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Dr. Jon Reyhner 

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The Reading Wars

Phonics versus Whole Language
© Jon Reyhner, Northern Arizona University, Revised January 3, 2020

There is an educational and political battle going on between proponents of a phonics emphasis in reading and a whole language emphasis. This battle is going on in newspaper editorial pages, in state legislatures, and congress. Proponents of phonics point to a purported decline in reading test scores in the 1990s that they saw as a result of whole language instruction and "scientific" studies that indicated phonics instruction produced better reading scores than other methods. Whole language advocates point to other reasons to explain those instances of declining reading scores such as students living in poverty and to ethnographic studies of students in classrooms to support their position. As shown in Figure 1, reading scores for students as reported by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress showed little change from 1992 to 2017.

Figure 1: Average National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Reading Scores 1992-2017

NOTE: Includes public and private schools. The reading scale scores range from 0 to 500. Assessment was not conducted for grade 8 in 2000 or for grade 12 in 2000, 2003, 2007, 2011, and 2017. Testing accommodations (e.g., extended time, small group testing) for children with disabilities and English language learners were not permitted in 1992 and 1994 (from

As education moved from the home into schools in the eighteenth century, textbooks were developed to teach reading. The McGuffey Readers were among the first of these. They consisted of a graded series of books that are now called a basal reading series. The first and second grade books were specially written to include stories that emphasized the sounds of letters in words, but the readers for older students were anthologies of stories drawn from a variety of sources. As well as helping teach reading, the McGuffey readers emphasized values like the rich helping the poor and being kind to animals. Teaching in the eighteenth century tended to be teacher-centered with students doing a lot of rote memorization.

At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, the Progressive Education Movement pushed for instruction that focused more on the interests of students and what science was discovering about teaching and learning. More and more stories were included in basals that emphasized particular sounds or other targeted reading skills. These specially written stories with controlled vocabularies were often of little interest to students and did not include ethnic minority characters. In the 1950s the "Dick and Jane" readers published by Scott Foresman used a "whole word" approach to teaching reading where words were repeated on each page enough times that, according to behaviorist research, students could remember them.

Phonics proponents led by Rudolph Flesh in his 1955 book Why Johnny Can't Read attacked the whole word approach because it did not get students into reading children's stories that did not have carefully controlled vocabularies. Phonics advocates focus their efforts on the primary grades and emphasize the importance of students being able to sound out (read) words based on how they are spelled. A problem with English is that it does not have a one-to-one sound symbol relationship that would make reading much easier. The many homonyms in English such as to, too, and two create difficulties for students, even at the university level in regard to spelling.

While knowing basic phonetic rules helps students sound out words, other very common "outlaw words" still need to be memorized as sight words because they don't follow any but the most complicated rules. It is estimated about half the words in the English language cannot be pronounced correctly using commonly taught phonic rules. Other problems with phonics include the differing size of students' vocabularies and differing dialects of English that vary in their pronunciation rules

Phonics is considered a "bottom up" approach where students "decode" the meaning of a text. The advantage of phonics, especially for students who come to schools with large vocabularies, is that once students get the basics down, they can go to the library and read a wide variety of children's literature.

Whole language is a currently controversial approach to teaching reading that is based on constructivist learning theory and ethnographic studies of students in classrooms. It is particularly associated with the work of Ken and Yetta Goodman at the University of Arizona. With whole language, teachers are expected to provide a literacy rich environment for their students and to combine speaking, listening, reading, and writing. Whole language teachers emphasize the meaning of texts over the sounds of letters, and phonics instruction becomes just one component of the whole language classroom.

Whole language is considered a "top down" approach where the reader constructs a personal meaning for a text based on using their prior knowledge to interpret the meaning of what they are reading. Problems associated with whole language include a lack of structure that has been traditionally supplied by the scope and sequence, lessons and activities, and extensive graded literature found in basal readers. Whole language puts a heavy burden on teachers to develop their own curriculum.

Behaviorism versus Constructivism

Various approaches to reading presume that students learn differently. The phonics emphasis in reading draws heavily from behaviorist learning theory that is associated with the work of the Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner while the whole language emphasis draws from constructivist learning theory and the work of the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky.

Behaviorist learning theory is based on studies of animal behaviors where animals such as pigeons learned to do tasks when they received rewards and extinguished (stopped) behaviors that were not rewarded or were punished. Most of us can point to things we continue to do because we are rewarded for doing them. Rewards can be the pay we get for jobs we do, desired recognition like "A" grades for doing excellent school work, and praise from our friends when they like what we are doing. Likewise, we can point to things we stopped doing because we were not rewarded or were punished for them. Behaviorist learning theory tends to look at extrinsic rewards like money, grades, and gold stars rather than intrinsic rewards like feeling good about successfully accomplishing a difficult task.

