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February 1, 1997
Vol. 54
No. 5

Back to the Basics of Whole Language

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Assuring parents that students are learning both basic and higher-order language arts skills goes a long way in promoting your program's success—and student achievement.

The ongoing debate about the best way to teach reading and writing has heated up to a rolling boil that shows no signs of simmering down. Across the United States, politicians, policymakers, and the media are having a field day bashing public schools.
In particular, the controversy rages over whole language and phonics, especially at the primary grade levels. Good news—such as the successes of whole language programs in schools in states like New Jersey, Virginia, and Ohio—tends to get lost.
Low test scores in reading on the 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) further fueled the controversy debate. According to these scores, most U.S. students can decode and comprehend literally; they can read at basic levels. However, they have difficulty thinking about and constructing knowledge from the information they have read. Ironically, media reports continue to emphasize that we are not teaching decoding skills and the basics and that students are failing to learn how to read. Much of the backlash against whole language is based on incomplete reporting. For example, the most recent Gallup Poll reports:The public has been negatively affected by distorted, biased, or inadequate media coverage. The public believes, for example, that American student achievement does not compare favorably with that of students in other developed countries, even though recent studies show American students near the top in reading and no worse than average in math (Elam, Rose, and Gallup 1996).

Whole Language Versus Phonics in California and Elsewhere

In part because California is our most populous and diverse state, language arts instruction there has greatly influenced the rest of the country. In 1987 the California Department of Education adopted its "English-Language Arts Framework," which moved away from a skills model of teaching reading. Educators from more than 30 states either adopted or adapted the model of quality literature as the heart of the reading program. Erroneously, what was never more than a "literature-based" reading program became equated with whole language.
When California's students had dismally low scores on the 1994 NAEP, the media made whole language the scapegoat. Critics rarely mentioned other problems in the state: the highest class sizes in the nation, low education funding, inadequate school and public libraries, great numbers of students whose primary language is not English, and insufficient staff development for teachers.
After California's poor test results—even among white students and children of college graduates—a state task force studied the problem. After reviewing extensive research and hearing testimony from many reading and curriculum experts, the task force recommended that teachers use a "systematic skills instruction program."
Admirably, the task force called for a "balanced and comprehensive" approach that continues to incorporate rich literature. In actuality, however, the state's recent advisory on how to teach reading emphasizes instruction in phonemic awareness (the ability to hear and manipulate the discrete sound chunks of words), letter names and shapes, and systematic, explicit phonics (letter/sound correspondence) (California Department of Education 1996).
These new recommendations are having ramifications across the United States—both in textbook adoptions and in state and district mandates. As responsible educators, however, we must remember that if we just teach kids how to decode words and not how to read and write for meaning and think critically, we will continue to be disappointed with reading achievement and continue to have students who are unable to use reading and writing for problem solving in the world.

Examining the Controversy Over Whole Language

Critics of whole language proclaim that teachers are not teaching phonics and basic language arts skills. Phonics-first advocates believe that phonics teaching must be systematic and intense and that phonics knowledge must precede reading. Whole language advocates place phonics and skills in the context of reading whole and predictable texts and view phonics as one of the cueing systems—along with the meaning and structure of the text—that readers use.
Much of the change (to whole language) has been cosmetic, with lots of innovation, but little actual, deep change. Many school districts simply exchanged basal reading texts and accompanying workbooks for children's literature and free-choice writing. But teachers received only spotty professional development and were allowed scant time for collaboration and reflection. Success came to teachers who were experienced and knowledgeable—who took the time to put research and theory into practice, collaborate with colleagues, and constantly monitor how they taught and how their students were doing.
Unfortunately, this has not happened in many places. As Stan Pogrow (1996) states, "Large-scale reform requires highly specific, systematic, and structural methodologies with supporting materials of tremendously high quality" (p. 52). Successful reform means that student achievement is high. Favorable results require "meaningful teamwork; clear, measurable goals; and the regular collection and analysis of performance data" (Schmoker 1996, p. 2). In reality, there have been only pockets of successful change, and the public has become impatient.

