Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

Toward a Personal Theory of Whole Language: A Teacher-Researcher-Writer Reflects

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

Toward a Personal Theory of Whole Language: A Teacher-Researcher-Writer Reflects

Article excerpt

In this article children's author and university teacher Mem Fox puts on her reflective pratitioner's hat and makes explicit her personal theory of whole language.

Most people regard me primarily as an author. I prefer to think of myself as a teacher-researcher who sometimes writes children's books.

My research takes a number of forms. There are the observations I make and the conversations I have in the classes I teach at university and in the schools and classrooms in which I work as a teacher educator. Then there are the thousands of letters I receive from readers of my books and the hundreds of pieces of writing my students and I produce.

I analyse these data by engaging in what Guba and Lincoln describe as `the hermeneutic dialectic process' (Guba & Lincoln, 1989: p. 149). Put simply, this means that I am constantly:

* reading what others are writing about literacy

* discussing my own experiences, observations and conclusions with professional peers, students I teach, and children who read my books

* reflecting on and writing about my own and others' interpretations of literacy

* refining what I know, believe and understand.

As a researcher I guess I'm a cross between a `reflective practitioner' (Schon, 1983), an `action researcher' (Kemmis & McTaggert, 1982) and a `participant observer' (Bogdan & Biklen, 1982). I'm glad I've managed to be such a hybrid. It's helped me grow professionally, to keep my thoughts moving. Consequently, over the last fifteen years my perceptions of whole language have evolved and changed. This article summarises my new thinking.

A personal theory of whole language

For me, whole language is neither a `method', nor a `philosophy', nor an `approach', although it has overtones of each of these. It is a framework comprising one assumption and nine principles.

An assumption

There are factors apparent which apply to anything that we need or want to learn. They are not limited to, but are particularly obvious in, language acquisition. Children learn to talk before they come to school. We know that. We've heard it ad nauseam for the last twenty years (Smith,1988; Cambourne, 1988, 1995). No one appears to teach them. They learn, without much effort, without much failure, without worksheets, without comprehension exercises in how to talk and listen, without weekly tests to see how they're getting on, without set assignments, without essays, without exams. In an ordinary household, therefore, `right things' must be happening. I believe these right things can be expressed as basic principles.

Nine principles


In an ordinary household the relationships between young children and older members of a family make it easy for a child to learn to talk. Young learners bond with and are supported by older family members. They can take risks without fear (Parkes, 1990; Haas-Dyson, 1989).

When we aim to develop literacy we need first to establish good relationships in our classrooms so that our students feel safe enough to learn without fear; so they won't be afraid to take risks. If there's no bond between the learner and the teacher, and between the learners themselves, there'll be less efficient learning.

Relationships are fundamental to learning. Teachers cannot be aloof, detached, or apolitical. We cannot withhold personal information, keep our first name a secret, pretend to have no emotions, or merely feign interest in children's words. We must interact honestly with our students. Real life literacy is always a social event, so our classrooms need that scaffold of social cohesion.


Babies are typically surrounded by talk. They're bombarded by it. They can't get away from it. There's no escape. It's talk, talk, talk, all day long.

When we develop literacy we should be reading aloud daily, bombarding children with the best texts available. …

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