Reading Wars Phonics vs. Whole Language

Do children need to be taught to read? What is the best way to teach a child to read? Will they learn on their own when they are ready and after they’ve been exposed richly to the spoken word, read to and introduced to the written word and text? Is there a “best” way to teach a child to read?

All of these questions are swirling in my head as I’m faced with several of my 3rd graders struggling with reading.  I am striving to be the most effective teacher I can to my students. Teaching is an ever changing profession with new research and techniques. In fact I struggle with learning all the newest techniques and methods that have fancy names – I’m doing them naturally I just never labeled them as this method or technique. That’s another blog post for another day I suppose. I digress, teaching my students to read is the challenge (one of them) that I’m faced with and each student comes to me with a different background with reading (some whole language, some phonics and some much at all) and they each learn differently.

Is there a right or wrong answer to all of my questions about teaching children to read? When I polled my Facebook friends (several of the teachers restrained from answering) the answers were as diverse as my students.  Some only believed in whole language and others were passionate that you had to teach phonics. Some remember learning to read and teaching their child to read while others just naturally learned to read because text, reading and the spoken word were very much a part of their home life and childhood.

Phonics Verses Whole Language

Phonics has to do with a child learning to read by being introduced to a series of skills they need to master and children begin with awareness of speech sounds and letters. There are methods to teach single sounds, blended sounds and decoding methods. According to PBS:

“Phonics is simply the system of relationships between letters and sounds in a language. When your kindergartener learns that the letter B has the sound of /b/ and your second-grader learns that “tion” sounds like /shun/, they are learning phonics”

Whole Language is learning to read whole words verses decoding and breaking the word down. There is no dissecting the word into small parts. Whole language is considered the more “natural” approach to reading. I found several of my friends who prefer the Montessori approach to teaching and schooling favored the whole language approach. According to Dr. Monica Bomengen the whole language method of teaching children to read is:

“…recognizing words as whole pieces of language. Proponents of the whole language philosophy believe that language should not be broken down into letters and combinations of letters and “decoded.” Instead, they believe that language is a complete system of making meaning, with words functioning in relation to each other in context.”

Reading Wars

For years and years there have been debates on the best way to teach children to read and this has been dubbed the reading wars. Reading Wars: Phonics vs. Whole LanguageIn fact, when I ask my fellow teachers they restrain from answering because it will only spark a debate and everyone seems to have a difference of opinion. According to the National Education Association, there is no best way to teach reading. Regardless of there being no “best” way to teach reading there is still very strong opinions on from several on why children to not need to be taught to read and from others on why children do need to be taught and that they do not learn to read naturally.

With the various reading programs on the market one would certainly believe that phonics is the way to go. If you type in reading programs there are pages and pages of them on Google. Some are expensive, some are subscription based and others are free. There are mobile applications, books and games.

Both of my own children learned through phonics in school and preschool. However, I did not push reading and having my own children read by the time they were 3 or 4 years of age. That to me did not seem natural. I wanted them to learn to love books, being read to and the written and spoken language.  I wanted them to love music, songs and learn how to take turns, share and get along with others. As an early education professional with a Master’s degree, I am passionate about children being taught what is developmentally appropriate and learning through play at the preschool and kindergarten age. I feel so fortunate that this was my own children’s experience. I really feel as though my children learned through a blended approach of whole language and phonics.

In summary, I still do not have an answers to all my questions.  With 17 little students who are all different and all unique and all come to me with different challenges, I’m not sure there is a one size fits all answer. I am trying different techniques and offering ideas, suggestions, programs and methods to try and help each one of them individually as best as I can in a virtual setting. I guess for me, I’m on the fence and can’t side with one side or the other, both have compelling arguments, research and data.

Tell me, what are your feelings about whole language and phonics? How did your children read? Do you have answers to any of my questions?


  1. Coming by from #typeaparent, ex-teacher intrigued by your question. Have you ever looked at Guided Reading? I’ve taught both phonics and whole language but found Guided Reading to be the most effective by far. It combines the best of both worlds, I’d say.


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