After The Reign Of Dick And Jane

By Daniel Gursky — August 01, 1991 24 min read

For more than 100 years, public schools in the United States have operated on the theory that children learn by mastering the component parts of complex material before grasping the entire subject. In the current system, a carefully sequenced curriculum from kindergarten to graduation is determined largely by experts outside the schools. Within that curriculum, teachers and textbooks transmit information to students, who spend most of their time as docile recipients. They study structured textbooks containing drills and exercises that reinforce skills and knowledge they often perceive as having no relevance to the world outside the classroom. Emphasis is on the memorization of facts rather than on problem solving and creative thinking. And students are tested, drilled, and retested regularly to make sure they have learned the facts and absorbed the information.

The theory that prevails in the traditional school contends that learning is hard work and that students must be persuaded to undertake and stick with it. A system of external rewards and punishments provides the incentive for students to achieve. Learning is viewed largely as an individual activity, and students are discouraged from collaborating with each other; working together is often viewed as cheating. Since children naturally dislike hard work and would rather be playing than learning, or so the theory goes, the main challenge to the teacher in the traditional school is to maintain order and to control the students so that teaching and learning can take place.

There is a certain logic and coherence to the theory, and it has surely demonstrated a tenacity to survive and a resistance to recent research findings on how children learn. But the growing number of teachers, school administrators, and scholars who have become part of the whole language movement believe the traditional school not only doesn’t encourage learning but also often obstructs it.

Proponents of whole language subscribe to the theory that children are eager to learn when they come to school, that learning is not work but rather an effortless process that goes on continuously without their even trying. Children do not learn by first mastering the smaller parts of the whole, but by constantly developing hypotheses about the world around them and testing those hypotheses. Whole language advocates point out that children arrive at school already having learned an enormous amount without the benefit of formal schooling. The average 1st grader, experts say, has already acquired a vocabulary of 10,000 words and assimilated many of the rules of grammar without trying.

Whole language is an entire philosophy about teaching, learning, and the role of language in the classroom. It stresses that language should be kept whole and uncontrived and that children should use language in ways that relate to their own lives and cultures. In the whole language classroom, the final product--the “answer’'-- isn’t as important as the process of learning to define and solve problems.

Whole language advocates believe that the ideal classroom is a child-centered one in which students enjoy learning because they perceive that the material has meaning and relevance to their lives. The teacher is not an authoritarian but a resource, coach, and co-learner who shares power with the students and allows them to make choices. Learning in such a classroom is a social act, and children learn from and help each other. The challenge to the teacher is to adapt the curriculum and activities to the interests and talents of the children, to provide a content-rich environment, and to assure that they are constantly engaged in learning. When children are not learning, whole language teachers say, they become bored and restless, and control becomes a problem. The common techniques of whole language teaching--daily journal and letter writing, a great deal of silent and oral reading of real literature, and student cooperation, to name a few--are the philosophy in action.

It is hard to imagine two schools of thought more diametrically opposed in their view of how children learn. Frank Smith, a leading authority on reading, writing, and children’s literacy, finds the two views so contradictory “that they would appear to refer to two entirely different kinds of mental activity.’' But they share two points:

Human learning begins with the learning of language: first, listening and speaking; then, reading and writing.

Success in learning language is vitally important because it largely determines how well a child will do in school and in life.

Because children already know how to speak (and presumably to listen) when they come to school, their formal instruction in language begins with reading. As a result, the battles between the proponents of the divergent theories of learning are fought mainly over the way reading is taught in the primary grades.

These battles, known as “The Great Reading Debate,’' haven’t been limited to intellectual jousting in obscure academic journals and at professional conferences. The war is regularly waged in the mass media and in statehouses and school board chambers. The adversaries skirmish in courtrooms as well as classrooms.

Although the debate is ostensibly over the most effective method of teaching reading, it goes much deeper, raising profound questions about pedagogy, the nature and purpose of schooling, and the role of teachers, students, parents, and administrators.

It follows logically that a society will establish a pedagogy, and structure its schools, to conform to the theory of learning that it subscribes to.

In the United States, the traditional theory of learning became institutionalized with the beginning of mass schooling in the 19th century. Its intellectual rationale was later drawn from the work of experimental psychologists such as Edward Thorndike and, subsequently, behaviorists such as B.F. Skinner. The theory is based on the belief that children learn a complex skill such as reading by first making sense of the smallest components of the language (letters) and then progressing to larger components (sounds, words, and sentences). Children learn to read by learning to decode the language; understanding follows after the code is broken and the component parts are mastered.

