Whole Language Approach to Reading

Child reading

Hero Images / Getty Images

There's no shortage of different literacy methods, including the whole language approach to reading. Like other curricula and teaching philosophies, the whole language approach does have both pros and cons; it isn't right for every child.

How It Works

Also known as balanced literacy, the whole language approach is an educational philosophy that teaches children to read by using strategies that show how language is a system of parts that work together to create meaning. While it may sound as if this method discounts phonics, the use of phonemic awareness (or sub-lexical reading) is one of its components.

The whole language philosophy also teaches students to recognize core words as a single word instead of having them sound out all words phonetically.

In a nutshell, the whole language approach uses literature as a teaching tool and aims to integrate literacy within all parts of the curriculum (including science, math and social studies).

In addition, the whole language approach encourages students to use reading and writing for everyday purposes, such as making a list or leaving a note, rather than just to decode words and text.

Potential Drawbacks 

Some scholars have suggested that the whole language approach has disadvantages for early readers. Specifically, they have suggested that students who are taught to read using the whole language approach may have difficulty learning to spell if they do not receive phonics instruction as well.

The International Reading Association (IRA) has supported the inclusion of phonics in the whole language approach to literacy.

"The teaching of phonics is an important aspect of beginning reading instruction," the IRA states in its "Role of Phonics in Reading Instruction" advisory. "Phonics instruction, to be effective in promoting independence in reading, must be embedded in the context of a total reading/language arts program."

Benefits of Multiple Approaches

The organization has also maintained that no single reading method will best suit a particular child. In other words, some reading methods will work better for some children more than others. 

Educators may draw from a variety of approaches to teaching children to read. If you feel like the approach used by your child's teacher isn't working or you're concerned about the approach's disadvantages, discuss your concerns with the teacher or a school administrator.

Remember that the main goal is that your child becomes literate. With this in mind, the path children take to become readers doesn't matter as much as whether they reach the destination of literacy.

If your child has been exposed to various literacy approaches and continues to struggle to read, speak to a teacher or your child's pediatrician about the possibility that your child may have a learning disability in reading. All children are different and learn to read at their own pace.

Just because your child isn't as skillful of a reader as their classmates or siblings doesn't necessarily mean that they have a learning disorder. If they do have a disability, though, early intervention is the key to preventing it from halting their academic achievement.

5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Education Week. Kenneth S. Goodman, 'founding father' of whole language, dead at 92.

  2. Rethinking Schools. Whole language: a refreshing approach to language instruction.

  3. International Reading Association. The role of phonics in reading instruction: A position statement of the International Reading Association.

  4. Education Week. How do kids learn to read? What the science says.

  5. Help Guide. Learning disabilities and disorders.