Phonics vs Whole Language

Whole Language is a popular way to teach reading.  Learn about the potential benefits and drawbacks of this approach compared to phonics

In a previous article, we looked at the alternative methods of reading instruction.  You might find it helpful to read this first if you aren’t familiar with the different approaches to teaching reading and the various types of phonics.  

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  • Whole Language instruction can include some phonics, although it’s generally not taught in a systematic way.
  • Multi-cueing strategies are used to identify words in the Whole Language approach. Some educators have serious doubts about the effectiveness of these strategies.
  • Major reviews of academic research suggest that Whole Language is not as effective as direct phonics instruction for beginning readers. This might be because Whole Language teachers avoid teaching phonics systematically and recommend other less effective strategies for identifying words.
  • The Whole Language emphasis on making sure that reading activities are relevant, interesting and meaningful for children is likely to improve children’s motivation to read.
  • The focus on thinking about the meaning of texts in Whole Language is beneficial for reading comprehension.

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It’s difficult to comprehensively assess the effectiveness of Whole Language instruction because there isn’t a simple definition of the approach or a clearly prescribed method.  Some proponents actually describe it as a philosophy rather than a system of instruction. 1, 2 

Yet, no matter how vague the definition, there are some broad instructional guidelines that fall under the philosophical umbrella of Whole Language.  Consequently, if we assess the effectiveness of these instructional practices we can get some idea of how beneficial Whole Language is likely to be. 

Phonics vs Whole Language Approach

Some Whole Language supporters have been critical of phonics instruction3 while others have clearly stated that they think phonics is important.  For example: 

“Whole language educators are not against teaching phonics or phonemic awareness.  Learning sound-symbol relationships is an important part of reading.” 1

However, phonics is unlikely to be taught explicitly or systematically in a Whole Language environment.4

 “Whole language educators believe direct, explicit instruction in the “rules” of phonics is unnecessary (Watson, 1996b, p. 176).” 1

There seems to be a consensus amongst Whole Language supporters that phonics instruction should be embedded into shared reading experiences in the classroom. 

With this approach, letter-sound relationships might only be pointed out when suitable words crop up in the particular stories that have been chosen at the time.

This could be viewed as a weakness in the Whole Language approach because, as we discussed in a previous article, all of the major reviews of reading instruction have emphatically concluded that phonics is more effective when it is taught in a systematic way

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Multi-Cueing Strategies

A common theme amongst Whole Language proponents is that children shouldn’t have to rely on phonics alone to identify the words in a text.  They claim that phonics knowledge and skills are only one part of a series of strategies that can be used to identify words.1, 4  

Collectively, these alternatives are often referred to as ‘multi-cueing strategies’, or ‘the three cueing system’.  Others describe them as ‘contextual clues’ and in England, they were known as the ‘Searchlight’ model.

Researcher, Kerry Hempenstall has listed some of the advice given in booklets provided to parents from their children’s schools.5  These tactics are typical of the multi-cueing strategies promoted by Whole Language advocates:

“When your child gets stuck on a word you should ask them to:

    • Guess what the word might be.
    • Look at the picture to help guess what the word might be.
    • Read on or reread the passage and try to fit in a word that makes sense.
    • Look at the first letter to help guess what the word might be.”

Some supporters of multi-cueing strategies have even suggested that phonics skills should only be used to identify words as a last resort when other cueing strategies have failed. 

Others say that if a child guesses a word incorrectly, but comes up with a word of a similar meaning, then this shouldn’t need correcting.  So guessing ‘boat’ would be considered to be fine even if the actual word was ‘ship’ or ‘canoe’.  And ‘pony’ would be OK instead of ‘horse’ or ‘donkey’.

Multi-cueing strategies are appealing to teachers because children can have some early success using picture cues and context to identify words when they are reading repetitive and predictable texts with plenty of pictures. 

