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: “ – 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 Dyslexia?

What is Dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a learning disability that affects a person’s phonological processing, making reading and writing challenging for the individual. People with dyslexia experience difficulty in identifying speech sounds and/or learning how they relate to letters and words.  While not every person with dyslexia experiences the same symptoms and difficulties with reading, dyslexia is a deficit in phonological processing.

For example, people who are dyslexic may also struggle with reading comprehension, writing, spelling, and even math. Young dyslexics also tend to struggle with other things unrelated to reading, like attention span, sequencing (remembering things in order), motor control, and left and right confusion leading to wider issues affecting social interaction, memory, and dealing with stress. Dyslexics can end up struggling with everyday activities that most people take for granted because of the far-reaching issues stemming from dyslexia.

In order to understand how dyslexia affects our students and young readers, we need to take a look at phonological processing. Phonological processing is using all of the sounds of a language in order to process both spoken and written language. Phonological processing is a broad category that includes phonological awareness, working memory, and information retrieval. People who are diagnosed with dyslexia may struggle with one or all of these pieces of phonological processing.


Brain in the center of the image with descriptors of dyslexia surrounding the central image. Some of the descriptors of dyslexia include; difficulties with telling the time, losing place in a text, handwriting difficulties, times tables or the alphabet, sequencing, problems with note taking, organizational problems, and difficulty getting ideas on paper.


Recent Research

While science is constantly evolving and creating new insight into dyslexia and its effects, researchers have not yet determined what exactly causes dyslexia. What they do know, however, is that dyslexia is genetic; in other words, a child is more likely to develop dyslexia if one of their parents is dyslexic. Furthermore, if that child has any siblings, there is a 40% chance that the sibling could also have problems reading.

Researchers are getting closer to understanding exactly which parts of the brain are affected. When a person is reading, both hemispheres of the human brain are active, but the left hemisphere does most of the work. Pathways are created during the reading process, and each has a specific function. For instance, there is a pathway that facilitates ‘sight recognition’ (recognizing a word just by looking at it rather than breaking it down by individual sounds), which leads to another developed pathway that allows the reader to remember the meaning of that recognized word. This results in a series of connections leading to speech, articulation, and pronunciation. All of these processes happen simultaneously throughout the brain for a fluent reader.

For someone with dyslexia, these internal pathways and connections form differently. There is little understanding as to why these differences occur, but researchers have found that the left hemisphere of the brain in a dyslexic person lacks the necessary connection to facilitate the pathways which allow a reader to become fluent. Instead, the right hemisphere begins to overcompensate and work harder to create those connections that are needed to read and comprehend. Below is a graphic that shows the activity in a brain of a non-dyslexic reader versus that of a dyslexic reader.


Side by side comparison of brain scans. Normal reader brain scans show strong activity pattern in the left hemisphere and then dyslexic brain scan shows a weak activity pattern in the left hemisphere.



If you struggle with dyslexia, know that you are not alone! Dyslexia is much more common than one might initially believe. Research has found that nearly 18% of the population is dyslexic. That is almost 1 out of every 5 people! Our resources at the Colorado Reading Center can help relieve some of the struggle and stress that may be caused by dyslexia. We provide resources to help readers, young and old, develop the essential skills for reading success.

People of all ages can suffer from dyslexia. However early interventions with young students, typically between Kindergarten and fifth grade, have been shown to be most effective. There are plenty of resources including books and videos to help understand the possibilities of overcoming Dyslexia, and there are numerous organizations such as the Colorado Reading Center that offer professional services for dyslexia remediation.