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Whole-Language Boondoggle

By Sam Blumenfeld
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #3, 1993.

Sam Blumenfeld explains why "look-say" reading never works.
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Sam Blumenfeld

For the past fifty years a great debate has been raging among educators over how to teach children to read. Lately the debate has degenerated into a tug of war between the advocates of intensive phonics and the advocates of whole language.

The education establishment prefers whole language, while most parents and some teachers prefer a phonetic approach.

A very concise and accurate description of the essential elements of that debate was given by a writer in Collier's magazine in 1954 as follows:

Two basic teaching methods are in conflict here. One is the phonetic approach (known as phonics) . . . [in which] youngsters try to sound out letters and syllables. The other method . . . is the word-memory plan -- also known as "sight reading," "total word configuration" or "word recognition." It has the more friendly nickname of "look and say," since the youngster is supposed simply to look at a word and say it right out. He memorizes the "shape" of the word, the configuration, and identifies it with pictures in his workbook. Often he is taught to recognize phrases or whole sentences in his picture book, or on flash (poster) cards, before he can independently sound out and pronounce such simple words as cat or ball.

The fundamental difference in approach in the two methods reaches deep into philosophy and scientific theory. Thinkers have wrangled for centuries over which comes first, the whole or its parts (an argument perhaps as endless as that over the priority of the "chicken or the egg"). The phonics advocates say the parts come first; the word-memory people say we start with the whole and the parts fall into place in due course.

Now that was written 39 years ago. You would think that by now the dispute over teaching methods would have been resolved. After all, all you need to prove your case are two schools, one using phonics and one using look-say. It would be quite easy to determine which group of children learned to read better. But that was never done, even though comparisons between private schools which use phonics and public schools which use a whole-word approach could have been made at any time at very little cost.

If you want to know the present state of the dispute, here are a few lines from an article that appeared in the March 21, 1990 issue of Education Week. The headline reads: "From a 'Great Debate' to a Full-Scale War: Dispute Over Teaching Reading Heats Up." So now, believe it or not, we are in a full-scale war! The article states:

In 1967, one of the most prominent researchers in reading instruction, Jeanne S. Chall, analyzed the controversy that was then raging in the field in an influential book called The Great Debate.

Today, nearly a quarter of a century later, the Harvard University scholar says the "debate" not only persists, but has, in fact, escalated to a full-scale war.

The battle lines are drawn between advocates of phonics, who stress the importance of teaching relationships between letters and sounds, and those of whole-language methodology, who believe children should be taught reading by reading whole texts.

And so fierce have their arguments become that two recent attempts to find a common ground -- a federally funded study and a proposal for the 1992 national assessment -- have not only failed to quell the debate, but may have exacerbated it.

"It's always been, in reading, that there was restraint with all our fighting," Ms. Chall says. "Now it's as if all restraints are gone."

If a war is raging among public educators over how to teach reading, who do you think the victims are? The children, of course. The stark tragedy is that millions of children in public schools are being prepared for stunted lives as functional illiterates and their parents haven't the faintest idea that this is taking place.

Fortunately, for homeschoolers, the great debate is over. Their children are out of the war zone, for the vast majority of homeschoolers use intensive phonics to teach their children to read. If public educators or the U.S. Education Department want to know why, the answer is amazingly simple: intensive phonics works!

We who have been fighting this battle of phonics versus look-say for the last three decades have known this for years. In my case, I became aware of the reading problem back in 1962 when I was asked to join the National Advisory Council of the Reading Reform Foundation, founded by conservative lawyer Watson Washburn, whose aim it was to get phonics back into the schools. At that time I was an editor at Grosset & Dunlap in New York City and had no idea that there was a reading problem. Washburn suggested that I read Rudolf Flesch's book, Why Johnny Can't Read, published in 1955, which I did. In that book Flesch wrote:

The teaching of reading -- all over the United States, in all the schools, in all the textbooks -- is totally wrong and flies in the face of all logic and common sense.

