About Accountability

Questions and Answers About Whole Language
Steve Hornstein - St. Cloud University

What is Whole Language?
Whole Language (WL) is a Theory and Philosophy of teaching and learning. Most simply it is based on the belief that children learn by doing meaningful things. For example, children learn to speak by trying to speak. They do this because they are trying to communicate. Similarly they learn to read, by reading things which interest them and they learn to write, by writing meaningful things such as stories, notes, and letters. In addition we now know that children learn better when they are able to work with others and share and expand on one anothers knowledge.
By participating in such activities children learn the rules of language use. Research over the last twenty years has demonstrated that children learn just as well, if not better, using a WL approach as they do in the textbook and worksheet approach we all know. In addition children in Whole Language classrooms are more likely to become readers and writers in their personal lives and tend to like school better.

How will my child's class be different?
The roles of teachers and children may be different from what you are accustomed to seeing.
Children will probably be reading "real" books instead of a textbook. Rather than filling out worksheets or answering questions from a textbook, children may be seen reading about various topics, talking with peers or teachers about what they have been reading, writing about various topics, getting feedback from peers and teachers about what they have written, and sharing their information and completed writing with others.
The teacher facilitates and participates in many of these activities, typically by working with individuals and small groups. Like all teachers the teacher in WL classrooms plans for many different activities. However, in WL classrooms teachers typically involve children in the planning. Mandated state or school district curricula are still followed, but children's interests, wants and learning styles are given equal weight.

Don't kids still need to learn skills?
They still do! Most skills are learned in the way we learned to speak, simply by trial and error as we do it. However there are many times that children will need help with specific items. Using capital letters and periods, formulating questions for research,
deciding where to look for information, or using a dictionary or encyclopedia are taught just as in any other classroom. The key difference in WL classrooms is that they are typically taught in relation to something the children are already doing, instead of as isolated skills.


I've heard that Whole Language teachers don't teach phonics. Will my child be able to read?
We wouldn't be doing this if we thought it would hamper kids! Whole Language focuses on the meaning of what is being read rather than on decoding individual words. However, we still need tools for figuring out words we don't know when we come across them. Phonics, using the meaning of what has already been read, and asking someone the word are some of the tools we have available to us.
Children will generate many phonics rules from their own reading, writing and experiences with language. Whole Language teachers will teach phonics (as well as the other strategies listed above) when the strategies will help children to understand what they are reading. As with the skills discussed earlier, the key difference in WL classrooms is that the skills are typically taught in relation to something the children are already doing, instead of as isolated
Many researchers believe that intensive instruction in phonics is the cause of reading difficulties, rather that the cure!

How will I know my child is learning?
Whole Language teachers collect information about children's learning in many different ways. We collect samples of children's work over time to demonstrate growth. Some teachers also keep running "anecdotal records" or notes about children as they observe changes. We might also interview children or ask parents to collect information as well. Our goal in doing this is to demonstrate children's growth. rather than simply labeling it as A,B, or C etc.
Many WL advocates dislike standardized tests because they only measure the isolated skills and bits of information discused earlier. As you can see there are lots more things going on in WL classrooms that these tests can't measure. Still, children from WL classrooms typically perform as well, or better , than their peers in traditional classrooms when standardized tests are used as a measure.

How can I tell if my child's teacher is doing it right?
The key to WL learning is that things are generally learned for the purpose of understanding something, rather than as isolated skills and facts, and children are given some voice in what they are learning. Aside from that there really isn't one "right" way to do it!
Most adults (including most WL teachers) went to schools very different from the WL schools we are trying to create. Becoming a WL teacher after sixteen years of traditional education (and probably some years of teaching as well) is a process that takes some time.
Children who have only experienced traditional classrooms will also need some time to adjust to a WL approach. Depending on the teacher's experience, the children's experiences, the school, the administration, and the school district, teachers may be doing all, some, or none of the activities listed above. Some may be doing much more.
We recommend that you ask your child's teacher about what they are doing and why they are doing it. If you received this flyer from your school or teacher it probably means they are trying to move in a WL direction.

Steve Hornstein is chairman of the Department of Teacher Development at St. Cloud State University

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