What is Structured Phonics versus Whole Language?

What is Structured Phonics vs. Whole Language?

There has been a long-lasting debate among academics regarding the most effective method in teaching students how to read. The dispute between believers in structured phonics verses those in support of the whole language approach began as early as the 1820’s and culminated in the United States in 1987 when the state of California, as part of the new language-arts curriculum, passed bills favoring the whole-language approach over basic decoding skills.

What are these two radically different approaches? Why did the two approaches create the “Reading War”? Read on for a deep dive into the conflict that helped define modern reading instruction.

Structured Phonics Instruction

Phonics instruction lays its foundation in teaching letter-sound relationships. In essence, phonetic-based reading attempts to break written language down into small and manageable components. Learners correlate certain letter symbols with their respective sounds allowing them to piece them together to create words, or in the case of reading, deconstruct a word into the various parts then weave the sounds together to form a pronounceable word (also known as decoding).

For example, a student will be taught that individual letters have a specific sound such as the letter ‘B’ saying ‘buh’ /b/ not its name “bee”. This will happen for the rest of the letters in the alphabet, so when a student is presented with the word “bat” – they will be able to break it down into its parts and sound it out correctly: “buh..aaa..tt – bat”

Later in the phonetic instruction process, students will learn that small groups of letters can be linked together in patterns which will always say the same sound such as “tch, dge, ng”.

Phonetic instruction is a methodical approach to analyze sounds, letters, and ultimately words.

Whole Language Instruction

Whole language instruction differs drastically by attempting to teach words and sentences as whole pieces of language – words are not systematically analyzed or pulled apart as they are in phonics instruction. Those that believe in whole language instruction argue that language should not be broken down into letters and decoded, but instead language is a complete system of meaning with words functioning in relation to each other in context. In other words, the most important focus should not be on sounds at all but primarily on the meaning and context.

The whole language approach was defended on rational grounds in the 1800’s in the Worcester primer: “It is not very important, perhaps, that a child should know the letters before it begins to read. It may learn first to read words by seeing them, hearing them pronounced, and having their meanings illustrated; and afterward it may learn to analyze them or name the letters of which they are composed.”

The three arguments used to promote whole language instruction are:

1)       Reading time does not depend on word length; therefore, word recognition must not rest on the systematic breakdown of words. This, however, has been proven incorrect as our brain processes all letters simultaneously, not one at a time.

2)       We are slightly faster at reading words in lowercase than in uppercase; thus, it is the contour of letters and the resulting contour-specific signature of each word which is most important in reading. The contour is lost in upper case letters, which are all the same size, so our reading speed is reduced.  But this is incorrect understanding because if we actually used contour to identify letters, we would be unable to read the upper-case letters at all, let alone at a slower pace.

3)       Typographical errors that respect the overall contour of a word is harder to detect than those that violate it. An example is in the word “test”, where an error of “tesf” is harder to identify than an error of “tesq” where the ascending letter “t” has been replaced by another ascending letter “f” and a descending letter “q” respectively. But this is merely due to the similarity between the “f” and the “t”, not a whole-word resemblance.

The Solution

The two approaches to teach reading skills differ dramatically in how learners are instructed to approach unfamiliar printed words. Phonics instructs a learner to try to analyze the word into parts and to sound it out. Whole-language encourages the learner to guess the word from the context of the story or accompanying pictures. Regarding the clues to understanding a word, phonics instruction believes they are found within the word itself, while whole language looks externally or outside the word.

At the end of the day, results matter above everything else. The National Reading Panel found that children who are taught phonics systematically and explicitly make greater progress in reading than those taught with any other type of instruction. This result is corroborated when California students’ test scores plummeted after instituting whole language instruction in 1987 and the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that 3 out of every 4 students were below average for their age.

Phonics instruction is the better instruction method by a long shot. At the Colorado Reading Center, phonics is our focus to implement deep understanding of word decoding in our students. At the same time as phonics instruction, we apply some sight word reading with the most common words found in a particular reading level – this is important so that we get our students, who are generally behind their grade, quickly up to the level they should be to perform well in school.

