Whole Language: Emancipatory Pedagogy or Socialist Nonsense?

By Groff, Patrick | Ideas on Liberty, July 2000 | Go to article overview

Whole Language: Emancipatory Pedagogy or Socialist Nonsense?


Groff, Patrick, Ideas on Liberty


The "whole language" method of reading instruction is a highly popular, yet experimentally discredited teaching innovation. The educational principle that governs it falsely states that students best learn to read in the same informal, natural manner they previously learned to speak as preschoolers. The WL doctrine also erroneously insists that children be empowered to add, omit, and substitute meanings and words in written material-as they individually see fit.

Critics of WL note its appeals to educators to abandon direct, intensive, systematic, early, and comprehensive (DISEC) instruction in a hierarchy of prearranged discrete reading skills. The WL movement protests that DISEC teaching of reading is inhumane; a violation of each child's unique, immutable "learning style"; stifling of teachers' creativity by disempowering them; not "progressive" enough; too technical and mechanical; and hostile to the culture of low-income families.

But WL is misunderstood if it is seen as just a method of reading instruction.

In 1991 education professor Kenneth Goodman, co-founder of the whole language (WL) literacy development movement, edited the Whole Language Catalog.1 It includes chapters written by leading WL economic/ political theorists, who sought to convince educators and other audiences of the validity of the political, social, economic, and cultural agenda of WL. The writers made clear that the WL "philosophy," as it is dubbed, views teaching students to read as a prime means to bring about definitive political, social, economic, and cultural changes-of a radically left-wing nature.

The Ultimate Aim of WL Teaching

The DISEC teaching of reading is objected to by the Catalog on ideological (political, social, economic, cultural) grounds. The book emphasizes that WL is more than a sweeping reconstruction of how to teach reading skills; it prepares students to challenge traditionally or historically venerated political and socioeconomic mores or precedents.

The politically active WL teacher uses reading instruction as a convenient vehicle to aid and abet the establishment of socialist goals, policies, values, and ideals. Through bona fide WL reading instruction, students learn how to rise up and challenge "the interests and values of the Anglo, white, middle and upper classes," Harry Giroux proclaims in the Catalog.2 They are prepared to oppose, writes Michael W Apple, "the political right of the United States" by being ready to use their collective powers to change the world so that democratic [read `socialist'] power replaces corporate power."3 Elimination of the present "economic, cultural, and social policies of business and industry" clearly is the ultimate aim of WL reading teaching.4

In WL terms, for students to be literate in the full and finest sense means they are eager to disrupt the political, socioeconomic, and cultural status quo by committing themselves to a socio-historical reconstruction of society.s Reading instruction by WL teachers arms students to engage in socioeconomic class warfare, whenever and wherever it is ordained, the Catalog explains. The WL teaching envisioned to that end is given a fetchingly revolutionary title: Liberation/ Emancipatory Pedagogy

Update on WL's Supreme Purpose

The socio-political agenda of WL, as expressed in the Catalog, was updated in six articles in the summer 1997 edition of the educational journal Reading and Writing Quarterly. Here, seven education professors, all well-known enthusiastic defenders of WL, and a fourth-grade teacher of like persuasion, expanded on what they call "The Politics of Literacy."

The first argument posed for the need to transform students' literacy development into political action is that the United States is not "a just and democratic society."6 Proof of this provocative allegation is the supposed fact that "high unemployment is becoming a permanent condition" in America. …

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