Understanding the Whole-Language Approach

The Whole-Language approach to literacy is a philosophy which emphasizes the perspective that language is a meaning-making system and advocates that dren should focus on meaning and strategy instruction to determine the pronunciation of unknown words.

Reading is often taught through the use of a 3-cue system to help children identify unfamiliar words. A child is cued to use strategies to make an assumption or inference based on what they see in the word (visual), what would make sense within the structure of the sentence (structure), and what would make sense within the context of the sentence, paragraph, or story (meaning). This includes information provided in the pictures accompanying the story.
The belief is that children can learn to read given access to high-quality and diverse texts, multiple exposure and reading opportunities, a focus on the meaning of the text, and instruction to help students use meaning clues to identify and recognize words.

The perspective that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts makes this a top-down approach, where children begin to recognize and acquire whole words and even phrases through exposure to the text as a whole. It is a constructivist approach in which meaning is “created” through a child’s experience with the text.

Understanding Research

The knock on the Whole-Language Approach lies in the lack of successful word attack and decoding instruction. Instructing in sight words and high frequency words are associated with the whole language approach; however, memorizing sight words and high frequency words has not been found to help fluency.
Whereas some Whole-Language approaches utilize an embedded phonics model, research indicates that embedded phonics and no phonics contributed to lower rates of achievement. In fact, governments in some countries, such as Australia, have discredited the whole language approach.The lack of phonics instruction in whole language-based curricula such as Reading Recovery have resulted in their removal from schools in many places.
Dr. Sally Shaywitzhas widely published her research on the neurological structures of reading.There are biological speech and language centres in the brain that develop through exposure to language. There are no literacy centres in the brain. She concluded that reading, unlike language, is not a pre-programmed human skill that emerges from exposure; rather, it must be learned and taught.

Understanding Shortcomings

In sum, although logical and appealing, there is little evidence to support whole-language as an effective method of teaching reading. The little research that does exist is often criticized as being poorly designed, with conclusions being drawn that aren’t actually supported by the data. The whole language approach emphasises identifying words using context. The tendency to endorse the use of context-clues and guess-work to decipher a word rather than phonemic decoding actually teaches guessing, not reading.

The Meaning and Structure cues direct children to attend to the context and sentence structure, and to draw an inference about the unfamiliar word. These cues DO NOT HELP students with language disorders, learning disabilities, or dyslexia BECAUSE they have difficulty comprehending the context and structure of the text in the first place! This is a cruel joke, really.
Visual cues are similarly ineffective, as cues to “look at it again” do not provide any further information or help in decoding, and simply DO NOT HELP. In fact, children who have to guess multiple times at a word often become frustrated and have a real experience of failure. They often feel unsupported in their reading too, as the cues “does that make sense?” or “did you look at the word?” can feel more like a challenge or a criticism than a coaching cue or prompt. This can be significantly detrimental to a child’s self-esteem.

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Simply put, the Whole-Language approach doesn’t effectively teach reading. Elements of its perspectives have value, and the influence of this approach is seen in most schools today. Where caution must be applied is in recognizing the significant downfalls and ineffectiveness of this approach in addressing at-risk learners – struggling readers, those with language disorders, those learning disabilities, or those with Dyslexia. The strategies, concepts, and approaches within a Whole-Language philosophy are not advisable for these learners!

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