Whole language is one of the most talked about developments in literacy instruction in the past several decades. In this episode of A Novel Idea, we take a look at the history and founders of this popular teaching philosophy and examine its effects on contemporary instruction. Featuring insight from:
Episode transcript and sources
A Novel Idea website:
Phyllis Hunter: Many people ask: “Why is research necessary in the teaching of reading? Why can't teachers just rely on their intuition and teach shooting from the hip? Just, get in front of the classroom, do what you think, or you feel, is the right thing?” Well, the reason why teachers need research is because: Which children should we allow not to have the best practices? Which children do we just experiment on? Certainly you wouldn't want them to experiment on your children. I don't want them to experiment on mine. I want them to use things that they know works. That means they have to depend on research.
This is Phyllis C. Hunter, an internationally recognized teacher and school administrator who also served as an education advisor to President George W. Bush.
Phyllis Hunter: We know how to teach children to read in this country. We have the research to support replicable methods. We want teachers to use it, and they use it in the best schools. I'm in and out of schools and classrooms a lot, and I see and view the teaching of reading quite a bit in my role as consultant for statewide reading initiatives. I can tell you that the good teachers are using research. (Reading Rockets, 2008b)
In this same interview, which was conducted by Reading Rockets in 2008, Hunter described reading as “the new civil right” and stressed the importance of evidence-based, explicit and systematic instruction for all early readers.
However, in the 1960s and ‘70s, while literacy researchers like Dr. Jeanne Chall and Dr. Isabelle Liberman were advocating for the kind of instruction Hunter would later describe, other members of the education community were driving the field in an entirely different direction. They often endorsed the kind of “shooting from the hip” way of teaching Hunter is referencing, expecting teachers to intuit the best teaching practices with no support from scientific evidence. They had a name for this method. You may have heard of it. They called it “whole language.”
From the Iowa Reading Research Center, I’m Meg Mechelke, and this is A Novel Idea. In this episode, we’re going to take a closer look at one of the most controversial topics in literacy instruction today. Together, we’ll break down what whole language is and where it came from, while also attempting to unpack why its use has been such a hot-button issue for decades of educators and literacy experts alike.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines whole language as “a method of teaching reading and writing that emphasizes learning whole words and phrases by encountering them in meaningful contexts rather than by phonics exercises.” One of the most recognizable approaches backed by whole language is something called “the three cueing system.”
APM Reports Senior Producer and Correspondent Emily Hanford has done extensive reporting on the three-cueing system and the effects it has had on American students. This is an approach to literacy learning that was developed in the 1960s by former University of Arizona College of Education Professor Dr. Kenneth Goodman and Canadian psycholinguist Dr. Frank Smith. Its influences are still present in many classrooms today.
In the three-cueing system, students are encouraged to use semantic, syntactic, and grapho-phonic cues to determine unfamiliar words in a sentence. Let’s break down what exactly that means. First, students are asked to use their semantic or meaning-based knowledge to come up with a word that makes sense in the context of the sentence. Alternatively, students might be encouraged to use a text’s illustrations to figure out the meaning of the unfamiliar word. Next, students can use syntactic or structural cues to determine whether their guess is correct. They might be encouraged to read the sentence out loud to see if the word they’ve guessed “sounds right.” As a last resort, three-cueing students can look at the first letter of a word or a word’s length to see if those cues match the word they have come up with. However, even when using these grapho-phonic cues, students are typically still not encouraged to directly decode unfamiliar words.
Yetta Goodman: Are you going to help me with some work we have to do today?
Yetta Goodman: Okay.
This is Dr. Yetta Goodman. She is a University of Arizona College of Education Professor Emerita, wife of Kenneth Goodman, and a well-known whole language advocate in her own right.
Yetta Goodman: I’m going to flip over all these things over here, and then I want you to tell me everything that you see, okay? Or tell me everything about what you see. Okay?
Yetta Goodman: What can you tell me now?
In this video, produced by Indiana University in 1979, Goodman is showing young children a series of brand labels pulled from common household items.
Student: What? This?
Yetta Goodman: Yeah, what do you see?
In this segment, a young boy is looking at the label from a Coca-Cola bottle.
Student: A cocoa thing.
