Teaching My Baby To Read

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Phonics, Whole Language, and Balanced Literacy Instruction

Okay, here’s the skinny on reading theory that I learned during my credentialing process. 

Of course, this information is ten? years old, so there might be some brand new wonderful idea colleges are promoting now, for teaching kids to read.  Educators are really big on new buzzwords and magic cure-all ideas.

Phonics is when you concentrate on teaching children the sounds each letter makes, as well as each possible letter combination. 

An emergent reading who was strictly taught using phonics would try to sound out every word phonetically, even words like “the”, which don’t follow phonetic rules.  (Hence they are sometimes called outlaw words.)  If you went to school before 1990, you probably were taught to read with a phonics based approach.

Whole Language focuses on surrounding children with language rich environments, predictable books, patterned songs, and taking children’s own stories and writing them in mini books for them to read. 

Whole Language took the educational world by storm in the early 1990s.  In a Whole Language classroom, everything is heavily labeled.  If you see a chair, it is labeled chair.  The teacher’s desk says desk, and so on.  The idea is that if the environment was rich enough, kids would just absorb learning how to read.  They would look at a word like the, and know it by sight.  (Hence it was called a sight word.)

The Whole Language method can work, if it is done effectively by a competent teacher who knows what she is doing.  I had the privilege of working with a wonderful K/1 team member at the San Carlos Charter Learning Center, who considered herself a Whole Language teacher and was a fantastic educator.

That being said, the Whole Language method was an absolute disaster when it hit California schools in the 1990s.

Test scores plummeted and parents were really p-d off.  Just when California decided to scrap the whole deal, Washington State adopted Whole Language only to see their test scores fall soon thereafter.

  • Children in classes with new teachers fared the worst, because newer teachers were more likely to follow the Whole Language curriculum exactly.  Veteran teachers, often said “What the heck?”, saved their old phonics materials, and taught phonics on the sly.
  • My own sister entered Kindergarten in the 1990s beginning to read, and left her Whole Language Kindergarten having forgotten everything she had known just nine months before.

The fix to all of this mess?  It’s called Balanced Literacy Instruction

The idea is to take the best from Phonics, the best from Whole Language, smash them together and teach children how to read.  You keep the print rich environment, the patterned books and songs, the Morning Messages, and the write your own mini books from Whole Language.  But then you throw in a huge amount of systematic phonics instruction, and call it “Working with Words”.

Here are some other things you might see in a Balanced Literacy Instruction classroom:

  • Systematic Phonics Instruction
  • Morning Meetings
  • Guided Reading
  • Sustained Silent Reading (or Drop Everything and Read)
  • Writers Workshop
  • Centers
  • Direct Spelling Instruction
  • Word-games and activities

Now you are in the know!  Won’t you sound smart at your kid’s next open house?


  1. Claire H. says:

    Apparently, I taught myself to read via a “whole language” approach. At least that’s what my mom claims as I can’t remember a time before I could read. She didn’t set out to teach me anything beyond the alphabet but created a print-rich environment and I figured it out decoding all on my own. By the time I hit kindergarten, I was reading Laura Ingalls Wilder books so the school let me go off into a corner to read while the other kids got their reading instruction.

    The first time I saw phonics was as an adult when I started homeschooling my oldest. It was so weird to read all the rules that I had intuitively figured out on my own. So I think “whole language” can work with certain kids. That said, I do think it’s more efficient even with them to do phonics.

    • jenbrdsly says:

      I love that story! There’s an older brother of one of Bruce’s friends who taught himself to read in a similar way, at age three. Your experience of sitting in the corner to read is very similar to what is hapening to Bruce right now in school, although his teacher is doing everything she can for him within the limitations of the school set-up.

    • Maria Hanby says:

      I learned how to read on my own as well… but it was through watching PBS children shows and educational cartoons on Sat mornings… But for my son or my nephew, they were never going to learn it on their own. They needed a systematic program that used multi-sensory instruction and very explicit methodology to learn the rules and the history of the English Language. And guess what? After they finish with the phonics based foundation, they should have all of the pieces they need for the puzzle and should then be able to pull them together into a formal and meaningful end product (such as a passage or a text)…. but they would NEVER be able to learn how to read with meaning and proficiency without such heavily laden phonics methodology being imparted upon them repeatedly!!!

  2. Pamela says:

    This is interesting because this is how I’m teaching my daughter right now. For me teaching mixed styles is easier since you don’t have to be too strict with one or the other. Being strict with one style over another takes the fun out of it and I want reading to be fun. If she is having a hard time with a word or I don’t have the patience for her to “sound” it out I just tell her what it is and go over it, over and over again in a fun way.

  3. Tracy says:

    This is the approach that has worked for my daughters. Even the ones that learned soley phonics only. What I have found is by the time they are really starting out how to figure how to read fluently they begin to drop the phonics and begin to rely on sight words. So all that phonics teaching really gets left by the door step after a while.

    So I learned that combining both approaches has worked really well and my daughters are better readers for it.

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