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.
The Whole Language (WL) approach to beginning reading instruction was conceived in the early 1970s by education professors Frank Smith and Kenneth Goodman. Since that time, the approach has grown in popularity across America and in other English-speaking countries.
The governing principle of WL is that young students best learn to read in the same natural, informal manner they previously learned to speak, as preschoolers. Thus, in bona fide WL classrooms direct, intensive, systematic, early, and comprehensive (DISEC) teaching of reading is de-emphasized, if not abandoned.
Leaders of the WL movement also claim that each child comes to school with a unique, immutable learning style. Most fledgling readers are said to have learning styles that are incompatible with DISEC instruction of phonics rules (generalizations as to how letters regularly are used to represent speech sounds). It therefore is held that preplanned DISEC instruction of a hierarchy of phonics skills, and other reading abilities, usually is impractical.
It also is assumed in WL classrooms that students must be empowered to "construct" the meanings in written materials. Thus, beginning readers are urged to add, omit, and/or substitute words and meanings in written textas they see fitthrough guessing at the identities of words using sentence context cues. In WL, reading comprehension is not viewed as being dependent on precise word recognition. Therefore, students often are not expected to gain the exact meanings that an author intended to convey. Advocates of WL thus deem it unnecessary to put controls over the vocabulary and sentence structure of reading materials that students are provided to read.
Whole Language assessments of how well students can read also are distinctly different from those administered through standardized reading tests. Only teachers who understand and pledge loyalty to WL principles and practices are said to be qualified to decide how well students can read.
For beginning reading instruction, the WL approach often follows a 4-step pattern set for it by WL leader, Regie Routman:
First, students listen to teachers read stories aloud. A detailed discussion of the content of these simple narratives is conducted.
Second, teachers read and reread stories aloud to students while displaying enlarged copies of them for students to peruse. The teacher pauses occasionally to comment on words, letters, and phonics rules.
Third, students are assigned to small groups based on their reading ability. Each group reads stories matched to its level of reading competence, using skills attained in the second step, above. Some additional nonDISEC instruction of reading skills is provided, but only within the "context" of whole words or sentences. For example, single, isolated letter-speech sound correspondences (phonics rules) are not taught.
Fourth, students read stories independently. It is assumed that the nonDISEC teaching provided in the second and third steps, above, is sufficient for this purpose.
Critical analysis of Routman's proposal as to how to conduct WL beginning reading, as well as those of other WL major-domos, makes it clear that none of the unique principles nor novel practices of WL is confirmed by relevant experimental research studies. There is no reputable psychologist, linguist, cognitive scientist, nor neurologist today who supports the WL presumption that children should learn to read in the same manner they previously learned to speak. The two kinds of learning are remarkably different processes.
Advocates of WL attempt to compensate for this shortcoming in its theory by producing many qualitative (nonnumerical, anecdotal, subjective, unreplicable) research findings that conclude WL is the superior approach to the development of children's beginning reading ability. Findings reported from experimental as versus qualitative research into beginning reading instruction regularly contradict each other.
The WL movement has confused this issue by falsely contending that it is the originator, plus exclusive defender and promoter, of certain teaching practices that, in fact, were widely accepted long before the advent of WL. These noncontroversial practices include:
(1) Provision of frequent opportunities for students to practice
newly-acquired reading skills by reading interesting, high-quality
(2) Emphasis on students gaining of meaning from information they read;
(3) Integration of reading, spelling, and writing skills. For example, as soon as students are able to read a word, they learn to spell it, and to write it in compositions on subjects of their choice; and
(4) Ample opportunities for students to share with their classmates examples of their literacy attainments, and to work together to produce and critique them.
Despite the clear-cut differences between DISEC and WL teaching of reading, and the different research findings on which the two styles of instruction are based, there now are claims that the two kinds of tutelage can be merged, melded, or balanced so as to form the most effective beginning reading instruction possible. However, the presumption that the two approaches to reading teachingDISEC instruction and the WL approachare reconcilable, i.e., are not mutually exclusive in this regard, appears to be based on irrational thinking.
The irrational notion that it is justifiable to combine unique features of DISEC and WL reading instruction into a "balanced" form of this teaching also appears to have come at the instigation of the WL movement. As noted above, the media have reported that the validity of WL teaching has been challenged as relatively unproductive by documented evidence. When a commercial product suffers such negative publicity, its marketeers often opt to issue it under a new name, in the hope potential customers will not notice that the product's quality actually has not been improved significantly. The WL movement now is taking similar action in promoting its reading teaching innovation under the name "balanced reading instruction."
However, teachers, education officials, and school boards who honor the principle that reading instruction must be firmly based on experimental research cannot legitimately approve of either WL teaching, nor its so-called "balanced" version. Therefore, whenever the results of experimental and qualitative research on how beginning reading is best taught contradict each other, a forced-choice must be made by supporters of experimental research in favor of it.
The occasion to make that choice depends, of course, on how often teachers, teacher educators, and school officials continue to advise school board members that WL teaching, or its latest version, "balanced" reading instruction, is the preferable way to instruct young students to read. In the event they do, school boards that honor experimental evidence about reading teaching must request proof of the claim that WL teaching is superior to the DISEC variety. Surveys of experimental evidence to this effect should be demanded. School boards then can consult with reputable experts on experimental reading research as to whether proof offered in this regard actually is genuine.
Home | About Us |
About Phonics |
Research | Topics | Reading Reform | Links | Search
The National Right to Read Foundation
P.O. Box 560
Strasburg, VA 22657
Unless otherwise noted, you may copy and distribute any information on this site as long as The National Right to Read Foundation at www.nrrf.org is given credit. The National Right to Read Foundation is a 501(c)(3) publicly supported organization.