Yetta Goodman: A what? What is that? Tell me what you said, that's fine.
Student: A cocoa thing.
Yetta Goodman: Okay, does it… How do you know?
Yetta Goodman: Because why?
Student: I seen a cocoa thing that has that on it.
Yetta Goodman: Okay. Does it say “cocoa thing” on there?
Student: No, it says…
Yetta Goodman: What does it say?
Notice how the child starts to try and sound the word out. He looked at the “c” in Coca-Cola and made the /s/ sound. If Goodman had told him that the letter “c” can also make a hard /k/ sound, he might have been able to successfully decode the word. Instead, he shrugs and gives up.
Yetta Goodman: You’re not sure?
Student: I dunno.
Yetta Goodman: Okay, let’s go on to the next one, all right? (Flurkey, 2015)
Basically, students taught the three-cueing system are encouraged to guess words, rather than decode them. In fact, Kenneth Goodman himself has described reading as nothing more than a guessing game.
Kenneth Goodman: I said that reading is a psycholinguistic guessing game, and I was using that kind of as a metaphor when I started out, but it’s not a metaphor. It’s true. (Liwanag, 2014)
That was Goodman in a keynote address he gave in 2014 at the United Kingdom Literacy Association Conference. He then suggested that this idea of reading as guessing is supported by brain research, even though several reputable scientific studies have said otherwise.
Natalie Wexler: Their theory was that reading was, as Ken Goodman put it, a “psycholinguistic guessing game.” And they theorized, and they had no experimental evidence or data to base this on, but that expert readers, good readers, that that's what they're doing. They're guessing at words.
That’s author and education correspondent Natalie Wexler, talking about the foundations of the early whole language movement.
Natalie Wexler: You can kind of see why they might come to that conclusion because it feels like that's what we're doing. We're not conscious, as expert readers, of sounding out unfamiliar words, but in fact that is, as science has now determined, that is what expert readers do.
Today, there is a significant amount of empirical evidence that supports what Wexler is suggesting: that true “guessing” is not a strategy used by proficient readers.
Kate Will: So, there's evidence that people make predictions when they read, but these predictions aren't guesses.
That’s Kate Will, a colleague of mine at the Iowa Reading Research Center who has a master’s degree in linguistics.
Kate Will: They're based on extensive knowledge that we have about phonology, or the way words sound; orthography, or the way things are written; semantics, or knowledge of the meaning of words; syntax, or knowledge about sentence structure or how words can and can't combine in a language; and morphology, or knowledge of word parts. So, all this knowledge is connected, and it allows us to make predictions as we read. But we first have to build that knowledge and those connections.
What Will told me is echoed by many experts across the fields of education and linguistics. However, the idea that reading involves guessing at unknown words is a foundation of Goodman’s three-cueing system.
The three-cueing approach first emerged from a study in which Kenneth Goodman and others attempted to prove that students learned words better in context than in isolation. Students were asked, first, to attempt to read a list of words and, then, were asked to read those same words in the context of a story. Though the students were more successful when reading the story, these results have been criticized by many modern researchers. They say the study did not control for differences in reading ability between students, among many other variables. In fact, the study has been repeated several times by other researchers, who have since discovered that stronger readers actually tend to rely less on context clues than their struggling peers when this study is administered. Many other foundational whole language studies have also been difficult to replicate and notably open to influence from uncontrolled variables. Furthermore, Goodman himself has often attempted to distance whole language from the entire field of reading research. His writing often suggests that the anecdotal experience gained by teachers in the field outweighs research done by experts in controlled settings. In a 1989 article in the Elementary School Journal, Goodman describes the foundations and development of the whole language movement, writing:
“The differences in whole language classrooms come about because teachers are not relying on gurus and experts to tell them what to do. They make their own decisions and build their own implementations based on their own understandings.” (Goodman, 1989)
The relationship between practicing teachers and educational researchers, referred to by Goodman as “gurus,” can be a complicated one. It goes without saying that the expertise individual teachers bring to the classroom is invaluable to the success of their students. In-service educators are uniquely situated to understand and address the specific needs of their students in a way that researchers alone cannot. However, this does not eliminate the importance of reputable scientific evidence when it comes to teaching the foundational elements of reading and writing. Really, the idea that research and educator autonomy are mutually exclusive is a bit of a fallacy. Researchers and the evidence-based guidance they produce do not override the importance of teachers and their years of experience. Rather, these are hugely beneficial resources that can support educators in their quest to do what’s right for their students.
