Defending Whole Language: The Limits of Phonics Instruction and the Efficacy of Whole Language Instruction

Article excerpt

The Reading Wars show no signs of stopping. There appear to be two factions: Those who support the Skill-Building hypothesis and those who support the Comprehension Hypothesis. The former claim that literacy is developed from the bottom up; the child learns to read by first learning to read out loud, by learning sound-spelling correspondences. This is done through explicit instruction, practice, and correction. This knowledge is first applied to words. Ultimately, the child uses this ability to read larger texts, as the knowledge of sound-spelling correspondences becomes automatic. According to this view, real reading of interesting texts is helpful only to the extent that it helps children "practice their skills."

The Comprehension Hypothesis claims that we learn to read by understanding message on the page; we "learn to read by reading" (Goodman, 1982; Smith, 1994). Reading pedagogy, according to the Comprehension Hypothesis, focuses on providing students with interesting, comprehensible texts, and the job of the teacher is to help children read these texts, that is, help make them comprehensible. The direct teaching of "skills" is helpful only when it makes texts more comprehensible.

The Comprehension Hypothesis also claims that reading is the source of much of our vocabulary knowledge, writing style, advanced grammatical competence, and spelling. It is also the source of most of our knowledge of phonics.

Whole Language

The term "whole language" does not refer only to providing interesting comprehensible texts and helping children understand less comprehensible texts. It involves instilling a love of literature, problem-solving and critical thinking, collaboration, authenticity, personalized learning, and much more (Goodman, Bird, and Goodman, 1991). In terms of the process of literacy development, however, the Comprehension Hypothesis is a central part of whole language.

In this paper I examine some recent research dealing with two fundamental points of contention between the two sides of this debate.

1. The complexity issue: Whole language advocates claim that the rules of phonics are complex and have numerous exceptions. For this reason many are unteachable (Smith, 1994). Skill-building advocates claim that this is not the case. Shanahan (2001), for examples, defends giving phonics instruction a major role in reading instruction because "more than 90 percent of English words are phonetically regular" (p. 70). He does not, however, cite research supporting this claim.

2. The method comparison issue: Skill-Building advocates claim that those in phonics-based classes outperform those in whole language classes (National Reading Panel, 2000). Whole language advocates argue that when whole language is defined correctly, when it includes real reading, students in these classes do better on test of reading comprehension, with no difference on skills tests (Krashen, 1999).

The Complexity Argument: Johnson (2001)

Clymer (1963, 1966) investigated 45 phonic generalizations of words in four basal series and concluded that many did not work very well. This result has been a central part of the argument against over-teaching phonics. Here are two well-known examples: The rule "when two vowels go walking the first does the talking" (when two vowels appear side by side, the long sound of the first is heard and the second is silent, as in "bead") worked in only 45% of the cases Clymer examined, and the final e rule (first vowel is long, final e is silent, as in "cake") worked in only 63% of the cases.

Johnson (2001) re-examined Clymer's conclusions. On reading the title of her paper ("The utility of phonics generalizations: Let's take another look at Clymer's conclusions") and the short summary under the title ("English orthography is not easily reduced to a few rules, but there are some general recommendations for teaching about vowels that can be helpful. …