November 01, 1996 4 min read

NOTES FROM A KIDWATCHER: Selected Writings of Yetta M. Goodman, edited by Sandra Wilde. (Heinemann, $24.50.) LITERACY AT THE CROSSROADS: Crucial Talk About Reading, Writing, and Other Teaching Dilemmas, by Regie Routman. (Heinemann, $21.50.)

In the 1980s, whole language rode a surging tide of favor. But times change, and now many educators and parents--particularly those who favor a more traditional phonetic approach to reading instruction--view that surging tide more as a devastating flood that has condemned kids to illiteracy. A lot of parents would be happy to see whole language go the way of the Edsel. Yet, in Notes From a Kidwatcher, Yetta Goodman, a leading proponent of whole language, enumerates virtues of the movement few would dispute: Whole language emphasizes rich children’s literature as opposed to dull-witted primers, encourages teachers to be sympathetic storytellers instead of taskmasters, and stresses the importance of having children read words and sentences in context rather than in isolation.

So what’s the big controversy all about? Much of it has to do with a certain dogmatism and hubris associated with staunch whole language proponents, and both surface in Goodman’s essays. She talks about the “teacher as liberator” and about how children must “invent literacy for themselves.” Sometimes it seems that Goodman is talking about the nascent democratic movement in Eastern Europe, not the vital but less dramatic work of teaching kids to read and write. Furthermore, Goodman makes bold assertions that seem exaggerated if simply not wrong. “The most important parts of learning,” she writes, “are not related to any specific content.” Statements like this provide fuel to critics who believe that whole language is too much about process and not enough about basic knowledge.

After reading Goodman, it is a relief to open teacher Regie Routman’s Literacy at the Crossroads. This common-sense book lets some fresh air into the classroom. Here, finally, is a whole language advocate who doesn’t assume the movement is above reproach. “We have not been publicly critical of ourselves, and we need to be,” she writes. “We have not acknowledged our growing pains or owned up to the fact that no major change can occur without some warts showing publicly.” Routman criticizes her own movement on a number of counts. Too often, she argues, whole language teachers have dismissed phonics when “the reality is and has always been phonics is part of whole language.” She continues, “Most of our children need some explicit instruction along with immersion in wonderful literature.”

Routman devotes an entire chapter to California, where dismal test scores in reading have raised serious questions about the state’s progressive reading curriculum. The debacle occurred, she claims, because too many inexperienced teachers felt that wonderful literature was enough and avoided direct instruction even when it was called for. This, Routman argues, combined with large class sizes and cuts in funding, made California an example of how not to go about implementing whole language. None of this suggests that Routman has reservations about whole language; she insists that it is the best way to engage students deeply in the process of reading and writing. But she just as adamantly insists that whole language must not result, as it so often has, in shoddy spelling, “cute themes” that have no instructional value, and a sense among devotees that only reactionaries worry about the basics. Whole language teachers must address such weaknesses, or more and more parents will reject a sensible movement that a few extremists threaten to take over the edge.


Shortly after it was published in 1971, The Culture of the School and the Problem of Change became a classic work of educational pessimism. It’s not that Sarason claimed school reform was impossible; he just presented it as having to overcome so many obstacles that gloom and doom seemed the only rational response. Summarizing such a massive work is almost impossible, but it’s safe to say that Sarason sees school reform as a kind of Catch-22. Those trying to reform schools from the outside--politicians and school boards--are destined to fail because they don’t understand the working of school culture well enough to alter it. But those inside the school--teachers and principals--are hardly better off: They’re so immersed in the culture that they can’t see the forest for the trees.

Now, looking back at The Culture of the School and the Problem of Change 25 years later, Sarason basically concludes that he was right on just about everything. His certitude is sometimes a bit much, but this hardly matters since he really is right most of the time. Over and over again, he insists that schools can’t be interesting places for kids if they’re not interesting for teachers. As long as teachers see teaching as a series of scripted steps, he writes, they’ll wither on the vine. Here, as in all his books, Sarason decries theabsence of genuine inquiry in schools and education. By and large, teachers talk, and students pretend to listen. “Any effort at system reform that does not give top priority to altering that relationship,” Sarason wisely asserts, “will not improve educational outcomes.”


A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as Books