Whole Language and Reading

Whole Language, Phonics, or both?

In recent years, a debate has intensified in the popular media over the use of the “whole language” approach to teaching reading. The failure of students to learn to read, or to learn to spell, has been attributed to this method. Is this really true, or is whole language just a scapegoat?

Whole language is an approach which teaches reading throughout the curriculum. This includes using children’s literature, their writing, their informational reading in other subject areas, as a broad base for reading instruction. Spelling and phonics are taught through their applications in other subjects, through the whole day, as opposed to a set series of basal readers and language arts worksheets.

In many schools, without the continuity and completeness of a whole language philosophy in the curriculum, whole language has become the excuse to allow “creative” spelling to go uncorrected, and children who need to have certain skills taught separately to become confused and ignored.

Ever since the “great debate” in the 1960s about the merits of phonics and “look-say”, it has been consistently clear that children benefit most from teaching techniques that utilize phonics and spelling, but not concentrate totally around them. Children decode words in various ways – some through the repeated recognition that comes with the whole language approach. Phonics is a tool for decoding the unfamiliar, for reasoning. Likewise, many schools also teach spelling as a component of language arts, as English is a complicated language with many exceptions to spelling rules. Proper spelling and the tools to achieve it (besides spell-check!) are part of the mastery of the language.

The best thing a successful whole language curriculum does is impart a reason to read, and encourage activities that promote a love of reading. It’s very hard to become interested in the action in many basal readers. Reading is more than a drill – it is a key to opening up information to all the things that interest us, all the things we need to know and love to learn.

The International Reading Association recently has asserted that phonics instruction has a place in beginning reading instruction, and is most effective when embedded within a complete reading and language arts program. Also, rather than debating whether phonics should be taught, effective classroom teachers should be examining when, how, how much instruction, and the circumstances for teaching phonics. Phonics and spelling are important tools that are just one component of a total successful curriculum.

The International Reading Association: http://www.reading.org/
The Whole Language Umbrella, a National Council of Teachers of English conference of whole language support groups has a website with links to information about solid whole language instruction. Visit them for more information http://www.ncte.org/groups/wlu?source=gs

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