Whole Language Research Paper Starter

Whole Language

(Research Starters)

This article presents an overview of the concept of Whole Language, a philosophy of language that was a major part of the reading and writing curriculum from the mid-1970's to the mid-1990's. Whole Language resulted from grass-roots efforts on the part of classroom teachers as they moved to determine a more productive and useful model for teaching reading. For exponents of this way of learning and teaching, the whole of Whole Language has two key meanings. The first meaning defines it as “undivided”; the second meaning defines it as “unified and integrated,” (Bird, 2011). In Whole Language, students are actively involved in the decision-making use of language. In other words, Whole Language is based on teaching strategies and skills that are determined by the needs of the child, a belief that learning is a collaborative experience based upon the interests and engagement of children as individuals (Costello, 2012). Teaching and evaluation strategies common to Whole Language include use of authentic literature, invented spelling, miscue analysis, process writing, and read-alouds.

Keywords Authentic Literature; Balanced Instruction; Basal Reader; Invented Spelling; Language Development; Miscue Analysis; Phonics; Phonemes; Process Writing; Read-Alouds


Whole Language can be defined as a grass-roots movement promoted between the years 1975 and 1995 by classroom teachers to shift reading and writing instruction to include making meaning out of texts. Bette Bergeron (1990) defines whole language as a concept that embodies a philosophy of language development that espouses instructional approaches and includes the use of real literature and authentic writing experiences. These meaningful, functional and cooperative experiences develop student motivation and interest in literacy development. Central to Whole Language is a holistic reading and writing curriculum that uses authentic literature to place learners in control of what they read and write.

This movement developed as a result of teachers who were disillusioned by requirements to produce behavioral objectives, use what they perceived as boring textbooks, teach mastery learning, and use narrow curricula in the course of reading instruction. The Whole Language framework represents a major shift in thinking about the reading process, in which readers view reading as a process of creating meanings. The research base behind this philosophy is broad, and includes linguistics, psycholinguistics, sociology, and anthropology, among others. Kenneth Goodman (1989), a leader in the philosophy behind Whole Language, asserts that the major premise of this philosophy is that language can best be learned through authentic learning experiences that have meaning for the learner, as opposed to separating language into its component parts as is common in direct instruction. This philosophy of learning is based on the fundamental assumptions that language is social and that readers construct meaning as they relate new information to prior language.

Teachers who are in support of Whole Language hold common beliefs that language is a social process, where reading and writing occur in a social context, as exemplified by John Dewey's (1963) "progressivist" education and in Lev Vygotsky's (1978) ideas about the Zone of Proximal Development. Both of these philosophers stress the importance of collaboration; as part of a learning community in Whole Language, students learn, do, and think while working with other students. Whole Language roots came out of the Progressive Education movement of the late 1800's to the early 1930's. Progressive education supported experiential education, where children tried out ideas and learned from their results. Curricular choices were primarily the result of direct experience.

In the late 1960's, educators Ken Goodman and Frank Smith stated that the cause of most reading failures was the result of an insufficient emphasis on reading real books for real purposes. They supported the focus away from basal readers, phonics workbooks, and spelling programs to the use of authentic children's literature to promote reading. The major elements of Whole Language are founded on the theory that children and adults use similar strategies to read and spell, that children process print and comprehend it just like adults. In effect, children are imitating adult reading behaviors. Through ideas that children learn to read as naturally as they learn to speak, Whole Language teachers support this theory in their classrooms by modeling adult reading. They model reading by offering ample time for independent silent reading in the company of other readers, read aloud and point to print in big books, and focus on reader choice of materials.

Another tenet of Whole Language is that learning to read and spell is just like learning to talk. Proponents of this movement see language as naturally acquired, that children acquiring language focus on meaning, not structural form. They will acquire meaning in language if exposed to meaning-making activities. Whole Language proponents assert that phoneme awareness, phonics, spelling, punctuation and other skills of written language are learned naturally through exposure to authentic experiences.

Teaching writing within Whole Language includes composing a variety of writing for real audiences of the student's choosing. A process approach to writing is promoted and includes the stages of prewriting, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing. Students confer with their peers and the teacher throughout the process.

