Reading Wars: Phonics vs. Whole Language Instruction

What Is the Difference Between Implicit and Explicit Phonics Instruction?

Explicit vs Implicit“There’s more than one way to skin a cat” is an idiom (or saying) that means there are multiple ways to accomplish something. In most cases, it is absolutely true; there is usually more than one solution to a problem and different ways to approach most tasks. When talking about teaching reading, there are several approaches that have been researched and debated. The aforementioned idiom also means that an issue can be approached in different ways, but the final result will be the same. With reading, that is not the case. The manner of instruction is just as important, if not more so, as what is instructed, and it significantly affects the results.

What Is Explicit Phonics Instruction?

Explicit phonics, part of the structured literacy approach, also referred to as synthetic phonics, builds from part to whole. It begins with the instruction of the letters (graphemes) with their associated sounds (phonemes). Next, explicit phonics teaches blending and building, beginning with blending the sounds into syllables and then into words. Explicit phonics is scientifically proven and research based.

What Is Implicit Phonics Instruction?

Implicit phonics, also referred to as analytical phonics, moves from the whole to the smallest part. Phonemes associated with particular graphemes are not pronounced in isolation. Students analyze words and look for the common phoneme in a set of words. Through comparison and identification, they deduce which grapheme to write or which phoneme to read. Blending and building are not usually taught, and students identify new words by their shape, beginning and ending letters, and context clues. This analysis (breaking down) of the whole word to its parts is necessary only when a child cannot read it as a whole word. This is a whole-language approach.

Which Approach to Teaching Phonics Is Best?

Research has been conclusive that explicit phonics instruction is the most effective. The U.S. Department of Education, the National Research Council, and the National Reading Panel have all conducted research and have released finding reports that support this statement. The National Reading Panel’s report on its quantitative research studies on areas of reading instruction was published in 2000. The panel reported that several reading strategies are critical to becoming good readers: phonics for word identification, fluencyvocabulary, and text comprehension. With regard to phonics, its meta-analysis of hundreds of studies confirmed the findings of the National Research Council: Teaching phonics (and related phonics skills, such as phonemic awareness) is a more effective way to teach children early reading skills than is embedded phonics or no phonics instruction (taken from National Institute of Child Health and Human Development [2000]. Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction [NIH Publication No. 00-4769]. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office).

Scientific research has clearly demonstrated that explicit phonics instruction is the single-most effective approach for all students. Obviously, many students can learn to read without such instruction; however, it is not only the at-risk students who achieve greater success under a phonics regime – so do those in the average and below-average reading groups (those who do OK but do not excel). A large-scale study by Barbara Foorman and colleagues from the University of Houston found that explicit, systematic phonics was by far the most effective approach. It was also more effective in reducing the occurrence of reading problems than any of the one-on-one tutorial programs that were evaluated, including Reading Recovery. Her findings are consistent with both currently accepted theories of reading development and instruction and with other empirical research emphasizing student outcome measures.

What Is the Outcome?

While results show that most types of phonics instruction can be beneficial for students, it has been conclusive that explicit phonics is the most effective and is necessary for those with processing issues. Empowering any student with these decoding strategies helps ensure reading success and gives them a solid foundation for their academic future.