Traditional American education, therefore, begins with lessons that focus on phonics (letters, combinations of letters, sounds, and rules), tightly controlled vocabulary, and short basal reading passages, followed by numerous skills exercises, each with only one correct answer, typically delivered by the teacher to a group of students using the same textbook.

Constance Weaver, a professor of English at Western Michigan University, calls this the “transmission’’ model of teaching, with teachers serving essentially as “scripted technicians’’ who pass on a curriculum established by people outside the classroom.

“Learning typically is broken down into small parts that can be taught, practiced, tested, retaught, and retested,’' Weaver says. “Some things can be transmitted, of course. But many things are likely to be forgotten because the learner hasn’t necessarily connected to the material.’'

In other words--as assessments of student literacy point out all too clearly--we can’t assume the student is learning just because the teacher is teaching. The 1988 National Assessment of Educational Progress found that about 70 percent of 17-yearolds could read well enough to get the overall message or specific information from a text, but only 42 percent could read and understand complicated passages, and fewer than 5 percent could comprehend the specialized material prevalent in business and higher education. Estimates of the number of functionally illiterate American adults, who read so poorly that they can’t cope with the basics of everyday life, are even more shocking. Some figures range up to 60 million--more than one-third of the country’s adult population.

But even allowing for the possibility of gross exaggeration, these figures show that the current system doesn’t work for millions of students--and particularly for non-white and disadvantaged students. (See “Outside The Mainstream,’' page 26.) Nonetheless, inertia reinforces the dominance of the traditional model of schooling. Most people were “taught to read’’ that way, and most teachers have been trained to function in such a system. “It takes a revelation for teachers to even ask whether it’s possible that students don’t learn that way, whether language isn’t acquired that way,’' says Patrick Shannon, head of Pennsylvania State University’s language and literacy education department.

But more and more teachers are asking those questions. Sometimes with the support of their administrators, but more often on their own, teachers are embracing a holistic, meaning-first learning theory. Some do it consciously, with a solid theoretical base, while others seek new methods out of dissatisfaction with the status quo. Whole language, which has mushroomed in popularity in recent years, is by far the most widespread manifestation of this theory.

Although the formal label only dates back a dozen years or so, whole language has deep roots both inside and outside of education. As one leading expert puts it, there have always been whole language learners--but there haven’t always been whole language teachers.

Whole language owes its intellectual heritage to John Amos Comenius, a 17th century educator who believed that learning should be pleasurable and rooted in students’ real lives; to John Dewey’s theories of progressive education; to Friedrich Froebel, the founder of kindergartens, which have a lot in common with ideal whole language classrooms; to Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who emphasized the social aspects of learning and the role teachers and peers play in supporting or thwarting it; to Dorris Lee and Lillian Lamoreaux, whose language-experience approach encourages teachers to use students’ stories as classroom reading material; and to Donald Graves, a writing scholar and pioneer of “process writing,’' who encourages both teachers and students to write more. Recent theories and research in the relatively new field of psycholinguistics have provided whole language with a more scientific base.

Psycholinguists argue that, almost from birth, children engage in a search for meaning, structure, and order. They reject the idea that decoding the smallest components of written language is an effective way for children to learn to read. Instead, they argue, language proceeds from meaning as the learner draws on his or her own experience, culture, and previous knowledge to understand the text and extract information from it. Learning and understanding are inseparable.

Smith, whose 1971 book, Understanding Reading, was a milestone in psycholinguistic theory, says that this view of learning has been accepted as common sense for at least 2,000 years--by everyone except educators. He suggests that most learning is as inconspicuous as breathing; both teacher and student barely realize it’s happening. “Learning is continuous,’' he says. “It requires no particular effort, attention, conscious motivation, or reinforcement.’' People are constantly learning without even realizing it, from street signs, conversations, headlines, movies, and other hardly noticed events in their everyday lives.

Learning only becomes difficult, Smith argues, in contrived circumstances that are disconnected from a person’s immediate interests and experiences, such as teaching children to read by asking them to study and memorize individual letters that have no meaning or isolated words that lack context.

