Dr Kerry Hempenstall, Senior Industry Fellow, School of Education, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.
My blogs can be viewed on-line or downloaded as a Word file or PDF at https://www.dropbox.com/sh/olxpifutwcgvg8j/AABU8YNr4ZxiXPXzvHrrirR8a?dl=0
“The way we went down the road to whole language is really a story of stupidity” (Lyon, 2005).
A history: Then and now
The history of reading instruction has involved considerable and extended disagreement about the optimal approach to ensuring children become literate and thereby capable of participating in our society. As literacy has become fundamental in all facets of life, so it became obvious that students who did not learn to read effectively were greatly disadvantaged throughout their lifespan. For a history of disputes about reading instruction, see http://www.nifdi.org/news-latest-2/blog-hempenstall/396-a-history-of-disputes-about-reading-instruction.
During the 1980’s and 90’s an approach to education with strong philosophical and political underpinnings, whole language (WL), became a (the?) major model for educational practice in the USA, Canada, New Zealand, and Great Britain (Groff, 1997). According to Smith (1992), 46 of the 50 US States reported using WL programs, and 90% of the WL teachers received some form of WL professional development. Australia, too, followed this strong trend (House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment, Education, and Training, 1992), and most state education departments had in-service training programs to inculcate the model into schools.
However, over time, there arose increasing controversy, both in the research community (Eldredge, 1991; Fields & Kempe, 1992; Gersten & Dimino, 1993; Liberman & Liberman, 1990; Mather, 1992; McCaslin, 1989; Stahl & Miller, 1989; Vellutino, 1991; Weir, 1990), and in the popular press (Hempenstall, 1994, 1995; Prior, 1993) about the impact of the WL approach on the attainments of students educated within this framework. In particular, concern was expressed about the possibly detrimental effects on at-risk students, including those diagnosed with learning disabilities (Bateman, 1991; Blachman, 1991; Liberman, Shankweiler, & Liberman, 1989; Yates, 1988).
Is whole language still practised?
As with many educational initiatives, whole language had its (long) moment in the sun followed by an apparent decline, as evaluations of its effectiveness were largely negative and new educational initiatives and fads moved into the spotlight, for example, differentiated instruction, brain-based learning, personalised learning, new literacies/digital literacies/multiliteracies, critical literacy, inclusive classrooms, and flipped classrooms. New and currently popular approaches have been reported in the annual literacy survey series What's Hot, What's Not (Cassidy & Grote-Garcia, 2012) since 1996. Whole Language was voted Cold by 75% of the rating panel in 1998 (Cassidy & Cassidy, 1998), and Extremely Cold in 2001 by 100% of the expert raters. It was finally deleted from the list in the 2003 survey (Cassidy & Cassidy, 2002).
But, has it actually disappeared or even waned? According to a strong critic, Moats (2000, 2007), whole language has continued to be highly influential in education training and practice.
“Whole language still pervades textbooks for teachers, instructional materials for classroom use, some states' language-arts standards and other policy documents, teacher licensing requirements and preparation programs, and the professional context in which teachers work” (Moats, 2000, para 1).
In Australia, its success was long lived: “For several decades, whole language has been the predominant teaching approach for early literacy learning” (Rowe, Purdie, & Ellis, 2005, p.7).
Two prominent Australian whole language advocates Cambourne and Turbill (2007) agreed, though noting a move away from using the term whole language. “To us the principles underpinning the word literacy were similar but did not bring with it the negative connotations … whole language is still with us, strongly embedded in current curriculum, pedagogy and assessment strategies. Adversaries of whole language still complain that the term whole language may not be used however the philosophy is alive and well in each state system” (Cambourne & Turbill, 2007, p. 23, 25).
Yetta Goodman, one of the whole language pioneers, as recently as 2005 was reported to exclaim “whole language is still alive and well!” (Taylor, 2007, p.2). Certainly, the Whole Language Umbrella, a group within the National Council of Teachers of English, 2014) continues to promote the model: “Encouraging the study of the whole language philosophy in all aspects …” (NCTE, 2014).
By 1993, there were reportedly 125 WL support groups in the USA (Gilles, 2006). Now, however, there are only 7 TAWL groups remaining across the USA: in Missouri, Arizona, Indiana, Washington, Chicago, and two in New York (NCTE, 2014).
Perhaps, though it has diminished in influence, aspects of WL survive in various guises. Schwartzer (2011) looked to broaden what is understood by WL. He described how whole language has often been considered only in its guise as a philosophy of literacy development, when “world language education” (p.145-6) is a more appropriately broadened description. He also describes the use of WL in an English for Business curriculum, for second language learning, and for teaching for social justice. Bulei (2013) claims that in English as a foreign language teaching, whole language is “One of the most popular terms currently sweeping through EFL profession” (p. 2308), while Ortlieb and Lu (2011) see an important role for the approach to enliven teacher education (!). There appears to be some interest surviving in non-English speaking countries. A literature search showed few articles on WL published in refereed journals by writers from English speaking countries, but a number from countries such as Iran, Korea, Saudi Arabia, India, Africa, and Japan.
Whole language: Background
The history of debates on reading has not included great differences in desired outcome, but significant disagreement about the means by which those outcomes might best be achieved.
There are two main elements to the whole language approach: the political/philosophical and the instructional. The instructional component of whole language approach was partly informed by the meaning-emphasis, whole-word model of teaching reading. Its more immediate predecessor was an approach called "language experience" which became popular from the mid-1960s. The language experience approach emphasized the knowledge that children bring to the reading situation - a position diametrically opposed to the Lockian view of "tabula rasa" (the child's mind as a blank slate on which education writes its message).
In the language experience approach there is a firm link between oral language and written language, between reading and writing:
"Anything I can say, I can write; anything I can write, I can read" (Weaver, 1988, p. 44).
The language experience teacher used the prior experiences and school excursions that a child has had to enable the child to dictate a story which the teacher records. The teacher and child read and re-read this story until the child could do so alone. Any skill teaching must derive from the child's story, hence the expression - teaching only from a meaningful context. Within this framework there was the possibility that teachers might provide structured learning experiences around fortuitous opportunity, but no clear recommendation that they should.
Whether the whole language instructional approach represents an evolution from language experience (Stahl & Miller, 1989) or is sufficiently different to be considered an entirely separate model (McGee & Lomax, 1990), it is apparent they do have some commonalities and some differences. Both emphasize the relevance of the language and knowledge that children bring to reading, and how they help to link oral and written language. Both resist subskills teaching in isolation from the context of meaningful literature. In whole language, however, teachers were less likely to write children's dictated stories and more likely to encourage the children to write their own stories using invented spelling (Schickedanz, 1990). Language experience stressed the inter-relatedness of reading, writing, speaking and listening but, unlike whole language, delayed the introduction of writing until the child had mastered a reasonable number of sight words (Allen, 1976; Stauffer, 1969, cited in Stahl & Miller, 1989). Weaver (1988) made it clear that the developmental process for writing follows a scribbling-invented spelling-mature writing sequence, and hence writing should be a natural part of the language process from the beginning stages of reading development.
Defining whole language has always been difficult, so for a time it was less open to analysis and criticism.
“Watson (1989) suggested that "advocates reject a dictionary-type definition" and each teacher evolves his or her own version of whole language instruction, leading to "significant and important differences”” (Jeynes & Littell, 2000, p. 24).
Goodman (1986) emphasised that whole language was a philosophy rather than an instructional approach, which, he argued, usually implies a series of prescribed activities. Thus, whole language teaching consisted of those activities a teacher with a thorough understanding of the philosophy would use. The teacher aimed to provide a proper environment that would encourage children to develop their skills at their own developmentally appropriate pace. This notion shifted the emphasis from a teacher-directed to a learner-centred approach, one also evident in most approaches that fit under the constructivist banner (more on that later). It is considered a "top down" approach in which a personal meaning is constructed by a reader for a text based on using their prior knowledge. This personal meaning is considered more authentic than any consensus among other readers about what the meaning might be.
The absence of any sense of a prescribed curriculum made it difficult to describe what actually might occur in a whole language classroom, or whether there was any consistency from classroom to classroom that would enable an observer (other than one imbued with the philosophy) to recognize that the approach was indeed whole language. This vagueness was evident in a selection of journal articles (Smith, 1991; Newman, 1991; Johnson & Stone, 1991). There was a strong emphasis on principles, for example, the benefits of a natural learning environment (Goodman, 1986) and of exposure to a strongly literate environment (Sykes, 1991), but little or no discussion of technique.
Mills and Clyde (1990, cited in Johnson & Stone, 1991) provided an outline of the whole language philosophy as it might have been evidenced in classrooms.
“Highlight authentic speech and literacy events; provide choices for learners; communicate a sense of trust in the learners; empower all participants as teachers and learners; encourage risk taking; promote collaboration in developing the curriculum; be multimodal in nature; capitalize on the social nature of learning; encourage reflection” (p.103).
The idea that instruction must always employ solely authentic texts is inconsistent with the findings that out-of-context teaching is often needed to ensure students learn important phonic generalisations, and is particularly important for at-risk beginners (Beverly, Giles, & Buck, 2009). Yet, this mandate in WL appears to persist to this day: “Only authentic text provides the assistance that readers need to read for understanding” (Emmitt, Hornsby, & Wilson, 2013, p.3). It provides another example of a pre-ordained principle having priority over the outcomes of the instructional practices that follow.
Underpinnings of the whole language model
Whole language shares much with the tenets of constructivist theory, which itself can be viewed as a nephew of Romantic Progressivism. Knowledge is seen not as a consequence of absorbing information presented by the environment but rather as an invention created by the child. Related to this is the belief that there is no true reality, but only unique individual interpretations of one’s perceived reality. Thus, teachers who believe it is their duty to inform students about the world – concepts, operations, classes of knowledge – are seen to be interfering with students’ own capacity to make sense of their environment. Students are thought to develop their knowledge through reflecting upon the experiences they have - so one task of a teacher is to provide as wide a range of experiences as possible. Other related terms likely to be found in such a discussion are student-centred, child-centred, learner-centred, discovery-based, and self-directed. Each is in contrast with terms such as: teacher directed, instructivist, knowledge-based, explicit, systematic, and direct instruction.
“From a holistic, constructivist perspective, all children simply engage in a process of learning as much as they can in a particular subject area; how much and exactly what they learn will depend upon their backgrounds, interests, and abilities” (Stainback & Stainback, 1992, p. 72).
