Whole Language Packaged as Phonics

Published February 1, 2001

Reading researcher Louisa Cook Moats recently identified “lack of rigor and disrespect for evidence in reading education” among the reasons for the persistence of the ineffective whole language reading instruction method.

As an example, she cited an October 1999 Education Leadership article titled “Whole Language Works: Sixty Years of Research,” by three authors “who caricature code-emphasis instruction . . .; make statements that contradict every authoritative research summary on reading . . .; and misrepresent the views of authors who are referenced, such as Carol Chomsky.”

Reading expert Mary Damer recently found a more outrageous example in the book, Month-by-month Phonics for First Grade: Systematic, Multilevel Instruction by Patricia M. Cunningham and Dorothy P. Hall, one of the textbooks sent to every Illinois kindergarten, first grade, and second grade teacher as part of the Illinois Statewide Reading Initiative.

Damer noted that although “phonics” was the main word in the title of the book, the text immediately revealed it was whole language deceptively packaged as phonics.

The Cunningham-Hall book “is no more about phonics than the man in the moon,” said Damer. Instead of teaching explicit, systematic phonics, the authors urge teachers to begin reading instruction with sight words. By the second month of their schooling, students are being taught–not just encouraged–to use the whole language technique of guessing at words based on context.

“I . . . was unaware that anyone would have the chutzpah to attach such a title to a tome where the author espoused learning sight words before talking haphazardly to students about the variation in sounds of different letters,” said Damer.