Whole language

Whole language describes a literacy philosophy which emphasizes that children should focus on meaning and strategy instruction. It is often contrasted with phonics-based methods of teaching reading and writing which emphasize instruction for decoding and spelling. However, from whole language practitioners' perspective, this view is erroneous and sets up a false dichotomy. Whole language practitioners teach to develop a knowledge of language including the graphophonic, syntactic, semantic and pragmatic aspects of language. Within a whole language perspective, language is treated as a complete meaning-making system, the parts of which function in relational ways. It has drawn criticism by those who advocate "back to basics" pedagogy or reading instruction because whole language is based on a limited body of scientific research.[1]


Whole language is an educational philosophy that is complex to describe, particularly because it is informed by multiple research fields including but not limited to education, linguistics, psychology, sociology, and anthropology (see also Language Experience Approach). Several strands run through most descriptions of whole language:

Underlying premises

Cognitive skills of reading

Sub-lexical reading

Sub-lexical reading[2][3][4][5] involves teaching reading by associating characters or groups of characters with sounds or by using phonics learning and teaching methodology. Sometimes argued to be in competition with whole language methods.

Lexical reading

Lexical reading[2][3][4][5] involves acquiring words or phrases without attention to the characters or groups of characters that compose them or by using Whole language learning and teaching methodology. Sometimes argued to be in competition with phonics methods, and that the whole language approach tends to impair learning how to spell.

Learning theory

The idea of "whole" language has its basis in a range of theories of learning related to the epistemologies called "holism". Holism is based upon the belief that it is not possible to understand learning of any kind by analyzing small chunks of the learning system. Holism was very much a response to behaviorism, which emphasized that the world could be understood by experimenting with stimuli and responses. Holists considered this a reductionist perspective that did not recognize that "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts." Analyzing individual behaviors, holists argued, could never tell us how the entire human mind worked. This is—in simplified terms—the theoretical basis for the term "whole language."

Chomsky and Goodman

The whole language approach to phonics grew out of Noam Chomsky's ideas about language acquisition. In 1967, Ken Goodman had an idea about reading, which he considered similar to Chomsky's, and he wrote a widely cited article calling reading a "psycholinguistic guessing game". He chided educators for attempting to apply what he saw as unnecessary orthographic order to a process that relied on holistic examination of words.[6]

Goodman thought that there are four "cueing systems" for reading, four things that readers have to guess what word comes next:

  1. graphophonemic: the shapes of the letters, and the sounds that they evoke (see phonetics).
  2. semantic: what word one would expect to occur based on the meaning of the sentence so far (see semantics).
  3. syntactic: what part of speech or word would make sense based on the grammar of the language (see syntax).
  4. pragmatic: what is the function of the text

The "graph" part of the word "graphophonemic" means the shape or symbol of the graphic input, i.e., the text. According to Goodman, these systems work together to help readers guess the right word. He emphasized that pronouncing individual words will involve the use of all three systems (letter clues, meaning clues from context, and syntactical structure of the sentence).

The graphophonemic cues are related to the sounds we hear (the phonological system including individual letters and letter combinations), the letters of the alphabet, and the conventions of spelling, punctuation and print. Students who are emerging readers use these cues considerably. However, in the English language there is a very imprecise relationship between written symbols and sound symbols.[7] Sometimes the relationships and their patterns do not work, as in the example of great and head. Proficient readers and writers draw on their prior experiences with text and the other cueing systems, as well as the phonological system, as their reading and writing develops. Ken Goodman writes that, "The cue systems are used simultaneously and interdependently. What constitutes useful graphic information depends on how much syntactic and semantic information is available. Within high contextual constraints an initial consonant may be all that is needed to identify an element and make possible the prediction of an ensuing sequence or the confirmation of prior predictions."[8] He continues with, "Reading requires not so much skills as strategies that make it possible to select the most productive cues." He believes that reading involves the interrelationship of all the language systems. Readers sample and make judgments about which cues from each system will provide the most useful information in making predictions that will get them to meaning. Goodman[8] provides a partial list of the various systems readers use as they interact with text. Within the graphophonemic system there are:

