This article appeared in Consent #18 (January 1993)


- R. N. Whitehead, Ph. D.

{R.N. Whitehead is the clinical director and founder of the Oxford Learning Systems and the Oxford Learning Centre schools. Requests for additional information can be addressed to Dr. Whitehead, c/o Oxford Learning Centres, 312 Commissioners Rd. W., London Ontario N6J 1Y3.}

Whole Language vs. Phonics is a subject engendering much discussion these days. Parents are demanding a return to the teaching of reading by phonics, while school board trustees and administrators are claiming their reading programs are effective. Teachers are often confused and kids are stuck in the middle.

It may be possible to better understand this issue if we examine some of the primary principles underlying the act of reading.

A child first hears language by listening to his/her parents. But (s)he does not merely copy the sounds of his/her parents! A child must make an enormous mental step in order to begin learning this language. Every word in our language represents a particular and single concept.

When children first learn language, they first have to understand --- in a mind that has no language at all --- that the strange sound they are hearing is connected to whatever the parent is pointing or referring to.

For example, when you say "Mommy" to the child and point at yourself, how will the child know what you are doing, or that that sound you have made even has any meaning at all? Understanding that the sound refers to one specific concept is a feat which requires that the child understand that it is necessary to categorize information in order to make greater sense of his/her universe.

Without language, we can only think about what is in our conscious mind right now. All the learning of the past would be lost to us. Without words to summarize and represent concepts, we would have to develop each concept anew every time! --- much like the lower thinking-order animals do.

All the language children learn is through their ears. They hear sounds, learn to distinguish the differences between these sounds, learn to blend diverse sounds together, learn what concepts are and what the individually blended sounds (words) stand for. All this information is filed in the subconscious and the language is verbal.

The next step seems logical. Children already understand all the concepts of language implicitly. If they can speak in clear sentences, they already have comprehension!!! We do not have to worry about that, our task should be to teach them how to access the incredible amount of stored knowledge and literature humankind possesses.

How? By teaching children to understand the code or script we use to write our language. It is a unique code and it is designed to be built from the ground up, much the same way every single verbal or mental concept is formed!

Amazing! Language and thinking are developed together and in the same way!

In fact, language was developed so that we could further enlarge our knowledge. It is primarily a tool of thinking, not communication. Reading should not be different. If we first helped the child to understand abstract concepts by making sure they understood concrete ones --- by teaching verbal language --- then we should teach reading in the same manner. That would suggest to our children that there is some logic and order to the learning of written language just as there was in the learning of spoken language and in thinking!

The building blocks of reading are letters, and there are only 26 of them. All words flow from these basic 26 units. If for no other reason than it is logical and rational, we should consider using only phonics first reading programs for our children. It is empowering and important for the development of their self- esteem.

But there is more! Much more. When we throw away phonics as the first and primary method of decoding and switch to whole word (whole language) method, we are telling our kids something that isn't true. We are saying that there is no code! That there is no order to the development of language. That words themselves are the blocks of the language.

But they cannot be used as parts of a whole. In other words, you make words from letters but you don't make new words by splicing two or three other words together. So, in fact, words are not the blocks of the language --- letters are!

However, that's not what we tell our kids. By depriving them of the understanding that letters, not words, are the blocks of the language, we are making language incoherent! It can't be understood, there is no pattern, it can just be memorized. Can you imagine having to memorize by sight every single word in the English language? Well that's what we condemn kids to do when we teach them whole words, not letters.

This causes another problem. The problem of thinking. If we begin by the whole word method we are encouraging a number of practices. We encourage and reward memorization and we encourage estimation --- if you don't know the word, guess. In fact, by allowing students to think that meanings are interchangeable, that if you don't know what it really means, guessing is O.K.; we are pretending that words don't have specific meanings.

But they do! Every word stands for one, and only one specific concept. It is not true that any old meaning will do. It is not true and it is not fair to the student. It says that accuracy is not important (but it is!) and that fuzzy or 'sort of' thinking is all right (but it isn't).

So we encourage kids to memorize and match, tell them that accuracy is not important, forgive and allow fuzzing thinking and pretend that creative (inventive) spelling is fine. Then what happens? High school, university, college and life happens.

Students who prefer matching usually end up thinking associationally, not conceptually. They can't problem solve, don't take academic risks, need structured programs and lots of help and guidance --- all of which impede the development of real self-esteem. They don't 'get it', don't make the connections or see the relationships. They are disorganized, not motivated, sometimes confused, angry or defensive. They are not achieving their potential! They haven't learned how to think critically. Ask any high school English or Math teacher, go to a university and inquire of the English, Philosophy, Business or Psychology Departments, speak to business leaders about the literacy of many recent graduates and you will see we already have this problem. It's not going away, it's going to get worse.

And it begins when we cast the first seeds of doubt in the pristine minds of our children.

A child who has learned to speak already knows (implicitly and probably without the words to defend him/herself with) the importance of accuracy. Watch kids play and observe how carefully they keep each other accurate. Even understanding a single word means that that child understands that there is something the same as other words but that there is an important something different as well and that child is capable of understanding that difference. That child insists on clarity, honesty and integrity in his/her internal dealings with the world.

Then we tell the child to ignore all that (s)he knows about how to learn. We say accuracy isn't important and that our written language doesn't have a code (some schools forbid teachers from telling kids that the words are made up of letters which have specific sounds --- it's a secret). In other words, we imply that how the child has been using his/her mind is wrong!! What they figured out for themselves can't be trusted. They are wrong for life! If one thinks of the amount of struggle an adult goes through in order to understand the whys and hows of his/her life and then considers that this self same struggle is occurring daily in the hearts and minds of our children, one might begin to see why it is so important for them to feel that they are capable of understanding --- their very survival depends upon it.

But our reading programs pull the rug out from under our children. We discount the achievement of their minds and the confidence and pride they have developed as a result of that great achievement. In fact, what a child accomplishes in learning to speak is probably the greatest achievement of his/her life. It is certainly the hardest.

Instead of celebrating this great achievement --- that required precision, logic, understanding --- we tell them to memorize and trust. We drive a spear into the very soul of their self- confidence and feelings of self-esteem and it is no wonder that they prefer to memorize and live in a structured universe! If their own minds are not safe or competent then the only other option is trust and follow.

But it's just a reading program you say! And teachers love kids and want to help them. And school boards don't want to cause problems, they want to educate kids as effectively as possible. Yes, all that may be true, but it doesn't change the facts. All the good intentions in the world will not change the principles of a bad program and will not lessen the severity of its effects. Whole word, or whole language, reading programs are not teaching our kids to read well and are a major part of the reason why students are not thinking more clearly and effectively.

We have known how to teach kids to read for centuries. Modern teaching methodology has produced more creative and effective teachers. Let's use these strengths to marry excellent teachers with effective programs.

It's time to call it a bad bargain and say goodbye to Whole Language.

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