Whole language

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Whole language is a philosophy of reading[1][2][3][4][5][6][7][8] that is based upon the premise that learning to read English, especially for young children, comes naturally to humans in the same way that learning to speak develops naturally.[9][10] In assessing this claim, research psychologist Keith Stanovich asserted “The idea that learning to read is just like learning to speak is accepted by no responsible linguist, psychologist, or cognitive scientist in the research community”,[11] while in a systematic review of the reading research literature, Louisa Moats concluded that “Almost every premise advanced by whole language about how reading is learned has been contradicted by scientific investigations.”[7]

Whole Language approaches to reading instruction are typically contrasted with phonics based methods of teaching reading and writing. The scientific consensus is that whole-language-based methods of reading instruction (e.g., teaching children to use context cues to guess the meaning of a printed word[10][7][5]) are not as effective as are phonics-instruction-based approaches.[12][13][14][8][11][7][6][5][2] Professor Jeanne Chall of Harvard, for example, surveyed the research on literacy and conducted her own classroom observations and found that the “code-emphasis method” (phonics) produces substantially better readers not only in the mechanical aspects of reading but also in terms of reading for meaning and reading for enjoyment, contrary to the claims of whole-language theorists.[12]


Whole language is an educational philosophy that is complex to describe, particularly because it is informed by multiple research fields including but not limited to education, linguistics, psychology, sociology, and anthropology (see also Language Experience Approach). It can be viewed as being founded on the educational philosophy of John Amos Comenius in the early 18th century. Several strands run through most descriptions of whole language:

  • focus on making meaning in reading and expressing meaning in writing;
  • constructivist approaches to knowledge creation, emphasizing students' interpretations of text and free expression of ideas in writing (often through daily journal entries);
  • emphasis on high-quality and culturally diverse literature;
  • integrating literacy into other areas of the curriculum, especially math, science, and social studies;
  • frequent reading
  • reading and writing for real purposes;
  • focus on motivational aspects of literacy, emphasizing the love of books and engaging reading materials;
  • meaning-centered whole to part to whole instruction where phonics are taught contextually in "embedded" phonics (different from Synthetic phonics or Analytical phonics); and
  • emphasis on using and understanding the meaning-making role of phonics, grammar, spelling, capitalization and punctuation in diverse social contexts.

Underlying premises[edit]

Cognitive skills of reading[edit]

Sub-lexical reading

Sub-lexical reading[15][16][17][18] involves teaching reading by associating characters or groups of characters with sounds or by using phonics learning and teaching methodology. Sometimes argued to be in competition with whole language methods.

Lexical reading

Lexical reading[15][16][17][18] involves acquiring words or phrases without attention to the characters or groups of characters that compose them or by using Whole language learning and teaching methodology. Sometimes argued to be in competition with phonics methods, and that the whole language approach tends to impair learning how to spell.

Learning theory[edit]

The idea of "whole" language has its basis in a range of theories of learning related to the epistemologies called "holism". Holism is based upon the belief that it is not possible to understand learning of any kind by analyzing small chunks of the learning system. Holism was very much a response to behaviorism, which emphasized that the world could be understood by experimenting with stimuli and responses. Holists considered this a reductionist perspective that did not recognize that "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts." Analyzing individual behaviors, holists argued, could never tell us how the entire human mind worked. This is—in simplified terms—the theoretical basis for the term "whole language."[citation needed]

An important element for most teachers is also the principle that education and learning are driven by engagement and engagement with reading is triggered through quality content. This dates back to the theories of John Amos Comenius, who first pushed for education to move away from dull rote learning. This is also reflects a fundamental element of the concern voiced by many educators over the use of pure phonics and the positivist view that you can accurately measure the development of reading sub-skills.

Chomsky and Goodman[edit]

Gregory Shafer, a professor of English at Mott Community College, claimed that "the seeds" of the whole language movement were "firmly rooted" in the theories of linguist Noam Chomsky.[19] In 1967, Ken Goodman had an idea about reading, which he considered similar to Chomsky's, and he wrote a widely cited article calling "Reading: A psycholinguistic guessing game".[20] Goodman set out to determine whether the views of Chomsky could serve as psychological models of the reading process.[21] He chided educators for attempting to apply what he saw as unnecessary orthographic order to a process that relied on holistic examination of words.[22] Whether Goodman was indeed inspired by Chomsky, neither Chomsky himself nor his followers have ever accepted Goodman's views.[23][24]

