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Whole language describes a literacy instructional philosophy which emphasizes that children should focus on meaning and moderates skill instruction.
Whole language is a phenomenon that has been difficult to describe, particularly because many of its advocates have somewhat divergent perspectives about the core content of this instructional approach. Several strands run through most iterations of whole language:
- steadfast focus on making meaning in reading and expressing meaning in writing;
- constructivist approaches to knowledge creation, emphasizing students' interpretations of text and free expression of ideas in writing (often through daily journal entries).
- emphasis on high-quality and culturally-diverse literature;
- integrating literacy skills into other areas of the curriculum, especially math, science, and social studies;
- frequent reading, (a) with students in small "guided reading" groups, (b)to students with "read alouds", and (c) by students independently;
- focus on motivational aspects of literacy, emphasizing the love of books and level-appropriate student materials;
- meaning-based phonics, often taught as an "embedded" part of other reading lessons; and
- reduced emphasis on other skills, besides phonics, that are usually not linked directly to developing meaning, such as grammar and spelling.
Underlying premises of whole language
The idea of "whole" language has its basis in a range of theories of learning (called epistemologies) related to "holism." Holism is based upon the belief that it is not possible to understand learning of any kind by analyzing small chunks of the learning system. Holism was very much a response to behaviorism, which emphasized that the world could be understood by experimenting with stimuli and responses. Holists considered this a reductionist perspective that did not recognize that "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts." Analyzing individual behaviors, holists argued, could never tell us how the entire human mind worked. This is--in simplified terms--the theoretical basis for the term "whole language."
Whole language posits the existence of three "cuing systems" that regulate literacy development. These cuing systems are:
- graphophonemic cuing system
- semantic cuing system
- syntactic cuing system
These three systems, which overlap, help us read. Because reading is a holistic system, proponents say that pronouncing individual words can sometimes involve the use of all three systems (letter clues, meaning clues from context, and syntactical structure of the sentence)
Because of this holistic emphasis, whole language is contrasted with skill-based areas of instruction, especially phonics. Phonics is a commonly-used technique for teaching students to read. Phonics instruction tends to emphasize attention to the individual components of words, for example, the phonemes /k/, /a/, and /t/ represent the three graphemes c, a, and t. Because they de-emphasize the individual parts of learning, tending to focus on the larger context, whole language proponents do not favor some types of phonics instruction. Interestingly, some whole language advocates state that they do teach, and believe in, phonics, especially a type of phonics known as embedded phonics. In embedded phonics, letters are taught during other lessons focused on meaning and the phonics component is considered a "minilesson." Instruction in embedded phonics typically emphasizes the consonants and the short vowels, as well as letter combinations called rimes or phonograms. The use of this embedded phonics model is called a "whole-part-whole" approach because, consistent with holistic thinking, students read the text for meaning first (whole), then examine some features of the phonics system (part) and finally use their new knowledge to read stories (whole). Reading Recovery is a program that uses a whole language approach with struggling readers.
The whole language approach to phonics grew out of Noam Chomsky's conception of linguistic development. Chomsky believed that humans have a natural language capacity, that we are built to communicate through words. This idea developed a large following throughout the 1960s and 1970s and was eventually recast by some educators as a way of thinking about literacy more broadly. This led to the idea that reading and writing were ideas that should be considered as wholes, learned by experience and exposure more than analysis and didactic instruction. This largely accounts for the focus on time spent reading, especially independent reading. Many classrooms (whole language or otherwise) include silent reading time, sometimes called DEAR ("Drop Everything And Read") time or SSR (sustained silent reading). Some versions of this independent reading time include a structured role for the teacher, especially Reader's Workshop.
Despite the popularity of the extension of Chomsky's linguistic ideas to literacy, neurological and experimental research has shown that reading, unlike language, is not a pre-programmed human skill. It must be learned. Dr. Sally Shaywitz, a neurologist at Yale University, is credited with much of the research on the neurological structures of reading.
The contrast with skills-based approaches to reading also led to an approach to spelling called "invented spelling" or "inventive spelling." This generated considerable controversy in the public domain (see more discussion of controversies in the subsequent section) because parents, as well as some educators, were concerned that their children were not learning to spell well. Many whole language advocates argued that children went through stages of spelling development and that it was important to appreciate students' attempts to make meaning rather than harp on little mistakes. Popularly, invented spelling has been vilified by some, although little research has been done about the consequences of this shift away from spelling.
History and controversy
Whole language remains very popular is some parts of the United States and other countries, but its use has tended to wane over the past few years.
Whole Language Beginnings
Whole language was, to a large extent, the main educational paradigm of the late 1980s and the 1990s. Despite its popularity during this period, educators who believed that skill instruction was important for students' learning and some researchers in education were skeptical of whole language claims and said so loudly. Whether it was associated with whole language or not, the 1990s saw statistically-significant declines in student achievement nationwide on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Much of the blame for these declines was pinned on whole language.
Backlash Against Whole Language
Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, whole language skeptics generated considerable research that cast considerable doubt on features of whole language that de-emphasized skills, especially in phonics. This culminated with the reports of the National Research Council's Commission on Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children and the federally funded National Reading Panel. The latter remains especially controversial, but both panels found that phonics instruction of varying kinds, especially analytic and synthetic phonics, contributed positively to students' ability to read. Both panels also found that embedded phonics and no phonics contributed to lower rates of achievement for most populations of students.
The State of the Debate
Despite these results, many whole language advocates continue to argue that their approach, including embedded phonics, has been shown to improve student achievement. Whole language advocates sometimes criticize advocates of skill instruction as "reductionist" and describe the use of phonics as "word calling" because it does not involve the use of meaning. The National Reading Panel is criticized especially harshly by some in the whole language community for failing to include qualitative research designs that showed benefits for embedded phonics (the panel only considered experiments).
Common Ground (Possibly)
While rancor continues, much of whole language's emphasis on quality literature, cultural diversity, and reading in groups and to students is widely supported by the educational community. The importance of motivation, long a central focus of whole language approaches, has gained more attention in the broader educational community in the last few years. In this debate, there has not been much common ground. More recently, "balanced literacy" has been suggested as an integrative approach, taking the best elements of both whole language and phonics, something advocated in a well-known and highly-regarded book by Marilyn Jager Adams called Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print. The New York Public School system has adopted balanced literacy as its literacy curriculum. Despite the attempts to find some common ground here, some critics of whole language have suggested that "balanced literacy" is just the disingenuous recasting of the very same whole language with obfuscating new terminology. Equally vociferously, the whole language advocates have railed against the National Reading Panel. Allington went so far as to use the term "big brother" to describe the government's role in the reading debate.
Thinkers in this area
Prominent proponents of whole language include Goodman, Routman, Poplin (holism), and Allington. Widely-known whole language detractors include Moats, Lyon, Kauffman, and Chall.
Adams, M. J. (1990). Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).
Moats, L. C. (2000). "Whole language lives on: The illusion of “Balanced Reading” instruction". Washington, DC: Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.
Mills, H., O'Keefe, T., and Jennings, L.B. (2004). Looking closely, listening carefully: Learning literacy through inquiry. Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English.
Owocki, G. and Goodman, Y. (2002). Kidwatching: Documenting children's literacy development. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Ray, K.W. and Cleaveland, L.B.(2004). About the authors: Writing workshops with our youngest writers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Routman, R.(2003). Reading essentials: The specifics you need to teach reading well. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
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