Code-oriented vs. meaning-oriented reading instruction

iStock_000025474831XSmallThe debate between educators who favor code-oriented reading instruction (phonics) and those who favor meaning-oriented instruction (whole language) is continuing. This debate, according to Frank R. Vellutino, Child Research and Study Center, New York State University at Albany, centers on whether the ability to fluently identify words out of context is a prerequisite for effective and efficient reading comprehension. On the one hand, Vellutino writes, whole-language theories state that reading is context-driven and that a major goal of reading instruction is to teach children to make maximum use of context to facilitate word identification. For this reason, words in whole-language instruction are not presented out of context.

Code-oriented theorists, on the other hand, contend that skilled reading is not primarily context-driven, but is, instead, a highly automatized, modular process. In their view, comprehension depends on rapid and automatic word identification.

According to Vellutino, research reveals considerable evidence that reading comprehension in most children does not become efficient until a certain level of fluency in word identification has been reached. Poor word identification skill necessitates using cognitive resources for laborious decoding, rather than comprehension. The research shows, according to Vellutino, that (1) those who perform poorly on isolated word identification tend to perform poorly on reading comprehension; (2) performance on reading and listening comprehension tests by poor or developing readers tends to be disparate whereas, in skilled readers, performance on these two types of tests tends to be similar; and (3) long-term studies indicate that tests that measure facility with word identification are much better predictors of reading comprehension for beinning or poor readers than are tests that measure listening comprehension. For skilled readers, the opposite is true. Vellutino suggests that contrary to whole-language theory, skilled readers use context clues sparingly because their word identification is so highly automatized. It is actually the less-skilled readers who rely on context. Vellutino believes that whole-language theorists have overestimated the importance of context and underestimated the role of fluent word identification.

Phonics instruction or not

The issue in this debate is whether children should be directly instructed in phonics – taught to use structural analysis in word identification. Whole-language theorists feel that reading should not be taught by breaking whole or natural language into abstract, bite-size pieces. They believe that learning to read is very much like learning to speak one’s native language, and that direct teaching of letter-sound relationships and the analysis of phonemes are artificial systems imposed unnecessarily on a natural process.

Code-oriented researchers view this argument as misguided and naive. Indeed, research in this area, according to Vellutino, largely supports incorporating into reading programs those activities that foster the development of letter-sound relationships and phoneme awareness. The studies Vellutino cites, carried out in both natural and laboratory settings, demonstrate that training in these skills significantly improves reading ability and comprehension.

Though Vellutino is persuaded that code-oriented instruction is important, he does not suggest neglecting meaning-oriented activities. He points out that research has shown that whole-language approaches are effective in teaching print concepts, in relating expectations about reading, in creating enthusiasm and instilling a desire to read. The decoding approaches simply help students master word recognition as an important prerequisite for effective comprehension.

In conclusion, Vellutino states that developing a working knowledge of phonemes and letter sounds is very important. However, programs that immerse children in interminable phonics skill activities, but do not provide sufficient opportunities to apply these skills in real reading contexts, will not ensure good reading achievement. Phonic skills are important for improving comprehension, but Vellutino recommends a balanced approach to reading instruction. Activities typical of whole-language programs – using context for monitoring and predictive purposes, vocabulary enrichment, integration of reading, writing and spelling, and discussion that encourages reading for comprehension – are also important to developing reading ability.


“Introduction to Three Studies on Reading Acquisition: Convergent Findings on Theoretical Foundations of Code-Oriented Versus Whole-Language Approaches to Reading Instruction” Journal of Educational Psychology Volume 83, Number 4, pp. 437-443.

Published in ERN March/April 1992 Volume 5 Number 2

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