Reading & Literacy

A War of Words: Whole Language Under Siege

By Karen Diegmueller — March 20, 1996 9 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Late on a Sunday afternoon last November, long after most educators had escaped the confines of the convention hotel to drink up the glorious San Diego weather, several dozen teachers remained behind for one final session.

“Why Are You Involved in This Loosey-Goosey Approach to Teaching Reading and Writing?” was billed as a discussion in which panelists would answer the critics of whole language, a meaning-centered philosophy and method of teaching language arts.

In the audience itself, there were few critics, but there were teachers who expressed doubts. “My own faith in this movement has been shattered by people asking the question, ‘Does whole language work, and if so what does it do?”’ confessed one woman.

But such comments did nothing to dissuade the panelists at the annual conference of the National Council of Teachers of English that their way of teaching students to read and write was the right way. If anything, talking about the critics seemed to make them all the more resolute in their beliefs.

“They’re not scaring me into going back into direct teaching,” vowed Jerome C. Harste, a professor of language education at Indiana University in Bloomington.

Scaring, perhaps not. But policymakers across the country are making laws and writing rules that mandate the use of explicit phonics instruction--a “direct” method, in the parlance of pedagogy--to teach beginning readers. It is a situation that has placed the whole-language contingent under siege and worries others in the reading field who fear that the dispute will strip curricular and instructional decisionmaking away from educators.

“This seeming inability of educators to make up their minds has cost them credibility and tarnished their image,” said Barbara J. Fox, a professor of curriculum and instruction at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. “Mom and dad, who have children in school, look at articles in the newspaper and think if the reading people don’t know what they’re doing, maybe somebody else ought to make the decisions.”

Mandating Methodology

Other states and school districts may have practiced whole language, but the educational philosophy and pedagogy first gained widespread acceptance in California, where the state education department incorporated it into its English-language-arts framework in 1987. And the only K-8 textbook series that got the state’s stamp of approval was whole-language based.

But last year, California policymakers did an about-face after the reading scores from the 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that 59 percent of the state’s 4th graders read below the basic level. Only Louisiana scored lower.

Nationwide, 4 percent of 4th graders scored at the top level, and 44 percent scored below basic.

After the NAEP scores were released, a state task force on reading urged that California teachers use a balanced approach to teach reading. (See Education Week, June 14, 1995.)

The legislature quickly followed by unanimously passing what is known as the ABC law. In evaluating instructional materials, it requires state officials to give adequate attention to systematic explicit phonics, spelling, and computational skills. It also requires them to incorporate those skills into the curriculum frameworks when they are revised. Phonics teaches children the connection between letters and sounds.

In Nebraska, what began as a legislative attempt to cap special-education funding ended with the state school board’s adoption of a reading policy last December that urges districts to use a balanced approach.

Elsewhere, though, balance is not necessarily in the equation.

In North Carolina, state Rep. Michael Decker is the sponsor of what he calls his phonics bill, which would require that early intensive, systematic phonics be the primary method of teaching K-3 reading. “What it means is they have to use phonics first, and then if the child fails to read, they may try some other methods,” he said.

Ms. Fox, the university professor, said: “It is not so much the substance of the bill that is discomfiting, but rather the move toward mandating methodology. It is the equivalent of moving instructional decisionmaking out of the school and under the capitol dome.”

Lawmakers in Ohio also had attempted to pass a bill that would have required educators to teach phonics. But the bill did not move forward. What is still pending, though, is legislation requiring teacher education students to take more reading-methodology courses that include intensive, systematic phonics.

“The issue is not phonics or no phonics; it’s one specific method of teaching for all children that we’re objecting to,” said Gay Fawcett, the director of curriculum and instruction for the Summit County Educational Service Center in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. “There is no mandate for math instruction or science instruction. It’s the only thing that our legislature is attempting to mandate.”

A Basics Bonanza

The political activity has been a bonanza to the back-to-basics industry and other phonics proponents.

Last October, for example, a public-relations company mailed out a press packet touting a new study that purportedly found that children taught through the widely advertised “Hooked on Phonics” methodology outperformed students in non-phonics-based classrooms. The release extensively quoted John Shanahan, the founder of the program, and erroneously stated that the California task force had called for a “back-to-basics curriculum.”

The Blumenfeld Education Letter, a Boise, Idaho-based monthly newsletter with a conservative religious orientation, also made political hay of a debate among educators in Massachusetts.

The newsletter published a letter to state officials signed by 40 linguists and psycholinguists from eminent Massachusetts universities contesting some whole-language research claims about reading instruction that had wound up in a draft of the state’s language-arts standards.

Several of the academics later met with state education department officials and ironed out their differences.

“Now [the standards] do emphasize phonics,” said Alan Safran, a department spokesman. “Originally, the committee of teachers who drafted the standards took a whole-language approach.”

Last month, the Education Reporter, a St. Louis-based newsletter of the conservative Eagle Forum Education and Defense Fund, praised Teaching Our Children To Read, a book by Bill Honig, who was the California schools superintendent when literature-based, or whole-language, instruction was adopted.

Although the reviewer notes that Mr. Honig, who is now a professor of education at San Francisco State University, recommends a balanced approach to reading instruction, the writer sloughs off the recommendation as “a skillful way of assuring that semantics do not screen out the meat of his presentation.”

