Whole Language vs. Phonics Instruction

The Rise and Fall of 'Whole Language' and the Return to Phonics

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By Patrick Groff

Patrick Groff is professor of education emeritus, San Diego (California) State University.


'Whole Language' (WL) is an instructional innovation the rudiments of which were created in 1971 by Frank Smith and Kenneth Goodman. Called the 'psycholinguistic method' of teaching reading at that time, the scheme later became known as the WL 'philosophy' of literacy development. Over the progression of time, the idea of WL as a methodology was abandoned, and replaced with a vision of it as an overarching system of instructional principles. Whole Language advocates make extravagant claims as to the success of the application of its philosophy. However, independent examinations of these assertions fail to confirm their contentions in this regard. When the effects of WL teaching are measured by the use of standardized reading tests, Whole Language is consistently proved to be an inferior approach to the development of children's reading abilities.

Defining Whole Language

The guiding principle of WL is that school children best learn to read in the same way they earlier learned to speak at home, as preschoolers. The validity of all of WL's lesser tenets, and each of its novel practices, are predicated on the assumption that the first principle of WL is without error.

Whole Language correctly observes that learning to speak ordinarily does not require direct and systematic instruction of a predetermined sequence of discrete skills, arranged in the order that children have difficulty in mastering. Therefore, WL goes on, since learning to speak usually is accomplished in an effortless, 'natural' fashion, so also should schoolchildren's learning to read and to spell. As with learning to speak, whatever information a child in school needs to learn to read and spell is best acquired by him or her simultaneously or co-instantaneously, it is held. Hence, the great significance of the word 'Whole' in Whole Language.

Whole Language also accepts the premise that each child inherits at birth a unique 'learning style' and 'set of intelligences'. There supposedly are twenty-three elements of genetic-based learning style, and seven kinds of distinctly dissimilar intelligence. The total number of different combinations of these thirty factors can be calculated to run into the thousands.

To take into account the huge number of potential combinations of learning styles/intelligences that a classroom of pupils would represent, it is found necessary by WL to eschew direct and systematic instruction of a standard body of literacy skills to all children. Instead, an illiterate child in an authentic WL class is 'immersed' in written material, and then is expected to infer what he or she personally needs to know in order to learn to read and spell. As was the case in the child's learning-to-speak environment, no controls are placed upon the variety of vocabulary, sentence types, nor structural organization of written material into which WL beginning readers are immersed. The WL instructor does notice that there are 'teachable moments', those in which he or she reacts to individual pupils' expressed needs for specific assistance.

Whole Language and Phonics Teaching

The spelling reform movement acknowledges documented evidence that children's acquisition of phonics knowledge is a critical prerequisite to their success in learning to read and spell. The attitude of WL toward phonics instruction thus should be of special interest to advocates of simplified spelling. Most of the leading proponents of WL do allow that phonics information may be of some use to children learning to read and spell. The amount of this information that each child needs to acquire in this regard is left up to him or her to decide, however, as noted above.

It is a popular notion in WL, nonetheless, that most children do not inherit learning styles nor sets of intelligences that are compatible with the assimilation or application of phonics information. The majority of children are presumed to have been born with one of the 'visual' learning styles or sets of intelligences. Therefore children supposedly find the acquisition of 'auditory' phonics information extremely painful, and of little use to them for recognizing written words. It thus is claimed by WL leaders that direct and systematic teaching of phonics information actually will handicap most children's ability to comprehend what they attempt to read.

These exponents of WL also maintain that English spelling is far too unpredictable for the application of phonics information to work satisfactorily, even for children who are able to master it. Instead of urging beginning readers to apply phonics information to read words, WL teachers commend them for using context cues to guess at word identities.

Distrust of Standardized Testing

As well, almost all proponents of WL strongly distrust standardized reading tests. These tests do not truly measure reading ability, it is averred. Only teacher-devised assessments of reading ability are valid, according to WL. This disfavor with standardized tests also rests on WL's acceptance of the 'deconstructionist' philosophy that proclaims it usually is impossible for readers to ascertain the precise meanings that authors intended to convey. Accordingly, WL students are empowered to add, omit, and substitute words and meanings in written material - as they see fit. Expecting 'right' answers from students about what they read is said to be a pernicious practice.

The Rise of Whole Language

Whole Language (also called the 'Real Books' approach) obviously is a radically unorthodox approach to literacy development. Nevertheless, it has been approved by many national, regional and local school officials in the major English-speaking nations, ie, the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. It also appears that a majority of professors of reading instruction at universities in these countries approve of WL, and thus direct future and inservice teachers to employ it, while counseling school officials to enforce its use. In the UK, the term 'Real Books' has been generally preferred to 'Whole Language'. In the past 2-3 years here, however, more direct and systematic phonics teaching has been insisted on by education authorities.

Generally speaking, however, WL principles and practices have come to dominate educational journal offerings, reading instruction conference agendas, workshop and other inservice training for teachers, the content of reading instruction texts and their teachers' manuals, and the marketing strategies used to promote these books. Some publishing houses now devote almost their entire book list to texts for teachers that explain WL, and reflect on how extraordinarily effective it supposedly is at fostering the development of literacy skills.

The Special Attractions of Whole Language (WL)

The widespread acceptance of WL in the world-wide English language educational community stimulates speculation as to what are the particular attractions of WL that sway teachers, teacher educators, and school officials to such a ready acceptance of it.

  • First, educators historically have been notorious for their inability to resist the lures of educational innovations, regardless of whether or not they have been empirically validated. If a pedagogical novelty dubs itself 'progressive' in nature, educators tend to adopt it.
  • Second, WL relieves educators of much direct personal accountability for the results of their pedagogical performances. For example, in the ideal WL classroom there are no grade level standards set for student achievement. Independent standardized evaluation from outside of children's progress in learning is rejected. Teachers are empowered to conduct reading and spelling instruction much as they choose - as long as it is not carried out in a direct and systematic way, and what is taught is not fragmented.
  • Third, WL appeals to many educators' romantic and/or humanistic interpretations of what is healthy child development. In WL, honoring children's freedom and dignity is held to be more essential than how literate they become. Whole Language classes thus almost always are esteem-centered, rather than learning-centered. In this regard, a co-founder of WL claims that becoming literate truly is not the highly important agent for success in life that it normally is thought to be.
  • Fourth, in the past, educators have ignored or rejected most of the empirical findings in practically all aspects of their field of endeavor. The fact that none of the original principles nor novel practices of WL is supported consistently by experimental research thus does not discourage numerous educators from holding positive views about it.
  • Fifth, the apparent simplicity of WL is alluring for teachers. In WL they escape having to master much of the extensive technical knowledge about reading and spelling instruction. With WL, teachers do not have to submit to pedagogical discipline that a prescribed course of direct and systematic instruction demands.
  • Sixth, educators who have liberal social, economic, and political views doubtless are charmed by WL's decidedly left-wing agenda in these respects.

In the USA, educators' allegiance to WL also may be sustained by certain concomitants of the kind of monopoly control that its public schools have over educational services. In this regard, critics point to runaway grade inflation in schools; their neglect of gifted students in favor of those with learning problems; emphasis on problem-solving by students who are culturally illiterate; a lack of high national academic standards; the absence of rigorous knowledge-based state examinations of teachers seeking certification for employment; the fact that about half of the educational workforce is not teachers; and parents' seeming indifference toward the schools, ie, their expressions that they have no vested interests in how effectively the schools function. These conditions create a breeding ground for the emergence of empirically unverified educational innovations, such as WL.

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