In his book Reading Without Nonsense, Smith makes the point by inviting readers to glance at the texts in the following boxes and ask themselves which is the easiest to understand and remember:




Smith and whole language advocates believe that the meaning is “in the head,’' not in the text. One cannot read (and learn) about a subject that one does not already understand to some degree. Baseball fans, for example, who read the morning paper to see how their team fared easily pick up the nuances of yesterday’s game from the written report because they already understand the game. The same article would be almost incomprehensible to a reader who knows (or cares) nothing about baseball.

To demonstrate that meaning is in the head rather than in the surface structure of language, Smith invites the reader to determine the meaning of a number of sentences: “Visiting teachers may be boring.’' “The chicken was too hot to eat.’' “She runs through the sand and waves.’' “The shooting of the hunters was terrible.’' Obviously, all of these sentences can have more than one meaning.

The point, says Smith, is that “neither individual words, their order, nor even grammar itself can be appealed to as the source of meaning in language and thus of comprehension in reading. Nor is it possible to decode from the meaningless surface structure of writing into the sounds of speech in order to find a back route into meaning. Instead, some comprehension of the whole is required before one can say how individual words should sound, or deduce their meaning in particular utterances, and even assert their grammatical function.’' In short, the more one knows about, or is interested in, the subject one is reading about, the more information one is likely to glean from the text.

Furthermore, Smith sees learning as social rather than solitary. “We learn from the company we keep,’' he explains. “We learn from the people who interest us and help us to do the things they do.’' As a result, children learn to read not from methods but from people. In a sense, they apprentice themselves to people who know something that they want to learn--teachers, parents, peers, and authors. Apprenticeships were a common and successful form of learning and teaching long before the advent of formal schooling.

For years, the debate over read- ing instruction focused on the relative merits of phonics vs. the “whole word’’ method, which holds that words, rather than letters, are the most effective unit for the teaching of reading. There were countless studies, heated arguments from supporters of both sides, and even insinuations of communist conspiracies. During the 1950s and ‘60s, many people came to identify phonics with political conservatives and the whole word method with liberals. The rhetoric was often malicious. Rudolph Flesch, author of the 1955 polemical best seller Why Johnny Can’t Read, raised the stakes by blaming whole word advocates for many of America’s woes, while at the same time politicizing and oversimplifying the issue of teaching reading.

In many ways, Flesch’s legacy persists today, with the past attacks on the whole word methodology now aimed at whole language, whose proponents squirm with anguish at being confused with the whole word approach. They insist that the whole word method is much like the phonic approach in that it emphasizes components rather than language as a whole, memorization of individual unconnected symbols (words), and drill and practice.

Nevertheless, deliberately or inadvertently, traditionalists’ attacks on whole language echo Flesch’s McCarthy-era tirades against the whole word method. Sidney Blumenfeld, for instance, in a recent edition of his Education Letter, calls whole language “an important part of the left’s social agenda.....Whole language is a lot more than just a new way to teach reading. It embodies a leftist messianic vision, which may account for the fanaticism found among whole language visionaries.’'

In recent years, fundamentalist religious groups have latched onto phonics, with its focus on skills and literal comprehension. They denounce whole language as secular humanism, atheism, and even satanism because of its emphasis on real literature rather than value-neutral basals and because of the introspection, inquiry, and multiple interpretations of texts encouraged by whole language teachers. Not surprisingly, lobbies have sprung up around the country to influence textbook-selection committees and to persuade legislators and school boards to mandate phonics as the only acceptable method of teaching reading.

Phonics-first advocates got a boost in September 1989, when a U.S. Senate Republican Policy Committee released a document titled Illiteracy: An Incurable Disease or Educational Malpractice? Citing a massive study supported by the U.S. Department of Education and carried out by the Center for the Study of Reading at the University of Illinois, the document called for “the restoration of the instructional practice of intensive, systematic phonics in every primary school in America.’'

For whole language teachers, however, arguments about the role of phonics and other methods of reading instruction miss the point: Whole language is a theory about how people learn; phonics is a method of teaching reading based on a totally different learning theory. Whole language teachers may draw upon a number of traditional methods, including phonics, but they use them only in specific situations when they think a student would benefit; the methods are not the whole language teacher’s central approach to teaching literacy. “No one’s suggesting that phonics isn’t involved in learning to read and write,’' says Kenneth Goodman, University of Arizona education professor and a leading proponent of whole language. It is the reliance on phonics as the main or sole approach to teaching literacy, he says, that whole language proponents resist.

