Reading wars are over: Whole language vs. Phonics

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This text is part of: "Problem of Schooling" by Piotr Wozniak (2017-2024)

Reading wars waste time

Fierce battles are waged over a question that can be answered with just a minute of calm reasoning.

To ask "Is phonics better than whole language?" is not much smarter than to ask: "Which is more important: math or reading?"'

Both approaches to learning to read are useful and both should be employed on demand. It is the child who should be in the driver seat.

A child is a perfect peace maker in reading wars

Origin of reading wars

Few people contest the value of phonics. When we encounter a rare familiar word in a text, e.g. PERSPICUOUS, it is impossible to employ pattern recognition without a degree of phonemic and phonological awareness (i.e. the ability to process sounds in spoken parts of words). Using phonics, it is helpful to sound the word out, and guess the correct word, and the meaning behind it.

The value of whole language approach seems less obvious. It is based entirely on pattern recognition. In analogy to machine learning, it benefits from a great deal of data, i.e. voluminous reading.

It seems to me that it is the proponents of early reading and early instruction in phonics that are most closed minded to the value of the whole language method. It is those who believe in critical periods for developing reading skills that are most vocal. Those who believe kids should be drilled in daycare. Phonics is the favorite weapon of teachers and eager parents. It is a shortcut to child's brain.

Whole language finds most proponents among highly literate parents and teachers. In particular, those who love literature seem to be most adamant. It is no surprise that those who learned to read on their own by voracious reading in childhood are most vocal about the effectiveness of whole language.

The value of whole language is easier to demonstrate in the case of English rather than Spanish or Italian. The Dolch word list includes 325 sight words. All readers of English know that sight words prove that phonics is not a universal tool. It is a bit harder to convince those who teach reading in languages where sight words are absent or largely absent (e.g. Italian, Polish, etc.). If a preschool teacher observes a fast progress in reading when employing phonics, and no apparent progress in whole language approach, she will easily become convinced that hers is the only right approach. The comparison between the methods is like comparing apples to oranges. A good metaphor for the futility of such comparisons is the analogy to unschooling. While direct instruction can easily be measured with standardized testing, there is no objective measure for unschooling. The superiority of phonics may seem even more pronounced if comprehension is secondary. We can make two year old kids read too. However, my admiration is tempered by the question: "Don't toddlers have more interesting things to do than cramming phonics?". The problem of benchmarks in whole language reading is the same as the problem of benchmarks in unschooling:

Reading wars are waged by sides of excellent knowledge. However, the knowledge of opponents is biased to one side of the equation

You are a holistic reader

All proficient readers use the whole language approach when they asymptotically approach their maximum reading speed. That speed is not the one that speed-readers claim for their own skills. That speed is determined by semantic processing. Our reasoning about the text is what should determine the speed of reading. The speed of reasoning is limited, and so is the speed of reading. See: How can I read faster?.

The following simple experiment will show you that you are a whole language reader too.

Example 1: do you understand this?

 chin eseandj apan esecitiz ensm ustlearnth ousan dsofcha racte rsand cha racterc ombin atio nstofun ctio ninso ciety

Example 2: do you understand this?


Example 3: do you understand this

 Chineeze amd Japenese cityzens musst learrn thouousandz of harakters end harakter kombynetions to funktjon yn sociyety

Some readers are pretty good at decoding Example 2. However, there is always a hint of bad habits of schooling (incl. phonics drills). In other words, if Example 2 is easy for you, it can either mean (1) a healthy brain or (2) a healthy brain with a trace of a bad habit. It is hard to know.

For a vast majority of good readers, Example 3 is easiest. This proves that all reading is based on pattern recognition. We know more or less how words look like. Kenneth Goodman called it a recognition based on "graphophonemic cues". The brain fills the remaining gaps with syntax, semantics, and general knowledge of the world (pragmatics).

The above shows that we need to learn "whole language" sooner or later. Phonics is just a tool of support.

A century of wars

As it is always the case in free learning, the right approach to reading is to let the child decide. It can begin with comic books, videogames, YouTube videos, alphabet songs for smaller kids, and some occasional dips into phonics as long as the child finds them entertaining. Larry Sanger, a proponent of early reading, hinted that Reading Bear is a good tool. I agree, but the ultimate decision must be made by the child. Pushing phonics can have disastrous effects. John Dewey worried about it as early as in 1898. Phonics must be the most efficient tool to discourage reading! The push for whole language may also turn out disastrous. If the instruction focuses on sight words, it can lead to specialized texts used for the purpose. Those often lead to an off-putting infantilizations: "Ola had a cat" or "See Spot run", while there should be no barriers for little kids to enter the realms of advanced knowledge as soon as they enjoy the process. Sanger is pointing in the right direction. Turning phonics into a computer game is the ultimate destination for future reading instruction. If the game allows of dendritic exploration and weasel in phonics when it is needed for progress, we may hit the jackpot of efficient instruction. In exploration, we can also dose in sight words, and exciting titbits of science that provide for a "whole brain" experience. Could an army of experts design a perfect game for learning to read? I doubt so. Free market of ideas is always the right way to go. Kids will choose their tools, and parents will assist with a network of recommendations.

