Whole Language: What’s the Fuss?

The following is condensed from an interview with Harvey Daniels. Daniels teaches at National-Louis University in Evanston, Il, where he directs the Center for City Schools. He is the author and coauthor of a number of books, the latest of which is Best Practice: New Standards for Teaching and Learning in America’s Schools. The interview was conducted by Barbara Miner of Rethinking Schools.

What is whole language?

First of all, I think the term “whole language” is in grave political trouble and I don’t think we’ll hear it much 10 years from now. It’s become so compromised and so abused, so unclear and so provocative, that even many whole language people don’t want to use it anymore. The philosophy of whole language will certainly last, but the name may fade from use.

That being said, let me give you a definition of whole language. I would say a whole language classroom is a place where teaching and learning is child-centered, experiential, reflective, authentic, holistic, social, collaborative, democratic, cognitive, developmental, constructivist, and challenging.

That’s a bit of a mouthful. What would that mean in terms of classroom practice?

Let me begin by outlining what you would see less of. A whole language classroom has less teacher-directed and controlled instruction, like lecturing and talking at children. It has less student passivity and less rewarding of sitting and silence. It has less time given to worksheets, dittos, and workbooks. It has less time spent reading textbooks and basal readers. It has fewer attempts by teachers to cover huge amounts of content area in every subject. It has less rote memorization and less stress on competition and grading. It has less tracking and leveling of students into alleged ability groups, less use of pull-out programs, and less reliance on standardized tests.

What do you see more of? You see more hands-on, inductive, active, experiential learning, which means more noise, more movement, more activity among the children. There is more emphasis on higher order thinking and a deeper study of fewer topics. There is more time devoted to whole, original, real books, as opposed to short little basal stories that are disconnected from each other.

There is also more acting on the principles of democracy. Thus a whole language classroom has more cooperative and collaborative activity, more heterogeneous grouping, and the classroom is an interdependent community. There’s also more trust in the classroom teacher’s observation and judgement about a child’s growth.

Another key area is more attention to the affective needs and the learning styles of individual kids. It’s clear that we need to make a place in the classroom for kids who learn through different channels: visual, auditory, kinesthetic. Attention Deficit Disorder, for instance, is a perfect example of a curriculum-induced disorder. If you define a learning situation as silent and motionless, then a kid who cannot be silent and motionless has a disease.

Most of all, and my feeling is that this is the single most important element, in a whole language classroom kids have more choices. This means that much of the time they pick their own books, their own topics to write about, their own partners to work with, their own projects to research, and topics to investigate.

Choice for kids also means more responsibility though. Students in a whole language classroom have more responsibility for their work, for setting goals, for monitoring their work, for finding and reading books, for selecting topics, for keeping their own records and for evaluating themselves.

What you’re describing is much broader than whole language as a way to teach reading and writing.

Exactly. I think the whole language movement is the present recurrence of an old set of interlocked and progressive ideas about teaching and learning that have ebbed and flowed throughout American history, whether through the work of John Dewey or some of the movements of the 1960s.

Whole language is not just about reading and writing. It’s about what learning is, what teaching is, what the classroom should be like, what education should be about.

I read a survey today in which 82% of fourth-grade teachers claimed they were whole language teachers. That’s ridiculous. Maybe 5% of the teachers in America are doing something that I would call whole language.

This takes us back to the name issue. Whole language now means whatever you want it to mean. An incredible number of teachers identify themselves as whole language teachers even as they violate every single precept of whole language.

How did it happen that people are using the name whole language but not the content?

One thing was that the commercial publishers rushed in and appropriated the movement’s language and terminology. And suddenly we had things like whole language worksheets, and whole language basals, and whole language blackline masters and dittos.

One of my favorites is the language arts book that says, “Hey, kids, turn the page, we’re going to the writing workshop.” And you turn the page and kids are asked to underline the nouns once and the verbs twice.

The producers of commercial materials essentially define whole language as whatever their materials happen to contain. So there’s no real change, it’s business as usual, and everybody’s part of it. It’s tragic how important terminology gets stolen, but it happens all the time.

This is one of the ways that whole language gets discredited. It gets trivialized and co-opted and translated into something completely tame and marketable. And everyone gets calmed and assured that they’re really part of the latest thing and the movement’s momentum is sapped.

The list of assumptions about learning that I just mentioned — the list of things to do more of and things to do less of — is pretty rigorous. It represents a paradigm shift. It’s a way of describing a classroom that’s radically different from the traditional American public school classroom.

So how many teachers have really changed to create a classroom where they don’t rely on worksheets, where they aren’t run by standardized tests, where kids aren’t yanked out for special help, where there’s no ability grouping? Sadly, not very many.