In fact, whole language is about much more than instruction in reading and literacy. It’s about empowerment and the role of teachers, students, and texts in education. In short, it’s about who controls what goes on in the classroom. Will educational decisions be made by teachers and students or by administrators, curriculum developers, textbook publishers, and policymakers?

Consequently, in addition to rethinking their attitudes about learning, many whole language teachers have found it natural-- indeed necessary--to develop a broader consciousness about social and political issues. “Teachers need to think about what they’re doing when they decide to teach one way or another,’' Penn State’s Shannon says. “What does [their method of teaching] mean for teachers and their students, not just in terms of language development but in their own lives? When they ask those questions, they acknowledge the politics of their work.’'

John Willinsky of the University of British Columbia agrees. “To give students expression is a political move,’' he says. “It empowers them.’'

Literacy has always been about power. The way reading has been taught for the past 500 years has more to do with religious and secular authorities trying to preserve their power than with learning theories. When Johann Gutenberg invented movable type and printed the Bible in 1455, reading was a skill largely limited to the clergy, royalty, and scribes. The authorities quickly saw the dangers inherent in widespread literacy. To prevent the spread of reading to the masses, they levied special taxes on printers, regulated the production and distribution of publications, and simply banned books and broadsides.

But even kings and popes could not withstand the inevitable, so the ruling establishment switched from trying to prevent reading to controlling it. And in some ways, as Daniel Resnick of Carnegie-Mellon University points out, the educational traditions established to control literacy during the Reformation remain stubbornly intact in modern-day American schools. Catechismstyle teaching, Resnick notes, with its authoritative texts, established questions and answers, and repetitive lessons, sought to produce believers rather than thinkers. And that legacy persists. Future efforts “to move literacy expectations beyond a rudimentary ability to read, write, and calculate,’' he writes in the scholastic journal Daedalus, will be “constrained by the practice of earlier centuries: modest instructional goals, textbooks in the form of religious primers, language used primarily to create a civic culture, and mass schooling mainly for the primary years.’'

Basal readers, designed for specific grade levels, became the modern catechism by the 1920s, as common as pencils in the hands of primary and middle school students across the country. Shannon traces the development of the modern basal to the late 1800s, when America’s growing faith in science and industry was applied to reading. Basals were intended to “rationalize’’ reading instruction in order to overcome the lack of good children’s literature and teachers’ relatively low education levels at the time. Standardized tests, which developed roughly during the same period, reinforced the use of basals.

The belief was, Shannon says, that teachers were behaving scientifically--according to psychological “laws of learning’'--if they were faithfully following the directions in the manual. At the turn of the century, he notes, basal publishers apologized for 18page teachers’ manuals that accompanied all six reading levels. Today, publishers unapologetically produce manuals the size of city telephone books for each level. Textbook publishers, editors, and authors, Shannon says, have reduced teachers to managers of commercially produced materials; the best teachers are frequently considered those who explain the material well rather than those who help their students become independent learners.

In essence, the basal system has solidified into textbook form the traditional skills-based model of learning. And if the basals are something of a modern catechism, they’re followed religiously by American teachers. Surveys show that more than 90 percent of teachers use basals to teach reading, and the vast majority of their students’ class work and homework comes straight from the basal. In addition, many states require the use of basals, and teachers in some districts face fines for disobeying the mandate.

A system built around basal readers and standardized textbooks takes away from teachers and students key decisionmaking power about classroom materials. It’s not surprising, then, that many teachers who are attempting to change the structure of their classes often start by limiting the use of textbooks or shelving them completely.

“For teachers,’' Shannon says, “whole language is about having the right and responsibility to choose what methods they use, the materials offered in class, the ways in which they assess students.’' Given the tradition of outside control, he argues, the thought of taking responsibility can be both frightening and exhilarating to teachers. “The possibility of control and choice has never really been offered to teachers,’' he says. “They thought they were supposed to fit into a scheme in which they apply someone else’s material.’'

Weaver, of Western Michigan University, points out that many teachers prefer the safety of the basal to the unpredictable vagaries of whole language. “You can give some teachers all the power in the world and they will use the same old traditional curriculum,’' she says. And even if they decide to abandon their basals, it may not make a big difference. “If teachers haven’t made the shift in models of learning,’' Weaver says, “they’re going to take nice trade books and do all the awful things that have been done with basals,’' namely, use the literature to teach isolated skills.

