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Most primary-grade teachers teach phonics because we know it supports our students’ reading and spelling. And many of us also believe that if we incorporate phonics into our instruction, we are by definition not whole-language teachers; we are “balanced literacy” teachers. But whole-language beliefs are so pervasive and so entrenched in education that they continue to serve as the basis for a majority of instructional materials and professional development offerings. As a result, many of us have unknowingly created whole-language classrooms with “word study” added in the name of “balance.” 

Here’s a quick self-check:

You might unknowingly be teaching whole-language strategies if …

If in your classroom you have:

  • Reading Strategies posters such as Skippy the Frog/Hop Over, Take a Guess and Sail On, Flippy Dolphin/Try a Different Sound.
  • A leveled library and the expectation that students select books from labeled book bins for large chunks of time devoted to independent reading.
  • Posters that equate book browsing with reading (e.g., “Good readers read the pictures.”)
  • A reading block that has students spending most of their time reading independently after they have seen you model “what good readers do.”

If you teach:

  • Beginning and struggling readers using predictable pattern texts that have spelling patterns they haven’t learned yet.
  • Lessons such as “guess the ciovered word,” “Picture Power,” and ‘Skippy the frog” so that students have strategies to avoid decoding words.
  • Phonics by selecting spelling patterns from Guided Reading books.
  • By prompting students, “Does that look right/make sense/sound right?” when they misread or are trying to figure out a word.

If you believe:

  • We learn to read by reading.
  • Learning to read is a natural process, like learning to speak.
  • The rules of English are too complicated to be worth teaching.
  • We read by orchestrating meaning, syntax, and visuals.
  • We only use phonics to read unfamiliar words.
  • We empower students by equipping them with lots of strategies to tackle tricky words.

Of course, these lists are not exhaustive, but understanding the foundational beliefs of whole-language can help us to see its impact on our classrooms, professional development, message boards, etc.

Reading is not a natural process.

One founding belief of whole-language is that reading is a natural process so, if students are exposed to good literature and develop a love of reading, they will learn to read. This belief has been disproven by reading research and by the number of students across our country who are not strong readers, both of which tell us that exposure and the desire to read is not enough. Reading researchers estimate that just 5% of students learn to read relatively effortlessly.

Most students require instruction to learn to read.

The belief that students will learn to read by reading often results in decisions that minimize time spent on direct instruction and maximize time devoted to independent reading, even in the primary grades. It may also result in neglecting instruction, such as grammar, that is essential for the success of students who speak a language or dialect other than Standard American English. Instead of providing instruction on the structure of written English, whole-language materials focus on reading behaviors, asking beginning readers to emulate skilled readers. But researchers estimate that just 35% of students learn to read with such broad instruction. Reading behaviors will not turn into actual reading until a child has unlocked the written code. 

Cueing is not reading.

Another belief central to whole-language is that “Skill in reading involves not greater precision, but more accurate first guesses based on better sampling techniques, greater control over language structure, broadened experiences and increased conceptual development. As the child develops reading skill and speed, he uses increasingly fewer graphic cues.” [Goodman, 1967] Whole-language rests on the belief that good readers skim and scan the page, using phonics only when absolutely necessary. As a result, classroom materials rooted in whole-language ask us to teach students to use context, meaning, and even pictures instead of decoding printed words.

The catch is, it’s called decoding because English is actually a code- 26 letters representing 44 speech sounds — and good readers have cracked that code. Struggling readers exhibit “reading behaviors” rather than actually reading; they skip words and use context and meaning to guess words on the page. We may not mean to teach the habits of struggling readers to our young ones, but when we use materials and strategies grounded in whole-language pedagogy, we do just that. For the 40-65% of students who require explicit, systematic instruction in order to learn to read, time spent on whole-language strategies reduces the likelihood that they will ever become skilled readers.

High-quality instruction teaches all children to read.

In order to teach all of our students to read, we need to be able to spot whole-language materials and to replace them with those grounded in current reading research. We can bring equity to reading instruction by using materials that:

  • Do not describe learning to read as a natural process 
  • Do not perpetuate the myth that students will learn to read by reading or by emulating skilled readers
  • Do not instruct us to have students guess words rather than sound them out

Our students deserve the most effective instruction possible and we deserve scientifically-aligned materials to help us deliver that instruction. Let’s purge our classrooms of whole-language materials and demand better from our districts and publishers. 

About the Author

Margaret Goldberg is the co-founder of the Right to Read Project, a group of teachers, researchers, and activists committed to the pursuit of equity through literacy. Margaret serves as a literacy coach in a large urban district in California and was formerly a classroom teacher and curriculum developer. All posts are reprinted with permission from the Right to Read Project (opens in a new window).

Publication Date
July 26, 2019