There are two methods for teaching children to read; whole language and phonics. Whole language is a “whole – part” method of teaching children to read, while phonics is a “part – whole” reading method. These terms will be explained more fully in the article. The advantages and disadvantages of both of these methods have been debated for decades. School systems have switched from one method to another and back again countless times over the years. The debate continues. In the meantime, we as parents are still left asking the question, “What is the best way to teach my child to read?” My answer is an unequivocal combination of both methods, with a stronger emphasis on the phonics approach.
Phonics: The “part – whole” reading method
In the phonics method, children are taught how to “sound out” new words. Phonics is a series of rules that children have to learn, memorize and apply when they are sounding out new words. Children are taught a rule, for example, “short a”, and then they practice reading words with “short a” (hat, cat, sat, bat, rat, etc.) Then children do skill sheets at their desk highlighting the “short a” rule. Children must learn letter sounds to an automatic level – they must be able to see the letter(s) and say the sound immediately.
Most teachers who rely on the phonics method teach the rules in the following order:
· Teach your child alphabet letter names and sounds. Start with the consonant letter sounds: b, c, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, q, r, s, t, v, w, x, y, z · Blend sounds: br, cr, dr, fr, gr, pr, tr, wr, bl, cl, fl, gl, pl, sl, scr, str, sm, sn, sp, sc, sk · Short vowel sounds: a, e, i, o, u Always teach short vowel sounds first: a – apple, e – elephant, i- igloo, o – octopus, u – umbrella) · Digraph sounds: sh, ch, th, wh Two letters combine to make a totally different sound. · Double vowel sounds: ai, ea, ee, oa These pairs say the name of the first vowel. · Other double vowel sounds: oi, oo, ou, ow · Silent e: Silent e is bossy, it doesn’t say anything but makes the vowel before it say its own name. · R controlled vowel sounds: ar, er, ir, or, ur Notice that er,ir and ur make the same sound.
The problem with relying solely on a phonics approach is that usually the reading/practice materials aren’t very interesting, “See Spot run. Run Spot run. Spot runs fast.” In addition, children who struggle in reading memorize phonic rules, and then are unable to apply phonic rules to connected print. To remedy this problem, two things must happen: 1. Only the most important phonic rules should be taught in the least complicated manner possible. For example, in teaching vowel sounds, it is distracting to talk about “short versus long” vowels. Instead, a child should be taught the short vowel sounds first. Then when a child encounters a long vowel as in the word find, tell him, “That vowel says its own name.”
2. Phonics must be taught in a way that allows children to immediately practice phonic information in real stories. Every time a child is taught new phonic information, he should be given a short reading selection that highlights the phonic rule. Completing a skill sheet is good, but even better is to help the child practice applying the phonic skill to connected print.
Whole Language: The “whole – part” reading method
In the whole language approach, teachers use connected print to introduce reading to children. Children are encouraged to memorize words as whole units. They do hands-on activities such as writing in journals, and analyzing words in context, by using pictures, for meaning.
Teach your child how to read a couple of sentences or one paragraph until it sounds great. The whole language method helps your child learn to read “sight words.” Sight words must be memorized because they don’t follow phonic rules. Half of all words in the English language are sight words (the, said, find, etc.)
Whole language has strengths in that children begin to write early. They are involved in connected print, and they are using personal language skills making the process of reading more interesting. The weakness of whole language methods is that some children never get a full phonics foundation. They are unable to decode (sound out) unfamiliar words. Research has shown that good readers always use phonics to decipher new words.
To summarize, reading is best taught using a combination of three methodologies: · Auditory training – training for the ears to prepare the child’s brain for reading. Auditory training was discussed in the first article in this series. · Phonics – knowledge of letter(s) sounds. A child cannot learn to read without proper knowledge in phonics. It is the foundation for success in reading.
* Whole Language – immediate application of phonics into connected stories.