Kerry Hempenstall · Whole Language versus Phonics

The Reading Wars – again.

It’s the silly season and there’s precious little to report. There was a posting on the Reading Reform Foundation from Jim Curran, who flagged up a piece by one of Australia’s leading proponents of phonics, Kerry Hempenstall. In his article ‘The Whole Language-Phonics Controversy: A Historical Perspective’, he outlines, as the title suggests, the history of the ‘debate’.
If you’ve never read anything on the subject before, some of it is very interesting and he quotes from work by some of the major names in the field, my favourite being M.J.Adams’s Beginning To Read.
However,there are some untidy errors: he describes writing systems as ‘evolving’, a notion that would surprise Peter T. Daniels and William Bright, authors of the highly authoritative The World’s Writing Systems. In addition, Hempenstall tells us on one page that ‘English has 1,120 ways of writing 40 sounds’, and on the next, quoting Pollack and Pickartz (1963), that there are ‘about 45 phonemes that can be spelled in at least 350 ways’!
Aside from that, he’s right: teaching reading and spelling is right at the top of the agenda and there is, since Flesch published Why Johnny can’t read in 1955, a degree of public accountability that didn’t exist previously.
For all that, if you’ve got the time and the inclination, you can’t beat Diane McGuiness’s Early Reading Instruction: What Science Really Tells Us about How to Teach Reading. It’s a cracker!

One thought on “The Reading Wars – again.

  1. A key discussion point regarding reading instruction today involves those favoring skills-based instruction and those favoring content-based instruction. This is not the old phonics-whole language debate. Other than a few hold-outs, such as Stephen Krashen, most in the reading field would agree that this debate has been largely settled. The current debate involves whether teachers at all levels should be teaching the how or the what of reading.

    There are, indeed, some who would restrict reading to a measurable skill-set. These would pigeon-hole reading instruction into a continuum of increasingly complex rules, while ignoring the thinking process necessary to advanced reading. Teachers of this ilk love their phonics, context clues, and inference worksheets when they are not leading their students in fluency exercises, ad nauseum, whether the students need fluency practice or not.

    On the other side of the debate are those who would claim that content is the real reading instruction. These would limit reading skill instruction in favor of pouring shared cultural knowledge into learners. They favor teacher read-alouds, Cornell note-taking, and direct instruction. They argue that subject area disciplines such as English literature, science, and history often provide the best reading instruction by the content that they teach.

    Both are extremes. Students need some of each to become skilled and complex readers. More on how to strike this balance on my blog at

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