Thursday, February 07, 2013

whole-language learning versus phonics

I was a phonics kid growing up. "Sound it out!" is the fundamental imperative in phonics-style language learning. The idea is that, whenever a student encounters an unfamiliar-looking word (but one which may actually be familiar to the student once deciphered), he will take the time to break the word down into phonemes and decipher the word according to rules of spelling and pronunciation learned along the way. I was an early reader; by the sixth grade, I was rapidly and rabidly devouring novels meant for adults. When I look back, I have to say that phonics helped my reading and spelling skills immensely.

Alas, these days, phonics is out of favor. The "in" thing now, in education, is "whole-language learning" (WLL). The WLL process is little different from the way Chinese kids learn Chinese characters: it's all about pattern recognition. If a young child encounters a big, difficult word like "elephant," he is not encouraged to sound out the phonemes; instead, he's shown a flash card with "elephant" on it, and is given the associated pronunciation: \ˈɛləfənt\. The student either memorizes the word, or he doesn't.

WWL is advantageous when sight-reading English because a student is processing entire clusters of phonemes and morphemes at one time. The disadvantage of this method, though, should be obvious: the moment a student encounters a word he's never seen before, he'll stop in his tracks, completely unable to process the word (much like a Chinese student running across a never-before-seen character). With no phonics tools to help him, he's stuck. Helpless. Phonics wins.

But it's not as simple as that. For you see, in the end, we adults all use WWL to get through text. It's simply a faster way of processing chunks of data. The phonics approach, which goes phoneme by phoneme, is inherently slower. The most powerful argument in favor of WLL is this viral email that got sent out years ago. Try reading it quickly:

Fi yuo cna raed tihs, yuo hvae a sgtrane mnid, too. Cna yuo raed tihs? Olny 55 plepoe out of 100 can.

I cdn'uolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid! Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno’t mtaetr in waht oerdr the ltteres in a wrod are: the olny iproamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rghi t pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whotuit a pboerlm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Azanmig, huh? Yaeh, and I awlyas tghuhot slpeling was ipmorantt! If you can raed tihs, forwrad it.

In case you were unable to read the above, here's the message unscrambled:

If you can read this, you have a strange mind, too. Can you read this? Only 55 people out of 100 can.

I couldn't believe that I could actually understand what I was reading. The phenomenal power of the human mind! According to a researcher at Cambridge University, it doesn't mater in what order the letters in a word are: the only important thing is that the first and last letter be in the right place. The rest can be a total mess and you can still read it without a problem. This is because the human mind does not read every letter by itself, but the word as a whole. Amazing, huh? Yeah, and I always thought spelling was important! If you can read this, forward it.

I have no idea whether the 55% statistic quoted above is correct, and I also think it tends to detract from the argument that "the human mind"-- a general claim-- processes words in a WLL manner. I do know, however, that I could sight-read the scrambled paragraph with perfect fluency, and that was enough to convince me that WLL is on to something.

So I suppose my bias against WLL could stand some revision. My experience has taught me that phonics is a fantastic method for early childhood. At the same time, the above meme-email clearly and convincingly demonstrates that adults (at least some adults) process written language in a WLL manner. In terms of educational curricula, I'd recommend starting kids off with phonics, then moving them towards WLL only at the end of elementary school-- say, around 5th or 6th grade. Phonics still has a place in modern education.



Elisson said...

The Missus (who is a special education language arts teacher) and I both agree strongly that WLL is useless unless taught in conjunction with a strong grounding in phonics.

Phonics enabled me to learn to read when I was three years old. Not just Dick and Jane crap, either: I could read paragraphs out of the New York Times. (Couldn't understand all that much of what I was reading, but at least I could parse and pronounce the words correctly.)

WLL has had significant negative effects on American literacy. It removes one of the big advantages of having a language that uses a phonetic alphabet.

Can you tell I have an opinion on this? I suppose you can.

Kevin Kim said...


It sounds as though we're in basic agreement that it all has to start with phonics, at least.

Charles said...

Extremely belated comment here, but two weeks in Cambodia will do that to a person, I suppose.

I just wanted to say that I'm not sure the comparison with Chinese characters is entirely correct. As you know, most characters are made up of distinct pieces, and it is often possible to at least guess at the meaning by looking at those pieces (primarily the radical). Also, Chinese characters will rarely appear alone--combine the context surrounding the character with knowledge of the constituent pieces of the character and you can often get enough of an idea to let you at least move on. (Granted, the context thing works for English as well.)

Not that this undermines your main point, with which I agree; I just am not sure that a Chinese student running across an unfamiliar character would "Stop in his tracks, completely unable to process the (character)."

Kevin Kim said...


It may be that what I'm saying about Chinese characters applies more to younger learners. Older learners, who know a bunch of characters with overlapping features, can probably "sound out" (so to speak) and guess at the meaning of unfamiliar characters. Professor Mark Miyake of the Amritas blog certainly feels that there's an algorithm for mastering Chinese characters that doesn't involve simple rote memorization.

Kevin Kim said...

I normally tell non-Chinese-speakers that reading a Chinese character involves much the same thought process as reading the "men" icon on the men's-room door of a restaurant. The icon is a single symbol that you take in in its entirety, but the moment you take in the symbol, you immediately associate a cluster of sounds ("men") and a meaning ("men's room"). That's approximately what reading a Chinese character is like, and that's why I used it as an example of whole-language learning.

Think: "男" = "nam" (sound cluster) = man (meaning/concept)

Or: "♂" = "male" (sound cluster) = "male" (meaning/concept)

Charles said...

Right. Got it.

I honestly don't know how Chinese children learn to read Chinese; you may be right on that count.