Looking Closely at Whole Language

Though whole language is taking the brunt of what's gone wrong in reading and writing, there is no simple solution. Where whole language plays a role, it has been the misinterpretation, poor application, and inadequate articulation of whole language, rather than its sound principles and practices, that are to blame. Though many critics see whole language as a passing fad, its principles are based on more than 20 years of research on language learning from around the world.
Perhaps one of the problems has been that many whole language principles are based on what children who come to school already reading and writing have done in the home. These are the children who have listened to stories for up to thousands of hours and had many opportunities for role playing, reading, meaningful discussion, writing, and language play. They enter school ready for phonics to make sense. But for other children who have not had such opportunities, how do teachers make up those hours? Increasingly, the number of these children appears to be growing—and they often struggle with learning phonics and making sense of texts.
Recently I was working with a 3rd grader new to our school district. In doing an informal reading assessment, I asked him to bring me the book he was reading. The simple picture book began, as many tales do, "Once upon a time. . ." He could not decode "upon," reading it as two separate words, "up" and "on." When I asked him to think about how lots of stories begin, he was at a loss. Without the experience of the familiar language of stories, he was reduced to "sounding out." Though he will benefit from phonics, even more so, he needs a volunteer to read to him so he becomes familiar with, understands, and enjoys the cadence and rhythms and words of storybook language.
Another major difficulty has been that whole language is difficult to define. In a whole language classroom, learners are continually supported to purposefully use language (in many subject areas and contexts) to inquire and to construct and evaluate their own understanding of texts and real-world issues. Whole language classrooms are student-centered, problem-solving, democratic communities where students experience a wide range of literature and literary experiences. Expectations for quality work are high and rigorous. Students are decision makers and independent thinkers.
The emphasis on students as decision makers upsets some people. Phonics is systematic and not open to interpretation and discussion. The belief that a piece of literature can have many valid interpretations can make a poorly informed public uneasy. Yet the public is even less comfortable with accepting students' well-thought-out approximations, such as the invented spellings of emerging writers. People often view these approximations as an indication of neglect and poor teaching. They don't realize that students' approximations inform teachers of the student's stage of development, how much practice is needed, and what needs to be taught and demonstrated next.
Perhaps most important, whole language classrooms rely on highly knowledgeable teachers—not prescriptive manuals of how and what to teach. Teachers must know how to use fiction and nonfiction by award-winning authors and illustrators to meaningfully teach reading and writing across the curriculum. In extreme cases, teachers have had to write their own curriculum in every subject area. It is no wonder that some teachers have floundered.
Without adequate professional development, many educators misinterpreted whole language to mean that all you need to do is immerse kids in books and they will learn to read as easily as they learn to speak. Also, some educators saw the teaching of phonics and skills as anti-whole language, and that has never been true. Phonics has always been part of whole language. And when some educators imply that spelling and grammar don't matter, they contribute to destroying the credibility and rigor of successful whole language teaching.