Goodman thought that there are four "cueing systems" for reading, four things that readers have to guess what word comes next:

  1. graphophonemic: the shapes of the letters, and the sounds that they evoke (see phonetics).
  2. semantic: what word one would expect to occur based on the meaning of the sentence so far (see semantics).
  3. syntactic: what part of speech or word would make sense based on the grammar of the language (see syntax).
  4. pragmatic: what is the function of the text

The "graph" part of the word "graphophonemic" means the shape or symbol of the graphic input, i.e., the text. According to Goodman, these systems work together to help readers guess the right word. He emphasized that pronouncing individual words will involve the use of all three systems (letter clues, meaning clues from context, and syntactical structure of the sentence).

The graphophonemic cues are related to the sounds we hear (the phonological system including individual letters and letter combinations), the letters of the alphabet, and the conventions of spelling, punctuation and print. Students who are emerging readers use these cues considerably. However, in the English language there is a very imprecise relationship between written symbols and sound symbols.[25] Sometimes the relationships and their patterns do not work, as in the example of great and head. Proficient readers and writers draw on their prior experiences with text and the other cueing systems, as well as the phonological system, as their reading and writing develops. Ken Goodman writes that, "The cue systems are used simultaneously and interdependently. What constitutes useful graphic information depends on how much syntactic and semantic information is available. Within high contextual constraints an initial consonant may be all that is needed to identify an element and make possible the prediction of an ensuing sequence or the confirmation of prior predictions."[26] He continues with, "Reading requires not so much skills as strategies that make it possible to select the most productive cues." He believes that reading involves the interrelationship of all the language systems. Readers sample and make judgments about which cues from each system will provide the most useful information in making predictions that will get them to meaning. Goodman[26] provides a partial list of the various systems readers use as they interact with text. Within the graphophonemic system there are:

  • Letter-sound relationships
  • Shape (or word configuration)
  • Know ‘little words’ in bigger words
  • Whole know words
  • Recurrent spelling patterns

The semantic cuing system is the one in which meaning is constructed. "So focused is reading on making sense that the visual input, the perceptions we form, and the syntactic patterns we assign are all directed by our meaning construction."[27] The key component of the semantic system is context. A reader must be able to attach meaning to words and have some prior knowledge to use as a context for understanding the word. They must be able to relate the newly learned word to prior knowledge through personal associations with text and the structure of text.

The semantic system is developed from the beginning through early interactions with adults. At first, this usually involves labeling (e.g. This is a dog). Then labeling becomes more detailed (e.g., It is a Labrador dog. Its coat is black.) The child learns that there is a set of "dog attributes" and that within the category "dog", there are subsets of "dog" (e.g. long-hair, short-hair). The development of this system and the development of the important concepts that relate to the system are largely accomplished as children begin to explore language independently. As children speak about what they’ve done and play out their experiences, they are making personal associations between their experiences and language. This is critical to success in later literacy practices such as reading comprehension and writing. The meaning people bring to the reading is available to them through every cuing system, but it’s particularly influential as we move from our sense of the syntactic patterns to the semantic structures.[26]

To support the reader in developing the semantic system, ask, "Does that make sense"?

The syntactic system, according to Goodman and Watson,[25] includes the interrelation of words and sentences within connected text. In the English language, syntactic relations include word order, tense, number, and gender. The syntactic system is also concerned with word parts that change the meaning of a word, called morphemes. For example, adding the suffix "less" or adding "s" to the end of a word changes its meaning or tense. As speakers of English, people know where to place subjects, which pronoun to use and where adjectives occur. Individual word meaning is determined by the place of the word in the sentence and the particular semantic or syntactic role it occupies.[28] For example: The mayor was present when he received a beautiful present from the present members of the board.

The syntactic system is usually in place when children begin school. Immersed in language, children begin to recognize that phrases and sentences are usually ordered in certain ways. This notion of ordering is the development of syntax. Like all the cueing systems, syntax provides the possibility of correct prediction when trying to make sense or meaning of written language. Goodman notes the cues found in the flow of language are:[26]

  • Patterns of words (or function order)
  • Inflection and inflectional agreement
  • Function words such as noun markers (the, a, that)
  • Intonation (which is poorly represented in writing by punctuation)

To support a reader in developing the syntactic system, ask, "Can we say it that way? Does that sound right?"