How do you get the whole language movement back on track?

I think that there are basically two competing school reform movements in America right now. One is the sort of governmental, bureaucratic, blue-ribbon commission, business advisory committee, centralized, top-down, Nation At Risk, policing-oriented, rap-their-knuckles reform movement. That’s the “official” governmental reform movement, and it’s geared toward accountability and testing. But it actually doesn’t have any reform in it at all. It doesn’t say you should teach this differently, you should add this content. It doesn’t say anything about the substance or the process of schooling. It offers no resources. It doesn’t offer any professional development for teachers.

Instead, it issues threats. It is basically saying that what we’re doing is OK, we just need to do it harder, longer, stronger, louder, meaner, and we’ll have a better country.

The other school reform movement is not oriented to testing, policing and punishment. It’s rooted in curriculum and instruction. It is a teacher-driven, grass-roots, bottom-up, basically democratic movement that says, “What we do in school doesn’t work. We’ve got to change what we teach and the way we teach it.”

Up to now, the whole language people have been the most visible part of this grass-roots reform effort. There’s a TAWL group (Teachers Applying Whole Language) in every town across the country.

Already, there are 32,000 teachers voluntarily organized into “TAWL cells,” as one conservative calls them. There’s also a more modest movement called Critical Literacy, and a growing movement called Integrated Curriculum. All these efforts are teacher- motivated and rooted in the curriculum.

Why isthewholelanguagemovement seenasa threatto the“official”reform movement?

You could argue that the “official” reform movement views the graduates of schools mainly as economic entities and whole language sees them as citizens. Consumers versus citizens is good way to define the differences.

One of the biggest things we fight over in school reform is kids’ choices and responsibilities. And you will never see much student choice and responsibility advocated by [former Education Secretary and Drug Czar] William Bennett or [cultural literacy proponent] E.D. Hirsch or any of the people who are part of the governmental school reform movement. They don’t really want citizens who have their own independent judgement on events and on culture. They want obedient workers. They have made that very clear. The report that kicked off governmental reform, “A Nation At Risk,” talked only about the economic and military significance of schooling.

Now this is not a conspiracy. I don’t think the textbook publishers sit in a room with [U.S. Education Secretary] Richard Riley and figure out how to ruin whole language. They’re mainly trying to make some money. But it’s all too easy to discredit a nascent grass-roots, idealistic, progressive movement like this. It has happened many times in American history.

What about those conservatives affiliated with religiously based education groups. Why are they so adamantly opposed to whole language?

There are several nationally organized, right-wing groups that have fixed on two enemies: whole language and outcomes- based education. And these issues have become part of day-to-day partisan politics.

Rush Limbaugh, for example, did a show a couple of weeks ago about a new report card in Houston where instead of giving kids an A, B, C, or D in subjects, they devised a complex rating scale of several levels of achievement in 50 or 60 different criteria. Instead of just getting a C in reading, which told you nothing, a parent would get multiple, complex ratings, on their child’s comprehension, on retellings, on vocabulary, and so forth.

Well, Rush Limbaugh apparently told everybody in T.V.-land to get on their phones and call their local school district and tell them, “Don’t you dare ever change from A, B, C, D report cards.” And several school districts we were then working with on alternative assessment strategies received critical phone calls from taxpayers.

The point is, there is organized grass- roots opposition to progressive approaches. In a minute, I’ll give you my theory why. But first, I also want to make clear that I am talking here of the organized opposition, not those parents who honestly and sincerely have questions about phonics, spelling, diagramming and all those related issues.

As far as I know, there are no parent groups which promote whole language, collaborative learning, dialog journals, detracking, or writing workshops. The only approach to education that some parents get passionate about — enough to go to meetings and print leaflets — is phonics.

And it’s interesting to me that phonics is the only approach to reading that removes meaning from reading.

These people are unconsciously saying that they want their kids to experience reading in a structure and a process in which meaning is taken out.

The same people tend to resonate with the idea that writing instruction ought to be composed mostly of grammar rules and diagramming sentences. Which is the only approach to writing which takes meaning- making out of composition.

So this is really a censorship issue. These are people who are terrified of losing their children, and they are frightened to death of the power of literacy. They know that when their kids really learn to read and really learn to write, they are going to be able to read all kinds of dangerous ideas and they will be able to write all kinds of potentially dangerous, scary, “disloyal to the family” ideas.

I’m not saying that I think these people sit around and think, “How can I keep my kid stupid?” Obviously that is not their motivation. But you find that they are consistent: they want phonics, they want grammar, they want lots of worksheets — and they are the first ones in line to try to censor Huckleberry Finn or Catcher in the Rye or any controversial content other than Dick and Jane.

