Whole Language: A Refreshing Approach to Language Instruction

By Bob Peterson

The cry “Johnny Can’t Read” was first heard in the mid-fifties when Rudolf Flesch authored a book addressing that issue. Three decades later “illiteracy” is a key concern of our nation. Johnny still can’t read nor can he write. And the problems of illiteracy are particularly acute for language minority students and students of color.

In the last thirty years educators have seen a myriad of methods and theories about the teaching of reading. Phonics approaches, look-say methods, and minute skill approaches to reading comprehension have all been tried and debated. To some extent all of them have been institutionalized through the widespread adoption of basal readers as the main means of reading instruction in public and private schools. Yet the alarming dimensions of the illiteracy crisis must call into question such traditional approaches. As long as we continue in the same rut the prospects for Johnny’s children to be good readers in the year 2000 look dim.

A real alternative, however, does exist: it’s called the “whole language” approach to reading and language acquisition. This approach is gaining support among teachers and some school systems even though it runs counter to the skills-based reading instructional practices and testing procedures that are endemic to most of our nation’s schools. Members of the national Commission on Reading note in their well publicized report Becoming a Nation of Readers that whole language “approaches are used to teach children to read in New Zealand, the most literate country in the world, a country that experiences very low rates of reading failure….”

Whole language is not merely a method of instruction; it is both theory and practice.

Learning to Read by Reading

Linguists and child psychologists say infants learn language through using it, not by being drilled in its separate parts. Similarly, whole language proponents argue that children best develop their language skills – reading, writing, speaking and listening — through reading, writing, speaking and listening. Real use is valued over practice exercises, not only because such use provides integrated “practice” in phonics, spelling, semantics, etc., but because it shows children that language is for making meanings, for accomplishing something.

The whole language approach of situating language learning in the life experiences of the students offers a real alternative to the use of ditto sheets and workbooks that, according to Becoming a Nation of Readers, consume up to 70% of the reading instruction time in our nation’s schools. Whole language advocates believe that more learning takes place when material is presented in a context that is meaningful to Ae learner. In whole language classrooms students’ time is occupied by writing, reading, listening and talking about the world around them and their relationship to it. They are literally placed in the middle of language. These experiences are essential for making meaning out of language and developing within our students the motivation to read and write and learn.

A whole language classroom is rich in the variety of print that it offers to the students: from books, magazines and newspapers, to posters, bumper stickers, food recipes and directions. Students are informed of not only the purpose of language, but its history, its development and its diversity.

In addition to-reading a variety of materials, students in a whole language classroom write, listen to and perform language in a multitude of ways. Poetry, prose, riddles, word games, idioms, quotations, proverbs, readers’ theatre, drama, word histories are examples of this diversity. Keeping journals, peer editing, group discussion, teacher- student conferences, letter writing, student constructed plays and puppet shows, along with the more tradition prose and poetry writing, form essential parts of whole language learning.

Since language is a means by which to make sense out of the world, students in a whole language classroom spend much of their time using language to learn about the arts, science, social studies, mathematics and literature. Instead of reading or writing solely for the sake of reading or writing, teachers put these activities in the context of broader areas of interest. As a result, students are better motivated to read and write and the class can cover content which is often left out when teachers are forced to use large chunks of their day to teach reading outside of the content areas.

Rooted in Progressive Tradition

Ken Goodman, a long time advocate of a whole language approach, says that “school curriculum needs to be a dual curriculum that, integrates language and thinking development, with the development of knowledge.” He proposes a curriculum which “is integrated, holistic and naturalistic…. [I]t emphasizes language. Whole and undivided, in use iri the context or real speech events and literacy events rather than fragmented into skill exercises.,.[and] it treats learning in school much the same as it is outside of school: human beings are constantly trying to make sense of their world.”

This whole language approach is rooted in the tradition of progressive education, dating back to John Dewey’s ideas of a “life experience” oriented curriculum. In the mid twenties William Kilpatrick pressed thematic, integrated units in which students worked on social studies and science projects while learning language and writing. These interdisciplinary student oriented perspectives stand-in sharp contrast to the text-driven and test-based curriculum now being pushed in many districts. Standardized criterion referenced testing in all subject areas and the division of the elementary school day into strict time slots for each subject area fragment student language learning.

Increasingly teachers, schools and even entire systems are moving towards whole language approaches. Whole language approaches have been adopted in many parts of Australia, Great Britain and Canada. In the United States, entire systems, such as Portland, Oregon, and West Des Moines, Iowa, have implemented programs that are based on this approach. In West Allis, Wisconsin, teachers have been encouraged to use the basal only three days a week, leaving the other two days for natural, holistic language activities.

And in Milwaukee recently, teachers have come together to form a local chapter of Teachers Applying Whole Language (TAWL). Some of the most ardent supporters are those teachers who work under the constraints of the basal reading systems. As one MPS middle school teacher said at a recent whole language workshop, “Students come to me hating reading after seven years of the basal reader. I share with them my love of poetry, good literature, and writing and almost always, I see a change of attitude, a reawakening of that love of learning and fascination with language that was probably there when they first entered school.”

For Further Reading:

Altwerger, B., Edelsky, C. & Flores, B. “Whole Language: What’s new?” in. The Reading Teacher, November 1987.

Anderson, R.C. et al. Becoming a Nation of Readers: The Report of the Commission of Reading. Washington D.C.: Nafionkl Institute of Education, 1985.

Ashton-Wamer, Syvlia. Teacher. New York: Bantam Books, 1971.

Goodman, Kenneth. What’s Whole in Whole Language? Exeter, NH: Heinemann, 1986.

Goodman, K. et al. Language and Thinking in School: A Whole-Language Curriculum. New York, NY: Richard Owen Publishers, 1987.

Graves, Dondd. Writing: Teachers and Children at Work. London, Eng.: Wm. Heinemann Ltd., 1983.

Meier, Deborah. “Why Reading Tests Don’t Test Reading.”’ Dissent, vol. 28, no. 4, 1981, pp. 457-66.

Moffett, James. Student-Centered Language Arts Program. Boston, Ma: Houghton Publishing, 1983.

Smith, Frank. Redding Without Nonsense. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University, 1979.

Bob Peterson teaches 5th grade at Vieau Elementary School.