The pragmatic system is also involved in the construction of meaning while reading. This brings into play the socio-cultural knowledge of the reader. It provides information about the purposes and needs the reader has while reading. Yetta Goodman and Dorothy Watson state that, "Language has different meaning depending on the reason for use, the circumstances in which the language is used, and the ideas writers and readers have about the contextual relations with the language users. Language cannot exist outside a sociocultural context, which includes the prior knowledge of the language user. For example, shopping lists, menus, reports and plays are arranged uniquely and are dependent on the message, the intent, the audience, and the context."[25]

By the time children begin school, they may have developed an inferred understanding of some of the pragmatics of a particular situation. For example, turn taking in conversation, reading poetry or a shopping list. "While different materials may share common semantic, syntactic, and graphophonic features, each genre has its own organization and each requires certain experiences by the reader."[25]

To support the reader in developing the pragmatic system ask, "What is the purpose and function of this literacy event?"

Goodman performed a study where children first read words individually, and then read the same words in connected text. He found that the children did better when they read the words in connected text. Later replications of the experiment failed to find effects, however, when children did not read the same words in connected text immediately after reading them individually, as they had in Goodman's experiment.[29][30]

Goodman's theory has been criticized by other researchers who favor a phonics-based approach, and present research to support their viewpoint. Critics argue that good readers use decoding as their primary approach to reading, and use context to confirm that what they have read makes sense.

Application of Goodman's theory[edit]

Goodman's argument was compelling to educators as a way of thinking about beginning reading and literacy more broadly. This led to the idea that reading and writing were ideas that should be considered as wholes, learned by experience and exposure more than analysis and didactic instruction. This largely accounts for the focus on time spent reading, especially independent reading. Many classrooms (whole language or otherwise) include silent reading time, sometimes called DEAR ("Drop Everything And Read") time or SSR (sustained silent reading). Some versions of this independent reading time include a structured role for the teacher, especially Reader's Workshop. Despite the popularity of the extension of Chomsky's linguistic ideas to literacy, there is some neurological and experimental research that has concluded that reading, unlike or perhaps much like language, is not a pre-programmed human skill. It must be learned. Dr. Sally Shaywitz,[31] a neurologist at Yale University, is credited with much of the research on the neurological structures of reading.

Contrasts with phonics[edit]

Because of this holistic emphasis, whole language is contrasted with skill-based areas of instruction, especially phonics and synthetic phonics. Phonics instruction is a commonly used technique for teaching students to read. Phonics instruction tends to emphasize attention to the individual components of words, for example, the phonemes /k/, /æ/, and /t/ are represented by the graphemes c, a, and t. Because they do not focus exclusively on the individual parts, tending to focus on the relationship of parts to and within the larger context, whole language proponents do not favor some types of phonics instruction. Whole language advocates state that they do teach, and believe in, phonics, especially a type of phonics known as embedded phonics. In embedded phonics, letters are taught during other lessons focused on meaning and the phonics component is considered a "mini lesson". Instruction in embedded phonics typically emphasizes the consonants and the short vowels, as well as letter combinations called rimes or phonograms. The use of this embedded phonics model is called a "whole-part-whole" approach because, consistent with holistic thinking, students read the text for meaning first (whole), then examine features of the phonics system (part) and finally use their new knowledge while reading the text again (whole). Reading Recovery is a program that uses holistic practices with struggling readers.

This mixed approach is a development from the practice employed in the 70s and 80s when virtually no phonics was included in the curriculum at all. Theorists such as Ken Goodman and Frank Smith at that time advocated a "guessing game" approach, entirely based on context and whole word analysis.

Most whole language advocates now see that children go through stages of spelling development as they develop, use and gain control over written language. Early literacy research conducted by Piagetian researcher, Emilia Ferreiro and published in her landmark book, Literacy Before Schooling, has been replicated by University of Alabama professor, Maryann Manning. Based on this research "invented spelling" is another "whole-part-whole" approach: children learn to read by writing in a meaningful context, e.g. by writing letters to others. To write a word they have to decompose its spoken form into sounds and then to translate them into letters, e.g. k, a, t for the phonemes /k/, /æ/, and /t/. Empirical studies[32] show that later orthographic development is fostered rather than hindered by these invented spellings – as long as children from the beginning are confronted with "book spellings", too.[33]

Rise of whole language and reaction[edit]

