Balance Between Phonics, ‘Whole Language’ Urged

By Robert Rothman — January 10, 1990 7 min read

Despite heated rhetoric by partisans on both sides of the “great debate” over reading instruction, a federally funded study has concluded that effective teaching requires a balance between phonics activities and reading in context.

The Congressionally mandated report was expected to be issued this week by the Center for the Study of Reading at the University of Illinois. It joins a long list of works that have fueled one of the most public and divisive battles in education.

The bitter arguments between advocates of phonics--the relationship between letters and sounds--and those who favor a “whole language” approach stressing comprehension suggest, according to the report, that “little has been determined about beginning reading.”

But in fact, it says, an analysis of the ample available research “allows us to agree on common knowledge and therefore gives us a common ground.”

Citing research that assesses what good readers actually do, the report appears to bolster the view of phonics advocates that an understanding of letter-sound correspondences is “of inescapable importance to both skillful reading and its acquisition.”

Yet, echoing themes advanced by whole-language advocates, it says that phonics-based instruction alone is not enough to give children the skills and interest needed to become readers.

“As important as it is to sound words out, it is important only as an intermediate step,” the report argues. “Sounding words out should not be the end goal, but a way of teaching what they need to know to comprehend text. The only reason for reading words is to understand text.”

In a plea for peace between advocates of each method, the report asks: “Isn’t it time for us to stop bickering about which [code-emphasis or meaning-emphasis] is more important? Isn’t it time we recognized that written text has both form and function?”

“To read, children must have both, and we must help them,” it concludes.

The new report, “Beginning To Read: Thinking and Learning About Print,” comes as the issue of reading instruction is moving quickly up the educational agenda of states and the federal government.

In many states, schools are now selecting reading texts following what one industry official called the “biggest year in my memory” for textbook adoptions in the subject. Many publishers produced new editions to match the adoption schedules in the nine states that adopted reading texts in the 1988-89 school year.

In perhaps the most controversial adoption decision, the California Board of Education rejected textbooks that stressed traditional drills in favor of books that emphasized “real literature.”

In addition, officials from the National Assessment of Educational Progress are expected next month to weigh in on the issue when they publish proposed objectives for the 1992 reading test, the first to provide state-by-state comparisons of student achievement in the subject.

While some reading specialists have urged the naep board to include questions testing students’ word-identification skills, others--the International Reading Association and the National Council of Teachers of English among them--have warned that such questions could prompt schools to focus on these types of skills and curb the use of literature.

The divisions within the reading field are so strong, some officials have suggested, that naep may be unable to reach a consensus on the type of reading instruction to be tested.

The report issued this week was aimed at analyzing research to determine whether there is in fact a “common ground” in the field.

The project began in 1986, when the Congress passed legislation reauthorizing Head Start that contained an amendment, sponsored by the late Senator Edward Zorinsky, requiring the U.S. Education Department to study the phonics components of beginning reading programs.

To conduct the study, the department-funded reading center contracted with Marilyn J. Adams, a researcher at Bolt Beranek and Newman Inc., a consulting firm based in Cambridge, Mass. Jean Osborn, associate director of the Illinois center, said the researchers chose Ms. Adams because she was not considered a partisan in the debate.

Ms. Adams’s 600-page book, to be published next month by mit Press, relies heavily on concepts from psychology and linguistics considered too abstruse for most practitioners and lay people, the researchers noted. To make the work accessible to such audiences, the center agreed to publish a 160-page summary. That summary is being released this week.

The report notes that the fierce debate over reading reflects the subject’s central role in schooling.

“One reason [for the politicization of the topic] is that we all care deeply about the success of beginning reading instruction,” it states. “It is the key to education, and education is the key to success for both individuals and a democratic society.”

The debate also reflects the difficulty of teaching the subject, the report notes. Because the English language represents thousands of objects and concepts with just 26 symbols, it says, teachers must impart an “abstract and complicated code” without “losing sight of the very purpose of reading instruction--comprehension.”

The overwhelming evidence from studies that compared the two methods of instruction, the report says, pointed clearly toward the effectiveness of phonics instruction.

In the vast majority of studies, it relates, “approaches including intensive, explicit phonics instruction resulted in comprehension skills that are at least comparable to, and word-recognition and spelling skills that are significantly better than those that do not.”

These results have come about, it states, because phonics instruction helps develop the key element of reading skill: the ability to breeze through text quickly and effortlessly.

Noting that 94 percent of the different words children read occur fewer than 10 times in every million words of text, the study points out that children need to understand letter-sound correspondences and spelling patterns to be able to decipher written text.

