Tag Archives: Balanced Literacy

How We Read Words

I am reading The Neural basis of Reading and currently reading the chapter called The Functional Neuroanatomy of Reading.(Cornelissen 2010)

The author, Nicola Brunswick, asserts that there are two routes to reading single words and that this is borne out in neurological research.  I am not going to go into the neurology in this post as I think that the theory is probably of more interest to educators.  Besides, I don’t feel that I fully understand the neurology.  No surprise, as I am only eighty pages into the book.  When I do understand, I will write a post on the topic.

Whole language and Hooked on Phonics

Do you remember the Whole Language versus the Hooked on Phonics debate?  When I started teaching[1] in the eighties it seemed that the teaching community was polarised by the split between the two methods.  At the time I didn’t feel that I had a strong grasp on the whole language concept even though I was told my own approach to teaching reflected that perspective.

What is Whole Language?

The Whole English Language

The Whole English Language (Photo credit: Jason DeRusha)


Whole language teachers engage their students in the use of language and teach the structures of spelling, grammar and writing as the issue arises during the students’ learning.  In my classroom, I read to the children and the children read on their own.  For my students who couldn’t yet read independently, I created tapes of stories they could listen to on headphones as they looked at the book itself.  I made sure to tell them when to turn the page.  Students were encouraged to guess at words they couldn’t figure out rather than interrupt the flow of the text.  These were educated guesses based on context or graphics such as pictures or diagrams.

Writing, grammar and style

My students also wrote daily, starting with a journal, but also using writing in all kinds of forms including reports on classroom experiments, their own stories and scripts for advertising. I read the journals daily and responded to the content.  This was not the place to correct grammar or spelling.  I did note problems with spelling and grammar and addressed the most common ones with the class.  When I had the opportunity, I also privately talked to some students about errors I didn’t deal with in class.

Almost every product except for the journals was expected to be correctly spelt and written.  This was done through drafts and conferences with the students on their work.  They talked to each other about their work as well as discussing it with me.  The Writing Conference Centre was actively used.

Using handwriting to teach spelling, punctuation and poetry

I was expected to teach handwriting.  Setting up practice was rather dreary but I


Handwriting (Photo credit: Mot)

used it as an opportunity to teach spelling, too.  For example, in setting up practices in the joining of w and e and h and e, I would include such bugbears as were, wear, we’re and where and explain the differences.  In later work, there might be sentences to show the difference in usages: “Where were you?” “We’re going to dye our underwear green.”  “We were wearing out the pencil sharpener.”

Later, when we had gone through all the permutations, I put up poetry to be

English: A scene from "", by Lewis C...

English: A scene from “”, by Lewis Carroll, drawn by Sir John Tenniel in 1871. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

copied as a writing exercise.  I first used The Walrus and the Carpenter.  Each day they copied a stanza.  Through the exercise, they learned the difference between a stanza and a verse, the technical aspects of writing out lines of poetry and some new vocabulary.  The writing morphed into learning how to read poetry, most importantly not to pause at the end of the line unless there was punctuation there to tell you to do so.  They also learned the purpose of punctuation and how it helped the reader to understand.

Phonics and whole language

I didn’t ignore phonics or the teaching of spelling, I just taught phonics when and where it was useful to learn it.  We did do spelling tests.  The list of words was drawn from my observations of the students’ difficulties and the vocabulary they were trying to use.  I always added an eleventh very difficult word such as chrysanthemum or fuchsia[2] that didn’t count in marking the tests; it was only for fun.  Sometimes students learnt the tough word better than the others.  I didn’t plan it that way, but now I realise that it also taught students that there are a number of words in English that break orthographic rules.  You can’t entirely rely on phonics.

Hooked on Phonics

Hooked on phonics

Hooked on phonics (Photo credit: daveonkels)

Phonics in this context refers to teaching the correlation between sound and letters.  This allows unfamiliar words to be sounded out by the reader.  For example, if you know that g followed by an i or an e will be given the soft pronunciation of g i.e. “j”, you can decipher the pronunciation of words such as gorge, gamete and gelid.  It won’t be much help with geisha or gecko, which is why experience is important in learning English.

Stress, pronunciation, meaning and spelling

However, a multisyllabic word that follows the rules of standard phonics may still stymie the reader in pronouncing it.  Pronunciation includes stress; without knowing which syllable is stressed, one can pronounce the word and be misunderstood. There are also a handful of common words in English that change their meaning depending on their pronunciation.  How would you pronounce object in the following two sentences?  “I object to your use of such vulgar language”; “My object all sublime, I shall achieve in time…” (From Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado)

as Yum-Yum (center), with Kate Forster (left) ...

as Yum-Yum (center), with Kate Forster (left) and Geraldine St. Maur (right) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To learn how to pronounce difficult words check out the two sites below.  I especially like Forvo as it usually gives both the British and American pronunciations and even states the gender and origin of the speaker.



And to find the eight words whose meaning depends on the right stress, check out


So phonics is a useful tool in in figuring out the pronunciation and spelling of words, but thanks to the many languages from which we have adopted words and the development of English from a more ancient language, one would flounder in the orthographies of English without experience of all the many exceptions.

sept15classroom 001

sept15classroom 001 (Photo credit: mrstg)

What about Balanced Literacy?


visualliteracy (Photo credit: alisonkeller)

Initially, the words were a description of a holistic approach to teaching language in which teachers use their personal professional knowledge to select their methods.  As professionals they are free to choose and use the materials they deemed appropriate.  Neither phonics nor whole language is an issue as the selection reflects what the students need to learn about language at this stage in their development, how they learn and their interests. What Balanced Literacy now means is a whole different kettle of fish and a considerable money earner for academic publishers.  But that is a topic for another post.

So what are the two routes to learning reading?

The first route, according to Brunswick, is called the grapho-phonological route.  The progression in this route is from recognition of individual letters to the conversion of those letters to sounds.  You probably recognise this route as very closely related to teaching phonics.

The second route is called the lexico-semantic route. The reader recognises words and proceeds from there to deduce the rules of spelling and acquire a knowledge of irregular spellings.

Which route is more effective?

The author doesn’t comment directly.  What she does say is that the grapho-phonological route is more useful in languages with shallow orthography.  What she means is languages where there is almost always a direct correspondence between letters and sounds.

Unfortunately, English is a deep orthographic language.  That means that not only can a grapheme (linguist speak for a letter or bunch of letters that make one sound) make several different sounds but different graphemes can make the same sound.

Think of the f sound.  It can be made by f or ph or gh as in food, phonics and laugh.  And gh can sound like f or p or, with an ou sound preceding it, sound like ow or o: laugh, plough, hiccough and thorough. (Cornelissen 2010) What is a poor speller to do?

You can see that to be proficient in decoding English words, you definitely need both routes to reading.  Neither route is more effective, but together they allow readers to acquire a good command of spelling in English.


Cornelissen, P. L. H., Peter C.:  Kringlebach, Morten L.; Pugh, Ken., Ed. (2010). The Neural Basis of Reading. New York, New York, Oxford University Press.

[1] My first class was a grade three/four split.  My second was a grade two/three split.  This was a particularly interesting class as most of the second grade was behind in language and several of the grade threes were advanced.  You will notice that my approach could also have been called Balanced Literacy except that the term wasn’t being used at that time.

[2] I prefer to use words that students can understand or might even have heard frequently:  necessary, definitely, conscientiously, onomatopoeia, pneumonia, asthma, psychology.  My personal bugbear is accommodation.  For more information go to:  http://homepage.ntlworld.com/vivian.c/TestsFrame.htm