Naturally unfolding development in reading
These prescriptions do give the flavour, if not the substance, of what may occur in classrooms, and are consistent with a view of child development that combines a Rousseauian perspective of naturally unfolding development with an assumption that the processes in learning to read are essentially equivalent to those important in learning to speak. Rousseau believed that children have an innate developmental script that leads them (though perhaps at differing rates) to competence. Thus, unfettered maturation allows the child to develop knowledge unaided (Weir, 1990). His ideas gained scientific respectability in the 19th Century when they were seemingly supported by a theory of evolutionary biology.
This long since discredited theory asserted that the evolutionary journey from amoeba to human infant was replayed in every pregnancy, and the wisdom and knowledge of the parents (and of necessity, still earlier) was present in the brain of the new generation. In Rousseau's view, humans were good by nature, but could be turned bad by societal interference. His argument that society should not interfere in the natural development of children generally, was paralleled by his view of the role of education. "Give your pupil no lesson in words, he must learn from his experience" (Rousseau, 1964 cited in Weir, 1990, p. 28). The whole language philosophy noted above that assigns to the teacher the role of concerned facilitator, and that decries teacher directed instruction as harmful or unproductive is clearly aligned with the Rousseauian view.
Dewey was a philosopher who was often associated with such progressive thought, but he railed against it being used in education:
“There is a present tendency in so-called advanced schools of educational thought ... to say, in effect, let us surround pupils with certain materials, tools, appliances, etc., and then let pupils respond to these things according to their own desires. Above all let us not suggest any end or plan to the students; let us not suggest to them what they shall do, for that is an unwarranted trespass upon their sacred intellectual individuality. Such a method is really stupid for it attempts the impossible, which is always stupid, and it misconceives the conditions of independent thinking” (Dewey, 1926 as cited in Rusk, 1956, p. 106).
What’s behind learning through discovery?
Those who support constructivism as appropriate as a model of instruction believe that self-directed or discovery learning is superior to learning via instruction.
In this perspective, the ability to establish relationships with students is the single most important quality for a teacher. This is based on an assertion that good relationships evoke student engagement, and the level of student engagement determines the level of learning. In this argument, it is implied that teacher centred instruction is not compatible with good teacher/student relationships. Further, it is believed that students should learn at their own pace and in ways consistent with their learning style. If these principles are accepted, then student centred learning becomes the a priori preferable method of ensuring student success, and empirical data is unnecessary.
“Methods can never ensure that children learn to read. .... It is the relationships that exist within the classroom that matter. ... Tests are not required to find out whether children are learning” (Smith, 1992, p.440).
For some, the reason teacher centred instruction is rejected because of a belief that student generated learning is, in some undefined qualitative way, superior to that which is learned through instruction. Even if two students learned the same concept, and when tested achieve the same outcome, it is assumed that the student generated learning is superior. The example below provides a sense of this perspective:
“In reality, no one can teach mathematics. Effective teachers are those who can stimulate students to learn mathematics. Educational research offers compelling evidence that students learn mathematics well only when they construct their own mathematical understanding” (MSEB and National Research Council 1989, p. 58).
Humanistic philosophy values human growth and development with minimal societal input in order that individuals can make good choices in their life and can participate in society effectively. That is a laudable outcome; however, when the philosophy implies that there should not be intervention in the life of children, there is a conflict with those who see it as important that adults play a role in ensuring those worthy objectives are met. There is also the risk that a process is more highly valued than the outcome of that process. One defensive response is to decry the sort of accountability that might shed light onto the outcomes of the principle-driven approach.
“It seems futile to try to demonstrate superiority of one teaching method over another by empirical research” (Weaver, 1988, p.220).
There is a parallel with humanistic psychotherapy in which the therapist is non-directive, believing that the answer to their client’s psychological problems lie within the individual not from outside intervention. Thus the aim of such therapy is to supply warmth, empathy, and acceptance – the healing element arises from the relationship that develops between client and therapist. This approach can be readily compared to the constructivist position. By contrast, the cognitive-behavioural approach takes the view that client distress is caused by learned faulty thinking and behaviour patterns. The therapist's task is to assist the client to identify these patterns, and demonstrate how they might be supplanted by more productive thinking and behaviour. It is very clearly a teaching model, and sits nicely alongside teacher centred instruction. What it offers to the client, over and above a good relationship, is knowledge and practice. Of course, a good relationship is a pre-requisite for the therapy to be effective, but it is not the curative agent. Relief for clients comes not from any therapist magic, but rather from the increased knowledge and skills derived by the client. Most of the action occurs outside the clinic through assiduous practice – with feedback supplied in clinic sessions. In education, the best way to increase engagement of students at risk is to employ approaches that prove the students can succeed (Carnine, Silbert, Kame’enui, & Tarver, 2004). A similar sentiment is expressed in Susan Ohanian’s (1984) acerbic response “When a child is struggling in my class, I don’t alter the way I smile—I alter his curriculum.”
Over the past twenty years, as clinical psychology has adopted an evidence basis for its training and practice guidelines, humanistic approaches have largely been discarded for most common mental health issues in favour of the cognitive-behavioural approach.
A clear difference here is that clinical psychology began the process of moving to become an evidence-based profession about 1993; whereas, education has yet to take such a step. It has been revelatory for me as a long-standing psychologist to see the change in the profession since that time. Up to 1993, psychology undergraduate courses gave equal time to humanistic and psychoanalytic models, with a brief mention to the behavioural model. Students had no basis apart from personal preference as to which model they might adopt subsequently in their profession.
Those early pioneers of using evidence as the practice determinant were often derided as not appreciating the complexities inherent in psychotherapy. It was argued that therapy could not be reduced to manualised treatment because all clients are unique, and one size can’t fit all. However, evidence accrued that indeed manualised treatment or protocols worked just as well in psychotherapy as they did in medicine where people’s uniqueness was not usually a problem. Thus, it seems that human uniqueness is less relevant to these fields of endeavour than are the many similarities that exist between humans. Again, we see an interesting parallel with education. Dehaene (2009) makes a similar point “Every child is unique…but when it comes to reading, all have roughly the same brain that imposes the same constraints and the same learning sequence. Thus we cannot avoid a careful examination of the conclusions – not prescriptions – that cognitive neuroscience can bring to the field of education” (p. 218).
In my later years as a psychology lecturer, I noted how my students gradually became very committed to evidence as the basis for practice. This was certainly not the case when I began at University. In more recent times when working with the Masters and Doctoral students in the RMIT Psychology Clinic, I observed that their commitment to evidence was very strong. Indeed, in discussion, they were incredulous that practitioners could, in conscience, practise any other way. This changed circumstance occurred because their undergrad and postgrad training had instilled such an attitude through the curriculum - highlighting what works rather than what feels right. Evidence over comfort.
Reading as a natural process
The WL model also assumes that reading (and writing) are natural parts of the same language process that enables the development of speech. Learning to read and write should be just as effortless and universal if the tasks were made as meaningful as is learning to talk. If this were so, one might anticipate that since speech is pretty much universal, then so too should be reading.
While the vast majority of children learn to speak with reasonable facility, a sizeable proportion of children do not learn to read well. In the USA, the figure was often put at between 20 and 25 per cent of the school population (Stedman & Kaestle, 1987), and there appears to have been little change since that time (National Center for Education Statistics, 2011).
In an Australian study in 1994 (Prior, Sanson, Smart, & Oberklaid), 16 per cent of Year Two children in a representative Victorian community sample were considered reading disabled.
In more recent times:
“International benchmarking from 2011 shows that Australian and Victorian performance has remained largely static and our overall ranking has dropped, while other nations have moved ahead. In the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, 20 per cent of Victorian students (and 25 per cent of Australian students) did not meet the literacy proficiency standard, while overall Australia ranked 22nd out of 45 countries” (Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, 2013, p.6).
One can recognize the principle of naturally unfolding development in Goodman's (1986) explanation for the disparity in ease of acquisition of speaking and reading. According to Goodman, in reading instruction, it is the breaking down of what is naturally a wholistic process into subskills to be learned and synthesized, that causes the gulf between expertise in speaking and reading. In learning to speak, there is no such fractionating.
Whole language philosophy in practice:
Semantic, syntactic and graphophonic cues.
Proponents of whole language either:
1. Disparage phonics: "Phonics is incompatible with a whole language perspective on reading … and therefore is rejected" (Watson, 1989, p. 132);
2. Submerge phonics: "phonic information .....is most powerfully learned through the process of writing" (Badger, 1984, p.19); or
3. Argue that phonic skills are taught within the context of three systems used to extract meaning from print (Goodman, 1976). In this latter view the graphophonic system is considered a fall-back position to be used when semantic and syntactic (the other two systems) fail (Weaver, 1988).
Semantic cues involve incorporating the meaning of what is being read to assist with decoding words about to be read, that is, the next word should make sense in the context of the sentence's meaning.
Syntactic cues arise from of the logic of our system of sentence construction. The choice of the next word I want to read is constrained by the rules of grammar, so the word isn’t entirely randomly formed in this sentence.This reduces the number of possibilities somewhat.
Graphophonic cues refer to the correspondence between graphemes (the symbols in print) and phonemes (the speech sounds they represent).
Syntactic and semantic cues are broadly described as context cues, as they may be used to predict a word without recourse to visual inspection. Goodman (1976) described skilled reading as a "psycholinguistic guessing game" p.259. He sees reading as a sophisticated guessing game driven largely by the reader's linguistic knowledge, and as little as possible by the print. Smith (1975) expresses this view succinctly. "The art of becoming a fluent reader lies in learning to rely less and less on information from the eyes" (p.50). It was argued (Cambourne, 1979) that the speed of skilled reading could not be accounted for if the reader looks at every word. The hypothesis was that the good reader used contextual cues to predict words initially, and then confirm the word's identity using as few visual features as possible.
Holdaway (1980, cited in Hornsby, Sukarna, & Parry, 1986) provides this strategy. When word recognition is the problem readers should:
"(a) go back and read from the beginning of the sentence and/or read further on; (b) check the first letter or letter cluster; (c) make a prediction (an informed guess)."
The results of eye movement studies have not supported the skipping hypothesis. These studies (see reviews in Rayner, 1989; Stanovich, 1986) using modern eye movement technology indicate that skilled readers do process all the print - they do not skip words, or seek only some features of words. Thus, the techniques of contextual prediction that are emphasized in whole language classrooms, are based on an untenable hypothesis. It is unsurprising that Rayner (1989), perhaps the most notable of the researchers on eye movement studies, considered that the major failing of whole language is its lack of recognition that graphophonic cues are "more central or important to the process of learning to read than are the others" (p.351).