However, some people argue that the strategies are less reliable when children move on to chapter books without pictures.6 

This was certainly the view of Sir Jim Rose, whose findings in his review of reading in the UK were key to the development of the Primary National Strategy for Reading in England.7

“Children who routinely adopt alternative cues for reading unknown words, instead of learning to decode them, later find themselves stranded when texts become more demanding and meanings less predictable.”  (Primary National Strategy, 2006b, p.9).

We think the idea of using context cues in preference to phonics skills to identify words is flawed for several reasons: 

    • Firstly, the only way of understanding the context of a sentence is to identify a sufficient number of words in the first place. But how can a child identify enough words to understand the context if they are relying on contextual clues?

      Recognising a few common ‘sight-words’ would be unlikely to help either because these usually don’t provide much information about the context.

    • Secondly, research from various sources indicates that skilled readers identify words by paying attention to the letters in them; contextual clues are of minor importance. A good reader can identify words fluently even when they are viewed in isolation.8  

There are occasions when it can be necessary to consider the context in order to distinguish between words.  For example: “There was a strong wind blowing” or “He had to wind up the clock.”  But homographs like these don’t crop up very often in a piece of text and good readers still decode the letters in these words first before using the context to choose the correct option.

      • Context clues are unreliable.  A study involving well-educated, skilled readers found they could only guess 1 in every 4 words correctly from the context of a sentence. 8 And beginning readers find it even more difficult to guess words from context.9

There’s an important distinction we need to make clear at this point: 

    • Using context to figure out the meaning of a word once it’s been identified is a good strategy which should be encouraged.
    • But using context or picture cues to identify words is likely to be counterproductive in the long run.

For a more detailed discussion of this distinction, see this article by Louise Spear-Swerling:  “The Use of Context Cues in Reading”.

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How Effective Is Whole Language?

Many commentators have attempted to compare the effectiveness of phonics vs Whole Language directly.  However, as we mentioned earlier, this isn’t quite so straightforward because there’s no single method of instruction for either of these approaches. 

Furthermore, many Whole Language teachers include some phonics work in their lessons and some teachers who favour phonics include activities that might also be used by Whole Language teachers.

Nevertheless, evidence from the major reviews we discussed in another article suggests that Whole Language approaches that avoid teaching phonics systematically are not as effective as direct phonics instruction for beginning readers.

The use of unreliable multi-cueing strategies might also hinder reading progress in Whole Language classrooms, especially if children aren’t given corrective feedback when they make errors such as guessing ‘pony’ instead of ‘horse’.

In addition to the studies mentioned earlier, Professor John Hattie from New Zealand has done a synthesis of hundreds of meta-studies on topics related to education.  His findings represent perhaps the most comprehensive assessment of academic literature in the world. 

Hattie uses a measure called effect size to compare initiatives or teaching methods that might influence educational achievement.  His analysis shows that phonics and direct instruction have effect sizes that are significantly above the average effect size of 0.4.  In comparison, the effect size of Whole Language is close to zero (0.06).10

In a detailed article published by the American Psychological Society in 2001, researchers made the following conclusion:

“Since the 1960s, classroom studies of reading methods have consistently shown better results for early phonics instruction compared with instruction emphasizing meaning at the level of words and sentences. This effect is particularly strong for children at risk for reading failure because of lack of home literacy or weak phonological-awareness skills.” 11

Unsurprisingly, these conclusions are disputed by Whole Language enthusiasts. 

In studies that have shown it to be inferior to other methods, some have claimed that the teachers weren’t using proper Whole Language.4 

However, no-one really knows for sure what proper Whole Language is since supporters of the approach are reluctant to provide detailed instructional guidance…

“Some people long for whole language to be a program. “Tell me how to teach whole language,” they beg. These are rigid people who delight in having educational methods spelled out.” 2

Another argument is that the tests used in these studies are biased against Whole Language because they don’t measure reading comprehension.4 

Yet, as long ago as 1985, a study involving children from 20 classrooms (who were carefully matched in terms of intelligence, socioeconomic background and other relevant variables) showed that groups given phonics instruction did better in reading comprehension tests than groups who were taught using a Whole Language approach without direct phonics instruction.12

