Whole Language

Whole language is an approach to the teaching of reading that is widely used in the United States. It is a method of reading instruction that emphasizes the meaning and structure of words, rather than the phonics-based approach that looks at spelling and decoding. It is still considered experimental.

Phonics tries to teach the child to associate letters or groups of letters and the sound that they represent. Whole language uses real literature and writing in the context of the learner's experience, so that a higher motivation and desire for studying is achieved. Whole language has become a fashionable teaching method since the 1980s for two main reasons. First, it is understood that experienced readers recognize the whole word and grasp the meaning of the text as a combination of words linked together syntactically and semantically. When we talk, we use words as a whole, not as individual sounds. Whole language, therefore, suggests that it is logical to teach children to read whole words, not the individual sounds they are made of.

Second, supporters of the whole language approach claim that it creates a love for reading and literature, because it spares the children the boring spelling practice and numerous drills. In the whole language method, the teacher reads a book aloud and the students look at the text at the same time. After they have heard the text enough times to memorize it, they start reading it themselves because they have also memorized the word as a picture or symbol, that stands for something and signifies a particular object. Thus they will be able to recognize the same word in a different texts and read it. Other types of activities include guided reading in small groups, peer reading, reading aloud, chain reading, matching and others.

The method has its critics. Theu argue that whole language gives no training to read unfamiliar words. If there is no one to read the word for you and you have no experience in decoding individual sounds, how do you know what this word is? The only way to do this is to first break down the word to its constituent sounds and then reconstruct the whole word. Children spend a long time practicing, repeating and pronouncing individual sound before they start to speak. Child psychologists claim that young children love repetition and accept this part of their teaching as a game; thus, the critics of whole language argue, most children do not react negatively to drills. Another serious criticism to the whole language method is that is does not acknowledge the different types of learners and that it works on the presumption that all children are mostly visual learners. The method is inapplicable to auditory or kinesthetic learners who need other types of reading instructions. Dyslexic children could also find reading extremely hard with this method because they cannot grasp the context as other pupils would.

Martha Gillis, senior program director of reading and language arts at the Boston School Department, where whole language is the predominant method of reading instruction, argues that the main advantage of the method is that it presents children with an unlimited source of topics, vocabulary and contexts, thus making sure that the children would be interested and motivated. She firmly believes that stress should be placed on variety rather than quality. The children may not understand every word they read but eventually they will and they are encouraged to guess the meaning of an unfamiliar word from the context and the surrounding words. Gillis also explains that when writing, children should not have their spelling corrected. If they develop a love for reading, they will read a lot and eventually memorize the correct spelling of the words.

Most education experts and teachers have called for a more balanced approach to reading instruction, implementing good practices from both methods. They suggest that basal instructions on sounds should be retained but a variety of texts and contexts, suitable for the respective age groups should be provided as a stimulus for reading practice. A combination between practicing sound and phonic decoding and reading aloud or independently might prove more beneficial to students than either of the methods used in isolation.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Reading, Language, and Literacy: Instruction for the Twenty-First Century
Fran Lehr; Jean Osborn.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1994
Librarian’s tip: Part II "Whole Language"
Instructional Models in Reading
Steven A. Stahl; David A. Hayes.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1997
Librarian’s tip: Chap. Ten "Whole-Language Approaches to Reading and Writing"
Children Learning to Read: A Guide for Parents and Teachers
Seymour W. Itzkoff.
Praeger, 1996
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 9 "Whole Language: Caution"
The Causes of High and Low Reading Achievement
Ronald P. Carver.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 22 "Whole-Language Approach"
Defining Whole Language in a Postmodern Age
Wilson, Lorraine.
Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, Vol. 20, No. 2, May 1997
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Defending Whole Language: The Limits of Phonics Instruction and the Efficacy of Whole Language Instruction
Krashen, Stephen.
Reading Improvement, Vol. 39, No. 1, Spring 2002
Whole Language vs. Isolated Phonics Instruction: A Longitudinal Study in Kindergarten with Reading and Writing Tasks
Manning, Maryann; Kamii, Constance.
Journal of Research in Childhood Education, Vol. 15, No. 1, Fall-Winter 2000
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Issues in Educating Students with Disabilities
Edward J. Kameenui; David Chard; John Wills Lloyd.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1997
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 12 "Whole Language and Process Writing: Does One Approach Fit All?"
Processing of Bottom-Up and Top-Down Information by Skilled and Average Deaf Readers and Implications for Whole Language Instruction
Kelly, Leonard P.
Exceptional Children, Vol. 61, No. 4, February 1995
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Off Track: When Poor Readers Become "Learning Disabled"
Louise Spear-Swerling; Robert J. Sternberg.
Westview Press, 1996
Librarian’s tip: "Approaches to Reading Instruction" begins on p. 163
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