Phonics or Whole Word Approach?
Which is Best for Teaching Reading?

learn to read

In this article we will look at the facts to find out whether we should be using phonics or the whole word approach to teach our children how to read.

With so many children who struggle, especially our kids with autism, we desperately need to make learning to read as easy for them as possible.

That said, it only makes sense to look at facts and statistics to find our answer to this important question.

What Do the Numbers Tell Us?

The whole word or whole language approach has been the method of choice in most schools in the U.S. since the late 1930s. So where has that led us?

  • In 1990, 60 million adults didn’t have the reading and writing skills necessary to meet basic needs. In 2004 this number rose to almost 90 million.
  • In 1999 Barbara Foorman and Jack Fletcher ran a study for one year at the University of Texas. They found that children who were taught phonics had better reading skills than those trained in the whole word approach.
  • Another study in the United Kingdom showed that students who were taught to read phonetically were able to read several grade levels higher than other students.
  • The National Center for Educational Statistics stated that in 1998, 38% of children in the fourth grade didn’t have basic reading skills mastered.
  • The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development stated that 40% of people in the U.S. struggle with reading to the point that they don’t enjoy it.

So what’s happening is that about 60% of the children are able to learn to read using the whole language approach. But the other 40% fail with this method.

And if a failure rate of 40% is considered acceptable among educators, it shouldn’t be.

Imagine if your phone or internet service worked only 60% of the time.

Add to this the fact that our autistic children will have more difficulty at reading than most children. They will likely be in the bottom 40% if we stick to the whole word approach.

The Whole Word Approach

Basically, the whole word or “look and say” approach requires that children memorize each and every word as a whole. So for the word “horse,” the learner has to memorize that whole word as “horse” rather than learning the letters and their sounds.

When he comes across a word he doesn’t know in his reading, he is told to look for context clues and then guess what the word is.

One of our friends told us that he was taught to read using the whole word approach. Even as an adult, he still had a hard time with reading. He said he was used to figuring out words by their shapes rather than by the letters and the sounds they make.

Think about that for a moment. The words “horse” and “house,” have confusingly similar shapes. And consider the word “was,” which children often confuse for the word “saw,” and vice versa.


This approach teaches the learner all the letters, blends and diphthongs and the sounds they all make. The total number of all these sounds is between 110 and 125. Armed with this knowledge, the student learns to sound out each word she comes across.

When she decodes a word she is reading for the first time, she will recognize it as a word she has heard before. After decoding the word and practicing it a few times, she is able to recognize it more quickly. After much practice, reading becomes almost second-nature.

And think about it. If you were learning to read, would you rather have to memorize 125 sounds or thousands of words?

The phonetic approach gives learners a much more reliable and much easier way to decode and learn new words. That’s a powerful, priceless skill.

Far better than the guesswork of the whole word approach.

What We Did

I taught both of my children to read using phonics and wouldn’t have had it any other way.

But with C, my autistic son, I did make a change from the usual phonetic approach. I knew he wouldn’t be able to learn rules such as “vowel-consonant-silent e” very well, so I just taught him the letters and their sounds. Then I modeled sounding out words printed on flash cards. This worked quite well for him, and now reading is one of his biggest strengths.

Click here if you would like more information on how I used this method to teach C to read.

It can help a lot if you have some tools for this important task. K5 Learning has some free phonics flashcards you can download and print. Click here to access these cards.

› Phonics

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