Mr. Phonics and Mrs. Whole Language talked to me after a church supper one night. They each had strong opinions on how Junior, age five, should learn to read. A reading "war" was being carried out after dinner each evening.

"I think that Junior must learn forty-nine phonemes. Then he"ll be able to read his Bible storybook," said Mr. Phonics. "What do you think?" he asked me.

It is great when parents are interested a child"s literacy skills. But they don"t have to be on opposite sides of the reading war. Research shows that a child benefits the most from a merger of the best practices in phonics and whole language.

What do the best practices in those reading programs look like?

The Best in Phonics
Phonics is the ability to say the sounds of alphabet letters. Some phonic programs teach lots of phonemes; letter combinations such as, sh, ai, ou, nk, ight, in addition to the alphabet letter sounds. Phonemes are often taught using flashcards with accompanying songs and drill worksheets.

But phonics is only one of the phonological awareness skills necessary for learning to read. A child needs to be able to do all of the following phonological awareness skills:

1  Phonics: a child must be able to rapidly say the alphabet letter sounds and other phonemes. A child needs to learn to say the sounds as fast as you can flash the cards. (Many struggling readers are unable to do this skill at an automatic speed.)

2. Rhyming: a child must learn to rhyme quickly. He should not hesitate in saying "Car," or "star," when you say "far." (Research shows that children who do not know how to rhyme are at-risk for reading difficulties.)

3. Blending alphabet letter sounds together: done first with just her ears. When you say "c-ar", she should listen to the sounds and say, "car." Then your child can look at phonemes on flash cards, dr, i, nk, and blend their sounds by saying, "drink." (This skill will help your child to remember sounds and blend them in the correct order, necessary for sounding out new words while reading.)

4. Segmenting words and replacing letters to make new words. You say, "cupcake" and your child takes it apart by saying, "cup-cake." Or, you say, "Take the i out of bike and put in a. What do you get?" and she says, "Bake!"

Notice that these skills are not learned by completing worksheets! That is because reading begins in your child"s ears. Good readers have good auditory skills learned by playing auditory games.

Did you know that 36% of all 4th grade children in the United States are unable to read at a basic level?1 (This is also true for home schooled children.) Many of these struggling readers are often in phonics-only programs, which ignore phonemic awareness skills.

It is possible for a child to spend countless hours, learning forty-nine phonemes, and be unable to read his own name! This same child cannot apply phonemes when he reads. Having a phonic foundation does not automatically translate into being a good reader.

Researchers at Yale know that reading begins in a child"s ears. When they put a child into a Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging machine (fMRI), the language centers of a good reader lights up like a Christmas tree.2 This child can rhyme, has swift recall of alphabet letters, and blends words well. It"s no surprise that his reading skills are great.

The good news is that all children can grow in phonological awareness skills. These skills are learned by playing auditory games, quickly flashing alphabet/phoneme cards, and by reading books that highlight rhyming and alliteration sounds. And reading books is what whole language is all about.

The Best in Whole Language
The best practice in whole language is the "whole" part: actually reading books or "Connected print." Connected print is Bible stories, Dr. Seuss rhyming books, Clubhouse Jr. magazine articles, and even Garfield cartoons. Connected print is not lists of spelling words, rhyming words, or phonic drill sheets. A child is applying phonics when he sounds out words in his Bible about when Jesus healed the blind man or in a Ranger Rick article about lions.