Term of Art: Whole-Language Approach

“whole-language approach: An educational philosophy characterized by the belief that language learning is a natural outgrowth of a child-centered process that integrates speaking, listening, reading, and writing. The whole language approach emphasizes the fact that reading is closely linked to spoken language. As a result, students of this approach are exposed to language-rich classrooms to help make them better readers and writers.

The way American schools teach children to read and write for many years has been affected by the influence of two opposite schools of thought. A conventional curriculum tends to rely on phonics and basic readers. This traditional theory of learning, which was popularized in the 19th century, is based on the idea that children learn a complex skill such as reading by first making sense of letters and then progressing to the understanding of sounds, words, and sentences. Proponents of this theory believe that children learn to read by learning to decode the language; understanding follows after they break the code and master the parts. Traditional American education begins with reading lessons that focus on phonics (sounding out first letters, then combinations of letters), tightly controlled vocabulary, and short basic reading passages, followed by exercises, each with only one correct answer.

Whole language represents a completely different philosophy about teaching, learning, and the role of language in the classroom, emphasizing the idea that children should use language in ways that relate to their own lives and cultures. In the whole language classroom, the final answer is not as important as the process. Children are encouraged to decode words by their context.

Whole language advocates point out that the average first grader has already acquired a vocabulary of 10,000 words and inherently understands many of the rules of grammar without being formally taught. The common techniques of whole language teaching, which include daily journal and letter writing plus reading much real literature, represent that philosophy in action.

The popularity of the whole language approach has been so dramatic that some teachers complain they cannot find basic readers anymore. In addition, many new teachers say their university professors no longer discuss how to teach phonics.

Critics of the whole language approach believe it overemphasizes understanding at the expense of accuracy. The whole language movement had a significant impact on reading and writing instruction in the 1980s and 1990s, when the appeal of whole language instruction influenced many schools to revise their curricula. As a result of this movement, a vigorous debate emerged amongst educators over how children learn language. Many special educators felt that whole language was flawed by its neglect of explicit language skills such as phonics, spelling, and grammar. Since a language-rich classroom does not help many students, especially those with learning disabilities, learn to read and spell, a ‘back to basics’ movement in education began to move back to explicit skill instruction.

On the other hand, advocates of the whole language approach say that an overemphasis on rules and rote learning is stifling and leads children to see reading and writing as boring and difficult chores, rather than an interested way of gathering information.

Research strongly indicates that students will be the most successful if a balanced approach is used, teaching phonics in a systematic fashion within the context of real stories. Today, many classrooms use this combination approach utilizing elements of both whole language and phonics, spelling and grammar.”

Excerpted from: Turkington, Carol, and Joseph R. Harris, PhD. The Encyclopedia of Learning Disabilities. New York: Facts on File, 2006.


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