ERIC Identifier: ED358750
Publication Date: 1993-07-00
Author: Huerta-Macias, Ana
Source: National Clearinghouse
on Literacy Education Washington DC., Adjunct ERIC Clearinghouse on Literacy
Education for Limited-English-Proficient Adults Washington DC.
Current Terms in Adult ESL Literacy. ERIC Digest.
"Whole language," "learner-centered," and "participatory" are terms often
heard in discussions of language and literacy learning. They may be used as
catchwords without a clear articulation of the underlying concepts to which they
refer and of the forms they take in actual literacy programs. This digest
defines these concepts and discusses their application to adult learning in ESL
THE WHOLE LANGUAGE APPROACH
Ken Goodman is one of the
educators most often associated with the term "whole language" and one of the
earliest and principle advocates of the whole language approach as we know it
today. Goodman (1986) described whole language as a "top-to-bottom," rather than
a "bottom-up," view of language learning, a view that does not break language
into bits and pieces. Language is taught in real and natural contexts, and thus,
language learning is easier and more interesting and relevant to the learner.
Rather than depend on basal readers, textbooks, and workbooks that often stress
decontextualized language exercises, whole language teachers build on learners'
existing knowledge and work with learners on authentic reading and writing
activities, such as reading trade books, writing letters, or developing and
working on extended writing projects. Learners, therefore, develop control over
the mechanics of language through real reading and real writing.
Whole language, however, cannot be reduced to a set of activities or
strategies, but instead involves basic assumptions about how students learn.
Whole language practitioners believe that language is a social process that is
learned as we interact within a given context; that students bring knowledge to
the classroom that should be valued, respected, and built upon; that language
learning involves risk, and students should be encouraged to try and try again
if they fail; and that form follows function in language development and not
The whole language movement originated with elementary educators. How can
these principles apply to the teaching of adults learning English? A teacher in
an adult literacy program can incorporate a whole language approach first by
recognizing that most adults already know a great deal about how language works.
Even though they may not be able to read or write proficiently in English, adult
ESL students come to literacy programs with many years of experiences that have
developed their world knowledge, oral language, and reading and writing and have
shaped their views of what literacy is and how and why it is learned.
One of the first steps a whole language teacher should take is to share with
learners his or her views on how language is learned. The notion that literacy
is functional and contextual should be emphasized, as many adults come to the
classroom with the notion that literacy is an academic hurdle to overcome rather
than a tool for larger goals or everyday needs. Finally, learners should be
encouraged to take risks and develop their literacy in ways that are relevant to
their personal situations. This elaboration of assumptions about whole language
opens the way for the teacher to introduce activities such as journal and letter
writing, the language experience approach (see Taylor, 1992), and story writing
and publishing, rather than focusing on drills and grammar exercises.
Some educators have learners write personal stories reflecting their
experiences--sorrows, joys, problems, and memories--and publish them to use as a
basis for additional reading, writing, and discussion activities (see Peyton,
1991, for examples).
Authentic reading that is meaningful and of interest to learners is also part
of the whole language approach. As Smith (1983) points out, "The only way to
make learning to read easy is to make reading easy" (p.23). By this he means
that students learn to read only by reading and focusing on meaning and not
primarily focusing on words, pronunciation, speed, or accuracy.
Because standardized tests are not a major part of the whole language
classroom, teachers in whole language literacy programs use alternative measures
of evaluation that are integrated into the daily classroom activities and thus
reflect the use of language in real contexts. Such measures include, for
example, the holistic examination of learner stories, learner self-observation
forms, and journals. Comprehensive reviews of alternative measures of evaluation
in adult ESL and family literacy programs may be found in Holt (in press) and
THE LEARNER CENTERED APPROACH
In a learner-centered
approach, "learners are closely involved in the decision-making process
regarding the content of the curriculum and how it is taught" (Nunan, 1988,
p.2). Jurmo (1989) points out that there are different levels of learner
participation. A learner may participate by simply signing up for a course and
being physically present. What is aimed for, however, is the highest level of
participation, in which learners have considerable control and responsibility
for classroom activities.
A learner-centered approach, also referred to as a student-centered or
worker-centered approach, involves collaboration between teachers and learners;
through ongoing dialogue, they determine the content of the curriculum and the
learning objectives. This approach focuses on learners' real-life needs; learner
responsibility in setting personal and realistic goals and determining the steps
toward achieving those goals; flexibility--as students progress and reflect on
their learning, content and goals may be modified; and learner self-assessment.
