A highly politicised debate has been raging since the 1980’s about the relative merits of “whole-language” versus “phonics” in literacy teaching. Despite the best efforts of some to convince us that the debate is over, and that we are heading towards a synthesis embodying the best ideas from both sides, the debate is still very much alive.
It is a mystery why the debate should have become so politicised. What works best for young readers should be a scientific rather than a political question. This article is about looking at the debate from the scientific perspective.
For those new to the terminology, “phonics” refers to an approach based on first teaching children the connections between the sounds of words and the way they are spelled. Modern phonics is a systematic development of traditional approaches which teach the child to sound out written words. This works because most English spelling is approximately phonetic.
Whole-language methods were first developed in the 1970’s, and started to become widespread in the 1980’s. The essence of whole-language is its treatment of the written language as a new language that can be learned by directly associating whole printed words with whole spoken words and their meanings. The original advocates of whole-language in the 1960’s and 1970’s drew on the theories of the eminent American linguist Noam Chomsky. Chomsky argues that children are born with an innate knowledge of spoken language structures.
Millenia of human experience have shown that children do not need direct instruction to learn a new spoken language. What works best is immersion in a helpful, stimulating environment where the new language is used constantly. The whole-language movement thought that learning to read should be as natural a process as learning to speak. The key idea was that children would “construct” for themselves the knowledge they needed, given the right environment.
In its pure form, whole-language completely bypasses systematic phonics instruction, working on the assumption that students will work out for themselves the phonic relationships between letters and sounds, if that is the way that particular student needs to construct his knowledge of written language.
The whole-language approach also brought with it a rethink of the traditional teacher-student relationship, one that rejected rote learning in general. Phonics, based on mastering a set of sound-letter associations explained and reinforced by a teacher, was seen as an outdated teaching method. The whole-language advocates linked up with a broader “progressive” movement in education which questioned all teaching methods based on authority or repetition.
The movement has drawn its inspiration largely from big picture ideas in philosophy and linguistics, which are stated at a high level of abstract generality. That gives you considerable latitude for development of a program. And so it has turned out that, in practice, whole-language utilises a number of techniques and there is a lot of emphasis on the creativity of individual teachers and students in developing personalised approaches. Some whole-language supporters will recommend the use of phonics-style techniques embedded into a whole-language program, whereas others reject phonics totally. They all seem to agree on one thing though; phonics should not be seen as the essential foundation. At best it is one technique among several.
By the mid 1990’s whole-language had supplanted phonics as standard practice in most schools in the English speaking world. As it did so, it started to attract criticism. A body of evidence was accumulating to indicate that despite increased resources and supposedly better teaching methods, the literacy performance of Australian schoolchildren was not getting any better, and was even, by some measures, getting worse. Similar concerns emerged in other English speaking countries, including the USA, where the trend had started.
In Australia, things came to a head in 2004 following publication in The Australian of an open letter of concern from 21 academics, criticising the widespread use of whole language methods in Australian schools. This led to the then education minister commissioning an inquiry in November 2004. The committee was chaired by Dr Ken Rowe from ACER, and included a number of eminent literacy researchers and practitioners.
Their brief was to consider the merits of whole-language and phonics in literacy teaching. They reviewed and summarised relevant empirical evidence on literacy teaching from all over the world, placing extra weight on studies using randomised controlled trials.
The report was published in December 2005. It came straight to the point:
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