Whole Language or Phonics: Improving Language Instruction through General Semantics

Article excerpt

TWO STRATEGIES have dominated reading instruction in the United States: whole language and phonics.

Whole Language Instruction

Whole language instruction operates from the premise "that youngsters acquire language rather than learn it through direct teaching; that language learning is child-centered, not teacher-dominated; that language is integrated rather than fragmented; that children learn by talking and doing rather than through passive listening." (Heald-Taylor, 1989, p. 16)

In the whole language approach, classroom activities focus on students, who are asked to interact with text in various ways: questioning, problem-solving, listening, writing, drawing, dramatizing, reading, and orally responding, among numerous other skill-building strategies. (Church, 1996, pp.3-4) Educators using the whole language strategy carefully "organize time and space" to allow students to independently and collectively engage in texts, at their own speed and often in their own ways. (Church, 1996, p.3)

Yet, many educators, policymakers, and parents question the effectiveness of whole language instruction for the acquisition of the more technical aspects of language: spelling, vocabulary, and grammar. (Heald-Taylor, 1989, pp.38-50) Instructors using the whole language approach to instruction do not teach spelling, vocabulary, and grammar as isolated events; rather, whole language instruction teaches these functions of language contextually. Providing an example of a beginning speller working on writing a sentence, Heald-Taylor (1989) observed: "I wt s L nt (I went swimming last night) took ... more than twenty minutes to write because [the student] labored over each sound (went ... wu, wu, wu, w; t; swimming ... s s s; last ..., L,L,L,; night ... n, n, n, nt)." (p.38) Eventually, after working through each phoneme, this young student was able to express a meaningful statement. Whole language instructors value phonemic awareness, yet they support this awareness by encouraging students to engage texts through reading or writing rather than through isolated exercises; vocabulary and grammar are likewise taught through the reading and rereading of texts. (Church, 1996, p.82) Frequent exposure to words and the structure of language is paramount to whole language instruction. The "writing-drafting-revising process" is seen as much more important than the finished product. (Heald-Taylor, 1989, p.50) By incorporating phonics, vocabulary, and grammar skills into holistic learning events, "whole" language instructors act to facilitate success in students' growth and overall achievement in reading.

The use of whole language teaching has decreased in recent years.

Phonics Instruction

The second and increasingly popular strategy for reading instruction is phonics. Phonics instruction provides students with the "understanding that there is a predictable relationship between phonemes and graphemes, the letters that represent those sounds in written language." (Armbruster, 2001, p.3) This method operates from the premise that children best learn language in a sequential and ordered process of acquiring linguistic components and then (re)arranging them appropriately. Instruction begins with students gaining phonemic awareness, or the ability to understand that the "sounds of spoken language work together to make words." (Armbruster, 2001, p.3) Students show phonemic awareness by their ability to identify letters and their corresponding sounds, for example, the word hat can be identified by combining the individual sounds /h/ /a/ /t/. After demonstrating phonemic awareness, students begin to develop their phonological awareness, or their ability to rhyme, identify onset sounds, and recognize syllables. (Armbruster, 2001, p.3) This type of systematic phonic instruction directly teaches "letter-sound relationships in a clearly defined sequence ... [including] the major sound/spelling relationships of both consonants and vowels. …