NRRF - Whole Language at the Fork in the Road

Whole Language at the Fork in the Road

by Cathy Froggatt
Former NRRF North Carolina Director
Right to Read Report, February 1998

The purpose of this satire is to paint a clear picture of the anguish experienced by hundreds of thousands of young Americans as they advance through and leave school ill-equipped to handle the very real demands and requirements of school and life beyond. Cathy has heard many of these experiences first hand.

One day Dr. Goodguess died. The Gatekeeper to the afterlife told him that before entering the afterlife, he, like everyone, would be granted one wish to change one thing about his previous life on earth.

"What a wonderful surprise!" Dr. Goodguess exclaimed. "My greatest regret in life was that I didn’t learn to read with Whole Language. As you undoubtedly know," he said, "I ‘mainstreamed’ that philosophy of reading into nearly every classroom in the English-speaking world."

"Your wish is granted," responded the Gatekeeper. "From this moment on, you will find that your brain has been altered. Now you will read the Whole Language way. You must now travel down the path you see before you for a short distance. There you will find a fork in the road. One path leads to Perdition, the other to Paradise. Signs are posted which clearly mark the paths. Choose carefully, because once you have chosen a path to travel, you can never turn back."

Dr. Goodguess marched off confidently until he reached the fork in the road. The left fork was marked with a sign that said: "Perdition." The road to the right said: "Paradise."

As he stood there, a look of puzzlement, and then worry spread over his face. He scratched his head and thought, "They both start with ‘P’; now what do I do? I’ve always been a risk-taker, but this is a frightfully important decision. I cannot make a mistake."

Just then, another founder of Whole Language, Dr. Sampler, died and stood before the Gatekeeper. "The hallmark of my life," he told the Gatekeeper with pride, "was the widespread influence my theories have had on reading instruction. I only wish that I had actually learned to read in a manner consistent with my theories: you know…naturally…without having to be forced to learn those low level phonics sub-skills."

His wish was immediately granted, and in a moment he joined Dr. Goodguess at the fork in the road. "Thank goodness you’re here, Dr. Sampler," exclaimed Dr. Goodguess. "I am in dire need of some cooperative learning."

"Why, Dr. Goodguess, what is the matter? You look very distraught! What has happened to your self-esteem?"

"Well, Dr. Sampler, it’s these darn words-in-isolation. You’d think there would be at least one picture clue somewhere?!"

"Hmmm, I see what you mean, Dr. Goodguess. Oh, no! Both signs have words that start with the same letter, and the words are about the same length."

As they stood pondering their dilemma, the earthly life of a College Professor of Education came to an end. As Professor Indoctrinate stood before the Gatekeeper, she stated with a rather high degree of confidence: "I have been completely happy with my earthly life. The life of a tenured professor, with the academic freedom it brings, was near perfect bliss. I wouldn’t have changed a thing."

"So be it," said the Gatekeeper, "but I’m afraid the fork in the road up ahead is becoming choked with people. Perhaps you can assist them by bringing this "context clue" to help them decide which path to take." With that, the Gatekeeper gave her a sign that said: "Pandemonium."* "Take this sign with you and place it at the left fork in the path. Do you understand?"

"Certainly," said Dr. Indoctrinate, and she did as she was asked.

Needless to say, Drs. Goodguess and Sampler were delighted to see help coming, but they were immediately confounded when they found themselves with yet another "P" word.

Professor Indoctrinate, unwilling to provide any phonics information due to her thorough disdain for such "lower order subskills," encouraged Drs. Goodguess and Sampler to use the Whole Language cueing system they knew so well. In an attempt to reassure them, she said, "Don’t be upset if you can’t read the signs just yet. After all, reading is developmental. In time it will all begin to click, maybe next year or the year after."

Now they knew they were in need of a ‘real’ reading expert, particularly one who had been intensely trained, preferably at Ohio State. So without hesitation, even though their self-esteem was becoming badly damaged, Drs. Goodguess and Sampler fell to their knees and began praying loudly. As if on cue, a Reading Recovery teacher appeared on the pathway. At first she was a bit intimidated to be in the presence of the founders of Whole Language. After all, she knew quite well that Reading Recovery owed its very existence (in more ways than one) to the theories and strategies taught by these very experts.

Fortunately, her extensive training allowed her to quickly regain her composure and to focus on the reading problems the gentlemen were experiencing. "I am sure I need not remind you, gentlemen," she began, "that comprehension and meaning-making are of primary importance when reading a word you have not seen before. You must just answer the question: ‘What would make sense here?’"

With the path behind them filling up with people impatiently awaiting their turn to pass through the fork, Drs. Goodguess and Sampler cried out in despair, "What we desperately need is more context!"

Just then they heard the soft spoken voice of a child. A little six-year-old boy walked up to them, looked at the sign on the right and said with great pride, "I was taught to read with explicit, systematic phonics. I can sound out any word. The sign on the right says ‘Paradise’ and that’s the way I’m going." And off he went.

Drs. Goodguess and Sampler looked at each other with knowing smirks. Their need for context had surely been met. Dr. Goodguess whispered excitedly, "Did you hear him say ‘explicit, systematic phonics’? The path he took must be the road to Perdition! Quickly now, let’s take the other path!"

* Pandemonium is the capital of Hell in Milton’s Paradise Lost.

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