I learned reading at 6-7 at school. When I was 6, a 5-year-old tried to teach me. It probably did not work. Recently, I have witnessed a 7-year-old instructing a 6-year old in reading words with flashcards. It was a hilarious demonstration of bad school habits. The instructor turned into a mean teacher, and the student turned to pranks and malice as his weapons of defense to avoid learning. Interestingly, it was the teacher who seemed more exhausted. When mom noticed the unhappiness of the teacher kid, she asked both kids what they would rather do. They exclaimed in unison: "Games!". 5 minutes later they played a game with equal joy and teamwork. I was amazed that the game required reading of words. Some of those words were the same as those on the flashcards! It was a fantastic illustration of how gaming trumps teaching by a cosmic margin! Instead of drudgery, we have fun. Instead of boredom and anger, we have actual learning!

The future of learning to read is in videogames. The future does not belong to phonics or early instruction. The future is not in whole language deprived of motivation. The future is a mix of best approaches chosen by children themselves.

The future of reading will be determined by children

The warfront may shift towards the battle between texts and videos. We need to brace ourselves for the world when some kids will start reading later. Others will zoom in at record early ages on their own steam. Gaming will propel that change. The most important thing to remember is that child's brain knows best!

Misleading research

If illiterate adults are bad at learning to read, it is not because of some imaginary critical period for reading. An illiterate brain is often polluted with bad strategies and bad habits that make learning hard.

Research clearly points to the superiority of phonics in early instruction. This is one more example of science doing an awful job in strategy recommendations. If you take a 4-year-old with a meager 4000 words vocabulary, it is even hard to find suitable texts for whole word learning. Meaningful language is the basis of literacy. The best path to conceptualization at that age is a conversation with adults who can instantly tune in and adapt the difficulty level in communication to the needs of a particular child. If text is a poor means of communication at that stage, the only way reading can occur is by mechanistic approach to phonics and decoding texts with poor comprehension.

The situation is not much different at the age of 7 when heavy drilling in phonics may indeed be a fast pathway to reading. However, no good research should skirt around the fact that this heavy drilling will put a great deal of kids off reading for life. It will also generate dyslexics pestered by toxic memories. At the same time, a seemingly dyslexic child may be unable to recite the rules of phonics, fail to name individual characters, and show uncanny ability to flawlessly guess the right interpretations in the context of the entire word, the entire phrase, or the entire story. Where simple phonemic memories may fail or become toxic, whole language may come to rescue via pattern recognition.

The only good comparison of strategies is a long-term comparison. If we take a population of 20 year old proficient readers, we can look for roots of their good reading. There is one variable that will stand prominent: vibrant learn drive. Proficient reading is based on a great deal of reading that requires passion that derives form the learn drive. The age of reading, the developmental trajectory, and the original learning methods are of negligible importance at this stage. Why wage the wars?

The entire Phonics vs Whole language debate was born from the push for early reading at school

Is teaching necessary?

In democratic schools, occasionally, the role of teachers is played by other children. Most of the time, the learning has a form of self-learning.

According to Peter Gray, among the first thousand graduates of Sudbury Valley School, there was not a single one who did not learn to read. However, the age of the onset of reading was spread widely. In unschooling, it is largely assumed that most kids learn to read between ages 3 and 13, and the actual age is largely dependent on the range of interest. A prospective sculptor is less exposed to written materials than a prospective novelist. Some kids learn on their own. Sometimes even as early as at 4-5. Others ask for assistance from other children. With the arrival of new digital technologies, learning may be accelerated or slowed further. The differential will increase.

Harms of teaching are illustrated by educational dyslexia, which is nothing else but a set of toxic memories associated with reading. When the data on input makes it impossible to engage in successful pattern recognition, the brain with generate decoding failure penalty. If that process is controlled by schooling, repeat failure may be associated with anxiety and stress. This is how toxic memories get imprinted. They can survive a lifetime. They can brand a perfectly healthy individual as a dyslectic. Dyslexia is viewed as a form of disability. As such, it often has an awful impact on self-esteem. Some personalities, like Richard Branson, embrace the "problem", and show to the world that the semantic brain is the most important asset in successful life.