Bruck (1988) reviewed research indicating that rapid, context-free automatic decoding characterizes skilled reading. In fact, the word recognition of skilled readers provides them with the meaning even before contextual information can be accessed. Rayner and Pollatsek (1987), cited in Liberman and Liberman (1990), argued that it is only beginning and poor readers who use partial visual cues, and predict or guess, words. This view is echoed by Stanovich (1986) who referred to a significant number of studies in support, and a further list of such studies can be found in Solman and Stanovich (1992).
The second rationale for presuming that contextual cues should have primacy in skilled reading was based on a flawed study by Goodman (1965, cited in Nicholson, 1986). Goodman found a 60-80% improvement in reading accuracy when children read words in the context of a story rather than in a list format. He argued on the basis of this study that the contextual cues provided marked assistance in word identification.
There has always been acceptance that context aids readers' comprehension, but despite contention in the literature over Goodman's finding concerning contextual facilitation of word recognition, his study is still regularly cited as grounds for emphasizing contextual strategies in a whole language classroom.
The study was flawed in two ways. The design was not counterbalanced to preclude practice effects. That is, a list of words taken from a story was read, and then the story itself was read. Second, the study ignored individual differences in reading ability, so it was not possible to determine whether good or poor readers (or both categories) derived benefit from context.
Subsequent studies by a number of researchers including Nicholson (1985, 1991), Nicholson, Lillas, and Rzoska (1988), and Nicholson, Bailey, and McArthur (1991) discredited Goodman's argument, and found that good readers are less reliant on context clues than are poor readers. Poor readers attempt to use context because they lack the decoding skills of the good readers. Nicholson (1991) argued that encouraging reliance on contextual cues confuses children, and he expressed concern at the rate of reading failure in New Zealand where whole language was endemic.
A further problem involves the accuracy of contextual guesses. In a study by Gough, Alford, and Holley-Wilcox (1981, cited in Liberman & Liberman, 1990) well educated, skilled readers given adequate time could only guess correctly one word in four from context. Further, Schatz and Baldwin (1986) pointed out that low frequency words and information-loaded words are relatively unpredictable in prose, and those are the type of words that beginning and struggling readers battle with the most. Finally, psychometric studies indicate that it is not measures of semantic and syntactic ability that predict word identification facility but rather alphabetic coding ability (Vellutino, 1993). Whole language theorists would anticipate the converse being true.
Prior et al. (1994) in their study of more than 1600 Victorian children agreed that guessing is not an adaptive strategy, and that its promulgation disadvantages at-risk children. They argued that reading-handicapped children, in particular, need intensive training in phonetic analysis. This position was also supported by numerous influential researchers (Chall, 1989; Bateman, 1991; Groff, 1990; Solman & Stanovich, 1992; Tunmer & Hoover, 1993; Adams, 1990; Byrne & Fielding-Barnsley, 1989; Ball, 1993; Blachman, 1991; Eldredge, Quinn & Butterfield, 1990; Nicholson, 1991; Yates, 1988).
“The scientific evidence is simply overwhelming that letter-sound cues are more important in recognizing words than either semantic or syntactic cues” (Pressley, 1998, p.16).
Whole language supporters did not then, and have yet to, accept this view.
For further information on the three cueing system, see http://www.nifdi.org/research/recent-research/hempenstall-blog/402-the-three-cueing-system-in-reading-will-it-ever-go-away
To this day, the three cueing system is the strongest remnant of the whole language approach – seemingly rusted on to many teachers’ set of beliefs and practices. This is driven, at least in part, by some education authorities’ and teacher organisations’ support.
As recently as 2011, the English Teachers Association of NSW continues to recommend the three cueing system to its members. In its official statement, On Reading and Phonics, it recommends:
“However, an inclusive reading program catering for all learners in a class will mean students are taught all of the following:
- predicting words they don't recognise based on what the whole passage or sentence is about. This would occur by learning to read both forwards in the sentence and back over what has been read already.
- using their knowledge of the kind of word (grammatically) that the troublesome word is
- sounding the word and use letter recognition to identify the letters in the word” (p.2).
- committed teachers who care about their students and establish good relationships with them
From a paper by Kelly (2010) under the authority of the Queensland Department of Employment, Economic Development and Innovation: “These three cueing systems are still important today” (p.1).
From WL writers Cambourne and Turbill (2007): “… all proficient readers use three major subsystems or cueing systems of language in order to construct meaning from text: the semantic, syntactic, and graphophonic systems”.
In contrast, the Primary National Strategy (2006), the three cueing model (known in England as the Searchlight model) has been finally and explicitly discredited. Instead, the Strategy has acknowledged the importance of addressing decoding and comprehension separately in the initial stage of reading instruction.
“ … attention should be focused on decoding words rather than the use of unreliable strategies such as looking at the illustrations, rereading the sentence, saying the first sound or guessing what might ‘fit’. Although these strategies might result in intelligent guesses, none of them is sufficiently reliable and they can hinder the acquisition and application of phonic knowledge and skills, prolonging the word recognition process and lessening children’s overall understanding. Children who routinely adopt alternative cues for reading unknown words, instead of learning to decode them, later find themselves stranded when texts become more demanding and meanings less predictable. The best route for children to become fluent and independent readers lies in securing phonics as the prime approach to decoding unfamiliar words (Primary National Strategy, 2006b, p.9).”
If one accepts the empiricist position that learning to read is not a natural process such as learning to talk, then the view that most language activities are equally helpful to reading development becomes doubtful, as does the related assertion that children will master reading solely by being exposed to a literate environment. The literature on direct instruction (Hattie, 2009; Rosenshine & Stevens, 1984) provides convincing evidence that students learn to read best when the allocated time for reading is spent directly on reading activities rather than on activities once or twice removed from reading. This literature also highlights the necessity of systematic teaching, careful monitoring, and continuous feedback. Thus, it is not only the philosophy of the whole language approach but the practices that derive from it that do not have adequate research support.
Practices recommended in whole language programs
In a similar vein, if one accepts that the value of contextual strategies has been vastly over-rated and the value of phonic skills similarly under-rated, then one must query the value of the classroom activities that follow from contextual primacy. Hornsby, Sukarna and Parry (1986) suggested:
(i) Teachers emphasize shared-book experience.
Nicholson (1985) criticized this activity because it bypasses a reader's decoding problem, instead of directly addressing it. The presumption is that with the crutch provided by the shared-book experience students will be able to solve their own decoding problem. He compared this approach to attempting to teach a rat about mazes by wheeling it through the corridors in a trolley.
(ii) Teachers use Cloze activities. They are designed to encourage children to use just enough visual information, for example the first two letters of a word, to assist word prediction, and the intention is to increase reading rate without cost to comprehension. However, skilled readers perceive and use all the letters in a word to decode (it is faster and more accurate than prediction and confirmation), thus this activity is unproductive, even counter productive.
Given the whole language emphasis on deriving cues about meaning from as many sources as possible, it is unsurprising that picture books formed part of the reading program for beginning readers. Of course, picture books have been evident in classrooms long before whole language became prevalent, but they were incorporated as an information source in a whole language program (Early Literacy Inservice Course ELIC, Unit 4, 1984). Studies by Solman and colleagues (Solman, 1986; Singh & Solman, 1990; Solman, Singh and Kehoe, 1992) cast considerable doubt on the wisdom of this strategy if the goal is to improve decoding. In fact, the presence of pictures, regardless of their salience to the words, impedes rather than assists word identification.
This finding highlights a problem with models that are philosophically rather than pedagogically driven. Just because a practice is consistent with a philosophical position does not mean that it will be effective in the classroom. It may even, as in this case, be counterproductive. Unfortunately the view of empirical research expressed by Weaver (1988) ".....it is impossible to conduct empirical research without affecting the outcome" (p.220) and by Weaver and colleagues “Experimental research is limited in value with regard to education” (Weaver et al., 1997) is common among whole language advocates, and what a teacher does can become a moment-by-moment decision based on some supposedly intuitive understanding of the needs of the immediate situation.
The Early Literacy Inservice Course ELIC program in Australia (Unit 3, Interpreting and using running records) highlighted the importance of self-correction rates, and exhorted teachers to spend considerable time and energy in assessing the self correction rates of all their students regularly. Clay (1969, cited in Share, 1990) noted that good readers self-corrected errors at a higher rate (once to every three or four errors) than did poor readers (once to every eight to twenty errors). She considered high rates were indicative of good text cue integration, which in turn was a measure of reading progress. The value of this activity was questioned by Share (1990) and Thompson (1981, cited in Share, 1990). They found that self-correction rates are confounded with text difficulty. When text difficulty was controlled in reading level-matched designs, the rates of self-correction became similar. That is, when text is very difficult one is more likely to make errors, and thereby increase the rate of self-correction. This is true for good readers and poor readers. Hence, an increased rate of self-correction is more parsimoniously interpreted as indicative of text that is too difficult. The conclusion that there is no direct support for self-correction as a determinant of reading progress makes the activity of recording such ratings for students of questionable value.
Assessment techniques used in whole language classrooms.
Miscue analysis was a major procedure for assessing what strategies children are using in their reading. Goodman and Burke (1970, cited in Allington, 1984) were interested in a qualitative analysis of readers' errors, but they were concerned only with errors that caused a loss of meaning. The number of errors was less important than the immediate impact on comprehension. Hence decoding errors such as reading "ship" for "boat" were indicative of the student using contextual cues appropriately, and a signal for satisfaction about reading progress. The Reading Miscue Inventory (RMI) they developed did not focus on the graphemic and phonemic aspects of oral reading, but children who made errors based on graphemic similarity e.g. "boot" for "boat", would be considered to be over-relying on phonic cues, and in need of encouragement to rely more on context.
Given the current knowledge about reading, the interpretation of the results of the RMI is not helpful to future planning for young readers. It is attentional capacity acknowledged (Laberge & Samuals, 1974; Stanovich, 1986) that a reader has a certain amount of attentional capacity to devote to the reading task. Good readers because of their relatively error-free, automatic, context-free decoding skills are able to devote most of their attention to comprehension. Conversely, most of the attentional capacity of struggling readers is used in battling the code, and focussing on less helpful strategies like context cues. The consequence of this expensive use of attention is that such students have relatively little capacity left for comprehension. The implication of these findings is that the qualitative analysis of reading errors is largely superfluous to planning. Decoding errors of whatever type are best addressed at the level of decoding instruction. Thus the student who makes errors based on contextual strategies, and the student who makes errors based on inadequate grapho-phonic skills both require decoding instruction and practice sufficient for effortless reading at the appropriate level of text difficulty.
