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 novel principles of the Whole Language (WL) approach to the development of children's reading ability is that reading is a "guessing game." By this, advocates of WL mean that children should guess at the identity of words when reading, putting heavy dependence on sentence context cues.
According to WL cofounder, Frank Smith, the sentence is the smallest unit of meaning in written language. It follows, he argues, that to read effectively children first must "construct" the meaning of a sentence, and only afterward return to recognize the individual words in it. As WL luminary, Constance Weaver, puts it, "good readers read for meaning, not to identify words." It is the unsuccessful reader who "treats reading as a task of getting the words right, " WL promoters Tim Rasinski and Nancy Padak insist.
Through 1995, this WL view of children's word recognition was the official mandate of the California Department of Education, and its Superintendent of Public Instruction to reading teachers of that state. As a consequence, California children became the least capable readers in the nation. At that point, the legislature of California passed laws rescinding the use of WL in that state's public schools.
Despite such evidence of the failure of WL's position on children's word recognition, its leaders continue to repeatedly claim that there is abundant "research" to prove that children should use context cues to recognize written words. The WL assumption in this regard is that the better a reader a child becomes, the greater the dependence s/he places upon context cues when reading. To teach children otherwise "does not reflect what proficient readers actually do," Constance Weaver avers.
The WL movement also defends use of context cues by children because it maintains that most children by school entry age, at least, have immutable learning styles that are not amenable to the learning of phonics information. Attempts to teach phonics rules to this supposed "visual-minded" majority of children leaves them highly confused about the nature of reading, and causes reading comprehension problems for them later on in school, WL proponents would have teachers believe.
There obviously are some instances in reading in which sentence context cues must be applied for a peculiar connotation of a word that its author intended to emerge. For instance, in the sentence, Bob petted his cat, to whom the pronoun, his, refers depends, of course, on the other words (the context) of this sentence.
My unabridged dictionary lists 179 connotations for the word, run. The particular connotation intended for run in the sentences, Sue has a run in her stocking, and Sue had to run to catch her bus, clearly necessitate a consultation by the reader of the remainder of the words in these sentences. However, this fact in no way confirms the WL assumption that run in these two sentences is identified, as such (and not some other word), only after the meanings of both sentences are attained.
The recognition of run in these sentences by children develops best in quite a different way, the relevant empirical evidence indicates. This evidence consistently makes clear that beginning readers' ability to recognize run quickly and accurately (automatically) is forwarded most auspiciously by, first, having them learn to sound out the letters of run, and to blend its speech sounds, /r/--/u/--/n/, so as to pronounce the word.
After a certain period of sounding-out the three letters of run, children will begin to recognize a familiar spelling pattern, un, without sounding it out. Shortly thereafter, they begin to recognize un as a familiar spelling pattern in words such as fun, gun, sun, until, punish, and lunch. This explains how children, after they apply phonics rules to decode words, are able to increasingly speed up their recognition of words, without losing any of their accuracy in doing so.
These experimental findings as to how children come to identify words automatically reveals that the usefulness for context cues for children is only after they recognize a word, as such, not before they identify it, as WL claims. It thus is defective teaching to urge children, as WL instruction does, to use context cues to guess at the identity of words. Instead, the wise teacher takes children carefully through the process described above for that purpose.
That only rarely will context cues provide children the help they need to recognize words is disclosed by the experimental evidence in yet another way. In this respect, context cues help children most with recognition of words that occur with high frequency, or are short. However, these are the words children have relatively little difficulty identifying. Since context cues offer very little service in helping children recognize words that appear infrequently (which typically hold very specific meanings), or are multisyllabic, context cues fail children exactly at the point where they need help most.
The naturalistic, anecdotal, or qualitative "research" evidence that WL offers as proof to the contrary will be examined critically in a forthcoming NRRF Briefing. For now, it can be noted that no notable linguist, psychologist, cognitive scientist, nor reading instruction specialist, who honors experimental research findings, supports the WL stand on word recognition.
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