[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 22, 1997/2 p11-15]
[See other articles by Patrick Groff.]

The Rise and Fall of 'Whole Language'
and the Return to Phonics.

Patrick Groff.

Patrick Groff is professor of education emeritus, San Diego (California) State University USA.


'Whole Language' (WL) is an instructional innovation the rudiments of which were created in 1971 by Frank Smith and Kenneth Goodman. Called the 'psycholinguistic method' of teaching reading at that time, the scheme later became known as the WL 'philosophy' of literacy development. Over the progression of time, the idea of WL as a methodology was abandoned, and replaced with a vision of it as an overarching system of instructional principles. Whole Language advocates make extravagant claims as to the success of the application of its philosophy. However, independent examinations of these assertions fail to confirm their contentions in this regard. When the effects of WL teaching are measured by the use of standardized reading tests, WL is consistently proved to be an inferior approach to the development of children's reading abilities.

Defining Whole Language.

The guiding principle of WL is that school children best learn to read in the same way they earlier learned to speak at home, as preschoolers. The validity of all of WL's lesser tenets, and each of its novel practices, are predicated on the assumption that the first principle of WL is without error.

Whole Language correctly observes that learning to speak ordinarily does not require direct and systematic instruction of a predetermined sequence of discrete skills, arranged in the order that children have difficulty in mastering. Therefore, WL goes on, since learning to speak usually is accomplished in an effortless, 'natural' fashion, so also should schoolchildren's learning to read and to spell. As with learning to speak, whatever information a child in school needs to learn to read and spell is best acquired by him or her simultaneously or co-instantaneously, it is held. Hence, the great significance of the word 'Whole' in Whole Language (Goodman, 1986).

Whole Language also accepts the premise that each child inherits at birth a unique 'learning style' and 'set of intelligences'. There supposedly are twenty-three elements of genetic-based learning style, and seven kinds of distinctly dissimilar intelligence. The total number of different combinations of these thirty factors can be calculated to run into the thousands.

To take into account the huge number of potential combinations of learning styles/intelligences that a classroom of pupils would represent, it is found necessary by WL to eschew direct and systematic instruction of a standard body of literacy skills to all children. Instead, an illiterate child in an authentic WL class is 'immersed' in written material, and then is expected to infer what he or she personally needs to know in order to learn to read and spell. As was the case in the child's learning-to-speak environment, no controls are placed upon the variety of vocabulary, sentence types, nor structural organization of written material into which WL beginning readers are immersed. The WL instructor does notice that there are 'teachable moments', those in which he or she reacts to individual pupils' expressed needs for specific assistance.

Whole Language and Phonics Teaching.

The spelling reform movement acknowledges documented evidence that children's acquisition of phonics knowledge is a critical prerequisite to their success in learning to read and spell. The attitude of WL toward phonics instruction thus should be of special interest to advocates of simplified spelling. Most of the leading proponents of WL do allow that phonics information may be of some use to children learning to read and spell. The amount of this information that each child needs to acquire in this regard is left up to him or her to decide, however, as noted above.

It is a popular notion in WL, nonetheless, that most children do not inherit learning styles nor sets of intelligences that are compatible with the assimilation or application of phonics information. The majority of children are presumed to have been born with one of the 'visual' learning styles or sets of intelligences. Therefore children supposedly find the acquisition of 'auditory' phonics information extremely painful, and of little use to them for recognizing written words. It thus is claimed by WL leaders that direct and systematic teaching of phonics information actually will handicap most children's ability to comprehend what they attempt to read.

These exponents of WL also maintain that English spelling is far too unpredictable for the application of phonics information to work satisfactorily, even for children who are able to master it. Instead of urging beginning readers to apply phonics information to read words, WL teachers commend them for using context cues to guess at word identities.

Distrust of Standardized Testing.

As well, almost all proponents of WL strongly distrust standardized reading tests. These tests do not truly measure reading ability, it is averred. Only teacher-devised assessments of reading ability are valid, according to WL. This disfavor with standardized tests also rests on WL's acceptance of the 'deconstructionist' philosophy that proclaims it usually is impossible for readers to ascertain the precise meanings that authors intended to convey. Accordingly, WL students are empowered to add, omit, and substitute words and meanings in written material - as they see fit. Expecting 'right' answers from students about what they read is said to be a pernicious practice (Weaver, 1989).

