Whole Language and Phonics: the beginnings of things

Hi hi!  We’re going to travel back in time a little to see what we can learn about the beginnings of whole language in reading… want to come along?


Whole language is basically an approach of teaching.  Some advocates of whole language now insist that it is a philosophy, a way of life, even an orientation.  The discussion can turn ugly, for those who feel strongly about it… so we won’t get into that.  We want to focus on whole language as it applies to reading instruction.

Just a very basic definition:  whole language is an approach to reading instruction that aims at getting the child to recognize words as “wholes”.  For example, the three symbols that form the word cat make a sort of picture that the child remembers to say “cat.”  Taking it one step deeper, it therefore has a stronger emphasis on meaning and comprehension, than it does on sound.

And one important note for reading teachers, a whole language approach to reading does not view reading to be a developmental process. Rather, it assumes that mature reading and beginning reading are essentially the same.  Therefore, it focuses on higher cognitive processes such as reasoning and comprehension from the start.


What has justified the big fuss over whole language?  The debate has been long and involved, and the reasons are many.  Here I write in defense of whole language.

One reason why whole language started gaining popularity (starting in the early 1920s… oh my, we weren’t even born yet) was a shift in educational practice, away from rote learning.  John Dewey’s progressive education (I’ll come back to that in another newsletter down the road) was on its rise then.  With it came an almost allergic reaction to rote learning and drilling.  The intentions with which whole language was introduced were perfectly innocent and well-meaning:  learning to read should be fun! It shied away from sounding out words and drilling sounds, preferring to focus instead on understanding the story and creating a pleasant, happy association with books.

The emphasis of whole language is that motivation is the most important factor in reading instruction.  Whole language advocates also argue that not every child can learn via the phonics route.  Some children learn best by responding to visual stimuli.  We know that at least to some extent, their argument is valid.  There are children who do learn best by responding to visual stimuli:  we call them visual learners.

One final note for you:  it is interesting to note that among whole language advocates themselves, the definition of whole language differs.  What it means to one person may not be what it means to another.


Whole language began as a look-say method of reading instruction.  Look-say was the brainchild of Thomas H. Gallaudet.  A renowned teacher of deaf and mute children, Gallaudet researched a method to teach his students how to read.  As his students were not able to hear the correspondence between letters and sounds, he had to come up with an effective way to teach them reading.  Accordingly, he introduced the look-say method.  The look-say method involved showing the child a word and a corresponding picture.  With practice, the child would soon learn that a picture of a dog, for instance, would correspond to the group of letters d-o-g.  It was through look-say that his deaf students learned to spell successfully.

Then Gallaudet decided to experiment.  He decided to introduce the look-say method to normal children to determine if they too would learn to read better through look-say than through phonics.  The results of his experiment were so appalling that school directors rose up in one accord to protest the new method.  The conclusion?  A method to teach deaf children how to read does not work well for children with normal hearing!

So how did it become so popular?  Reasons for its wide acceptance, despite much detracting evidence and resistance, are many and varied.  Personally, I feel that the factor that gave it the biggest push was progressive education.  It provided a way around the incriminating evidence that whole language produced more dyslexic students than good readers, by ignoring the question altogether and focusing on a totally irrelevant aspect of learning.


In Singapore, reading instruction tends to be minimal.  Some form of whole language reading is usually taught, often with a mix of phonics, in kindergartens.  In primary schools, we do not find a reading programme of any sort.  The English curriculum focuses on comprehension.  The children are given spelling words in an enormous variety of difficulty (one can find words such as gain and insufficient presented for memorization together in one list).

Even a casual observation of these elements would lead us to quickly conclude that reading instruction in Singapore leans heavily towards whole language.  In my study of our primary textbooks, I have noticed a subtle trend towards introducing some phonics into the curriculum.  If nothing more, it is at least encouraging to see that we are open to a phonics approach.  At the same time, I have strong reservations about it.

I have tried to be objective in this article.  The findings and conclusions represent my personal research and viewpoints.  However, I am not a whole language teacher, and therefore do not have a comprehensive knowledge of all the aspects of whole language.  I would heartily welcome any contributions (facts, figures, objections and otherwise) from anyone knowledgeable on the subject. Only please do keep the discussion level-headed and considerate to ensure a healthy learning environment for everyone else.  Thank you sincerely!

Learn what I consider worse than a whole language approach in my next issue on phonics. See you then!

Know of anyone who might be interested in what you read? Feel free to forward this article to them or share via the sharing buttons below.  I would be thrilled if my newsletters can help someone else!


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