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What Is Whole Language?

By Emily Daw
Updated May 23, 2024
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Whole language is a pedagogical philosophy that emphasizes a meaning-based approach to reading and writing. This philosophy was born out of research published by American linguist Kenneth S. Goodman beginning in the 1960s, who argued that children should be allowed to acquire the skills of reading and writing in the same way that they naturally acquire spoken language skills. Teachers who put its principles into practice will gravitate toward engaging children in the meaning of a text, rather than merely teaching them how to read it.

Goodman's theories are based on the earlier psycholinguistic research indicating that children learn to use language by hearing it and gradually beginning to understand its relation to the world around them. Early childhood language acquisition does not consist of being drilled on the meanings of individual words. Likewise, according to whole language theorists, children will learn to read and write best as they are exposed to the relationship between the text and their lives, rather than by being drilled in the mechanics of reading and writing.

There is no set methodological approach to whole language instruction, but in general, it will focus less on phonetic principles and reading individual words than on constructing and deciphering meaning of a text. One whole language strategy for teaching reading is to have students look at the words of a story as the teacher reads them aloud. Through repetition, the students will begin to recognize the written form of the word and associate it with its meaning in the context of the story. This is known as lexical, or whole word, learning as opposed to sub-lexical learning, which focuses on smaller parts of words, such as letters or phonemes. Proponents of this strategy say that it is more likely to engage children's imaginations than having them start off reading artificially simplified primer texts, because it help them develop positive associations with reading.

This style of learning is sometimes set up in contrast to phonetics, but this contrast is not entirely accurate since whole language proponents do not do away with phonics instruction altogether. Teachers might embed short phonetics lessons within the context of a larger language lesson. They will not, however, typically devote as much time to phonetics as do followers of other educational theories.

Learning to read words within a larger context also takes into account Goodman's theory that reading is a "psycholinguistic guessing game." A fluent reader does not read by breaking down the individual sounds in words or even by mentally pronouncing all of the words. Rather, he or she makes educated guesses about what the text will say as it is read and corrects those guesses as necessary. According to whole language advocates, children are capable of skipping the step of purely phonetic reading and jumping to a meaning-based approach as fluent adult readers do.

Though a popular pedagogical philosophy, whole language theory has many critics. Some of these claim that while trying to steer away from forcing students to memorize phonetic rules, whole language educators are actually forcing students to memorize all of the words in the language. Others argue that not enough scientific research has been done to verify its effectiveness.

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Discussion Comments

By fBoyle — On Feb 08, 2015

@turquoise-- Actually, that whole theory has been disproved. Experts have shown that this phenomenon only works for short unique words. Moreover there is growing evidence that the brain does use individual letters when reading. So it's not true that we don't process letters but rather the whole word. I'm not against whole language teaching, but we definitely need to teach children phonics along with it.

By turquoise — On Feb 07, 2015

There is a very cool game that actually shows that reading or understanding words isn't really about the letters. It involves writing a sentence in which each word has scrambled letters. But the end result is that we are able to read the words only because the first and last letters are in the right place. This is because our brain reads words as a whole, not as individual letters. For example: "the mnid deos not raed ervey lteter." So "whole language" learning makes sense.

By fify — On Feb 06, 2015

American students generally have poor vocabulary and spelling skills. Many children struggle with spelling issues and word meanings when they are in school. American students lag behind in these areas in comparison to students of other countries.

I think this in and of itself shows that sub-lexical methods of teaching aren't entirely successful. We need new ways of teaching language to our children. We live in a globalized world where individuals are increasingly expected to speak two languages in order to succeed in their careers. How we can we expect our children to be good at foreign languages if they are not good with English yet.

I support whole language theories for this reason. I think that this philosophy will be more effective because it looks at the bigger picture.

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