Today, if you do a review of the research and the informed opinions of literacy experts, you’ll find that most of them agree that the three-cueing system is fundamentally flawed. In 1981, a group of researchers estimated that even highly proficient readers could only guess one in four words through context clues alone. Further research into eye movement and brain imaging has shown that skilled readers do in fact process every letter of the printed word, quickly and automatically, and that skilled readers process the spelling and pronunciation of a word before they understand the meaning, even though they may do this unconsciously. In the words of influential education and cognitive researcher Dr. Marilyn Jager Adams:
“Words, as it turns out, are the raw data of text, for it is the words of a text that signal the concepts and relationships from which the meaning must be built. Research has shown that for skillful readers, and regardless of the difficulty of the text, the basic dynamic of reading is line by line, left-to-right, and word by word. [...] What enables this remarkably swift and efficient capacity to recognize words is the skillful reader's detailed and automatized knowledge of their spellings and spelling-speech correspondence.” (Adams, 1998)
However, the three-cueing system and other whole language methodologies that rely heavily on guessing still remain popular in schools across the United States.
The question is: why do these ideals have such a strong hold on the American education system?
Well, as we’ve seen, many of the ideas of whole language were not new to the 1970s. For example, the three-cueing system is not all that different from the look-say method of literacy instruction that dominated the 1900s. Additionally, like advocates of whole-word instruction, the Goodmans believed that words should be read as ideograms, or unified symbols. They also emphasized the old idea that the purpose of reading was only to make meaning. In other words, as long as meaning could be drawn from the text, a student was reading successfully, regardless of how that meaning was derived.
Because of this, the Goodmans, along with their collaborator Frank Smith, believed that decoding instruction was relatively useless in the process of teaching children how to read.
In 1990, Kenneth Goodman co-wrote an article that claimed that “focus on the subsystems of language results in useless, time-wasting, and confusing instruction.” In 1992, Smith described the rules of phonics as “too complex and unreliable to be useful.”
I asked Will of the Iowa Reading Research Center what she thought of the whole language argument that words should be read as unified symbols rather than broken into smaller parts, making decoding instruction largely unnecessary.
Kate Will: I think that it's true that once we have the phonological, orthographic, semantic, syntactic, and morphological knowledge of a word, and we've been exposed to that word many times in varied contexts, then we do start to process it automatically as a full unit. We don't have to decode it as though we are encountering it for the first time at that point, but that isn't the case when we're still learning a word. Learning to read has different stages, and the different stages may require different instructional methods. So just because a proficient reader can recognize a familiar word on sight doesn't mean that we can expect an emergent reader to approach unfamiliar words in the same way.
In fact, the idea that explicit language instruction is a waste of time has been disproven by several studies conducted over the last few decades in both the United States and the United Kingdom. As Will says, many researchers agree that a strong understanding of phonics rules and the connections between the letters and sounds in a word is a fundamental part of developing the kind of automaticity that allows proficient readers to recognize words on sight.
However, not all contemporary whole language advocates believe in a complete rejection of phonics. Instead, many of them argue that children can learn phonics without explicit instruction, or that children are better able to learn phonics in context than in direct lessons. This means that students are expected to learn phonics rules as they come up in classroom texts, rather than via systematic and explicit instruction. These stances complicate the whole language versus science of reading debate and have also led to the development of several well-known methods of literacy instruction, including Dr. Marie Clay’s Reading Recovery. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this short-term intervention program, here’s the gist.
Reading Recovery is a 12–20 week literacy intervention that was first piloted in New Zealand in 1976. The program is based on research conducted by educator and psychologist Marie Clay throughout the ‘60s. In 2011, Reading Recovery was described as “the most widely researched and used tutoring program in the world,” and it can be argued that Clay and her program played a significant role in the spread of whole language use in the modern American education system. Reading Recovery aims to support first-grade students with significant reading difficulties by “providing extra assistance to the lowest achievers after one year at school.” It has historically been marketed as a way to prevent literacy difficulties at higher grade levels and to reduce the burden placed on special education programs.
