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.
Reading connected print helps a child to practice fluency skills. Good fluency helps a child to have good comprehension. Comprehension is the entire reason for reading. A child reads to get information from connected print!
The reality is that many parents spend two or more hours each day reviewing phonemes and spelling words. Their children may spend only two minutes a day reading connected print.
Research shows that the more a child reads, the better he reads. It is simply the number of connected words read each day that adds up to improved reading skills. A child who reads forty-five minutes of connected print per day has a great advantage over a child who reads two minutes per day.
Merging Phonics with Whole Language
The best reading program teaches phonics, phonemic awareness skills, and has a child practice them by reading good, connected print. For example, a child can learn the st blend by doing a fast flashcard drill, playing an auditory game blending st words, and reading about the storm when Jesus told the wind and the waves to "Be still!"
The reality is that Junior may be able to read after learning forty-nine phonemes. But only if he has learned them to an automatic level, and if he has played lots of phonological awareness games, and is applying the phonemes by reading connected print.
Mr. Phonics and Mrs. Whole Language seemed to be happy with my answer. Hopefully, their reading battles are over. They can enjoy peaceful evenings reading a newspaper, while Junior practices letter n by reading about Noah in his Bible storybook.
Peggy M. Wilber is a teacher, author, and speaker with a mission of helping children learn to read well. She has been diagnosing and remediating elementary and middle school children's reading disorders since 1987. Her education includes a Masters of Education from Boston University and Certification in Early Childhood Reading Instruction from University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, specializing in integrating reading methodologies. Peggy has worked alongside the team at Cook Ministries to create Rocket Readers a biblically based reading program designed to teach children to read using Scripture. Visit www.cookministries.com
1. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Educational Statistics, "Executive Summary," of The Nation"s Report Card: Reading 2002, NCES Number: 2003521 Release Date: June 19, 2003,
2. Sally Shaywitz, et al., "Functional Disruption in the Organization of the Brain for Reading in Dyslexia," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 95 (March, 1998): 2636-2641.