Flesch then went on to explain how, in the early 1930s, the professors of education changed the way reading is taught in American schools. They threw out the traditional alphabetic-phonics method, which is the proper way to teach children to read an alphabetic writing system, and put in a new look-say, whole-word or sight method that teaches children to read English as if it were Chinese, an ideographic writing system. Flesch argued that when you impose an ideographic teaching method on an alphabetic writing system you cause reading disability.

Flesch, of course, was not the first to write about the harm the look-say method could cause. As far back as 1929, Dr. Samuel T. Orton, a neuropathologist, pointed out in an article in the Journal of Educational Psychology that the sight method could cause reading problems. His article was entitled "The 'Sight Reading' Method of Teaching Reading as a Source of Reading Disability." He wrote:

I wish to emphasize at the beginning that the strictures which I have to offer here do not apply to the use of the sight method of teaching reading as a whole but only to its effects on a restricted group of children for whom, as I think we can show, this technique is not only not adapted but often proves an actual obstacle to reading progress, and moreover I believe that this group is one of considerable size and because here faulty teaching methods may not only prevent the acquisition of academic education by children of average capacity but may also give rise to far reaching damage to their emotional life.

That was about as clear and unambiguous a warning as could be given to the educators who were about to launch their new sight-reading programs in the schools of America. Naturally, the educators were not happy with Dr. Orton's characterization of their teaching methods as "faulty." But this did not deter them. They proceeded to put the new reading programs -- Dick & Jane and other similar primers -- in the schools. The results were disastrous. Nevertheless, despite ongoing criticism from parents and writers, the educators persisted in promoting these faulty methods, attributing reading failure to a learning disability rather than a teaching disability.

Today, the bubbly promoters of whole language will tell you that their programs are different from the Dick and Jane programs of yesteryear. Indeed they are. They are much worse, if that is possible. Why are they worse? Because they not only denigrate the alphabetic nature of our writing system but they even deny the basic nature of reading. For example, in defining reading, the pro-whole language authors of Whole Language: What's the Difference? write:

From a whole language perspective, reading (and language use in general) is a process of generating hypotheses in a meaning-making transaction in a sociohistorical context. As a transactional process, reading is not a matter of "getting the meaning" from text, as if that meaning were in the text waiting to be decoded by the reader. Rather, reading is a matter of readers using the cues print provide and the knowledge they bring with them (of language subsystems, of the world) to construct a unique interpretation. Moreover, that interpretation is situated: readers' creations (not retrievals) of meaning with the text vary, depending on their purposes for reading and the expectations of others in the reading event. This view of reading implies that there is no single "correct" meaning for a given text, only plausible meanings.

Note how they call reading a "process of generating hypotheses" or a "transactional process" in which the reader "creates" meaning rather than retrieves it from the text. The process is totally subjective, with the text merely providing some mental stimulus. The reader is free to interpret the text any way he or she wants. And who is to say when the reader has gone too far in his or her interpretation?

Obviously, this is a recipe for the destruction of literacy, not its improvement. For further clarification, the authors write:

Whole language represents a major shift in thinking about the reading process. Rather than viewing reading as "getting the words," whole language educators view reading as essentially a process of creating meanings. . . . It is a transaction, not an extraction of the meaning from the print, in the sense that the reader-created meanings are a fusion of what the reader brings and what the text offers.

. . . In a transactional model, words do not have static meanings. Rather, they have meaning potentials and the capacity to communicate multiple meanings.

This view of reading is nothing less than the radical literary philosophy of deconstructionism. In an article in Contemporary Authors on Jacques Derrida, the French proponent of deconstruction, we read:

[D]econstructionism emphasizes the reader's role in extracting meaning from texts and the impossibility of determining absolute meaning.

It is important for homeschoolers to understand this connection between whole language and deconstruction. The purpose of both is the destruction of the absolute word as represented by the word of God in Scripture. If children are taught to invent their own meanings in whatever they read, then what is to stop them from reading the Bible in their own subjective manner, inventing whatever meaning happens to please them?