Students placed in Reading Recovery receive around 30 minutes of daily one-on-one instruction. This instruction is intended to be personalized to meet the needs of each individual student. Typically, it includes a significant amount of text exposure, including reading new books, writing stories, and so on, as opposed to direct instruction in foundational skills.
When examining the rationale behind this program, it is important to note that during the 20th century, literacy education in New Zealand typically adhered to an idea called “developmental constructivism.” Constructivists believe that learning cannot be acquired through passive means, and that students retain information best when they learn through discovery and other hands-on activities. This is similar to the kind of learning that would have been supported by many early Americans, including 19th-century educational reformer and whole-word advocate Horace Mann. While learning by discovery does have some benefits, this school of thought also generally assumes that all students possess the ability to learn skills independently, without explicit instruction. And in the case of phonemic awareness, we know this to be untrue.
According to Clay:
“In efficient rapid word perception, the reader relies mostly on the sentence and its meaning and some selected features of the forms of words. Awareness of sentence context (and often the general context of the text as a whole) and a glance at the word enables the reader to respond instantly.” (Clay, 1991)
Sound familiar? That’s because it’s a very similar approach to the three-cueing system. Both approaches are based on the belief that skilled readers read, first, through context clues and decode words only as a last resort.
Of course, like any highly popular program, Reading Recovery has both outspoken advocates and vociferous detractors. When combing through popular news articles and reviews referring to the program, it can sometimes be difficult to separate fact from fiction. In true science of reading fashion, we are going to focus on what the evidence has to say.
There is some legitimate research showing that Reading Recovery can benefit certain students. A handful of findings suggest that students who are struggling with reading because they lack print awareness or simply need more time to develop the same level of literacy skills that their peers possess can sometimes see an increase in proficiency as a result of participation in Reading Recovery.
What Works Clearinghouse, or WWC, is the unit within the federal Institute of Education Sciences that provides evidence on educational programs and products in order to identify effective practices and approaches. In June of 2023, WWC published an Intervention Report summarizing what it considers the “highest-quality research” on Reading Recovery. In this report, WWC identified 20 experimental and semi-experimental studies from the last two decades related to the effectiveness of Reading Recovery. Almost all of these studies failed to meet further WWC standards. Because of this, only two studies were summarized in the final intervention report. In the area of general literacy achievement, WWC described Reading Recovery as having “potentially positive effects” according to tier-two evidence, meaning that there is “moderate evidence” of the program’s effectiveness in this domain.
Of the two studies discussed in this 2023 report, the one that met WWC standards without reservation was conducted from 2011 to 2015 by a group of researchers led by Dr. Henry May, an associate professor at the University of Delaware. Interestingly, May and his team conducted a follow-up study on Reading Recovery from 2017 to 2022, in which they sought to analyze the long-term impacts of the program on students’ reading scores, a metric that was not covered in the WWC report. The results of this study were announced at the American Educational Research Association conference in 2022, and they led May’s team to a surprising discovery. According to their report, even students who saw an increase in proficiency in some reading skills immediately following participation in Reading Recovery did not always maintain these gains as they moved into higher grade levels. In fact, May’s 2022 data indicates that students who participated in Reading Recovery as first graders scored lower on state reading tests in third and fourth grade than similar students who had not received the intervention. One possible explanation for this outcome is that the strategies taught by Reading Recovery do not translate to the skills required for proficient reading past early grade levels, which aligns with what many science of reading advocates have been saying for years. For example, while Reading Recovery does include some “letter and word work,” its students are typically expected to develop decoding skills through exposure as they complete other reading and writing activities. This lack of systematic and explicit decoding instruction could be part of the reason for May’s findings. In the conclusion to the paper he presented at the AERA conference, May stated:
“Reading Recovery does not include [the] isolated, systematic phonics instruction that is advocated by some literacy experts. If those experts are correct, and systematic and explicit phonics instruction is essential for building decoding skills, then it is plausible that students who participate in Reading Recovery may not develop [the] sufficient decoding skills that lead to success with larger words in 2nd and 3rd grade texts.” (May et al., 2022)
It’s worth noting that May’s 2017 study was not perfect. It saw high levels of participant attrition, which could have skewed the data. Even so, these findings have raised concerns across the educational community and do seem to warrant further investigation.
