Whole language vs phonics - is it really this vicious a debate?

So I listen to the generally excellent podcast Lexicon Valley, which discusses issues of language, usually interesting etymologies and so forth. I just listened to the Jan. 10 episode, and it featured an interview with Mark Seidenberg, who seems like a knowledgeable and smart guy, discussing how children are taught to read.

Now, I (a 43-year-old non-parent) had vaguely heard that there was some controversy about something called “phonics”, and whether it was a good idea. That was all I knew.

Seidenberg went on a on-the-surface-polite but basically vicious rant… he was pro-phonics and against “whole language” learning, and against the educational establishment in general. He claimed that phonics is WAY better, that all the scientific studies prove that, that people who study education don’t know anything about science, don’t know how studies work, etc, etc. And then he went on and on about how teachers don’t have time to teach children to read because they’re too busy teaching children about social justice all the time (ie, PC).

Can anyone give me an informed perspective on this? Are most children in school in the US these days not ever taught the idea that “M” sounds like mmmm? Do “all the studies” really prove that phonics is better? Are second graders inculcated with nothing but lessons about how they should respect racial diversity, or what have you?
Because I gotta say he sounded like a bit of a crank.

Much of the conflict over phonics (in my experience) arises because children are being taught a thing that their parents don’t understand, because it is different from the way it used to be taught - the same thing happens with ‘modern’ ways of teaching mathematics (‘chunking’, ‘partitioning’ and the grid method of multiplication).

Parents try to help their kids with homework and get frustrated because they (the parents) don’t know how to make it work, and the kids don’t know either (because they’re still learning it) - the natural, but wrong, conclusion of this is that the method is bad, and we just ought to go back to doing it the old way that works.

Phonics is quite forgiving of spelling errors in the early stages, for example, and so it’s easy for parents to panic and think that what their children are being taught is leading them astray. There are plenty of other ways in which it seems to push alarm buttons with parents too. Many schools are now running evening classes for parents to catch up on modern methods of learning, to try to avoid this problem.

What’s wrong with implementing a bit of both?

The problem with phonics is that it doesn’t work as an “end system” or actually as soon as you go beyond the very simplest of examples.

Phonics attempts to teach English spelling by establishing a relationship between how you pronounce something and how you write it. This works well with those languages where such a relationship is generally straightforward: German, Spanish, Italian… but not with English, where any given sound may be spelled in a multitude of ways, any letter or group can represent multiple sounds, and the variation of sounds from dialect to dialect is very large. If you insist on hammering English into that model, you end up getting more exceptions than rules.

It’s a case of trying to apply to something (in this case, English) a rule or property it really does not have (unambiguous correspondence between phoneme and morpheme). Makes as much sense as trying to use saxon genitives in French.

Hear hear.
Your spelling system is broken.
Until it is fixed there can be no better ways to learn reading it than just memorising all the different variants and exceptions.

Reading is done by whole word recognition (unless you are really, really good, with excelent eyesight, in which case you can do whole sentence recognition). People who learn to read, learn to read whole words.

Teaching is always a balance between teaching things that are easy to learn, things that are easy to teach, and things that are easy to use. (And that’s ignoring the whole debate about discovery learning vs teaching!)

Learning to read and write entirely pictographic writing systems is very difficult, and literacy rates remain low. Places that want to improve literacy rates use letter systems to bootstrap reading, which allows easier teaching and learning of the pictographic systems, which are in turn faster to read.

And yes, in some places, the debate really is that bitter. We are talking about the literacy of our children, and about the skills and knowledge of teachers who have no job and very little meaning in life if they are doing more damage than good.

In the school system my nephew was in, my brother asked “what’s the debate? The schools teach both”.

In the school system in my state, the teachers who had learned to read using only the whole-word see-and-say method went to teachers colleges where they learned to teach only the whole-word see-and-say method, and came into the classrooms with /zero/ exposure to phonics. At that point, the falling literacy rate forced the schools to re-introduce phonics using specialist teachers.

Absolutists in either camp are simply zealots.

I was taught phonics over 60 years ago, (it ain’t new–“whole language” is the new kid on the block), but even then the course included a number of acknowledgments that many words cannot be “sounded out.”

I have no use for phonics zealots who appear to ignore the reality of the random nature of English spelling. However, I am frightened by “whole language” zealots who would drop phonics completely. I have actually worked with (a very few) college educated professionals who simply could not work out a new word they encountered without outside assistance because they had no tools in their education to parse a construction of letters that they had not previously encountered. (They are “very few” because very few actual classroom teachers are stupid enough to be zealots on one side or the other and most kids get a smattering of both phonics and whole language instructions when learning to read.) In fact, I suspect that most of the wars that occur on the topic are waged by people taking extreme stands to promote other issues who are using phonics/whole language as banners for their positions rather than as actual strategies of learning.

