NRRF Essay - Guided Reading, Whole Language Style

Guided Reading, Whole Language Style

by Dr. Patrick Groff
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.

Of late, parents and the public have become increasingly concerned as to whether today's beginning readers are being afforded the most effective kind of reading instruction. They often are advised by educators that Whole Language (WL) reading teaching is the proper one for students because it is "balanced." As proof for this assertion, it is maintained that students in WL classes receive what is called "guided reading" instruction. To understand whether or not these claims about WL tutelage are true, it is necessary to review what are the basic constituents of this radical reading instruction innovation.

The Identifying Features of WL

The WL version of reading instruction was conceived of in the early 1970s by professors of education Frank Smith and Kenneth Goodman. The guiding principle of WL is that direct, intensive, systematic, early, and comprehensive (DISEC) teaching of a prearranged sequence of discrete reading skills, and especially the ways to apply phonics knowledge to read words, is not the most effective way to conduct reading lessons.

To the contrary, Smith and Goodman insist that illiterate students learn to read in the most pleasant way, and in the shortest time possible, simply "by reading." By this phrase they mean to say that teachers should "immerse" novice readers in written material, and then wait for each of them to infer what he/she personally needs to know in order to learn to read words.

It is held that this immersion practice is necessary, in any case, since each student at school entry age putatively has developed, or inherited, a unique and unalterable learning style. On the basis of the above notions about children's reading development, Smith and Goodman declare that DISEC instruction of reading is dangerous to their mental health, destructive of their impulses to learn to read, too difficult, and thus is one of the prime ways to make learning to read unnecessarily complicated.

Teachers undertaking WL instruction are advised that a fundamental way to immerse novice readers in written material is to read aloud to them while they "follow along" in the text. After a given number of repetitions of this oral reading, students supposedly are able to satisfactorily read the text in an independent fashion. It further is explained that it is acceptable for a student to add, omit, and substitute words and meanings in written material he/she reads aloud--as he/she personally sees fit.

The Invalidity of WL

When the above principles and practices of WL reading teaching are examined experimentally, it consistently is found that none of them is corroborated. The response to this situation by present-day major-domos of WL is to denounce as bogus any scientific research finding that disputes the validity of WL doctrines, and the peculiar manner in which its dogmas are implemented.

Despite the empirically discredited nature of WL, conversions of teachers to it over the years have grown rapidly. State departments of education follow suit by mandating that WL reading teaching be conducted in preference to the DISEC variety.

California offers an illustrative example of the dire consequences of WL's popularity. In 1987, this state's Department of Education dictated use of WL reading teaching in its public schools. By 1995, the federally-funded National Assessment of Educational Progress (which includes a standardized, objective reading test) reported that WL reading teaching in California was more fashionable here than in any other state. At the same time, however, California students had devolved into the least competent readers in the nation.

The Views of Regie Routman

Although there are numerous and persistent negative reports as to the empirical validity of WL, these depictions of its inferiority are ignored by current leaders of the WL movement. For example, Regie Routman reiterates approvingly the principles that undergird WL reading teaching. According to Routman:

  1. "Literacy acquisition is a natural process." Thus, the operative "conditions" in children's acquisition of speech, and in their learning to read, supposedly are identical in nature.
  2. Illiterate children have "much knowledge about literacy" because they have acquired speaking ability.
  3. The "optimal" WL reading instruction program encourages students' "risk taking" when reading. Therefore, students' adding, omitting, and substituting words and meanings when reading, and guessing at word identities through the application of sentence context cues, are fostered and cherished in WL classrooms.
The principles stated above clearly have no compelling confirmation from experimental facts. It thus is unsurprising that implementation of them regularly results in children being denied full opportunity to learn to read.

Nonetheless, by suppressing the truth that the fundamental dogmas of WL are empirically unsupported, Routman experiences great success as today's most influential promoter of the WL idea of "guided reading" instruction. She recommends that teachers precede it with a WL practice called "shared reading."

Workings of Shared Reading

Here, the teacher repeatedly reads aloud a text to novice readers and "invites" them "to read along with their eyes or aloud with the teacher." These fledgling readers are urged to predict from the pictures in a book its written context, and to guess at word identities using picture and sentence context cues.

"Shared reading is a natural way to teach skills and specific features of print," Routman maintains. It "is also an excellent time to help children discover features of text--letters, phonemes, punctuation, and high-frequency words." She recommends for this purpose use of "a sliding mask to highlight features of the text and naturally blend word parts in context." At the conclusion of their shared reading experience with a book students are able to read it independently, it is held.