In addition to concerns about the lack of strong evidence supporting Reading Recovery, as well as these new findings regarding the program’s effects over time, other researchers have published work suggesting that Reading Recovery may not be equipped to meet the needs of readers who lack phonemic awareness or other core alphabetic skills. This includes most students with dyslexia and other reading disabilities. Other experts have questioned whether the program is as effective with students from low-income households as it is with middle and upper-class students.
Consider the following quote from a 2018 article published in the British Review of Education.
“These findings, together with the instructional model on which [Reading Recovery] is based, support our view that [Reading Recovery] is not tailored to meet the needs of individual students. Rather, [Reading Recovery] persists with an instructional model that is essentially one-size-fits-all, suited mainly for middle class students who have relatively mild reading difficulties and sufficient language skills to benefit, at least in the short term, from placement in the strongly text-oriented [Reading Recovery] programme.” (Chapman & Tunmer, 2018)
A series of 2014 interviews, the results of which were published in the Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties, found that surveyed teachers using Reading Recovery felt unequipped to describe or identify reading disabilities such as dyslexia and expressed doubt that the intervention was sufficiently meeting its students’ needs. Additionally, a 2015 study published in the American Education Research Journal concluded that Reading Recovery programs in North America did not always adhere to their promise of serving the lowest achieving students first. Rather, the study found that schools selected students for the intervention using various means, including general observation and “gut impressions.” In addition to allowing struggling students to slip through the cracks, this allegedly flawed selection process could potentially have impacted previous findings on Reading Recovery’s effectiveness.
As I mentioned before, though Marie Clay was best known as a whole language pioneer, she was not necessarily anti-phonics. However, Reading Recovery has not historically required the systematic and explicit instruction of decoding strategies that today’s science of reading advocates endorse. In fact, in her own writings, Clay states that children who show a “bias towards letter detail” should be directed, instead, to use the “message and the language structure” of the text to identify unfamiliar words.
Whole language advocates like Clay tend to argue that phonics skills can be picked up intuitively by students as they read and write. This is a common belief of many whole language advocates. University of Sydney Professor Emerita of Teacher Education and the Arts Robyn Ewing makes a similar argument in a 2018 debate over the importance of phonics instruction hosted by the Australian College of Educators.
Robyn Ewing: So we don’t agree that reading is a set of discrete hierarchical skills, that they are linear, that they’re technical, and that you need to start with the simplest. We actually feel that it’s very important to bring all of the sources of information together for reading to happen, and once a child learns to read, it’s almost like an epiphany when they bring all of those sources of knowledge together. They bring their understanding of the semantics, of the meaning, that they’ve gained right from birth. They bring their understanding of the way grammar works in their particular mother tongue and they bring their understanding of the letter sound relationships. (Australian College of Educators, 2018)
This is a common whole language argument. Many advocates of this philosophy believe that children become proficient readers due to skills they absorb from growing up in a “literacy-rich environment,” or a place that is filled with what whole language advocates refer to as “great literature.”
Natalie Wexler: In some ways, it's similar to look-say or a whole word, but whole language, they also did not like the Dick and Jane readers. Their theory was, if you surround kids with authentic children's literature, not that insipid Dick and Jane stuff, that they will naturally, just sort of pick up reading.
This again from education correspondent Natalie Wexler.
Natalie Wexler: So the similarity there is, well, you don't actually need to explicitly teach them correspondences between sounds and letters. They will pick it up, but they'll pick it up through really lovely books and they'll get interested in reading. The theory... it was a little more sophisticated. It wasn't just “they're going to memorize words,” but it was similar in that they will guess at words.
Maryanne Wolf: The equation that was by the Goodmans was that if reading is natural, the kids will induce it, they’ll use more of their imagination, they’ll get authentic literature.
And that’s Dr. Maryanne Wolf, a neuroscientist and reading researcher at UCLA.
Maryanne Wolf: And isn't that wonderful? I love that. I'm a literature major. But for god’s sake, give kids the lower rungs of the ladder.
