Many parents and even educators are confused about what it means when we refer to Whole Language, Balanced Literacy, and Systematic Phonics approaches to literacy instruction. When I teach children, I use storytelling and metaphor to make difficult topics relatable. The following story/metaphor will hopefully help you understand the terminology identified with each approach and provide you with a better sense of the differences between them. Please don’t share this story with the Highway Patrol!
In the past five, actually the past ten, years, my vision has steadily deteriorated, and I have had to come to grips with the realization that I need to wear glasses all the time, even when driving. When I drive to familiar places, however, I do not always wear my glasses. Shhhh…. I know, I know, not the best idea, but I can kinda get away with it, especially when I drive to local, familiar places. Because I have been down those roads before and know the way, I can rely on landmarks, my sense of timing, and my memory to get me to where I need to go. I usually do not have to read the signs. If I needed to read a sign, however – for instance, if there was an unexpected detour on the way to a local strip mall, I might be able to squint enough to make out a couple of letters or words on the sign and make a good guess at the rest based on what I already know and the familiar surroundings. Even if a huge truck blocked the sign from my vision, I could still look beyond and see buildings and landmarks that would give me the clues I needed to find my destination. I would know that I needed to make a left; I would see the school on my right; I would go up to the intersection, see a church on the hill, make another left, go two blocks, and make a right until I made it to the store, even if the parking lot sign lot was small or cluttered with other store names! And I would do so all without having really read one sign!
Now, if I traveled to New Jersey from New York, even with GPS barking orders at me to turn left and right, I would still need to read the signs. Looking at just the first or last letters of the words would not really do. Since the NJ Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway are unfamiliar, I could not depend on my experiences. And since I would have no frame of reference for my ultimate destination, buildings and landmarks would not help me. I would actually need to wear my glasses because when the roads are unpredictable and I have not traveled on them repeatedly, I cannot simply rely on muscle memory and external clues to get me where I need to go. Makes sense, doesn’t it?
So, let’s take this story and apply it to two different philosophies in teaching children to read.
The Whole Language approach focuses on trying to get children to make sense of text using a variety of strategies. It emphasizes a “top-down” philosophy whereby children are taught to look to the context of a passage and pictures to figure out unknown words. Children are encouraged to use their experiences to construct their own understanding. In my driving metaphor, I used all the environmental clues to navigate the road without my glasses. Based on my experience, I was able to figure out what the signs probably said. This certainly works in familiar territory, and Whole Language can work with predictable, repetitive books. But when the text gets smaller, the content becomes more complex, and pictures are removed, flaws develop in the process, and the reader, lacking the proper tools (or glasses) becomes unable to navigate.
Systematic Phonics, on the other hand, is a bottom-up approach, emphasizing sound to letter connections. Proponents of this approach teach sound-letter correspondence and encourage children to sound out words, not scan the page for clues in the context or pictures. The context is only used to help with words with multiple meaning and to confirm one’s understanding of what has been read. If I am driving to a place I haven’t been before, I have to be able to see the signs and read the directions. I cannot depend on landmarks or my surroundings. If I can’t read without pictures and surrounding clues, I am not really reading, and I will be forced to guess. What worked in a familiar territory will not work in an unfamiliar situation. I am definitely wearing my glasses for this trip!
So along came Balanced Literacy, what in theory is supposed to be a combination of Whole Language and Phonics, designed to satisfy both camps. Like so many things based on moderation and compromise, a “balanced” approach sounds very logical from an instructional perspective, doesn’t it? Teach some phonics and also how to seek meaning in the passage. Well, not exactly. In practice, the phonics incorporated into most Balanced Literacy curricula is usually woefully inadequate in that it does not teach children how to truly read words in a systematic, cumulative, and structured manner. Moreover, the books used to teach phonics skills have the effect of keeping children stuck in low levels until they somehow overcome their reading difficulties, often by memorizing the predictable text. Even worse, struggling readers are given interventions focused on variety instead of instruction targeted toward the real culprit, an inability to decode. Children might get some phonics instruction, as needed, but that would depend on the book they were using at the moment. This is not the same as true, systematic phonics. Using my driving analogy, it would be like driving to New Jersey without my glasses all the time. I could try to compensate and use other clues to get me where I needed to go, but it would not be reliable and would probably take a lot longer. I might have to stay local in my predictable, repetitive world.
Faith Borkowsky, Founder and Lead Educational Consultant of High Five Literacy and Academic Coaching, is a Certified Wilson Dyslexia Practitioner, is Orton-Gillingham trained, and has extensive training and experience in a number of other research-based, peer-reviewed programs that have produced positive gains for students with dyslexia, auditory processing disorder, ADD/ADHD, and a host of learning difficulties. Her book, Reading Intervention Behind School Walls: Why Your Child Continues to Struggle, is available on Amazon. See information on her book and an interview with Ms. Borkowsky: https://highfiveliteracy.com/book/