Teachers’ use of phonics vs. whole language

A recent survey reveals that teachers do not assume an either-or approach to phonics and whole language. Instead, most teachers give children a balanced, eclectic program involving both reading skill instruction and immersion in literacy experiences. Empirical evidence refutes the claim that U.S. students’ reading achievement has declined because of whole-language, literature-based instruction. There has been neither a decline in skills nor a neglect of phonics instruction. Data from the 1994 National Assessment of Education Progress indicate that 9-, 13- and 17-year-old students did not differ significantly from their 1971 peers. However, 1994 NAEP results do show some decline at the 12th-grade level since 1992. It is too early to tell if this is a long-term trend.

According to the recent survey, teachers believe phonics should be taught directly but that children also need to be immersed in literature to achieve fluency. On average, 55 minutes of the 2 hours and 23 minutes devoted to literacy daily are spent on direct skill instruction. Ninety-nine percent of K-2 teachers believe phonics skills are essential or important. Simultaneously they value literature and literacy immersion activities. Teachers report that accommodating the huge range of students’ needs and reading levels is their greatest challenge.

The Reading Teacher, Volume 51, Number 8, May 1998, pp. 636-651.

Published in ERN September 1998 Volume 11 Number 6

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