Refers to a method of literacy instruction which is based on the theory that children can learn written language (reading and writing) as effortlessly as they learn spoken language.
Proponents of whole language believe that, if children are immersed in a print-rich environment from an early age, reading and writing skills will develop naturally. This hands-off philosophy is in direct opposition to traditional language instruction programs that teach children to associate sounds with the individual letters that make up words. In such traditional phonics-based programs, children are taught to "decode" unfamiliar words by sounding them out. Some pure-phonics programs (such as the widely advertised commercial product "Hooked on Phonics") go so far as to teach letter-sound associations completely separate from any meaningful context.
In contrast to phonics-based programs, the whole-language method emphasizes whole-word recognition skills. Teachers in whole-language kindergarten classrooms often read aloud to children from "big books" (oversized versions of children's books), pointing to each printed word as it is spoken. Rather than using basal reading texts with limited vocabularies, reading selections come from the canon of "authentic" children's literature. After several readings of the same big book, a child might begin to recite the words along with the teacher. In
Another essential component of whole language is the incorporation of literature "across the curriculum" rather than the isolation of literature in a separate language arts program. For example, if a first-grade class were studying bats, there might be a shelf full of books in the classroom about bats, including current fiction titles such as Stellaluna by Janell Cannon.
The whole-language approach is used in approximately 20-25% of elementary-school reading programs in the United States, with an even greater number adopting at least some of the techniques of whole language. The movement gained momentum in the 1980s with the publication of What's Whole in Whole Language by University of Arizona education professor Kenneth Goodman. Most teachers' colleges and university-level education departments now advocate the whole-language ideology, and a number of state education agencies have also adopted the whole-language philosophy in some form or other.
Despite its widespread use, the whole-language approach is by no means welcomed by all parents and educators. The so-called "great debate" over phonics versus its alternatives has been going on for more than a century in this country. In the 1950s, Rudolf Flesch's bestselling book, Why Johnny Can't Read, swung public opinion in the direction of phonics-based instruction. But in the late 1970s, however, phonics was being criticized for making learning to read a joyless chore. In the 1990s the "back to basics" movement in education cited lower reading scores among U.S. schoolchildren as evidence that whole language is a failure. Children from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds appear to be particularly vulnerable in strictly whole-language classrooms because they do not receive as much informal letter-sound instruction at home as their middle-class peers do. Several states (most notably California and Texas) are in the process of reconsidering their policies on reading instruction.
In the midst of this debate, there are some who believe a compromise between pure whole language and pure phonics might be the most prudent approach to literacy instruction. Researchers such as Marilyn Adams advocate using a combination of instructional methods and adapting them to individual children's needs.
Whole language methodologies are often implemented before formal reading instruction begins simply by stocking the preschool classroom with ample materials for "reading" and "writing." The housekeeping center in a print-rich preschool classroom might include a telephone directory for children to "look up" phone numbers and paper and pencil for children to "write" grocery lists. Children playing "office" or "post office" might pretend to address envelopes. In this manner, preschoolers have numerous opportunities to practice literacy skills in a natural way simply by imitating the actions of adults in their lives.
In addition to being read to from "big books," children in whole-language kindergarten classrooms write on a regular basis, even before they know the conventional spellings of words. Using this "invented spelling" a child in such a classroom might write a journal entry that reads: "Mi dg haz a yelo coler and a grn lees" (My dog has a yellow collar and a green leash). In addition, children in whole-language classrooms often collaborate on writing projects, creating their own "big books."
Even in first and second grade, teachers in whole-language classrooms overlook misspellings or misreadings. If a child reading out loud from a book says "chair" when the word in print is actually "seat," the teacher does not "correct" him or her. Rather, such misreadings are viewed as a natural step on the road to reading competency.
One innovative use of whole-language reading instruction is the Literature Project, a program that uses literature to help build self-esteem in adolescents with learning and behavior problems. In its original conception, the Literature Project was devised to improve reading skills and self-perception in female juvenile offenders through the reading of books about women who embodied such qualities as courage, loyalty, and tolerance. Because the program was so successful in this population, it has been adapted for use with other adolescents.
Adams, Marilyn J. Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990.
Commission on Reading. Becoming a Nation of Readers. Pittsburgh: National Academy of Education, 1984.
Flesch, Rudolf. Why Johnny Can't Read. New York: Harper, 1955.
Goodman, Kenneth S. What's Whole in Whole Language: A Parent-Teacher Guide. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1986.