Constructivist learning theory is based on the idea that children learn by connecting new knowledge to previously learned knowledge. The term is a building metaphor that includes students using scaffolding to organize new information. If children cannot connect new knowledge to old knowledge in a meaningful way, they may with difficulty memorize it (rote learning), but they will not have a real understanding of what they are learning.

Vygotsky identified a "zone of proximal" development where children can learn new things that are a little above their current understanding with the help of more knowledgeable peers or adults. This new knowledge is incorporated into their existing knowledge base.

Learning Theories Compared

Behaviorism (Official Theory1)
Constructivism (Classic Theory)
Teacher-Centered Direct Instruction Student-Centered Instruction
Transmission (Paulo Freire's Banking Model) Experiential Interactive 
Phonics Emphasis Whole Language Emphasis
Sound & Skills Emphasis Meaning Emphasis

Students who come from "high literacy" households--where young children are read to on a regular basis, there are lots of children's books, and adults read regularly--tend to learn to read well regardless of the teaching approach used. These students tend to enter school with large vocabularies and reading readiness skills (an estimated 5% can already read when they enter school).

Students from "low literacy" households are not exposed much to reading in their homes and tend to have smaller vocabularies (as much as one-half the vocabularies of students from high literacy homes). They may speak non-standard dialects of English such as African American English and can be unmotivated students, especially if they see teachers as enemies trying to change how they speak and act, in other words their language and culture. It is argued that standard phonics approaches can be unsuccessful for these students. Whole language approaches encourage teachers to find reading material that reflects these students' language and culture.

Another issue in teaching reading is the brain development in children. Countries like Finland that do very well on international tests, including tests of reading, do not start to teach reading until students are seven years old when their cognitive development is more advanced.

Publishing basal reading textbooks is a multimillion dollar industry that responds to the demands of purchasers. Two populous states, California and Texas, do statewide adoptions of textbooks, and whatever they want in their textbooks, publishers tend to supply. Currently publishers are including systematic phonics instruction, more classic and popular children's literature, and whole language activities. This compromise generally goes under the rubric of a "balanced approach" to teaching reading. Advocates of balanced reading instruction should supplement a school's adopted reading program with materials that reflect the experiential background and interests of their students.

The Reading Wars, the National Reading Panel and NCLB's Reading First2

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 through its Reading First provisions attempts to improve reading instruction in American schools and close the gap in test scores between ethnic minorities and mainstream "white" Americans. Reading First requires states to show "how the State educational agency will assist local educational agencies in identifying instructional materials, programs, strategies, and approaches, based on scientifically based reading research, including early intervention and reading remediation materials, programs, and approaches" (NCLB, 2001, p. 123). The NCLB approach to improving reading instruction is grounded in the findings of the congressionally mandated report of the National Reading Panel (NRP) issued in 2000. The NRP did not examine research that specifically addressed the challenges faced by ethnic minority students, English language learners and students speaking non- standard dialects of English.

The NRP's review of research also ignored the influence of motivation on teaching reading. The 2006 report, The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives on High School Dropouts, notes that the lack of student interest and engagement is the major reason for dropping out of school (given by almost half of high school dropouts). Dropouts found their classes to be boring; over two-thirds said they were not motivated to work hard in school (Bridgeland, DiIulio & Morison). On the other hand studies of effective primary teachers found them to be "massively motivating" with teachers who are "exceptionally skilled at matching their teaching to the needs of individual students" (Allington, 2002, p. 78).

Peshkin (1997) and Ogbu's (2003) research demonstrates the importance of motivation and engagement. In his study of a New Mexico Indian high school, Peshkin found that both students and their families had ambivalent feelings toward schooling. Ogbu noted a similar "academic disengagement" among Black students and their families in an affluent Ohio suburb. Ethnic minorities, such as Asian Americans, with highly positive attitudes toward schooling as a group do well in school in contrast to students with ambivalent or oppositional feelings because school is viewed as a place for cultural assimilation and "acting white" (Fordham & Ogbu, 1986).

The NRP in its research review excluded all non-experimental studies such as correlational and ethnographic studies of students actually learning to read in classrooms (Allington, 2002). Joanne Yatvin (2000), the only member of the panel who had actually taught beginning reading in a classroom, in her minority report concluded that the NRP rushed its review and that "from the beginning, the Panel chose to conceptualize and review the field narrowly, in accordance with the philosophical orientation and research interest of the majority of its members" that biased it towards an emphasis on phonics instruction (p. 1). The NRP "did not touch on early learning and home support for literacy, matters which many experts believe are the critical determinates of schools success or failure" (Yatvin, 2000, p. 2).

