sealPurdue News

April 1998

Literacy requires phonics and whole language,
dean says

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- The warring factions in the phonics vs. whole-language debate need to stop arguing and work together, says the dean of Purdue University's School of Education.

"The debate is unproductive not only because it deals with two different parts of literacy, but also because research supports the conclusion that children learn literacy best when taught by both methods," explains Marilyn Haring, who is also a professor of counseling and development. "Why do so many noneducators and a few educators want to return to teaching phonics as a panacea for teaching literacy when we know a combination of both produces the best results?"

Discussions on the merits of the two teaching methods are resurfacing around the country as school systems analyze the results of standardized tests for reading and comprehension.

The traditional theory of teaching literacy, which became institutionalized with the start of mass schooling in the 19th century, contends that students learn to read by first making sense of the smallest components of language. Phonics teaches children to recognize letters and then sound them out in combinations that eventually form words. Vocabulary is tightly controlled, and instruction includes skills exercises with emphasis on correct answers.

The whole-language philosophy of teaching literacy stresses that children should use language in ways that are applicable to their own lives and cultures. Students are encouraged to decode words in context, and the answer is not as important as the process.

Haring says the two skills complement each other and children need both types of instruction.

"Literacy is a complex skill that takes much practice for any learner to master," Haring says. "Each student's difficulty in learning to read and write demands a skilled teacher who can analyze the problem and provide a range of instruction, not just phonics and not just whole language."

Haring says a balanced approach to literacy instruction should include: (a) organized, explicit skills instruction, such as phonics and spelling; (b) a strong literature, language and comprehension program; and (c) an effective early intervention program providing individual tutoring such as Reading Recovery. Purdue serves as the state headquarters for that program, which pairs specially trained teachers with at-risk first-graders for daily tutoring sessions.

"At a research university such as Purdue, we take pride in the fact that our teacher preparation is grounded in research, and that research tells us that a balanced approach is effective," Haring says.

She points to a program now being implemented in the San Francisco area as a good example of a shift to the "balanced" approach. Five county offices of education, 35 school districts, and six colleges/universities have formed a consortium to improve literacy teaching skills for K-12 teachers. The project is called Preservice Reading Education Partnership, and Haring says it could provide a model for other communities to follow.

"Teacher preparation programs need to give teacher education candidates a full background -- phonics and whole language -- in order for those candidates to be able to help each student read and write and communicate effectively," Haring says.

"Literacy is THE most important skill we teach, and it should be taught early and well. It is the key to every student's future success in school. To help our children achieve the proficiency they need, it is our responsibility to use any proven method available to us."

CONTACT: Haring, (765) 494-2336; e-mail,

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