The Rise of Whole Language.

Whole Language (also called the 'Real Books' approach) obviously is a radically unorthodox approach to literacy development. Nevertheless, it has been approved by many national, regional and local school officials in the major English-speaking nations, ie, the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. It also appears that a majority of professors of reading instruction at universities in these countries approve of WL, and thus direct future and inservice teachers to employ it, while counseling school officials to enforce its use. In the UK, the term 'Real Books' has been generally preferred to 'Whole Language'. In the past 2-3 years here, however, more direct and systematic phonics teaching has been insisted on by education authorities.

Generally speaking, however, WL principles and practices have come to dominate educational journal offerings, reading instruction conference agendas, workshop and other inservice training for teachers, the content of reading instruction texts and their teachers' manuals, and the marketing strategies used to promote these books. Some publishing houses now devote almost their entire book list to texts for teachers that explain WL, and reflect on how extraordinarily effective it supposedly is at fostering the development of literacy skills.

The Special Attractions of WL.

The widespread acceptance of WL in the world-wide English language educational community stimulates speculation as to what are the particular attractions of WL that sway teachers, teacher educators, and school officials to such a ready acceptance of it.

First, educators historically have been notorious for their inability to resist the lures of educational innovations, regardless of whether or not they have been empirically validated. If a pedagogical novelty dubs itself 'progressive' in nature, educators tend to adopt it.

Second, WL relieves educators of much direct personal accountability for the results of their pedagogical performances. For example, in the ideal WL classroom there are no grade level standards set for student achievement. Independent standardized evaluation from outside of children's progress in learning is rejected. Teachers are empowered to conduct reading and spelling instruction much as they choose - as long as it is not carried out in a direct and systematic way, and what is taught is not fragmented.

Third, WL appeals to many educators' romantic and/or humanistic interpretations of what is healthy child development. In WL, honoring children's freedom and dignity is held to be more essential than how literate they become. Whole Language classes thus almost always are esteem-centered, rather than learning-centered. In this regard, a co-founder of WL claims that becoming literate truly is not the highly important agent for success in life that it normally is thought to be (Smith, 1989).

Fourth, in the past, educators have ignored or rejected most of the empirical findings in practically all aspects of their field of endeavor. The fact that none of the original principles nor novel practices of WL is supported consistently by experimental research thus does not discourage numerous educators from holding positive views about it.

Fifth, the apparent simplicity of WL is alluring for teachers. In WL they escape having to master much of the extensive technical knowledge about reading and spelling instruction. With WL, teachers do not have to submit to pedagogical discipline that a prescribed course of direct and systematic instruction demands.

Sixth, educators who have liberal social, economic, and political views doubtless are charmed by WL's decidedly left-wing agenda in these respects (Goodman, et al., 1991).

In the USA, educators' allegiance to WL also may be sustained by certain concomitants of the kind of monopoly control that its public schools have over educational services. In this regard, critics (e.g. Hirsch, 1996; Lieberman, 1993) point to runaway grade inflation in schools; their neglect of gifted students in favor of those with learning problems; emphasis on problem-solving by students who are culturally illiterate; a lack of high national academic standards; the absence of rigorous knowledge-based state examinations of teachers seeking certification for employment; the fact that about half of the educational workforce is not teachers; and parents' seeming indifference toward the schools, ie, their expressions that they have no vested interests in how effectively the schools function. These conditions create a breeding ground for the emergence of empirically unverified educational innovations, such as WL.

The Uprising against Whole Language.

From the first appearance of WL in the educational literature and in schools, a network of reading instruction experts, altho relatively small in size, vigorously warned their profession that the original or novel aspects of WL had no visible means of empirical support. They protested that despite the growth in size and influence of the WL movement, the pedagogical unorthodoxies that it promoted were disaffirmed repeatedly by experimental research in various fields of scholarly inquiry (see for example: Adams, 1990; Anderson, R. C., et al., 1985; Brady & Shankweiler, 1991; Carnine, et al., 1990; Chall, 1983 and 1989; Gough, et al., 1992; Groff, 1991 and 1996; Liberman & Liberman, 1990; Moorman, et al., 1992; Perfetti, 1985; Pressley & Menke, 1994; Rieben & Perfetti, 1991; Share & Stanovich, 1995; Stahl & Miller, 1989; and Thompson, et al., 1993).