Despite a phonics predisposition, the NRP concluded that "phonics instruction produces the biggest impact on growth in reading when it begins in kindergarten or 1st grade before children have learned to read independently" and it "failed to exert a significant impact on the reading performance of low-achieving readers in 2nd through 6th grades" (NRP, 2000, pp. 2-93-94). The NRP also noted that "it is important to emphasize that systematic phonics instruction should be integrated with other reading instruction to create a balanced reading program. Phonics instruction is never a total reading program.... Phonics should not become the dominant component in a reading program, neither in amount of time devoted to it nor in the significance attached" (p. 2-97). The NRP found that researchers had not paid attention to motivational factors for both students and teachers and that there was "common agreement that fluency develops from reading practice" (p. 3-1). Thus, despite the final reports phonics emphasis, the report had embedded in it some support for a whole language approach to teaching reading. However, the NPR's support for a "balanced approach" in its full report was lost in both the official published report summary and in the funding by the U.S. Department of Education of NCLB Reading First grants to school districts (Garan, 2002).

Educational psychologist Gerald Coles in his point-by-point rebuttal to the NPR report notes that the work of the NRP has been,

harmful because it falsely holds out the promise of a simple, "magic bullet" solution to the literacy failure of millions of children, especially those who are poor, while at the same time discouraging social policy attention to forces both in and out of schools that influence literacy outcomes. (2000, p. xvii)
Allington (2002) further notes the glaring lack of scientific evidence to show that students who do well with phonics in the primary grades transition to become fluent readers in the in the upper elementary grades with good reading comprehension.

NCLB has provided a billion dollars a year for Reading First programs to implement "scientifically-based" reading instruction in schools, but Washington Post reporter Michael Grunwald noted five years after the passage of NCLB "an accumulating mound of evidence from reports, interviews and program documents suggest that Reading First has had little to do with science or rigor. Instead, the billions have gone to what is effectively a pilot project for untested programs with friends in high places" (Grunwald, 2006, p. B1). The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Inspector General found that the application package for Reading First grants "obscured the requirements of the [NCLB] statute: and that Reading First proposal reviewers were not adequately screened for conflicts of interest (U.S. Department of Education, 2006, p. 2). After a five-hour investigative hearing on conflicts of interest in the funding of Reading First grants, Representative George Miller, chairman of the House Education Committee, declared that the administration of the program "sounds like a criminal enterprise to me" (quoted in Paley, 2007).

The research-backed Success for All and Reading Recovery programs were systematically excluded from Reading First funding in favor of programs with less research backing from large commercial publishers (Grunwald, 2006). However, even Success for All, with all its research backing, has been tried and dropped by schools after it did not live up to its promises (Pogrow, 2000; Reyhner, 2001a). When the U.S. Department of Education's What Works Clearinghouse released its 2007 report on beginning reading intervention programs, of 24 programs with some research backing, only Reading Recovery was found to have positive or potentially positive effects in all areas reviewed: alphabetics, fluency, comprehension, and general reading achievement (What Works Clearinghouse, 2007) and "none of the most popular commercial reading programs on the market had sufficiently rigorous studies to be included in the review by the clearinghouse" (Manzo, 2007). The Clearinghouse listed 129 programs that lacked scientific evidence to support their efficacy, including Direct Instruction/DISTAR, Direct Instruction/SRA, Hooked on Phonics, and Saxon Phonics. Of the six programs that the U.S. Department of Interior's Bureau of Indian Affair's Office of Indian Education Programs listed on their Web site as meeting Reading First Grant criteria, only Success for All was listed as meeting any of the Clearinghouse's criteria.3

The 2008 study by the Department of Education's National Center for Education Evaluation on Reading First, which was generally hailed by phonics advocates, found that even though more time was being spent teaching reading in Reading First classrooms, "Reading First did not have statistically significant impacts on student reading comprehension test scores in grades 1-3" (National Center, 2008).


1"Official" and "Classic" theories are terms used by Frank Smith in his Book of Learning and Forgetting (Teachers College Press, 1998).

2 This section is adapted from Jon Reyhner and Denny Hurtado's 2008 article "Reading First, Literacy, and American Indian/Alaska Native Students" (Journal of American Indian Education, 47(1), 82-95).

3Downloaded August 31, 2007 from


Allington, R.L. (2002). Big brother and the national reading curriculum: How ideology trumped evidence. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Bridgeland , J.M., DiIulio, Jr., J.J., & Morison, K.B. (2006). The silent epidemic: Perspectives on high school dropouts. Washington, DC: Civic Enterprises (a report of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation).

