The Whole Language Reading Philosophy
does the Whole Language style of teaching reading work? How does it compare to
the phonics-only type of instruction?
of it as the "liberal" style of teaching reading, while systematic, intensive,
explicit phonics is the "conservative" style.
Language basically teaches kids to look at words as "pictures," while phonics
teaches them to break words into their parts - the alphabetic letters, and the
sounds those letters represent.
Language treats English text like Chinese text. In the Chinese language, each
word is "read" as a pattern - as a whole. Phonics, on the other hand, treats
each word as the sum of its individual parts, and those individual parts are
noted and decoded.
Language relies on the "gestalt." That's an educational psychology term which
relates to the notion that a child can scan text and guess at words while still
gleaning meaning adequately. Ed psych researchers noticed how adults "scan"
whole chunks of text without perceiving each individual letter in each
individual word, but still gleaned the meaning accurately and rapidly. They
presumed that children would be able to "scan" whole sections of simple text in
the same way. Unfortunately, despite decades of teaching reading with Whole
Language methods, brain research has thoroughly debunked that idea.
Whole Language is firmly rooted in most schools. This belief in the magical
ability of children to "scan" words and put the meaning of text together in
their own way is based on "constructivism," the idea that children learn best
when they are encouraged to put together their own understanding of text, not
"restricted" to trying to understand the author's intention accurately.
order to glean the meaning by scanning the text, children are taught a host of
reading "cues" to use in "constructing" the meaning of the text. The skills of
phonics - the word-sound correspondences - are just one of those "cues." Other
"cues" in Whole Language include illustrations, context, whether the word is at
the start of the sentence or the end of the sentence, and so on.
can see why kids' eyes move all over the text, while with phonics, they go left
to right and top to bottom. It could be argued that with Whole Language reading
instruction, reading is more "fun" because the interpretation of the text is
left up to the child, and feelings and emotions that come from looking at the
illustrations and make mental connections on their own, rather than simply
decoding the text, are more enjoyable. It's like the difference between looking
at paintings, or reading a page of text.
in contrast, relies on a belief that accuracy is best. The phonics philosophy
is based on the notion that it is best to break down the English language into
its basic building blocks - the alphabet - and teach children the relationships
between the sounds those letters make and the written symbols that represent
them. The goal is to give the children critical thinking ability, which comes
from the ability to understand and analyze text quickly and accurately.
Whole Language, kids are given pre-engineered books called "basal readers." These
books are criticized as "nonsense books" by phonics advocates, since they are
not really stories with plots and characters per se, but only written to
include the sight words that the children are expected to memorize and
therefore "read" upon encountering them. Basal readers are carefully written so
that they include a particular set of sight words that the children learn to
memorize and easily recognize. The children experience more success earlier on
because they have the words on those lists down pat.
after a few years of school, a Whole Language reader's vocabulary is typically
only one-tenth as large as a phonics reader's. This is because of the emphasis in
Whole Language programs on sight words that are merely memorized and not analyzed
phonics instruction relies on basal readers, too, but they are pre-engineered
to give the students practice in decoding the phonograms. So after the first
year or two of phonics-based basal readers, the child's decoding ability has created
a much bigger vocabulary, and the child is able to decode a whole library full
of books. Meanwhile, students who began reading with basal readers that are
based on sight words, not the phonograms, only know that relatively small set
of sight words, and they are left far behind the phonics-trained readers.
key difference: Whole Language schoolbooks are heavily illustrated, and often
very engaging and beautiful. Children are taught to use the "picture cues." If
they can't read a word, they can look at the accompanying picture, then go back
to the word and try to guess or discern the meaning. So if the word is "skip"
and the picture shows a jump rope, the child might decode the word as "jump."
To a Whole Language teacher, that would be acceptable. However, to a phonics
teacher, accuracy is of primary importance. And in the later grades, when the
illustrations disappear, children who have become dependent on "reading the
pictures" are lost, or at least at a disadvantage to phonics-trained readers who
don't need the illustrations to capture the meaning.
Whole Language learning materials
are typically far more expensive than those for a phonics reading program. That's
not only because of the lovely illustrations which typically accompany the
stories. Also, Whole Language curriculum requires a lot of "consumables" -
worksheets that can only be used once, for example. With Whole Language
systems, districts purchase a scheduled sequence of reading materials and
lessons, and also the basal readers.
With phonics, you mainly need the
teacher's manual, phonogram flash cards, chalk and chalkboard or markers and
dry erase board, the spelling rules, a spelling notebook, paper and pencils.
For books, the phonics learner can use regular school library books, although
phonics-keyed basal readers are useful in the early grades as well.
Homework: Book, The Whole
Language Catalog, by Whole Language gurus Kenneth S. Goodman, Lois Bird and