Literacy Teaching-Learning

Competing Language Teaching Methodologies in Facilitating Early Literacy: What Lessons Can We Draw?


People can acquire the spoken language of the society where they are born or are exposed to, the skill often named as oracy since ‘human beings are genetically endowed with the ability to assimilate the local language – to understand it and to speak it grammatically’ ( But people cannot read and write unless they are formally trained. Though formal language teaching includes oracy, it mostly focuses on teaching literacy – the ability to read and write.

Basically language teaching someone to read and write is explaining how the alphabetic code of the language works, and these different approaches are used. The language teaching methodologies that are prominent in current educational practice are the ‘phonic’ and the ‘whole-language’ approach that is seemingly the rival approaches to each other and their relative merits and demerits are hotly debated (Palmaffy, 1997; Taylor, 1998; Baines & Stanley, 2000; Jeynes & Littell, 2000; Rayner et al., 2001; Shafer, 2001; Berryman, 2004; Johnson, 2004, 2005). The rivalry in which the advocates of these two approaches are engaged in the theoretical underpinnings on which they are founded, as they originate from two absolutely dichotomised view of instructional philosophy positioning themselves in the dead-ends of a continuum.

According to the whole-language approach, reading is a psycholinguistic guessing game that consists of generating and testing hypotheses (Smith, 1971; Goodman, 1986; Goodman& Goodman, 1990), whilst the phonic approach holds that readingis largely dependent upon the accurate perception of the letter strings that make upwords (Gough, 1972, Lovett et al., 2000). The phonic approach is one of the established methods of literacy instructions in which children are first introduced to the letters of the alphabet and their basic sounds. After teaching the sounds of the alphabets for example a, b, c in English, the diagraphs (like ay, all) and simple spelling rules are then taught where words are formed with the same sound or component letters. Children then can learn to read and write new words by applying that rule adding greatly to the vocabulary with each digraph. That means, having learned a simple sound (like ay), children can form a whole family of words (like bay, may, pay, ray, say, way, play, tray etc). Thus, acclaimed by its advocates that, this approach employs the natural phonic faculties of the human child and connects these to the language script (Berryman, 2004).

On the other hand correspondences between letters and phonemes are not explicitly taught in the whole-language instructions. While research in educational, cognitive and developmental psychology has gathered evidence on the effective design of educational programs for reading/literacy, and increased favour has enjoyed by the whole-language approach over the last three decades in comparison to the conventional phonic approach. Founded on a constructivist child-centred view, it focuses on holistic learning based on literature-based instruction rather than isolated direct instructions. The fundamental assumption that underlies this approach is that learning to read is like learning to speak and requires only exposure to a rich language environment without any specific language teaching of the alphabetic system and letter-sound relationships, and accordingly ‘stories are being read to children and that the plan is that after sufficient immersion in natural stories (not “artificial” readers), children would in time get to know how each word looked and in this way gradually become fluent readers’ (ibid).

Language interventions are planned through more naturalistic interactions in Whole Language approach; spontaneously occurring in events, utterances and communicative situations that arise in the contexts of play, daily routines and instructional activities (Norris & Hoffman, 1990). It takes into account of ownership and authentic reading and writing, and provides the children with the freedom of choice in reading texts or doing activities, and thus to comprehend and respond to texts (Papert, 1990; Trachtenburg, 1990; Rossow & Hess, 2001); since research indicates that student finds little value in literacy activities heavily relied upon outcomes or skills with little opportunities for meaningful activities (Au, 1997). In fact, meaningful texts and activities help to increase students’ motivation to read and participate and increasingly students feel empowered in classroom-interactions and decision-making processes (Bergeron & Rudenga, 1996). This eventually establishes a sense of ownership among students who then feel confident to make use of the power of literacy and employ it in their everyday school and home lives (Au, 1997). Another important aspect of this approach is to provide children with a wide range of opportunities for oral conversation and peer-interactions which widely influence their language development, as Ely indicates, ‘[p]eer interactions represent true testing grounds for the young child’s evolving communicative competence’ (Ely, 2005; p-397).

However, both approaches have some strengths as well as drawbacks and there are arguments in favor of each approach.

