Post 1: Unpacking Practices: Whole Language, Phonics Instruction, and Balanced Literacy Defined

Whole Language Instruction

So how can we define “whole language instruction”? It turns out, that’s more easily said than done.

Wikipedia describes it as a “literacy philosophy” which emphasizes that children should focus on “meaning and strategy” instruction. Teachers strive to help children develop a knowledge of the graphophonic, syntactic, semantic aspects of language (commonly referred to as “msv” – meaning, structure and visual).  Whole Language Instruction can also been thought of as a “constructivist” method. Constructivist Philosophy holds that knowledge develops out of an individual’s effort to construct meaning out of experience. Students who thrive on whole language instruction figure out how to read by being exposed to meaning-rich, engaging texts. They use what they know (background knowledge), their understanding of how we speak (syntactic knowledge), and their understanding of letters and sounds (graphophonic knowledge) to construct their own  understanding of the English Language.

What does this actually look like in the classroom? Here, I can only speak from my own experience and observations – forgive me if I simplify the process a bit. Teachers who use Whole Language Instruction use Guided Reading instruction and Leveled Readers to teach children to read. At the very beginning (usually in Kindergarten), students start with short, meaningful texts created with meaningful high frequency words. Students use the pictures and some letters and sounds to work their way through books. Because natural language structures are used, students can rely on what would make sense and what the pictures indicate to fill in the words they don’t know how  to read. Once students have developed a small sight word vocabulary from multiple exposures to certain high frequency words, they begin to notice patterns in words, either independently or with teacher guidance. For example if a student can read the word “look”, then they can figure out “cook”. The “ook” part is the same. Students learn to manipulate words – take them apart and put new sounds at the front. They know that “stay” and “play” look the same, and they sound the same. They may not be able to explicitly tell you that “ay” says the long “a” sound, but they can figure out new words by using the words or parts of words they already know. As more and more high frequency words are introduced, a  “self-extending” system is created. The more students read meaningful texts, the more words students are exposed to. The more words students are exposed to, the more new words they can figure out by recognizing parts, by thinking about what they already know, and/or by making an educated prediction based on what would make sense.

Leveled Readers are the main resources used to support Whole Language Instruction. Leveled books traditionally are meaning driven. They are written with high frequency words and natural language structures. They have very purposeful pictures that provide clues to the reader as they read. There are several different leveling systems, but the most common are the PM system, which levels books from Level 1 – Level 30, and the Fountas and Pinnell Text Level Gradient Scale, which goes from A  – Z.

Phonics Instruction

Teaching reading through phonics is often seen as a bottom up approach. Students are taught that language is made of sounds. These sounds are represented by letters and letter combinations. Students are taught those letters and sounds, taught how to blend sounds slowly to make words, and taught the patterns inherent in the English Language (e.g. “vce” pattern – the vowel makes its long sound and the final e is silent).

Phonics instruction can be systematic or non-systematic. In Systematic Phonics, there is a scope and sequence to instruction. Key concepts are taught in a logical order that has been preplanned. New concepts build on known concepts, until a student can read a wide range of complex words. Decodable texts are often used as a key component of Systematic Phonics Instruction. Decodable texts are controlled texts that only include the letters and letter combinations that have been taught until that point. They provide students with ample opportunities to practice blending and reading words. In Non-Systematic Phonics, there is no scope and sequence to instruction. Sometimes referred to as “embedded” phonics,  teachers provide “mini-lessons” when a phonics concept comes up in a text. For instance, a student may struggle to read the word “play”. The teacher might provide a mini-lesson on the “ay” combination, then provide isolated practice with that concept. It may then be referred to and pointed out if it crops up again in a subsequent text.

There are some words in the English Language that do not fit any patterns. When teaching reading through phonics, these words are usually taught in isolation as “irregular” words. There is a great deal of controversy over the percentage of words in the English Language that are actually irregular. When trying to find a research article to reference for this piece, I found stats that ranged from 50 percent irregular to 2 percent irregular. When it comes down to it, it seems to  depend on what your definition of “regular” is. If you consider words “regular” if and only if they can be accurately spelled by sound-symbol correspondence alone, you are probably going to be sitting at the 50 percent mark. If you include common spelling patterns as “regular” (e.g. “ight” makes the same sound in light, bright, flight, copyright, etc), then  your percentage of “regular” words will be much, much higher. However you define them, irregular words need to be considered in a phonics program. They need to be taught and practiced as any other concept would be.

Balanced Literacy

Balanced Literacy can be considered a framework for literacy instruction. It includes elements from both Whole Language Instruction and Phonics Instruction. Balanced Literacy involves the theory of gradual release – skills are modelled, shared, guided, then completed independently. Mini-lessons (taught to the whole group or to a smaller group) are used to teach specific concepts throughout the literacy block.

In reading, the components of the Balanced Literacy program are:

  • Modelled reading (read aloud): The teacher reads a story, an article, a poem, at passage, etc. aloud to students. The teacher may model comprehension strategies and/or decoding strategies as he/she reads
  • Shared reading: The teacher and the students read a text together. The focus can be on vocabulary development, comprehension, decoding skills, fluency, or another strategy of teacher choice.
  • Guided reading: Students are grouped according to reading level or strategy focus. Students read their own books, with the teacher present to support with challenging words or comprehension strategies.
  • Independent reading: Students read their own books independently.

Writing includes:

  • Modelled writing: The teacher composes and writes a text as a demonstration.
  • Shared writing: The teacher and students work together to compose a text. The teacher holds the pen and does all the recording.
  • Interactive writing: In interactive writing, the pen is shared. The teacher may write some, and students may be chosen to write specific parts as guided by the teacher.
  • Guided writing: Students are placed in small group. Students do the writing with guidance from the teacher.
  • Independent writing: Students write their own ideas down independently.

Balanced Literacy also includes a word study component. In word study, students learn about letters and sounds, letter combinations, spelling patterns, prefixes/roots/suffixes and word etymology. Topics are chosen according to student need, to help drive a student’s progress in either reading or writing.


Here are a few interesting articles and websites that are worth checking out:

Reading Rockets has a great phonics introduction page with many links and resources:

Put Reading First is a summary of reading research completed by the National Reading Panel in 2000:

An article on Whole Language Instruction from the Language Arts Journal of Michigan:

Balanced Literacy Diet is a website from OISE that gives a framework for understanding and teaching reading. It recommends differentiated instruction depending on the age and development stage of students:

This article, published in Phi Delta Kappa, outlines the history of the so called “reading wars”:

The article in reading rockets talks about how phonetic the English language is:

This site outlines patterns found in Dolch Sight Word lists that can help students learn to sound out these high frequency words:



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