by Dr. Patrick Groff
Dr. Patrick Groff, Professor of Education Emeritus
San Diego State University, has published over 325 books,
monographs, and journal articles and is a nationally known
expert in the field of reading instruction.
NRRF Board Member & Senior Advisor
Dr. Patrick Groff, Professor of Education Emeritus San Diego State University, has published over 325 books, monographs, and journal articles and is a nationally known expert in the field of reading instruction.
One of the corollary tenets of the new empirically discredited Whole Language (WL) reading instruction scheme is that each child inherits a distinct learning style (LS). Within the WL movement the two most celebrated and influential promoters of this notion are Marie Carbo and Rita Dunn. They contend that by the time of his or her birth each child has developed a LS composed of some peculiar combination of 21 elements or preferences for learning.
Moreover, a LS is said to be so immutable that it predestines how an individual young child will best learn to read. Reading instruction in school thus must be tailored so as to match each child's unique LS, Carbo and Dunn propose. This demand is made in spite of the calculation that the varied combinations of the 21 elements of LS can number into the thousands. There thus is a huge number of supposed LS's.
This LS theory is capitalized on by the WL movement as a means to defend its guiding principle that school children best learn to read in the same informal way they previously learned to speak at home, as preschoolers. However, because of the massive number of potential learning styles that children purportedly bring with them to school, leaders of the WL movement argue that predetermined reading instruction for children is inconceivable, and therefore improper.
Advocates of WL instead advocate the idea that children should be "immersed" in written language in school, and then be allowed to infer from this free- wheeling experience whatever their novel LS's indicate they personally need to know in order to learn to read. There is no room in this proposition for direct and systematic teaching of a prearranged hierarchy of discrete reading skills, WL advocates emphasize.
There is agreement among members of the WL movement, however, that young children are able to introspect their inner thoughts so as to identify what are their personal LS's. As for Carbo, it is her conviction in this regard that most children are not born with auditory-type LS's. She therefore believes that only a few children have inherited an LS that makes learning and application of phonics information compatible for them.
Statements in favor of LS theory are made in a bold and confident manner. There are even more impressive indicators, however, that the kind of self- analysis Carbo and Dunn claim a child can make to discover his or her peculiar LS, actually is beyond a child's powers. Young children have great difficulty in making accurate and objective self-examinations of their mental states, it consistently is reported outside the LS literature. These youngsters ordinarily have not developed either the cognitive maturity, or life experiences extensive enough to make credible probes of their inner thoughts.
There are yet other negative criticisms of the LS assumption that assessments of young children can bring to the surface their otherwise submerged preferences for specific kinds of teaching, and teaching environments. Children's inherited physiological, emotional, and sociological propensities for learning supposedly develop these preferences. A compelling negative critique of these matters is found in S. A. Stahl and M.R. Kuhn's recent article in School Psychology Review (1995, vol. 24, pp. 393-404).
After consulting the pertinent experimental evidence, these University of Georgia researchers conclude that children's expressions of favored LS are not reliable, i.e., they change frequently. Questions asked of children about their LS also often are answered in the same way by nearly all respondents. This factor also has a negative effect on the reliability of LS assessment.
The LS theory is highly vulnerable to yet another reproof. This is that it artificially categorizes children as either visual, auditory, or tactile/kinesthetic learners. The relevant experimental studies persistently indicate, on the other hand, that children's acquisition of reading skills is facilitated greatly by the integration (not the separation) of all their sensory avenues of learning. Thus, multisensory teaching (combining visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning) produces the greatest growth in children's reading competency that is possible.
The separation of the channels of sensory learning that is involved in LS also holds little promise, Stahl and Kuhn correctly report, because "learning appears to be really a matter of substance over style." The substance of beginning reading instruction is to make children aware of the alphabetic principle, i.e., that letters consistently represent speech sounds. But children who have difficulty in learning this phonics information are classified by LS theory as "visual" learners, ones who cannot profit from phonics teaching that has been proved experimentally to be productive.
It is far more likely, however, that the LS theory has incorrectly analyzed the needs of these students. What such pupils truly need is some effective phonics instruction. In LS theory a confused judgment therefore is made about children's abilities as versus their so-called learning preferences. Children who report themselves as having difficulty in decoding words (sounding them out) immediately are categorized as global learners, ones who need to be taught to read words by sight.
It thus is not surprising, as Stahl and Kuhn observe, that experimental research "has provided no evidence to indicate that the matching of learners to particular instructional methods [e.g., auditory versus visual methods] is an effective strategy for improving reading ability." What, then, can be made of the claims to the contrary by those ideologically committed to LS theory?
Like the evidence offered in support of WL practices in general, that cited as confirmation of LS also turns out in general to be qualitative, i.e., it is made up of anecdotes, case studies, narratives and testimonials as to the perceived superior effectiveness of matching children's LS's with the kind of instruction given them. Also, information regularly is dragooned into the defense of LS that was not originated for that purpose. It thus is apparent that "research" by LS advocates often is viewed as a tool for the selling of the idea to teachers and school officials. This "research" thus frequently relates what LS theory looks like in its applications, but provides no statistical evidence that it is unmatched compared to other teaching approaches.
The disclosures here about the LS theory unfortunately do not represent the kind of information about it that teachers and school officials customarily are offered. Rather, popular teacher education journals for some time have assumed a protective editorial attitude toward both LS and WL. The pages of these publications have been filled with fervid declarations of the extraordinary merit of these two radical innovations. Only rarely in journals that teachers consult for guidance about instruction will they find any reservations made as to the merit of the LS idea and the WL approach.
This situation largely accounts for the popularity that LS and WL have enjoyed of late. Add to this pot the historical fact that educators are highly susceptible to charismatic purveyors of educational panaceas, such as those offered by LS and WL enthusiasts. Educators appear more inclined to jump on the bandwagon of unverified educational innovations than they are to discover and apply what the experimental research has found about effective instruction. In this regard, enormous amounts of teaching time are lost as a result of educators' engagements with educational crazes. As a consequence children, as victims of this academic malpractice, are denied full opportunity to learn to read.
The only saving grace of this deplorable condition is that no empirically unverified educational fad has ever survived the test of time. This is small consolation, however, to the child whose academic success is put in jeopardy by educators' devotion to uncorroborated schemes such as LS and WL. BR03
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