skills and related tasks increase in depth and complexity from year to year. It is the intent of the Legislature that the instructional materials adopted by the State Board of Education meet the provisions of this section. The poor performance of pupils who took the California Learning Assessment System (CLAS) and the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests indicates that it is imperative that steps be taken immediately to ensure that all pupils in grades 1 to 8, inclusive, are learning to read, write, and compute. To ensure that these steps are taken at the earliest possible time, it is necessary that this act take effect immediately."

It also makes good economic sense to use Phonics over Whole Language. In 1986, the late Nebraska Sen. Edward Zorinsky asked the U.S. Department of Education to study and examine reading programs being used in public schools. The cost analysis is shocking. Of 15 phonics-based programs reviewed, the average per-pupil cost was $30.34. The average per-pupil cost of a non-phonetic program or Whole Language was $214.53.

With all the continued studies being released, it is no wonder parents and other states are starting to take a long hard look towards using Phonics over Whole Language. The information is out there. It is up to us to find it and approach our school districts with the factual information.

So, are you hooked on phonics? If so, chances are you read well, even if you're not well read.


"Children do not automatically learn to read in the same way they automatically learn language. Rather they need instruction in learning the systems of reading. Second, children do not become good readers by reading only and learning words only in context. This approach only works about 10% of the time."

Bill Honig, former Superintendent of Public Instruction, who introduced Whole Language to California, but has since re-thought his position