Phonics Vs. Whole Language Debate: Teaching Reading

Reading Tips for Parents (Phonics Vs. Whole Language Debate) 

I was a teacher in grades 4th-8th for eight years and at four different schools; we moved around a lot for my husband’s job. I found that each school I taught at had a different approach to how they wanted to teach reading. When I first started teaching there was a huge push towards the whole language movement. After teaching a little while, I then encountered co-workers that said education needed to go back-to-basics with phonics. Here is a breakdown of the two different schools of thought:


Children are taught to “sound out” new words by doing things like:
* Memorizing rules (i.e. consonant sounds, short vowels, blend sounds, silent e, etc.)
* Complete skills sheets to practice rules over and over
* Read short books with phonics-related themes

Whole Language:

Children are taught to read and memorize whole words (site words) and do things like:
* Write in journals (sounding out how they think the word might be spelled)
* Use pictures in context to learn words
* Analyze words in context for meanings
In my opinion, there seems to be negatives with each approach. Strictly focusing on phonics can make learning to read not interesting for new readers. Also, if they have issues with phonics skills they may not be able to apply “the rules” to connected print. In turn, strictly using the whole language approach can limit kids that come across words they do not know while reading. They are unable to sound them out.

After teaching both ways, I felt I always needed to incorporate a little of both methods to make learning most successful. It’s important for kids to have phonemic awareness to be able to sound out words, but at the same time create an environment that is fun for kids to learn and be creative. Phonemic awareness is the understanding words are made up of sounds, and that you can manipulate them to create new words. It’s like each sound is a Lego piece and you can move it around to create new objects (words).  

Also, you need to have kids practice sounds, have them practice site words, have them try and spell words on their own, and have them write in a journal and enjoy the process of writing and being creative. Sometimes it’s not always best to just tell your child how to spell something when they ask you. Let them try and spell it on their own first. Sometimes kids just want to get the “answers” immediately, but it’s important they learn to sound out and spell words on their own. It’s also important for kids to hear words and sounds. Practice with them! Read with them! Have them follow along as you read the words!  

Who wins the debate? Both sides win! From my experience, both are important parts of reading development! You just need an integrated approach that includes phonemic awareness as well as learning new words through context clues so children gain the ability to derive meaning from text.  

How did you learn to read? What method do you think is more important, or do you think there should be a balance?


  1. I grew up in the era of phonics. I can still remeber being drilled with a, ah; b – buh. My kid grew up with inventive spelling and she still struggles. I think I am hooked on phonics.

  2. I was taught the phonics way. Both sides definitely have their positives though!

  3. I am a 3rd grade inclusion teacher, and I have seen the down sides to just a solely whole language approach. I have students who can read sight words that you can not imagine! ( special education students)- but had little to no phonics instruction which really hurts their ability to decode words that are unfamiliar. They could be wonderful readers if they just had that “missing price” that holds back their fluency and comprehension. I am a big proponent of a mixed approach and try to set up my guided reading groups likewise- you need a foundation in both to build upon!

  4. I am pro-phonics but definitely agree with you. As an educator I believe in using both approaches together. Phonics rules should be taught and practiced right along with sight words, often called “word wall words”. I believe that writing and reading go hand in hand. Letting kids spell however they want to when they are young is imperative! We call it “brave spelling” so that kids can write what is in their minds and imaginations not limited by only drawing from the few words they may know how to spell correctly. As you mentioned, context cues are invaluable to reading at any level and should be taught from a young age with picture books! Everything comes in its own stages of development and kids will learn how to spell and read. I believe that teaching a blend of everything allows reaching every individual learner’s needs. GREAT Post!

  5. piece* not price sorry! lol

  6. I honestly can’t remember how I learned. It was a l-o-n-g time ago! Now, I’m a reading teacher… and I find that it takes a combination of both, plus other techniques, such as practicing comprehension skills and fluency for kids to learn to read well.

  7. I totally agree that you have to combine approaches – Education should NEVER be an all or nothing, black or white, right or wrong type of learning experience. I mean yes – There ARE answers that are right or wrong, but you know what I mean. Each child is different, each teacher has a different style, and a combination of techniques and ideas will lead to the fullest learning for the kids!

  8. I like the way you broke down both sides of the debate! We were military and my oldest son changed schools 3 years in a row – the first did phonics, then whole language and then back to phonics. He HATED the whole language – especially the creative spelling (which I don’t get’s either spelled wrong or it’s right, right???). Perhaps if the teachers had taken the time to explain the benefits and rationale behind teaching the whole language method I may have been able to get on board. The blended method sounds as though it would have been the best for us at the time and really wish more schools in our area would adopt this method. I see so many kids struggle with how to sound out words because they don’t know phonics.

