About Whole Language Principles

About Whole Language Principles

Peace LessonsThis sign, "Peace lessons, Not Bad" was created by a five-year-old girl shortly after 9-11-2001. Her class was learning about peace after the disaster, and she wanted to create a sign for her school so that "the bad guys" who caused the terrorism would know where to go for lessons in peace so they would learn not to be bad any more. After reading the article below, please reflect upon which aspects of the whole language worldview are illustrated by this literacy event.

What is Whole Language?

By Kathy Lofflin, Ph.D.
Director, Dorothy Harper Watson Literacy Center

As director of a literacy center that embraces whole language principles, I get many inquiries about what exactly whole language is. I have found that most of the time, the people asking already have some ideas about whole language is. In many cases, those ideas are accurate or at least on the right track. But just as often, I find that people have misconceptions about whole language. Thus, I approach the issue here in terms of the most common misconceptions I hear. It is not my intention to approach whole language in a negative or defensive way but simply to address the most common ways that people misunderstand whole language, in an effort to present whole language as I see it. Other whole language educators may have additional insights to present, and I invite them to send me their thoughts for posting on this web site.

  • Whole Language Misconception #1: Whole language is a collection of teaching methods, such as the "whole word" method, the language experience approach, the use of Big Books, literature circles, and other methods.
  • Whole Language Misconception #2: Whole language opposes teaching phonics or phonemic awareness.
  • Whole Language Misconception #3: Whole language is a "laissez faire" approach where anything goes, where there are no standards, and where children are left to do or not do anything they want. In this view, whole language is seen as an unsystematic, unplanned approach to teaching literacy.
  • Whole Language Misconception #4: Whole language is no longer vital; its time has passed.

Whole Language Misconception #1:

Whole language is a collection of teaching methods, such as the "whole word" method, the language experience approach, the use of Big Books, literature circles, and other methods.

Whole language is not a particular method or set of methods. Although you might see any of the above activities occurring in a whole language classroom, whole language is not about methods but goes deeper. Whole language is a coherent thought system that guides literacy educators in their daily decisions about what is best for each student's literacy development. It is a set of beliefs that is reflected in classroom practice. According to Dorothy Watson, "whole language is a label for mutually supportive beliefs and teaching strategies and experiences that have to do with kids learning to read, write and speak in natural situations" (Watson, 1996a, p. 188). Whole language is a definite worldview, a coherent theoretical orientation, "a powerful point of view about students, language, learning, and teaching" (Watson, 1996b, p. 174).

Whole language is "whole" in a number of ways:

Language processes are seen as complex and "whole", with all language systems working together when a learner encounters a text. Whole language theorists speak of three language systems that operate simultaneously and interdependently during a literacy encounter. A reader uses cues from all three systems when she or he reads a text: 1) graphophonic cues (word-level cues that use a reader's knowledge about letter-sound relationships), 2) syntactic cues (sentence-level cues that use a reader's knowledge about her or his language and its sentence structure), and 3) semantic cues (text-level cues that use a reader's knowledge about meaning and sense-making; these may include cues from pictures and other visual texts as well as from the print text). In the whole language view, all three systems are important, not just one (Sandra Wilde offers a clear discussion of these three systems in Chapter 2 of her 2000 book, Miscue Analysis Made Easy).

Approaches to literacy instruction that focus only on one language system (typically the graphophonic system) at the expense of the other systems ignore the complexity of language. For example, a child may be able to decode or "sound out" words (and even nonsense words in some programs) in lists, but is he or she really reading meaningfully? Presenting words in lists denies the reader at least two-thirds of the cues that she or he would use in real-world reading. On the basis of this belief, whole language proponents support the teaching of all language systems, using authentic, meaningful text, from the start, as "real readers" use them, rather than separating reading into small pieces and later putting those pieces together.

The learner is seen as "whole" in whole language. Whole language proponents support a student-centered approach that values each learner as an individual and focuses on each individual's strengths. Ken Goodman (2003) writes about "revaluing the reader." If a learner is viewed as a whole person, then her or his interests, background, and feelings become important. This includes valuing and building on everything that a person is: culture, language, family, prior experiences, strengths, and challenges. Whole language approaches typically provide many opportunities for student choice and safe risk-taking. There is a focus on observing students—Yetta Goodman (See Owocki and Goodman, 2002) called it "kidwatching"—to discover their unique strengths and to maximize them in planning literacy instruction. One tool that whole language teachers use extensively is miscue analysis, a set of strategies that enables the teacher to observe students' reading processes in an authentic reading situation with meaningful text. For more information about miscue analysis, see any of the following texts: Davenport (2002), Goodman, Watson, & Burke (1987), or Wilde (2000).

