Controversy surrounds the beginning reading stage. The intense "debates," even "wars," of the last 50 years are described, along with research relevant to those debates/wars, in a later chapter on research on beginning reading instruction. In this overview chapter, we focus on instructional practices.

Chall (1967) classified beginning reading approaches as either code-emphasis or meaning-emphasis approaches. Code-emphasis programs emphasize predictable letter-sound correspondences and the reading of words composed of those correspondences. Code-emphasis programs are usually referred to in lay terms as phonics programs. Programs that emphasize the reading of words that occur frequently in spoken language, regardless of the letter-sound irregularity of the words, are called meaning-emphasis programs.

Code-emphasis programs initially select words made up of letters and letter combinations representing the same sound in different words. This consistency between letters and their sound values enables students to read many different words by blending the sounds for each new word. For example, the word sat is sounded out as "sssaaat" and pronounced "sat." The word land is sounded out as "lllaaannnd" and pronounced "land." The letter a represents the same sound in sat and land, as well as in other words initially appearing in a code-emphasis program. In code-emphasis programs, a new word generally is not introduced until students have mastered the letter-sound correspondences that make up the word. For example, the word mat is not introduced until the students know the sounds for the letters m, a, and t.

In contrast, meaning-emphasis programs initially select words that appear frequently in print regardless of their letter-sound irregularity. The assumption is that frequently appearing words are familiar and, consequently, easier for students to learn. Students are encouraged to use a variety of sources—pictures, context of the story, word configuration, and initial letter—as cues to use in decoding words. Unlike the code-emphasis programs, the meaning-emphasis programs do not control words so that the same letter represents the same sound in most initially appearing words. For example, it would not be uncommon to see the words done, to, not, and book among the first 50 words introduced in a meaning-emphasis program. Note that in each word, the letter o represents a different sound.

Some other differences between code-emphasis and meaning-emphasis approaches are:

  1. Code-emphasis approaches emphasize oral reading; meaning-emphasis approaches emphasize silent reading.
  2. Code-emphasis approaches emphasize sounding out of words, meaning-emphasis approaches emphasize whole word reading.
  3. Code-emphasis approaches emphasize reading new words in isolation, meaning-emphasis approaches emphasize reading new words in context.
  4. Code-emphasis approaches emphasize accuracy of reading words in sentences; meaning-emphasis approaches emphasize guessing at unfamiliar words or skipping unfamiliar words to maintain the flow of reading.

In a well-designed code-emphasis approach, the emphasis changes over time. For example, the initial emphasis on oral reading shifts to an emphasis on silent reading after students can read passages fluently. The initial emphasis on sounding out words shifts to an emphasis on automatic recognition of words; however, students are taught to sound out words that they do not recognize automatically throughout all stages of instruction.

Whole language is a meaning-emphasis approach which differs from most meaning-emphasis basals in this respect: words are not selected at all; instead, authentic literature is selected and students read whatever words are in the text. In whole-language teaching, meaning is not only the goal of reading instruction but also the means through which children learn to read. Goodman (1986) states that "The focus is on meaning and not on language itself, in authentic speech and literacy events" (p. 40). Children are thought to acquire literacy skills by reading. They do not first learn reading skills and then apply them to pronounce words and get meaning; instead, they first get the meaning and then use meaning cues to decode unfamiliar words. They move from understanding the whole text (i.e., the meaning) to recognizing the vehicles of that meaning (i.e., the paragraphs, sentences, phrases, and words).