Future Reflections Fall 1995, Vol. 14 No. 3


It Shouldn't Be Either/Or

By Doris M. Willoughby

[PICTURE] Doris Willoughby

The Conflict
"The phonics approach is old-fashioned."
"With whole language, they never really learn to read."
"Phonics and basals are boring, boring."
"Maybe the best students do okay with whole language but everybody else flounders."

Sound familiar? It seems as though elementary teachers must either be pedantic and uninteresting (as in the jaded view of basals or phonics) or let their students sink-or-swim (as in the cynical view of whole language).

The methods of phonics and basal readers tend to be lumped together in this fray as one and the same. They do both proceed in a preplanned sequence rather than emphasizing choice by students. However, there are differences. A phonics reading curriculum will generally place great emphasis on the association of sounds with letters whereas a basal curriculum generally combines elements of different methods with emphasis varying from one lesson to another.

A whole language curriculum generally places great emphasis on the student choosing reading material which is appealing to him or herCespecially trade books (books which were not originally written for the purpose of school instruction).

A Balanced Approach

This article hopes to show that an absolutist view is undesirable. Elements of both whole language and phonics are needed in reading instruction. Good teachers, whether they realize it or not, do bring in both. It is a matter of emphasis; and poor teaching can be done under any label. To emphasize that labels are somewhat arbitrary, they will often be shown in quotation marks in this article.

The Patterns program, mentioned in this article, is a "basal" curriculum especially designed for the student who uses Braille. Braille signs and symbols are introduced in a controlled sequential manner. Technical problems found in transcription of books for sighted children (such as dependence upon pictures) are eliminated or carefully managed.

Unless Patterns is used, the teacher must anticipate all new Braille signs and formats and plan how the student will learn them. Typically, this is done individually before each "regular" lesson. It must be done regardless of whether the overall curriculum is labeled as "whole language," "phonics," "basal," or something else. (As of this writing Patterns is the only widely-available curriculum which takes care of this issue by building in sequential teaching of the Braille code.)

Below are some examples of how, when reading is taught effectively, an approach which seems to fall under one label includes other elements also:

(1) Beginners in a "whole language" curriculum match Braille letters with objects (b with a ball, etc.) and begin to understand initial consonant sounds.

(2) Beginners in a "phonics" program examine puppets and other objects and make up stories about them.

(3) The "whole language" curriculum in the ABC School District requires teachers to keep a weekly log of each child's word analysis skills.

(4) The first grade teacher, using a curriculum with heavy emphasis on phonics, also uses "experience stories." The children describe an interesting experience, the teacher writes it down and makes multiple copies, and everyone reads it.

(5) A "basal" program uses Patterns as the main curriculum but includes many selections from trade books in the manner of "whole language."

This Author's Outlook

It is wise to acknowledge one's biases. I myself have had more direct experience with basal programs than with other approaches. Also, I have used Patterns with several students and found it effective.

I believe that the inherent dangers in a whole language program can be worse than the inherent dangers in a basal or phonics program. That is, if each of the contrasting methods is used poorly, the results with whole language are likely to be especially bad.

Partly to compensate for possible bias, in this article I have alternated which approach is mentioned first in regard to a particular point. This should help prevent the appearance of grossly favoring one approach. (I hope that alternating back and forth does not confuse the reader.)

Some Comparisons and Concerns

Learning to read well in Braille is not categorically harder than learning to read well in print. The task is not, however, exactly the same, nor is the sequence of skills. Following are some cautions and considerations which apply regardless of reading mode, and also some special cautions specific to Braille. These should be carefully considered in program planning.

General Concerns about Basal or Phonics Programs

* Preplanned drills on a given skill can become unnecessary "busywork" for the child who has already mastered the skill.

* There may be too much emphasis on rote learning (memorization).

* If various specific skills (e.g. spelling, word analysis, interpretation, etc.) are taught separately, the child may have trouble using them together.

* A mind-set toward always analyzing every word can lead to slow reading speed.

* The English language is not entirely phonetic. A student who is over-relying upon phonics may be stymied by a word like through or one.

* If a "basal" or "phonetic" reader is used in a pedantic way, it can be very boring.

* The traditional approach tends to assume that all of a given group (not necessarily the whole class) will work on the same selection at the same time.

General Concerns about Whole Language

* If the vocabulary is not "controlled" (i.e., presented in a preplanned sequence), it is hard to know what words will come along. Pictures help sighted students with this problem.

* The more the program is individualized the more the teacher must keep track of individual mastery of skills. It is easy to let this slip.

* A curriculum labeled "individualized" can become as lockstep as traditional programs are accused of being. Does the entire group often read the same book at the same time?

* If learning word-analysis skills is left too much to circumstance, it is easy to leave things out.

Concerns about Braille and Whole Language

When the vocabulary is not controlled the pictures help sighted students figure out difficult words independently. Indeed, authors and illustrators plan carefully for this help. But when a blind first-grader encounters the word icicle and does not see the picture, deciphering can be a formidable task.

If vocabulary is not controlled, the introduction of Braille signs is not controlled either. Consider this example, which could well appear in a book for beginning readers:

(Ed) (will) (go) (to)C(ity) P(ar)k.