In whole language classrooms, literacy tasks are seen as "whole," authentic, and above all, meaningful. Students do real reading and writing for real purposes, often purposes the students have chosen. "Canned" and "one-size-fits all" lessons (and assessments!) where everyone comes up with the same product or fills in the blanks with the same answer are antithetical to the whole language worldview. Even from an early age, children should be learning to use literacy in real-world, meaningful ways.

"Is meaning being constructed here?" is a question that whole language educators constantly ask about every literacy task they present for their students. If a text or a task is not meaningful for students, then it is restructured to become more authentic, or may even be rethought entirely. For a task to be meaningful, it must tap into students' prior knowledge and interests, and must engage them in reading and writing for a purpose. In fact, whole language educators often speak of the activities that go on in their classrooms as "literacy engagements." (For one description of how literacy engagements might be conceptualized, see Heine & Hornstein, 1996.)

Whole language curricula are "whole" curricula. Reading and writing are integrated with meaningful content in subject areas such as social studies, science, math, and the arts. Often, units of study cross several subject areas. Life is not separated into arbitrary compartments for each subject area, nor is literacy.

Besides subject area connections, whole language curricula look at all communication processes as mutually supportive. Thus, though reading and writing (print literacy) are important processes, literacy also includes speaking and listening (oral literacy) as well as viewing and creating visual representations (visual literacy). The key is that each of these kinds of literacy involves processing and communicating meaning. All literacies are intertwined, and activity in one literacy area supports and develops abilities in the others. In a whole language classroom, one will see a lot of communication of all kinds going on, always centered on authentic and meaningful tasks and purposes.

Finally, the whole language worldview encourages the growth of a "whole" community of learners. Everyone in such a community is valued for his or her individual strengths. Much literacy work takes place in collaborative settings. The purpose of literacy is communicating with others, and meaning is transacted within a social context (Rosenblatt, 1978). In whole language settings, literacy is about constructing and sharing thoughts, ideas, and feelings. The teacher is as much a learner, and as much a part of this collaboration, as the children. Although the teacher provides guidance and shapes the environment for risk-taking, she or he is also a member of the learning community and learns from the students.

For more detailed information on the principles that guide whole language, see Whitmore & Goodman (1996). 

Whole Language Misconception #2:

Whole language opposes teaching phonics or phonemic awareness.

Whole language educators are not against teaching phonics or phonemic awareness. Learning sound-symbol relationships is an important part of reading. Phonics knowledge and phonemic awareness provide knowledge readers need to respond to graphophonic cues when they decode words; however, there is more to reading than just that. Whole language educators believe in including work with graphophonic cues along with work with syntactic (sentence) cues and semantic (meaning) cues. All three are important (See Whole Language Misconception #1, above).

Whole language educators do become concerned when literacy programs stress sound-symbol relationships more than or even at the expense of instruction in using the other kinds of cues. While whole language educators include phonics and phonemic awareness as part of a complete literacy program, they approach instruction in sound-symbol relationships differently than some literacy programs do. In the whole language view, words should always be introduced in a meaningful context. Direct instruction with isolated words (say in lists or on flash cards) is seen as unnecessary and even counterproductive. With meaningful text, all cues, graphophonic, syntactic, and semantic, are in place for the reader to use, just as they are for readers doing "real-world" reading.

Whole language educators believe direct, explicit instruction in the "rules" of phonics is unnecessary (Watson, 1996b, p. 176). In fact, rule instruction can actually be confusing because of the many irregularities in the English language (for a recent reprint of a landmark study discussing how often so-called phonics "rules" actually applied in a survey of children's reading materials, see Clymer, 1996). Rather, words in the English language tend to have certain patterns (e.g., when you see words that end in 'ight, they probably will rhyme with the word light). In the whole language view, children discover these patterns best through much exposure to authentic, real, meaningful, interesting texts. In most cases, this occurs naturally; as the child is developmentally ready, she/he begins to notice patterns and regularities. The teacher's role may be to facilitate many interactions with meaningful texts so that this noticing begins to occur, and she or he may "scaffold" the process to help the students as they begin to make discoveries about language.

