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Phonics v whole-word: which should reign supreme?

Daniel Willingham is a brave man. The author of Why Don't Students Like School? has entered the arena of an unwinnable war and proclaimed a victor while the participants are still fighting it out. His battlefield of choice? How to teach reading or, more specifically, whether phonics or whole-word strategies should be used in the classroom.

The "reading wars" have been running for about 300 years. One of the conflict's most recent iterations was a Twitter row sparked by a TES Community blog on the relationship between phonics and comprehension. The debate is still rumbling on, more than a month after the blog was published.

Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia in the US, aims to bring scientific rigour to the argument. In his new book, Raising Kids Who Read – an excerpt of which is reproduced exclusively in the 27 February issue of TES – he assesses literacy research and analyses what we know of the mechanics of how we read. The latter is more complicated than we may think, he says.

“What sound do you associate with the letter 'p'?” Willingham asks. “You might think of it as 'puh' but that’s actually two sounds: the sound of the letter “p” and the vowel sound “uh”. The sound associated with the letter 'p' is actually just a plosion of air – your vocal chords don’t vibrate at all.

“And these individual speech sounds vary depending on the surrounding context. Try this: put your hand in front of your mouth and say 'pot'. You feel the puff of air when you say the 'p'. Now do the same thing saying 'spot'. The puff is stronger for pot than spot.

“So we talk about 'the sound the letter p makes' as if there were one sound associated with 'p', but that’s an abstraction, an ideal. Children who have trouble learning to read often have difficulty hearing individual speech sounds; children who more or less teach themselves to read hear them easily.”

In combining the science and the research around reading, Willingham believes he can determine whether phonics or whole-word strategies should be used in the classroom. For his verdict, you will need to read his exclusive feature in TES.

Read the full article in 27 February edition of TES on your tablet or phone or by downloading the TES Reader app for Android or iOS. Or pick it up at all good newsagents. Daniel Willingham’s book Raising Kids Who Read: what parents and teachers can do, published by Jossey-Bass, will be released in the UK in April and is available to pre-order from Amazon

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