Whole language in sheep’s clothing

In a Fordham report, Whole-Language High Jinks, reading expert Louisa Moats warns that ineffective whole-language reading programs with names like “balanced literacy” are trying to grab funding intended for programs that have been proven far more effective. New York City, Denver and Salt Lake City have been misled by programs that are whole language in disguise, Moats writes. Warning signs include:

* Use of memorization and contextual guessing, instead of direct, systematic teaching for word recognition and actual comprehension;
* Rejection of explicit phonics, spelling, or grammar instruction;
* Application of the whole-language principles for English language learners.

She suggests asking some questions about reading programs that claim to be scientifically based:

* Have valid screening measures in place to identify children at risk and provide them with early/extra instruction in word recognition, comprehension, and writing skills?
* Interweave multiple language components (such as speech sounds, word structure, word meaning, and sentence structure) together in the same lesson?
* Support reading comprehension by focusing on a deep understanding of topics and themes rather than developing a set of shortcut strategies?

About 40 percent of children are “at risk of reading failure,” Moats estimates. Taught well, they’ll learn to read. Taught poorly, they may never catch up.

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  1. wayne martin says:

    With reading being so central to success in life, it would seem that removing unproductive reading methods would be central to educators. With state testing now real, it would seem that someone would attempt to determine if a relationship exists between districts with low reading performance and whole language as the reading methodology.

    A fellow by the name of Ken Goodman seems to be responsible for a lot of the work that has led to the “whole language” becoming a part of the landscape of reading instruction:


    Whole language proponents cite Kenneth Goodman’s 1967 paper (“Reading: A psycholinguistic guessing game”) as one of the first in their canon–the paper that fostered the whole language movement, or revolution (Goodman, 1976) and continues to guide and legitimize whole language activities (Pappas & Pettegrew, 1998). Goodman clearly saw the paper the same way–as offering “a more viable scientific alternative” to what he dubbed “pre-existing, naive, common sense notions” about reading that “interfere with the application of modern scientific concepts of language and thought to research on reading” (Goodman, 1967, p. 126). Let us take Goodman at his word. Let us examine his “more viable scientific alternative” to see how he crafted a new foundation for reading research and instruction; to determine whether it satisfies the criteria for a viable or even scientific alternative; and to understand better how his ideas were so easily accepted and spawned the whole language movement.

    Certainly the US.DoE would be a likely candidate to use its financial resources to determine the success, or failures, that can be attributed to “whole language”. With 40-60 percent of US students reading below grade, getting rid of unsuccessful reading techniques would seem central to moving public education forward.

  2. Peter Coghill says:

    I am a five year trained Australian high school English teacher and ESL teacher with over 25 years experience. I have been an ESL teacher at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University where theories like Autonomous
    Learning of English ( and this for one of the most teacher dependent
    education cultures) caused, in my view a waste of time to students and of tax payers’ money: a Think Tank at an Australian rural out back school for so called unruly students ( students were removed from the classroom and made to sit in a bare room, no clock, no materials) which also defied common sense and failed spectacularly: the famous Cuisonairre (forgive me if my spelling of this obscure French theorist is incorrect) Rods in my own middle school class, which baffelled the staff and was later scrapped in favour of standard maths lessons: Task Based Language Learning ( this little gem from David Nunan)while I was an assistant professor at Andong National University in South Korea where nobody in the staff where quite sure what tasks where these super “task based” tasks what tasks where, well, generally sensible but
    not on the exciting cutting edge in the behaviourists’ grab bag.

    I have taught just about every type of English from Literature in high schools to business English as a visiting lecturer
    in Macau. Australia, HK , Macau, South Korea and for the past five years, Japan where I teach all ages from 5 to 65 at a private English
    school. I guess I have seen it all; hot new theories, buzz words
    with little substance behind their gloss( remember ‘access’in the ’80s? We didn’t simply read a book, we accessed it) and careerist academics with very little responsibility to students but always, always ready with the next hot new theory which they push shamelessly on departments and schools. If I were a school principal interviewing a prospective new teacher with an MA I would politely tell them to look elsewhere.Teaching is not a science, nor is any of the so called education “research” based on anything but personal opinion and very often sub standard reasoning. et tu Whole Language Approach.

    Peter Coghill BA., Dip Ed., Wollongong Univ. Australia
    Dip TESL., Darwin Inst Of Technology Australia
    New South Wales Teachers’ Cert., NSW Dept.Of Ed.