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Phonics Defeats Whole Language Theory

“Whole Language Theory” dominated literacy teaching.

In the 1960’s the movement towards the ‘whole language’ approach to teaching literacy in schools gathered strength. Many schools still teach using ‘whole language’ theory. Children are taught to learn words only within the context of a story or recount; to anticipate ‘what comes next’; to recognise words by their shape, and so on. They are also taught to use the pictures in a story to prompt their reading.

Children taught using the “whole language” approach develop literacy problems. The vital reading strategies provided by phonics knowledge was replaced by peripheral tactics such as “anticipating what comes next” which really means guessing, and of course, “reading the pictures”.

Changes in the definition of language functions

Listening, speaking, reading and writing were described as the functions of language. Teachers have now added “creating” and “drawing” to the list. According to “whole language” theory, if children just read they will automatically acquire new words and understand meanings over time. The more often they see a word, the faster they will learn it. Including “creating” and “drawing” in the new definition of the functions of language smacks of a return to pictorial communication, yet the purpose of a symbolic written system was supposed to replace it. If, by the addition of “creating” and “drawing”, they mean that children learn reading and writing better, that is very different from claiming that “creating” and “drawing” are part of the functions of language. More appropriate to the functions of art? Yes.

Writing skills lost importance in the process of “whole language” taking over in teaching. So children were taught to write without lined paper. This led to chaotic writing habits and a loss of proportion in letter sizes. Gradually lined paper has been reintroduced in the early grades.

As several generations of students have passed through our schools, some only functionally literate, there has been a groundswell against the ‘whole language’ approach.

However, there is resistance from “whole language” proponents. Douglas Carnine wrote “Why Education Experts Resist Effective Practices (And What It Would Take to Make Education More Like Medicine)”, April 2000. This paper is available on line. It is very readable and informative and I would recommend it to parents and teachers alike. The author has a lot to say about the intransigence of “whole language” supporters in the face of persuasive evidence against it.

The move away from “whole language” teaching

About fifteen years ago, schools in England introduced the Literacy Hour and the Numeracy Hour. This means that every primary school in England teaches literacy and numeracy each for one hour every day. Children are no longer left to “pick up” how the English language works but must be expressly taught. This is a good example of the reaction against “whole language” teaching in primary schools.

So what have we replaced “whole language” with in Australia? Not long ago there was a noise in the community and the media about “synthetic phonics”.

Synthetic phonics” appears.

Where the word “synthetic” came from, I don’t know. I think it was to make “phonics” sound new and different. Phonics is phonics and was always the basis of the written language. Instead of having about seventy-five letters in the alphabet, we have twenty-six. With various combinations of letters we create additional sounds. The letter ‘t’ has a phonic (sound); the letter ‘h’ has a sound, and the combination of the two in ‘th’ makes a third sound.

On the bandwagon of “synthetic phonics” products

The teaching of phonics has its downside. Here is an example. Grade 6 children who read very well are now given practice books of phonics to teach them what they already know. They waste time every week doing this for homework. It’s like telling them to write out their 2x table for twenty minutes every week. They would be better served learning the pronunciation of the multitude of French words we use in English. If we did so, we may have English speakers in a generation who can pronounce “debut” and “entrepreneur” correctly.

Recently, I asked a self-proclaimed expert from England – selling phonics products to schools – how she would divide up the word “acquisition” into phonic groups. Was she going to separate the ‘c’ and the ‘q’ or keep them together? She never provided an answer and I don’t think she could.

‘Scientificizing’ the teaching of literacy

Another aspect of phonics in schools as it is being taught is the idea of “chunking”. This is an American expression used in IT, American linguistics and American psychology. In British English, there is no verb “to chunk”. The word “chunk” is a noun and is related to the verb “to chuck”.

Sites such as “www.ontrackreading.com” have made “chunking” into a science. Such sites for parents make the teaching of literacy overly complex. “Chunking” simply means breaking a word into syllables but the ‘scientificizing’ of the reading process has added convolution.

Teaching children to read is not a science and does not require sophisticated definitions and invented American words. Dr Samuel Johnson, who standardised the spelling of English, did so to write his dictionary. Since 1755, the spelling has been resistant to change and the spelling rules and patterns also serve to guide pronunciation.

The state of play

“Whole language” theory persists. There are many good things about the outcomes that we now see from this approach, but far too few. Whole language and explicit teaching (with phonics) have morphed into a combination version of literacy teaching in Australia. The tendency to take on new fads and products associated with the teaching of phonics has led to some time-wasting. On the other hand, persisting with whole language approaches has led to students having only a vague understanding of language structure. Phonics teaching has led to teachers pitching lessons over the heads of students and failure to deal with appropriate literacy levels in a systematic and thorough way.

In one classroom recently in my neighbourhood, children in Grade 3 ‘contributed’ their words to make up the weekly spelling list. One word for every other child to learn was “reconciliation” – and it wasn’t even a Catholic school. This word is irrelevant in meaning for Grade 3 children, and suitable for Year 8. This happens too often in our classrooms at present.

There is always a risk that the pendulum will swing too far in the other direction and there is some evidence from my experience that this is happening.