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Whole Language, Phonics Not Mutually Exclusive

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To the Editor:

I was disappointed by your front-page article "A War of Words: Whole Language Under Siege" (March 20, 1996). You appear to be uninformed about the genesis, implementation, and status of whole language in California.

Nowhere in the California English-Language Arts Framework, first published in 1987, is there a vision for whole language. From the beginning, the frameworks have called for a balanced approach to the teaching of language arts, to include phonics "taught in meaningful contexts, kept simple, and completed in the early grades."

An additional bit of misinformation is the assertion that the state did an immediate about-face following the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In 1994, the state published a smaller document, "The Framework in Focus," to address areas which continue to be of concern about the instruction of language arts in California (and I would guess in many other states and countries). This document clearly stated that the framework would continue to be the vision for the state. The document also addressed areas such as phonics, second language, grouping, and assessment that need further clarification and enhancement.

Finally, you state that California was the first state to gain widespread acceptance for whole language. This is certainly not true. Colorado, much earlier, was successfully using whole-language strategies. The language-arts program in California is not a whole-language approach, but a balanced literature-based program.

In California, we recognize the fact that we ranked 49 out of 50 on the NAEP test for 4th graders. A contributing factor to this unacceptable position could be that California is tied for the largest class size in the country, is in the lower one-third in terms of funding, has one of the highest percentages of students whose primary language is one other than English, and has the fewest number of school libraries and librarians in the country. A combination of all these factors certainly influences our low standing on NAEP (a test, by the way, whose norming population concerns many educators).

California educators are working very hard to regain academic success for our students. Many forces are working against us, not with us, in this struggle. It is very discouraging to read in your otherwise excellent publication clear misrepresentation of the facts which will, I assure you, be used against us as we try to improve education for the students of California.

Carol Leighty
San Diego, Calif.

To the Editor

Your whole-language story was a disservice to serious discussion about literacy instruction.

First, the focus on instructional approaches centers that question in schools, when all available research suggests that the strongest influence on the development of literacy is whether a child's parents read to her. A society that assumes parents can leave literacy development to the selection of a proper reading text in the schools will always be a society with a significant portion of illiterate citizens. More influential than the reading approach used by the teacher is whether the child has been read to in the home.

Second, you seriously misrepresent the issue by fostering the myth that whole-language teaching means not teaching phonics. Framing the issue as between phonics instruction and whole language gives us a false dichotomy, and does a serious disservice to teachers trying to make sense of the discussions about reading instruction.

The issue is not whether children should learn phonics or not; all agree that is essential. The issue is whether phonics should be taught as a memorized set of sound-symbol relationships before a child learns to read. This places instruction before comprehension, yet it is essentially the traditional phonics-first approach.

In contrast, whole language teaches phonics as a means to the acquisition of meaning from text. There is nothing random or unsystematic about this, and there is certainly no failure to concentrate on phonics as part of a broader program of developing literacy. Whole language merely reminds us to teach in a context in which the child understands what she is learning.

John F. Covaleski
Assistant Professor of Education
Northern Michigan University
Marquette, Mich.

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