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Reading Programs

There are several different types of reading programs that can be used to teach students to read. This article contains information on phonics and whole language reading programs, as well as information on a joint approach that draws on both.

For a number of years, people have characterized the content of reading programs in elementary schools in terms of a battle between phonics and whole language programs.

But the truth is that a joint program that offers both phonics and teaches children about the context of language is the best educational approach. Here is some more information about reading to set the record straight.


For each human being as an individual and for human beings as a species, oral language comes before written/read language. We learn to speak and understand spoken language before we are able to write and read the written version of our language. Written language is thus, in some sense, a substitution for oral language. We convey the English language in writing by using an alphabet. This means that the symbols we use to represent the letters each stand for a selection of sounds. Thus reading involves looking at the letters, recognizing the sounds they represent, and being able to link the results to a word we know aurally.

Initially, we do this be sounding words out letter by letter. After we become accustomed to words, most of us can stop sounding them out letter and begin to recognize more whole words at a glance. Our reading process changes, and it is no longer so arduous once we get to this stage.

Phonics is reading instruction that concentrates on letter sounds and how those sounds work together to make words. It teaches that the same sound can be spelled in different ways (the letters k and c can make the same sound, for example, as can the letters ck together) and that different sounds can be spelled in the same way (s at the end of has sounds like z, but s at the end of gas sounds like s). Phonics teaches the code of language and helps students understand how to “decode” new words by using what they know about language sounds and spelling in English. To do this, a lot of time is spent on individual letters, small groups of letters, and individual words.

Whole Language

Whole language is concerned with language in context. It focuses on language in the act of communicating. Children hear and read stories, find language in their environment (on signs, boxes, etc.), engage with stories by predicting outcomes, and write stories, spelling the words they can spell accurately, and using “invented spelling” for the others, making the best approximation they can in order to communicate what they want to say. They learn that books are read from left to right, that stories have beginnings, middles, and ends, and other facts about how we use language to make meaning.

Combining Methods

It turns out that it is only by combining these methods that students gain the breadth of knowledge they need to be able to read. Sounds and decoding are not enough. Neither is recognizing language in the environment and knowing which way pages turn. Most children can not intuit the sound-symbol scheme of English, and similarly, most cannot figure out the ways to ensure comprehension without being taught. They need both the focus on individual letters and words, and the time to see and make bigger collections of words that can be funny or sad or tell a story or remind you what to buy at the store. Using elements of both approaches gives students the best start in learning to read.

Written by Mary Elizabeth.

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