Learner-centered curriculum development thus differs from traditional
curriculum development methods, in which the planning process takes place in
advance without student input, and a lockstep order for instruction and
evaluation is followed. A learner-centered curriculum complements and extends
the whole language approach. It incorporates the notion that literacy is
functional and contextual, and it uses learners' background knowledge and
experiences as a starting point for curriculum development. It extends whole
language beliefs by emphasizing that language learning is a collaborative effort
between teacher and learner, characterized by ongoing dialogue to determine the
content and learning objectives for the course.
Huerta-Macias (in press) provides an example of a learner-centered
orientation in an adult literacy program. A pre-program meeting and individual
interviews were held at each program site with those families who had enrolled,
to learn about their goals, needs, and interests. The curriculum themes were
then designed around the expressed desires of the participating families. This
curriculum and the learning activities were modified at several sites during the
course of the project, as a result of ongoing dialogue between staff and
families and of specific circumstances that developed. At one site, for example,
a lesson on plants evolved into a discussion and corresponding learning
activities on the medicinal use of herbs and plants, a subject about which the
parents knew a lot and which was interesting and relevant to them. At another
site, a lesson on personal hygiene was developed because several cases of
hepatitis broke out during the project.
THE PARTICIPATORY APPROACH
The participatory approach was
popularized by the work of Paulo Freire, an educator who developed the approach
while working with peasant groups in Brazil (see Spener, 1990). Freire stressed
in his writings that the prior experiences, knowledge, strengths, and community
concerns of the learners must be the starting point for literacy instruction.
Freire also stressed the use of literacy development for personal transformation
and social action. A participatory approach not only develops words and themes
meaningful to learners, but also extends those themes and activities into action
that will better the learners' lives.
The term "participatory" is often used interchangeably with
"learner-centered." Indeed, the participatory approach is also a
learner-centered approach in that the content and learning objectives are
determined through ongoing dialogue between teacher and learners. The
participatory approach, however, goes beyond a learner-centered approach because
it advocates literacy as a vehicle for personal transformation and social
change. Learners discuss issues in class that are significant to them and
determine ways of dealing with these issues in real life. Learners are seen as
agents for change, for bettering their lives and the lives of those close to
them. This may involve a parent using literacy to help a child with her
schooling or to advocate for the child within the school. Thus, the
participatory approach extends the themes discussed in class to action outside
Educators have elaborated extensively on the participatory approach to
literacy. Auerbach (1992), for example, writes about the importance of social
context as a resource that informs literacy development. She notes that if
educators define literacy broadly, to include a range of activities and
practices that are integrated into the fabric of daily life, the social context
becomes a rich resource that can inform rather than impede learning.
Fingeret (1989) defines participatory literacy education as a philosophy and
a set of practices "based on the belief that learners--their characteristics,
aspirations, backgrounds, and needs--should be at the center of literacy
instruction....[Learners] help to define, create, and maintain the program"
(p.5). For example, a teacher may learn from a Hispanic family that their
children have been raised to value cooperative, rather than individual, work.
Thus, rather than viewing the child's hesitancy to engage in competitive
behavior in the class in a negative light, the teacher appreciates this cultural
difference and provides more opportunities for this child to engage in group
work within the class.
An example of the application of a participatory approach to curriculum
development in a family literacy program can be seen in Auerbach (1992), who
describes a program in Boston. The process, which she stresses is cyclical and
not linear, includes listening activities to find student themes; exploration of
themes through a variety of activities such as photo stories, oral histories,
and language experience stories; extending literacy to action inside and outside
of the classroom; and an evaluation process that includes learners reflecting on
their own progress.
Whole language, learner-centered, and
participatory approaches to literacy instruction are not mutually exclusive.
Rather, they are complementary and share basic philosophies. All three
approaches advocate that the learner should inform literacy instruction, that
learners and their background knowledge and experiences should be respected and
valued, and that learning activities should be relevant to learners' personal
situations. The three approaches also differ. Whole language works from whole to
part and emphasizes function over form; learner-centered is concerned with
collaborative decision-making about the curriculum; and participatory focuses on
literacy as a vehicle for personal and social change.
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Goodman, K.S. (1986). "What's whole in whole language." Portsmouth, NH:
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Huerta-Macias, A. (in press). Literacy from within: The Project FIEL
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Jurmo, P. (1989). The case for participatory literacy education. In A.
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Nunan, D. (1988). "The learner-centered curriculum." New York: Cambridge
Peyton, J.K. (1991). "Listening to students' voices: Educational materials
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Smith, F. (1983). "Essays into literacy." Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Spener, D. (1990). "The Freirean approach to adult literacy education."
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Taylor, M.L. (1992). "The language experience approach and adult learners."
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