It’s a package of values and attitudes that speaks to their fear and terror of losing their children to the world of ideas that they, the parents, can’t control.

So what scares them so much about whole language is that it promotes not skills but thinking. Whole language teachers believe that reading starts not with phonemes but with meaning, and writing starts with things to say. And that can be threaten- ing.

I do sympathize with people’s fears. I have two children of my own. What if they go to school and a teacher says, “Let’s write in journals.” And what if my daughter or son says, “Oh my dad is such a jerk, you know, he forgot to pick me up at school,” or, “You know, mom and dad had an argument.”

So I can get a twinge of fear about journals too, and feel a little bit vulnerable. But my kids are people with their own voices. They have their life and they have their story to tell. My son publishes a magazine and there’s a lot of it that I don’t appreciate or understand. But I will defend to the death his right to use writing to make meaning and reach people and create his identity.

If you read some of the right-wing literature, you’ll see that they don’t want any discussion of any attitudes, values, feelings, or politics; they don’t want any journaling, any guided imagery. They essentially want school to be devoid of ideas, thinking, debate, and meaning. But I don’t think the public schools of America should have it as a policy to keep children ignorant because of the fears of a few grownups. And if we accede to that reactionary request, how can we call ourselves educators?

Let’s address the phonics issue more. One of the key criticisms of whole language is that kids need phonics to learn to read and that whole language doesn’t teach phonics.

The phonics approach to reading was popularized only since about 1915. So the first questions is, how the hell did everyone learn how to read in the 4,000 years of written language before phonics was invented?

In fact, whole language is a return to the eternal fundamentals of education: kids reading whole, original books, writing whole, original texts of their own in a community of fellow learners with an experienced adult guiding them. That’s whole language. That’s the ancient way, the “primitive” way, the truly back-to-basics form of education.

This idea of breaking language down into its parts and teaching the individual pieces — diphthongs and gerunds — is a product of 20th century behavioristic psychology that’s already discredited in most quarters. Twenty or thirty years from now it will be gone. However, we have a problem, which is that a whole generation of parents and taxpayers had lots of phonics instruction and they think they turned out pretty well.

That’s how I learned to read.

That’s probably not how you learned to read. You probably had extensive and diffuse family and community activities that set the stage, offered models, and taught you a lot about print before you even got to school. Ninety percent of the children in our schools don’t need any formal phonics instruction, period. Maybe 10%, some people say 20%, need some formal phonics instruction in the first two years of school and, at the most, 10 or 15 minutes a day.

For the 10 or 20% who need it, I’m all for it. Let’s give it to them, amen, hallelujah, wonderful. No whole language teachers worth their salt would ever ever say that they don’t do phonics. But they do it as only a piece, only a part of the day, and they divide the class appropriately.

What about the argument that kids are going to have to take standardized tests, whether you like it or not, and whole language doesn’t adequately prepare them for the tests?

Let me tell you an unequivocal, verifiable fact. Every single major educational test given in America — the CTBS, the CAT, the Iowa Test of Basic Skills — every single test is owned by a company that also publishes basal textbooks. What we’re talking about here is cross-marketing.

That’s all it is. It’s like Pepsi owning Fritos. You get thirsty when you eat Fritos, right? So drink a Pepsi. It’s the same thing in education — the publishers make tests mainly to create markets for their textbooks, not to help kids learn.

It may be cross-marketing, but kids still have to take those tests.

Even if you want to capitulate to a given test, you don’t need to study only the test and distort your entire curriculum eight hours a day, 180 days a year, for 12 years. We’ve got very interesting studies where teachers do 35 or 38 weeks of what they think is best for kids, and then they’ll give them three weeks of test cramming just before the test. And the kids do just as well as kids who have 40 weeks of test-driven curriculum.

Besides, most of these tests actually do reward a deep and diffuse, long-term, developed capacity with language. Kids who are reading a lot of whole, original books and who are doing a lot of original writing in a wide variety of genres, who are revising and editing their work, who are talking actively about books and their writing — they do fine on standardized tests. You sometimes see some implementation dip, as we call it, where their scores will go down for a couple years when a new curriculum is introduced, but they come right back. And in other schools, scores go straight up.

Let’s talk about the spelling controversy. It’s one thing for kids to use invented spelling when first writing, and it’s sort of cute when they’re in kindergarten and first grade. But by the time children are in fourth grade, shouldn’t they be given spelling tests?

