||On phonics in
whole language classrooms
The truth is that some attention to the relationships
between spelling patterns and their pronunciations is characteristic of
all types of reading programs, including whole language. . . . The fact
is that all students, regardless of the type of instruction they receive,
learn about letter-sound correspondences as part of learning to read.Steven
One myth about education is that whole language teachers do not teach
phonics. Not true: they simply teach phonics and phonemic awareness (awareness
of the "separate" sounds in words) as children read and write
authentic texts, rather than in a separate program or separate lessons.
Another myth is that phonics is not learned as readily when it is taught
in the context of reading and writing, instead of being taught intensively
and systematically. Recent research indicates that this also is untrue.
As a former advocate of intensive phonics now notes, "The integrated
phonics instruction typical of some whole language first-grade classrooms
might work as well as the more structured phonics instruction typical of
basal reading programs" (Stahl, McKenna, & Pagnucco, 1994, citing
Stahl, 1992); and indeed, "there is little evidence that one form
of phonics instruction is strongly superior to another" (Stahl, McKenna,
& Pagnucco, 1994) for developing phonics skills and phonemic awareness.
Furthermore, recent research suggests that students in whole language classrooms
learn and use phonics skills as well as or better than children in more
traditional classrooms (summarized in Weaver, 1994). And as McIntyre and
Freppon (1995) note, although whole language teachers' instruction in phonics
is an integral part of daily classroom interactions, it is not necessarily
random or eclectic, "but can be carefully planned and well thought
through in whole language."
How whole language teachers help children develop phonics knowledge
Whole language teachers have faith in children as learners. Children
can and many will develop a grasp of letter/sound relationships with relatively
little direct instruction, just as they learned to talk without direct
instruction in the grammar of the English language. Most of the following
examples, however, illustrate ways that whole language teachers often use
in directly helping children develop phonics knowledge and the ability
to use it in reading and writing. Since teacher aides and parents may want
to use these procedures too, this list is expressed in the imperative,
as ways to help children learn phonics and phonemic awareness.
- Read and reread favorite nursery rhymes to reinforce the sound patterns
of the language, and enjoy tongue twisters and other forms of language
- Read aloud to children from Big Books or charts large enough for all
the children in the group or class to see the print easily. Run a pointer
or your hand or finger under the words, to help children make the association
between spoken words and written words.
- Part of the time, choose Big Books and/or make charts of stories, poems,
and rhymes that make interesting use of alliteration, rhyme, and onomatopoeia.
- When sharing such Big Books or charts, focus children's attention on
the beginnings and ends of words. Research shows (summarized in Adams,
1990) that at first, it is much more difficult for children to hear separate
sounds in words than to hear the beginning of a syllable (the "onset")
as a unit (s- as in sit, but also spl- as in split)
and to hear the vowel plus any following consonants (the "rime")
as another unit (-it, as in sit and split). Furthermore,
even emergent readers process unfamiliar print words in onset and rime
chunks, if they already know a fair number of print words (Moustafa, 1996).
Therefore, it is helpful to focus first on elements that alliterate and
that rhyme, before focusing on individual sounds. It is especially important
not to focus on vowels by themselves, but in combination with any consonants
that follow the vowel-what are called "rime" patterns (like -ate,
-an, -ast, -est, -ing, -ish, -ight,
-ound, -old, -ook).
- When discussing the onsets and/or rimes, it often helps to invite children
first to share what they have noticed about the sounds, instead of beginning
by telling what you have noticed. Ask questions like "What do you
notice about the sounds in this poem?" (Mills, O'Keefe, & Stephens,
- During the discussion of onsets and/or rimes, you and the children
can make charts of words with the same sound pattern. For example, "Galoshes,"
by Rhoda Bacmeister (Poems Children Will Sit Still For, edited by
Beatrice deRegnier), invites lists of words beginning with s- and
sp- and spl-. Children may also enjoy starting lists of words
that end in -ishes and -oshes, and in making up other nonsense
words that follow these rime patterns. As children read other poems, additional
words can be added to the charts (see Jack Prelutsky's "Spaghetti,"
for instance, in Noisy Poems, edited by Jill Bennett, 1987). These
lists can be ongoing, with the children adding words in their own approximate
- Words from the charts can be put on separate strips of paper or cards,
and children can be invited to categorize them in different ways, including
"words that begin the same" and "words that end the same."
