Reading Strategies (Part 2)

The Three Main Approaches for Developing Readers

Finding the ideal path for your child’s reading development can seem like a staggering feat when there is an enormous amount of discussion and interpretation surrounding teaching reading methodologies amongst educators. Moreover, there is no single tried and true way that helps every student become a successful reader. It’s remarkably complicated, partly because of a lack of definitive, nationwide teaching approach standards for reading proficiency. In fact, there are actually numerous types of teaching strategies and each are immensely varied in terms of what aspects are emphasized for kids as the most beneficial focuses to direct their advancement in the skill of reading. The three most notable teaching approaches are: the Whole Language Approach, Phonics Instruction, and Balanced Literacy. (For a short overview of the aforementioned camps promoting students’ learning of reading, please refer to Part One of Series.) In analyzing the effectiveness of these teaching reading approaches, we join the conversation that is decades ongoing to determine the superior method to implement in schools.

Whole Language and Meaning Making

The construction of meaning through reading and writing activities is the basis of the Whole Language Approach.¹ ² Because students are immersed in relevant whole-word study, they quickly acquire an entire vocabulary on which to ground their understanding of new words.¹ ² It is an approach that encourages collaboration in classrooms and requires that a variety of literature be made accessible to kids.¹ ² Research by the National Research Council and the International Reading Association has shown that this is beneficial for the development of a positive attitude towards reading.¹ Group interaction and the association of language found in written words to real world ideas sets the scene for everyday learning possibilities.² Some drawbacks of WLA are that phonological study is overlooked when undertaking the practice of recognizing complete words and this can interfere with a student’s ability to decode (meaning, to take words “out of code” and put them into understandable language ⁶) in the event of examining entirely unknown combinations of letter sounds.² Additionally, whole language literacy skills are highly dependent on the students’ environment and present access to quality books.² Students may not feel connected to their reading lessons if the conditions in a classroom are not interesting to them or if the material does not build on their previously gained knowledge.²

The Limits of Technicality and Grammar in Phonics

Studies from the University of Illinois at Chi­cago have shown that Phonics Instruction is only marginally better than other teaching strategies at helping students score well on reading assessments.³ ⁴ While explicit phonemic awareness can yield increased test results, critics of this instructional method deem that a “focus on letters, lists of words or grammar patterns” jeopardizes the art of language itself.² In phonics, reading development depends on symbols and sounds. However, learning reading should not be isolated from “life experience and meaningful activities” to solely favor monotonous syllable repetition or immensely technical, sounding-out-loud practice of letter combinations.² To make grammar lectures effective, they should be paired with independent reading time and writing practice.⁵ Articles by the RASE: Remedial & Special Education journal suggest that “limiting students to phonemes initially and then to decodable texts stifles the development of fluency and prosody,” prosody being the rhythmic and intonational aspect of language. ⁷ ⁸ ⁹ Students can productively learn reading through phonics by writing down the sounds they hear in words to develop their word and spelling pattern recognition skills.⁵ 

How Many Strategies is Too Many for the Perfect Balance in Literacy?

Among the biggest criticisms of Balanced Literacy is that it is a loosely defined approach that teaches word reading strategies which mislead students to adopt bad learning habits such as guessing at words.¹⁰ ¹¹ Having too many alternative learning strategies (for instance: looking at the first/last letter of the word, thinking about an overall meaning, phonics/sounding out words, trying to remember a word they know that has similarities in the spelling, skipping unknown words etc.) can be overwhelming for students.¹⁰ ¹¹ Kids who memorize whole words, sound patterns, or books to which they’ve had previous introduction, then find themselves at a loss when they encounter complex material, especially if they have been taught to depend largely on context clues like pictures in books or titles.¹⁰ ¹¹ Balanced Literacy also fails in its assumption that students will naturally “get it” over time, since learning to read is always compared to the skill of speaking and learning to talk.¹⁰ ¹¹ On the flipside, the assorted amount of learning experiences provided under the Balanced Literacy umbrella can establish grounds for creative pathways towards reading achievement.¹² Also, it is a teaching approach that can be modified to meet children at their level of reading control–whether it be a specific ability to infer, make meaning, or engage with texts etc.; their needs can be met through a “balanced” incorporation of programming from different teaching reading approaches.¹²

Parents: Collect Your Own Data Regarding Your Students’ Reading Progress

 As school districts, teachers, and academic researchers have not agreed upon a national set of rules to teach reading, primary grade students won’t all follow the same steps to learn how to read, but that doesn’t mean that anyone should be left out of proper reading instruction. In some cases, it simply depends on the amount of resources in an area. Children in disadvantaged socioeconomic groups, for example, are more likely to be subjected to reading subskills drills rather than receiving the independent reading practice they need.⁵ It’s important to consider what can be done for developing readers to meet them where they are. While it cannot be precisely determined how popular any teaching reading approach is over another (since there is no centralized system collecting info on how teaching is conducted and what materials teachers use),¹⁰ ¹¹ a strong recommendation for parents is to familiarize themselves with the principal teaching reading approaches, in order for them to better understand the structure of their elementary school curriculum, classroom lesson plans, and students’ reading practice. Additionally, evaluating students’ reading progress over time–perhaps through a composed, personal portfolio of their achievements–allows for carefully individualized assessments measuring the students’ current knowledge and makes it possible to plan for the best next steps in their literacy journey.

By Daisy Ocampo


Phonics or whole language : choosing the most effective approach to teach reading by Alisha Sue Jobe 

Whole Language: An Integrated Approach to Reading and Writing by Joan Dixon and Sumon Tuladhar

Four things you need to know about the new reading wars by Jill Barshay

A Metacognitive Approach to Phonics: Using What You Know to Decode What You Don’t Know by Irene W. Gaskins, et al. 

Whole Language Works: Sixty Years of Research by Harvey Daniels and Marilyn Bizar

Decoding – Merriam-Webster

Prosody – Merriam-Webster

An Explanation of Structured Literacy, and a Comparison to Balanced Literacy by Nina A. Lorimor-Easley and Deborah K. Reed

Decoding, reading, and reading disability by Gough, P. B., & Tunmer, W. E. 

How children are taught to read faces a reckoning | KPCC – NPR News for Southern California – 89.3 FM

Emily Hanford. Sold a Story: How Teaching Kids to Read Went So Wrong | Podcast (

The Balanced Approach to Literacy – What Is It and Why Is It Effective? Posted by KidsKonnect

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