And, in an experiment where researchers trained adults to read in a new language, either using phonics or using whole-word meanings, the phonics approach was shown to be more effective for comprehension: 

“The results were striking; people who had focused on the meanings of the new words were much less accurate in reading aloud and comprehension than those who had used phonics, and our MRI scans revealed that their brains had to work harder to decipher what they were reading.” 13

Some Whole Language supporters don’t think there is any value in studies based on the scientific method and sophisticated mathematical analysis.  They think that observing children making progress in their own classroom is sufficient evidence to prove that it works.14  

However, the purpose of comparative studies isn’t just to determine whether or not something works; most teaching strategies work to some degree.  The important question that researchers set out to answer is ‘which strategies are the most effective?’ 

We have no doubt that very many children have learned to read successfully using a Whole Language approach.  Nevertheless, even if an approach works quite well for some children there might be other approaches that work even better for all children. 

Major reviews or meta-analysis (a statistical approach used to combine the results from multiple studies) are really useful for comparisons because they provide a more balanced picture of the research.  Without them, people tend to ‘cherry pick’ studies that support their opinions and ignore ones that don’t.

Furthermore, academic reviews only use studies that have been subjected to the scrutiny of expert peer review.  Such studies are likely to be well-designed and involve a sufficient number of students to produce statistically significant results.

Of course, it’s possible to argue that there is a conspiracy to discredit Whole Language and promote phonics.  But, in the absence of any evidence to support a conspiracy theory, we think it’s extremely unlikely that respected academics from all of the main English speaking countries are colluding to deceive the public and damage the educational opportunities of thousands of children. 

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What’s Good About Whole Language Instruction?

It’s difficult to find fault with some aspects of the Whole Language philosophy.  For example, the emphasis on making sure that reading activities are relevant, interesting and meaningful for the children.  Providing children with books that have interesting storylines or information content must surely encourage kids to read for pleasure. 

Whole Language teachers also make it clear to children that it’s important for them to understand what they are reading and they provide children with useful prompts and strategies to monitor their own comprehension.  These are things that should be incorporated into all reading programmes. 

Further Information…

Click on the following link if you would like to learn more about phonics instruction

If you want to know how to improve your child’s reading comprehension, see the following article: Reading Comprehension Basics.

Click on the following link if you would like to learn more about teaching spelling with phonics.

Click on the following link if you would like to know more about teaching your child to write

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  1. Lofflin, K., Dorothy Harper Watson Literacy Center, About Whole Languages Principles: 
  2. Bowman-Kruhm, M.Whole Language: What It Is, What It Isn’t:
  3. See quotes in Part 1: Whole Language! What was that all about? Kerry Hempenstall 7 Feb 2014, National Institute for Direct Instruction:
  4. Khon, A. On Teaching Reading, Spelling, and Related Subjects. Half Truths About Whole Language:
  5. Hempenstall, K. The three-cueing system in reading: Will it ever go away? National Institute for Direct Instruction (Nov. 2012):
  6. Louise Spear-Swerling: “The Use of Context Cues in Reading”. LD Online (Nov. 2006):
  7. Independent review of the teaching of early reading. Final Report, Jim Rose, 2006
  8. Hempenstall, K. Part 1: Whole Language! What was that all about? National Institute for Direct Instruction ( 2014):
  9. Askew, G . (2014), Your guess is(n’t) as good as mine:
  10. Hattie, J., Visible Learning:
  11. Rayner, K. et al. (2001), HOW PSYCHOLOGICAL SCIENCE INFORMS THE TEACHING OF READING. American Psychological Society. VOL. 2, NO. 2, NOVEMBER 2001
  12. Evans, M.A., & Carr, T.H. (1985).Cognitive abilities, conditions of learning, and the early development of reading skill. Reading Research Quarterly20, 327–350. 
  13. Phonics works: Sounding out words is best way to teach reading, study suggests, Science Daily (Apr. 2017):
  14. Quotes from Groff, P. The Rise and Fall of ‘Whole Language’ and the Return to Phonics. Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society  22—1997/2: