Whole language: Wikis


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Whole language describes a literacy philosophy which emphasizes that children should focus on meaning and strategy instruction. It is often contrasted with phonics-based methods of teaching reading and writing which emphasize instruction for decoding and spelling[1]. However, from whole language practitioners' perspective this view is erroneous and sets up a false dichotomy. Whole language practitioners teach to develop a knowledge of language including the graphophonic, syntactic, semantic and pragmatic aspects of language. Within a whole language perspective, language is treated as a complete meaning-making system, the parts of which function in relational ways. It has drawn criticism by those who advocate "back to basics" pedagogy or reading instruction because this whole language is based on a limited body of scientific research. [2].



Whole language is an educational philosophy that is complex to describe, particularly because it is informed by multiple research fields including but not limited to education, linguistics, psychology, sociology, and anthropology. Several strands run through most descriptions of whole language:

  • 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 into other areas of the curriculum, especially math, science, and social studies;
  • frequent reading
  • reading and writing for real purposes;
  • focus on motivational aspects of literacy, emphasizing the love of books and engaging reading materials;
  • meaning-centered whole to part to whole instruction where phonics are taught contextually in "embedded" phonics (different from decontextualized phonics); and
  • emphasis on using and understanding the meaning making role of phonics, grammar, spelling, capitalization and punctuation in diverse social contexts.

Underlying premises


Learning theory

The idea of "whole" language has its basis in a range of theories of learning related to the epistemologies called "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."

Chomsky and Goodman

The whole language approach to phonics grew out of Noam Chomsky's conception of linguistic development. Chomsky scientifically established the hypothesis that humans have a natural language capacity and are built to communicate through words. As evidence accumulated, the idea developed a large following in the 1960s. In 1967, Ken Goodman, trying to create a hypothesis about reading by analogizing to Chomsky's theses on speech and understanding, wrote a widely-cited article calling reading a "psycholinguistic guessing game" and chiding educators for attempting to apply what he saw as unnecessary orthographic order to a process that relied on holistic examination of words.[3] Goodman posited the existence of three "cueing systems" that regulate literacy development. These cueing systems are the graphophonemic cueing system, the semantic cueing system, and the syntactic cueing system, related to the linguistic domains of phonetics, semantics, and syntax respectively. The "graph" portion of the "graphophonemic" system referred to the graphic input, i.e., the text. According to Goodman, these systems overlap and work in tandem to help readers "guess" appropriately. He emphasized that pronouncing individual words will involve the use of all three systems (letter clues, meaning clues from context, and syntactical structure of the sentence). Part of his rationale was that in his studies of children who read words individually and then the same words in connected text, the children did better when they read the words in connected text. Later replications of the experiment failed to find effects, however, when children did not read the same words in connected text immediately after reading them individually, as they had in Goodman's experiment.[4]

Goodman's theory has been criticized by other researchers who favor a phonics-based approach, and present research to support their viewpoint. Critics argue that good readers use decoding as their primary approach to reading, and use context to confirm that what they have read makes sense.[5][6][7]

Application of Goodman's theory

Goodman's argument was compelling to educators as a way of thinking about beginning reading and 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, there is some neurological and experimental research that has concluded 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. However, there is additional literature that calls into question the validity of Shaywitz's perspective. (Brain research and reading: How emerging concepts in neuroscience support a meaning construction view of the reading process, Strauss et al, Educational Research and Reviews Vol. 4 (2), pp. 021–033, February 2009)

Contrasts with phonics

Because of this holistic emphasis, whole language is contrasted with skill-based areas of instruction, especially phonics. Decontextualized phonics instruction 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/, /æ/, and /t/ are represented by the graphemes c, a, and t. Because they do not focus exclusively on the individual parts, tending to focus on the relationship of parts to and within the larger context, whole language proponents do not favor some types of phonics instruction. Interestingly, 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 features of the phonics system (part) and finally use their new knowledge while reading the text again (whole). Reading Recovery is a program that uses a holistic practices with struggling readers.

Most whole language advocates see that children go through stages of spelling development as they develop, use and gain control over written language. Early literacy research conducted by Piagetian researcher, Emilia Ferreiro and published in her landmark book, Literacy Before Schooling, has been replicated by University of Alabama professor, Maryann Manning.

Rise of Whole Language and Reaction

After its introduction by Goodman, whole language rose in popularity dramatically. It became a major 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. What followed were the "Reading Wars" of the 1980s and 1990s between advocates of phonics and those of Whole Language methodology, which in turn led to several attempts to catalog research on the efficacy of phonics and whole language. Congress commissioned reading expert Marilyn Jager Adams to write a definitive book on the topic. She determined that phonics was important but suggested that some elements of the whole language approach were helpful.[8] Two large scale efforts, in 1998 by the United States National Research Council's Commission on Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children[9] and in 2000 by the United States National Reading Panel,[10] catalogued the most important elements of a reading program. While proponents of whole language find the latter to be controversial, both panels found that phonics instruction of varying kinds, especially analytic and synthetic phonics, contributed positively to students' ability to read words on tests of reading words in isolation. Both panels also found that embedded phonics and no phonics contributed to lower rates of achievement for most populations of students when measured on test of reading words in isolation. The Panel recommended an approach it described as "scientifically-based (sic) reading research” (SBRR--"should be science-based reading research" or "scientific reading research"--rather ironic), that cited 5 elements essential to effective reading instruction.

Element Pedology
Analogy Phonics Teaching students unfamiliar words by analogy to known words (e.g., recognizing that the rime segment of an unfamiliar word is identical to that of a familiar word, and then blending the known rime with the new word onset, such as reading brick by recognizing that -ick is contained in the known word kick, or reading stump by analogy to jump).
Analytic Phonics analyze lettersound relations in previously learned words to avoid pronouncing sounds in isolation.
Embedded Phonics phonics skills by embedding phonics instruction in text reading, a more implicit approach that relies to some extent on incidental learning.
Phonics through Spelling to segment words into phonemes and to select letters for those phonemes (i.e., teaching students to spell words phonemically).
Synthetic Phonics Teaching students explicitly to convert letters into sounds (phonemes) and then blend the sounds to form recognizable words.

The Panel, in short, recommended an approach that was overwhelmingly geared in traditional phonics instruction. All of the assumptions and principles held by Whole-Language partisans were unambiguously rejected. Drills and rote instruction in phonetics did not stifle comprehension, but were essential for the development of instantaneous sight-recognition of words that made the comprehension of larger units possible. Reading was most unlike oral language in that it did not arise from natural and innate receptivity in children, but required instruction for its acquisition. [11]

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 United States 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 and quasi-experiments).

However, Whole Language advocacy is now almost exclusively confined to the education academy and scatterings of administrations that remain committed. These administrators generally have to cloak Whole Language Pedagogy under various guises because of its massive unpopularity amongst rank-file-teachers and the general public. Where a local public becomes aware that Whole Language methods are active in their district, vigorous opposition ensues, as in Columbus Ohio, where parents and many teachers revolted against Reading Recovery, a program they viewed as Whole Language practiced in stealth. [12]

Adoption of some whole language concepts

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. Prominent critic of whole language Louisa Cook Moats has argued, however, that the foci on quality literature, diversity, reading groups, and motivation are not the sole property of whole language.[13] She, and others, contend these components of instruction are supported by educators of diverse educational perspectives. Moats contends that the properties essential to Whole Language, and those that render it ineffective and unfit for reading education are the principles that children learn to read from exposure to print, the hostility to drilling in phonics and other forms of direct instruction, and the tendency to endorse the use of context-clues and guess-work to decipher a word rather than phonemic decoding. In these and certain other tenets lie the essence and the error of Whole Language. Emphases on cultural diversity and quality literature is neither limited to Whole Language nor fundamental to it.

Balanced Literacy

More recently, "Balanced Literacy" has been suggested as an integrative approach, portrayed by its advocates as taking the best elements of both whole language and code-emphasizing phonics, something advocated by Adams in 1990. The New York Public School system has adopted Balanced Literacy as its literacy curriculum, though 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 criticized the United States National Reading Panel. Allington went so far as to use the term "big brother" to describe the government's role in the reading debate.[14]

No Child Left Behind has brought a resurgence of interest in phonics. Whole language has thus during the 2000s receded from being the dominant reading model in the education field to marginal status, and it continues to fade.


Prominent proponents of whole language include Kenneth Goodman, Frank Smith (psycholinguist), Carolyn Burke, Jerome Harste, Dorothy Watson, Regie Routman, and Richard Allington.

Widely-known whole language detractors include Louisa Cook Moats, G. Reid Lyon, James Kauffman, Phillip Gough, Keith Stanovich, Diane McGuinness, Douglas Carnine, Edward Kame'enui, Jerry Silbert, and Jeanne Chall. [15]

See also


  1. ^ Vol 34 No 2, April - June 1996 Page 28
  2. ^ eBooks.com - In Defense of Good Teaching: What Teachers Need to Know About the eBook
  3. ^ Goodman, K. (1967). Reading: A psycholinguistic guessing game. Journal of the Reading Specialist, 6, 126-135.
  4. ^ Pressley, M. (2006). Reading instruction that works: The case for balanced teaching. New York: The Guilford Press
  5. ^ http://www.sedl.org/reading/topics/cueing.html
  6. ^ http://www.balancedreading.com/3cue-adams.html
  7. ^ http://www.ednews.org/articles/4084/1/The-three-cueing-model--Down-for-the-count/Page1.html
  8. ^ Adams, M. J. (1990). Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  9. ^ Snow, C. E., Burns, M. S., & Griffin, P. (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
  10. ^ National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching children to read: an evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction: Reports of the subgroups (NIH Publication No. 00-4754). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
  11. ^ [www.edexcellence.net/doc/Moats2007.pdf - Whole Language High-Jinks: Thomas B. Fordham Institute]
  12. ^ http://www.nrrf.org/rr_bites_dust.htm.
  13. ^ Moats, L. C. (2000). Whole language lives on: The illusion of “Balanced Reading” instruction. Washington, DC: Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.
  14. ^ Allington, R. (2002). Big Brother and the national reading curriculum: How ideology trumped evidence. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  15. ^ Carnine, D.W., Silbert, J., Kame'enui, E.J., & Tarver, S.G. (2004). Direct instruction reading (4th Edition)

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