Work of the Devil?

Mr. Honig’s book has made him somewhat of a darling of pro-phonics conservatives. In Texas, where a debate over reading instruction is also brewing, one woman attended a language-arts meeting carrying a Bible in one arm and Mr. Honig’s book in the other.

Such incidents tend to give credence to the whole-language proponents’ claims that religious and political conservatives are a leading force behind the campaign to kill whole language.

“The test scores--that simply is political fodder,” said Kenneth Goodman, a professor of language, reading, and culture at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “I think what you have to look at is the political agenda.” That agenda, Mr. Goodman said, is an attack on public education using whole language as a convenient target.

Whole-language teachers are supposed to teach phonics in context. But whole language is not just a reading and writing pedagogy. It is a philosophy. Its tenets include giving teachers control over what they teach and giving students a wide berth in what they choose to learn. Advocates also believe in teaching children to question what they read and hear.

And that is part of the rub. Constance Weaver and Ellen H. Brinkley, professors at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, have studied the theological conflicts surrounding whole language.

To many conservative Christians, God is the literal author of the Bible. Parents may not want their children making meaning from text because they believe their very souls are at stake if they apply that questioning attitude to Scripture, Ms. Brinkley said at a recent NCTE presentation.

In their minds, Ms. Weaver said, “whole language is the work of the devil.”

At the same time, whole-language boosters believe that reading instruction is an easy scapegoat for the frustrations of people who are uncomfortable with an increasingly ethnically and racially diverse society and an unstable global economy in which workers are readily displaced.

“It fuels an anxiety. Then the politicians get caught up in ‘how do I make this better,”’ said Sharon Murphy, the president of the Whole Language Umbrella, a special-interest group of language-arts educators. “Teaching children how to read becomes a really easy site for people to raise questions.”

To stave off the assault, the whole-language advocates have geared up for a counterattack. Articles in the NCTE English Journal and other professional publications tell teachers how to defend against conservative critics, and the Whole Language Umbrella is meeting in July in St. Paul, Minn., to address the issue.

Not Just Right Wing

Other educators, however, contend that the complaints against a purist approach to whole-language instruction are not coming solely from conservatives.

“You don’t have to be a right-wing ideologue to identify with this,” said Michael Pressley, a professor of educational psychology at the State University of New York at Albany.

“There is no one in this state who has been more involved in the liberal Democratic wing of politics than I,” said Marion Joseph, a former California state school board member and a member of the reading task force, who tried for seven years to get the state to reconsider its frameworks. “This is one place where the right and the left can come together,” Ms. Joseph said.

She said she was introduced to whole language when her grandson’s 1st-grade teacher tried to explain the new reading approach. “I didn’t understand what she was talking about,” Ms. Joseph said.

Her daughter’s family later moved to another California district, and when they asked to see the boy’s next primer the teacher showed them an anthology, Ms. Joseph added. “My daughter said, ‘That’s fine, but he can’t read those words. What do you use to teach him to read the words?’ There was no clear answer.”

Ms. Joseph said she combed the state talking to teachers, parents, and school officials. Most told her the new instructional methods weren’t working. Others, however, labeled her a “phonics nut.”

When she and others tried to get the state education department to make changes, she said some in the department blocked them.

Even now, with all the state action to redirect instruction, Ms. Joseph said she is not confident that change will come quickly.

“I love the whole-language approach,” said Robin Stern Hamby, a special-education consultant and tutor based in Burke, Va. But recently she has had an increase in the number of students with gaps in their reading instruction.

“Sometimes, I get kids who are just clueless. They think everything is trial and error. They have to guess at every word,” Ms. Hamby said. “When I tell them there are rules that govern our language, they are stunned.”


Student Well-Being K-12 Essentials Forum Boosting Student and Staff Mental Health: What Schools Can Do
Join this free virtual event based on recent reporting on student and staff mental health challenges and how schools have responded.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Curriculum Webinar
Practical Methods for Integrating Computer Science into Core Curriculum
Dive into insights on integrating computer science into core curricula with expert tips and practical strategies to empower students at every grade level.
Content provided by

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Reading & Literacy U.S. Parents Think Reading Instruction Is Going OK—Until They See National Test Results
Most parents also seem to favor phonics as an approach to word-reading, a new survey finds.
5 min read
Photo of mother working with young son on his reading.
E+ / Getty
Reading & Literacy Here's What Students Miss Out on When Their Schools Lack Librarians
Some administrators think school librarians are obsolete, but these schools prove otherwise.
6 min read
A quiet, secluded dark library with bookcases on either side and a bright light coming in through a window straight ahead with an empty chair near the window.
Reading & Literacy 'Science of Reading' and English-Learner Advocates Reach Common Ground
Two groups have aimed to find consensus in one contested area of the reading wars.
4 min read
Side view of mixed ethnicity school kids sitting on cushions against bookshelves and reading  books in a library.
iStock/Getty Images Plus
Reading & Literacy New Tool to Evaluate Reading Programs for 'Knowledge-Building'
The guidelines can help measure whether curricula help build kids' content knowledge using text sets, discussion, and embedded writing.
4 min read
Illustration of checklist.
iStock / Getty Images Plus