Phonics vs. Whole Language

Fifteen years ago Mr. Charles Richardson, founder/chairman of The Literacy Council, wrote an article titled “Reading: Phonics vs. Whole Language” that sadly remains all too relevant today. It can be seen at, but here is an edited excerpt:


The principal of Barclay Elementary, an inner city in Baltimore, fought hard to remove Whole Language and import the phonics-based program used in the prestigious Calvert School nearby. With the Calvert curriculum in place for four years, test scores soared from the 30th to 60th percentiles, and special-education referrals went down by three quarters.

Former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch visited Barclay, and writing in her News & Views publication, she raved about the inspirational academic accomplishments and learning atmosphere she saw, and said “What struck me is that everything going on here is the direct opposite of conventional wisdom in schools of education!”

This is consistent with the New York experience reflected in a January 13, 1997 New York Times editorial, Betrayed in the Classroom: Learning Disabled — or Curriculum Disabled. It quoted an experienced private-school director as being incensed by the whole-language system of reading, and affirming that children who experience difficulty thereunder are not learning-disabled, but rather curriculum-disabled.


Comparing and contrasting what are perceived to be two methods of teaching reading will be a bit tricky, since whole-language claims to be a “philosophy” rather than a method of teaching reading; and phonics – sometimes regarded as a method – is really a body of knowledge which needs to be acquired in order to read and spell our alphabetic language accurately. These distinctions become important in understanding why the arguments continue: the opponents are talking past each other – almost speaking different tongues! We think we’re debating methods of teaching reading, and we’re really pitting a philosophy – which is not a method – against a body of knowledge – which is not a method! No wonder confusion persists!

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