Center for Expansion of Language and Thinking

CELT, founded in 1972, is a nonprofit educational corporation, international in scope, whose members believe in the principles of education for democracy with a focus on natural language learning and inquiry.  These principles are supported by beliefs in learners and learning, teachers and teaching, and language and curriculum.  The members of CELT are dedicated to the improvement of education through a greater understanding of the relationship between language, thought, and learning.

  CELT includes a rich diversity of people who share similar beliefs about language and learning but have widely varied background experiences.  CELT members are university educators, independent consultants, school administrators, and teachers.

Phonics Versus Whole Language: Why Whole Language Teachers Don't Think It Is Much of a Debate

The media have helped promote the notion that when it comes to reading instruction it's phonics versus whole language. Presented this way, those who advocate phonics supposedly do not have children read whole texts, while, on the other hand, those who advocate whole language supposedly do not teach phonics.

Though some extremists do advocate phonics first, postponing the reading of any meaningful text until phonics has been mastered (or at least presented) is a position not taken by most educators. Among the community of reading educators and researchers, the issue is not whether phonics needs to be taught before or after engagement with real books; it is, instead, an issue of how phonics is learned and how it should be taught. One major position, expressed in Becoming a Nation of Readers, is that phonics needs to be taught systematically, explicitly, and perhaps intensively--though not extensively. This position assumes that reading is comprised of separate component skills (phonics skills among them) that add up to the act of reading. The other major position is that functional phonics knowledge is developed more gradually, through various means that include a very different kind of direct teaching. This position assumes that reading is a whole, indivisible process in which several different cueing systems (phonics cues among them) are used simultaneously for making sense.  The latter is a position held by whole language educators.

What does the research say?

Those who advocate systematic teaching of phonics point to research indicating that systematic and explicit instruction in phonics leads to higher reading achievement scores on standardized tests during the primary grades. (Typically, these tests have a section testing phonics skills in isolation.) They build their case primarily upon the research synthesized and analyzed by Chall in Learning to Read: the Great Debate (1967; updated 1983) and reiterated in such publications as Anderson et al.'s Becoming a Nation of Readers (1985) and Adams' Beginning to Read: Learning and Thinking about Print (1990), summarized by Lehr, Osborn, and Stahl. None of this research explicitly compares the development of phonics knowledge in systematic phonics classrooms with the development of phonics knowledge in whole language classrooms.

Critics of this research remind the educational community not only that much of this research is flawed (Carbo, 1989), but that even the best of the research does not indicate that teaching phonics intensively produces any advantages on standardized tests beyond the primary grades (Turner, 1989).

Whole language educators criticize this research specifically on the grounds that (1) standardized tests tell little (if anything) of what we really need to know about children's literacy development, and (2) much more broadly conceived research is needed for revealing what is learned in systematic phonics classrooms as contrasted with whole language classrooms. Notice the emphasis on "classrooms" rather then programs.  Classrooms in which phonics is taught systematically usually differ from whole language classrooms in much more global ways. The former classrooms typically reflect a transmission, part-to-whole approach to teaching, with learners being relatively passive; the latter reflect a transactional whole to part approach, with learners taking a much more active role. In practice within the classroom, it is almost impossible to isolate program from perspective. That is, whole language and systematic phonics are each embedded in the overall perspectives they reflect.

Recently, some researchers have begun to compare systematic phonics with whole language, taking care to describe what allowed them to categorize the classrooms as "whole language." This research suggests that standardized test scores may not necessarily be lower for whole language students and that whole language students get a much better start in developing the range of behaviors and attitudes that characterize the literate adult.

One example is a study in which Ribowsky compared the effects of a code-emphasis approach with a whole language approach upon the emergent literacy of kindergartners. The code-emphasis students used a pro gram with an intensive focus upon developing phonics knowledge, while the whole language students used the Shared Book Experience approach explained by Don Holdaway (1979) in Foundations of Literacy. The whole language students did better than the code emphasis students on tests of letter recognition and knowledge of consonant letter/sound relationships--the opposite of what might have been predicted, given the instructional focus of both programs.  The whole language children also showed significantly greater growth in their concepts about print and various aspects of language and literacy.

