What is the “Whole Language” Approach to Teaching Reading?

By: Dr. Monica Bomengen

Definition of the Whole Language Approach

In the simplest terms, the “whole language approach” is a method of teaching children to read by recognizing words as whole pieces of language. Proponents of the whole language philosophy believe that language should not be broken down into letters and combinations of letters and “decoded.” Instead, they believe that language is a complete system of making meaning, with words functioning in relation to each other in context.

Constructivist Theory

The philosophy of whole language is complex and draws from education, linguistics, psychology, sociology, and anthropology. Whole language is a constructivist approach to education; constructivist teachers emphasize that students create (construct) their own knowledge from what they encounter. Using a holistic approach to teaching, constructivist teachers do not believe that students learn effectively by analyzing small chunks of a system, such as learning the letters of the alphabet in order to learn language. Constructivist instructors see learning as a cognitive experience unique to each learner’s own perspective and prior knowledge, which forms the framework for new knowledge.

Making Meaning of Text

The important thing for parents of elementary students to know is that whole language reading instruction focuses on helping children to “make meaning” of what they read and to express meaning in what they write. Some important aspects of the whole language philosophy include an emphasis on high quality literature, a focus on cultural diversity, and integration of literacy instruction across the subject areas. Whole language reading instruction creates many opportunities for children to read, either independently, with other children in small guided reading groups, and being read aloud to by the teacher.

The Role of Writing

Whole language teachers believe that children learn to read by writing, and vice versa. They encourage children to read and write for “real purposes,” with nonfiction texts and interpretation of what they read forming much of the basis of their assignments. The whole language approach to reading also stresses the love of literature and the use of engaging texts to help children develop that love. Teachers who use this approach exclusively do not place heavy emphasis in the early grades on spelling and grammar, which can make some parents uncomfortable. The whole language philosophy emphasizes children’s efforts to make meaning and seek meaning in language; therefore, correcting errors places the focus on technical correctness, which is not where whole language teachers believe it should be. The effective whole language teacher “hears and sees through” the child’s errors, using the information gained for formative assessment, then creates experiences that help the child to acquire the correct structure and form.

Cons of the Whole Language Approach

Aside from overlooking spelling and technical mistakes, the whole language approach can also present problems for students with reading difficulties. Students with dyslexia and other language processing disorders need explicit instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, and decoding in order to improve their reading skills. With the high prevelance of processing disorders (15-20% of all students), many reformers believe explicit and systematic phonics instruction should be used to teach every student how to read - in order to prevent these students from falling behind. The whole language approach works for many students, but explicit and systematic phonics instruction works for students of all levels (and greatly decreases spelling and pronunciation errors).  

Learn how to teach decoding strategies to your students & earn free PD credit: READING WORKSHOP

What Does the Research Say?

Because of disagreements over the years about which type of reading instruction is best, phonics or whole language, the National Reading Panel began a study in 1997 to settle the debate. In 2000, the Panel resleased its findings, stating that there are five essential components that must be taught in an effective reading program: phonemic awareness, phonics, reading fluency, vocabulary development, and reading comprehension.1 

Learn More:

Reading Wars: Phonics vs. Whole Language Reading Instruction

The Pendulum Swings: Whole Language vs. Phonics Instruction

The Rules of the English Language: Is There a Method to the Madness?

The Research-Based Gap Between Perceived vs. Actual Ability in Teaching Reading


1.  Moats, Louisa. Whole Language High Jinks: How to Tell When "Scientifically-Based Reading Instruction" Isn't. pg. 12

strategies for struggling readers


  • nasim bagherzadeh

    hello and thanks for the description of whole language method. it is so easy for understanding and describe completely. i got teh point by reading it.

  • Vic

    That there are still WL believers is unbelievable; it's like believing in a great magician in the sky. But, there are still plenty who believe in magic. For WL to work requires a similar kind of faith or magic: just read to kids, let their natural abilities take over and when they want to read they will. Just have faith. Don't teach. Watch, observe and encourage. That's all it takes.


  • mulin

    Not a magician here-- just one who understands that individual brains are wired differently and may respond better to one approach than another. Example: My son (16) has read and written at college+ level since 4th grade but struggled with the phonics teaching in kindergarten and first grade. He excelled with reading once the texts became interesting, rather than phonics based. As it turned out with later testing, he scores in the "very superior" range on Verbal, Perceptual, and Working Memory indices of the WISC-IV and in the "impaired" range on the "Processing Speed" index. Contrary to the above assertion, teaching systematic phonics rules separate from meaning is NOT useful to a very bright child with processing deficits. This example suggests that those with slow processing and very high GAI IQ scores will more readily learn through the whole language approach.

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Sep 23 2010

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