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Systematic-phonics programs teach young children to read by helping them to recognize and sound out the letters and syllables of words. Students are then led to blend these sounds together to sound out and recognize the whole word. While other reading programs might touch on phonetics (either incidentally or on a “when needed” basis), systematic phonics teaches phonics in a specific sequence, and uses extensive repetition and direct instruction to help readers associate specific letter patterns with their associated sounds.
Whole Language reading programs eschew sublexical (under the word-level) training, focusing instead on getting students to infer and guess at words based on their understanding of the larger meaning of the sentence (“context-clues”). Students are given ample opportunity to read actual literature (age-appropriate) along with strategies for using semantic-based clues to pronounce unrecognized words.
Balanced reading programs are typically Whole Language programs with supplementary phonics training. This training might be incidental, or it might take the form of mini-lessons.