New evidence has emerged from a Stanford University study of the phonics and whole language approaches to teaching reading. The study was published in the Brain & Language journal (May 2015).
The researchers used cognitive neuroscience techniques to show that these alternative approaches to reading instruction affected different areas of the brain.
The phonics approach, which focuses on letter-sound relationships, increases activity in the left hemisphere of the brain - the language and visual area - which is known to be best wired for reading.
In contrast, the research found that words learned via whole language instruction produced more activity in the brain’s right hemisphere.
"These contrasting teaching approaches are likely having such different impact on early brain responses because they encourage the learner to focus their attention in different ways," the researchers said. "It's like shifting the gears of the mind – when you focus your attention on different information associated with a word, you amplify different brain circuits."
Further confirmation of the recommendation to teach reading via phonics
This research provides more neuroscience evidence that the Commonwealth Government’s 2005 “National Enquiry into the Teaching of Literacy” was correct when it recommended: “…the use of a phonics-based teaching method – founded on proven and evidence-based strategies – to give students the best possible opportunity to learn to read and write in the early years of schooling.”
The Report cautioned against the exclusive use of the whole-language approach to the teaching of reading and found it to be: “...not in the best interests of children, particularly those experiencing reading difficulties”.