Whole language children's greater progress toward literacy is illustrated even better, however, by studies in which a still wider range of assessment measures are used.  A study by Stice and Bertrand involved fifty "at risk" first graders, five from each of five rural or urban whole language classrooms, and their matches from traditional classrooms in which phonics skills were taught explicitly, according to the basal reader program and the state mandated skills requirements. When the children were compared over a two year period on various quantitative and qualitative measures, the whole language children showed greater gains and better performance on virtually all measures.  The differing responses to the reading and writing interview questions are especially interesting, leading Stice and Bertrand (1990) to these conclusions, among others: (1) the whole language students had a greater awareness of alternative strategies for dealing with reading problems; (2) they appeared more aware that the purpose of reading is to make meaning (rather than merely to call out the words); (3) they appeared to be developing greater independence in both reading and writing; and (4) they appeared to be more confident readers and writers.

Whole language educators see such research as beginning to document what they have already been observing informally in their classrooms that whole language children do not seem to suffer in their functional grasp of phonics, and that, in addition, they gain considerably more from a whole language approach than from more traditional instruction.

There seems to be every reason to think, then, that the phonics that children actually need can be developed, along with other literate strategies and attitudes, by (1) immersing children in literature and other print; (2) discussing with children some of the prominent sound features in what they're reading; (3) demonstrating

the relationship between spoken sounds and the written letters that represent them; (4) giving children opportunities to explore letter/sound relationships through activities the children themselves initiate or select; (5) providing children with opportunities to listen to tape recordings of various texts, and to follow the print as they listen; (6) helping children learn to write letters for the sounds they hear in words, as they learn to write; (1) helping children use letter/sound cues along with other cues as they read; and (8) supporting children in using their own strategies for grasping letter/sound relationships. Whole language teachers find that

few children fail to develop a functional grasp of phonics through such means.

Not phonics versus whole language, but phonics within whole language!


Adams, M. (1990). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Cambridge, MA M.I.T. Press. (Lehr, Osborn, and Stahl's summary is published by the Center for the Study of Reading, Champaign, University of Illinois.)

Anderson, R., Hiebert, E., Scott, J., & Wilkinson, I. (1985). Becoming a nation of readers. Champaign, IL Center for the Study of Reading.

Carbo, M. (1988). Debunking the great phonics myth. Phi Delta Kappan, 70, 226-240. 

Chall, ]. (1967, 1983). Learning to read: The great debate. NY McGraw Hill.

Froese, V. (1991). Whole language practice and theory, Chapter 10. Needham Heights, MA Allyn & Bacon.

Goodman, K. (1993). Phonics phacts. Portsmouth, NH Heinemann.

Lehr, F., Osborn, J., & Stahl, S. (1990). Summary. Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print by M. Adams. Champaign, IL Center for the Study of Reading, University of Illinois.

McQuillan, J. (1998). The literacy crisis: False claims, real solutions. Portsmouth, NH Heinemann.

Ribowsky, H. (1985). The effects of a code emphasis approach and a whole language approach upon emergent literacy of kindergarten children. EDRS document. ED 269 720.

Stice, C., & Bertrand, N. (1990). Whole language and the emergent literacy of at risk children: A two year comparative study. Nashville, TN Center of Excellence Basic Skills, Tennessee State University.

Stephens, D. (1991). Research on whole language: Support for a new curriculum. Katonah, NY Richard C. Owen. Turner, R. (1989). The 'great' debate--can both Carbo and Chall be right? Phi Delta Kappan, 70(1), 276-283.

Weaver, C. (1990). Understanding whole language. Chapters 5 and 6. Portsmouth, NH Heinemann.

©CELT, 1991. Revised, 1998. A project sponsored by the Center for the Expansion of Language and Thinking (CELT), c/o CED, 325 E. Southern, Tempe, AZ 85282. CELT Crisis Hotline 602-929~0929. This statement may be photocopied for distribution.

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