However, in the USA, journals on reading instruction designed for teachers have been noticeably inhospitable to manuscripts that negatively criticize WL. The prominent journals in this regard, for example, Reading Teacher, Language Arts, Learning, and Teaching PreK-8, publish few, if any, articles that point out the shortcomings of WL. These journals only rarely provide teachers with surveys of the negative criticism of WL made by experimental research. They seldom, if ever, publicize the written debates that have taken place over WL (for example, Groff versus Dudley-Marley, 1996; McKenna, et al. versus Edelsky, 1990; the numerous disputants in Smith, 1994; and Weaver versus Groff, 1989).

On the other hand, the journals in question have published a great number of anecdotal accounts of the effectiveness of WL teaching. Since almost no negative accounts of such nature about WL have been printed in these journals so far, they strongly imply that extremely few such manuscripts ever have been submitted to them for publication. It has been argued, however, that this situation is evidence of editorial bias in favor of WL, rather than of reality.

With the notable exception of the press in the United Kingdom, the mass media has taken little serious interest in the WL issue. Media commentary about it usually either is flattering or noncritical. The USA's influential newspaper, the Wall Street Journal, as an example, treats the dispute over WL as a rather childish spat between "strange alliances" of "zealots" who battle each other from extreme left- and right-wing emplacements on the political spectrum (Duff, 1996). Reporters also readily accept the notion that somewhere in a middle ground between WL and direct and systematic teaching lies the optimum manner in which to conduct reading instruction.

While teachers typically are not completely informed about WL, notice of its empirical unreliability has not escaped the attention of academics outside the field of teacher education. In 1995, forty eminent professors of linguistics, psycholinguistics, cognitive science, psychology, and neurology, from the USA's leading universities and hospitals, petitioned the Massachusetts state commissioner of education to stop promoting WL in that state (Pesetsky, et al., 1995).

These distinguished scholars directed the commissioner's attention to the relationship found between use of WL in schools and decline in students' reading scores. They also protested his approval of the empirically uncorroborated claim by WL that the application of phonics information plays only a relative minor role in beginning readers' acquisition of written word recognition ability, compared to that gained by students from guessing at the identities of words using sentence context cues. These prominent academic authorities advised the commissioner that WL is "an erroneous view of how human language works, a view that runs counter to most of the major scientific results of more than 100 years of research in linguistics and psycholinguistics."

Legislation against Whole Language.

By the end of 1995, legislatures in thirteen of the USA's fifty states had introduced or passed laws aimed at forcing publicly financed schools to divest themselves of antagonism toward direct and systematic teaching of phonics skills (Sweet, 1996). None of these legal attempts at reading instruction reform is more dynamic and straightforward than the one in California.

In 1995, administrators of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a federally-funded and administered standardized reading test, revealed that California's fourth-grade students were the least capable readers their age in any of the states of the USA. Also, both minority-group students and white students in California were reported by the NAEP to be the least capable readers in their respective racial/ethnic classifications.

At the same time, the NAEP found that WL was more popular in California schools than anywhere else in the USA. In this regard, the California state department of education mandate to teachers as to how to conduct reading instruction that was operative in 1995, urged them to believe the WL dictum that "children learn to read by reading". It was explained here to teachers that "almost all the rules, all the cues, and all the feedback [students need to learn to read] can be obtained only thru the act of reading itself" (Quinby, 1987, p. 9). This official state directive thus required California teachers in 1995 to follow the WL version of how reading ability is best developed. It equally was clear, from the 1995 NAEP report, that educators in California generally had acceded to the department of education's desire to promote WL.

When the 1995 NAEP California reading test scores came to public attention thru exposure by the media, the California School Board Association responded incisively. In a letter to the California superintendent of public education (an elected official nominally in charge of the tenured bureaucrats that make up that state's department of education) the CSBA urged her to "act quickly to resolve" what the CSBA rightly viewed with alarm as a "crisis" in reading achievement in California. As a result, the superintendent appointed a 'Reading Task Force' to investigate the crisis, and to make recommendations as to how to rectify this obvious educational calamity.

On the basis of the Reading Task Force's study and recommendations, and the concurrent passage of state laws (discussion to follow), the superintendent in 1996 issued a document called Teaching Reading. While the publication never challenges WL by name, it is clear that it is designed to repudiate previous state mandates to teachers to base their reading instruction firmly on WL principles. Teaching Reading announced that its specifications for reading teaching were to supersede previous department of education mandates on this issue, and thus by intent to eliminate the novel aspects of WL practice.

