The Whole Language Debacle

“Whole language is a perspective on education, a philosophy of education, a belief system about education. It is an educational theory grounded in research and practice, and practice grounded in theory and research (to paraphrase Harste, 1989). This perspective or educational theory derives from several kinds of research: research demonstrating the psycholinguistic and social nature of the reading process, research demonstrating how children acquire language and how learning to read and write is similar to learning the basic structures of the language as children learn to talk; and research on how humans learn concepts and ideas. In fact, one way of characterizing whole language is to say that it is a ‘constructivist’ view of learning, with particular emphasis on the development of literacy. Derived from research in cognitive psychology, constructivism asserts that human beings develop concepts through their own intellectual interactions with and actions upon their world. Learners and learning are not passive, but active. Forming concepts about language-oral or written-is easier when learners are presented with whole, natural language, not unnatural language patterns like ‘Nan can fan Dan,’ not the vastly simplified language of some primers in basal reading programs, and not the bits and pieces of language found in many workbook exercises and skills programs. Hence the term ‘whole language.’”– Prepared for the Michigan English Language Arts Framework project and © 1995 by Constance Weaver.

That enthusiastic introduction nicely summarizes the optimism of the whole language movement, which got its theoretical genesis in the 1970s and hit schools across the English-speaking world full-force in the mid-to-late 1980s. By the mid-to-late 1990s whole language was in disrepute and has been largely abandoned, with a generation of students suffering or benefitting from this brief educational experiment. What happened?

In brief, a number of “insights” into reading and learning led to rapid accumulation of “evidence” to support it. Ultimately this all coalesced into what I elsewhere have called a “nice theory”: a theory with an attractive emotional appeal than exceeds its empirical content. The first insight, one we are still seeing in educational theory today, is constructivism. Constructivism takes a number of forms in educational discourse, some trivial, some provocative, and some incoherent. In its most trivially true sense, constructivism holds that new human learning occurs through modification of existing learning. This doesn’t seem too much of a stretch. When it occurs to me that 71 is a prime number, this isn’t knowledge just falling out of the sky into my head; it’s the result of applying the concepts I already have and expanding my repertoire. This trivial sense of constructivism is easy to adopt for school-aged learners. For the very young, it is quite possible that something else is going on; or at least something that is constructive but of a different type. Early language learning, or walking probably come out of some pre-existing “program” in the child’s brain, rather than from previous learning. All versions of educational constructivism agree that learning is an active and not a passive process.

A second insight is that much learning appears to be social, rather than individualistic. On first glance, it appears that learning is something at one person does, all alone in her or his mind. It is my learning, based on my experiences, in my life, in my mind. Fair enough. But let’s watch people learn. They talk, they read, they do things. These are social activities. Perhaps the individualistic emphasis of traditional schooling (whatever that is) has got it all wrong; perhaps students learn (or, perhaps learn best) when interacting, including interacting through text.

Perhaps you’re starting to see the slippage here. Observations about learning as active engagement, and as a social process make some kind of sense if we are watching children learn oral language. (As I noted above, this doesn’t seem to apply to the earliest stages of language learning.) Perhaps reading and writing are learned the same way. Could it be that by actively engaging with written text, fluency and skill will develop “naturally” and without the difficulties we see with traditional methods? And a movement was born.

Now there are certain types of educational research that do nothing but complete thesis requirements and give young professors the publication requirements necessary for tenure and pay increases. The most popular of these is “action research”. With action research, a practitioner does something in the course of her or his normal duties, and then keeps a record of what goes on—often a mixture of personal reflections, anecdotes from practice and whatever confirmatory data is available. Whole-language lessons, units and years were taught and by golly, the results were amazing. Look at this sample of Sally’s writing, will you? Listen as I tell you how much greater satisfaction I feel using this powerful new method. Check out this class’s wonderful reading scores. Yes, there are mechanical problems with this writing, but they are more than compensated for by the creativity and forcefulness. And so on. (I’ll write about this state of affairs another day.) To be fair, more rigorous research was also conducted, but the same problem continually surfaced. Results were shown to be consistent with whole language, but really did little to show whether whole language was superior to any of its competitors.

Eventually, whole language was brought down. But not by the weight of evidence against it. During its heyday, numerous researchers in psychology, linguistics, literacy education and beyond began testing whole language and showed it to be deeply lacking. Students were acquiring some aspects of written language, but not others. What’s worse, what they were acquiring was not being acquired efficiently. In short, the research began to show that whole language was built on a house of cards. None of this was sufficient to motivate change in language instruction. What ultimately brought whole language down was religion and politics.

Most notably in the USA, some Christians began to object to the notion of constructivism in reading and writing. Knowledge is the revelation of God’s truth, and not the human construction of meaning. Whole language, they argued, was a sign of creeping secular humanism in schools and it has the ultimate effect of displacing faith in God. As silly as this sounds, it gained some traction. And once politicians started to take notice, the public got concerned. Nobody was convinced by arguments, evidence or reason. We simply had a groundswell of fear, frustration, religion and politics. This opened the door for competitors—usually with prepackaged drill programs to sell—and the race to displace whole language was on.

The big winners in this debacle were the purveyors of phonics programs. Reading and writing is neither more nor less, they claimed, than the decoding of print to the sounds that correspond with spoken language. Once children learn this technical skill, then reading will follow. Well, this is ideological nonsense; it’s no more plausible that the subtleties of written language are to be found in letter sound decoding than it is that these same subtleties will be learned though active inquiry. But this will require some argument some other day. Suffice it to say, Phonics books, videos, audio recordings and flashcards became very popular commodities with parents and some schools. And reading scores didn’t improve.

Today, the most disciplined reading programs employ what is called a “balanced approach”. It has been conclusively demonstrated that there are two main components to reading and writing. One is the basic decoding process that the phonics advocates push. It turns out that the appropriate amount of phonics instruction depends greatly on the language being learned. In Finnish, there is a perfect correspondence between written and spoken language. Once you learn the phonics, you can successfully decode written Finnish. In Mandarin there is no correlation; phonics is a waste of time in Mandarin. English is closer to Finnish than to Mandarin, but there are numerous exceptions to the phonics rules. Best research today indicates that for learners of English, get some phonics early and hard. Then stop. Once you know the sounds, further practice is a waste of time. The second aspect of reading has to do with mastery of both language and subject matter. Just reading the words is not enough to help you make sense of Finnegan’s Wake. Reading involves a wide array of linguistic skills (in this the whole language community was surely right), knowledge and understanding of subject matter, and development of sense-making skills. Clearly a large number of things must be learned and education must balance time, energy and resources to help students develop the requisite skills, knowledge and dispositions.

Of course, no one knows just what makes the best balance for whom. Teaching remains, after all, an art as much as a science.


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