If a child is not yet noticing these patterns, some individual scaffolding may be needed; that scaffolding may be more explicit than the process described above. However, it is provided as each child needs it, not in a whole-class, "one-size-fits-all" format. Most children do not need such specific instruction, if they are provided with enough authentic experiences with text, and the right gentle scaffolding. For a child who is already reading texts meaningfully, phonics instruction is superfluous; phonics is only a means to an end, i.e., constructing meaning from text. But if a child does need more help, whole language teachers do not let the child just struggle. Because whole language teachers are student-centered, and do a lot of kidwatching (Owocki & Goodman, 2002), they know when and what kind of specific help each child needs, and provide that help when it is needed. (For a full discussion of the issues surrounding phonics instruction, see Meyer, 2002.)

Whole Language Misconception #3:

Whole language is a"laissez faire" approach where anything goes, where there are no standards, and where children are left to do or not do anything they want. In this view, whole language is seen as an unsystematic, unplanned approach to teaching literacy.

Whole language actually has higher standards, for both teachers and students, than many of the literacy approaches often seen in schools. The stress on authentic, student-centered literacy events requires a great deal of active engagement, both on the teacher's part and on the students' part. Designing authentic literacy engagements is hard work; there are no prepackaged materials that focus on student-centered literacy tasks. Because engagements are student-centered, there is a degree of uncertainty in planning literacy instruction.

Dorothy Watson (1989a, p. 193) writes about "planning to plan". She explains that teachers must do a certain amount of advance planning just to think about possibilities for literacy engagements. All advance planning, however, must remain tentative until the teacher has actually come to know the students and their needs and interests. Moreover, the planning process is never "done," because each group of students will be different. Some teachers may find this level of uncertainty unsettling and onerous, but whole language teachers rejoice in it and celebrate it.

In whole language classrooms, students are expected to take ownership of and responsibility for their learning, and whole language engagements are designed to take students to high levels of thinking. It is not enough just to recall or paraphrase what has been read or heard. Whole language teachers want their students to use what they know in authentic contexts, to analyze, to create, to evaluate. In terms of Bloom's famous taxonomy, it is the higher levels of intellectual activity that are the goals of whole language literacy curricula.

For example, there has been much discussion of promoting "critical literacy" among whole language educators recently. Critical literacy is, as Vivian Vasquez (2003) puts it, "getting beyond 'I like the book'" and asking important questions about written and oral texts—who authors are, what their intentions are, why they write in a certain way about a certain topic, the empowering and disempowering effects of various kinds of communications, and how texts can change the world for good or ill—questions that may be risky in the classroom but that get at who people are and how they construct meaning. There is nothing low-level or easy (or boring, either!) about that kind of teaching and learning. Although teachers develop, guide and scaffold literacy experiences in whole language classrooms, the ultimate goal is for students to take responsibility for their own learning, and to strive for meaningful, high-level literacy outcomes.

"In other words, teachers do not do things for students that students can do for themselves. They do, however, facilitate a rich environment within which learners are led not into the impossible but into the delightfully difficult. There, learners grasp patterns, see similarities, make connections, take 'mental trips' go beyond 'minimal competencies,' beyond 'stated objectives'—often beyond the teachers themselves" (Watson, 1996a, p. 194).

Whole Language Misconception #4:

Whole language is no longer vital; its time has passed.

The whole language worldview is still very much alive in the minds, hearts, and classrooms of many educators. Because it is "a dynamic philosophy of education" (Whole Language Umbrella Constitution, 1999; see the wlu web site below) rather than a trendy "movement", whole language will endure. It can grow and change with the times, and is not subject to fads or trends. The Whole Language Umbrella, a special interest group affiliated with the National Council of Teachers of English, was founded in 1992. Dorothy Watson was one of its founders. The organization continues to be a vital network of literacy educators who believe in meaningful, authentic, student-centered instruction that recognizes and celebrates the complexity and the wonder of literacy. 

In the current political climate, in which many entities are now trying to discredit the beliefs that whole language stands for, it may be more important than ever to educate students who can read and write and think meaningfully and at high levels. In an age when individuals who question the decisions made by authorities in government and other institutions can be subjected to scorn, accusations, and withdrawal of public resources, citizens who are literate to the high degree that whole language educators strive for are especially needed.

As I stated in the introduction to this document, I welcome responses or contributions from educators and others who would like to share their ideas about whole language on our web site. Contributions may be made by e-mail at watsoncenter@park.edu


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