What’s What in Education? №2 Is Whole Language Done and Buried?
Professor: My enrollment data shows that everyone in this class is an experienced, currently employed elementary teacher. How many of you use the Whole Language approach in your language arts instruction?
Students: 26 hands go up from the 30 students present.
Professor: Almost all of you are using Whole Language, but I noticed that several of you were very tentative in your response. Why is that?
Student: Well…a lot of us work in the same District and our Department Chair has been pressuring us to switch to a phonics-based approach. She keeps sending us articles about what she calls The Science of Reading. I think a lot of us feel like we’re kind of caught in the middle of some kind of battle. It’s frustrating!
The Development and Growth of Whole Language
From the 1970s through the 1990s, Whole Language grew from the theoretical base first established by Dr. Kenneth Goodman. His work was developed based on the earlier model called the “language experience” approach. Dr. Goodman also was influenced by the linguistic theories of Noam Chomsky, Lev Vygotsky, and Jean Piaget. Part of the appeal of the Whole Language approach was that it emphasized each teacher’s knowledge and skill in responding to student needs, rather than scripted programs and curricula from national book publishers (Sawchuk, 2020).
Dr. Goodman suggested the use of “miscue analysis” as the primary form of ongoing evaluation in his model (Journal of the Reading Specialist, 1967). Student errors were viewed as a window into their thinking, predicting and refining what they read. This was a view that ran contrary to the study of “precise patterns, spellings, and syntax of words.” Dr. Goodman didn’t object to direct instruction in phonics, but he saw it as something that would only occur naturally and incidentally, in the context of what students were reading.
Teachers using this approach often focus “on children making sense of skills used in reading and writing, as opposed to just memorizing letter sounds and symbols.” They also rely heavily on the development of “students’ sight word vocabulary, an increasingly complex list of words that children memorize, both in and out of context.” (Lynde, 2020)
Whole Language was so universally accepted that it became part of almost all University programs, professional development offerings, and school district expectations. Dr. Goodman was elected president of the International Reading Association and he helped establish the Whole Language Network within the National Council of Teachers of English.
“In a whole language classroom, the books provided to children are typically predictable and repetitive, which generally helps children better understand the text. In addition, whole language classrooms do not require students to be completely accurate when reading. Consequently, since children are not required to read the text word for word, they have more freedom to improvise within the story. However, as long as the students’ inserted words make sense within the story, the variation is considered acceptable. Instructors feel that allowing children this freedom helps encourage a love of reading.” (Teachnology.com)
Rather abruptly, pushback against the Whole Language approach began to sprout in the 1990s. Some educators felt that it was too broadly defined and was, therefore, subject to wide variations of methods from classroom to classroom. A second area of conflict arose around the use of “invented spelling” as an allowable element of the approach. This was just too loosely structured for many educators and researchers to accept. Respected educators, including Marilyn Jager Adams (of Brown University) was disturbed to find that “many teachers were encouraging students to learn new words by relying on simplistic prompts, (“Does it look right? Does it sound right?”), based on the cueing systems — and they were often resistant to using phonics to help students identify new words (Sawchuk, 2020). “ Largely in response to these critiques, the “Balanced Literacy” approach emerged. This was intended to incorporate enough traditional phonics instruction into the Whole Language approach to satisfy the critics. Unfortunately, according to proponents of direct instruction in phonics, “including some phonics is not only less effective — it’s not effective at all.” (Ames 2020)
The Reading Wars
The publication of the National Reading Panel Report in 2000 was the opening salvo in what has been called The Reading Wars — Whole Language vs. Phonics. The report from a group of recognized reading experts called for explicit teaching of phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension.