Spelling tests are not spelling. I’ve got a son who’s gotten 100 on every spelling test he ever took. But when he is doing an original piece of writing, his spelling isn’t nearly as good.

When someone gives you 10 words to learn to spell, all your attention is focused on only one thing, which is memorizing them and getting them written down right on Friday. Most anybody can do that. But that same person will turn around on Monday and misspell the same words again. Because then spelling is just one of a thousand other cognitive demands on your attention.

I don’t care whether anybody can spell or not. I care whether they can edit. I care that they know how to find the help they need to turn their mis-spellings into correct spellings before they release their writing to the public. Kids need to gradually acquire strategies to correct their spelling. It’s unimportant to me to make distinctions between people who are able to do more or less of it in their heads.

Another criticism of whole language is that its practitioners tend to be white, middle-class women who bring certain cultural assumptions to urban classrooms. These assumptions, in particular the lack of structure in a whole language classroom, might be great for white, middle-class kids but disadvantage poor kids, particularly students of color.

One of the canards used to sink a movement is to say there’s no structure. There’s lots of structure in a whole language classroom; they’re just different structures from what people are used to seeing. As Nancy Atwell, who’s one of our leaders, says, “I’m still running a very tight ship, it’s just a different kind of ship.”

Some of these new, different structures include teacher-student conferences, collaborative group investigations, thematic units, partner reading, dialogue journals, portfolios, observational assessment, and dozens more. These are each carefully crafted activities with complex rules, procedures, and norms — they just happen to be different norms from the ones in the traditional classroom.

I don’t think that these structures have any racial dimension. They are simply effective patterns of organization that stimulate children’s engagement with print and literacy, with books and ideas. Indeed, these structures are based on the psycho- logical concept of scaffolding, the special way in which parents and others instinctively help young children grow. They are the most powerful instructional interactions we currently know how to implement.

However, these classroom activities do have a cultural or economic class dimension, and therefore racial and ethnic politics do enter the picture indirectly. Because many urban children of color are poor, and because poor families often endorse authoritarian discipline styles, the decentralized whole language classroom sometimes seems to clash with family or cultural values. It is often said, especially by educators of color, that minority inner city kids need more discipline, more authority, more control than middle-class suburban white children.

So this creates a real problem — should schools recreate for kids the same culture found in their neighborhood, even if that means omitting the best educational models we have and use for other children? Or should schools exclusively operate accord- ing to middle-class values, styles, and standards?

I think that, especially for minority children, schooling must be both a mirror and a window. Kids have a right to expect that their school will positively reflect their heritage, their community, their culture. But at the same time the school must also provide a window for looking at the rest of society, at other ways of being and thinking, and offer kids a genuine chance to enlarge their repertoire. Valuable schooling helps kids extend their range, their ability to operate and succeed in a widening arena.

Still, we have to admit that many African-American teachers are wary and skeptical about whole language. It’s a real tension and disappointment in the whole language movement.

Might there have been errors, not in the intentions but in the practice of the whole language movement, that might be a cause of that rift?

Like any movement there’s always a kind of messianic spirit, an idealistic, change- the-world, do-gooder mentality. I think that’s what sets off some African-American teachers. You get a lot of younger white teachers saying, “We’ll go into this school and this neighborhood and we’ll bring the kids the benefits of literacy.” And you get teachers of color saying, “Hey wait a minute, those are our kids. We’ll take care of it. We know what’s best for them.”

I think that if white teachers run roughshod over such concerns, yes, they’re going to create polarities. But the fact is, in my experience working in Chicago’s schools, many Black public school teachers are middle-class people who have worked their way up the socioeconomic ladder for the first time to that level. They tend in general to be quite conservative education- ally, and pretty cautious. One of the comments you’ll sometimes hear from African-American teachers about whole language or other experiments is, “You might be right, but we can’t afford to take a chance with our kids.”

And the question I ask in return is, “Are you arguing that the system of education we have devised for inner-city black kids in America is so effective and that we should keep it up because it works so well?”

Everybody knows that, by and large, urban education has been both more oriented to skill and drill approaches and generally less effective than middle-class suburban schools. Whole language people are saying that whole language is not part of the problem of urban education; it’s part of the answer. We are offering an option that we think is far, far more promising than the skill-and-drill that has dominated education for 75 years.

Let’s go back to an issue affecting a whole language classroom, and that is the tension between a child-centered approach— in which you trust a child’s ability, you give them choices, you give them responsibilities— and the need to provide direction and teach certain skills and facts. How do you deal with that tension?