Direct teaching of phonics and spelling is not promoted by Whole Language, although they may be taught unobtrusively. Direct teaching of phonics can be seen as a distraction, an interference that can prevent real reading and thinking creatively about authentic texts to occur. Instead, children read authentic texts by real authors and the children respond to their reading both orally and in writing in a variety of ways. Within Whole Language, children begin to construct their own insights into the literacy process. Children discover the concepts of reading and writing, promoting higher order thinking. They are not taught words out of context, but recognize words through the context.

The Whole Language movement was supported at the time by the International Reading Association (IRA) and the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). The precursors of Whole Language are John Dewey, Caroline Pratt, Lucy Sprague Mitchell, Susan Isaacs, and George S. Counts. The California Language Arts Frameworks of 1987 were influential in driving publishers of basal readers away from the traditional basal programs that included direct teaching of phonemic awareness, spelling, phonics, grammar, handwriting, and other literacy skills. Publishers began moving toward the use of authentic children's literature that promoted predictable and repetitive text that children could memorize.

In the mid-1990's, the phonics versus Whole Language debate began to escalate when reading scores declined in many states. Proponents of phonics instruction blamed the decline on Whole Language. One of the first states to take action in a movement toward direct reading instruction was California. In 1995, the California Department of Education Reading Task Force declared "Every Child a Reader" and blamed lower test scores on the shift away from direct skills instruction. As a result, the Task Force recommended a more balanced and comprehensive approach to reading instruction.

Slowly, direct phonics instruction reappeared in the curriculum of many states as a result of steps taken through legislative bills or state departments of education. James Bauman, James Hoffman, Jennifer Moon and Ann Duffy-Hester (1998) even noted a bill that passed in Ohio that "required all pre-service elementary teachers to take and pass a phonics instruction course" (p. 638).

The perception that Whole Language is not a rigorous enough means for instructing students in reading has prevailed since the mid-1990's. The result of this perception has been a shift in reading instruction to a more balanced or eclectic approach to the teaching of reading and writing. Balanced instruction takes the best elements of Whole Language and includes phonics instruction.

Organizations that still support Whole Language are the “Whole Language Umbrella” (WLU) and “Teachers Applying Whole Language” (TAWL).


Typical Classroom Setting

The Whole Language classroom is not set up in the traditional fashion of student desks all in a row, with the teacher's desk at the front of the classroom. Instead, desks are clustered so that students can be involved in individualized, self-directed and small group learning. There is generally a library corner in the classroom where there are book shelves filled with books of different genres. Students sit in a comfortable reading area. Word walls are arranged on the walls, making high-frequency words easily accessible when students write. Students gather on a rug on the floor in front of the classroom for daily reading of big books and presentation of mini-lessons.

Writing Activities

In Whole Language classrooms, students are invited to write about whatever they find interesting. Topics are not assigned and students are encouraged to spell words as they think they should be spelled. Students use journals to write about personally meaningful events. They share these journals with other classmates, the teacher, and parents. Correct form is not a focus of writing in the Whole Language classroom; of greater interest to these open-ended writing activities is the student's decision-making process within the specific context. Language users are bringing all their prior knowledge to each piece of writing. Whole Language teachers respond to all writing, so that students know that what they write is perceived as valuable.

Using Classic Children's Literature

Use of basal readers is discouraged in the Whole Language classroom. In basal readers, vocabulary and syntax are tightly controlled and simplified so that children can read them. Whole Language teachers consider that meaning underlies all development in reading and, therefore, promote the reading of authentic children's literature. By providing a reading experience supported by authentic texts, the Whole Language teacher is promoting a rich reading experience that exemplifies language in action. Students recognize print as being meaningful, as they enjoy the stories, retain information provided from the content, and follow plot and character development. In addition, reading books can help children to develop literate voices, and thinking and responses from children after reading books show the importance of different ways children approach literary texts (Galda, 2013).

Books must be meaningful and rewarding, and become texts that can be read over and over again by readers. Students must also be able to identify with the message of the book. Margaret Mooney (1988) suggests that teachers should select materials for classroom libraries and read-alouds, based on three levels of beginning readers - emergent (books that are predictable, repetitive and rhyming and that have illustrations that support the message); early levels (books that offer less support from illustrations, as children begin to develop sight vocabulary and reading skills and strategies); and, fluency (books that are chosen because they are progressively more difficult texts and have less supportive illustrations, as children build on previous skills and increase their vocabulary).

Reading in Class

Big books are read aloud daily. These books are predictable in...

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