The final problem for the Reading Miscue Inventory is its inadequacy as a psychometric instrument (Allington, 1984). Describing Len's (1982) review of oral reading error analysis, Allington presents a number of deficiencies:
(i) Vague definitions of the boundaries of the error categories;
(ii) An absence of theoretical justification for the categories;
(iii) A failure to allow for the effects of passage difficulty. When passage difficulty is controlled (i.e. similar error rates), reliance on context occurs at least as much for less skilled as for skilled readers (Allington & Fleming, 1978; Batey & Sonnenschein, 1981; Biemiller, 1970, 1979; Cohen, 1974-5; Coomber, 1972; Harding, 1984; Juel, 1980; Lesgold & Resnick, 1982; Perfetti & Roth, 1981; Richardson, Di Benedetto & Adler, 1982; Weber, 1970; Whaley & Kibby, 1981; cited in Stanovich, 1986);
(iv) The ambiguity resulting when categorizing multiple-source errors.
The Reading Miscue Inventory has had considerable influence in instructional texts and in classrooms (Allington, 1984), and, unsurprisingly (given the continued belief in the three cueing system), remains influential today. There was a revised version - RMI: Alternative procedures (Goodman, Watson & Burke, 1987); however, the rationale for the revision was unchanged - "it is best to avoid the common sense notion that what the reader was supposed to have read was printed in the text" (Goodman et al, 1987, cited in Weaver, 1988, p. 340). Given the problems with theory, design and implications of the Reading Miscue Inventory its acceptance in the education community remains difficult to fathom.
Providing corrective feedback
Teacher response to error is an area of instructional methodology in which whole language conflicted with much empirical evidence. Corrective feedback, as defined by Kame’enui and Simmons (1990) is "the instructional procedure that directs ... attention to incorrect responses and provides correct information" (p.234). It is an integral element of Direct Instruction programs (Gersten, Woodward and Darch, 1986), effective teaching principles (Yates, 1988; Good & Brophy, 1987), and considered of particular importance to students involved in special education (Fields & Kemp, 1992; Hendrickson & Frank, 1993).
Whole language theorists stressed the importance of students taking responsibility for their own learning and of being prepared to take risks. They also saw correction as an unnecessary interruption to the comprehension process (Emmitt, Hornsby, & Wilson, 2013; Goodman, 1970, 1973; Kemp, 1987; Smith, 1971, cited in Fields & Kemp, 1992), and hence were less supportive of the process. This was sometimes carried to extremes when learners' errors were quite not only acceptable but also "celebrated" (Goodman, 1986, p.47, cited in Liberman & Liberman, 1990), and further, considered "charming indications of growth towards control of language processes" (p.19). The underlying philosophy of naturally occurring development is evident here.
A concern that teachers were ignoring corrective feedback was supported in a study by Fields (1991, cited in Fields & Kemp, 1992). Of 110 primary teachers employing a whole language approach, error correction was the least used of 31 instructional practices described. In a follow up study (Fields & Kemp, 1992), 66 Queensland state primary teachers, who had received formal training on one or other whole language course (e.g. Early Literacy Inservice Course ELIC), and whose approach to teaching met at least nine of the following whole language characteristics, were invited to participate. The characteristics were chosen from descriptions by Reutzel and Hollingsworth (1988), and Slaughter (1988), cited in Fields and Kemp (1992).
1. Indirect instruction (the teacher acts as a collaborator and facilitator);
2. Child centredness (the child's level of development and readiness is considered very carefully);
3. Dialogue and teacher scaffolding (tasks involve frequent teacher-pupil discussion and, where necessary, teacher assistance and support, to solve problems that the child cannot solve);
4. An informal classroom environment;
5. Whole language used in context;
6. Intact literacy events (not an emphasis on substeps or specific skills);
7. Learn by doing;
8. The child's own writing;
9. Authentic oral language (not controlled or modified in any way);
10. Meaning dominated interactive discourse;
11. Pupil-pupil collaboration.
The teachers were provided with descriptions of the oral miscues of 6 hypothetical students and asked what corrections, if any, they would provide. In the majority of cases, self-correction oriented cues were provided, for example, delaying a response, asking the child to re-read, and requesting a meaning check. The authors noted that the content of the feedback would more usefully have been code-based rather than context-based, nevertheless, these teachers were prepared to offer some corrective feedback despite their training which would have been informed that "no amount of explanation, correction, or instruction has any immediate impact on children's language because they direct what they will learn and when they will learn it" (Badger, 1984, p.16). They raised the possibility that some teachers, at least, are aware of "what works" in their classrooms, and perhaps pragmatically incorporated aspects of different models into their reading program.
What was the impact of whole language in Australia
In Australia, in 1993, a National House of Representatives Committee (NHRC) released a report "The Literacy Challenge", noting that in the Australian Capital Territory, South Australia and Western Australia there was a clear acknowledgment that phonics should form part of the teaching of reading. At the same time, the Committee also noted that whole language had Australia-wide support and ".... virtually all curriculum guidelines on primary school literacy teaching produced are based on this approach. .... Virtually all teachers have undertaken the inservice training course, Early Literacy Inservice Course (ELIC), which is also based on a whole language approach to learning and literacy" (p.25).
The NHRC Committee heard much evidence in support of the teaching of phonics, but its recommendations did not include such an emphasis - finishing rather lamely, "The Committee accepts the arguments that there is no single correct method which will suit all children" (p.27). Their recommendations were similarly vague. "All literacy training includes specific instruction in the range of teaching strategies" (p.30). Interestingly, in an appended dissenting report five of the twelve members asserted that "All literacy training include specific instruction in decoding, skill acquisition and spelling" (p.64).
This history of reports being published but not acted upon was also evident following the 2005 National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy (NITL). None of the 20 recommendations was adopted by the government of the day or since. The recommendation below gives an idea of the flavour of the report.
“NITL Recommendation 2. The Committee recommends that teachers provide systematic, direct and explicit phonics instruction so that children master the essential alphabetic code-breaking skills required for foundational reading proficiency” (p.14).
It should be pointed out that there were numerous whole language writers in Australia, the most famous being Brian Cambourne, Jan Turbill, and teacher associations that have long promulgated the WL approach, such as Australian Association for the Teaching of English (AATE) and The Australian Literacy Educators’ Association (ALEA). Their influence on the findings of the NITL report were undeniably strong.
Given the degree of penetration of the Early Literacy Inservice Course (ELIC), it is instructive to examine it in more detail, and in particular in its views on the method and content of reading instruction.
In 1988, the Victorian Ministry of Education released the English Language Framework P-10 Language for Living. This document advocated a whole language approach to English teaching, and, although its recommendations were not compulsory, it was widely adopted in that State. In order to assist teachers to put the model into practice, literacy consultants from the Ministry's School Support Centres were enlisted to provide in-service teacher training. Of the courses offered, the Early Literacy Inservice Course (ELIC) (1984) was the most widely promoted. A ten unit program developed in South Australia, it was designed to be undertaken by groups of teachers after school for 1/2 hour each week with an additional 1 hour per week for between-unit activities and professional reading.
The ten topics were: young children learning language, observing children reading, interpreting and using running records, matching children with books, encouraging reading development, the writing process, encouraging writing development, teaching writing, making programming decisions. The unit texts provide illustrations of appropriate activities, and Unit 5: Encouraging Reading Development is of interest for its title, and for the absence of any reference to teaching. The experiences considered worthwhile were: shared book experience, listening to stories, dictating and writing own stories, frequent silent reading, responding to stories. Further encouragement for the child-centred, discovery nature of the approach appeared in the same Unit booklet: "Children's reading development, like their oral language development, largely depends on their establishment of a self regulating and self improving system" (Badger, 1984, p. 19).
It is clear from this description of the function of the teacher a major difference between the whole language and code emphasis/direct teaching approaches.
Criticisms of WL
Even in the early stage of WL dominance, criticism arose among researchers in particular. Weir (1990) was critical of the foundations and practice of whole language, which she argued led to an increase in illiteracy, and the shifting of blame for poor achievement from the school to the home. By that she meant that the WL belief that reading should develop naturally assumes that the home provided the resources to enable it to occur. Therefore, if reading didn’t develop the initial blame was sheeted to the home.
She also argued that advocates of the WL approach had a responsibility to provide evidence for naturally unfolding development to justify the use of their indirect, process-oriented education. Weir considered that Frank Smith and the Goodmans dominated educational policies without any acceptable research base for their theories. Delpit (1988) was especially concerned about the effects of this progressive style education theory on minority groups. Rather than WL being supportive of personal growth as it claimed, she saw the approach as being disempowering to minority students in particular. "Adherents of process approaches..... create situations in which students ultimately find themselves held accountable for knowing a set of rules about which no one has ever directly informed them" (p.287).
Liberman and Liberman (1990) did not accept that the fault lay with the absence of home resources or the harmful intervention of society through the education system. They argued that reading and speaking are qualitatively different activities, and cannot be expected to be mastered in the same epigenetic manner. They highlighted a number of differences: all humans have developed language systems but only a minority a written form; whereas, speech has a history as old as the species and appears to be biologically driven; written codes, or more accurately, alphabets have a cultural basis and a relatively short history (about 4000 years); speech all around the world is produced in a similar fashion using a limited range of sounds, while scripts are artificial systems that differ enormously across different cultures; whereas speech develops merely through exposure to the speech of others, reading usually requires formal assistance. In this way, Liberman and Liberman concluded that learning to speak and learning to read are qualitatively different. Treating the two forms of language development as similar involves a false assumption, and, they argued, the practices that derive from that assumption are part of the cause of reading failure. Stanovich (1986) agreed, and cited a number of prominent researchers who accept the characterization by Gough and Hillinger (1980) of reading as an "unnatural act" (p.396). In 1994, Stanovich asserted:
“The idea that learning to read is just like learning to speak is accepted by no responsible linguist, psychologist, or cognitive scientist in the research community” (pp. 285-286).
In 1998, an influential report by Snow, Burns, and Griffin under the auspices of the National Research Council was published. Without being explicitly critical of WL, the report made clear the significance of the alphabetic principle, a point made even more strongly by the National Reading panel in 2000.
“Beginning readers need explicit instruction and practice that lead to an appreciation that spoken words are made up of smaller units of sounds, familiarity with spelling-sound correspondences and common spelling conventions and their use in identifying printed words, "sight" recognition of frequent words, and independent reading, including reading aloud. Fluency should be promoted through practice with a wide variety of well-written and engaging texts at the child's own comfortable reading level” (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998, p.7).
