Friday, March 23, 2007

Whole Language Responses

I have had several responses to my "I hate whole language" post, and I figured that I would respond in a post instead of in the comments.

It is probably no secret that I am a "DI" and phonics advocate, and have a huge small prejudice against whole language based upon my experiences with my four school age kids.

I am sure that D-EdReckoning and Nancy Creech will cover the issue much more in depth when they debate the issue on Edspresso next month, but I did want to address some of the points made by my commenter's.

I suppose one of biggest issues with whole language, is that no one seems to be able to articulate it with any great precision. As near as I can figure out, the one common theme among "whole language" advocates is that whole language teachers play an active part in tailoring their techniques to individual children. They use their expertise and experience to identify and address weaknesses. Many might use phonics as a teaching tool, but its only one of many tools to help the child learn how to read.

Mobility61 asks me this:

What kind of teacher would you want for your child? Would you prefer one who is a critical thinker, with a vast store of knowledge of literacy learning and an ability to use any available resource, who is also a learner that is constantly researching and updating her repertoire; or a teacher who follows a teacher's manual and puts children through a series of lessons prescribed by some publishing company far away? To me that seems like a no-brainer.
Rhetorical questions are often a great way to make a point, but occasionally it backfires. D-Edreckonings post on Zig Englemanns unpublished book on Project Follow Through has a great passage that answers this question.
The senior reading teacher and guru in one of our schools instigated an argument with me about reading—what it was, and how best to teach it. In the best cocktail-party style, we were polite, and the small group surrounding us was intent. The teacher’s premise was that the creativeness of teachers should not be trammeled by a lockstep program, like DI. She was well read, and quoted the literature with flourish. After the discussion went on for possibly ten minutes, one of our first-year teachers from the same school interrupted and ended the argument.

She said, “Angie, you know more about reading than I’ll ever know. You know linguistics, and all those theories I don’t understand. All I know how to do is follow the program. I do what it tells me to do in black type, and I say what it tells me to say in red type. But Angie, my kids read better than your kids, and you know it.
And I guess this sums up my greatest problem with whole language. It relies on teacher expertise, and I quite frankly am skeptical about the expertise of teachers.

Meanwhile, eceteacher comments:
It is the enemies of WL, and some poor teachers who call themselves WL, who've made up all this business about not teaching phonics... now think about it; leaving out phonics would make it Part Language, wouldn't it????

The enemy here is undereducated teachers, ones who don't use all their skills but instead grab hold of one technique (phonics could be the one) and think that will work for everyone. As someone who has taught hundreds of children to read, let me assure you that phonics alone will not bring about literacy, and, worse, it will not help children to love to read.
As I have already mentioned, whole language advocates can't even agree among themselves about what whole language really is. It seems to me that any pedagogy that can't even accurately define itself is by definition already doomed to failure.

It seems a little unfair to us as parents to accept the premise that we should entrust ourselves to teachers who can't even articulate a standard method to teaching. Our schools then become nothing more than a crap-shoot... maybe your kid will end up with a good teacher, maybe they won't. Truth be told, this is exactly the same situation we are in now.

At least the "DI" school can define standards and accurately evaluate their teachers. It may be ugly, but I prefer ugly and effective to beautiful and failing.

I will leave with one final word, if whole language is the answer then "show me the numbers".

10 comments:

CrypticLife said...

"a teacher who follows a teacher's manual and puts children through a series of lessons prescribed by some publishing company far away? To me that seems like a no-brainer."

This kind of attitude annoys me. Proponents of WL often seem to assume that DI techniques, and behavioral techniques in general, are somehow de-humanizing and rote. They aren't. Behavioral training doesn't dehumanize a person any more than such training decanifies a German Shephard learning to be a police dog. It also takes a great deal of skill to do well -- Engelmann's book notes that a number of the teachers spent their first weeks crying themselves to sleep in frustration.

There's also a bit of misrepresentation out there about DI. From what I understand, it's not as if the students don't get into stories. The famous "The Pet Goat" is a DI story. Any teaching system for reading must recognize that students need to be able to recognize letters, know their sounds, have a competent vocabulary, read full sentences, and follow appropriate grammatical rules. DI believes these should be presented systematically. WL seems to claim they should all be thrown at the student at once, or that the teacher should make a judgement on which to present to a mixed-ability grouping. I'm not really sure, because while some have said things about few really using WL, they haven't given a clear standard for what WL actually is.

The debate will be interesting.

Independent George said...

There's also the fact that it's a patently false dichotomy.

There is absolutely nothing about using a scripted program which somehow destroy's a teacher's brain cells until he becomes a mindless zombie, endlessly repeating the highlighted text from the teacher's manual. At the same time, a teacher "with a vast store of knowledge of literacy learning and an ability to use any available resource, who is also a learner that is constantly researching and updating her repertoire" would presumably know about which scripted programs actually work. And if I might be so bold, that knowledgeable teacher surely wouldn't be willing to sacrifice their students' welfare just because it's somehow beneath him to use a program written by someone else.

Because if said teacher were willing to contemplate such a thing, then yes, indeed, it is a no-brainer.

Anonymous said...

It is the enemies of WL, and some poor teachers who call themselves WL, who've made up all this business about not teaching phonics... now think about it; leaving out phonics would make it Part Language, wouldn't it????

I don't know. Ken Goodman has written that, "Matching letters with sounds is a flat-earth view of the world, one that rejects modern science about reading." And Frank Smith has written, "Phonics, which means teaching a set of spelling to sound correspondence rules that permit the decoding of written language into speech, just does not work."