The same procedure can be done with pronounceable word parts: common onsets
and rimes. Words constructed from these word parts can be listed and categorized
together according to the onset and/or the rime. For example, the onset
st- could be combined with only three of the rime patterns listed
above (to make state, sting, and Stan), but the simpler
onset s- could combine with several of them. Children will often
notice how other words can be made by varying the pattern slightly (for
example, s- plus -ant makes a word if we add -a: Santa).
For various ideas, see Powell & Hornsby, 1993; Wagstaff, n.d.
- Read alphabet books with children, and make alphabet books together.
- Read with children other books that emphasize sound (books such as
Noisy Poems, edited by Jill Bennett; Deep Down Underground,
by Olivier Dunrea; and Dr. Seuss books). Comment on sounds.
- Help children learn the important reading strategy of predicting, by
covering all but the onset of a fairly predictable word in a text (Post-Its
can be used for this purpose). Invite children to make predictions and
then look at the rest of the word to confirm what it actually is. This
usually works especially well with rhyming words at the end of a line of
text, particularly if the word mostly covered rhymes with a line before
- Talk about letters and sounds as you write messages to children and
as you help them compose something together, or individually. This is a
very important way of helping children begin to hear individual sounds
in words as well as to learn to spell some of the words they write.
- Help children notice print in their environment-signs, labels, and
- When children demonstrate in their attempts at writing that they realize
letters represent sounds, help them individually to use magnetic letters
to write the sounds they hear in words, or to write the letters themselves
(Freppon & Dahl, 1991). At first, they are likely to write only the
first sound of words. Next, they commonly write the first and last sounds
(especially when these are consonants). Vowels typically come later (McGee
& Richgels, 1990).
- Provide tape recordings of many selections for children to listen to,
as they follow along with the written text. It helps to provide small copies
of the text, not just a Big Book or chart.
REFERENCES AND RESOURCES
Adams, M. J. (1990). Beginning to read: Thinking and
learning about print. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Freppon, P. A., & Dahl, K. L. (1991). Learning about
phonics in a whole language classroom. Language Arts, 68,
Gunning, R. G. (1995). Word building: A strategic approach
to the teaching of phonics. The Reading Teacher, 48, 484-488.
Kasten, W. C., & Clarke, B. K. (1989). Reading/writing
readiness for preschool and kindergarten children: A whole language approach.
Sanibel: Florida Educational Research and Development Council, ERIC: ED
McGee, L. M., & Richgels, D. J. (1990). Literacy's
beginnings: Supporting young readers and writers. Needham Heights,
MA: Allyn & Bacon.
McIntyre, & Freppon, P. A. (1994). A comparison of
children's development of alphabetic knowledge in a skills-based and a
whole language classroom. Research in the Teaching of English, 28,
Mills, H., O'Keefe, T., & Stephens, D. (1992). Looking
closely: Exploring the role of phonics in one whole language classroom.
Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
Moustafa, M. (1996). Reconceptualizing phonics instruction
in a balanced approch to reading. Unpublished manuscript. San Jose,
CA: San Jose State University.
Powell, D., & Hornsby, D. (1993). Learning phonics
and spelling in a whole language classroom. New York: Scholastic.
Richgels, D., Poremba, K., & McGee, L. (1996). Kindergartners
talk about print: Phonemic awareness in meaningful contexts. The Reading
Teacher, 49, 632-641.
Routman, R., & Butler, A. (1995). Why talk about phonics?
School Talk, 1 (2). (National Council of Teachers of English.)
Stahl, S. A. (1992). Saying the "p" word: Nine
guidelines for exemplary phonics instruction. The Reading Teacher,
Stahl, S. A., McKenna, M. C., & Pagnucco, J. R. (1994).
The effects of whole-language instruction: An update and a reappraisal.
Educational Psychologist, 29, 175-185.
Wagstaff, J. (n.d.). Phonics that work! New strategies
for the reading/writing classroom. New York: Scholastic.
Weaver, C. (1994). Reading
process and practice: From socio-psycholinguistics to whole language
(2nd ed.). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Prepared for the Michigan English Language Arts Framework project and
© 1996 by Constance
Weaver. In C. Weaver, L. Gillmeister-Krause, & G. Vento-Zogby,
Creating Support for Effective Literacy Education
(Heinemann, 1996). May be copied.
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