Though whole-language has been the leading method for literacy-instructions for the last three decades, major objections to this include that children become familiar with each word by the look of it and remember the spoken word to which it corresponds often called as ‘sight words’; without exploring the sounds of the component letters. Hence, this approach depends more on rote-learning and is limited to words that have been intentionally introduced to the children. So the children never can decode words that are new to them unless they teach phonics to themselves. Berryman, an Australian school teacher rejects the whole-language approach as an effective way of language teaching and blames it as the cause of Australia’s poor literacy standards, and continues to refuse the government policy of advocating this approach. She disputes its foundational basis as she states,

The whole language approach is based on the false premise that since children naturally acquire speech by exposure to the spoken language of the group they are born into, that the same will hold true for reading and writing. The theory goes: immerse the children in stories read aloud and they will naturally come to read and write. The Australian education industry (including our universities) has failed to acknowledge research findings – both local and international, and available over the past thirty years – that the whole language approach would fail many children, and that a systematic phonic approach to teaching literacy, should be employed. Humans are genetically endowed with the ability to acquire speech. But reading and writing are learned skills – as human history has consistently shown us. (Berryman, 2004)

Current developments in cognitive neuroscience indicate that language, once acquired, is not static, but rather, undergoes constant neural reorganisation (Gleason, 2005). So the mechanical view of literacy acquisition adopted in the phonic approach has been denied until quite recently and most of the developed countries tended to adopt the whole-language philosophy in their literacy instructions. A widespread debate in the US about this has led to a series of government-funded research to examine the scientific evidence relating to how children learn to read and what strategies are most effective in language teaching reading. However, research has not confirmed the superiority of any of these approaches over another. This is because language learning is not a mechanical process, but a social and affective one and there are other factors that continuously influence the learning process. A quantitative research synthesis (Steven & Patricia, 1989) in the US has suggested that both approaches are approximately equal in their effects with a few exceptions. A few interesting findings that this study found includes whole-language to be more effective for kindergarten pupils than those from first-graders. Secondly, it may help greater in word recognition than reading comprehension. The most important finding is that whole-language experience produce weaker effects on a population labelled as disadvantaged. Accordingly the results suggest that ‘whole language approach might be most effective for language teaching functional aspects of reading, such as print concepts and expectations about reading, whereas more direct approaches might be better at helping students master word recognition skills prerequisite to effective comprehension’ (ibid).

Therefore a more recent trend in literacy-instructions is reversing towards rejecting the beliefs and assumptions related to whole-language and stresses for the stronger effects from the phonic approach relative to whole-language methods. Research-based evidence in language development, cognitive science and reading research tells us that the ability to read is a complex learned skill that requires specific language teaching and suggests putting a greater emphasis on phonological awareness and phonics instruction. So school systems across the developed countries are increasingly incorporating more phonic elements into their reading programmes. And most recent views of researchers, psychologists, linguists and educators is that the dichotomy between different approaches to the teaching of reading is false and that elements of both the main approaches can be used simultaneously to teach children how to read (Zemelman et al., 1999; Rayner et al., 2001; Johnson, 2004, 2005).

After consulting a substantial amount of relevant literature and as of my experiences emerged from my involvement with literacy curriculum, materials and instructional design, I would argue that it is not worth to engage in this ‘reading war’ debating which method is superior to the other, rather it would be worthy for researchers, educationists and practitioners to use most of their efforts to help children in their literacy acquisition to their best when around 50 per cent of them face some kind of problems in literacy-acquisition (Palmaffy, 1997). Therefore the apparent degree of disagreement between the different approaches should be replaced by looking for areas of complementarities, recognising the diverse benefits from different methodologies. And efforts should be taken more on exploring ways to develop a balanced instructional paradigm that will offer comprehensive and effective instructional practice by reviewing theoretical assumptions and corresponding curricular praxis. However, no matter which approach has been taken, Routman (1991) warns that change does not take place overnight and allowing time for change to be absorbed or internalised is unavoidable. Indicating to some practical point of increasing the effectiveness of language arts instruction, Routman notifies ‘[u]nless teachers are encouraged to take time for reading, risking, and reflecting, no meaningful change will occur’ (1991, p-501) with putting greater emphasis upon the promotion of ‘self-reflection, risk-taking, a greater understanding of the principles of language learning, and a closer tie-in between theory and practice’ (1991, p-2).


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About the author

Laila Farhana Apnan Banu

Laila Farhana Apnan Banu

Laila Farhana Apnan Banu is an Education Officer, UNICEF Bangladesh, Chittagong, Bangladesh.

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