Whole Language Lives . . .

May 01, 1999 7 min read

Amid the snow-soaked boots that line the hallway of Mapleton Elementary School in Mapleton, Maine, a student sits in a stream of warm sunlight to read a favorite book. In a classroom around the corner, pairs of 5th graders carefully select books to share with kindergartners-their reading partners. Down the hall, a 2nd grader peruses the shelves in the library-searching, in vain, the librarian says, for a book the youngster has not yet read.

“Books fly around this school,” says Gail Gibson, a teacher and Mapleton’s principal. Such enthusiasm for reading isn’t surprising. In recent state results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Maine proved to be one of the top performers in reading, as it has since 1992. And Mapleton consistently beats average scores on state wide tests, despite an enrollment with many impoverished students and a local economy sapped of strength by struggling potato farms, failing timber mills, and an abandoned military base. On last year’s assessments, only 6 percent of Mapleton’s 4th graders failed to read at the “basic” level, while nearly half demonstrated advanced skills.

What is surprising, however, is that students at Mapleton and many other schools in Maine are learning to read through whole language instruction. In recent years, once-popular whole language strategies have been blamed for students’ anemic reading achievement as a back-to-basics movement has gathered strength nationwide.

But as Mapleton illustrates, whole language, while maimed, is surviving-even thriving-in some places. In classrooms from New York to North Carolina, and from Arizona to California, the principles that have shaped the whole language movement persist, despite aggressive efforts by policymakers to supplant its literature-based methods with phonics skills as the foundation of a solid reading program.

The Manhattan New School in New York City, for example, subscribes to the whole language approach to reading. More than 90 percent of its 500 students are proficient in reading as measured by standardized achievement tests, even though half of them don’t have English as their first language.

Dewey Educational Center, in a blighted neighborhood in Detroit, also has embraced whole language. The school was slated for closing before administrators refocused instruction around whole language several years ago. It now attracts students from around the city. Though it’s far from becoming a model urban school, test scores in reading and other subjects have improved significantly.

And at Borton Primary Magnet School in the Tucson, Arizona, metropolitan area, parents of its 230 students continue to send their children to the whole language school rather than to more traditional programs.

“It really depends on what area of the country you’re in or who you are talking to...but there are still many people who believe in the whole language philosophy,” says Gerald Oglan, president-elect of the Whole Language Umbrella, a subgroup of the National Council of Teachers of English. More than 1,000 individuals and dozens of Teachers Applying Whole Language groups are members.

Whole language philosophies took root in classrooms across the nation in the 1980s, but the movement has been besieged with criticism in recent years. “We are on the defensive,” Oglan admits, “and we’re still trying to regroup.” Whole language has been blamed for declining test scores by those who charge such instruction is not rigorous enough. Advocates, however, believe that the failure of many teachers to spell out how whole language translates into classroom practice is at the root of the problem. Teachers were at a loss to explain to parents and policymakers how they teach reading skills, or why spelling is not emphasized with beginning learners, or whether research supported what they were doing.

Compounding this miscommunication was the fact that some teachers who embraced whole language may not have had the experience, knowledge, or resources necessary to implement it. In many places, explains Brenda Power, an associate professor of education at the University of Maine in Orono, whole language was taught “loosey-goosey.” Some teachers, she says, thought whole language meant abandoning phonics and putting learning into the hands of children with minimal supervision.

Many advocates argue that whole language has unfairly taken the blame for poor reading achievement. The backlash, contends Kenneth Goodman, a professor emeritus of language and literacy education at the University of Arizona, has come “from letting our enemies define us.” Goodman, often referred to as the father of the movement, says defining whole language as an abandonment of phonics and sensible classroom management amounts to a caricature.

“Whole language has been so misrepresented....People think it’s whole language versus phonics,” says Shelley Harwayne, principal of the Manhattan New School, which has won national recognition for its reading program. “Of course we teach phonics, but that is only one of the ways children learn to read.”

The bad rap is causing many practitioners of whole language to move away from the label, if not the philosophy. Regie Routman, who has championed her own brand of whole language as a teacher and author of whole language books--including Invitations and Transitions--is one of those.

“I consider myself a whole language teacher, and I view my teaching as rigorous,” she says. “One of the reasons I’ve moved away from the label is because people think it means no standards.”

Back-to-basics advocates argue that explicit, systematic phonics instruction is most beneficial to young readers, especially poor and minority students who are considered most at risk. But Harwayne, for one, believes that such lock-step methods aren’t necessary for most children. Five-year-olds will wander up to her door and ask her to review their writing. Students stuff the school’s suggestion box with thoughtfully written recommendations for improving the school, and they rarely sit idly when they can be reading or writing, she says. “They know what reading and writing are for, and they know what it means to get lost in a good book.”

These attitudes and habits come from good instruction, Harwayne insists. In the best whole language classrooms, she and other proponents say, teachers are not merely facilitators. They are skilled in regularly assessing students’ skills and progress and are attentive in selecting strategies for increasing their proficiency. They are knowledgeable about the latest education research and capable of studying what works in their own classrooms. And they are careful to describe for parents and administrators what goes on in their classrooms.

It is apparent to even whole language’s detractors that such practices reap benefits in the classroom. “The best things about whole language are here to stay,” says Marilyn Adams, a professor of education at Harvard University and a prominent reading researcher. “Writing has become a mainstay of the early-literacy classroom; the appreciation of the importance of interesting, good literature; [high-quality] professional development; and the collegiality among teachers took a real turn for the good with whole language.” According to Adams, whole language teachers’ biggest mistake was their strict disavowal of phonics.

At Mapleton Elementary, books dominate the day. Most of the school’s 230 children are proficient readers who tackle challenging material and show understanding of it. They are also prolific writers, spending a chunk of each day composing poetry, drafting stories, and writing about their lives. There are few workbooks. (The district’s reading series is packed away in its box, its lessons used only periodically.) And while skills are an integral part of reading instruction, students learn word-recognition and sounding-out strategies not through phonics drills but in the context of reading.

Teachers appear to incorporate all the positive features of whole language and basic skills instruction. They meet regularly to discuss strategies for helping students read better, share success stories, and review relevant research. They are often sent to workshops and conferences to expand their knowledge and enhance their skills. Assessing progress is a regular task for teachers, who write detailed evaluations throughout the year of students’ strengths, weaknesses, and interests in reading. And listening to parents’ concerns has also paid off. When parents said that proper spelling was important to them, the teachers began to research ways of incorporating more spelling instruction into the curriculum. That effort resulted in a book, Spelling Inquiry: How One Elementary School Caught the Mnemonic Plague , which Stenhouse Publishers in York, Maine, is set to release this spring.

By most accounts, Mapleton’s students-among the poorest in the state, with more than 40 percent qualifying for federal programs for disadvantaged children-are beating the odds. “Every year, I have some students who can’t show me the beginning and end of a book....Or they call letters as numbers,” says Diane Smith, a kindergarten teacher. “But they will crawl around at your feet when you read them stories. They’ve gotten excited about reading.”

--Kathleen Kennedy Manzo