Phonics and whole language are two approaches to early reading instruction stemming from different assumptions and cultural values. In the 1980s and 1990s, a “reading war” raged between advocates of each approach. Although policy makers currently favor phonics, whole language advocates have not conceded defeat.

The whole language movement began in the United States in the early 1970s, championed by Kenneth Goodman and Frank Smith. Based on the assumption that learning to read is a natural process, like learning to talk, whole language advocates argue that children immersed in personally meaningful literacy activities will figure out for themselves how to read and spell. They encourage children to use context clues to guess at unknown words and to invent the spellings of words they can't spell. Skills ...

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