After its introduction by Goodman, whole language rose in popularity dramatically. It became a major educational paradigm of the late 1980s and the 1990s. Despite its popularity during this period, educators who believed that skill instruction was important for students' learning and some researchers in education were skeptical of whole language claims and said so loudly. What followed were the "Reading Wars" of the 1980s and 1990s between advocates of phonics and those of Whole Language methodology, which in turn led to several attempts to catalog research on the efficacy of phonics and whole language. This was a further turning of the wheel of conflict over how to teach reading that had been running for the whole century.[34]

Congress commissioned reading expert Marilyn Jager Adams to write a definitive book on the topic. She determined that phonics was important but suggested that some elements of the whole language approach were helpful.[35][36] Two large-scale efforts, in 1998 by the United States National Research Council's Commission on Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children[37][38] and in 2000 by the United States National Reading Panel,[39][40] catalogued the most important elements of a reading program. While proponents of whole language find the latter to be controversial, both panels found that phonics instruction of varying kinds, especially analytic and Synthetic Phonics, contributed positively to students' ability to read words on tests of reading words in isolation. Both panels also found that embedded phonics and no phonics contributed to lower rates of achievement for most populations of students when measured on test of reading words in isolation. The Panel recommended an approach it described as "scientifically-based reading research" (SBRR), that cited 5 elements essential to effective reading instruction, one of which was explicit, Systematic Phonics instruction (phonological awareness, reading comprehension, vocabulary, and fluency were the other 4).

In December 2005 the Australian Government endorsed the teaching of synthetic phonics, and discredited the whole language approach ("on its own"). Its Department of Education, Science and Training published a National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy. [1] The report states "The evidence is clear, whether from research, good practice observed in schools, advice from submissions to the Inquiry, consultations, or from Committee members’ own individual experiences, that direct systematic instruction in phonics during the early years of schooling is an essential foundation for teaching children to read." Pg 11. See Synthetic phonics#Acceptance in Australia

In 2006 the U.K. Department for Education and Skills undertook a review of early reading that came out in favor of Synthetic phonics. Subsequently, in March 2011 the U.K. Department of Education released its White paper entitled "The Importance of Teaching" that supported systematic synthetic phonics as the best method for teaching reading.[41]

State of the debate[edit]

Despite these results, many whole language advocates continue to argue that their approach, including embedded phonics, has been shown to improve student achievement. Whole language advocates sometimes criticize advocates of skill instruction as "reductionist" and describe the use of phonics as "word calling" because it does not involve the use of meaning. The United States National Reading Panel is criticized especially harshly by some in the whole language community for failing to include qualitative research designs that showed benefits for embedded phonics (the panel only considered experiments and quasi-experiments). On the other hand, some parents and teachers have objected to the de-emphasis on phonics in whole language-based curricula such as Reading Recovery and advocated their removal from schools.[42]

In 1996 the California Department of Education lead the way in returning to the teaching of phonics.[43] By 2014 the department had clear guidelines for teaching children in phonemic awareness, phonics, and segmenting and blending.[44][45] The New York Public School System followed; and by 2015 had abandoned Whole Language, Embedded Phonics and Balanced Literacy in favor of systematic phonics.[46]

Neuroscientists have also weighed into the debate, some of them demonstrating that the whole word method is much slower and uses the wrong brain area for reading.[47][48]

One District's Experience: Bethlehem PA

In 2015, Jack Silva the chief academic officer for Bethlehem, Pa., discovered that a lot of students in his district were struggling with reading; in 2015, only 56 percent of third-graders were scoring proficient on the state reading test. Silvia conducted a survey of the methods of reading instruction that were being used; the predominant approach, he learned, involved the use of methods based upon a whole language philosophy. In response, the Bethlehem district invested approximately $3 million on training, materials and support to help its early elementary teachers and principals learn the science of how reading works and how children should be taught (focusing on phonics instruction). In 2015, before the new training began, more than half of the kindergartners in the district tested below the benchmark score, meaning most of them were heading into first grade at risk of reading failure. At the end of the 2018 school year, after the phonics-based re-training, 84 percent of kindergartners met or exceeded the benchmark score.[49]

Adoption of some whole language concepts[edit]

While rancor continues, much of whole language's emphasis on quality literature, cultural diversity, and reading in groups and to students is widely supported by the educational community due to its benefits of increased comprehension.[50] The importance of motivation, long a central focus of whole language approaches, has gained more attention in the broader educational community in the last few years. Prominent critic of whole language Louisa Cook Moats has argued, however, that the foci on quality literature, diversity, reading groups, and motivation are not the sole property of whole language.[51] She, and others, contend these components of instruction are supported by educators of diverse educational perspectives. As one report states "Reading materials must be carefully chosen so as to be at the right reading level. Phonics instruction cannot stand alone".[52] Moats contends that the principles essential to Whole Language, and those that render it ineffective and unfit for reading education are a) children learn to read from exposure to print, b) the hostility to drilling in phonics and other forms of direct instruction, and c) the tendency to endorse the use of context-clues and guess-work to decipher a word rather than phonemic decoding. In these and certain other tenets lie the essence and the error of Whole Language. Emphases on cultural diversity and quality literature is neither limited to Whole Language nor fundamental to it.