Help and Resources

Developing the skill of reading is incredibly important for successful progress in school for all new learners. If you feel that a loved one or family friend could use a guide to become more proficient in understanding phonics, send them over to the professionals at the Colorado Reading Center for testing and learning resources. Our clinicians help students of any age and welcome all inquiries – take a look at our website or give us a call for more information!

What is Phonemic Awareness?

What is Phonemic Awareness?

Beginning the learning process of reading can be quite a difficult undertaking. When we think of new readers and how they learn, we usually picture children’s stories and the alphabet, but whether the beginner is a child or an adult that never acquired the necessary skills, the first step towards success is phonemic awareness.

Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear and manipulate the sounds in spoken words and the understanding that spoken words and syllables are made up of sequences of speech sounds (Yopp, 1992).


Phonemic versus Phonological Awareness

Many people have the incorrect understanding that phonemic awareness and phonological awareness are the same thing, or synonyms of one another. It is important to be clear that although they are similar, they are indeed unique, and this differentiation is key to understanding the development process.

Phonemic awareness is a subset of phonological awareness. Phonemic awareness is more specific and deals with the ability to identify individual sounds within words, called phonemes (“cat…/c/ /a/ /t/”), as well as manipulate them within a given word (“Change the /c/ to a /b/… now the word is bat”). Phonetic awareness is a broader term referring to the more developed ability of being able to hear, identify, and manipulate larger units of sounds such as onsets and syllables and recognition of rhyming words.

For beginning learners, and for the purpose of this blog, we will be focusing on phonemic awareness (the more specific term), as it will be the first skill that needs to be developed.

Why is Phonemic Awareness Important?

Phonemic awareness is critical for identifying reading development in new learners, and it is the most important pre-reading skill that can be developed being central to the role in learning to read and to spell. According to the National Reading Panel, “Teaching phonemic awareness to children significantly improves their reading more than instruction that lacks any attention to phonemic awareness.”

It is well accepted that phonemic awareness is the best predictor of reading and writing success in young children. It helps learners to master sound-spelling relationships, thus improving this skill through structured education is critical for a higher chance of being able to read and write when literacy instruction begins.

Without phonemic awareness, learners will be unable to group words with similar and dissimilar sounds, blend and split syllables, blend sounds into words, break a word down into its sequence of sounds, nor detect and manipulate sounds within words. It is the foundation, so to speak, of a future reader and writer and without it fluency can never be achieved.

How Learners Develop Phonemic Awareness

The development of phonemic awareness is unique for every learner. Some are able to begin growing phonemic awareness naturally through rhyming stories (like Dr. Seuss), through singing and learning nursery rhymes, or even by listening and reading along with a parent or teacher. This can be a very fortunate start to the learning process for some students, but others may need systematic and specific phonemic awareness teaching to grow in their abilities in preparation for writing and reading. There are many online resources as well as professional institutions available for this type of instruction.

Levels of Phonemic Awareness

Marilyn Jager Adams, a specialist in cognition and education at Brown University, created a widely used definition of phonemic awareness in 1990, and developed a basic understanding of the skills leading to phonemic awareness in five distinct levels.

1)       Ability to hear rhymes (“dog, fog”) and alliteration (repeated initial sounds in words, i.e “purple poster”).

2)       Ability to identify similarities and differences in rhyme and alliteration across and between words.

3)       Ability to blend and segment syllables (“rain-bow…rainbow”).

4)       Ability to split a spoken word into phonemes (“bag…b-a-g”).

5)       Ability to identify and manipulate the sounds in words (“Say ‘dog’. Now change the last sound to a /t/. What word do you have now?”)

Help Developing Phonemic Awareness

Developing the skill of phonemic awareness is incredibly important for the successful progress in reading and writing for all new learners. If you feel that a loved one or family friend could use a guide to become more proficient in phonemic awareness, send them over to the professionals at the Colorado Reading Center. Our clinicians help students of any age and welcome all inquiries – take a look at our website or give us a call for more information!

