Many researchers have compared whole language and phonics. One of the most striking experiments was done by Bruce McCandliss, a professor of Education at Stanford University. McCandliss is part of an interdisciplinary team that bridges neuroscience and education into a field called Educational Neuroscience.
WHAT IS EDUCATIONAL NEUROSCIENCE?
So much of education is rogue philosophy, rhapsodic dreams created by passionate rhetoricians with Ph.d’s, people anxious to prove points that sound good, points often ungrounded in science. McCandliss and others in educational neuroscience hold education professors accountable. Is that long essay that education Ph.d wrote on “real reading” and “recognizing words as a whole” actually congruous with what brain imaging technology reveals?
Those education professors used to get away with rambling off flowery persuasive language, and they largely still do, but not without teams like McCandliss’ fact-checking them, saying: hey, that sounds nice, but that’s not actually how the brain works.
FASCINATING STUDY ON WHOLE LANGUAGE VS. PHONICS
One of McCandliss’ most fascinating studies involves comparing whole language and phonics.
McCandliss created a new written code, one that abides by the alphabetic principle (the idea that letters/units correspond to sound). McCandliss’ participants were older students who were already literate.
He made the code novel in several ways to mirror what early readers experience. Instead of left to right, letters were written bottom to top. Letters were also linked, so readers did not know to learn the word as a whole like a Chinese character, or learn the word through phonics. Here’s a sample of his written code:
Participants were divided into two groups: the whole language group and the phonics group. Instruction in both groups was identical, except one key difference: students in the phonics group were told there was code, a letter-sound correspondence, like in English. The whole language group was not.
Both groups were given lists of words each day. Each group was left to pick their own method, but the group that was simply told about the code, exploited it, choose to identify phonetic units, and master them. The group that was not told about the code, chose to recognize words as a whole, much like each word was a Chinese character.
AT FIRST WHOLE LANGUAGE APPEARS TO BE BETTER
Which group did best?
Aft first, the whole language group did better, but their success was short-lived. On the first day, as the phonics group painstakingly tried to break the code, the whole language group made gains by memorizing words as a whole. This point is interesting, because there is a draw to whole language. It is tantalizing. In the first three days, students learned faster. Instruction was easier. The students were not working like mad detectives trying to solve a complex puzzle (like the hardworking phonics group). But the veil was lifted; whole language may appear golden, but it is in fact copper.
The gains the whole language group made slowed considerably. Whole language students began forgetting old words they had “memorized.” They could only retain about thirty words at a time, so each new list caused them to forget words on past lists. Furthermore, they could not decode new words. Each new list was just as indecipherable as the last. They didn’t acquire any real knowledge to help them with new words.
WHOLE LANGUAGE GAINS LAST ONLY THREE DAYS
What happened with the phonics group?
The phonics group started off slowly, but once they were accelerating, their progress was exponential. At first, they laboriously learned each grapheme to phoneme correspondence, identifying that the weird looking x shape symbolized the “t” sound and so on until a code was mapped out. Then, once they had the code, they were able to read new words on their own. Their performance on old words also improved even when they had no opportunity to practice them.
Whole language advocates claim their method gives students an advantage, but once students learn thirty words or so, this head-start disappears. Whole language places a huge burden on the memory. Students begin forgetting, and they’ve no effective method to retrieve these forgotten words.
Students who learn phonics are given a miraculous tool—the ability to read new words they’ve never seen before, often with awe, and read words they’ve encountered only once in the distant past. And isn’t this the goal of reading instruction? – to give students the tools to decipher words on their own?
This last point is critical. Whole language claims to foster intellectual independence and true knowledge. But how independent are you, if you must run and ask someone to read each new word for you? If you cannot lounge in your living room chair and in the quietness of your mind read “cultivate,” “outlandish” and “slush”—because these words are too uncommon for your memory to carry?
How much knowledge do you really have, if upon “learning” a word, you are at immediate risk of forgetting that word?
When children learn phonics, at some critical point, they begin teaching themselves. With great joy, I watch many wide-eyed children independently decode a word they’ve never seen before. That’s independence. That’s knowledge that begets knowledge.
Yoncheva, Blau, Maurer & McCandliss, 2006.