When it comes to reading, what is the best way to learn? Is there a right way? There are 2 main approaches to reading, but is either one, on their own, the right way?

Whole Language vs Phonics

When it comes to reading, what is the best way to go about learning it? There have been debates on the approaches in reading for years and the pendulum swings back and forth, though one has fallen out of favor as the primary approach.  There are two main approaches to reading: whole language and phonics. Let’s look at them both.

open book in hands


Whole language is a method of teaching where you teach the children to recognize the words as a part of the whole language. You are not breaking the words down into letters and blends. You recognize and memorize the words. It is often known as a “look/say” approach in that you look at the word and then say it. You are not sounding it out. 

It began in the 1970s with Ken Goodman leading the charge. Whole language became a major model for education in the US, Canada and the UK in the 1980s, even though there was very limited support for the effectiveness of it. It became highly debated as to whether it was a legitimate method to teach reading. 

Whole language is a belief system that children learn language when it is interesting and relevant to them, and young children will learn to read in the same way that learning to speak develops naturally. It incorporates reading, writing, listening, and speaking in a blended format into the curriculum.

Advantages of whole language

  • It exposes children to more forms of literature
  • It incorporates the communication tools of reading, writing, listening and speaking
  • Confidence can be gained in reading from using context clues 

Disadvantages of whole language

  • It does not teach the rules of the English language
  • Decoding words is not easily taught and learned
  • It is not as effective in teaching reading as the phonics approach

wooden letters


The phonetic approach (or phonics) is a method of teaching and learning reading based on the letters of the alphabet and their associated sounds and blends. This is the one that most of us are familiar with. It plays a key role in early literacy. 

This is where we learn the letter names and the sounds they make. For example: The letter A phonetically says the short “a” sound. The letter C makes the sound “k” or “s”. 

There are many studies that support the teaching of phonics in a systematic, or explicit, way. Curriculum for teaching phonics is readily available. It is the most supported method of teaching reading. 

Advantages of the phonetic approach:

  • It helps with decoding sounds and how they blend together to form words
  • Phonics helps with spelling.
  • It helps with fluency of reading.

Disadvantages of phonics:

  • English is full of non-phonetic words and this “sound it out” approach doesn’t help. This can be frustrating.
  • Sounding out all the words doesn’t help with comprehension. You can read a whole sentence and not know what it means. (I have actually seen students do this – read an entire story fluently but have very limited comprehension.) 

words carved in metal


Decoding is where you translate print into speech. You do this by matching a letter or combination of letters to their sounds. It is recognizing that those patterns make syllables and words. 

Decoding is important because it is the foundation on which all other reading instruction builds. For students to be fluent, they need to be able to decode words, otherwise their vocabulary will be limited and they will struggle with reading comprehension.


Sight words are words that cannot be easily sounded out and high frequency words that are helpful for children to learn, so that they may recall them on sight, rather than sound them out. High frequency words are words that occur often in reading and writing. Once they are mastered they become sight words – ones that are recognized on sight. 

There are different lists of sight words that teachers and schools draw from. The two main ones are Dolch and Fry. Edward Dolch is referred to as the Father of Sight Words. 

The Dolch list is made up of 220 words and has no nouns, unless they can be used as another part of speech (There is also a separate list of 95 nouns for a total of 315 sight words). The Fry list is 1000 words and includes all parts of speech. This list has also been updated in recent years (unlike Dolch).  

I have used both and I like both. I do believe that children should be learning sight words to assist in reading fluency. 

Dolch sight words
Fry sight words


So what is the best approach to teaching reading? Honestly, I think that it is a hybrid approach, with phonics being the primary source, and drawing on elements of whole language like sight words and working on context for comprehension. 

I love phonics. I have no hesitation in saying that. A strong phonics foundation will bring about success in reading. But it can’t just be phonics. The English language is too complex for that. With a strong foundation, sight words, high frequency words and teaching strategies for decoding, reading will be a beautiful thing for our children. 

Is your child ready to read? Are you not sure? Here is a video that looks at reading readiness.

Michayla Best

For over 30 years I have worked with children in a variety of capacities, whether as a teacher or tutor, a babysitter, a camp leader, or family advocate. I have always found a way to connect with children, to help them understand themselves and the world around.

I am Mummy to trinational twincesses who keep me on my toes with their questions, their commentaries, their shenanigans and acts of spontenudity.

Wife, world traveler, musician, crafting queen and self-proclaimed nerd; I love to take what I see, glean, know and help families to find their groove and be successful.

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