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Does the “whole language” approach to reading work?

Dear Cecil:

Do you know anything about the "whole language" approach to reading? It's used at my daughter's grade school and other mothers tell me it's all the rage, but parts of it strike me as weird. Phonics seems to be out, for one thing. When I told my daughter to "sound out" a word in a book we were reading, she told me "we don't do that anymore, Mom." Somehow they're supposed to grasp the word as a whole or pick it up from the context or something. I don't get it. Is this one of those educational fads that's supposed to spare my child the horror of having to learn anything boring, such as facts?

Peggy Gavin, Lisle, Illinois

Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

If you think gun control debates are intense, wait till you get a load of the reading wars. There are two schools of thought on teaching kids to read, phonics vs. whole language. To judge from their public pronouncements, they don’t agree on anything, including whether we should call it “teaching kids to read.” (Whole language advocates say you don’t teach kids to read, you expose them to books and they learn.)

The fundamental issue, which educators have been feuding over for more than a hundred years, is whether reading education should focus primarily on the whole (reading books) or the parts (learning reading skills). Hardcore phonics advocates say if you drill the kids on letter sounds and such they’ll pick up book reading on their own. The whole language folks say baloney, the best way to motivate kids to read is to immerse them in the magic of written language. There’s a lot of reading aloud by both students and teachers, using books chosen more on the basis of literary merit than whether all the words have one syllable. The kids are also asked to write their own stories and essays.

There’s a lot to be said for the whole-language approach. It sure beats the stultifying skill-and-drill programs of the 1970s, in which students spent months or years filling out workbook pages without ever reading an honest book.

The problem is that some whole language programs neglect basic skills. The movement’s extremists say that doesn’t matter — get the kids sufficiently involved in reading and they’ll pick up the skills they need effortlessly, the same way they learn to speak. That flies in the face of common experience, and whole language’s more realistic advocates concede the need to devote some attention to skills development. But they say it’s foolish, in the early going particularly, to fixate on skills if it drains all the enjoyment out of reading.

“Sounding it out” is a good example of the difference in approach between the two camps. Sounding out an unfamiliar word is a basic phonics technique. In a language as orthographically chaotic as English, however, literally sounding out a word letter by letter often produces no useful result. What’s more, it can take a long time, and if you’re reading a book many children will have lost interest by the time you return to the story.

Instead of sounding it out, whole language advocates typically ask the child to guess an unfamiliar word based on the context. If the kid comes up with something reasonably close, the reading proceeds. The catch is that the teacher is supposed to come back to the problem words later (or at least that’s how some W-L advocates explain it). Often that doesn’t happen. As a consequence the kids don’t learn new or difficult words.

It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in education to guess that a more practical approach might combine whole-language and phonics techniques. Cecil’s practice when reading with the little researchers was to have them sound out the first letter or syllable of an unfamiliar word and guess the rest based on the context and maybe some hints. If the kid didn’t get it after a couple tries I supplied the correct word plus a quick explanation and we moved on.

In the classroom I suspect parents and kids will be happiest with a whole-language program with some phonics salted in, and one moreover that varies the technique to suit the individual. Recent research tends to confirm this view. If you’re told theoretical considerations don’t permit such a common sense blend, your kid may be in the hands of zealots. Beware.

Cecil Adams

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