As Wolf points out, this strategy seems great on the surface, but it doesn’t account for the needs of all children. For example, what about the students who do not enter school having developed foundational pre-reading skills? What about those students who grow up without access to books or other resources in the home? What about students whose parents are absent, overworked, or struggle themselves with reading?
Dr. Reid Lyon, former Chair of the Department of Education Policy and Leadership at Southern Methodist University and a neuropsychologist who specializes in reading development, agrees that the effectiveness of whole language programs, such as three-cueing and Reading Recovery, is often limited to a small portion of privileged children.
Reid Lyon: They were effective with White kids, basically, that brought into the process a parentally taught kind of lexicon, vocabulary, good vocabulary… played a lot of rhyming games, worked with sounds a lot at home from birth onward and so forth and so on.
And even for students who come from families that have resources and higher levels of education, an innate understanding of how reading works is not guaranteed.
During our last episode, you heard about Isabelle Liberman’s experiment with her kindergarten and first-grade classes. Her results indicated that while most children can hear a word like “cat” and immediately draw meaning from it, they often struggle to understand that this word is actually made up of three individual sounds: /c/ /a/ and /t/. Phonemic awareness, or the ability to discern the individual sounds that make up spoken words, must be taught explicitly to most early readers. And once students understand how to break a word into its individual sounds, they must also be taught that these sounds can be associated with written letters, a concept known as the “alphabetic principle.” Phonics instruction directly teaches students to use this principle to identify unknown words. Students who are taught to read unfamiliar words by sounding them out and pronouncing them aloud are better able to process and retain this information, making them more proficient readers in the long run.
With all of this information, why do many whole language methods persist with the idea that learning to read does not require explicit instruction? Well, if you think about the evolution of whole language from a historical perspective, it actually makes a lot of sense.
The early founders of what would eventually become whole language, such as philosopher John Amos Comenius, educational reformer John Dewey, and even Horace Mann, were operating before we had clearly distinguished a difference between the ways the brain processes speaking and reading. Oral language acquisition is a natural process in most children. Many researchers believe that the majority of infants possess the innate ability to listen to and imitate the sounds they hear from the adults around them, meaning most children do not require explicit instruction in speaking and listening. If you are a philosopher writing before the development of modern research and technology, you might hypothesize that reading works the same way.
Kate Will: Also spoken language... all neurotypical people will acquire a language without any conscious effort.
Again, that’s Kate Will of the Iowa Reading Research Center.
Kate Will: And so I think a lot of false assumptions have been made that we acquire a spoken language implicitly without much effort just by exposure or immersion in it and so people think, oh, spoken language and written language, there's a relationship here, so people will learn written language in the same way that they learn spoken language, so we don't need to teach it explicitly. But there's evidence that that's not the case.
If you thought that reading and speech occurred through the same brain processes, it makes sense that you would find explicit phonics instruction somewhat irrelevant. Thus, historically speaking, the whole language approach is fairly logical. The problem is, as Will says, modern research has proven that the very foundation of this perspective is factually incorrect. We know that speaking and reading are wildly different processes on a neuroscientific level. We also know that decoding, phonemic awareness, and other reading skills do not develop naturally in a majority of students. While there are a handful of children who may be able to learn to read, spell, and write with very little direct instruction, most of them will not. Today, researchers estimate that only around 30% of students will learn to read without explicit and systematic instruction.
Thus far, we have primarily discussed science-of-reading-aligned instruction as far as it relates to decoding and phonics. However, this is not where evidence-based instruction ends. There are some whole language advocates who would assert that the kind of instruction supported by the science of reading completely disregards the teaching of language comprehension skills. However, few science of reading advocates believe that phonics instruction alone is enough to teach students to be proficient readers. In 1986, reading researchers Dr. Phillip Gough and Dr. William Tunmer presented what is now known as the “Simple View of Reading,” a formula that is often cited by science of reading advocates to demonstrate the importance of both decoding and language comprehension skills.
Basically, the Simple View of Reading states that reading comprehension equals decoding times language comprehension. This means that a student’s ability to read and understand a text is dependent both on their ability to decode words and their understanding of language comprehension skills.