The most effective strategy for developing such abilities, the report maintains, is the responsibility of parents. “The single most important activity for building the knowledge and skills eventually required for reading,” it avers, “appears to be reading aloud to children regularly and interactively.”

But schools also have a role to play by teaching children explicitly about letter-sound correspondences, the report states.

Currently, it notes, many teachers downplay phonics instruction or relegate it to seatwork, strategies the authors consider “a big mistake,” particularly for children who lack preschool preparation.

The study recommends that teachers use writing and spelling activities to reinforce knowledge of spelling-sound patterns, as well as a deeper appreciation of the text’s meaning.

At the same time, the report says, teachers should not postpone reading in favor of drill. For children with preparation, it notes, such instruction would be a waste of time; for those who lack preparation, “the drawbacks would be even greater.”

“These children need to be exposed to meaningful, written text as soon as possible,” it says, “so that they will begin to notice and have an interest in reading all of the things that are around them that there are to be read.”

Although the report’s authors emphasize that there is no “universal, best method” of reading instruction, they single out one program as exemplary.

The Reading Recovery Program, developed by the New Zealand researcher Marie M. Clay, is “meant to help students understand the nature of text and reading,” they write.

That program is being used in Ohio and Illinois as an after-school supplement for low-achieving 1st graders. But officials there emphasize it is not intended as a remedial program.

The program starts with a diagnostic survey intended to gauge students’ letter-recognition abilities, comprehension abilities, and writing skills. Teachers, for two weeks, tutor students individually, “roam[ing] around the known” to observe and get a feel for students’ abilities.

They introduce a story composed mostly of words students know. A new book is then introduced each day, with the students rereading previously learned material. Such rereading, the report notes, refines word-recognition and comprehension skills and enhances students’ confidence.

The report stresses that the Reading Recovery Program, like other effective strategies, does not develop phonics skills “in a vacuum.”

“Programs for all children, good and poor readers alike, should strive to maintain an appropriate balance between phonics activities and the reading and appreciation of informative and engaging texts,” it concludes.

Copies of the summary are available for $5 each by writing: University of Illinois--Summary, P.O. Box 2276, Station A, Champaign, Ill. 61825-2276.

The book, Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print, will be published by mit Press, 55 Hayward St., Cambridge, Mass. 02142. Copies will cost $29.95.

A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 1990 edition of Education Week as Balance Between Phonics, ‘Whole Language’ Urged


School & District Management Live Event Education Week Leadership Symposium
Education Week's Premier Leadership Event for K12 School & District Leaders.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Law & Courts Webinar
The Future of Criminal Justice Reform: A Sphere Education Initiative Conversation
America’s criminal justice system is in crisis and calls for reform are dominating the national debate. Join Cato’s Sphere Education Initiative and Education Week for a webinar on criminal justice and policing featuring the nation’s
Content provided by Cato Institute
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Equity, Care and Connection: New SEL Tools and Practices to Support Students and Adults
As school districts plan to welcome students back into buildings for the upcoming school year, this is the perfect time to take a hard look at both our practices and our systems to build a
Content provided by Panorama Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Curriculum Opinion Eight Ways to Teach With Primary Sources
Four educators share ways they use primary sources with students, including a strategy called "Zoom."
13 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
Curriculum The Dr. Seuss Controversy: What Educators Need to Know
The business that manages Dr. Seuss' work and legacy will cease publishing six books due to racist stereotypes and offensive content.
5 min read
A copy of the book "And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street," by Dr. Seuss, rests in a chair on March 1, 2021, in Walpole, Mass. Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the business that preserves and protects the author and illustrator's legacy, announced on his birthday, Tuesday, March 2, 2021, that it would cease publication of several children's titles including "And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street" and "If I Ran the Zoo," because of insensitive and racist imagery.
Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced it would cease publication of several of the author's children's titles because of insensitive and racist imagery.
Steven Senne/AP
Curriculum Opinion The Overlooked Support Teachers Are Missing: A Coherent Curriculum
Here’s the research on how districts can improve instructional systems—which was already a challenge in the best of times.
Morgan Polikoff, Elaine Wang & Julia Kaufman
5 min read
A team of people work together to build a block structure.
Imam Fathoni/iStock<br/>
Curriculum Leader To Learn From Taking an Unapologetic Approach to Curriculum Overhaul
An academic leader at a charter school has overhauled curriculum—and proved that instructional rigor and anti-racism can co-exist.
11 min read
Danielle Kelsick, Chief Academic Officer for the Environmental Charter Schools in Redondo Beach, Calif.
Danielle Kelsick, Chief Academic Officer for the Environmental Charter Schools in Redondo Beach, Calif.
Nick Agro for Education Week