Trying to change an inaccurate, subjective sight reader into an accurate, objective phonetic reader is not easy. The sight reader is in the habit of leaving out words that are there, putting in words that aren't there, substituting words, guessing words, mutilating words, truncating words, skipping words, etc. Only a remedial program based on intensive, systematic phonics can alter these bad habits.

Increasingly, one finds workshops for whole language at homeschool conferences. This is disturbing. So, be forewarned. Only one aspect of whole language has any merit at all, and that is its rejection of the inane basal readers, like the Dick & Jane books, which are both boring and practically meaningless. Whole language proponents advocate giving children good books to read. Who can quarrel with that? The only problem is they don't bother to teach the children to read before they give them the books. They teach the children a lot about reading, but not how to read.

Another aspect of whole language that is terribly misguided is the concept of "invented spelling," in which children are encouraged to write before they have been taught to read. They are not taught how to hold the writing instrument correctly. They are not taught how to form the letters correctly. And they are not taught to spell correctly. They are simply told to write, to express themselves. The theory is that sometime in the future the children will learn to write and spell correctly all by themselves.

Isn't that assuming an awful lot? Why should we permit children to develop bad habits of writing and spelling? Have the educators forgotten how difficult it is to break a bad habit once it has developed?

There are two absolute no-no's in teaching: (1) never teach anything that later has to be unlearned; and (2) never let your pupils develop bad habits that must be corrected later on. Unfortunately, our educators commit both sins every day of the week in every public school in America.

That is why I urge parents to homeschool their children, for the children are at too great a risk in today's public schools.

Why it Matters

What's the Difference?

Teaching a child to read by intensive phonics is quite simple. First, you teach the child to recognize the letters of the alphabet. That is generally a fairly easy task. Second, you teach the child the sounds the letters stand for. Various phonics programs do that in a variety of ways. However, what is most important in this phase is that the child be permitted to develop an automatic association between letters and sounds, for that is crucial in becoming a good phonetic reader. Phonic drills help a child achieve that needed automaticity. Third, you give the child interesting little stories to read so that he or she can practice sounding out new words. That's all there is to it. Sounds easy. It is easy. All it takes is practice -- and your usual loving patience.

Sequential Order in Learning to Read by Phonics:

  • Child learns the alphabet first.
  • Child learns the sounds the letters stand for by drill so that he or she develops an automatic association of letters with sounds.
  • Child learns to "blend" sounds together, so that a . . . t is pronounced at.
  • Child sounds out whole words.
  • Child reads simple stories.
  • Child develops accuracy in decoding.
  • Child develops good pronunciation.
  • Child learns to spell correctly.
  • Child develops vocabulary and comprehension of new words.
  • Child writes stories and poems.

Sequential Disorder in Whole Language Instruction

Whole language instruction is based on the belief that children learn to read the way they learn to speak: naturally and therefore do not really need much formal instruction.

  • Child is read to by teacher who uses a large book on an easel so that the children can learn the words by their configurations and contextual relationships.
  • Child is surrounded by books and expected to "read" them.
  • Child is taught to memorize sight words.
  • Child is expected to write before being able to read.
  • Child uses "invented spelling" in writing and is expected to correct himself at some future date.
  • Child "writes" a book which is "published" in class and read aloud to fellow classmates.
  • Child is taught to "take risks" in reading by substituting words, skipping words, guessing the words.
  • Child is taught some letter sounds as one of the strategies to be used in figuring out a word. This strategy is usually referred to as "graphophonemics."
  • Child is taught to use picture clues, context clues, syntactic clues, and phonetic clues in trying to figure out what the words say.
  • Child is encouraged to "interpret" the text rather than read it accurately.
  • Misreadings are considered "miscues" rather than errors.
  • No stress on proper pronunciation.
  • No stress on accuracy.
  • The reader "creates" the meaning.
  • Cooperative learning is stressed over individualism.
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