A teacher/researcher, Emily Hanford, made a major contribution to the battle with her article, At A Loss For Words, in 2019. She wrote, “For decades, schools have taught children the strategies of struggling readers, using a theory about reading that cognitive scientists have repeatedly debunked. And many teachers and parents don’t know there’s anything wrong with it.” In addition, she cited the rather dismal statistics regarding the number of fourth and eight graders in America who are unable to read at a basic level. Most recently, The Science of Reading has emerged as the label for the preferred method of teaching reading, based on “a comprehensive body of research that encompasses years of scientific knowledge, spans across many languages, and shares the contributions of experts from relevant disciplines such as education, special education, literacy, psychology, neurology, and more.” (Ordetx 2021) Some authors also refer to this as Structured Literacy and others cite The Simple View of Reading (2019) in the same context.
So the issue is settled, right? Well…not so much! Here is why:
According to the research conducted by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in 2021, “The whole-language approach to reading instruction continues to be widely used in the primary grades in U.S. schools, despite having been disproven time and again by careful research and evaluation.” Whole Language is still the basis for major E/LA textbooks, local curriculum development projects, instructional materials found in classrooms, some State standards, teacher preparation programs, and in day-to-day teaching. Even schools and school districts, which claim to embrace a “balanced approach”, lean heavily towards Whole Language instruction.
The reasons for the continued use of Whole Language, despite strong evidence opposing it are identified as follows: “A pervasive lack of rigor in university education departments has allowed much nonsense to infect reading-research symposia, courses for teachers, and journals. Many reading programs have come to covertly embody whole-language principles. Additionally, many state standards and curricular frameworks still reflect whole-language ideas.” (Fordham Foundation, 2021)
Personally, I must plead guilty to the charge of supporting the use of the Whole Language approach, back in the day. However, I have since been persuaded by my maniacal pursuit of educational research that I was pushing the theory because it was consistent with many of my beliefs about early childhood education. Here is what current scientific investigations conclude:
- Learning to read is not a natural process. Most children must be taught to read through a structured and protracted process in which they are made aware of sounds and the symbols that represent them, and then learn to apply these skills automatically and attend to meaning.
- Our alphabetic writing system is not learned simply from exposure to print. Phonological awareness is primarily responsible for the ability to sound words out. The ability to use phonics and to sound words out, in turn, is primarily responsible for the development of context-free word-recognition ability, which in turn is primarily responsible for the development of the ability to read and comprehend connected text.
- Spoken language and written language are very different; mastery of each requires unique skills.
- The most important skill in early reading is the ability to read single words completely, accurately, and fluently.
- Context is not the primary factor in word recognition.
I thought I should mention that on John Hatties’ Visible Learning 2018 ranked list of influences on achievement Whole Language scored a dismal 0.06 (barely enough to warrant consideration), while Phonics Instruction received a very powerful 0.70 rating. Just sayin’.
So…I surrender. How about you?
Kenneth S. Goodman, ‘Founding Father’ of Whole Language, Dead at 92 By Stephen Sawchuk — Education Week, May 21, 2020
The Whole Language Approach to Reading Sharon Linde at Study.com, 2/20/2022
What is Whole Language Instruction? https://www.teach-nology.com/themes/lang_arts/phonics/wholelang.html
The Science of Reading: What it is Dr. Kirstina Ordetx, The Institute for Multi-Sensory Education (IMSE) 2020
The Science of Reading: The Basics and Beyond By Cory Armes, M.Ed., April 8, 2020 https://www.scilearn.com/the-science-of-reading-the-basics-and-beyond/
A Guide to Research on How the Brain Reads https://discover.carnegielearning.com/rs/041-RWW-195/images/12-2020_SLC_Science-of-Reading-Guide.pdf
At a Loss for Words How a flawed idea is teaching millions of kids to be poor readers August 22, 2019 | by Emily Hanford https://www.apmreports.org/episode/2019/08/22/whats-wrong-how-schools-teach-reading
Whole Language Lives On: The Illusion of Balanced Reading Instruction By: Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, 2021 http://www.ldonline.org/article/6394/
Visible Learning for Teachers, John Hattie 2011