“Whole Language” Faulted for U.S. Reading Woes

Published February 1, 2001

First you learn to read, then you read to learn. But if you don’t learn to read effectively, how can you ever read to learn effectively?

Although research on reading instruction clearly and consistently shows that young children need systematic, direct, and explicit instruction in phonics to learn how to decode words on the printed page, the ineffective and discredited whole language approach continues to be widely used for reading instruction in elementary U.S. schools, according to a new report from the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

Those most likely to be harmed by this persistent embrace of ineffective teaching practices are the students most in need of valid and effective reading instruction: minority, low-income, immigrant, and inner-city children.

“Students who are not taught properly are less able to sound out a new word when it is encountered, slower and less accurate at reading whole words, less able to spell, less able to interpret punctuation and sentence meaning, and less able to learn new vocabulary words from reading them in context,” warns Louisa Cook Moats, director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) Early Interventions Project in Washington, DC.

Evidence of ineffective reading instruction abounds. Four out of ten U.S. fourth-graders lack basic reading skills, and tens of millions of U.S. adults score at the lowest level of literacy. While responsibility for these failures cannot be laid solely at the feet of whole language instruction, the whole language approach was widely discredited a few years ago, after its official adoption in California’s public schools quickly drove the state’s reading scores down to the lowest level in the nation. As a result, phonics-based reading instruction appeared destined for a comeback.

But in her November 2000 Fordham report, Whole Language Lives On: The Illusion of “Balanced” Reading Instruction, Moats points out that the worst practices of the failed whole language approach have not been halted, but continue under the new names of “balanced” or “consensus” reading instruction. While balanced reading instruction implies the integration of best practices from the whole language and phonics approaches, Moats reports that most state education agencies, school districts, and federal agencies continue to misunderstand reading development and to deliver “poorly conceived, ineffective instruction.”

Whole language asserts that reading is just as natural a process as speaking and thus may be learned in the same way, with children picking up the structure of print and the mechanism of reading by imitating the actions of adults. Whole language advocates posit the following beliefs:

  • Children learn to read and spell just like they learn to talk, by imitating adults.
  • Most children spontaneously learn phoneme awareness, phonics, spelling, punctuation, and other skills of the written language.
  • Explicit teaching of phonics and spelling is needed only after children make errors in reading and writing.
  • Too much explicit phonics instruction is harmful and children should discover or construct sound-letter correspondence for themselves.
  • Detailed decoding of words is unnecessary and the primary strategy for reading unfamiliar words is to guess the word from its context.

The problem with the whole language approach is that almost every one of its premises has been contradicted by scientific investigations. Research shows that effective reading instruction involves the following components, which support the premise that reading is not a natural process and must be taught:

  • All children need explicit, systematic instruction in phonics in early reading development so they can learn how to decode unfamiliar written words into speech.
  • Even at the earliest stages of reading development, it is essential to focus attention on meaning, comprehension strategies, language development, and writing.
  • All children need exposure to rich literatures, both fiction and non-fiction.
  • Children’s interest and pleasure in reading must be developed in parallel with their reading skills.

“At best, much of whole-language thinking . . . is obsolete, and at worst, much of it never was well informed about children and their intellectual development,” remarked Michael Pressley, editor of Educational Psychologist.

Moats concludes that whole language persists for several reasons, including a lack of rigor in university education departments that has allowed “much nonsense to infect reading-research symposia, courses for teachers, and journals.” For example, whole language advocates now focus on measuring a child’s “love of reading” rather than test scores that measure the child’s ability to read.

To root out whole language from reading classrooms, Moats calls for efforts on eight separate fronts. Her recommendations include basing state language arts standards and curricula on solid reading-research findings, and emphasizing the attainment of grade-appropriate reading, spelling, and writing skills by third grade.

For more information . . . Single copies of Louisa Cook Moats’ October 2000 report, Whole Language Lives On: The Illusion of ‘Balanced’ Reading Instruction, are available from the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, 1627 K Street #600, Washington, DC 20006, or by calling 888/TBF-7474. The report also is available on the Foundation’s Web site at http://www.edexcellence.net.

Moats also is the author of the booklet, Teaching Reading IS Rocket Science, published by the American Federation of Teachers. The booklet is available from the AFT Web site at http://www.aft.org//Edissues/rocketscience.htm.