Whole Thing or a Piece?
Whole Language Teachers:
The General of the anti-Whole Language movement is Reid Lyon, a former army paratrooper who has made reading in elementary classrooms his current battlefield. According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, " In Texas, Mr. Lyon helped design and sell a Bush plan to revamp how public-school students are taught to read. As president, Mr. Bush is turning to his phonics mentor to expand the program nationally. Mr. Lyon is 'the reading guru,' Mr. Bush told a meeting of business leaders in January." Now Lyon is trying to sell his "scientifically based" program to the Congress. Gerald Coles, reading expert and psychologist, pointed out in a recent Newsday article, " In the versions of the education bill passed by the House and Senate and soon to be finalized in conference committee, the term "scientifically based reading instruction" appears a total of 52 times".
What exactly does scientifically based mean? As a parent you may think scientifically based sounds good, and the best for your child is what every parent wants. Don't let the term fool you! The way scientifically based is referred to in the education bill, is that reading must be taught according to the findings of the National Reading Panel which is a study of reading that claims to be scientifically based, but is not. The panel was made up of a group of people who believed in phonics and so decided that the only research that counted was that research that looked narrowly at what they already believed in. There is nothing wrong with scientific research about how children learn to read. There is a lot wrong though with calling something scientifically based that isn't, and then promoting it as a sure fire answer for every child. How will that affect your child in their classroom? How will it affect your child's teacher's ability to meet your child's specific needs?
In the Direct Instruction, phonics first classroom that the legislation promotes, students will be drilled on letter sounds using repetition and regurgitation. Students will graduate from repeating, buh, duh and cuh, to reading nonsense words, to reading books with no valuable content like Nan can fan the man Dan. After they have mastered those, they might be able to take on a little reading comprehension. Then in third grade they are given one test to determine if they pass to the next grade level. If they fail it, it is back to buh, duh and cuh again and those children who are bringing down the schools test scores could be shuffled off to a segregated classroom of similar struggling children.
Whole language teachers also believe phonics and phonemic awareness is important and teach it. How could anyone read without it? And they believe phonics is just one piece of a complex reading process. The claim that whole language teachers do not consider phonics and skills important is simply false. Children need to be taught skills and strategies to decode and comprehend.
In a whole language classroom, a child's reading instruction would be very different from the one described above. There would be several types of instruction rather than just drill. There would be teaching rather than training. In a Whole Language classroom, your child's reading instruction is tailored to a perfect fit of his or her individual needs. There would be whole class, large group, small group and individualized teaching. While the teacher is working with individual children, other children would be authoring stories, doing research and inquiry, reading independently and not just filling in boring worksheets that are often too hard, too easy and rarely just right.
Whole language teachers believe that children are born emergent readers when they come to school, arriving with a variety of needs. Whole language is for all children; bright-eyed, curious, and squirmy children. It is for average, gifted or struggling children. It is for children with all kinds of learning styles at all academic levels. The whole language teacher would assess the child and see what his or her strengths are and what the next step in their learning should be. Your child's teacher is the expert on teaching reading...not the federal legislation. Whole Language teachers hold each of their students to the highest standards, the same standards held by the best readers and writers in the real world. Realizing that each student is somewhere on the continuum of becoming excellent readers and writers, these teachers excel at professionally assessing children's skills and strategies, and tailoring the teaching to each student's needs. Therefore, a predetermined skill and sequence driven program (basal readers, scripted texts) is not likely to be used in whole language classrooms.
Standardization of teaching overlooks individuals and assumes there is such a thing as "typical" or "average," when the classroom reality is one of a diverse set of children -- some bilingual, some with special education labels, some highly advanced in one area and lacking basic knowledge in another, some socially gifted and others emotionally starved. Yet all are on the same high standard road to successful reading and writing. The difference in WL classrooms and a more traditional approach where every child does the same work, is the difference between standardization and individualization.
Good WL teachers are masters at assessing children, and moving them from where they are. This means that as the children travel the standards road, they are allowed to run, walk or catch their breath when needed. Sometimes a child may need to sit under a tree and reflect before zooming down the road to pass others skipping along. During this reflection time, the child meets others and gets extra help. That help is often in the form of a vehicle that allows the child to take off. And it is here that WL is very different from other approaches. You see, each vehicle for every child is unique. What is a roller skate for one child could be a tricycle, car or plane for another.
Therefore what the teacher emphasizes at any given time, whether it be phonics, comprehension strategies, hearing a great read, writing to communicate, or building community, cannot and must not be predetermined by any program, publisher or legislator. The teacher must have the freedom to move the child toward the standard in the way the child needs to move. This is what professional teachers do. They know the standards, and teach to them, without standardizing the means to those ends.
Who will benefit from standardized legislation with mandated phonics programs? I think some children, but not most. The reason why so many of our students can't pass a standardized reading test is NOT because they can't read the words, but because they don't understand the message behind the words. Carrie Bruner, a Whole Language teacher from California states, "I teach at an inner city Title 1 school. Our test scores are still not even close to where they need to be. This is far from a "miracle" school or anything like that. Yet since switching from direct instruction to Whole Language we do see an increase each year and we are proud of that...and we're working hard to make sure that the increase continues."
Whole language teachers wouldn't just give students that one phonics "piece" of reading. They would give them the "whole" of reading; fluency, comprehension strategies, word attack skills, decoding skills, and critical literacy. As teachers, we don't want to just teach a "piece" of reading to children and we don't believe that "scientifically based" should be based on just a "piece" of science. We want to teach the WHOLE thing, and create readers that will be reading happily for a lifetime.