Time for Whole Language to Surrender?

Published March 1, 2000

“Whereas speaking is natural, reading is not. Children do not automatically read. They have to learn how to do it. . . . There really is a difference in brain activation patterns between good and poor readers. We see the difference when people carry out phonologically based tasks. And that tells us that the area of difficulty–the functional disruption–in poor readers relates to phonologic analysis. This suggests that we focus on phonologic awareness when trying to prevent or remediate the difficulty in poor reading.”
Sally Shaywitz
Professor of Pediatrics, Yale University School of Medicine
From “Learning About Learning to Read”
by Marcia D’Arcangelo, Educational Leadership, October 1999

Recent magnetic resonance imaging research by neuroscientist Sally Shaywitz at Yale University’s School of Medicine has confirmed earlier research findings that children learn to read words by matching particular spoken sounds with letters.

Shaywitz’s studies support the view that reading is biologically based, and that a person’s ability to read depends on learned phonemic awareness and processing of printed letters on the page, capabilities that are developed only haphazardly in Whole Language instruction.

The earlier work by Steven Petersen and Marcus Raichle, neurologists at Washington University Medical School in St. Louis, was reported on October 12, 1993, as part of a Wall Street Journal series called “Mapping the Mind.” During the course of a positron emission tomography study conducted to determine how the human brain processes English words, Petersen, Raichle, and their colleagues discovered the following:

  • Children do not read English by associating the looks of whole words and sentences with meaning the same way they associated the sounds of whole words and sentences with meaning when they learned to talk.
  • Human brain cells read words by matching particular spoken sounds with letters that usually spell those sounds.
  • No one is born knowing English spelling rules–or the spelling rules for any other alphabetic language, for that matter. Illiterates must learn to spell 44 English sounds in the most common ways or they will not learn to read.

Shaywitz found that, compared to good readers, poor readers showed lower levels of activity in the area of the brain associated with linking letters to language. Poor readers generally also had low levels of phonemic awareness compared to good readers.

Since the work of Petersen and Raichle has not been contradicted by other neuroscientists researching how children learn to read and write alphabetic languages, the issue for educators becomes: What is the easiest and quickest way to teach English spelling rules to children?

  • Should instructors teach beginners to hear, pronounce, and spell 44 English sounds in about 80 common ways; to link these written sounds to form words; to align words to make sentences–and thus enable pupils to read sentences that others write?
  • Or should reading teachers use accepted Whole Language strategies that are at best indirect and at worst incomprehensible?

For example, the following “key strategies” are taken from a recent defense of the Whole Language approach, which emphasized that “We learn to read largely by reading.”

  • “Using classic children’s literature”
  • “Embedding literacy activities in broad inter-disciplinary themes”
  • “Organizing students in collaborative groups”
  • “Stressing higher-order thinking”
  • “Holding regular teacher-student conferences”
  • “Using the teacher as a model of adult literacy”

Empirical proof of the damage done by the Whole Language approach to beginning reading instruction is provided by the drop in scores on 23 million standardized academic tests given to potential U.S. military recruits during World War II and the Korean War.

WWII recruits who had learned to read by matching sounds and letters scored higher than Korean War recruits, many of whom had been to taught to read by the new whole-word, sight-repetition method.

Based on the military test scores, the phonics-trained peers of World War II GIs are the scholastic champions by a very wide margin, the last thoroughly literate generation produced by U.S. public schools in the twentieth century.

The “Reading Wars” should be called off so that children can again learn to read and start to build the basis for a productive life of literacy. All that is needed is for Whole Language philosophers to recognize that sight repetition of whole words is not an effective way to teach beginning reading.

Regna Lee Wood is currently director of statistical research for the National Right to Read Foundation, which in 1993 recognized her as a master teacher in phonics. The developer of the “Sound Letters Phonics Program,” she may be contacted at [email protected].