The semantic cuing system is the one in which meaning is constructed. "So focused is reading on making sense that the visual input, the perceptions we form, and the syntactic patterns we assign are all directed by our meaning construction."[9] The key component of the semantic system is context. A reader must be able to attach meaning to words and have some prior knowledge to use as a context for understanding the word. They must be able to relate the newly learned word to prior knowledge through personal associations with text and the structure of text.

The semantic system is developed from the beginning through early interactions with adults. At first, this usually involves labeling (e.g. This is a dog). Then labeling becomes more detailed (e.g., It is a Labrador dog. Its coat is black.) The child learns that there is a set of "dog attributes" and that within the category "dog", there are subsets of "dog" (e.g. long-hair, short-hair). The development of this system and the development of the important concepts that relate to the system are largely accomplished as children begin to explore language independently. As children speak about what they’ve done and play out their experiences, they are making personal associations between their experiences and language. This is critical to success in later literacy practices such as reading comprehension and writing. The meaning people bring to the reading is available to them through every cuing system, but it’s particularly influential as we move from our sense of the syntactic patterns to the semantic structures.[8]

To support the reader in developing the semantic system, ask, "Does that make sense"?

The syntactic system, according to Goodman and Watson,[7] includes the interrelation of words and sentences within connected text. In the English language, syntactic relations include word order, tense, number, and gender. The syntactic system is also concerned with word parts that change the meaning of a word, called morphemes. For example, adding the suffix "less" or adding "s" to the end of a word changes its meaning or tense. As speakers of English, people know where to place subjects, which pronoun to use and where adjectives occur. Individual word meaning is determined by the place of the word in the sentence and the particular semantic or syntactic role it occupies.[10] For example: The mayor was present when he received a beautiful present from the present members of the board.

The syntactic system is usually in place when children begin school. Immersed in language, children begin to recognize that phrases and sentences are usually ordered in certain ways. This notion of ordering is the development of syntax. Like all the cueing systems, syntax provides the possibility of correct prediction when trying to make sense or meaning of written language. Goodman notes the cues found in the flow of language are:[8]

To support a reader in developing the syntactic system, ask, "Can we say it that way? Does that sound right?"

The pragmatic system is also involved in the construction of meaning while reading. This brings into play the socio-cultural knowledge of the reader. It provides information about the purposes and needs the reader has while reading. Yetta Goodman and Dorothy Watson state that, "Language has different meaning depending on the reason for use, the circumstances in which the language is used, and the ideas writers and readers have about the contextual relations with the language users. Language cannot exist outside a sociocultural context, which includes the prior knowledge of the language user. For example, shopping lists, menus, reports and plays are arranged uniquely and are dependent on the message, the intent, the audience, and the context."[7]

By the time children begin school, they may have developed an inferred understanding of some of the pragmatics of a particular situation. For example, turn taking in conversation, reading poetry or a shopping list. "While different materials may share common semantic, syntactic, and graphophonic features, each genre has its own organization and each requires certain experiences by the reader."[7]

To support the reader in developing the pragmatic system ask, "What is the purpose and function of this literacy event?"

Goodman performed a study where children first read words individually, and then read the same words in connected text. He found that the children did better when they read the words in connected text. Later replications of the experiment failed to find effects, however, when children did not read the same words in connected text immediately after reading them individually, as they had in Goodman's experiment.[11][12]

Goodman's theory has been criticized by other researchers who favor a phonics-based approach, and present research to support their viewpoint. Critics argue that good readers use decoding as their primary approach to reading, and use context to confirm that what they have read makes sense.