Note: Parentheses indicate that in Braille a special sign is used rather than the letters. Also, in Braille the words to and City are written together, un-spaced.

Again, learning the Braille signs and formats is not in itself harder than learning print. But if a child continually encounters too many new things without the skills to figure them out, he/she will soon feel overwhelmed and give up.

If the student is overwhelmed by too many new things but does not give up, he/she will tend to slog along slowly, examining and re-examining dots.

Even when phonics is not emphasized, most children quickly figure out how to decode words by phonetic means. But many of the clues obvious to young print readers are simply not available to students using Braille, or not available for certain words. Example: the -sion sign has no s.) Because of this, a book listed as easy for a given level may not be as easy in Braille. But the converse can also occur; a given book may be easier in Braille.

Traditional reading books have a vocabulary and skills list for the teacher; a list which is sequential and correlated among the various books in a series. Although whole language books may indeed have such a list it is not assumed that the children will proceed through the books in a particular sequence. Planning ahead for introduction of Braille signs becomes more complex.

In a whole language curriculum there are often several hundred books available for a given grade level, any of which may be used by the next class coming along. This poses a dilemma about the blind student's materials. Should transcriber time be committed to providing great numbers of books, many of which will not actually be used? Or will choices be severely restricted because of what is available in Braille? The article by Carol Castellano (see references) describes many excellent ideas for handling this question. Nevertheless, it is a concern which does not occur with basal readers.

Concerns About Braille and Basals or Phonics Programs

* A given curriculum may emphasize skills in a sequence which is confusing or difficult in relation to Braille signs. For example, -ation, -tion, and -sion may all be introduced on the same day.

* Beginning lessons often emphasize sounding out words through rhyme. Suppose, for example, that the children know the word can, which in Braille is (c). A rhyming story might contain the words can (c), fan (fan), man (man), and ran (ran).

* If reading instruction is kept too strictly controlled for too long, a child may be unable to read any "regular" books for a very long time.

* Overemphasis on figuring out words and pronouncing them can result in "word-calling" (pronouncing words and sentences without understanding them).

* Continually over-examining the structure of words can prevent the development of speed.


Throughout history many aspects of life have been vulnerable to the "swing of the pendulum" phenomenon. This happens in education, too. But it need not lead to disaster. A new emphasis, if not badly overdone, can lead to great improvement in the approach formerly used.

Many principles of good teaching are the same, regardless of the specific curriculum or method. The young blind child must have real experiences and good explanations to learn things that others may learn through pictures. Introduction and mastery of Braille signs must be done in a reasonable manner.

If the teacher believes that a basal or phonetic approach is stilted and boring, then it probably will be. If the teacher believes whole language lets students float around vaguely without guidance, then it probably will.

Any method or approach has weaknesses for which good teaching must compensate. A competent approach to teaching a blind student (or any student) will meet and overcome concerns such as those listed above.

The IEP (as well as the general curriculum) can provide for the use of different methods in various combinations. Near the beginning of this article were several examples where aspects of one approach are integrated with another approach. However, it should not be necessary for the child to do every example and read every story in two different programs. For example, Patterns (or another basal series) might be central for a certain number of months, and then transition to the whole language curriculum would be completed quickly.

Probably the best motto for preventing problems is AVOID EXTREMES. Any method has disadvantages, or at least potential disadvantages.

The two general approaches discussed in this article should not be mutually exclusive. Even in the most "traditional" curriculum, students are encouraged to read books they enjoy. Even with the greatest emphasis on "whole language," children learn principles for figuring out new words.

Finally, BE FLEXIBLE. A good teacher, however strongly he or she feels about a given approach, should never be so rigid as to refuse to try other methods under any circumstances. If the approach which he or she favors is not successful with a given student, the teacher should be flexible enough to add elements of other approaches or even change to a completely different approach.


(1) Castellano, Carol (1994). "Making Whole Language Work." Future Reflections 13 (3), pp. 22-25. (Detailed suggestions for good management of a "whole language" curriculum for a blind child.)

(2) Harley, Randall K., Mila B. Turan, and LaRhea D. Sanford (1987). Communication Skills for Visually Impaired Learners. Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas. (General methods for instructing blind children in reading and writing. NOTE: Generally, I agree with the principles given in this book. However, the expectations in the "Behavioral Objectives of the Braille Code" (Appendix B) are too low. In my experience, by the end of third grade a student should be able to read and write all the signs of literary Braille, though he/she may not yet fully understand all rules of usage.)

(3) Powell, Debbie, and David Hornsby (1993). Learning Phonics and Spelling in a Whole Language Classroom. New York, New York: Scholastic Professional Books. (Detailed descriptions of ways to integrate specific skills into whole language programs effectively.)

(4) Willoughby, Doris M., and Sharon L. M. Duffy (1989). Handbook for Itinerant and Resource Teachers of Blind and Visually Impaired Students. Baltimore, Maryland: National Federation of the Blind, pp. 95-155. (General principles of teaching reading and writing to blind children. A description of Patterns is included, with discussion of advantages for overcoming concerns.)