Transitions and Journeys to Whole Language

The Role of Phonics in My Journey
Lori Jackson

I would be very happy to share with you my own path to WL and the role that phonics has played in it. I graduated in 1983, having little preparation to teach reading and no awareness of Goodman or Whole Language. My student teaching experience, though not unpleasant, was far from inspirational. I felt extremely well trained in the uses of teacher's manuals to same text driven curriculums which had bored me to tears as a child. I was not very enthusiastic about teaching, to be honest, if this was what it was going to be like. It was a time of teacher surplus and I was living in a city boasting three teacher's colleges within city limits and many, many more in close proximation. I felt tied to my community and soon found there to be 300 or more applicants for every job I pursued. I began to substitute and found that I could work five days a week, quickly being able to choose who and where I was willing to sub. Thank god for that experience, as I began to see to some glorious teaching and joyful classrooms--where teachers were stepping out of the box and using real life experiences and meaningful text to orchestrate learning. Still, all in all, when my son was born and it became obvious that he would need more of me, mentally and physically, I opened a daycare center in my home and turned my focus on early childhood learning, discovering High Scope and Maria Montessori in the process, informally.

When my son was about two and a half, I began to think of teaching again. I went back to school that summer to pick up the graduate hours I needed for upcoming recertificationand took a graduate level reading course where I began to hear WL bandied about. The professor spoke jokingly of the need to cover all texts--with a blanket. I began to see a hopeful way to teach. For reasons of personal safety and a badly ended marriage, I needed to be far, far away and somehow ended up in Houston. There I got to see how badly implementation can indeed be. Waving a WL and DAP flag, all texts had been discarded in the inner city school I was assigned to and the rooms were literally divoid of anything. I had, qutie literally, a box of 1000 unifix cubes which I had to sign out and my meager, personal library. I fell flat on my face inspite of the money I poured into that room, everything from crayons and paper to books and manipulatives had to come out of my own pocket. I got to see what administrator hell can really be, having no support at all. Coincidentally, I was one of only three white teachers in the school (all first year, all outstate recruits) and my own position had never been filled for an entire year. The first quit at Christmas, I lasted until life threateing surgery and recovery saved me from going the same route, and the third survived sniper attack and transferred to another school.

Back to the plains, I took a class that summer on Whole Language and was unimpressed (poorly instructed) but was encouraged by a teacher I met there to attend something called the Whole Language Institute at Chadron State College. My new mother-in-law gifted me this wonderful experience and it was there that the philospophy took hold of me, I jokingly tell my friends and family that I was reborn, it was that much of an aha. The texts were wonderful but even more so was the opportunity to spend two weeks among a body of teachers enthusiastic and many experienced. I heard classroom stories and teacher tales that spoke to my heart and then I heard Ken Goodman speak. As simple as that, not quite, it spurred me to more self education. I taught for two years in a one room school house in the middle of the prairie. When I interviewed, I learned that several of the students were struggling to read and having trouble with phonics and I proposed that if they hired me, we put away the basals and the workbooks and try literature. It worked for these children, though none of them became super star students, they all finally became readers. Unit study let us work together as a group rather than as one of this, two of that and so on. We were only eight in the first place.

I left that position to take a maternity leave, doing my hippy mom stint home with my woodburning stove. Loved that,too, by the way and when I was ready to go back to school, I applied to my current district because they had endorsed Whole Language and were actively training teachers. And here I am, same district, different school, forced into the closet for a bit by the Balanced movement and still Whole Language.

So phonics? My undergraduate training in no way prepared to deal with this, there were no linguistics classes, no discussions of what's, when's and why's. I was very successful embedding phonics in instruction, it seemed natural and wholistic to me but I noticed spelling was an issue. My then second and third graders were not getting beyond the "sounds like" stage and inernalizing any sort of awareness of visual patterns or relationships when encoding. What I was seeing all around me was two fold, wrinkle one was tradition workbooks--photocopied pages of 'bootleg' books or a hodgepode (that was me, incidentally). I set out to learn more about langauge, using Sandra Wilde as my guide. Knowing more helped me do more but still, I felt like I needed to find a way to make spelling and phonics instruction a bit more explicit. I started experimenting with Making Words (Hall and Cunningham), modifying to fit my philosophy, giving parents the concrete spelling instruction and lists they wanted, but in a way that I felt was helping children build not an ability to spell lists but an ability to generalize and spell unknowns. It works for me so, that in addition to embedded instruction in the context of real reading and writing, I do use letter tiles, magnetic letters and other tactiles to explicitly teach phonics and spelling patterns. As any teacher does, I made it fit for me by selecting my own "big words", which often relate to my kids in terms of unit study or math vocabulary, and I develop my laddered list of only ten words (less for the truly troubled), focusing on patterns my children are experiencing difficulty with in their independent writing. I use it because I see it helping children to apply an understanding of phonetic and spelling relationships to their independent reading, writing and spelling. So that's where I am at with phonics. I did use the awful plaid workbooks last year for a bit, my first year in a new school and bit of pressure from administrator, peers and my aide but tossed them at Christmas. It was a learning experience for me as I had never used a phonics program in all my years of teaching. What did I think of it, outside of the bored to tears thing? It taught
skills in a prescribed fashion and was a waste of time for children who were already effectively reading and writing and didn't do a damn thing for the children who most needed to connect to sound and letter.

Lori Jackson has been teaching for nine years in Todd County, South Dakota. She is currently teaching as part of a 1-2 looping partnership. Her undergraduate work was complete at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and, having accumulated too many credits not to, she is currently pursuing her master's degree in reading at Sinte Gleske University in South Dakota. She is a CGI trainer/mentor teacher and uses the philosophy of Whole Language to guide her classroom practice.

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