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Author: Colette Forrest

As educational pedagogies continue to move cyclically, with new strategies moving in and out of favour, the battle of reading approaches continues to rage on between the 3 main approaches: Synthetic Phonics, Analytical Phonics and Whole Language methods. They are often viewed on a continuum, with the Whole Language approach (Top Down method) being the least skills based and the Synthetic Phonics approach (Bottom Up method) being the most (see figure 1).

Synthetic Phonics is an approach that is implemented by practitioners in Early Years. It is a method of teaching reading and spelling through decoding and encoding with a systematic approach. It relies upon teaching the individual sounds of the 44 phonemes in the English language sequentially and the letters that correspond to them (Ehri et al., 2001). Once learners know some sounds, they read words via decoding, or write words via encoding. Programmes such as Letters and SoundsJolly Phonics and Read, Write Inc are examples of this approach.

Figure 1

Analytical Phonics, often referred to as the Whole Word approach, relies upon children learning to recognise words instantaneously, without requiring to ‘sound them out’ (Gunning, 2000).  Many teachers utilise this approach through the learning of sight words and it is used particularly in the reading and writing of non-decodable words or ‘tricky’ words. 

The Whole Language method is highly constructivist and constantly exposes children to text with the intent that through this, the child will eventually learn to read and write through a method akin to osmosis, taking meaning from language contextually, without focussing on structural reading skills such as decoding (Piper, 2003). 

There is a plethora of contradicting research into all 3 approaches, but unfortunately, almost all research has been undertaken with first language learners in mind, leaving EAL teachers floundering. Over this newsletter and the next, we will be considering the relevance of each for EAL students, beginning today with the Whole Language approach.

The arguments for using this approach are many, but easily refuted. The invalidity of the Whole Language approach was proven by a study by Turner, Chapman and Prochnow, (2006), who found that 40% of adults who were taught via the Whole Language method alone faced problems with written text in everyday life. 

It is supported by those who believe that due to the irregularity of the English language, it is very difficult to learn to read it phonetically (McDonald, Badger & White, 2001). However, considering points made by Bowey (2006), who stated that 80% of the English language is regular, it can be contended that the irregularity of the English language is not a valid argument in support of the Whole Language approach. Bowey (2006) also argues that over reliance of this approach can be detrimental to readers as it prevents focus on printed text, if children are concentrating solely on the meaning of the text, they may not focus on how the text is formed.

Wray (2002) supports the Whole Language method by arguing that only this approach allows learners to read contextually and employ higher level thinking skills such as comprehension. However, a study by Nicholson (1991) showed that children who read words in context, find it more difficult to decipher them as opposed to reading them as stand alone words or in list form. It is certainly true that such an immersion strategy is beneficial in understanding the meaning of text and acquisition of a second language, and after all, what is the point in decoding skills if a child does not understand what they are decoding? Nation and Waring (1997) estimate that first language children aged 5 will understand approximately 4000- 5000 words. Therefore second language learners are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to reading and comprehension. 

The most common argument for its use, centres around the organic way that children learn to speak. If children can learn to converse through exposure to speech, can the same not be said for learning to read through exposure to text? However, humans are biologically programmed to use speech but the same cannot be said for reading and writing. Gough and Hillinger (1980) go as far as to say that reading and writing are actually ‘unnatural acts’.

After considering these points, the majority of experts now accept that a careful balance of Whole Language aspects and Synthetic Phonics programmes should be used in complementary conjunction to provide the optimum learning environment for both first language and EAL students, as is shown in the study by Denton (2004). Therefore, we suggest using a systematic phonics programme to teach reading skills, as it is highly unlikely that they will learn to decode organically without one, but in a Whole Language based classroom environment. 

The next question must be, should that systematic phonics programme by Analytical or Synthetic, and how do EAL children fair with them?

From this research, Colette Forrest, used the outcomes of her research to apply her findings to the practicalities of the classroom:

To consider 9 essentials for the creation of a whole language environment in an EAL Classroom. Click the link below!

This research was undertaken as part of a Masters in Education and Professional Practice at Glasgow University. Colette is currently working at an international school in Qatar.


Piper, T. (2003). Language and Learning: The Home and School Years third edition. New Jersey: Merrill Prentice Hall.Ehri, L.C., Nunes, S.R., Stahl, S.A., and Willows, D.M. (2001). ‘Systematic Phonics Instruction Helps Students Learn to Read: Evidence from the National Reading Panel’s Meta- Analysis’.

Review of Educational research, 71(3), P.393-447.Gunning, T.G. (2000). Teaching Phonics, Sight Words, and Syllabic Awareness: Creating Literacy Instruction for All Children. 3rd Edition. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, P. 81- 146.Nation, P., and Waring, R. (1997). ‘Vocabulary size, text coverage and word lists’. In N Schmitt, and M. McCarthy (Eds.), Vocabulary Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy P.6-19, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Denton, C.A., Anthony, J.L., Parker, R., and Hasbrouck, J.E. (2004). ‘Effects of Two Tutoring programs on the English Reading Development of Spanish- English Bilingual Students’. The Elementary Journal, 104(4), P.289- 305.

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Coming in the New Year… a series of articles with free downloadable teaching tools and resources! They will be written and produced by Jessica Tweedie. Jessica Tweedie is a primary trained teacher with 17 years experience as an EAL specialist teacher. Having worked in over 22 schools she has experienced both being employed as a dedicated EAL teacher in one school and peripatetically across authorities as part of an EAL team.

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