It has been called a "grassroots revolution''--individual teachers in schools across the country quietly reorganizing their classrooms and changing their teaching methods to reflect an emerging philosophy of how children learn.
Whole language--not to be confused with "whole word''--is often thought of as a way to teach reading. It is frequently discussed as a controversial alternative to the well-entrenched phonetic method of reading instruction. But 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. It's about who controls what goes on in the classroom: whether educational decisions will be made by teachers and students or by administrators, curriculum developers, and the publishers of tests and textbooks.
Specific and succinct definitions of whole language are elusive and the more elaborate descriptions of it often portray it as a "way of life,'' a philosophy. Whole language is child-centered and begins with the strengths and assets the children bring to school. Children have a say in determining what will be studied because whole language advocates believe that children will enjoy learning and will learn better if they perceive that the material has relevance to their lives. They believe that children are eager to learn when they come to school, but lose interest, become bored, and fall behind when their questions, culture, and interests are not part of the school's agenda.
The movement's name comes from its belief that language should be kept whole and uncontrived and that children should use language in ways that relate to their own lives and cultures. The final product--"the answer''--is not as important as the process of learning to define and solve problems. Advocates stress language--listening and speaking, and then writing and reading--because, they argue, it is the foundation of all future learning.
Whole language classrooms eschew basal readers and standardized tests. They emphasize stories and encourage students to tell, read, and write them, to keep daily journals, and to work together on research projects. The teacher is not an authoritarian, but a resource, coach, and colearner who shares power with students.
There are now enough whole language teachers in the United States to constitute a full-fledged national movement with regional conferences and workshops, newsletters, more than 100 support groups, and a massive whole language catalog that contains information on almost every conceivable topic related to the subject.