  9. I taught 1st grade for 4 years and teaching reading was one of my passions. I loved working with the kids who were struggling and I found that it was definitely about having a balance. Phonics definitely helped them in some situations but not all the time. Still, I am very pro-phonics because I have seen it work! I like how you broke it down! Thank you for doing that!


  10. I just started teaching Hayley. I am doing the phonics method of teaching. We sound out each letter one by one. Both sides look great though. This is very apropro for were we are currently.

  11. pro-phonics over here but I think that a little of both is definately a good thing!

  12. I’m definitely pro-phonics. In middle school, we have a lot of writing in the content area (I’m a social studies teacher) and I can really see how whole language has hurt my students. It’s almost painful to hear them read aloud, when they don’t know a word they will just skip over it completely, making no effort to “sound it out” or anything.

  13. I agree with you. Kids are not one size fits all. Ideally, the lessons would be tailor made to each child, but we all know that isn’t possible in the public school system. It sounds to me like you took the best approach possible, by mixing the best of both school of thought.


  14. REALLY interesting post! I’m more of the phonics type, while my SD’s school INSISTED on teaching with the whole language method. My mother taught me with Hooked on Phonics, and I used it with my SD to get her started. I think that as a starting point paired with what her school was doing is the reason why she’s improving in reading. Anyway, just hopping by from your Alexa Hop, and I’ll be leaving an Alexa review. :)

  15. I definitely learned via Phonics-both by my parents and school!! I have had to, on occasion over the years, help friends children learn-Phonics did it every time!! At 61 I still find myself sounding out words I haven’t seen before (real winners some of them and then running to the dictionary (online these days-Google is my friend) and looking them up to find out what the heck they mean!!)


  16. I’m totally for BOTH approaches. Finding a common ground that fits the individual child’s needs it MOST important. What some can do rather well, others might not be able to. Whether that is through reading, spelling, writing or math. I know that every child is different, but I do see a profound need that whole language strategies are used. I think it is important for children to be able to sound out and determine the words one might not readily recognize. I also think that there are fundamentals that should be taught/learned from both approaches. Great post! I’m totally going to share with my peers :D

  17. As a child learning to read in the 70’s (shosh you’re mouth) I learned phonics… and I also had great teachers who instilled a LOVE of reading, nothing like the feel and smell of a book! My youngest daughter started reading in the later 1/2 of the 90’s… whole language only. She is 22 years old and to this day can’t read or spell to save her life. But it’s not her fault… any word for example that has an “Ap” beginning automatically comes out… Apple… it could be APologize but, it will be apple… ALWAYS. They did her a HUGE disservice, I saw it happening and knew it was wrong and had no idea how to stop that ball rolling, and today she pays for it with poor reading/writing skills… Now we’re raising our 5 year old grandson, he’s in kindergarten. The school combines phonics and whole language in their teaching. He knows sight words but he also knows how to sound words out. At just 5 years old he can pick up ANY written material and get 80% of the words read. He reads EVERYTHING. (sometimes annoyingly so but….) He writes letter (with pencil and paper, an art form long lost in today’s technology) to his heroes, The Power rangers, he writes letter to Scooby Doo on how he could have better solved XYZ mystery and his Christmas list… 6 pages long all written by him (another story altogether LOL) Sure, some words are misspelled but if YOU as the reader know how to sound them out, you can read every word he’s tried to write. They are setting him up for a lifetime of success and it’s amazing to watch little wheels turn. I have seen as a parent both techniques taught now and I can 100% say… it must be a combo of both. 75/25 would be a good ratio of phonics over sight words only. If they stop at APple in teaching sight words… they never learn how to read APologize… it’s wonderful to have a foundation of sight words in your pockets but without phonics to build on that foundation the learner is stuck on the ground floor and will never move up. It HAS to be both. Period. =)

  18. I tend to side more with the phonics side of the debate… I think that to just “memorize words”… I don’t know – it just doesn’t sit well with me. However, I can see the benefits that the whole language method has as well. As with most theories, I can see the MOST benefit for all if you incorporated aspects of both methods — especially depending on the student. We all know by now that children learn differently, and we should try to adjust our teaching styles accordingly (I know — MUCH easier said than done).

  19. I personally like the phonics view but believe that both ways need to be used at times. Great post, thank you for the information. Something to think about for Jude.

  20. The elementary school my siblings and I went to started to do away with the phonics when my brother was there. You can tell according to my mom. I think both ways should be taught. We all know that every child learns differently.

  21. Thanks for “sounding out” this important educational debate for us! I think your solution of a combination approach is excellent!

  22. I never really thought this far ahead yet. Thanks for the advice :)

  23. I agree. It’s definitely a both sides win. All children learn differently.

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