and Answers About Whole Language
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
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
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
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
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
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
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