Should I teach my EAL learners phonics? If so, how?

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5th April 2016
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Should I teach my EAL learners phonics? If so, how?

As educational pedagogies continue to move cyclically, with new strategies coming in and out of favour, the battle of reading approaches rages on. There are three main approaches: Synthetic Phonics, Analytical Phonics and Whole Language methods. They are often viewed as being on a continuum, with the Whole Language approach (‘Top Down’ method) being the least skills-based and the Synthetic Phonics approach (‘Bottom up’ method) being the most.

Synthetic Phonics is an approach that is implemented by practitioners in Early Years. Is is a method of teaching reading and spelling through decoding and encoding, with a systematic approach. It relies upon teaching the individual sounds of the 44 phonemes in the English language sequentially and the letters that correspond to them (Ehri et al, 2001). Once learners know some sounds, they can read words via decoding, or write words via encoding. Programmes such as Letters and Sounds, Jolly Phonics and Read, Write Inc. are examples of this approach. 

Analytical Phonics, often referred to as the ‘Whole Word Approach’, relies upon children learning to recognise words instantaneously, without being required to ‘sound them out’ (Gunning, 2000). Many teachers utilise this approach through the learning of ‘sight words’ and it is used particularly in the reading and writing of non-decodable or ‘tricky’ words.

The Whole Language method is highly constructivist. It constantly exposes children to text, with the intention that the child will eventually learn to read and write through a method akin to osmosis, taking meaning from language contextually, without focusing on structural reading skills such as decoding (Piper, 2003).

There is a plethora of contradicting research into all three approaches, but unfortunately, almost all of this has been undertaken with first language learners in mind, leaving EAL teachers floundering. In this newsletter and the next, we will consider the relevance of each of these approaches for EAL students, beginning today with the Whole Language approach. 

The arguments for using this approach are many – but are also refuted by many. A study by Turner, Chapman and Prochnow (2006) claimed that the whole approach was invalid, stating that 40% of adults who had been taught solely via this method faced problems with written text in everyday life.

The Whole Language approach is supported by those who believe that, due to the irregularity of the English language, it is very difficult to learn to read it phonetically (McDonald, Badger and White, 2001). Bowey (2006), however, noted that 80% of the English language is regular, and it can therefore be contended that the irregularity of the English language is not a valid argument in support of the Whole Language approach. Bowey also argues that over-reliance on this approach can be detrimental to readers, as it prevents a focus on printed text: if children are concentrating solely on the meaning of the text, they may not focus on how the text is formed.

Wray (2002) supports the Whole Language method by arguing that only this approach allows learners to read contextually and employ higher-level thinking skills such as comprehension. However, a study by Nicholson (1991) showed that children who read words in context found it more difficult to decipher them, as opposed to reading these words as standalone words or in list form. 

It is certainly true that an ‘immersion’ strategy is beneficial in terms of understanding the meaning of text and in the acquisition of a second language. Furthermore, what is the point in decoding skills if a child does not understand what they are decoding? Nation and Waring (1997) estimate that first-language children aged five will understand approximately 4,000-5,000 words. Second language learners are therefore at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to reading and comprehension.

The most common argument for the use fo the Whole Language approach centres around the organic way in which children learn to speak. If children can learn to converse through exposure to speech, would the same not be true for learning to read through exposure to text? Others argue, however, that while humans are biologically programmed to use speech, the same cannot be said for reading and writing. Gough and Hillinger (1980) go as far as to say that reading and writing are “unnatural acts”.


The majority of experts now accept that a careful balance of Whole Language aspects and Synthetic Phonics programmes should be used, in complementary conjunction, to provide the optimum learning environment for both first language and EAL students (as shown in a study by Denton, 2004). We suggested using a systematic phonics programme to teach reading skills, as it is highly unlikely that learners will learn to decode organically without one, but implementing this in a Whole Language-based classroom environment.

You can download a document with nine essentials for the creation of a Whole Language environment in an EAL classroom, by clicking on the button at the top and bottom of the article.



Piper, T. (2003). Language and Learning: The Home and School Years third edition. New Jersey: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Ehri, L.C., Nunes, S.R., Stahl, S.A., and Willows, D.M. (2001). ‘Systematic Phonics Instruction Helps Students Learn to Read: Evidence from the National Reading Panel’s Meta- Analysis’. Review of Educational research, 71(3), P.393-447.

Gunning, T.G. (2000). Teaching Phonics, Sight Words, and Syllabic Awareness: Creating Literacy Instruction for All Children. 3rd Edition. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, P. 81- 146.

Nation, P., and Waring, R. (1997). ‘Vocabulary size, text coverage and word lists’. In N Schmitt, and M. McCarthy (Eds.), Vocabulary Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy P.6-19, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Denton, C.A., Anthony, J.L., Parker, R., and Hasbrouck, J.E. (2004). ‘Effects of Two Tutoring programs on the English Reading Development of Spanish- English Bilingual Students’. The Elementary Journal, 104(4), P.289- 305.

This research was undertaken as part of a Masters in Education and Professional Practice at Glasgow University. Colette is currently working at an international school in Qatar.

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