ERIC Identifier: ED313675
Publication Date: 1989-12-00
Author: Wagner, Betty Jane
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Reading and Communication Skills Bloomington IN.
Whole Language: Integrating the Language Arts--and Much More.
One of the liveliest current grass-roots movements among teachers in the
1990s is the Whole Language approach. Support groups for teachers, Teachers
Applying Whole Language (TAWL), have sprung up all over the country. Major
conventions of the National Council of Teachers of English and the International
Reading Association, as well as other conferences, include well-attended
sessions and informal get-togethers of teachers who want to share their
commitment to Whole Language.
This commitment on the part of teachers is reflected in Vermont's requirement
that all new teachers have a Whole Language background. In 1987, New York State
mandated teacher attendance at seminars on Whole Language concepts. Many foresee
a Whole Language approach replacing reliance on the basal reader especially in
California, largely because of the California Reading Initiative.
WHAT WHOLE LANGUAGE IS
Whole Language is a set of beliefs
about how language learning happens and a set of principles to guide classroom
practice (Goodman, 1986). These include:
o The function of language -- oral and written -- is to construct meaning
(Altwerger, et al., 1987).
o Language is both personal and social. It serves thinking and communicating.
o Speaking, listening, reading, and writing are all learned best in authentic
speech and literacy events. Learners achieve expressive and communication
purposes in a genuine social context (Newman, 1985).
o The learner builds on his own prior knowledge and operates on his own
ever-developing "hypotheses" about how oral and written language operate (Smith,
o Cognitive development depends on language development, and vice versa
o Readers predict, select, confirm, and self-correct as they make meaning out
of print; the goal is comprehension.
o Writers choose their own purposes as they write for various audiences, such
as themselves, peers, parents, and teachers; the goal is to make sense out of
their experience and imagination.
o Learning how to use language is accomplished as learners use language to
learn about the world. The focus is on the subject matter (e.g. spiders, the
Oregon Trail, the surface of the moon).
WHAT WHOLE LANGUAGE IS NOT
The Whole Language movement is
in part a reaction to a trend that has characterized for several decades much of
educational practice, especially at the elementary school level. This practice
has focused on the mastery of reading and writing skills, leaving little time in
the school day for reading for pleasure or writing on topics of one's choice.
Characteristics of this conventional belief system and practice are:
o Reading and writing are best broken down into tiny components to be taught
in isolation and tested as discrete units.
o Until children master the skills of phonics, word recognition, spelling,
handwriting, etc., they are not ready to do actual reading or writing.
o The sequences of isolated skills in teacher's manuals for basal readers and
in standardized tests mirror developmental stages of growth.
o Children learn best when they read from simplified basal readers that
tightly control vocabulary and sentence structure. For primary children such
textbooks are often organized around phonic patterns.
o Writing instructions begins with handwriting and copying to master the
o Punctuation is learned through workbook and ditto sheet exercises.
o Reading and writing competence is reflected in the scores on tests of
o Children who do poorly on "sub-skills" are diagnosed as poor readers, no
matter how they comprehend what they read. Children who cannot be made to work
on skill sheets may be diagnosed as behavior problems.
WHAT HAPPENS IN WHOLE LANGUAGE CLASSROOMS
o Teachers often
read aloud or tell stories to children.
o Children choose their own reading material much of the time. Skills are
acquired naturally in the context of meaningful oral interaction and literacy
o Objects and learning centers in primary classrooms frequently have labels.
