Home » The Reading Instruction Debate Update

There is a debate raging in the halls of reading academia; a “reading war,” so to speak. This fight is about the best way to teach students reading, and is between proponents of the phonics approach and those who champion the approach termed “whole language.”

Often, there seems a choice must be made; teaching reading through one method, or another. But is this really the case?

What exactly are phonics and whole language? Each teaching method draws from different learning theories: phonics pulls from behaviorist learning theory, and whole language pulls from constructivist learning theory. Behaviorist learning theory is based upon receiving rewards for doing things well, and not receiving those rewards for not doing things well. Constructivist theory is based upon connecting new knowledge to already-known knowledge.

How do these theories play out in the instruction of reading? Phonics instruction emphasizes the learning of the sounds of letters in order to then learn entire words (your “reward.”) Whole language focuses more on deriving reading meaning from carefully-focused vocabulary.

Some studies have found that whole language instruction, with its greater emphasis on providing student-centered reading material which may greater-reflect the background and culture of a student, may be particularly well-suited for students who come from non-literary households, have English as a second language, or speak in dialects, and the phonics approach may be well-suited for youngest elementary learners: those in kindergarten and first grade—who have not yet begun to choose and read a wider variety of reading material.

Undoubtedly the debate about the best way to approach the teaching of reading in U.S. schools will continue, although recent efforts are increasingly seeing a hybrid of both approaches in school instruction. The term “Balanced Reading Program” is being seen more and more, and it may be that this combination of both approaches serves the most students, the best.

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