Coles, G. (2000). Misreading reading: The bad science that hurts children. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Fordham, S., & Ogbu, J.U. (1986). Black students' school success: Coping with the "Burden of 'Acting White.'" Urban Review, 18(3), 176-206.

Garan, E.M. (2002). Beyond the smoke and mirrors: A critique of the National Reading Panel report on phonics. In R.L. Allington (Ed.), Big brother and the national reading curriculum: How ideology trumped evidence (pp. 90-111). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Grunwald, M. (2006, October 1). Billions for an inside game on reading. Washington Post, B1. Retrieved August 31, 2007 at

Manzo, K.K. (2007, August 15). Reading curricula don't make cut for federal review. Education Week online.

National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance. (2008). Reading First Impact Study: Interim Report. Retrieved June 2, 2008 at

National Reading Panel. (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction, reports of the subgroups. Rockville, MD: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Retrieved August 31, 2007 at

No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, Title I: Improving the Academic Achievement of the Disadvantaged. (2001). Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education, George Washington University.

Ogbu, J. U. (2003). Black American students in an affluent suburb: A study of academic disengagement. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Paley, AR. (2007, April 21). Key initiative of "No Child" under federal investigation. Washington Post, A1. Retrieved August 31, 2007 at dyn/content/article/2007/04/20/AR2007042002284_pf.html

Peshkin, Alan. (1997). Places of memory: Whiteman's schools and Native American communities. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Pogrow, S. (2000). Success for All does not produce success for students. Phi Delta Kappan, 82(1), 67-80.

President Bush signs Indian education executive order. (2004, April 30). Retrieved September 20, 2007 at

Reyhner, J. (2001a, October 30). Does "Success for All" mean success for Indian students? Presentation at the 32nd Annual National Indian Education Association Annual Convention, Billings, MT.

Reyhner, J. (2001b). Family, community, and school impacts on American Indian and Alaska Native students' success. Literature review prepared for American Indian/Alaska Native Education Research Initiative. Retrieved August 31, 2007 at

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Inspector General. (2006). The Reading First program's grant application process: Final inspection report. Washington, DC: Author.

What Works Clearinghouse. (2007, August 13). WWC topic report: Beginning reading. Washington DC: Institute for Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

Yatvin, L. (2000). Minority view. In National Reading Panel, Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction, reports of the subgroups. Rockville, MD: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Retrieved August 31, 2007 at


Alphabetic Principle--The sound symbol relationship found in alphabetic languages such as English.

Balanced Reading Instruction--Combines aspects of the phonics and whole language approaches to teaching reading.

Basal Reading Series--Also known just as basals, basal reading series are graded series of textbooks used to teach reading in elementary schools.

Behaviorism--The learning theory that focuses on providing repetition to learn habits and using rewards and punishments to change a learner's behavior. B.F. Skinner was a leader in behaviorist research. Also known as Operant Conditioning.

Constructivism--The learning theory developed by Lev Vygotsky and others that emphasizes the learners developing meaning by relating new knowledge to their previous knowledge.

McGuffey Readers--A basal reading series first published in the first half of the nineteenth century that remained very popular into the beginning of the twentieth century.

Phonics--The sound/symbol relationship between the spelling of words and the way they are spoken.

Phonics Emphasis--The approach to teaching reading that emphasizes the sound symbol relationship in alphabetic writing systems such as English.

Phonemic Awareness--Knowing that spoken words are made up of sequences of individual sounds and the ability to manipulate those sounds.

Progressive Education--Associated with the Progressive political movement and the philosopher John Dewey; advocates of progressive education wanted to make education more student-centered and scientific at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Reading Wars--The dispute over the best way to teach reading that is being carried out by advocates of the phonics and whole language approaches to teaching reading.

Skinner, B.F.--The Harvard psychologist that through animal experiments helped develop behaviorist learning theory.

Vygotsky, Lev--Pioneer Russian researcher and theoretician of constructivist learning theory.

Whole Language--The approach to teaching reading that focuses on getting meaning through text and teaching reading, writing, and other subjects together.

Whole Word Approach--Epitomized in the Scott Foresman Dick and Jane readers, the whole word approach focused on teaching vocabulary as sight words by exposing students to new words repeatedly through specially written stories. Thus the repetition in famous phrases like "Look, Look, Jane."

Zone of Proximal Development--In constructivist learning theory this is the area just beyond what a child knows where they can add new knowledge to their existing knowledge with the assistance of a more knowledgeable person.

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