Reading & Literacy

Whole-Language Model Survives Despite Swing Back to Basics

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — March 17, 1999 10 min read
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Amid the snow-soaked boots that line the hallway of Mapleton Elementary School, 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.

And, in a 1st grade classroom, a dozen children don masks to act out a popular children’s story, while classmates, eager to answer their teacher’s questions about the book’s characters and ideas, wave their arms in the air.

“Books fly around this school,” Gail Gibson, the principal and a teacher, said in describing the enthusiasm both students and teachers here at Mapleton Elementary have for reading.

While the “whole language” approach is often blamed for youngsters’ reading struggles, Ms. Gibson and her colleagues say its principles, which define reading instruction here, have spelled success for their students.

In this rural enclave, surrounded by struggling potato farms, failing timber mills, and an abandoned military base in Maine’s isolated northern inland, books dominate the school day. Most of the 230 children at the school are proficient readers who regularly tackle challenging material and show their understanding of it. They are also prolific writers, spending a large chunk of each school day composing poetry, drafting stories, and writing about their lives. Students here also perform better on state tests than many of their peers in the state’s wealthiest districts.

Defining Strategies

While most experts are now calling for teachers to use a balance of methods in teaching children to read, a debate is still under way between those who believe that early exposure to literature should be the basis of reading instruction and others who say that children first need to learn skills that help them decode print.

  • Literature-based: Often referred to as whole language, this method immerses children in a variety of literary activities, including reading books and writing stories. Comprehension takes priority over technical skills such as spelling. Students learn phonics, or sounding-out, skills in the context of reading children’s literature.
  • Skills-based: In this method, phonics skills are taught explicitly. Children learn to master the sounds and letter-blends that make up words through drills and corresponding basal readers before shifting their focus to children’s literature and comprehension.

Mapleton Elementary is one of many schools in Maine that subscribe to the whole-language philosophy. There are few workbooks. The reading series the district purchased is packed away neatly in its box, its lessons used only periodically. 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.

While Maine’s isolation and rugged individualism have so far created an effective buffer from the back-to-basics movement that is spreading across the country, schools here are not alone in their stubborn embrace of whole-language principles. Despite claims to the contrary, whole language, while maimed, is surviving--even thriving, in some places.

“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,” said Gerald R. Oglan, the 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--or TAWL--groups are members of the NCTE conference, according to Mr. Oglan, and some have been in existence for 20 years or more.

In classrooms from New York to North Carolina, and from Arizona to California, the beliefs about learning that have shaped the whole-language movement persist, despite aggressive efforts by state legislatures and state and local school boards to supplant literature-based method (“More States Moving To Make Phonics the Law,” April 29, 1998.)

Inadequate Implementation

Regardless of any successes claimed by whole-language advocates, they cannot deny the damage suffered since the movement took hold in the 1980s.

“We are on the defensive,” Mr. Oglan said, “and we’re still trying to regroup.”

Supporters of whole language are having to defend their approach because of declining test scores that critics link to the philosophy and the failure of many teachers to explain exactly how it translates into classroom practice. Teachers who embraced whole language, but may not have had the experience, knowledge, or resources necessary to implement it, 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. Where phonics was included in instruction, critics contend, it was not taught as explicitly as research suggests it should be.

“Whole language has gotten a bad rap in a lot of respects,” and has unfairly taken the blame for poor reading achievement, said Brenda Power, an associate professor of education at the University of Maine in Orono who has helped train many teachers in improving literature-based instruction.

“But it also had a lot of problems,” she acknowledged. “In many places, it was too loosey-goosey.”

By that, Ms. Power explained, some teachers thought whole language meant abandoning phonics and putting learning into the hands of children with minimal supervision.

But the backlash has come primarily “from letting our enemies define us,” contends Kenneth S. Goodman, a professor emeritus of language and literacy education at the University of Arizona, who is often referred to as the father of whole language.

Defining whole language as an abandonment of phonics and sensible classroom management presents a caricature of the whole-language classroom, he and advocates say.

“I consider myself a whole-language teacher, and I view my teaching as rigorous,” said Regie Routman, who has championed her own brand of whole language as a teacher and author of whole-language books--including Invitations and Transitions--that have proved enormously popular among teachers.

But even Ms. Routman, along with teachers from Mapleton Elementary School and elsewhere, has started to distance herself from the label, if not from the philosophy. “One of the reasons I’ve moved away from the label is because people think it means no standards,” Ms. Routman said.

Helping the At-Risk

For some educators, whole language has meant just the opposite. At the Manhattan New School in New York City, more than 90 percent of the 500 students--many of them immigrants and more than half of whom do not have English as their first language--are proficient in reading, as indicated by standardized achievement tests.

The Dewey Educational Center, in the center of a blighted neighborhood in Detroit, was slated for closing before administrators refocused instruction around whole language several years ago. It now attracts students from around the city. Though it has a long way to go to become a model urban school, test scores in reading and other subjects have improved significantly.

And at Borton Primary Magnet School, which serves neighborhood children and others in Tucson, Ariz., parents of the 230 students continue to choose to send their children to the whole-language school rather than those with more-traditional programs.

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

Critics, however, argue that phonics instruction, when taught in an explicit, systematic way, is most beneficial to young readers, especially poor and minority students who are considered most at risk of having difficulty.

Ms. Harwayne points to her students as proof that 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 said.

“They know what reading and writing are for,” she continued, “and they know what it means to get lost in a good book.”

All this, Ms. Harwayne says, comes from good instruction. 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 charges’ 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.

Even detractors of whole language agree that such practices have reaped benefits in the classroom.

“The best things about whole language are here to stay,” said Marilyn J. 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.”

What was a grave mistake, in Ms. Adams’ opinion, was the strict disavowal of phonics by many whole-language teachers.

High Scores

Teachers here at Mapleton Elementary seem to have incorporated all those positive features. They meet regularly to discuss strategies for helping students read better, share success stories, and review relevant research. Teachers are often sent to workshops and conferences to expand their knowledge and enhance their skills.

Assessing progress is also a regular task for teachers, who write detailed evaluations of students’ strengths, weaknesses, and interests in reading throughout the year.

When parents told them 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, based 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,” said Diane Smith, a kindergarten teacher. “But they will crawl around at your feet when you read them stories. They’ve gotten excited about reading.”

On the Maine Educational Assessments, given to 4th, 8th, and 11th graders in reading, mathematics, and other subjects, Mapleton Elementary students have consistently surpassed state averages. Only 6 percent of Mapleton’s 4th graders failed to read at the “basic” level, while nearly half demonstrated advanced skills on last year’s state test, which gauges reading comprehension. The school’s score of 370 on the test, based on a 500-point scale, eclipsed the state average by 85 points.

And with the release two weeks ago of the latest state reading results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Maine again proved to be one of the top performers, as it has since 1992.

An impressive record, perhaps, but Maine has some advantages over many other states, observers say. With a homogeneous population--98 percent white--teachers here have little experience with children whose first language is not English. But Maine education officials say that poverty in many parts of the state poses its own challenges.

At Mapleton Elementary School, teachers have tried to meet those challenges head on.

“We have an eclectic reading program,” Principal Gibson said, “and teachers will do whatever meets the needs of these kids.”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 17, 1999 edition of Education Week as Whole-Language Model Survives Despite Swing Back to Basics


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