The basal, skills-oriented approach is also easier for teachers. They are following a preset curriculum, their lessons are planned in advance, and they can reasonably anticipate how the class will proceed. Whole language teachers, on the other hand, are constantly adapting as classroom events unfold; they guide rather than control; they watch for teaching opportunities and improvise. Whole language teachers acknowledge that while their new role is far more fulfilling than the traditional role, it is also far more demanding.

Because there are so many teaching strategies associated with whole language-- journal writing, book “publishing,’' free reading, etc.--some teachers simply implement a few strategies and call themselves whole language teachers. “A lot of different activities plucked out of whole language and put in traditional settings can seem to be the same,’' says Goodman of the University of Arizona. “But they lose their significance when the reasons for the activities aren’t there.’' Smith notes that many teachers mistakenly see whole language as just another method, rather than an entirely new approach to teaching. “They still do not trust children to learn unless their attention is controlled and their progress monitored and evaluated,’' he says.

Many publishing companies exploit teachers’ misconceptions about whole language. “Publishers see the markets for traditional materials being eroded, so they start relabeling things and saying that if you buy their materials, you’re doing whole language,’' Goodman says. “That’s predictable, and that’s a danger.’' Some efforts by publishers to capitalize on the movement’s popularity have produced seeming anomalies--whole language basals packed with skills exercises, for example, and repackaged workbooks billed as “journals.’'

There are now enough commit- ted whole language teachers in the United States to constitute a full-fledged national movement, complete with conferences, workshops, newsletters, more than 100 support groups, and a massive whole language catalog, containing information on almost every conceivable topic related to the subject. (See “Resources,’' page 46.)

These whole language educators take heart from the success of their counterparts abroad, particularly in New Zealand and Australia. “Essentially, what appears as a current revolution in this country,’' Goodman says, “was a relatively calm evolution in other countries.’' In New Zealand, for example, holistic theories of learning have guided many schools since before World War II. Some whole language proponents find it more than coincidental that New Zealand and Australia rank at the top of international comparisons of literacy, while the United States barely rates a spot in the top third.

Closer to home, Canada has also become a leader in whole language, with many of the provincial educational authorities adopting the philosophy for all their schools. Extensive resources for staff development and new materials have been allocated to help with the transition.

In the United States, whole language has been a grass-roots movement, spreading classroom by classroom, as one or two teachers--rarely more than a handful--in a school change the way they teach. One exception is in Westwood, Mass., where the entire school district has completed the second year of a five-year transition to whole language in grades K-8. The switch is the direct result of a recommendation by a teacher-led reading committee, convened by Superintendent Robert Monson when he arrived in Westwood four years ago. There has been some isolated resistance among the faculty, Monson admits. But overall, he says, the transition is going smoothly as teachers move away from basals and standardized tests toward literature reading and alternative forms of assessment.

“We’ve put teachers in leadership roles,’' Monson says. “They’ve got the knowledge; you just have to get them away from teaching long enough to think about these questions. They invariably come up with wonderful answers.’'

Although the great debate over how children learn (and thus learn to read) seems destined to continue indefinitely, it hasn’t really become a dominant issue of the current school reform movement. With a few notable exceptions, most of the efforts to improve the nation’s schools seem to accept as a given the traditional theories of learning on which American public education is based. Those who would “fix’’ our schools have largely concentrated on issues such as increased teacher accountability, more highstakes standardized tests, higher academic standards, more-rigorous curricula, and more and better teacher training. In recent years, the emphasis has shifted somewhat to school restructuring, site-based management, and parental choice. But there has been little mention in the national school reform discussion about how children learn.

Whole language advocates want to change that. They would like to focus the public discussion on classroom learning and a theory of literacy that would inevitably change the way teachers teach and the way schools are organized and operated. As Jerome Harste, professor of education at Indiana University, has written: “Whole language inquirers want the politics of literacy made explicit. Politics, they argue, is the language of priorities. They understand that not to take a position is to maintain the status quo--to keep both those who are currently well-served and those not so well-served in place. From this perspective, curriculum is not just a new set of standards to be taught, nor even an unfinished agenda, but rather a vehicle for interrogating past assumptions as well as creating a better world. There is no neutral position.’'

A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1991 edition of Teacher as After The Reign Of Dick And Jane