Many whole language advocates choose to focus on the language comprehension skills side of this equation. This is because, to them, the goal of reading is to make meaning from text. On its surface, this is a true statement. It is one that I would guess many science of reading advocates would also agree with. However, whole language supporters tend to argue that because making meaning is the ultimate goal of reading, instruction in language comprehension skills is far more important than explicit phonics instruction. To them, learning to decode is secondary or even irrelevant when compared to reading “real literature.” According to Kenneth Goodman:
“Whole language programs reject part-to-whole views of literacy development, insisting on real reading and real writing from the very beginning.” (Goodman, 1989)
Whole language instruction often places a high value on activities such as independent reading and matching students with books they will find interesting and relevant to their lives. These are beneficial instructional techniques. However, without explicit instruction in decoding and language comprehension, not all students will be equipped to participate in these activities. This is especially true for students with dyslexia and other reading disabilities, as well as students who lack access to outside resources such as private tutoring. Goodman, drawing on previous writings by British linguist and professor Dr. Michael Halliday, argues that human beings “learn through language while we learn language.” But for students who struggle to simply decode the words on the page, this can be an immensely overwhelming task. For example, how can a student who cannot decode the word “chocolate” be expected to read, comprehend, and enjoy an entire Roald Dahl book?
At the end of the video we listened to earlier, where she was showing young children a series of brand labels, Yetta Goodman states:
Yetta Goodman: Until written language has a personal meaning for you, until you’re willing to comprehend the situation and get the knowledge out of the environment yourself, then there’s no reason for you to really become a reader. (Flurkey, 2015)
Unfortunately, perspectives like this can unintentionally exclude readers with dyslexia and other reading disabilities from reaping the proposed benefits of whole language learning. When these students are not provided with explicit, evidence-based instruction, literacy proficiency can become an incredibly difficult and frustrating goal to achieve, regardless of students’ willpower or desire to learn. How can we expect these children to appreciate reading without supplying them with the tools they need to learn how to do it?
This leads me to the last issue found in a lot of whole language discourse. Many whole language advocates argue that their approach to literacy instruction instills children with a lifelong love of reading, whereas explicit phonics instruction is likely to bore or confuse children and turn them off from literacy.
Let’s say that we accept this as a true, evidence-based statement. Imagine that someone conducted a study that proved that children who learned to read through the whole language approach were much more likely to enjoy reading as adults. That still wouldn’t change the fact that, according to research, around 70% of students won’t learn how to read at all without systematic, explicit instruction. In the words of Dr. Kymyona Burk, Senior Policy Fellow for Early Literacy at the Foundation for Excellence in Education:
Kymyona Burk: We want students to have a love for reading, but you can love reading when you know how to read.
The question then becomes: is our goal to focus on nurturing a love for reading in the small group of students who possess either the natural ability or family resources necessary to learn to read without explicit instruction? Or is our goal to give all students the tools they need to read proficiently? Because the evidence shows that an early focus on phonics instruction and phonemic awareness benefits every single student in the classroom and is vital for the success of those who are struggling.
And as it turns out, there is no evidence suggesting that an instructional approach that emphasizes decoding deters children from developing a love for reading. Just because an educator is providing systematic and explicit instruction in phonics and phonemic awareness does not mean they are abandoning all other elements of literacy learning. For example, a science-of-reading-aligned classroom can and should still include opportunities for students to develop an appreciation for reading, such as exposure to a robust and diverse classroom library, teacher read-alouds, and independent reading time. What’s more, there is no guarantee that whole language encourages students to love reading, either. If you’re a struggling reader who has never received the explicit instruction you need to achieve literacy proficiency, you might have a hard time seeing reading as anything other than a burden.
Reid Lyon:One kid told us, two weeks ago, “I’d rather have a root canal than read.” That’s pretty serious stuff. (Reading Rockets, 2008a)
That’s Reid Lyon in a 2008 interview with Reading Rockets. In this interview, Lyon advocated for the implementation of phonics and phonemic awareness instruction in all early reading classrooms. Without it, he feared that a significant number of students would be left behind.
Still, many whole language supporters stand firm on the idea that reading “meaningful texts” is more important than learning to decode.