Among current researchers, there is clearly a consensus on this issue. It can be found in the Children of the Code (2014) interviews with G. Reid Lyon of National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Dr. Zvia Breznitz, Director, Laboratory for Neurocognitive Research University of Haifa, Dr. Anne Cunningham, Director, Joint Doctoral Program in Special Education with the Graduate School of Education at the University of California-Berkeley, James Wendorf, Executive Director, National Center for Learning Disabilities. Each of them highlights the differences between language development and reading. See at http://www.childrenofthecode.org/library/refs/readingunnatural.htm
Though the naturalist notion is long ago discredited, there remain adherents, such as those involved in the unschooling movement (Gray, 2010). To complicate the issue, almost everyone can produce an anecdote concerning a child who acquired reading skill with little or no assistance. The error is in assuming that such anecdotes represent a reality typical of most students.
The induction of the alphabetic principle
Whole language adherents have not accepted the evidence from science concerning the conditions for reading development. In particular, they have downplayed the significance of the alphabetic principle:
“Children will not learn by trying to relate letters sounds, partly because the task does not make sense to them and partly because written language does not work that way. In my view, reading is not a matter of decoding letters to sound but of bringing meaning to print” (Smith, 1986, p. 41).
“What research has demonstrated is that phonological basis of our language system is vital. It allows us to generate an infinite number of words from a limited range of sounds. Without it we would be reduced, as are animals, to a range of meanings equal to the number of distinct sounds (20-30 perhaps) we can produce. It is phonology (along with syntax) that distinguishes human language systems from other forms of natural communication. Children must have a wonderful capacity for managing the phonology of language - by the age of 6 years the average vocabulary is 13,000 words (Miller, 1977, cited in Liberman & Liberman, 1990).
The key to translating this ability to reading lies in the child's understanding of the alphabetic principle, the basis of English spelling. Because script is composed of graphemes that are roughly similar to the phonemes of spoken words, children must learn how spoken language maps onto written language (Griffith & Olson, 1992). In grasping the alphabetic principle the child needs some level of phonemic awareness (the conscious realization that words can be decomposed into discrete single sounds (phonemes) and letter/sound knowledge (Byrne & Fielding-Barnsley, 1991). This phonemic awareness helps children make sense of instruction about what sounds each letter makes in a word. The child is able to separate out those individual sounds (segmenting) when they are presented in the context of the word's other sounds. Without phonemic awareness the child is forced to memorize complete word patterns, but is unable to manage novel words. As the memory demands escalate, memorizing the letter landscape will become a less and less reliable strategy, and the child will become unduly reliant upon less effective strategies such as context cues.
Research has also highlighted the significance of other phonological processes, but there is already an enormous weight of evidence that a deficit in the area of phonemic awareness during the time of learning to read are a strong factor for the discrepancy between the ease of learning to talk and learning to read (Ball & Blachman, 1991; Tangel & Blachman, 1992). For information on these other processes, see http://www.educationnews.org/articles/beyond-phonemic-awareness-the-role-of-other-phonological-abilities.html
A feature of English that makes it difficult for some children to grasp the alphabetic principle is that while written words consist of a sequence of discrete graphemes, the spoken word consists of co-articulated sounds blended into a continuous rapidly-produced stream. Some children have great difficulty with the analysis of these co-articulated phonemes. The folding together of vowels and consonants alters their individual sounds, permitting speaking rates of 10-20 phonemes per second (Liberman & Liberman, 1990) effortlessly, automatically, seamlessly, and unconsciously.
Someone must have first noticed that words like "cat" and "bat" shared some similarity and that they could be represented more economically by sharing that similarity in the written form also. This was a significant linguistic discovery because it allows each phonological element to be recognized by a special shape and anyone who knew the shape and consciously understood the internal structure of words, could read. This is the discovery every beginning reader must make alone - unless someone explains it.
Whole language approaches assume that children will discover the alphabetic principle through exposure to print and through their writing experiences. In homes where early literacy experiences include an interest in the structure of language, it is likely that most children are not unduly disadvantaged by this failure to make explicit the importance of our language's structure. Unfortunately, when phonemic awareness is developed neither at home nor at school, children are unnecessarily placed at risk of failing at the task of reading.
Invented spelling, as sometimes used in writing activities, can be a useful brief, initial adjunct on the path to phonemic awareness and literacy (Sénéchal, Ouellette, Pagan, & Lever, 2012). However, it is less so in the WL approach which precludes corrective feedback, and assumes that closer and closer approximations to accurate spelling will occur naturally, thereby leading to conventional spelling. This restriction leads to over-optimism about the utility of the invented spelling strategy generally. Bryant and Bradley (1985) pointed out that children initially read and spell words in quite different ways, and hence invented spelling activities may contribute little to reading progress. Similarly, Thompson, Fletcher-Finn and Cottrell (1991, cited in Tunmer & Hoover, 1993) found that any knowledge of phoneme-to-letter correspondences acquired through invented spelling activities did not automatically transfer as knowledge of letter-to-phoneme correspondences in reading.
Many researchers at the time (Stahl & Miller, 1989; Stanovich, 1986; Prior, Sanson, Smart & Oberklaid, 1994; Blachman, 1991; Grossen & Carnine, 1990; Byrne & Fielding-Barnsley, 1989; Groff, 1990) considered the notion of learning by "discovery" cavalier, and prejudicial to the progress of at-risk students - those least likely to induce the alphabetic principle, and who make up the majority of the children who do not learn to read adequately.
In 1998, an influential report by Snow, Burns, and Griffin under the auspices of the National Research Council was published. Without being explicitly critical of WL, the report made clear the significance of the alphabetic principle, a point made even more strongly by the National Reading Panel in 2000.
Beginning readers need explicit instruction and practice that lead to an appreciation that spoken words are made up of smaller units of sounds, familiarity with spelling-sound correspondences and common spelling conventions and their use in identifying printed words, "sight" recognition of frequent words, and independent reading, including reading aloud. Fluency should be promoted through practice with a wide variety of well-written and engaging texts at the child's own comfortable reading level” (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998, p.7).
The tension between constructivist ideologies and direct teaching continues across the basic skills in education, not solely in reading development. The case for explicit instruction over discovery is strong:
“Research almost universally supports explicit instructional practices (Archer & Hughes, 2011; Kirschner, Sweller, & Clark, 2006; Klahr & Nigam, 2004; Marchand-Martella, Slocum, & Martella, 2004). Explicit instructional approaches are considered more effective and efficient as compared to discovery-based approaches (Alfieri, Brooks, Aldrich, & Tenenbaum, 2010; Ryder, Tunmer, & Greaney, 2008), particularly when students are naïve or struggling learners” (Marchand-Martella, Martella, Modderman, Petersen, & Pan, 2013, p.166).
“After half a century of advocacy associated with instruction using minimal guidance, it appears that there is no body of sound research that supports using the technique with anyone other than the most expert students. Evidence from controlled experimental (a.k.a. “gold standard”) studies almost uniformly supports full and explicit instructional guidance rather than partial or minimal guidance for novice to intermediate learners. These findings and their associated theories suggest teachers should provide their students with clear, explicit instruction rather than merely assisting students in attempting to discover knowledge themselves” (Clark, Kirschner, & Sweller, 2012, p.11).
Whole Language Research
Perhaps because of the distaste for quantitative research displayed by many whole language advocates (Groff, 1990) few empirical studies have been published to support the whole language assumption that the alphabetic principle will be induced.
“One of the anonymous reviewers of our article offered this observation: ‘In essence, it is no longer a scientific issue since the whole language people share a system of beliefs and they claim they have evidence to support their beliefs. But, when you look up what they cite as evidence, it is often just someone else’s published beliefs’” (McKenna et al., 1990, p. 12).
One study of note (Klesius, Griffiths, Zielonka, 1991) compared a traditional basal approach and a whole language approach at Year 1 level. The basal approach did not have a synthetic phonics basis or teach phonemic awareness. The results indicated that although the whole language group achievement was lower than the traditional instruction group on all measures, none of the differences was significant. Unfortunately, those who began the year with low phonemic awareness skills remained so, and showed slower reading progress. This finding is in line with arguments that not only whole language programs but meaning-emphasis and analytic phonics-based programs that do not make explicit the alphabetic principle are ineffective for at-risk students (Chall, 1987; Bateman, 1991; Grossen & Carnine, 1990; Vellutino, 1991). "What they need to know, and what their experience with language has not taught them, is no more and no less than the alphabetic principle" (Liberman & Liberman, 1990, p. 72).
So, how did whole language supporters respond to the criticisms during these years?
There were several dimensions to their reply. One was to gradually retire the use of the term whole language and to replace it with balanced literacy. This term was intended to represent something of a compromise between whole language protagonists and those who supported initial explicit phonics instruction. The implication was that combining the two approaches would produce superior outcomes to either alone, as the best of each approach is present. The notion of balance is very appealing, and the easiest way for protagonists to resolve a dispute. Few people relish disharmony, and they feel pressure to alleviate it. However, it is not necessarily the most effective solution for the objects of the decisions – students.
The move prompted Moats in 2000 to respond “The concept of balance “implies … that worthy ideas and practices from both whole language and code-emphasis approaches to reading have been successfully integrated into an eclectic mix that should go down easily with teachers and kids.” But, she explained, “ … it is too easy for practitioners, while endorsing ‘balance,’ to continue teaching whole language” (Finn & Davis, 2007, p. 8).
Further, many of the differences between WL and code emphasis programs outlined above are not amenable to compromise. How does one reconcile the three cueing system with primacy of phonics? Reading-is-as-natural-as-speech vs reading as learned code? Teaching only in authentic context vs subskill teaching? Phonological skills as irrelevant vs important? Correction as demeaning vs as helpful? Practice as drill-and-kill vs as a means to fluency?
The areas in which people see a balance being achieved usually involves those aspects of learning to read that are not exclusively WL.
- we need committed teachers who care about their students and establish good relationships with them
- that vocabulary/oral language development is very important, and should be promoted at home and school
- that beginning texts should have lots of simple and oft-repeated words, and be interesting to children
- that reading and writing are mutually supportive
- that children are treated with respect, and their prior knowledge and interests taken into account.
All reading programs should have these principles incorporated; however, they alone do not constitute effective reading instruction. So, the incompatible aspects of code-emphasis and WL programs remain stark.