For example, Teaching Reading (California Superintendent of Public Instruction, et al., 1996) rules that henceforward reading programs in California public schools must include direct and systematic ("explicit") teaching of phonics and spelling skills, preceded by the same kind of teaching of beginning readers' phonemic awareness (conscious awareness of the speech sounds that make up spoken words), and of their knowledge of letters of the alphabet.

Teaching Reading. also established criteria that publishers in the future must follow when producing the reading development textbooks they hope will be approved by the California state board of education (an appointed group with certain reserved powers beyond those of the state superintendent and the state department of education) for use in California public schools. From now on, to get their reading development books for primary-grade children accepted by the state board of education, these publishers must make sure that these books' instructional manuals provide directions for systematic teaching of prearranged sequences of reading skills, especially how explicit phonics instruction is conducted. The words in these books also must be 'decodable'. That is, students must be prepared ahead of time, with adequate phonics instruction, to recognize the words presented in the stories in these books.

An obvious stimulus to the production of Teaching Reading was the interest taken by California lawmakers previous to its publication as to the causes of the reading achievement crisis in that state, and how this catastrophe could be rectified. After extensive hearings in these regards, the California legislature passed four bills that redound to the disfavor of WL.

These laws (1) direct public schools in kindergarten thru grade three to teach phonics information and spelling in a 'systematic explicit' way, (2) require that teachers receive training in this kind of instruction, (3) demand that reading development textbooks at these grade levels, that are submitted for approval for adoption in California, must include directions to teachers to use systematic explicit instruction of phonics information, spelling, and phonemic awareness, and (4) mandate that the stories in these textbooks be decodable, i.e., are written so as to provide practice in the application of phonics skills. As noted, Teaching Reading emphasizes the importance of educators obeying the new laws by putting the weight of the superintendent of public instruction behind their enforcement.

Reaction from Whole Language.

Unfortunately, there are no penalties for nonconformance of them written into these new laws. Advocates of WL teaching in California thus have openly vowed to exercise civil disobedience of them. While they readily admit that WL is not verified by the experimental research on reading development, this is an irrelevant matter, they contend. Empirical data on this topic are invalid, WL enthusiasts insist, because they are based on standardized test scores of reading progress. Such tests do not measure reading authentically, it is said. Therefore, the only reliable evidence on WL is held to be the anecdotal reports on its successes, and individual teacher's subjective judgments as to what reading ability is.

Leaders of the WL movement further claim it has a legitimate right to reject scientific evidence on reading instruction because the WL crusade "constitutes a different view of education, language, and learning; uses different discourse; maintains different values; and emanates from a different educational community" from those who support the scientific method of studying these issues (Edelsky, 1990, p. 7). Each side here honors different "beliefs, theory, values, research, practice, discourse, goals, and so on". Each conforms to a different "major philosophical framework and a particular ideology". Thus, each gives different answers to the questions, "What is reality? Where do facts come from? What is truth?"

There are other WL theorists who go so far as to argue that the anecdotal evidence that WL supplies as proof of the superiority of its practices actually is scientific in nature. They claim that the traditional scientific method of inquiry, and the collection of anecdotes about human behavior, are equally objective, orderly, and thoro. One method of inquiry here purportedly is not more ideological in perspective, nor subjective in character than the other. Evidence gained from WL-validating research, that uses small, nonrandom samples of subjects, personal (often one-person) observation of subjects' behavior, and resorts to incidental and serendipitous notations taken about this behavior as data, truly is scientific, Dudley-Marley (1996) confidently asserts.

This 'naturalistic' research supposedly is as scientific as research that starts with a null hypothesis (thus sets about to disprove it); that carefully identifies the various effects that meticulously defined and discretely different experimental factors have on students' objective test scores; that scrupulously controls for teachers' attitudes in studies that compare instructional procedures; that is designed so as easily to be replicated by other researchers; and that uses sophisticated statistical analysis of quantitative data. This argument asks for a leap in faith that critics of WL in general are unwilling to take, however.

'Balanced' Reading Instruction.

It is surprising, therefore, to find that many of the negative critics of WL are reluctant to conclude that if WL had any usefulness, it now has outlived its welcome. Rarely do these critics propose that nothing would be lost by schools if they abruptly removed the practices originated by WL from their reading development curriculum.

