When I saw the story Jamie refers to on the front page of the Grope
and Quail I went into a funk. It got worse as I read Jamies's post
(which may well have been a troll: I'm never sure with Jamie, eh?).
Here's my take: Whole Language is a lost cause. But this is not
because there's anything wrong with it at all. Marcy's right, for
instance, it _includes_ phonics, and is not opposed to it: it's
language taken, studied, and learned _whole_, rather than considered
in fragments (Ken Goodman used to say he wasn't in favor of teaching
What's happened, apparently, is that people who have (a) commitments
of one kind or another to the phonics industry (basal reader
merchants, test addicts, outcome-measurement control freaks, and on
and on, or (b) racial memories of catastrophes around "look-say"
methods of teaching reading, or (c) ideological reasons having to do
with power and control, have managed to gain the high ground by
repeatedly characterizing Whole Language and Phonics as "opposing
methods." Then they define Whole Language as visual word
recognition (sort of like defining holistic medicine as acupuncture).
They then engage in the sort of "study" reported in the paper,
"proving" that acupuncture isn't as good as, say, physiotherapy.
The fact that what they've done has nothing to do with Whole
Language, and that the tests they use to measure things measure
nothing you or I would recognize as literacy, gets lost in the
shuffle as journalists and adminstrators rush to buy commercial
programs that guarantee results no matter how ignorant, underpaid and
unprofessional your teachers might be becoming as deskilling and
budget cuts take their toll.
What distressed me was that Canada's national newspaper put that
story on the front page. It deserved no news coverage whatever. The
study was unpublished (except on the newswire), and thus unvetted.
What it defined as "Whole Language" was described as a method (it's
never been a method, but let that pass) which puts learners in a
position "to be exposed to whole words in context." What it _measured_
was word recognition ("one-third of those students had learned 2.5
words or fewer on a 50 word list"), not reading, writing, or
The results were characterized this way: "ability to identify and
understand words." How, I wonder, does one test this? If you
define a language as a set of words, this might be a meaningful
measure. No one but a linguist ever would, and even they now mostly
tend to define it (equally wrongly, in my view) as a set of
The article also quotes one David Pesetsky, a linguist at MIT. He
and the Massachusetts "Gang of 40" have been conducting a campaign
to make language instruction "scientific" as linguists define that
term for some years, asserting, among other things, that no really
"scientific" study of language has any social component.
(If you want to see a letter they wrote the Massachusetts state
education curriculum authority, it's on my web site, here, I think --
-- and it's far more incriminating than anything I could say about
But. It is clear to me that "Whole Language" is a lost cause. When
that article gets to the front page of the Globe, it's a signal that
the media battle is over. And when Jamie says, on the CASLL list,
> I have always assumed that a whole language approach has much to
> recommend it. Over the years, however, I've noticed mounting
> evidence that phonics are apparently useful for many kids much of
> the time, and that a pure whole-language approach can have high
-- I know it's lost. There is _no such thing_ as a "pure" whole
language approach that doesn't include phonics: graphonemic cues are
part of language. It's clear to me, though, that any teacher, at
whatever level, who wants to put meaning at the center of her
pedagogy, instead of decontextualized decoding skills, had damn well
better not call what she's doing "Whole Language."
Russell A. Hunt __|~_)_ __)_|~_ Department of English
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