What is Visual Memory?

What is Visual Memory?

Memory is the general process by which knowledge is encoded, stored, and later retrieved within the brain. More specifically, visual memory involves the ability to store and retrieve previously experienced imagery obtained by the optical nerve (sensations/ perceptions) when the original input or stimulus of the imagery is no longer available or present.

In other words, visual memory allows a person to recreate imagery within their mind as a recollection of the stimulus – such as a letter, word, picture, or landscape – once the stimulus is no longer able to be seen.


Types of Visual Memory

Scientists have classified visual memory into three distinct categories: iconic memory, visual short-term memory, and visual long-term memory.

Iconic memory, also known as visual sensory memory, is a unique, an incredibly short-lasting memory type that can best be described through an example. If you have ever been into a haunted house during the Halloween season that has strobe lights, you may remember that when the light flashes in a dark room it provides a moment of perception of the room, and your mind will be able to retain that perception for about half a second. Another example is taking a picture in a dark room with the flash on, which will create the same effects.

Visual short-term memory (STM) retains visual information for only a few seconds so that it can be utilized in the function of ongoing cognitive tasks. Visual STM is longer-lasting and more durable than that of iconic imagery. It plays a big role, for example, in the task of driving a car by remembering road signs that you have passed and retaining an understanding of the location of other vehicles around you.

Visual long-term memory (LTM) is the ability to recall images or places that have been viewed in the distant past. Whether it is retaining the memory of the directions to get to a restaurant you visited last week or a fond recollection of the view of a gorgeous hike you took years ago, your visual LTM is driving this ability.

How Does Visual Memory Work?

Put into a very simple way, visual memory and visualization skills are our ability to interact with symbols, images, and words. The process includes our retina receiving visual input or stimuli which flows into the brain, and from the brain the shapes and colors are retained or recalled.

Visual memory is incredibly important to learning and education as at least 80 percent of what we learn is visual. It is a critical factor in reading, spelling, and writing allowing an individual to readily reproduce a sequence of visual inputs.

Skills in visual memory in school can help with:

–          Spelling and remembering sight words

–          Reading and reading comprehension

–          Recognition of letters and numbers

–          Quickly copying notes from a board

–          Forming a mental image of a word, like seeing a picture of a dog in their head when they see or read the word “dog”

Visual memory is also clearly important for situations outside of school including:

–          Remembering location of important items (shoes, phone)

–          Ability to give directions

–          Remembering phone numbers

–          Recalling memories


How to Detect Visual Memory Issues

Someone that may have problems with their visual memory may display the following signs:

–          Individual may have difficulty copying words and images

–          Difficulty copying and recognizing numbers, letters, or symbols

–          Slow at writing and reading

–          Bad reading comprehension or difficulty remembering details

–          Poor spelling

–          Sounding out every word when reading

–          Poor math skills

–          Mixing up common letters like ‘p,q’ and ‘d,b’

Just like all other learning disabilities, it is critical to have a professional test the individual experiencing difficulty. The sooner the issue is diagnosed, the sooner solutions can be implemented.

How Do You Improve Visual Memory?

If you or someone you know is having trouble with visual memory, there are a variety of exercises and games to help strengthen the skill.

Some ideas to get started include:

–          Memory games that include words

–          I-Spy game

–          Attempt to visualize something unusual – start with a word like “alien” then describe what you see

–          Recall what happened during the day

–          Look at pictures/ paintings, take them away, then try to describe what you saw

–          Rhyming games

–          Matching game (multiple card pairs face down, player turns over two at a time and attempts to find its match)

Help and Resources

Developing the skill of visual memory is incredibly important for the successful progress in reading and writing for all new learners. If you feel that a loved one or family friend could use a guide to become more proficient in visual memory, send them over to the professionals at the Colorado Reading Center for testing and learning resources. Our clinicians help students of any age and welcome all inquiries – take a look at our website or give us a call for more information!