Moats continues to be a strong critic:
“Today, therefore, reading curricula such as Four Blocks and Guided Reading, as well as programs that adopt the whole language fig leaf known as “balanced literacy,” thrive still. Each claim that its approaches and materials square with SBRR (scientifically-based reading research), but this is a ruse” (Moats, 2007, p.13).
Another response to criticism was to decry experimental research (as opposed to qualitative methods, such as case study) as the appropriate foundation for educational decision making (Calfee, 2014).
“We need to dislodge the discourses on “what works” (Friedrich, 2014, p.12).
“Which works better? is a question emanating from the instrumental rationality of the dominant paradigm. It foregrounds method and efficiency rather than purpose - How to do it? rather than Why do it? or Whose interests does it serve?” (Edelsky, 1990, p. 9).
Some have preferred to rewrite the research findings:
“Research indicates that meaning based instruction for students who are experiencing difficulties in learning to read is more effective than narrowly focused skills based instruction” (Emmitt, Hornsby, & Wilson, 2013, p.18).
“The research overwhelmingly favors holistic, literature-centered approaches to reading. Indeed, the proof is massive and overwhelming” (Zemelman, Daniels, & Bizar, 1999, p. 513).
The notion that an emphasis primarily on skills and phonics instruction produces superior results to programs centered on providing children with a lot of interesting and comprehensible texts is not supported by the available evidence" (McQuillan, 1998, p. 66).
“Though many critics see whole language as a passing fad, its principles are based on more than 20 years of research on language learning from around the world” (Routman, 1997, p.72).
Others considered empirical research to be an inappropriate vehicle for answering questions regarding what works. For example, Stephen Krashen has been a long-time supporter of the whole language approach and encouraged many schools to implement Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) in the classroom. When the National Reading Panel (NRP, 2000) analysed the evidence and found little positive to recommend the practice, Krashen’s response was to claim the NRP research was flawed, and that his personal analysis shows the technique to be effective. Among the evidence for his position, he suggests:
“Case histories provide convincing verification of the power of (SSR) reading. While not considered by some to be "scientific," they clearly are … . In Krashen (1993) I described the cases of Malcolm X and Richard Wright, both of whom achieved very high levels of literacy, and both of whom attributed their literacy development to self-selected reading” (Krashen, 2004, p.1).
Opportunity to respond that is considered a critical variable underlying student progress. One of the reasons why SSR reading has not been supported may be that its private nature reduces opportunities for academic responding:
“The purpose of this study was to examine the opportunities for academic responding during teacher-facilitated instruction for kindergarten students at-risk for reading difficulties during classroom, Tier I, reading instruction. Our first aim was to document the amount of time individual students were academically responding during teacher-facilitated reading instruction. We found students at-risk for reading difficulties were academically responding to reading-related tasks for small amounts of time (approximately 3–4 % of the instructional block). Even less time was spent academically responding by reading print (approximately 1 % of the instructional block). These data suggest that, on average, students in our sample who were at-risk for reading difficulties spent the majority of their time in passive learning tasks (e.g., listening to the teacher or peers) and/or independent tasks without teacher assistance during Tier I instruction” (Wanzek, Roberts, & Al Otaiba, 2014, p.69).
Ignoring the elephant in the room, Gilles (2006) provides alternative speculation as to why there was so much criticism of WL. She asserts that WL was misinterpreted, misunderstood, and unfairly maligned:
- The mandating of WL was a mistake because it incensed “traditional” teachers.
- Parents (especially fundamentalist Christians) failed to appreciate the benefits of WL, and were also manipulated by the far right to oppose WL.
- Traditional reading theorists attacked WL.
- The media was typically negative about the WL approach.
- Accountability issues, such as in California, cast WL in a bad light.
- The National Reading Panel’s (2000) report did not support WL.
- The No Child Left Behind initiative discouraged teachers from using WL.
To many whole language devotees, criticism on pedagogical grounds was irrelevant, because their commitment was primarily political rather than educational. “Whole language educators have been and always will be political” (Taylor, 2007, p. 2). In 1996, Church wrote
“While I believe that teachers must bring a more critical stance to their teaching, I am convinced that there is equally significant political work to be done outside the classroom … We know from our earlier experiences with whole language that even our less overtly political challenges to the status quo did not sit easily within the hierarchical school system. … I believe that we all need to make institutional structures, practices, and relationships the focus for our critique and projects of possibilities” (Church, 1996, cited in Taylor, 2007, p. 3).
Friedrich (2014) ascribes great importance to “the democratic goal of using teacher education to foster a more just society” (p.5). He proceeds to describe a somewhat anarchic scene as a desirable model of teacher education.
“One of the difficulties here is that this is anything but “evidence-based” teaching, as the alleged certainty of proven methods is taken out of the equation. This experimental guideline does not aim at replacing one privileged and universalized translation lens with another, as each discipline would have its own ordering and contingent principles. What is behind this reasoning is not some sort of belief in magical qualities that “natural” teachers might have. On the contrary, what I am proposing is founded on nothing but trust in the intelligence of everybody, in the capacity of any teacher to bring the specific reasoning of each discipline to their students, and the potential of keeping uncertainty (in the results of inquiry, in the effects of teaching, in the agency of students) as a democratic core of education. … The experimental recommendations I have proposed do not work under the same assumptions. They cannot be used as recipes, and are not founded on evidence-based research. These guidelines present what I call “normative minimalism,” that is, a set of general orientations based on one principle: if teacher education is to produce teachers that see themselves as intellectuals that can break out of their own common sense and challenge the ways in which schools function and open the door for democracy to enter (Ruitemberg, n.d.), then the very foundations of teacher education need to be shaken. This cannot be a discussion of needing more of this and less of that, in which the terms are never analyzed. What we need is a shift in the very paradigms under which we have been producing the conditions for the present to take place as the only possible present, in order to open up our imaginations for new possibilities and new subjectivities” (Friedrich, 2014, p. 13-15).
It is easy to see how such fundamental beliefs would be impervious to the evidence arising from empirical research that whole language was not effective as an instructional model. Further, it allows some understanding of the penchant for some WL writers to dismiss the findings of research by alleging that the researchers are driven by political motives themselves, using terms such as conservative, Christian, and far right wing as arguments against the findings.
“However, the name whole language may be finished. The label has been so savaged by misunderstanding, disinformation, media banalities, and the hubris of a few proponents, that its utility is now severely compromised. What classroom teacher would want to publically affiliate with whole language in this climate – when virtually every school has at least one implacable right-wing parent, incited through newsletters and trained in church-based workshops to undermine, humiliate, and root-out educators who espouse the approach? Indeed, it seems easier to just drop the terminology – to simply be a holistic teacher, rather than talk about it. Why not just quietly attend the meeting of your local TAWL group (soon to be picketed just like abortion clinics, no doubt), and rename your classroom program “integrated”” (Daniels, 1995-6, p. 7-8).
“Conservatives look to education mainly to supply basic skills for a competent labor force -- skills taught one at a time and tested by standardized, impersonal instruments -- while progressives want school mainly to nurture active citizens and creative individuals. … When research is touted … this old, ongoing debate is probably the subtext” (Zemelman, Daniels, & Bizar, 1999).
“The antagonism of the Christian Right to these (WL) programs is based on a fear of losing control over their children's thinking, rather than any compelling empirical data” (Berliner, 1996).
NCLB was a “conservative movement to privatize American education present[ing] itself as a reform movement” (Goodman, Shannon, Goodman, & Rapoport, 2004, p. 5).
Ad hominem attacks are classic signs of an ideological response to uncomfortable evidence that what one has been espousing may not be helpful. It is only if the ideologically-based beliefs override individuals’ critical faculties that responses of this kind supplant those based upon reason and data. So, if one’s political belief about whole language is that it must be the truth, then those disagreeing with WL as effective must be wrong. Further, the WL critics are necessarily wrong, regardless of their arguments, so they must be opposed. In the absence of strong legitimate arguments against them, recourse to vitriol and accusation becomes necessary. In logic, this form of debate appears to fit under the category of the begging the question fallacy, in which one assumes a claim to be true as evidence for that claim. WL must be true, therefore the evidence contradicting it must be wrong.
Can whole language and phonics be reconciled?
The problem of unsystematic and indirect teaching of phonic skills being ineffective for some students was addressed by Eldredge (1991). He compared a number of first grade programs using a whole language approach with a similar cohort using similar programs with the addition of 15 minutes of synthetic phonics. The modified program group scored significantly higher on all literacy measures after one year. To the extent that a well-designed phonics program can enable the development of the alphabetic principle, the addition of instruction in phonics should enhance the outcomes in whole language classes, and there was increasing evidence that it did so. However, in order for whole language advocates to adopt such strategies an adjustment to the philosophies behind their practices would have be required. Whole language philosophy has always been relatively impervious to the results of research, and this continued. In fact, McCaslin (1989) presciently warned that a major problem for the future development of whole language was its assumption that an empirical research perspective was responsible for inappropriate practice.
Ball (1993) also noted the gulf between the WL lack of attention to the structure of language and the consistent research on the causal link between metalinguistic awareness and reading development. In her view, the pedagogical battle between code-emphasis and whole language supporters was reflective of a broader debate evident in many of the social sciences - between those who support a reductionist, positivist philosophy of science and those who adopt a holistic, post-positivist, relativistic stance. This gulf continues to be evident between skills-based and constructivist models (Maune, 2013).
In Groff's (1990) view the reading dispute narrowed down to the question of what constitutes the reality of reading behaviour. To relativists, such as Weaver (1988), all empirical research is futile in determining teaching practice, because in performing the research we cannot avoid affecting the outcome, thereby confounding results. Relativists view reality as phenomenological, that is, it has no existence independent of our unique individual perspective. They tend to favour ethnographic approaches, such as case studies and classroom observation, as the appropriate means of enquiry, because those strategies do not interfere with naturally occurring processes. Empiricists view reality as "essentially cognitive transcending" (Rescher, 1982 cited in Groff, 1990), and see ethnographic research as useful for raising, rather than answering, questions about teaching practice.
In a comprehensive examination of the philosophical underpinnings of the education system in the USA, Stone (1996) decried the influence of developmentalism, which he considered pervaded classrooms and teacher training institutions to the detriment of students. Stone described the history of developmentalism as reaching back to Rousseau, and including Dewey, Piaget, Hall, Gesell, James, and Vygotsky as major contributors to the primacy of naturally occurring development, and to the suspicion accorded to interventive approaches that inevitably harm is the outcome of interference with the natural order.
