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Phonics = Reading


A mother reading along with her daughter

Just the other day I heard a teacher exclaim, “No one seems to know how to teach reading these days!” Parents are demanding a return to the teaching of reading by phonics, while school board trustees and administrators claim their whole language reading programs are effective. Teachers are often confused and kids are stuck in the middle.

A child first hears language by listening to his/her parents. All the language children learn at first is through their ears. They hear sounds, learn to distinguish the differences between these sounds, then learn to blend these diverse sounds together. Once that skill is mastered, children begin to understand what the individually blended sounds (words) stand for, and how to form new language concepts. The next step seems logical. If a child can speak, then (s)he already understands all the concepts of language implicitly. If they can speak in clear sentences, they already have comprehension! Our task should be to teach them how to access the incredible amount of stored knowledge and literature humankind possesses. How? We teach children to understand the code or script used to write our language. The building blocks of reading are letters and there are only 26 of them. All words flow from these basic 26 units. If for no other reason than it is logical and rational, we should consider using only phonics-first reading programs for our children. It is empowering and important for the development of their self-esteem.

But there is more! Much more. When we throw away phonics as the first and primary method of reading and switch to the whole word (whole language) method, we are telling our kids something that isn’t true. We are saying that there is no code; that there is no order to the development of language. We are saying that words, NOT letters, are the blocks of language. But, you make words from letters; you don’t make new words by two or three other words together. Words are NOT the blocks of the language – letters are! However, that’s not what we tell our kids. By depriving them of the understanding that letters, not words, are the blocks of the language, we are making reading incoherent! It can’t be understood; there is no pattern. It can just be memorized. Can you imagine having to memorize BY SIGHT every single word in the English language? Well that’s what we condemn kids to do when we teach them whole words not letters.

This causes another problem. The problem of thinking. If we begin by the whole word method, we encourage and reward memorization and estimation. If you don’t know the word, guess. By allowing students to think that guessing is okay, we are pretending that words don’t have specific meanings. Wrong! Every word stands for one, and only one specific concept.

It is not true that any old meaning will do. It is not true; and to imply it is fair is not to the student. It says that accuracy is not important (but it is) and that fuzzy or ’sort of ’ thinking is all right (but it isn’t).

Think critically

Then what happens? Students who can’t use language correctly, do not learn to think critically or to problem-solve well. They don’t take academic risks, and they need structured programs and lots of help and guidance – all of which impede the development of real self-esteem. They don’t ’get it’, don’t make the connections, or see the relationships. They are disorganized, not motivated, sometimes confused, angry, or defensive. They are not achieving their potential! They haven’t learned how to think critically.

The problem begins when we cast the first seeds of doubt in the pristine minds of our children. A child who has learned to speak already knows implicitly the importance of precision. Watch kids play and you’ll observe how carefully they keep each other accurate. Understanding even a single word means that a child understands the difference between the meaning of that word and any others. This is a major issue!

Understanding the meaning

Children insist on clarity, honesty, and integrity in their dealings with the world. Children work diligently to understand. They do not leap forward carelessly. They study, watch, try, and learn. When they feel they are right, they internalize their discoveries and move forward to new ones. If we tell the child to ignore all that (s)he already knows about how to learn; if we say accuracy isn’t important and that our written language doesn’t have a code*, we are saying that the child has been using his/her mind WRONG. The truth they figured out for themselves can’t be trusted; and that they really don’t know how to use their own minds; that they are wrong for life! If one thinks of the amount of struggle an adult goes through in order to understand the why’s and how’s of his/her life, and then considers that this same struggle is occurring daily in the hearts and minds of our children, one might begin to see why it is so important for them to feel that they are capable of understanding. Their very survival depends upon it.

But our reading programs pull the rug out from under our children. We discount the achievement of their minds and the confidence and pride they have developed as a result of that great achievement. In fact, what a child accomplishes in learning to speak is probably the greatest achievement of his/her life. It is certainly the hardest. Instead of celebrating this great achievement – that required precision, logic and understanding – we tell them to memorize and trust. We drive a spear into the very soul of their self-confidence and feelings of self-esteem. It is no wonder that they prefer to memorize and live in a structured universe! If their own minds are not safe or competent, then the only other option is trust and follow.

But it’s just a reading program you say! And teachers love kids and want to help them. And school boards don’t want to cause problems; they want to educate kids as effectively as possible. Yes, all that may be true, but it doesn’t change the facts. All the good intentions in the world will not change the principles of a bad program and will not lessen the severity of its effects. Whole word, or whole language, reading programs are not teaching our kids to read well and are a major part of the reason why students are not thinking more clearly and effectively.

We have known how to teach kids to read for centuries. Modern teaching methodology has produced more creative and effective teachers. Let’s use these strengths to marry excellent teachers with effective programs. It’s time to call it a bad bargain and say goodbye to whole language.

* some schools forbid teachers from telling kids that words are made up of letters which have specific sounds – it’s a secret

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