Literacy Across Cultures
June, 1997 1/1

Key Concepts in Literacy: Phonics vs. Whole Language

Charles Jannuzi
Fukui University (Japan)

The phonics vs. whole language distinction has at least two realities: (1) as a split in instructional philosophies for teaching the acquisition and development of beginning literacy and (2) as a rather heated political debate playing itself out in the English-speaking countries (no doubt most divisively in the United States). I will look at the concepts of phonics and whole language in relation to these two contexts and then attempt to show how these concepts might prove meaningful and useful to EFL literacy.

Phonics is a way of teaching reading and spelling that stresses symbol-sound relationships, used especially in beginning instruction (Harris & Hodges, 1995, p. 186). This definition, of course, refers specifically to beginning instruction of native language literacy. There is a large set of different phonics approaches to such instruction, including: analytic, cluster, deductive, explicit, extrinsic, implicit, inductive, intrinsic, letter, synthetic, and whole-word (Harris & Hodges, 1995, p. 186)

 The need for phonics instruction is based on the fairly well accepted idea that phonemic awareness is a necessary pre-reading skill for literacy in an alphabetic written language. However, the writing system of English is neither phonetically nor phonemically so clear-cut,and this is where phonics approaches might prove useful. While the ability to break words down into syllables comes fairly natural to native language speakers, the skill of analyzing language further into the distinct units of sound known as phonemes is one that must be taught. The goal of phonics instruction is to clarify and reinforce the learning of phonemic awareness and then to relate it to the spelling conventions of written English. If done effectively, it might act as a cognitive bridge from phonemic awareness to decoding fluency of the writing system and actual beginning literacy.

 Whole language is a much more wide-ranging but fuzzy concept than phonics. More than anything it is a broad, ambitious, humanistic, largely teacher-led movement that rejects overly deductive and analytic methodology and favors individualized, student-centered activities in beginning literacy instruction. Given whole language's considerable depth and sweep, it is easy to see how some of its advocates as both classroom practitioners and theorists might reject phonics. As Strickland (in Harris & Hodges, 1995) explains, the crux of the disagreement is this:

Issues surrounding phonics and the teaching of discrete skills evoke the most heated discussions about whole language. Because whole language teachers believe that all language systems are interwoven, they avoid the segmentation of language into component parts for specific skill instruction (p. 280).
Still, regardless of popular misconceptions, a whole language approach does not require the total rejection of phonics. Rather, "[t]he use of strategies taught in meaningful contexts is emphasized. Phonics is taught through writing by focusing on the patterns of language in reading..." (Strickland, in Harris & Hodges, 1995, p. 280).

 The 1980s saw a definite swing to the right in the politics of two of the most populous and influential English speaking countries, the USA and the UK. Part of this movement rightward was a call for a return to basics in education. Right-wing critiques of what was wrong with society, its schools, and education singled out theories and practices that were seen as too progressive and humanistic. This meant that whole language advocates found their often misunderstood and poorly supported approach undergoing withering criticism. In California there was even an attempt to link whole language with everything that had been thought to have gone wrong in its education system. A recent article in Reading Today reports, "the perceived lack of phonics instruction in American schools has led some policy-makers to issue educational mandates that have affected classrooms throughout the state of California, as well as in a host of local school districts throughout the United States (April/May 1997, p. 1)."

 So heated (and perhaps pointlessly bitter) has the debate become that the International Reading Association's Board of Directors felt compelled to publish a position statement on the place of phonics in the elementary/beginning literacy curriculum, the most important assertion of which reads, "Phonics instruction, to be effective in promoting independence in reading, must be embedded in the context of a total reading/language arts program" (Reading Today, April/May 1997, p. 1).

 Stripped of most of its conservative vs. liberal politics, the phonics vs. whole language debate still holds lessons for theorists and practitioners in ELT and in EFL Literacy. First, much of what literacy and language arts educators find attractive in the whole language movement has its parallels in recent ELT: meaningful/ communicative/real world language use, learner-and learning-centered activities, individualized instruction, and the classroom integration of all (rather than isolation of discrete) language skills. In other words, much of what we identify with modern, communicative ELT fits well with the whole language philosophy. But second, ELT is undergoing something of its own reactionary response to the communicative paradigm: I perceive a growing concern that communicative approaches result in poor language production because not enough care is given to discrete language building skills, such as pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary. And just as with whole language approaches, many school administrators and teachers may not be prepared for the sort of commitment to re-training and micro-management of the learning environment that communicative ELT requires.

 The question for ELT practitioners is: Is either a phonics or whole language approach adaptable to beginning literacy in EFL? Or, perhaps, what elements of each are appropriate? True, many of the progressive and humanistic elements of the whole language philosophy may seem appealing to teachers trained in the communicative paradigm; but, as anyone who has had to teach EFL beginners knows, such students don't have a whole lot of language skills to draw on. Of course it would be detrimental to deny the fact that our students are literate, native speakers of another language. However, the real danger is probably going too far the other way and bogging down in cross-linguistic approaches that attempt to map out the whole target language in terms of the native one.

 The issues concerning what needs to be taught and how it might be best presented to EFL beginners are not simple ones. Written English uses a complex, somewhat inconsistent writing system that is confusing for many learners (both FL and native ones). Basically what has happened is this: 26 roman letters are used to represent over 40 sounds to create hundreds of spelling patterns, and there are many common sight words that don't fit any patterns. And if phonemic awareness is generally considered to be necessary for mastering an alphabetic writing system, what of EFL learners whose only internalized phonology is that of their mother tongue? How are, for example, Japanese learners to gain fluency in decoding the jungle of written English with only the sounds of spoken Japanese and an ability to analyze language that stops at the syllable (for the most part, written Japanese subsists at the word/morpheme and syllabic level)?

 The best solution to this problem is probably phonics instruction before students are required to open and attempt to read their EFL textbooks. Systematic phonics attempts to emphasize the regularity of written English and to create an entry-level fluency in learners so that they can go on to learn to read for meaning.

 Bluntly put, if the lower-level, bottom-up decoding and reading skills are not there, beginning EFL readers will simply not have the reading "energy" to work on word- and sentence-level meaning, let alone critical reading and appreciation skills. Inability with the phonology and writing system and how the two relate will create insurmountable bottlenecks in information processing, bottlenecks that top-down and cross-linguistic approaches to language instruction can do little to remediate. However, since phonics (indeed, FL Literacy as a whole) is not really part of the ELT mainstream and approaches based on bottom-up linguistics are not much understood or appreciated by teachers in the communicative paradigm, its advocates will have their work cut out for them.



Harris, T.L., & Hodges, R.E. (Eds.) (1995). The Literacy Dictionary: The vocabulary of reading and writing. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

IRA takes stand on phonics. (1997, April/May). Reading Today, p. 1, 4.

Sutherland, D. (1995). Whole language. In Harris, T. L.,& Hodges, R. E. (Eds.), The Literacy Dictionary (pp. 279-281). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.


Charles Jannuzi can be contacted at Fukui University College of Education, Bunkyo 3-9-1, Fukui 910, JAPAN, or by e-mail at jannuzi@edu01.f-edu.fukui-u.

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Literacy Across Cultures
June, 1997 1/1