Application of Goodman's theory

Goodman's argument was compelling to educators as a way of thinking about beginning reading and literacy more broadly. This led to the idea that reading and writing were ideas that should be considered as wholes, learned by experience and exposure more than analysis and didactic instruction. This largely accounts for the focus on time spent reading, especially independent reading. Many classrooms (whole language or otherwise) include silent reading time, sometimes called DEAR ("Drop Everything And Read") time or SSR (sustained silent reading). Some versions of this independent reading time include a structured role for the teacher, especially Reader's Workshop. Despite the popularity of the extension of Chomsky's linguistic ideas to literacy, there is some neurological and experimental research that has concluded that reading, unlike language, is not a pre-programmed human skill. It must be learned. Dr. Sally Shaywitz,[13] a neurologist at Yale University, is credited with much of the research on the neurological structures of reading.

Contrasts with phonics

Because of this holistic emphasis, whole language is contrasted with skill-based areas of instruction, especially phonics and synthetic phonics. Phonics instruction is a commonly used technique for teaching students to read. Phonics instruction tends to emphasize attention to the individual components of words, for example, the phonemes /k/, /æ/, and /t/ are represented by the graphemes c, a, and t. Because they do not focus exclusively on the individual parts, tending to focus on the relationship of parts to and within the larger context, whole language proponents do not favor some types of phonics instruction. Interestingly, whole language advocates state that they do teach, and believe in, phonics, especially a type of phonics known as embedded phonics. In embedded phonics, letters are taught during other lessons focused on meaning and the phonics component is considered a "minilesson". Instruction in embedded phonics typically emphasizes the consonants and the short vowels, as well as letter combinations called rimes or phonograms. The use of this embedded phonics model is called a "whole-part-whole" approach because, consistent with holistic thinking, students read the text for meaning first (whole), then examine features of the phonics system (part) and finally use their new knowledge while reading the text again (whole). Reading Recovery is a program that uses holistic practices with struggling readers.

Most whole language advocates see that children go through stages of spelling development as they develop, use and gain control over written language. Early literacy research conducted by Piagetian researcher, Emilia Ferreiro and published in her landmark book, Literacy Before Schooling, has been replicated by University of Alabama professor, Maryann Manning. Based on this research "invented spelling" is another "whole-part-whole" approach: children learn to read by writing in a meaningful context, e.g. by writing letters to others. To write a word they have to decompose its spoken form into sounds and then to translate them into letters, e.g. k, a, t for the phonemes /k/, /æ/, and /t/. Empirical studies[14] show that later orthographic development is fostered rather than hindered by these invented spellings - as long as children from the beginning are confronted with "book spellings", too.[15]

Rise of whole language and reaction

After its introduction by Goodman, whole language rose in popularity dramatically. It became a major educational paradigm of the late 1980s and the 1990s. Despite its popularity during this period, educators who believed that skill instruction was important for students' learning and some researchers in education were skeptical of whole language claims and said so loudly. What followed were the "Reading Wars" of the 1980s and 1990s between advocates of phonics and those of Whole Language methodology, which in turn led to several attempts to catalog research on the efficacy of phonics and whole language. Congress commissioned reading expert Marilyn Jager Adams to write a definitive book on the topic. She determined that phonics was important but suggested that some elements of the whole language approach were helpful.[16][17] Two large-scale efforts, in 1998 by the United States National Research Council's Commission on Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children[18][19] and in 2000 by the United States National Reading Panel,[20][21] catalogued the most important elements of a reading program. While proponents of whole language find the latter to be controversial, both panels found that phonics instruction of varying kinds, especially analytic and Synthetic Phonics, contributed positively to students' ability to read words on tests of reading words in isolation. Both panels also found that embedded phonics and no phonics contributed to lower rates of achievement for most populations of students when measured on test of reading words in isolation. The Panel recommended an approach it described as "scientifically-based reading research" (SBRR), that cited 5 elements essential to effective reading instruction, one of which was explicit, Systematic Phonics instruction (phonological awareness, reading comprehension, vocabulary, and fluency were the other 4).