Since Goodman and Smith are the "big two" of WL, I kinda get the impression that true WL doesn't use phonics at all. It wouldn't make much sense for WL to use letter-sound correspondence if doing so "rejects modern science about reading" and "just does not work." No?

Or do I misunderstand?

-Mark Roulo

Parentalcation said...

Mark,

As I said, WL advocates can't even agree among themselves what the science doesn't say... thus its weakness.

mobility61 said...

Mark,
I'm not sure where you got that quote by Ken Goodman, but here is the complete text of the paragraph:

“Phonics is the set of relationships between the sound system of oral language and the letter system of written language. Phonics methods of teaching reading and writing reduce both to matching letters with sounds. It is a flat-earth view of the world, since it rejects modern science about reading and writing and how they develop. Phonics programs tend to be unscientific even in their presentation of phonic relationships. It simply isn’t true that ‘when two vowels go walking, the first does the talks’ except in a limited number of cases, which must be already known to the reader in order the rule to be sensible.”

Further in the same chapter Ken says,
"In a whole language program readers and writers develop control over the phonic generalizations in the context of using written language sensibly. These self-developed rules are not overlearned and artificial as they would be if they were imposed by a structured reading and spelling program. Whole language programs and whole language teachers do not ignore phonics. Rather they keep it in the perspective of real reading and real writing." p38

We whole language teacher begin with the whole text and break it down however the child needs it broken down. I guess you could call it the big picture philosophy. Have you ever tried to put together a jigsaw puzzle without the cover picture? It's possible and maybe even easy for gifted puzzle-constructors, but much more challenging. Why take away the big picture? How often do you read words in isolation anyway? How do you pronounce the following words in isolation? content (satisfied or meaning), bass (fish or instrument), row (a fight or a line) and wound (coiled up or to injure). Also, I can decode French and sound fluent with a bit of practice but I have no idea what it means. All of these separate skills must be kept together in order to actually read something, if your definition of reading is similar to this one from dictionary.com:
"1. to look at carefully so as to understand the meaning of (something written, printed, etc.): to read a book; to read music.
2. to utter aloud or render in speech (something written, printed, etc.): reading a story to his children; The actor read his lines in a booming voice.
3. to have such knowledge of (a language) as to be able to understand things written in it: to be able to read French.
4. to apprehend the meaning of (signs, characters, etc.) otherwise than with the eyes, as by means of the fingers: to read Braille."

Myrtle Hocklemeier said...

Phonics programs tend to be unscientific even in their presentation of phonic relationships.

They aren't supposed to be formalized scripts for text to speech recognition software. (Proof by the way that English does have reliable rules)

It's just rules of thumb that work 85% of the time for beginning readers and it gets more sentences read than no rule at all.

In year one the most used rules are learned, in year two the rules are reviewed and exceptions learned. I've taught all three of my children (homeschooling) to read with no more than 10 minutes a day of phonics work...one of them is dyslexic and the other has a language disorder. In the amount of time that it takes to make the morning announcements over the intercom a phonics lesson could be completed. Why is something so simply and short fought tooth and nail?

Does 10 minutes of matching words and sentences to goofy pictures make them hate reading? On the contrary, they were fascinated by how applying the rule WORKS so well when they saw words on store signs, street signs, and posters in the world around them.

rightwingprof said...

"What kind of teacher would you want for your child? Would you prefer one who is a critical thinker"

Critical thinkers don't make non sequitur replies (look it up).

"since it rejects modern science about reading and writing and how they develop"

There is no science, modern or otherwise, that supports this statement. I know. If you believe there is, then give citations (and keep in mind that science means empirical research only).

Anonymous said...

I did a 3 part post on Whole Language in 2005. This debate has been going on for q while.
Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Recently there was a very good report done entitled Whole-Language High Jinks: How to Tell When Scientifically-Based Reading Instruction" Isn't

CrypticLife said...

Thanks anonymous,

I've been suspicious, and even posted debunkings of the "switched letter" example for some time (without knowing about David Ziffer's work). It immediately occurred to me that with an average letter length of 5, a sentence would have 40% or more letters in the correct position even with the "mangling". Craft a paragraph with unusual or unexpected words which are considerably longer than five letters, and the effect virtually disappears.

I had no idea WL advocates were trying to use this to negate phonics, however. It just immediately occurred to me that the research was misleading.

Incidentally, Rory, the TAWLers have become rather interested in your posts. Check out their archive.

mobility61,
I've seen some of the letters going back and forth on the TAWL archive, and the concerns that it won't be a real debate. What the WL advocates should understand is that most of the DI advocates are interested in a technique that works empirically. Being scientifically-minded, most should be happy to change their minds based on evidence. Most are probably not interested in theories of how people learn to read, because unless you can convert the theory into reliable practice it's worthless.

Parentalcation said...

Thanks CrypticLife... its sort of wierd to find out that people are obsessing about your post though.

I have spent the day research the whole language vs phonics debate and am preparing another post on the subject.

One thing I don't understand is why the TAWLers are afraid that the debate wont be fair. It seems to me that this very fear, goes to show that they themselves are doubtful of the rational behind their philosophy.

You are right about DI advocates being interested in empirical evidence. All I want is for my kids to be proficient readers... if studies show that drinking purple cool-aid improved reading fluency, my kids would be some purple cool-aid drinking fools.