If decisions are to be made about government-supported approaches to reading then the question of who will evaluate claims of the two sides becomes critical. Groff (1990) suggested a commission of disinterested scholars who would determine firstly whether empirical research is admissible as a valid means of enquiry. Unfortunately, this would be unlikely to de-polarize the debate. Keith Stanovich (1994), one of the foremost researchers and commentators on reading, argued that the weakness of educational decision-making lay in its vulnerability to faddish swings, a view also supported by Stone (1996). In Stanovich's view, it was the failure of policy makers to base decisions on empirical research, and their uncritical acceptance of the glib assurances of gurus, that led to dissatisfaction in the wider educational community.
He proposed that competing claims to knowledge should be evaluated according to three criteria. First, findings should be published in refereed journals. If research is to be useful it must be well designed, and able to justify its findings. When peer review is part of the process of research the well-known taunt "research can prove anything you want" becomes less valid. Poorly designed studies are rejected (often to appear in unrefereed journals).
Second, reported results should be replicated by independent researchers. One feels more comfortable when research findings are repeated in studies where the researchers have no particular stake in the outcome.
Third, there is a consensus within the appropriate research community about the reliability and validity of the findings. This last criterion requires considerable reading across the field, but the frequency with which a particular study is cited, and accepted as legitimate, in journal articles provides one measure. While the use of these criteria cannot guarantee infallibility it does offer reasonable consumer protection against spurious claims to knowledge. For example, were such tests used over the past 30 years to determine best practice, we would never have accepted the claims that learning to read is as natural and effortless as learning to speak; or that good readers use contextual cues to guide their reading, using print only to confirm their predictions. Yet these unsubstantiated (and demonstrably false) claims were accepted and generations of teachers pressured, through initial teacher-training and subsequent education department sponsored in-service, to implement practices derived from them. Such erroneous practices have been especially damaging to vulnerable students - those who aren't self-sustaining, who can't afford ineffective strategies, who rely on teachers rather than their parents to educate them.
There is no doubt that the sheer weight of evidence running counter to basic whole language postulates had an impact at a policy level. In the USA the Report of the Commission on Reading, Becoming a Nation of Readers (Anderson et al., 1985) supported the empirical approach "The trend of the data favours explicit phonics" (p.42). In 1986 the US Congress contracted Marilyn Jager Adams to write a book about the critical elements in teaching beginning reading. Her book, "Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print" (1990), was a milestone in that it synthesized from a variety of fields research that impinges on reading development. These research areas include education, psychology, linguistics, neurology and physiology. Her book, recommending early and sustained intervention in teaching the structure of our language to beginning readers, was very influential despite being roundly condemned by whole language supporters (Goodman, 1991). It at least represented a scholarly focus for debate and dialogue. Ten years later, the report of the National Reading Panel (2000) was a watershed moment for the WL vs explicit teaching dispute. In England, the National Literacy Strategy (1998) and the Primary National Strategy (2006) produced a similar change in policy (though it was not necessarily dramatically evident in the classroom). To a lesser extent the National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy (2005) recommended that instruction be driven by evidence. However, there were significant compromises in its recommendations, and little change in the practice of literacy instruction arose in Australia as a consequence. However, the impact of national testing is beginning to have an impact on state and federal initiatives.
Vellutino (1991), in a review of reading instruction, agreed that good teachers quickly became aware of the limitations of a whole language philosophy. If this were true, then it is possible that those teachers who claim to be whole language teachers were, in fact, offering an eclectic program without the deficiencies in the purist model. Unfortunately, little was known about the existence or prevalence of such classrooms, although some whole language theorists believed it would be problematic if such eclecticism occurred. Newman (1991) despaired that the theoretical and political beliefs supporting whole language were never accepted by some teachers who may be "teaching whole language in the afternoons" (p.73). She argues that only by being thoroughly imbued with the spirit can the "moment-by-moment judgments" (p.74) needed in teaching be made appropriately. Mather (1992), like Pearson (1989), believed that good teachers will always use what is effective, but was concerned about inexperienced teachers, and those who are less analytic about their practices. She saw many students in whole language classrooms as victims of "poor programs produced in the heat of intense ideological debate" (p.93).
Ultimately, it was not enough to hope that teachers will make the right decisions in the classroom despite inadequacies in their training. It became clear that an approach that found to be fundamentally flawed had to either be revised or replaced.
Vellutino (1991) and other researchers (Bateman, 1991; Liberman & Liberman, 1990; Ball, 1993; Weir, 1990; Groff, 1990; Byrne & Fielding-Barnsley, 1989; Blachman, 1991; Solman & Stanovich, 1992; Byrne, 1991; Nicholson, Bailey & McArthur, 1991; Stahl & Miller, 1989, Eldredge, 1991; Gersten & Dimino, 1993; Rayner & Pollatsek, 1989; Tunmer & Hoover, 1993) agreed that whole language was not a comprehensive approach to reading instruction.
While some authors (Groff, 1991; Liberman & Liberman, 1990) found little to recommend it, others believed that with modification to its methods of teaching, and to the content included, it could be recast into a generally acceptable and comprehensive approach (Chaney, 1990; Gersten & Dimino, 1993; Heymsfield, 1989; MacGinitie, 1991; Prior et al, 1994; Spiegel, 1992). Some (e.g., Stahl & Miller, 1989) consider it a valuable introduction to reading, but of less value beyond an orientating function, while others (Ball, 1993) feared that the differences were so fundamental to make rapprochement impossible without a change in the basic philosophy of whole language. The notion of balanced instruction was a later response to the same concern.
Given the body of evidence in support of phonemic awareness and the alphabetic principle as major elements of reading success, it became harder to accept that whole language could remain immune and unyielding, and still maintain credibility as a model of reading acquisition endorsed by state and federal governments. Some hoped that the reasonableness of the position taken by Foorman (1995), Heymsfield (1989), or the improved student outcomes obtained by adding code instruction to a whole language program, as described by Castle, Riach, and Nicholson (1994), Eldredge (1991), Heymsfield (1992), and Uhry and Shepherd (1993) would enable the evolution of WL into a more comprehensive and effective model, better able to meet the educational needs of the diverse group of learners in our classrooms.
Certainly if one examines empirically accepted findings such as summarized by Vellutino (1991), it is difficult to accept WL as the ideal status quo.
(a) The most basic skill in learning to read is word identification; (b) an adequate degree of fluency in word identification is a basic pre-requisite to successful reading comprehension; (c) word identification in skilled readers is a fast acting, automatic, and in effect modular process that depends little on contextual information for its execution; (d) even skilled readers can accurately predict no more than one word out of four in sentence-contexts, indicating that the predictive role of context must be extremely limited; (e) because of limited facility in word identification, beginning and poor readers are much more dependent on context than are more advanced and good readers; (f) facility in alphabetic coding is critically important to the acquisition of skill in word identification; (g) phoneme awareness and facility in phoneme analysis are critically important to the acquisition of skill in alphabetic coding. Each of these generalizations is contrary to the approach to reading instruction currently advocated by whole language proponents (Vellutino, 1991, p.442).
When the National Reading Panel report was released, it indicated that whole language was less effective than explicit instruction. “Students taught phonics systematically outperformed students who were taught a variety of nonsystematic or non-phonics programs, including basal programs, whole language approaches, and whole-word programs” (NRP, 2000, p.87).
Hattie (2009) in his now famous analysis of 800 meta-analyses concluded that the effect size for whole language was a negligible 0.06. He notes that unless an effect size of at least 0.4 can be attained, the intervention is not worthwhile. This is a damning finding.
One of the few recent studies into WL model Faust and Kandelshine-Waldman (2011) found:
“Moreover, the results of this study imply that any improvement in basic processes involved in reading proficiency produced by the whole language approaches to reading instruction for both the normal and the low achieving readers dissipates by grade three” (p.545).
There has been a great deal of interest in the exploration of how the brain deals with the task of reading development, and how it might best be promoted. The outcomes have not favoured indirect approaches, such as those employed within the whole language model.
“We now know that the whole-language approach is inefficient; all children regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds benefit from explicit and early teaching of the correspondences between letters and speech sounds. This is a well-established fact, corroborated by a great many classroom experiments. Furthermore, it is coherent with our present understanding of how the reader’s brain works” (Dehaene, 2009, p. 326).
Thus, the whole language model has been discredited by the results of theoretical and empirical research (Faust & Kandelshine-Waldman, 2011; Moats, 2000; Moats, 2007), and more recently by neuroscience (Dehaene, 2009).
“The whole-language approach today has been officially abandoned. Nonetheless, I suspect that the issue is still alive in many a teacher’s mind because whole-language advocates are still firmly entrenched in their positions. They are convinced that their approach is best suited to children’s needs. In France as well as in the United States, efforts to reconcile the two camps have lead to the adoption of an unhealthy compromise called “mixed” or “balanced reading” instruction” (Dehaene, 2009, pp. 220, 221).
How did WL flourish for so long?
Thouless (1953) Law of Certainty: “If statements are made again and again in a confident manner, then their hearers will tend to believe them quite independently of their soundness and of the presence or absence of evidence for their truth.” What he was referring to was a tendency for humans to accept claims based on how often they are repeated instead of what evidence exists for them. Lewis Carroll predated Thouless, and perhaps had the same idea in The hunting of the snark: “What I tell you three times is true” (1876, para 2). Further psychological principles of interest include The mere exposure effect (Borstein, 1989) which notes that repeated exposure to something, be it an idea or policy, tends to evoke an increasingly positive attitude to it (a principle not lost on marketers, politicians, and advertising executives). Lee (1994) found that the impact was not attenuated by knowing about the effect.
In a related finding, Brown and Nix (1996) established the frequency-validity effect, which found that the degree of truth attributed to a stimulus is directly proportional to the number of repetitions. Then there’s The truth effect (Schwartz, 1982), arguing that when messages of dubious truth are repeated, over time humans tend to increase their perception of truth. In other words, their critical faculties seem to be gradually overwhelmed. Chinese water torture?
So, it seems we can be prey to making judgements based upon familiarity in the absence of a previous strong knowledge of, or attitude to, the content. Repetition increases our familiarity, so we tend to become more accepting of the repeated message. This familiarity may be enhanced if some component of the question is consonant with our knowledge or values.