See: Don't teach your child to read

Educational dyslexia

Samuel Blumenfeld has been ranting about the school system for decades. He died in 2015 at the beautiful age of 89. In his book, "Crimes of the educators", Sam described a phenomenon that has been referred to as "induced dyslexia", "educational dyslexia" or colloquially "school dyslexia". His flawless reasoning may be misread as an attack on the whole language method. Blumenfeld is right about the problem of cramming the sight vocabulary. However, he uses a narrower definition of the whole language approach. In his characteristically vivid style, he writes:

I came to the conclusion that anyone taught to read exclusively by that sight-word method was at risk of becoming dyslexic [...] I call a sight vocabulary “the poison of primary education”. It does to the brain what the drug thalidomide did to the fetus that emerged from the womb without arms

Blumenfeld's reasoning is largely correct, but highly misleading:

E. W. Dolch was a professor of education in the early 1920s who composed a list of the most frequently used words in English. It was thought that if children learned several hundred of these words by sight – that is, by whole-word recognition – before they even knew the alphabet or the letter sounds, they would have a jumping head start in learning to read. But what Dolch didn’t realize is that once the child began to automatically look at English printed words as whole configurations, like Chinese characters, or little pictures, the child would develop a whole-word or holistic reflex or habit, which would then become a block against seeing our alphabetic words in their phonetic structure. And that blockage would cause the symptoms of what is known as dyslexia

What Blumenfeld and others have correctly noticed is the impact of habit on the learning strategy, and the impact of toxic memory on the ability to adapt and progress in the learning process. If a child is required to memorize sight words at a steady rate, e.g. 5 words per week, it can quickly build up a backlog of words that will be hard to remember. The backlog will lead to stress under the pressure of schooling. The backlog will largely be a function of (1) "asemantic readiness" (i.e. ability to "memorize as is" without any semantic context), (2) the time devoted, (3) the strategy, (4) interference (from other memories and life events), etc. When the backlog builds up, so does the pressure at school, and the risk of forming toxic associations between memories and states of anxiety.

However, the exactly same process can occur with phonics. If 44 sounds of English can be written in 1100 ways, the entire process of learning to read requires memorization of tiny reading blocks such as "a", "ba", "ball" vs. "bat", etc. Once asemantic memory is involved, we can easily generate toxic memories through the pressure to perform. The entire school system is based on timed benchmarks, which are a breeding ground for toxic memories. It does not matter if anxiety is induced by sight words, or phonemes, or the mere act of reading. Anxiety is the first step to reading problems that are notoriously confused with organic dyslexia. Spotty knowledge of phonics may involve a habit of inaccurate serialized reading. When there is trouble to correctly sound out words, semantics and comprehension will suffer.

As much as excess sight words, excess number of combination of possible interpretations of strings of characters, can have the same effect. The difficulty may get exponentially worse in multilingual children forced to read in systems with different phonics. A neural network needs to receive meaningful training input in manageable chunks on demand. Any acceleration, increase in complexity (character combinations), or pressure is likely to induce toxic memory or reactance, and discourage or inhibit further progress.

In optimally deployed whole language approach, sight vocabulary is mastered by massive exposure in context. In prolonged exposure, asemantic content is seeking semantic anchoring by knowledge darwinism.

The habit may also contribute to toxicity:

Miller discovered that when preschoolers memorize as sight words the entire texts of such popular books as Dr. Seuss's The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham, they develop a block against seeing the words phonetically and thus become "dyslexic." They become sight readers with a holistic reflex rather than phonetic readers with a phonetic reflex

Symmetrically, the habit problem may occur when a "holistic reader" faces the pressures of phonics, or a "serial reader" faces the pressure of sight words memorization. Both processes should proceed naturally on demand. Both can proceed naturally in the world of digital media that is full of text accompanied by rich audiovisual feedback. Modern world is swarming with correct feedback of optimum complexity (expressed as learntropy). The guidance system responsible for the optimum identification is the learn drive (see: Optimality of the learn drive).

Sight vocabulary should not be memorized (e.g. as in SuperMemo). The reasons are the same as in the case of words, syllables, or the multiplication table. Asemantic memorization under the pressure of benchmarks leads to toxic memories. The Dolch list is interesting, but it should never be memorized! Instead, it can be used as a diagnostic to measure progress. Blumenfeld is right, even five words per week is too much for a 5 year old. It can quickly lead to a backlog, which can lead to a toxic memory, which is bound to lead to a diagnosis of dyslexia with no organic cause. The child must be in command of the process, esp. in reference to pace, selection of material, duration of exposure, etc. Without free learning, reading instruction, esp. early reading instruction, can lead to induced dyslexia.

Schools can induce educational dyslexia


Over the last century, the battlefront of reading wars would shift to favor one side or the other. Once one side gained dominance, it would convince legislators to mandate its preferred methodology. A decade or two later, when evidence kept mounting of the harm of reading instruction, the other side would gain dominance. Legislators would go back to work, new theorists and new leaders would emerge and the whole process would enter oscillations based on inter-generational forgetting of old solutions, and the excitement about new solutions. Collectively, we could never see that the real culprit is the attempt to find an assembly line prescription for all children. We failed to rely on the pleasure of reading. We failed to trust children. We kept looking for a factory solution that was bound to hurt a large subset of children.

Dismal reading proficiency should in part be blamed on the attempts to industrialize the learning process

Dr. Maryanne Wolf put it in 48 seconds

Further reading

For more texts on memory, learning, sleep, creativity, and problem solving, see Super Memory Guru