Clouding this issue is the fact that WL co-opted some of the educational practices that were highly commended long before its advent, but then claimed it brought them to life, and now is their exclusive defender. For example, WL favors children's frequent reading of much high-quality literature, and their free-wheeling discussions of it. Whole Language also approves of having children write frequently on topics of their choice, and to learn how to edit these compositions. It subscribes to the practice of integrating the teaching of reading, writing, and spelling, eg, having students spell and write words they learn to read.

As noted, however, none of these practices was created by WL. They are not WL prototypes. They did not first appear in WL classes. Thus, the truly novel aspects of WL could be abandoned without any danger that these longtime practices would suffer elimination.

Nonetheless, many of the teacher educators who judge WL as being overall inferior in developing children's reading skills persist in calling the above practices the 'best' of WL, and honoring WL for having emphasized them. These are the reading instruction authorities who call for a 'balanced' approach to reading teaching. This proposal would meld the 'best' of WL with direct and systematic teaching of prearranged sequences of reading and spelling skills, set up in the order that children have difficulty in mastering them (Honig, 1996).

Advocates of WL must be admired for the vigorous rejection they make of this illogical proposition (Goodman, 1989). Their reaction is, in effect: "Stop patronizing us in this regard. Accept the fact that we truly believe that direct and systematic teaching is antithetical to proper reading development. Face the fact there are irreconcilable differences with WL, therefore the proposal you make that only the best of it is not acceptable is rejected. Try harder to understand what the Whole in Whole Language refers to. In short, discontinue your efforts to deform WL into something that we consider a hybrid, degraded, and demeaned form of instruction, a mishmash of clearly polarized practices that violate the principles on which WL was founded and the fundamental reasons for its existence, that thus insults the name and nature of WL. We challenge you with this ultimatum: either love WL or leave it!"


The history of education is strewn with the wreckage of numerous innovations that were never empirically verified before being put into operation. These were educational fads or crazes that burst upon the educational scene with what later turned out to be superficial brilliance, since they inevitably flared out - not with a bang of elation, but instead with a whimper of humiliation and regret. Since no experimentally discredited pedagogical practice so far has escaped this fate, it appears likely that WL also will succumb to its seemingly relentless force.

The actual rate of fall of WL in this regard largely will depend, it needs to be emphasized, on the extent to which schools boards in the future require educational officials they supervise not to submit for the boards' approval educational methods and materials that are experimentally unverified. At present, rarely do school boards enforce such a mandate.

Whole Language may be given a reprieve from the sentence of death administered to it by experimental findings, of course, when school boards knowingly reject pertinent scientific evidence, and thus continue to approve of use of WL in schools under their jurisdiction. These would be school trustees who decide, when empirical evidence on reading development is contradicted by the anecdotes about it that WL provides, that the latter information is more respectable and convincing. Such votes in favor of WL should be made part of the public record, readily available for constituents to consider before voting in upcoming school board elections.

In the fallout of the WL affair, reading and spelling instruction has become a critical political issue, and thus one that has spun out of the control of executive educators. Ever more so in California (and by extension, in any other school-governing political entity that takes the action its legislature did), from now on, since its school boards are legally empowered, as never before, with the administrative means to coerce school officials into complying with what the experimental evidence indicates about reading and spelling instruction. The courts in the future doubtless will find in favor of school boards that are sued by school officials, who have refused to comply with the new state laws on the furtherance of literacy skills, and yet who charge that they have been dismissed for this dereliction of duty without just cause.

In the past, the courts have announced they could not allow such lawsuits about educational malpractice or academic child abuse since they could find no consensus, neither legal or professional, as to what constituted appropriate reading and spelling instruction. In California (or other states or countries that would follow its lead) that handicap to recourse to justice appears to have been removed.

In California, the legal issues noted here are highlighted by the result of that state's Board of Education approval of reading instruction textbooks that are acceptable for use in its grade K-3 classrooms for the next seven years. In seeming defiance of the new state laws on reading instruction in California, its Board approved of seven such reading instruction programs, six of which clearly are WL-oriented. Only one of the different series of textbooks meets the requirements of new reading instruction laws. This action means that for the next seven years there likely will be protracted appeals from reading instruction reform activists for legal relief from the Board's rejection of reading instruction programs that do meet the new laws' stipulations.


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