In the case of whole language, we see how the WL underpinning of democracy and equality is consistent with the philosophy of many people. So, one aspect of WL is readily accepted because people are familiar with, and sympathetic to, this aspect. Further, who could quibble with the objectives of a literate and well informed society? However, very few are familiar with the answers to the technical question as to the optimum approach to this end – especially regarding the teaching of reading. So, they make judgements about all of WL based on familiarity and agreement with part of the model. If at the same time, the alternative approach (code emphasis instruction) can be portrayed as less democratic, less egalitarian – all the better to encourage people to base their decisions about WL on the feel-good, familiarity factor. This is, of course, precisely what happened as is seen below. Further, the criterion of the sufficiently repeated message leading to increasing familiarity and acceptance was amply demonstrated over the 1980s and 1990s by the wholesale acceptance and promulgation by education departments, teacher organisations, and teacher education faculties.
Whole language - the homeopathy of education?
In the discredited alternative medical practice, homeopathy, a substance producing the symptoms of a disease in healthy people is expected to cure similar symptoms in ill people. The substance is diluted to infinitesimally small amounts – basically one drop in an ocean.
In homeopathy, the amount of active ingredient is so small as to be undetectable. In WL, the need for instruction and knowledge to assist students develop literacy is treated by infinitesimally small amounts of instruction and knowledge of reading. Though WL claims to include phonics among its practices, it has been diluted to such an extent that it too is virtually undetectable as a significant component of reading instruction.
In homeopathy, empirical evidence has failed to find an effect – especially for people with an illness. In WL, empirical evidence has failed to find any effect – especially for students with learning difficulties. Yet, both WL and homeopathy continue to find a niche.
OK, OK – it’s drawing a long bow!
Behind both practices lies an unshakeable belief in an idea that is unsupported by evidence. Interestingly it was Goodman (1986) who said "Phonics is a flat-earth view of the world, since it rejects modern science about reading and writing and how they develop” (p.39). Modern science, indeed!
In recent years, governments have shown a distinct preparedness to examine the effectiveness of programs that compete for the scarce education dollar. One positive result has been a shift towards accountability via objectively assessed student-outcomes. Whereas, teachers were once viewed by authorities as best left to their own devices – times have changed, and the national and international assessment programs have ensured a higher level of transparency than has previously been available (at least in Australia). Those in education unions, teacher education, and various teacher organisations have railed against this change, but their position of leave us alone – we know best is becoming less and less credible to parents and to governments.
“Schools do not need "improvement strategies" … they need teachers - you know, those who have been entrusted by society to teach children to live well” (Fotinopoulos, 2014, p.20).
One of the oft-heard complaints from researchers in this field is that educational decision-making has been too often driven by ideology, or by uncritically accepted innovation. Part of the reason for this situation, it has been argued, is that teacher education neither emphasises evidence-based practice as a guiding principle, nor has it equipped teachers with an understanding of how to teach reading using such an approach. There have been various theories as to why teacher education academics eschew such components of their courses, including a largely constructivist orientation, but a relatively new potential reason was recently provided by Binks-Cantrell, Washburn, Joshi, and Hougen (2012):
“Although a lack of teacher expertise in basic language constructs has been demonstrated in previous studies, little research has focused on the knowledge and abilities of the teachers of teachers. This study addressed an area of research that could be vital to improving the high incidence of reading difficulties and low reading achievement seen in U.S. schools today—the level of understanding of those teaching our teachers. The results of this study showed that teacher educators do not possess a good understanding of basic language constructs (also see Joshi, Binks, Hougen, Dahlgren, et al., 2009). This may be at least one reason for poor teacher understanding—as teacher educators cannot give what they themselves do not possess. Effective teaching is the best weapon against reading failure, and, in order for preservice teacher preparation to be improved, an increase in teacher educators’ understanding of the critical basic language constructs of reading is needed” (p.534-5).
There is now a greater opportunity for those of an empirical bent to influence such result-driven policy makers towards educational practices with legitimate theoretical and research support. Even a cursory reading of the popular media over recent years indicates that there is a real and growing dissatisfaction with the state of literacy in Australia and in other English speaking countries, and that this dissatisfaction is centred on the manner in which it is being taught in our schools.
“Here I want to briefly examine some basic considerations, from the perspective of a scientist who studies how reading works, which suggest that how reading is taught is indeed a significant part of the literacy problem in the United States and other countries. There are three main points: (a) Contemporary reading science has had little impact on educational practice mainly because of a two-culture problem separating science and education; (b) This disconnection has been harmful. Current practices rest on outdated assumptions about reading and development that make learning to read harder than it needs to be, a sure way to leave many children behind; (c) Connecting the science to educational practice would be beneficial but is extremely difficult to achieve. The current environment limits the amount of collaborative work at the all-important translational interface. In the United States, the conflicting and often strongly entrenched interests of various stakeholders—educators, politicians, scientists, taxpayers, labor organizations, parent groups—make it hard to achieve meaningful change within the existing institutional structure of public education” (Seidenberg, 2013, p.340-1).
The pendulum may have swung, but who is prepared to promote well-founded reform at the political level? Who is prepared to take up the issue with the decision-makers to create the structural changes necessary to rescue our system? Researchers have traditionally shied away from such overt involvement in the process of exerting influence. Yet they are an important part of an assembly that should also include teachers, parents, teacher educators, speech pathologists, school consultants, such as educational psychologists, and any other interested parties. Evidence, numbers, conviction, energy, and political (and media) influence are all elements needed to create change in a system. For the sake of those not well served by the current system - who are unable to influence their predictably bleak future - it is surely time to stop fiddling around the edges of the problem. It is time to address the core issue: the manner in which we approach beginning reading instruction and the proper role of teacher education.
Thus, the discussion around WL is best seen as reflective of a broader malaise that has long afflicted educational decision making – the failure to attend to empirical research as the major determinant of educational policy and practice.
For more on the issue of evidence-based practice, see http://www.nifdi.org/news-latest-2/blog-hempenstall/387-first-blog-evidence-based-practice
Finally, see below for an example of WL desperation when their hegemony is threatened. In 2009 in New South Wales, Australia, the state government announced a plan involving a direct comparison of phonics-based reading methods with other techniques. One of the longtime WL luminaries, Brian Cambourne, responded with a cloak and dagger plot hoping to prevent the study proceeding. Although I had nothing to do with the study or with the program, which involved the respected reading program for struggling students, MultiLit (one that includes a phonics emphasis) my name seems to have become associated with it in Cambourne’s mind. He sent out an email to a network of literacy educators, which is reproduced below:
Subject: Re: [Literacy_inquiry] Different reading methods on trial (The Australian Article)
Colleagues I agree with David. Perhaps instead of letters to the editor we flood (Minister) Verity's office with information about the proposed "experiment"? My take on framing theory is that one approach is to link Hempenstall and Multi-link to failed theory, practice, programs, and metaphors/ analogies which can be linked to "failure" in the minister's mind, at an almost subconscious level. A series of short email messages sent to the Ministers' office which makes these links but from different perspectives of reading and literacy is what I have in mind. Here are some perspectives I just thought of which any of us could choose from to compose and send such messages messages to Verity's office.
1.Messages which link what Multi-lit and Hempenstall are on about to the conceptual metaphor "Readicide"-- which is defined thus: "Read-i-cide" : noun. The systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools" (Gallagher, K (2009) Readicide: How Schools Are killing Reading And What We Can do About It", Stenhouse Publishers, Maine)
2.Any messages which link Hempestall and Multi-Lit to the failed Reading First programs in USA- There's lots of good quotes from the USA on how unsuccessful Reading First was and how it failed to improve comprehension scores. KH and Multi lit are based on the same theory and assumptions which cost the USA 6 Billion dollars .
3. Messages which point out the Hempenstall and Multilit make assumptions about effective reading which are quite flawed-- Hempenstall's confusion around the cuing systems indicates how bereft he is of understanding that reading is language-based and not merely a psycho-perceptual process.
4.The assumption that decoding to sound is a pre-requisite for reading alphabetically based scripts has been shown to be quite false from a multiplicity of perspectives including: a) evolution theory, b)deaf kids, ( Helen Keller) c)the history of writing and reading, ( Chinese, cunieform, hieroglyphic scripts can be read and written as logographs) d)the way we read homographs and homonyms ( don't know how to pronounce until we've gone to meaning first) e) Modern cognitive science and brain-based learning
Messages which link Hempenstall and Multilit to the flawed science that Bush instigated and Obama has just started to overturn.
In any message we state explicitly state that phonics is essential for spelling and word knowledge, an are best taught as part of learning to write . Feel free to compose a short message to send off to Verity's office on any one of these perspectives. Anyone know her email address?
Assoc. Prof. ( Dr) Brian Cambourne
Faculty of Education
University of Wollongong
Northfields Rd Wollongong
When a The Australian newspaper (Ferrari, 2009) confronted Cambourne about the email, some of his responses included:
Asked why he had to resort to a subliminal campaign instead of relying on evidence, Professor Cambourne first said: "You don't really believe we can influence the minister's subconscious?"
When the email was quoted back to him, Professor Cambourne said he and his colleagues had to rely on cognitive science's "framing theory". "It's a way of making ideas change based on new theories rather than just denying or trying to argue with people you can't argue with," Professor Cambourne said.
"When you rely on evidence, it's twisted. We can also present evidence but we never get a fair hearing. We rely on the cognitive science framing theory, to frame things the way you want the reader to understand them to be true - framing things that you're passionate about in ways that reveal your passion."
"It doesn't matter how many times we say all the evidence that's been presented about whole language. Because of the way whole language has been framed by people like MULTILIT, we don't get anywhere. We have to use the same kind of tactics that have been used to demean and demonise whole language."
Professor Cambourne then said that, if The Australian reported his comments: "I will deny I ever said this."
The newspaper responded with an editorial:
The Australian Editorial19 March 2009
Time to spell it out: Denying pupils the right to read is a form of child abuse
"Dogmatists never let the evidence get in the way of ideology, and they don't come much more dogmatic than critics of NSW Education Minister Verity Firth. Ms Firth has ordered tests to compare the efficiency of different techniques used to teach children to read. The program will compare phonics, where students are taught to read through the relationship between letters and sounds, and what education academics call a "balanced approach". This relies on the whole-language technique, where children are expected to work out words by looking at pictures or understanding their context in a sentence. It is a debate that has raged for decades. The Australian has pointed to the way the whole-language approach fails students, especially those from homes where there are no books or parents who are regular readers, since the 1980s. So good for Ms Firth in trying to find out what works” (p.13).
The Australian Editorial. (2009). Time to spell it out: Denying pupils the right to read is a form of child abuse, 19 March 2009, p.13.
For further information, see Part 2: What whole language writers have had to say about literacy.
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