Whole Word -vs- Synthetic Phonics
After witnessing students’ lives miraculously transformed by the Academic Associates approach to reading instruction, numerous amazed parents and teachers have openly wondered why schools do not generally use this approach, and whether there is any scientific research to support it. The following brief synopsis is an attempt to initiate an answer to those questions.
Science Confirms Phonics Instruction as the Correct Foundation for Reading
The warfare between proponents of “whole word” or “whole language” approaches and those advocating a phonics foundation seemed to have been settled by the findings of the National Reading Panel, published in 2000. These were based on the results of over 100,000 scientific studies of reading instruction, and underscored the following settled conclusions:
- Systematic and explicit phonics instruction is more effective than nonsystematic or no phonics instruction.
- Systematic and explicit phonics instruction significantly improves children’s word recognition, spelling and reading comprehension regardless of socioeconomic status.
- Systematic and explicit phonics instruction is particularly beneficial for children who are having difficulty learning to read and who are at risk for developing future reading problems. 1
Using Phonics, Context and Other Cues to Guess at Words is Not Reading
These aforementioned conclusions were part of what was supposed to be implemented under the “No Child Left Behind” programs. However, the schools did not ordinarily teach “systematic and explicit” phonics, and it also was not used as a foundation for all reading. Furthermore, the kind of phonics taught was typically not “synthetic,” but “analytic” phonics. “Analytic” phonics teaches to the wrong parts of the brain and acts similarly to the “whole word” method. Consequently, the reading instruction part of NCLB was a failure.
As a result of this, many teachers today think a strictly phonics foundation is untenable. They opt instead for a “balanced” approach, in which graphophonemic (phonics) cues are used along with context cues, syntax cues, picture cues, configuration cues, etc., to help children guess at words. However, that is not reading; that is simply guessing. An astounding 68% of our students are unable to read at the proficient level, and three out of four children who are in “special education” programs have been unable to return to mainstream classroom reading (with deleterious consequences continuing throughout their adult years), as a result of this “balanced” approach.2