My school tried to teach me whole word when I was little. This completely failed for me, I think because I knew that the letters had pronunciations. The teacher would flash a word, and I would try to read it, but couldn’t. She would say the word, and the other kids would say the word, and I thought she was allowing us to know whether the pronunciation we had made in our head was correct or not, not that she was teaching us the word that that group of symbols is meant to represent. I thought all the other kids must have been taught to read already, since they were repeating back what the teacher said, merrily, while I had no idea what word had been flashed or how they had gotten to that answer.

My mom taught me phonics over the summer, and within 3 years, I was reading Shakespeare. I could sound out most words, to figure out which ones they were. If I didn’t know them already, I could look them up. But I could also continue on reading, using context to figure out the definition, and phonics to guesstimate the pronunciation. Later in life, I have discovered a few words that I had always (in my head) pronounced wrong, but there’s really no harm in that. Pronounced right or wrong, a larger vocabulary is mostly just good for reading and writing anyways, and you’re still a better human for having that.

I’ve also learned Japanese. This has two sound-based alphabets and a meaning-based pictograph set of several thousand characters. The best way to learn to read and write Japanese is to learn the phonic alphabets and then, reading comic books, there are almost always pronunciation guides to every pictograph. With repetition, you are able to link the character and the pronunciation, and then you are good for the rest of time. This allows for self-taught whole-word learning.

And it sucks. For words that appear in comics, I know them perfectly. But most books don’t have the pronunciation guides. Comics only ever have dialogue, so all the adjectives and verbs that describe a scene and what a person is doing are outside of my vocabulary. Jumping into a novel, you have to look up two or three words every single sentence, and when you are looking up pictographs that can take 2-3 minutes (per pictograph, and most words have 2 characters). By the time you’ve figured out one word, you’ve forgotten what was happening in the story.

Latin characters are far more easy to look up in a dictionary than pictographs. If you know the alphabet, you can get to the word you want pretty quickly. But it’s still a drag to do. As a kid, learning to read, I had a dictionary right by my bed and I would use it occasionally. But mostly I didn’t. Mostly, I used context. If I had had to turn to a dictionary for every word, the rate of progress that I made, going from “Mr. Men” to “Henry V” in a few years, would have been completely impossible.

Having learned other languages, I will grant that English does suck. But as modern spelling bees show, most words have a few origins (Germanic, French, Latin, and Greek, mainly) and once you have exposure to a decent number of words, you start to pick up on how those different eddies work and you can usually, accurately guess how a word might be spelled or pronounced based on other, similar words within the same realm - even if, at that age, you don’t understand the etymology and aren’t consciously keeping track of word groups.

English has traditionally been taught phonetically, because it makes more sense to teach phonetically. Chinese has traditionally been taught whole-word, because it makes more sense to teach it that way. But, frankly, pictographs are worse than a sound-based writing system. You gain just as much guessing room from a pictograph as you do from shared etymologies, and the ability to guess meaning without knowing a word is the only thing that pictographs have going for them (other than caligraphy). Were it not for the relatively continuous history of China, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Chinese writing system would have long since been abandoned for something else.

If you have the option to not do anything pictographic, and to not teach like words are pictographs, even if it’s a bit clunky, I really would say that it’s better to do so. Maybe not for every kid - different minds work differently from one another - but probably for most.

Personally, as someone who has learned two of the hardest, wonkiest written languages on Earth, my suggestion would be to reform English spelling so that it is more easily taught. It will make it easier for everyone to learn and help to allow the language to continue on being the lingua franca of the world. Maybe if French hadn’t had the whole masculine and feminine nonsense, it would have remained as the literal lingua franca all of the way until modern day.

Nah, that was a matter of prestige: previous dominant powers where French (and previously Latin, and previously Greek) were prestige languages were replaced by one in where it’s not.

Plus it’s not as if English doesn’t have “the whole masculine and feminine nonsense”, it just has it in different spots than French, Latin and Greek.


Tom is right. The zealots on both sides are totally exhausting.

Very young kids, like kindergarteners, needs a healthy dose of phonics. They also need practice with sight words (common short words like “the,” “and,” and “like”).

As kids get older, some master basic phonics early on. For them, additional phonics lessons can be frustrating and boring because they’re not very relevant. Other kids struggle, and for them, additional phonics lessons can be vital.

All kids need support reading rich, authentic texts in addition to reading words in isolation.

As for what’s happening in the real world, I can only speak to my own district-one of the most liberal districts in the South. While we do teach social studies, and include issues of justice, we also have a mandated phonics program through third grade.

What I found for my kids was that, indeed, a combination approach worked best, and that, generally speaking, phonics was helpful for reading and establishing a vocabulary, while whole language and sight words were more helpful for writing. That is, both my kids were able to write earlier than I (trained by phonics) was, although some of their spelling was still pretty creative (and a sign that phonics was also at work there: “My whore family,” being a common internet example.) But “sound it out” combined with context clues was particularly helpful when encountering a new word in reading, and “wu-ho-ul…hole…whole?” was a pretty logical jump for them to make even when a word wasn’t entirely phonetically spelled.

I’m pretty firmly convinced that the best way to make good writers is to make good readers. Both vocabulary and spelling are things that come with repeated exposure to words in context, not just flashcards or lists, whether we’re doing whole language or phonics.