In December 2005 the Australian Government endorsed the teaching of synthetic phonics, and discredited the whole language approach ("on its own"). Its Department of Education, Science and Training published a National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy. The report states "The evidence is clear, whether from research, good practice observed in schools, advice from submissions to the Inquiry, consultations, or from Committee members’ own individual experiences, that direct systematic instruction in phonics during the early years of schooling is an essential foundation for teaching children to read." Pg 11. See Synthetic phonics#Acceptance in Australia

State of the debate

Despite these results, many whole language advocates continue to argue that their approach, including embedded phonics, has been shown to improve student achievement. Whole language advocates sometimes criticize advocates of skill instruction as "reductionist" and describe the use of phonics as "word calling" because it does not involve the use of meaning. The United States National Reading Panel is criticized especially harshly by some in the whole language community for failing to include qualitative research designs that showed benefits for embedded phonics (the panel only considered experiments and quasi-experiments). On the other hand, some parents and teachers have objected to the de-emphasis on phonics in whole language-based curricula such as Reading Recovery and advocated their removal from schools.[22]

Adoption of some whole language concepts

While rancor continues, much of whole language's emphasis on quality literature, cultural diversity, and reading in groups and to students is widely supported by the educational community. The importance of motivation, long a central focus of whole language approaches, has gained more attention in the broader educational community in the last few years. Prominent critic of whole language Louisa Cook Moats has argued, however, that the foci on quality literature, diversity, reading groups, and motivation are not the sole property of whole language.[23] She, and others , contend these components of instruction are supported by educators of diverse educational perspectives. Moats contends that the properties essential to Whole Language, and those that render it ineffective and unfit for reading education are the principles that children learn to read from exposure to print, the hostility to drilling in phonics and other forms of direct instruction, and the tendency to endorse the use of context-clues and guess-work to decipher a word rather than phonemic decoding. In these and certain other tenets lie the essence and the error of Whole Language. Emphases on cultural diversity and quality literature is neither limited to Whole Language nor fundamental to it.

Balanced literacy

More recently, "Balanced literacy" has been suggested as an integrative approach, portrayed by its advocates as taking the best elements of both whole language and code-emphasizing phonics, something advocated by Adams in 1990. The New York Public School system has adopted Balanced Literacy as its literacy curriculum, though critics of whole language have suggested that "Balanced Literacy" is just the disingenuous recasting of the very same whole language with obfuscating new terminology. Equally vociferously, the whole language advocates have criticized the United States National Reading Panel. Allington went so far as to use the term "big brother" to describe the government's role in the reading debate.[24]

No Child Left Behind has brought a resurgence of interest in phonics. Whole language has thus during the 2000s receded from being the dominant reading model in the education field to marginal status, and it continues to fade.


Prominent proponents of whole language include Kenneth Goodman, Frank Smith, Carolyn Burke, Jerome Harste, Yetta Goodman, Dorothy Watson, Regie Routman, Stephen Krashen, and Richard Allington.

Widely known whole language detractors include Louisa Cook Moats, G. Reid Lyon, James Kauffman, Phillip Gough, Keith Stanovich, Diane McGuinness, Douglas Carnine, Edward Kame'enui, Jerry Silbert, Lynn Melby Gordon, Rudolf Flesch, and Jeanne Chall.[25]