However, the findings of relevant experimental investigations do not corroborate WL's shared reading procedure. It is not a confirmed time-effective manner in which to teach students to recognize written words accurately and quickly (automatically).

Workings of Guided Reading

Unfazed by the fact shared reading is not corroborated by empirical evidence, Routman goes on to proclaim that a WL procedure called "guided reading" is a necessary follow-up to shared reading. Here, students are urged "to think critically about a book" they supposedly previously learned, through shared reading, to read independently. Students now reread the book orally, but without "emphasis on getting the words right." That skill is not needed for students to successfully read aloud "particular descriptive passages," or for "backing up a statement (made by a student in a prior) discussion" of the book, Routman maintains.

As for instruction in phonics information in guided reading sessions, it is carried out "strategically," i.e., "in the meaningful context of the predictable stories children read." It is useful in this regard, Routman continues, that children acquire a conscious awareness of speech sounds (i.e., phonemic awareness)--but only "naturally as they try to make sense of (the content) of texts."

In Routman's "meaningful" version of phonics instruction, "connections of (speech) sounds and letters almost always are made in real-life contexts." These contexts are such things as "signs, labels, charts, calendars, poems, and children's names."

Of particular note in WL teaching is that beginning readers are not told "what the (speech) sounds and letters are." Instead, these connections are "discovered" by them through "meaningful phonetic associations," such as when they are asked to point to written words that have the same beginning speech sound. Never explain a phonics rule (how a letter regularly represents a speech sound) to students, and then "present practice examples" of it, Routman sternly warns teachers.

Phonics Teaching: The WL and DISEC Versions

At this point it becomes clear that Routman exhibits a misunderstanding of the distinct differences between DISEC phonics instruction, and her "strategic" version of it. For example, she says, "there is nothing wrong with direct, explicit teaching of phonics as long as it is done strategically." As noted above, however, the latter is a noticeably dissimilar exercise from the former.

For example, DISEC phonics teaching rightly assumes that illiterate children's greatest needs are to learn, as soon as possible, to recognize all letters accurately, and to gain full phonemic awareness. As soon as children are able to learn some of these two skills, they are taught in a DISEC manner how certain letters are used to regularly represent given speech sounds (they learn phonics rules). Intensive and comprehensive practice then is provided children so that their knowledge of these phonics rules becomes part of their long-term memory. Moreover, easier to learn phonics rules are taught before those proved more difficult to learn.

Following this, DISEC reading teaching makes sure that words in texts that children are assigned to read are "decodable." (This term is not found in the index of Routman's 1994 book.) That is to say, these are words children have been prepared ahead of time through phonics teaching (1) to sound-out (to attach speech sounds to their letters), and (2) to blend together the speech sounds so generated, so as to produce the pronunciation of recognizable words.

These practices stand in contrast to the phonics teaching technique that Routman recommends: "Rather than telling students what the (speech) sounds and letters are," she believes that "an inquiry method that has the children 'discover' the (speech) sounds and (phonics) rules works best." This activity need not include "short" vowel sounds, and the letters that exemplify them, Routman argues. That is to say, "children can read quite well without knowing short vowels" and letters that stand for them. For example, it is held that children should be urged not to look at the 'o' and 'e' in open when trying to read it.

Also, Routman insists that children learning phonics information only be asked indirect questions such as, "What do you notice about the words?" or "I see several words that begin with 'th'. Can you find any other words with the same sound?" These are examples of the "discovery" method she favors, that contrasts so sharply with DISEC teaching.

It is important to report that none of Routman's recommendations in the above regards about reading and phonics teaching is validated by experimental findings. This evidence indicates that her advice in these respects is inferior to DISEC instruction of reading and phonics information.


The present discussion suggests that parents, school board members, legislators, and the public at large are misled when assured by advocates of WL reading teaching that this instruction is superior because it is "balanced," i.e., that it includes "shared reading" and "guided reading" practices. It is evident in this regard that use of the term, "balanced reading instruction," is a convenient tactic employed by WL enthusiasts to divert attention away from the fact WL shared and guided reading instruction are not confirmed by pertinent scientific findings. Underlying WL proponents' choice of this stratagem is an distinct disfavor by them of experimental findings as to how children best learn to read.


Regie Routman (1994). Invitations. Portsmouth

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