Yeah, Japanese dispenses of several tenses, pluralization, and most articles. Outside of their writing system, it’s actually a very easy language to learn. The only extraneous stuff in it is the addition of a wide variety of honorifics and conjugations related to class level.

Though, English does have the advantage, as a lingua franca, of being able to handle a wide variety of mutilations. Speakers of different languages can find a way to speak a form of English that more closely matches their home language. Japanese, for example, could always speak like Yoda and we would all know what they were saying. Toying around with grammar, trying to vary the words that you use to refer to a thing, etc. are all hallmarks of English (and probably thanks to its mutt-like history). I think I recall that it has the widest vocabulary of any language on the planet.

So it does have that going for it. But otherwise, yeah, we’d all do better speaking Esperanto or something.

** applause **

I’m good with the language, making very few spelling mistakes and seeing most of them if someone else makes them (or typos or whatever). The English language is not a truly phonetic language by any means but saying that is kind of like saying that the view out the front of the cockpit isn’t a 100% sufficient guide to navigating your plane.

When I read reports about that debate in the US my impression was that whole language/phonics wasn’t considered politically neutral but had somehow also become a left/right issue (with conservatives promoting phonics). Is there something to that?

IANA teacher, but I kind of suspect that this is the real thread winner.

I’ve always thought of the whole thing as a non-issue. Phonics are a great way to sort of start the process going- once a kid knows the alphabet, it’s not much of a stretch to teach them the sounds that the letter makes, and how to sound out a word. Assuming they have a reasonable spoken vocabulary, this is probably enough to be the spark that sets the kid to reading in many cases.

Past a certain point, I figure that everyone, even people who only learned phonics, eventually sort of short-circuit (in a logical sense) to a whole language/sight-word reading technique. I mean, after you’ve read the word “water” enough times, you know what it looks like and what it means without actually having to parse the individual letters into sounds, and then compare that to your spoken vocabulary as you read.

And once you do that, it seems to me, or at least it worked this way for me, that writing becomes much easier- it’s the same thing, but in reverse.

Thinking of it, it’s like there’s the English language, and the way it comes in/goes out of my brain are merely the work of the peripheral devices, not different ways of processing language data.

True at some point, but what does one do when one encounters a word one has never seen before? My younger brother was taught the “whole word” system and when I was helping him learn to read I thought the whole thing was nuts. He kept struggling over new words and so I taught him phonics (which is what I learned) and he did much better. If you teach phonics, with all the caveats that you need in a non-phonetic language like English, kids will naturally flip over to reading whole words as they become familiar with them.

It wasn’t until I was learning Japanese that I realized I was “reading kanji” all along in English, because I read the whole word, not each letter. And that is why you can flash a word in front of someone very quickly with a spelling error and they often don’t notice it.

Literacy rates in Japan (and even China, now) are quite high. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a country with a higher literacy rate than Japan.

Nitpick, these aren’t pictographs, they’re logographs. That is, the character represents a word, and is not a picture of the thing it represents.

And yes, this is somehow a right-wing shibboleth, that the liberals won’t teach phonics because they want our kids to be illiterate and dependent on the government.

Is there, or was there ever a school system that didn’t teach kids the letter sounds? I understand that literate adults don’t sound out each word as they read, but B A T, buh aaaa, tuh, b…aaaa…tuh, bat is a pretty good way to teach kids that BAT spells bat.

So the notion that liberal schools don’t teach phonics is very odd to me.

I agree with this. I think phonics is a good way to teach reading, as long as it’s being taught side by side with phoenomic awareness, sounds that blend together, segmentation, etc.

As far as a way to teach spelling, I don’t think it works. When my daughter was in kindergarten, they used a program called Kid Writing. Basically, the child drew a picture, sat with an adult and wrote about the picture with the adult sounding out the words. By the time she finished K, she could put together a cohesive 5-6 sentence paragraph that an adult could read because most of the words were written phonetically, if not correctly. Spelling is still not her strong suit, and not to steal this thread, I think it’s related, I think there are two reasons for that. The first, was the Kid Writing. She learned to write but not spell. The second was imo, a lack of emphasis on spelling in school. When I went to school, you were given a list every week and the words on the list had some relationship. For example, long vowel sounds because two vowels were walking together. You did spelling homework every night. When she was in grade school, they would be given 15-20 words that seemed random to me. They would take a pretest and if they scored well they got challenge words. If not, they studied the original list and maybe had one to two nights of homework using the words, and never, ever did they write them 5x each or write sentences for them.

So, as a tool to teach reading, yes. I work often in learning support classrooms, and I’ve seen it work. As a tool to teach spelling not really.

My wife is an public elementary school teacher, and she has always used both phonics and sight words to teach reading. Because they both have their place. I don’t what the rant described in the OP could be about.

Sight words are so important. Sometimes I refer to them as heart words, too. They are the ones you need to learn by heart. You see them a lot and they don’t follow the rules.