Using the Whole-Language Approach to Teach Reading

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I recently published a post about teaching phonics. Phonics is the building-blocks of language, and most often the first thing taught to children. In ESL education, phonics is often taught to help second-language speakers learn to produce the sounds in English. Students are typically taught to produce sounds, and break up words into syllables before they are taught to read.

indexThe Whole-language Approach

There is another approach to teaching reading called the “Whole-Language Approach“. Whole-language is a constructivist approach to education; constructivist teachers emphasize that students create (construct) their own knowledge from what they meet. Using a holistic approach to teaching, constructivist teachers do not believe that students learn effectively by analyzing small chunks of a system, such as learning the letters of the alphabet in order to learn language. Constructivist instructors see learning as a cognitive experience unique to each learner’s own perspective and prior knowledge, which forms the framework for new knowledge.

The whole-language approach focuses on making meaning from the text, rather than focusing on the individual sounds and syllables. Students are taught to read whole words and develop their pronunciation skills through this manner. It puts an emphasis on cultural integration, diversity of literary genres and styles, as well as use content from other areas such as science, social studies, or math (sometimes you gotta learn to run before you can crawl, right?). Whole-language instructors also encourage a love for reading, and focus on guided reading activities, and reading aloud. Students are encouraged to participate in group reading sessions, as well as individual reading time.

The Role of Writing in the Whole-language Approachteacher-and-students-300x200

Writing also plays a large role in whole-language instruction. Teachers who use this approach exclusively do not place heavy emphasis in the early grades on spelling and grammar. The whole language approach emphasizes children’s efforts to make and seek meaning in language; correcting errors places the focus on technical correctness, which is not where whole language teachers believe it should be. The effective whole language teacher “hears and sees through” the child’s errors, using the information gained for formative assessment, then creates experiences that help the child to acquire the correct structure and form.

Reading_Pyramid_Small_360_widePhonics vs. Whole-language

There is some debate among educators and researchers about whether phonics or whole-language is better to teach reading. While it may seem like a good idea to teach children to read whole words, it overlooks spelling, basic pronunciation and does not help students who are dyslexic. Students with dyslexia and other language processing disorders need explicit instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, and decoding in order to improve their reading skills. The whole language approach works for many students, but explicit and systematic phonics instruction works for students of all levels (and greatly decreases spelling and pronunciation errors).  

In 1997 the National Reading Panel held a debate to settle the disagreement. In 2000, the Panel released its findings, stating that there are five essential components that must be taught in an effective reading program: phonemic awareness, phonics, reading fluency, vocabulary development, and reading comprehension.

Which approach do you think is more effective?

3 Comments

Filed under English, ESL, Literacy, Phonics, Reading, Teaching, Young Learners

3 responses to “Using the Whole-Language Approach to Teach Reading

  1. Interesting debate, and I can’t say that I’ve done any real research on the matter to weigh in empirically, but I can speak anecdotally and theoretically.

    I’ve got three kids–ages 4, 3, and 1–and we plan to home school the lot of them. My 4-year-old, simply through being read to A LOT, along with watching The Letter Factory and playing games on pbskids.org, is starting to learn how to read and spell without any explicit phonics instruction. To me, it seems like we are taking mostly a whole language approach, and it is working amazingly.

    On the other hand, I could see how it could be very difficult to structure the same experiences with a classroom full of 20 or more students that you don’t spend your entire life with. So, if whole language can work for many, but phonics can work for all, it seems to me that in the traditional classroom arena, phonics would be the way to go. Obviously, though, there needs to be room for the philosophies of the whole language approach that embrace a love of reading, guided reading, and group reading. What good is it teaching students to read, after all, if you don’t teach them to WANT to read.

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    • Thanks for your informative comment! I find pros and cons to both phonics and whole-language instruction. I favor phonics coming from an ESL background in teaching and beginning ESL learners need to know the sounds and combinations before they read. If I have students who are more advanced, then I will take more of a whole-language approach. It really does depend on how well kids pick up language and reading. Some kids excel at it early on, while others need to stick with the basics for a while. Both ways are valid methods and cater to different student needs.

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      • I totally get what you mean about whole language working better for advanced students over beginning students. Just the other day I came to this sort of realization.

        I had the opportunity to observe two different instructors in one day. The first was a freshman composition class. This instructor has a very similar method to me, in that we give minimal instruction before asking students to very quickly write their rough drafts. The bulk of instruction then comes “just-in-time” once they have a draft to work with.

        My realization came after observing the second class, which was a intro to Microsoft Excel class. The portions of this class that I saw were much more teacher-centered and demonstration focused. But I realized that this was necessary. As a composition teacher, I have the advantage that my students have already been writing to some extent for years, so I can tell them “Just write for 15 minutes straight.” Most students, however, have never used Excel, so the instructor doesn’t have that same sort of opportunity. He’s got to teach them the basics first (the phonics of Excel, if you will) before he can throw them into problems and expect them to learn.

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