Kathy Rushton: Marie Clay says you can only read what you know about. If I’ve put a bit of quantum physics down in front of you, you’d revert to sounding out letters, not reading for meaning. You’d try to decode, and so it works with little kids learning to read. Like it’s so screaming obvious, that if they aren’t reading about stuff they’ve got the concept of, about their own experiences, they haven’t got a mindset for what they’re reading, so of course they’re not going to read for comprehension. They’re just going to decode words. That’s a waste of time. (Australian College of Educators, 2018)
That was Dr. Kathy Rushton, a lecturer in the School of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney, speaking in a debate hosted by the Australian College of Educators. Rushton’s position here is not an uncommon one for whole language adherents. However, what if a student wants to read about quantum physics when they are older? They might need basic decoding skills in order to make sense of complex vocabulary words such as “spinor,” “Hermitian operator,” and “Eigenstates.” These terms would likely appear in densely complicated, high-level texts, making them incredibly difficult to comprehend from context clues alone. And their unusual spellings could make them tricky to recognize in print even if one was familiar with their meaning and pronunciation from hearing them spoken. For this reason, whole language can actually limit the type of texts that students are able to access throughout their lives. Contrarily, explicit decoding instruction gives students the tools they need to independently and fluently read any texts they choose to as they get older.
Lori Sappington: All of these quote 'programs' and all of these, like, systematic phonics and phonemic awareness approaches are based on structure. It's very systematic.
That’s Lori Sappington, veteran educator and co-host of the popular podcast Melissa and Lori Love Literacy.
Lori Sappington: I think we have to be honest and say OK, that doesn't feel as fun as reading, you know, Kate DiCamillo aloud to our students, but it also teaches them to be able to read Kate DiCamillo when they get to fourth grade.
Her co-host, Melissa Loftus, agrees that while explicit instruction in foundational skills may not seem as fun and carefree as the whole language ideal, it is vital to student success.
Melissa Loftus: It’s not like, warm and fuzzy, like if you're reading a really good story, right? And your kids are getting into it, and you can have conversations about the characters, and what you learned from it, right? Like I mean, phonics instruction just is not that. But I do think, like you said, there's a getting to know the students in a different way. Like I know Lori can read these sounds, but not these sounds, and I need to give her more practice here and not there. It’s a different way, but I know... like, yeah it can be a little drier than reading great stories, but also, like, kids can have those ‘aha’ moments when they, like, solve the puzzle. Or like you know, they see those patterns, and I think that they almost get as much joy out of that as they do reading good stories.
With all of that said, it is unfair to presume negative intentions on behalf of all whole language advocates. In fact, the ideology is not without its strengths. Many of the movement’s supporters view whole language less as an instructional model and more as a philosophy of teaching. The movement’s advocates are often diehard supporters of the idea that children should be nurtured, supported, and encouraged to explore throughout every step of their educational journey. And, honestly, I think this is an idea that almost all educators would agree with.
Maryanne Wolf: It was the romanticization of the imagination and of literature. I’m all for the imagination and literature. But give the children the tools and the practice.
As Dr. Wolf implies, you can’t teach a child to read with a philosophy alone. For that, you need a clear, systematic, and evidence-based instructional method that has been proven effective time and time again. And unfortunately, that is not something the whole language movement has been able to reliably provide for its students or educators.
Nonetheless, due to its appeal as a newer, freer way to teach reading, whole language began to develop a significant following throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. It was around this time that the media resumed paying attention to the field of literacy education, and the so-called “Reading Wars” erupted once again. We’ll explore this explosive time and hear from some of the era’s most influential figures, all in our next episode of A Novel Idea.
A Novel Idea is a podcast from The Iowa Reading Research Center at the University of Iowa. It’s written, produced, and mixed by me, Meg Mechelke. Editing by Sean Thompson, and expert review by Nina-Lorimor Easley and Lindsay Seydel, with additional review provided by Natalie Schloss, Grace Cacini, and Olivia Tonelli. Fact checking by Maya Wald.
For further credits, including audio and music attribution, please see the link in the show notes. Special thanks to the United Kingdom Literacy Association and the Indiana University Moving Image Archive for their contributions to this episode.
Visit us online at irrc.education.uiowa.edu to find more episodes and additional literacy resources for educators and families. Again, that’s irrc.education.uiowa.edu. You can also follow us on Twitter at @IAReading.
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