Think back to those good ole’ days of undergrad when you learned all about the different approaches to literacy. I have vague memories of learning about phonics and whole language instruction like they were two rival college football teams ready to take each other down. Now I am sure it wasn’t nearly as dramatic or maybe my professor just wanted to catch our attention with a little controversy. But when it comes to teaching reading skills to our students, we can sometimes feel like we are in a position where we need to choose one strategy over another. When it comes to a phonics based approach or a whole language approach, we are going to pull from the wise words of my friend Skinner – “The learner is always right.” Use whichever approach is most effective for each individual. And you can pick and choose which parts work for your student.

So go ahead and try a little of both. See what works. Take data. Use the data to make your decision. Some students work amazingly well with phonics. Some kids just seem to get the structure and rules that phonics give us. Other students are miserable during phonics based instruction and have month after month (or sometimes year after year) of little improvement in reading skills. Don’t try to force something. See which strategy is a better for each student. It’s a lot differentiation but remember differentiation is our middle name 😉

Strength of Phonics

Phonics based system of word study presented in a developmental sequence. Our students tend to be good rule followers and the structure and predictability can be easier to understand. Phonics is basically a set of rules. It’s structured. It’s predictable. This can fit well with the learning needs of some of our kiddos.

When using this approach:

  • check out Words Their Way for a great hands-on, sequential based approach. (read more here)
  • Focus on identifying word patterns & building decoding skills.
  • Utilize cues and prompts for reminders to when to use rules and fade as needed.
  • Building in an emphasis on word meaning as well.

Strength of Whole Language

Whole language teaches words function in relation to each other in context and this focuses on comprehension which is an area of difficulty for many of our students. It teaches how to learn from the context which again that inference skill is really tricky sometimes. This approach can be helpful for functional learning of words and concepts.

When using this approach:

  • Create a text-rich environment.
  • Utilize Word Walls.
  • Incorporate Thematic Units.
  • Include lots of book experiences.
  • Focus on Center Based Literacy Instruction.

Give them a bigger bag of tricks!

I like a combination of both! Again, do what works for the learner. Focus on sight word mastery. Throw in some phonics for decoding skills. We want to give students a well rounded approach to reading. Ideally – when they don’t know a word, they know how to use both the context clues to identify the meaning and phonics structure to sound it out and say it!