How do we produce literate students?

It is hard to believe that the ‘whole language’ vs ‘phonics’ debate continues to get airtime – and yet it does, writes Misty Adoniou

Listening to the arguments, mostly made by media and politicians sitting far outside of education, it is clear they use the terms with little comprehension of their meaning or their origin. ‘Whole language’ seems to have become ‘learning words by heart’, and ‘phonics’ seems to have become ‘learning words by sounds’. Both are simplistic and unhelpful characterisations. They imply ‘phonics’ approaches are disinterested in meaning and that ‘whole’ approaches are dismissive of the constituent parts of words. Neither description is accurate.

The difference between ‘whole’ and ‘phonic’ approaches is in their theorising of how literacy is learned. Both agree the aim of literacy is to communicate meaning. Where they differ is in the sequence of events to reach that end.

Phonics based approaches, and more specifically, synthetic phonics based approaches such as those championed by politicians and commercial phonics programs in Australia, the UK and the US, take the position that students must first learn the phonetic code and this will give them the skills to build their way into meaning. This can be described as a bottom up approach to literacy learning.

Whole language based approaches take a top down approach to learning literacy. They begin by teaching students the whole meaning of a text, a sentence or a word and then unpack how those words make their meanings, including how the phonetic code works within words. Whole language approaches have a significant pedagogical edge over phonics based approaches. They are intrinsically engaging because they begin with the end game on view for the students – meaning. This gives an immediate purpose and motivation for learning, and engages the students.

Potentially, both approaches can produce literate students, but both approaches are only as good as the teachers who teach them and the effectiveness of both is severely compromised if teachers lack language knowledge. And research has repeatedly shown us that teachers have significant gaps in their understanding of how English works.

(Alderson & Hudson 2012, Hadjioannou & Hutchinson, 2010; Moats et al., 2010; Washburn, Joshi, & Cantrell, 2011; Wong, Chong, Choy, & Lim, 2012).

Loud chorus

In recent years there has been an increasingly loud ‘phonics first’ chorus in Australia which has led to the mandating of phonics first approaches, as is evident in the recent changes to the Australian Curriculum. There is a real risk that this tacit favouring of phonics first approaches in policy documents will lead to a marginalising of the other crucial components of becoming literate – most particularly meaning, and how words, sentences and texts make their meaning. In the hands of teachers with limited language knowledge, literacy teaching may simply become decoding.

Students who are schooled predominantly in ‘phonics first’ approaches are left with one predominant strategy for tackling new words when they read and write – ‘sounding out’. An analysis of the reading, writing and spelling of underachieving students reveals phonic knowledge is the only tool they draw upon. Unfortunately for them, English is not a language we can sound out – it is not a phonetic language. It is a morphophonemic language. This means that sound units of the language are important (the phonemes), but equally important are the meaning units of the language (the morphemes). For example, if English was phonetic we would spell ‘jumped’ as ‘jumt’. Instead we spell it according to its meaning units of ‘jump’, and ‘ed’. ‘Ed’ is the morpheme we add to indicate past tense.

Ultimately, improving literacy outcomes in our students will depend more on teacher knowledge than the program or approach they use.

Applying knowledge

The Year 7 student who spells ‘beautiful’ as ‘butterfoll’ is telling us she has some sophisticated phonic knowledge. She knows it is possible for ‘u’ to make the ‘you’ sound she is seeking for this word – as in ‘cute’. She knows ‘er’ can make the long vowel sound she can hear in the word when she pronounces it. She knows that ’t’ and ‘l’ can be represented by double letters, particularly in the middle and final positions. However, all of this phonic knowledge is ultimately unhelpful to her.

Although she knows the meaning of the word, she doesn’t know how the word makes its meaning. She doesn’t understand the word has two morphemes – the abstract noun ‘beauty’, and the suffix ‘ful’ which turns abstract nouns into adjectives. She doesn’t know she can apply this same knowledge to many other words to help her both write them and comprehend them.

French origin

Because she doesn’t understand these two components of the word, she doesn’t know to implement the convention of changing the ‘y’ on the base word to an ‘i’ before adding the suffix.

She doesn’t know that the base word ‘beauty’ is of French origin, and indeed English is in fact a hybrid French/German language, and that the letter pattern ‘eau’ is a direct borrow from the French. She doesn’t know that many of the letter patterns that she is seeking a phonetic match for when she spells will also be carrying their foreign roots with them.

How could she know these things, when she hasn’t been taught them.

Ultimately, improving literacy outcomes in our students will depend more on teacher knowledge than the program or approach they use. To improve literacy outcomes we should focus our attention on two strategies:

1. Ensuring teachers know how the English language works, and

2. Using the English language as our resource for teaching our students the beauty and wonder of our language.

The latter is best achieved by working with real language in the places where it does its work in powerful and purposeful ways – in quality children’s literature, and in the great poetry, novels, documents and speeches from our past, and from our present.


Alderson, J.Charles, & Hudson, Richard, 2012. The metalinguistic knowledge of undergraduate students of English language or linguistics. Language Awareness. 22, 4 320-337

Washburn, Erin, Joshi, R, & Cantrell, Emily, 2011. Are preservice teachers prepared to teach struggling readers? Annals of Dyslexia, 61, 21 - 43.

Wong, Angela, Chong, Sylvia, Choy, Doris, & Lim, Kam Ming, 2012. Investigating changes in pedagogical knowledge and skills from pre-service to the initial year of teaching. Educational research for policy and practice, 11, 105 - 117.

Misty Adoniou is Associate Professsor in Languages, Literacy and TESL at the University of Canberra.