See also


  1. eBooks.com - In Defense of Good Teaching: What Teachers Need to Know About the eBook
  2. 1 2 Borowsky R, Esopenko C, Cummine J, Sarty GE (2007). "Neural representations of visual words and objects: a functional MRI study on the modularity of reading and object processing". Brain Topogr. 20 (2): 89–96. doi:10.1007/s10548-007-0034-1. PMID 17929158.
  3. 1 2 Borowsky R, Cummine J, Owen WJ, Friesen CK, Shih F, Sarty GE (2006). "FMRI of ventral and dorsal processing streams in basic reading processes: insular sensitivity to phonology". Brain Topogr. 18 (4): 233–9. doi:10.1007/s10548-006-0001-2. PMID 16845597.
  4. 1 2 Sanabria Díaz G, Torres Mdel R, Iglesias J, et al. (November 2009). "Changes in reading strategies in school-age children". Span J Psychol. 12 (2): 441–53. doi:10.1017/S1138741600001827. PMID 19899646.
  5. 1 2 Chan ST, Tang SW, Tang KW, Lee WK, Lo SS, Kwong KK (November 2009). "Hierarchical coding of characters in the ventral and dorsal visual streams of Chinese language processing". NeuroImage. 48 (2): 423–35. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2009.06.078. PMID 19591947.
  6. "Reading: A psycholinguistic guessing game - Literacy Research and Instruction".
  7. 1 2 3 4 Goodman, Yetta (2005). Reading Miscue Inventory. Katonah, NY: Robert C. Owen Publishers, Inc.
  8. 1 2 3 4 Goodman, Kenneth (1982). Language and Literacy. Boston, MA: Routledge & Kegan. ISBN 0-7100-0875-9.
  9. Goodman, K. (1996). On Reading. NH: Heinemann. ISBN 0-435-07200-5.
  10. Itzkoff, Seymour (1986). How We Learn to Read. Ashfield, MA: Paideia Publishers. ISBN 0-913993-04-2.
  11. Pressley, Michael (2006). Reading instruction that works: the case for balanced teaching. New York: Guilford Press. ISBN 1-59385-228-2.
  12. Michael Pressley (2006). Reading instruction that works: the case for balanced teaching.
  13. "Shaywitz, Sally E research paper collection PubMed result 76 selected items".
  14. Brügelmann, Hans (1999). From invention to convention. Children's different routes to literacy. How to teach reading and writing by construction vs. instruction. In: Nunes, T. (ed.) (1999). Learning to read: An integrated view from research and practice. Dordrecht et al.: Kluwer(315-342);Richgels, D.J. (2001). Invented spelling, phonemic awareness, and reading and writing instruction. In: Neuman, S. B./ Dickinson, D. (eds.) (2001). Handbook on Research in Early Literacy for the 21st Century. New York: Guilford Press.
  15. Brügelmann, Hans/ Brinkmann, Erika. Combining openness and structure in the initial literacy curriculum. A language experience approach for beginning teachers, 2013 Download: http://www.academia.edu/4274824/Combining_structure_and_openness_in_the_initial_literacy_curriculum
  16. Adams, Marilyn McCord (1994). Beginning to read: thinking and learning about print. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-51076-6.
  17. Marilyn Jager Adams (1994). Beginning to read: thinking and learning about print.
  18. Griffin, Peg; Snow, Catherine E.; Burns, M. Susan (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. Washington, D.C: National Academy Press. ISBN 0-309-06418-X.
  19. Catherine E. Snow; Marie Susan Burns; Peg Griffin (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children.
  20. "National Reading Panel (NRP) - Publications and Materials - Summary Report". National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction (NIH Publication No. 00-4769). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. 2000.
  21. "National Reading Panel (NRP) - Publications and Materials - Reports of the Subgroups". National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching children to read: an evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction: Reports of the subgroups (NIH Publication No. 00-4754). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. 2000.
  22. http://www.nrrf.org/learning/reading-recovery-bites-the-dust-in-columbus-ohio/
  23. Moats, L. C. (2000). Whole language lives on: The illusion of "Balanced Reading" instruction. Washington, DC: Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.
  24. Allington, R. (2002). Big Brother and the national reading curriculum: How ideology trumped evidence. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  25. Carnine, D.W., Silbert, J., Kame'enui, E.J., & Tarver, S.G. (2004). Direct instruction reading (4th Edition)

External links

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