On the nature of
whole language education
. . . . Whole language is not a program, package, set
of materials, method, practice, or technique; rather, it is a perspective
on language and learning that leads to the acceptance of certain
strategies, methods, materials, and techniques.Dorothy Watson, 1989
Whole language is a perspective on education, a philosophy of education,
a belief system about education. It is an educational theory grounded in
research and practice, and practice grounded in theory and research (to
paraphrase Harste, 1989). This perspective or educational theory derives
from several kinds of research: research demonstrating the psycholinguistic
and social nature of the reading process, research demonstrating how children
acquire language and how learning to read and write is similar to learning
the basic structures of the language as children learn to talk; and research
on how humans learn concepts and ideas. In fact, one way of characterizing
whole language is to say that it is a "constructivist" view of
learning, with particular emphasis on the development of literacy. Derived
from research in cognitive psychology, constructivism asserts that human
beings develop concepts through their own intellectual interactions with
and actions upon their world. Learners and learning are not passive, but
active. Forming concepts about language-oral or written-is easier when
learners are presented with whole, natural language, not unnatural language
patterns like "Nan can fan Dan," not the vastly simplified language
of some primers in basal reading programs, and not the bits and pieces
of language found in many workbook exercises and skills programs. Hence
the term "whole language."
History, in brief
In the United States, the advent of whole language is often traced to
the mid-to-late 1970s, when Kenneth Goodman and others' insights into reading
as a psycholinguistic process gained increasing recognition, Yetta Goodman's
interest in the development of literacy merged with related lines of research,
and Dorothy Watson started a teacher support group called Teachers Applying
Whole Language (TAWL). Of course, whole language has roots that are historically
deeper and intellectually and geographically broader (K. Goodman, 1992;
Edelsky, Altwerger, & Flores, 1991; Y. Goodman, 1989; K. Goodman, 1989;
Watson, 1989; K. Goodman & Y. Goodman, 1979). But what we think of
today as a whole language theory of learning and teaching did not become
widely known in the United States until the late 1980s, or even the early
1990s. In Canada, other leaders emerged during approximately this same
time period, among them Judith Newman and David Doake. In New Zealand and
Australia, where whole language is known as "natural" learning,
the best-known researchers and theoreticians are Don Holdaway and Brian
Some key characteristics of whole language education
- Acceptance of learners. This means, in part, that all learners
are accepted regardless of their cultural or socio-economic background
or other characteristics or labels. But in whole language classrooms, "acceptance
of learners" also means that whole language teachers develop the classroom
environment and the curriculum for and with the students, to meet their
needs and engage them in learning about what interests them, as well as
to cover essentials from the curriculum guidelines.
- Flexibility within structure. Instead of having children do
one brief activity or worksheet after another, whole language teachers
organize the day in larger blocks of time, so that children can engage
in meaningful pursuits. Thus they engage in fewer different tasks, but
larger and more satisfying projects. They may have a readers' and writers'
workshop, for instance, when the children read books and perhaps use them
as models for their own writing. They may study a theme or topic at least
part of the day for several days or weeks, using oral and written language
and research skills to pursue learning in the realm of social studies and/or
science and math, and using language and the arts to demonstrate and share
what they have learned. Together and individually, the students have many
choices as to what they will do and learn, which enables them to take
significant responsibility for their learning. However, the teacher
guides, supports, and structures the children's learning as needed. Flexibility
within the larger time blocks offers the time that learners need
(especially the less proficient) in order to accomplish something meaningful
- Supportive classroom community. Many whole language teachers
help children develop skills for interacting with each other, solving interpersonal
conflicts and problems, supporting one another in learning, and taking
substantial responsibility for their own behavior and learning.
- Expectations for success as they engage in "real" reading,
writing, and learning. Kids aren't kept doing "readiness"
activities, in preparation for later reading and writing; rather, they
are given the support they need to read and write whole texts from the
very beginning. Whole language teachers have discovered that virtually
all children can learn to read and write whole texts. This is true
also of children who have heretofore been sent to resource rooms because
they had difficulty with skills work. Indeed, reading whole texts is often
easier for these children than doing the skills work.
- Skills taught in context. Instead of being taught in isolation,
skills are taught through minilessons and conferences, in the context of
students' reading, writing, and learning. For example: phonics is taught
mainly through discussion and activities deriving from texts the children
have read and reread with the teacher, and through writing the sounds they
hear in words. Spelling is mainly taught when children are editing their
writing, and grammar is mainly taught as the teacher helps children revise
and edit what they've written. Skills like using the index of a book are
taught when students need to locate information on a topic they want to
research, while using the yellow pages of a phone book is taught when children
need to locate resources within the community. In short, skills are taught
while students are engaged in real-life tasks.
- Teacher support for learning: scaffolding and collaboration.
Teachers provide "scaffolding" for learning in many ways. For
instance, primary grade teachers read Big Books and charts to and with
children again and again, enabling the children to read whole texts before
they can read independently. Whole language teachers help children write
the sounds they hear in words, thus enabling the children to communicate
through writing. They collaborate with children in carrying out research
projects and, in the process, they model and explain how to do things that
the children could not yet do alone. By collaborating on projects, children
provide similar support for each other.
- Contextualized assessment that emphasizes individuals' growth as
well as their accomplishments. Assessment is based primarily upon what
children are doing from day to day as they read, write, do math and science,
research topics of interest, and express their learning in various ways.
Comprehensive, "portfolio" assessment will include data not only
on the products of children's efforts, but on their learning processes.
Whole language teachers commonly involve children in assessing their own
work and progress, and in setting future goals for learning. Parents and
peers may also be involved in assessment. Individual growth and strengths
are emphasized, along with progress in meeting agreed-upon goals and predetermined
REFERENCES AND RESOURCES
Edelsky, C., Altwerger, B., & Flores, B. (1991). Whole
language: What's the difference? Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Goodman, K. S. (1989). Whole language research: Foundations
and development. The Elementary School Journal, 90, 208-221.
Goodman, K. S. (1992). I didn't found whole language.
The Reading Teacher, 46, 188-199.
Goodman, K. S., & Goodman, Y. M. (1979). Learning
to read is natural. In L. B. Resnick & P. A. Weaver (Eds.), Theory
and practice of early reading, Vol. 1 (pp. 137-154). Hillsdale, NJ:
Goodman, Y. M. (1989). Roots of the whole-language movement.
The Elementary School Journal, 90, 113-127.
Harste, J. C. (1989). New policy guidelines for reading:
Connecting research and practice. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers
Watson, D. (1989). Defining and describing whole language.
The Elementary School Journal, 90, 130-141.
Weaver, C. (1990). Understanding
whole language: From principles to practice. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Prepared for the Michigan English Language Arts Framework project and
© 1995 by Constance
Weaver. In C. Weaver, L. Gillmeister-Krause, & G. Vento-Zogby,
Creating Support for Effective Literacy Education
(Heinemann, 1996). May be copied.
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