Sets of directions, including information on storing materials, are written on
charts or activity cards to guide children's engagement with materials.
o Teachers assemble classroom libraries of trade books representing
unabridged, unsimplified literature. For beginners, predictable plots and
repetitive refrains invite the children's involvement as co-creators (Routman,
o Children have daily opportunities for uninterrupted reading.
o Teachers model the act of reading and writing by reading and writing
themselves while the children do so.
o Teachers model reading by reading high-interest, predictable big books,
pointing out the words as the children read along with the teacher.
o Teachers sometimes guide children's reading, showing them how to predict,
ask appropriate questions, and map what they have read.
o Teachers foster discussions of books, encouraging learners how to talk
about the moral and ethical issues presented in literature, or to connect
fiction with their own lives.
o Children participate in literature circles in which they share and talk
about books they have read (Atwell, 1987).
o Small groups report on information they have learned from books, or they
select a cutting and present it as a reader's theatre for the class.
o Children turn stories into scripts, rehearse them, and present them as
puppet shows, plays, audiotapes, or videotapes.
o Children usually choose the topics they want to write about.
o Teachers sometimes demonstrate writing by putting the children's
contributions onto experience charts that can then be read together.
o Children write and illustrate their own books that are shared with the
o Teachers coach children through the various parts of the writing process
(prewriting, drafting, revising, and editing), conferencing with them at various
stages of their work.
o Children meet in small groups to read their own writing and get responses
from their peers.
o Children meet in pairs to edit their written work together before copying
it for publication.
o Teachers support student-centered learning by creating a literate
environment, stimulating interest by helping children connect new experience
with previous experience, and facilitating the learners' achievement of their
o Teachers integrate the language arts by developing the curriculum around
broad themes, such as Indians or mammals.
o Teachers evaluate the progress of learners by documenting their ongoing
work in the classroom, analyzing their reading miscues and progress in invented
spelling, and keeping portfolios of their writing to show growth (Goodman, et
THEORY AND RESEARCH SUPPORTING WHOLE LANGUAGE
Language is consistent with the most respected understandings of how children
learn, some of which go back to the early decades of this century. Whole
Language is rooted in the seminal work of John Dewey, Lev Vygotsky, Jean Piaget,
James Moffett, James Britton, Michael Halliday, Donald Graves, Margaret
Donaldson, Gordon Wells, Glenda Bissex, Kenneth Goodman, Anne Haas Dyson, and
Shirley Brice Heath. These theorists and researchers have shown that human
competence in oral and written language grows as language is used for real
purposes -- without formal drill, intensive corrective feedback, or direct
instruction. Children learn as they engage as active agents constructing their
own coherent views of the world and of the language human beings use to interact
with the world and with each other. The development of writing and reading is
fostered by meaningful social interaction, usually entailing oral language. "Language learning is different from other school subjects. It is not a new
subject, and it is not even a subject. It permeates every part of people's lives
and itself constitutes a major way of abstracting. So learning language raises
more clearly than other school courses the issues of integration" (Moffett and
Wagner, 1983). One pervasive response to this understanding of language is the
Whole Language movement.
Altwerger, Bess; Edelsky, Carole; and Flores,
Barbara M. "Whole Language: What's New?" The Reading Teacher, 41, November 1987,
pp. 144-154. [EJ 360 638]
Atwell, Nancie. In the Middle: Writing, Reading, and Learning with
Adolescents. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1987.
Goodman, Ken. What's Whole in Whole Language? A Parent/Teacher Guide to
Children's Learning. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational Books, 1986. [ED 300
Goodman, Kenneth S.; Goodman, Yetta M.; and Hood, Wendy J. (Eds.). The Whole
Language Evaluation Book. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational Books, 1988.
Moffett, James, and Wagner, Betty Jane. Student-Centered Language Arts and
Reading, K-13, 3rd ed. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1983.
Newman, Judith M. (Ed.). Whole Language: Theory in Use. Portsmouth, NH:
Heinemann Educational Books, 1985.
Routman, Regie. Transitions: From Literature to Literacy. Portsmouth, NH:
Heinemann Educational Books, 1988. [ED 300 779]
Smith, Frank. Essays into Literacy. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational
Books, 1983. [ED 248 482]
Wells, Gordon. The Meaning Makers: Children Learning Language and Using
Language to Learn. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational Books, 1986. [ED 264