Enabling Effective Change

When educators and communities have given adequate time, training, and resources to whole language instruction and learning, the results have been overwhelmingly positive.
  • Plan for change. Union City teachers and administrators spent a year planning for change—reading recent research; writing a schoolwide philosophy; and setting aside a daily, almost two-hour, uninterrupted block of time for language arts in kindergarten through grade 3.
  • Involve parents in the planning process. In successful districts, educators share current research findings about language learning, and they are clear and articulate about their beliefs and practices. Parents feel confident that the new practice is right for their kids, not just a new fad or experiment. Unless the community understands curricular changes, questions will eventually arise that may sabotage the change process.
  • Go slowly and build in ongoing professional development. In successful programs, funds are allocated for releasing teachers from the classroom for daytime professional development, and teachers are paid for sessions outside of school hours. Continuing professional development in the teaching of phonics, spelling, and reading skills is critical to the success of any language arts program.Without informed practice, collaboration, and feedback, the program will fail. In some elementary schools in the Shaker Heights district, principals hire substitutes for teachers planning student-led conferences and portfolio assessment. Teachers meet together, develop procedures and conference guidelines, write letters to parents, and even hold one-to-one conferences with students.For the past decade, teachers in K–4 buildings in Shaker Heights have been voluntarily meeting each week before school. They discuss current articles from educational journals and books, share practices that work, hold dialogues about all areas of the curriculum, and study authentic assessment procedures.
  • Provide adequate resources. In addition to the school library and a knowledgeable librarian, teachers and students have classroom libraries that include hundreds of books—fiction, informational books, and multiple resources and references. Some schools also have a professional library for teachers and, often, one for parents.
  • Reassure parents that the basic skills are being taught. Even when parents are supportive of whole language teaching, they still want to know that the basics are included. Parents are comfortable with spelling tests, phonics, and "skill and drill" because it's the way many of them were taught. They do not see the value of invented spelling for young writers or understand the developmental spelling stages all students go through unless teachers can clearly articulate the research and explain the process. As one parent said at back-to-school night, "I don't want to hear anything about that invented spelling. I get enough of that from my secretary."Newsletters to parents —explaining the traditional disciplines that are being taught, such as phonics, spelling, and handwriting—as well as written work that is sent home, contribute to parents' confidence in their child's growing competency. The figure on p. 72 shows an excerpt from a newsletter to parents.
  • Communicate clearly to parents and avoid jargon. Use clear definitions of terms to help parents and community members understand what's going on. When educators have carefully communicated what they are doing in the classroom and can demonstrate positive results, most parents and community members are supportive.In Fairfax County, Virginia, teachers have written booklets to explain current approaches to language learning and teaching. Other districts invite teachers and students to show what portfolio assessment looks like at a board of education meeting. There is nothing so convincing as students who can talk clearly about the purposes of education, what they are learning and why, and what goals they have set.
  • Value parents as experts. In successful programs, parent feedback is welcomed, and parents feel welcome in the school. Such a climate is rare in many schools, despite all the rhetoric about parents as partners. In the Shaker Heights district, parent volunteers are integral to the success of our program: they run the 1st grade publishing program, organize building literature collections, and build bridges between the schools and the community.In an effort to determine how parents were responding to K–4 changes in the conferencing and reporting system, one principal set up a before-school meeting that was attended by most of the staff and about 50 parents. Educators listened to parents' concerns, took them seriously, and made adjustments in the reporting process.
  • Put standardized testing in perspective for parents. In Shaker Heights, only a small portion of conference time with parents is spent discussing standardized test results. Overattention to standardized testing gives the message that these tests alone show achievement. In conferences, talk is about students' work, setting goals, and celebrating learning, with students often playing an integral role. Because parents have seen ongoing examples of their child's work, they come to see the standardized test for what it is—one isolated indicator on a given day that provides little information for improving instruction and learning.
  • Report the good news about our public schools. Where whole language has been accepted, local reporters have been invited into schools, and local newspapers have carried "good news" stories. Sometimes, these articles have been written and submitted by educators who want to make sure that the public receives accurate information about our schools so that the naysayers don't continue to dominate the news.

Excerpt from a Newsletter to Parents

Dear Families,

I wanted to take this time to talk a little more about our spelling program. Attached you will find the 3rd grade spelling list I told you about at Open House. It would be great if you encouraged your child to put this on his or her desk or homework area and use it when writing letters, doing homework, or writing in the writer's notebook.

This list of words was compiled by the 3rd grade teachers. The students will be tested on these words weekly (about five a week). I group the words according to the spelling rule or pattern we are focusing on that week. If students get all the words correct, they look for words in their writer's notebook, math log, reading log, or science or social studies notebooks. Each child should have five to eight words each week.

I thought it might be helpful to give you a list of the rules and patterns I stress in the 3rd grade (see attached). I will try to keep you informed of the spelling focus each week so you can reinforce it at home.

—From Your Child's Teacher

As knowledgeable educators, we must speak loudly and eloquently so that our rational voices join the literacy conversations. We must do everything in our power to ensure that the media fairly and accurately represent what is going on in education.

California Department of Education. (June 1996). Teaching Reading: A Balanced, Comprehensive Approach to Teaching Reading in Prekindergarten Through Grade 3. Sacramento, Calif.: Author.

Elam, S.M., L.C. Rose, and A.M. Gallup. (September 1996). "The 28th Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools." Phi Delta Kappan 78, 1: 42.

Flanagan, A. (1996). "Whole Language Philosophy Guides Instruction in New Jersey District." The Council Chronicle 6, 1: 4-5.

Pogrow, S. (September 25, 1996). "Commentary: On Scripting the Classroom." Education Week, p. 52.

Schmoker, M. (1996). Results: The Key to Continuous School Improvement. Alexandria, Va.: ASCD.

Regie Routman has more than four decades of experience as a national and international leader, teacher, and coach working in diverse schools with large populations of students from low-income families and English language learners.

Her current work centers on accelerating student learning through improving teacher and principal effectiveness. She mentors teachers and principals to create and sustain effective, efficient, and joyful school cultures where all learners thrive as readers, writers, and thinkers.

Routman's experiences as a teacher, language arts coach, and staff developer led her to see schoolwide collaboration and high-level, professional learning as a necessity for increasing and sustaining achievement leading her to create a schoolwide residency model.

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