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Whole Language:
What It Is, What It Isn't

by Mary Bowman-Kruhm, Ed.D.
Faculty Associate, Johns Hopkins University, School of Professional Studies in Business and Education

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See also: Whole Language Takes on Golf

Whole language back in the 1960s and 70s was called the psycholinguistic approach to reading. Thankfully, that name gave way to the term whole language, which more accurately describes it, as well as being a lot easier to spell. What is whole language? Whole language is

  • an approach;
  • a philosophy;
  • a framework;
  • a theory;
  • an orientation.

It is not a program for teaching reading.

Some people long for whole language to be a program. "Tell me how to teach whole language," they beg. These are rigid people who delight in having educational methods spelled out. You know them:

  • the teacher who follows every line in a basal reader teacher’s guide;
  • the teacher who equates nirvana with having a manual that says, "Next tell the students to…"; or
  • the parent who is positive his or her child will learn to read only if X program is religiously followed.

Some people, such as those described above, will never embrace a whole language approach. And they shouldn’t. They will be most comfortable with a structured program which lays out short-term objectives concretely and gives specific activities for first testing, then teaching, and then re-testing those objectives. And they can best teach that with which they are comfortable.

Some students also benefit from such structured programs. Many students, especially those identified as having learning problems or for whom other strategies have not worked, need this type of sequential and orderly program. But, unless they are teaching such students, many teachers like to do their own thing. They are adept at adopting and adapting strategies and techniques and plans to meet the needs of their students. For these creative souls, whole language is an approach to teaching reading that provides them with the orientation to reading they seek. And many students thrive in reading the varied materials that are part of a whole language approach to reading.

Advocates for phonics and skills (i.e., teaching by objectives) models continue to criticize the whole language model as having caused reading problems for many students. An aside that seems relevant here, even if I am being very foolish to get into the middle of the whole language/phonics/skills debate: Prior to whole language many, many students had reading problems. Some critics of whole language make it sound as if whole language created an atmosphere in which students haven’t learned to read. Not true. The phonics and skills models did not work for everyone. While some students may not learn to read through a whole language approach, whole language initially gained support because the phonics and skills models did not work for large numbers of students.

Then, as now, a good teacher must look at his or her students, assess need, and make appropriate recommendations and instructional decisions.  Basically, most aspects of the three models are similar. The differences are in degree and in how teachers carry them out in the classroom.

Example One: Whole language people believe a reader makes minimal use of graphics, using the visual array on the page only enough to get meaning.  In a phonics or skills model, the print is of major importance and meaning is pretty much assumed.

Example Two: In teaching, say for instance character development in a story, the whole language teacher might use a story map, a web, a reading guide, have the students act out parts, write a paragraph, etc. The skills teacher would have the students answer questions about the characters and perhaps have a class discussion after reading the story.

Experienced teachers are way beyond the stupid argument of whole language vs. other models. While the beginning teacher may need to resort to orthodox, time-honored, and safe teaching techniques, the experienced teacher feels free to pick and choose from a varied menu of teaching strategies, according to student needs. Experienced teachers, both elementary and secondary, regular and special education, use so many whole language-oriented activities that the argument is a moot one. One need only look at the basic components of a whole language model and see that whole language not only can be but is indeed translated from theory into substance in many of today’s classrooms.

What are the characteristics of a whole language model? Here are the basics and, in brackets, a few examples of the ways teachers translate them into classroom activities:

Meaning is at the core of the reading process; one reads to think and to comprehend. [trade books, Internet, games]

  • *A reader uses three cuing systems:
  1. the graphic (printed visual array);
  2. the syntactic (conventions and consistencies of the language’s structure);
  3. and the semantic (meaning or comprehension, including background information and personal previous experiences). [graphic organizers, Language Experience Approach (L.E.A.) and Directed Reading-Thinking Activity (DRTA), writing books and stories]
  • Reading is an interactive process which requires the reader to use his or her prior knowledge to make sense of the author’s words. [DRTA, reading, reflection, and listening guides]
  • Reading materials must be authentic, real life, meaning-centered. [core books, varied reading materials, including magazines, plays, functionalmaterials]
  • Writing, the flip side of reading, is equally important. [journal writing, word processing on a computer]
  • Reading involves an array of reader strategies, such as predicting meaning and using metacognitive skills, and these strategies should be taught beginning when a child enters school and continuing throughout school life. Inherent here is the strong view that reading is not a hierarchy of skills, with more advanced skills taught as a child progresses through the grades. [textual organization, reciprocal teaching, being aware when one doesn’t understand and using fix-up strategies]

Who is a practitioner of a whole language approach? A teacher who, based on the above characteristics, develops lessons which have sound goals and objectives and uses meaningful activities that motivate and involve students to reach those goals and objectives.

How do you now assess yourself and your teaching?


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