Whichever way you learned to read, chances are you never knew what the terms “phonics” or “whole language” meant. However, these are the terms that are at opposite ends of an on-going debate over the best way to teach children how to read. “Simply stated, supporters of the whole language approach think children's literature, writing activities, and communication activities can be used across the curriculum to teach reading; backers of phonics instruction insist that a direct, sequential mode of teaching enables students to master reading in an organized way” (Cromwell, 1997).
Critics of phonics claim that the curriculum is too boring, that the endless worksheets will turn children away from the joy that could be reading and writing. Critics of whole language, however, claim that there is too little structure and that the students will fail to properly comprehend what they are reading and spell words correctly (Curtis, 1997). At times the debate has become rather polarized, despite the fact that the methods are not necessarily dichotomous. People have often politicized the debate as well, which fails to keep the best interest of students in mind (Rothstein, 200; Strickland, 1998). Instead of choosing between a phonics based and a whole language method of teaching reading, educators should use a combination that is specifically tailored to the needs of his/her individual students. This allows the students to use their phonics knowledge within a larger whole language context, eventually instilling in children a desire to read and enabling them to read well.
Phonics is a very systematic approach to teaching reading that involves the breaking down of words into smaller parts. This process is called decoding. It focuses on letter/sound relationships and teaches children to “sound out” unfamiliar words. Children are also taught encoding, which helps them to learn to spell new words correctly by putting together the sounds/letters that they hear. Children learn, memorize, and apply rules, formulas, and patterns of reading and speech (Curtis, 1997; Wiber, 2002). This approach has also been called a “bottom-up” approach because the teachers believe that by focusing on the smaller parts and equipping children with the ability to figure out new words, meaning and comprehension will follow. The strong supporters on this side of the debate want phonics taught in an intensive and systematic manner (Strickland, 1998). These phonics supporters criticize whole language, claiming that the approach is too disorganized and phonics taught in such an incidental manner that some children will never have the right tools to learn to read well (Cromwell, 1997).
There are many advantages to using phonics. Children who learn to read by using phonics generally have better pronunciation, spelling, and word recognition. They have been given a tool that can be used over and over again while reading and writing, without having to memorize vocabulary and...