I advocate that teachers think about doing it about 50-50. For about half the day, the teacher guides the learning — planning, organizing, and structuring students’ exposure to ideas and topics. Hopefully, this teacher-directed instruction will be embedded in coherent, thematic units and will stress higher-order thinking over rote memorization. But anyway, that’s about half the day, composed of what most people would call traditional or “real” teaching.

The other half of the day you create tight, well-regulated structures within which kids can make choices and do their own work. We call this “workshop” or “studio” time. In other words, kids pick books to read and write and talk about; kids pick topics to write about, and plan, organize, draft, revise, and publish; kids pick things to investigate individually or in teams, identify the search, plan it, get it done, and prepare reports or ways to share.

I’m the balance guy. If I get run over by a bus tomorrow, I hope people at my funeral will say, “Well, at least he always talked about balance in the curriculum.”

How canone build a whole language approach that also has a critical approach toward the society around us, and that doesn’t fall into the stereotype of a de-politicized, white suburban movement?

I’m not sure I want whole language characterized as a depoliticized, white suburban movement. First of all, whole language is a very political professional grassroots teacher movement, as we’ve been talking about. Second, whole language is an avowedly progressive, humanistic, democratic innovation.

However, I hear what you are saying and the question is, “How does this kind of classroom address social issues?”

I think it addresses them in the deepest way, and that is by setting up a microcosm community that operates democratically. It creates a classroom where kids are respected and not oppressed, where kids take responsibility, kids make choices, kids work in groups and teams. It’s a socially diverse, productive, and mutually interdependent community of people. That’s the first thing.

The other thing is the good literature that is at the core of kids’ experience. Once you get past these watered down, pathetic commercial textbooks that suck the marrow out of literature with their abridging and sequencing; once you send kids into real books, now that’s political. What are some of the most popular books right now for kids? Fly Away Home, about homeless people; How Many Days to America?, about refugees; Encounter, a native’s eye view of Columbus. There’s a lot of literature out there that is very political and extremely critical of this society.

In fact, almost all good literature is critical. I don’t know any good literature that takes the present state of affairs and spins a tale about how wonderful everything is. Most good literature points toward problems.

Because most parents were taught more traditionally, what can teachers do to help parents understand whole language?

Let me tell you what I do when I work with parent groups, which I find very successful.

If you just walk up to most parents and say, “What do you think you ought to have in a reading program?” They’ll say, lots of phonics and a spelling test every Friday, and when they get older they should diagram a bunch of sentences. What parents are doing is dredging up their superficial “received-wisdom” from USA Today and Rush Limbaugh.

However, if you let parents tell their stories from their heart, from their gut, from what they have lived — and not from the pamphlets they get from Phyllis Schlafly — they give you a completely different set of prescriptions for schooling.

When I’m with a group of parents I say, “Tonight we are going to think back on our own experiences in school, and I am going to throw out some suggestions and ideas and words, and I am going to try to help you remember some of the key moments in your schooling, in your life as a reader and as a writer.”

I then have people pick out one moment that stands out in their development as a reader or a writer, either positive or negative. I have them draw up some notes on the back of a notecard and then talk to the person next to them and tell their story.

What happens is that you get a whole different set of ideas about what makes good reading or writing instruction. Adults tell horror stories about teachers who put red marks and mean comments all over their papers and tossed them back in their face.

Maybe the person will say that after that they gave up on being a writer. Or a parent will talk about what it was like being in the lowest reading group and how it felt to be a “Vulture” when everybody else was a “Bluebird” or a “Chickadee.”

Some will remember something positive, like the teacher in fourth grade who read every day for 15 to 20 minutes, and how they fell in love with books.

At some point as the parents are telling all these stories, I hand them a summary of the research on reading and writing. And I say, “Gee, I thought you guys were just a regular bunch of parents. I didn’t know you’d been sitting around reading all the educational research. But the stories you have been telling tonight are illustrating everything that I wanted to tell you about what we are trying to do with your kids.”

And I tell them, “All those sad stories that you told about being turned off to reading or writing, what we are trying to do is make sure that never happens to your kid. And those few happy stories, about how once in a while you had a teacher who let you write or read great books, we want to have those things happen for your child every single day in this school.”

When you tell them that, they say, “Oh yeah? Wow. Where’s the punch and cook- ies?” They don’t want to fight. They don’t want to argue. They don’t want to play phonics. They don’t want to have censorship. A lot of these people who at the surface level want to fight whole language, want to fight progressive ideas, if they look into their own heart and their own experience in school, they will strongly support what we are doing.

Now there are always crackpots and lunatics around the fringes. But for 95% of just regular good-hearted American parents, whether in cities or suburbs, if they go back and think about what worked and didn’t work for them as students, they give us an agenda that whole language teachers are very happy to live by.