Whole Language Reading Instruction Faulted

Published January 1, 1997

In a new report issued by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, Dr. James J. Campbell, a Fulton, New York pediatrician, concludes that whole language reading instruction is responsible for a wide range of learning disorders.

According to Campbell, whole language reading instruction is creating a group of children “so confused that they are mistakenly regarded as being disabled with attention deficit disorder, learning disabilities, hyperactivity disorder, and other behavioral problems.” In many instances, he says, those children don’t need Ritalin, they just need to be taught how to read.

Campbell’s report, “A Teachin’ Deficit Disorder,” details his experiences in assessing an increasing number of children referred to him from the schools for medical evaluation and treatment of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Learning Disability (LD). Over a two-year period, he concluded that in a majority of children he evaluated, the problem was caused not by a medical or psychological disorder, but by a failure of the school’s instructional program to teach reading rationally and effectively.

The situation is made more tragic because the schools refuse to acknowledge their failure and deny that the instructional program could be at fault. As a result, corrective measures are not taken and “the child is made to suffer continuing blame and humiliation,” said Campbell in his report.

Parents suffer, too. They are told that their children have disabilities which in fact they do not have. They are told that their children lack self-esteem, do not get enough attention, are under too much stress, and require psychological treatment or medication to assist in focusing and staying on task.

Dr. Campbell calls the instructional concepts of whole language learning “fraudulent” and finds it “astonishing that the school system would adopt and continue to use such an unproven and defective system of instruction.”

Skepticism about the whole language approach is growing. After years of declining reading scores, the California Board of Regents in 1995 attributed the decline substantially to the use of whole language reading instruction. After state reading scores dropped dramatically two years in a row, Illinois State School Superintendent Joseph A. Spagnolo last year laid the blame on reading instruction methods and urged a return to phonics (see article on page 14). The role of whole language instruction in the decline of literacy in the Massachusetts educational system is also under investigation.

The solution, argues Campbell, is a return to teaching direct and systematic phonics. There is, he says, ample evidence of the importance of teaching phonics in instructional, psychological, and linguistic literature. If given proper phonetic instruction, children would learn reading more easily and achieve higher literacy.

“[I]t is gratifying when young children resolve their problems by simply improving their phonetic and reading knowledge,” says the pediatrician. “It is up to school boards to correct the instructional program so that the schools stop producing children with reading and behavioral disorders.”

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].