Balanced literacy[edit]

Since 1996 "balanced literacy" has been suggested as an integrative approach, portrayed by its advocates as taking the best elements of both whole language and code-emphasizing phonics, something advocated by Adams in 1990. In 1996 the California Department of Education described the balanced approach as "one which combines the language and literature-rich activities associated with whole language with explicit teaching of the skills needed to decode words-for all children." [53] The New York Public School system adopted balanced literacy as its literacy curriculum in 2003;[54] however in 2015 it began a process to revise its English Language Arts Learning Standards. The new standards call for teaching involving "reading or literacy experiences" as well as phonemic awareness from prekindergarten to grade 1 and phonics and word recognition from grade 1 to grade 4.[55] Critics of balance literacy have suggested that the term is just the disingenuous recasting of the very same whole language with obfuscating new terminology.[56] Equally vociferously, the whole language advocates have criticized the United States National Reading Panel. Allington used the term big brother to describe the government's role in the reading debate.[57]

No Child Left Behind has brought a resurgence of interest in phonics. Its "Reading First" program addresses the reading deficiency in elementary students and requires that students must be explicitly and systematically taught five skills: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, comprehension, fluency.[58] During the 2000s whole language receded to marginal status, and continues to fade.


Prominent proponents of whole language include Kenneth Goodman, Frank Smith, Carolyn Burke, Jerome Harste, Yetta Goodman, Dorothy Watson, Regie Routman, Stephen Krashen, and Richard Allington.

Widely known whole language critics include Rudolf Flesch, Louisa Cook Moats, G. Reid Lyon, James Kauffman, Phillip Gough, Keith Stanovich, Diane McGuinness, Steven Pinker,[59][60] David C. Geary,[61] Douglas Carnine, Edward Kame'enui, Jerry Silbert, Lynn Melby Gordon, Diane Ravitch, and Jeanne Chall.[62]

See also[edit]


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  58. ^ "No Child Left Behind: Reading Requirement".
  59. ^ Pinker, Steven (1997), How the Mind Works, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, p. 342, ...the dominant technique, called 'whole language,' the insight that [spoken] language is a naturally developing human instinct has been garbled into the evolutionarily improbable claim that reading is a naturally developing human instinct.
  60. ^ Pinker, Steven (2007), The Language Instinct (3rd ed.), New York: Harper Perennial, pp. PS14, One raging public debate involving language went unmentioned in The Language Instinct: the "reading wars," or dispute over whether children should be explicitly taught to read by decoding the sounds of words from their spelling (loosely known as "phonics") or whether they can develop it instinctively by being immersed in a text-rich environment (often called "whole language"). I tipped my hand in the paragraph in [the sixth chapter of the book] which said that language is an instinct but reading is not. Like most psycholinguists (but apparently unlike many school boards), I think it's essential for children to be taught to become aware of speech sounds and how they are coded in strings of letters.
  61. ^ Geary, David C. (1994), Children's Mathematical Development: Research and Practical Applications, Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, p. 264, Constructivist philosophers and researchers...fail to distinguish between biologically primary and biologically secondary cognitive skills. To illustrate, [spoken] language is a biologically primary social cognitive skill. Humans are born with specialized neurobiological systems for the processing of language-related information...Reading, on the other hand, is a biologically secondary cognitive skill. The failure to distinguish biologically primary from biologically secondary skills has led to the development of the whole-language approach to reading. Here, it is assumed that children will acquire reading skills in the same way that they acquire language skills...Even though many of the neurobiological systems that support language also support reading, these systems have not evolved to automatically acquire reading skills...The belief that reading acquisition will occur in much the same way as language acquisition is almost certainly wrong, and the associated instructional techniques, such as whole reading, are very likely to be a disservice to many children.
  62. ^ Carnine, D.W., Silbert, J., Kame'enui, E.J., & Tarver, S.G. (2004). Direct instruction reading (4th Edition)

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