Whole language is a phenomenon that has been difficult to describe, particularly because many of its advocates have somewhat divergent perspectives about the core content of this instructional approach. Several strands run through most iterations of whole language:
The idea of "whole" language has its basis in a range of theories of learning related to the epistemologies called "holism." Holism is based upon the belief that it is not possible to understand learning of any kind by analyzing small chunks of the learning system. Holism was very much a response to behaviorism, which emphasized that the world could be understood by experimenting with stimuli and responses. Holists considered this a reductionist perspective that did not recognize that "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts." Analyzing individual behaviors, holists argued, could never tell us how the entire human mind worked. This is—in simplified terms—the theoretical basis for the term "whole language."
The whole language approach to phonics grew out of Noam Chomsky's conception of linguistic development. Chomsky believed that humans have a natural language capacity and are built to communicate through words. This idea developed a large following in the 1960s. In 1967, Ken Goodman wrote a widely-cited article calling reading a "psycholinguistic guessing game" and chiding educators for attempting to apply unnecessary orthographic order to a process that relied on holistic examination of words. Goodman posited the existence of three "cueing systems" that regulate literacy development. These cueing systems are the graphophonemic cueing system, the semantic cueing system, and the syntactic cueing system, related to the linguistic domains of phonetics, semantics, and syntax respectively. The "graph" portion of the "graphophonemic" system referred to the graphic input, i.e., the text. According to Goodman, these systems overlap and work in tandem to help readers "guess" appropriately. He emphasized that pronouncing individual words will involve the use of all three systems (letter clues, meaning clues from context, and syntactical structure of the sentence). Part of his rationale was that in his studies of children who read words individually and then the same words in connected text, the children did better when they read the words in connected text. Later replications of the experiment failed to find effects, however, when children did not read the same words in connected text immediately after reading them individually, as they had in Goodman's experiment.
Goodman's theory has been criticized by other researchers who favor a phonics-based approach, and present research to support their viewpoint. Good readers use decoding as their primary approach to reading, and use context to confirm that what they have read makes sense. Good readers decode rapidly and automatically. Poor readers, who have not developed this fluency skill, will resort to guessing the identity of words, using such strategies as looking at the picture, or using only some of the letters in the words. Studies have shown that even good readers can correctly guess words in context only one out of ten times. , ,
Goodman's argument was compelling to educators as a way of thinking about beginning reading and literacy more broadly. This led to the idea that reading and writing were ideas that should be considered as wholes, learned by experience and exposure more than analysis and didactic instruction. This largely accounts for the focus on time spent reading, especially independent reading. Many classrooms (whole language or otherwise) include silent reading time, sometimes called DEAR ("Drop Everything And Read") time or SSR (sustained silent reading). Some versions of this independent reading time include a structured role for the teacher, especially Reader's Workshop. Despite the popularity of the extension of Chomsky's linguistic ideas to literacy, neurological and experimental research has shown that reading, unlike language, is not a pre-programmed human skill. It must be learned. Dr. Sally Shaywitz, a neurologist at Yale University, is credited with much of the research on the neurological structures of reading.
Because of this holistic emphasis, whole language is contrasted with skill-based areas of instruction, especially phonics. Phonics is a commonly-used technique for teaching students to read. Phonics instruction tends to emphasize attention to the individual components of words, for example, the phonemes /k/, /æ/, and /t/ are represented by the graphemes c, a, and t. Because they de-emphasize the individual parts of learning, tending to focus on the larger context, whole language proponents do not favor some types of phonics instruction. Interestingly, some whole language advocates state that they do teach, and believe in, phonics, especially a type of phonics known as embedded phonics. In embedded phonics, letters are taught during other lessons focused on meaning and the phonics component is considered a "minilesson." Instruction in embedded phonics typically emphasizes the consonants and the short vowels, as well as letter combinations called rimes or phonograms. The use of this embedded phonics model is called a "whole-part-whole" approach because, consistent with holistic thinking, students read the text for meaning first (whole), then examine some features of the phonics system (part) and finally use their new knowledge to read stories (whole). Reading Recovery is a program that uses a whole language approach with struggling readers.
The contrast with skills-based approaches to reading also led to an approach to spelling called "invented spelling" or "inventive spelling." This generated considerable controversy in the public domain (see more discussion of controversies in the subsequent section) because parents, as well as some educators, were concerned that their children were not learning to spell well. Many whole language advocates argued that children went through stages of spelling development and that it was important to appreciate students' attempts to make meaning rather than harp on little mistakes. Popularly, invented spelling has been vilified by some, although little research has been done about the consequences of this shift away from spelling.
Whole language remains very popular in some parts of the United States and other countries, but its use has tended to wane over the past few years.
After its introduction by Goodman, whole language rose in popularity dramatically. It became a major educational paradigm of the late 1980s and the 1990s. Despite its popularity during this period, educators who believed that skill instruction was important for students' learning and some researchers in education were skeptical of whole language claims and said so loudly. Whether it was associated with whole language or not, the 1990s saw statistically-significant declines in student achievement nationwide on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Much of the blame for these declines was pinned on whole language. Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, whole language skeptics generated considerable research that cast considerable doubt on features of whole language that de-emphasized skills, especially in phonics.
Controversy led to several attempts to catalog research on the efficacy of phonics and whole language. Congress commissioned reading expert Marilyn Jager Adams to write a definitive book on the topic. She determined that phonics was important but suggested that some elements of the whole language approach were helpful. Two large scale efforts, In 1998 by the National Research Council's Commission on Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children and in 2000 by the National Reading Panel, catalogued the most important elements of a reading program. While proponents of whole language find the latter to be controversial, both panels found that phonics instruction of varying kinds, especially analytic and synthetic phonics, contributed positively to students' ability to read. Both panels also found that embedded phonics and no phonics contributed to lower rates of achievement for most populations of students.
Despite these results, many whole language advocates continue to argue that their approach, including embedded phonics, has been shown to improve student achievement. Whole language advocates sometimes criticize advocates of skill instruction as "reductionist" and describe the use of phonics as "word calling" because it does not involve the use of meaning. The National Reading Panel is criticized especially harshly by some in the whole language community for failing to include qualitative research designs that showed benefits for embedded phonics (the panel only considered experiments and quasi-experiments).
While rancor continues, much of whole language's emphasis on quality literature, cultural diversity, and reading in groups and to students is widely supported by the educational community. The importance of motivation, long a central focus of whole language approaches, has gained more attention in the broader educational community in the last few years. Prominent critic of whole language Louisa Cook Moats has argued, however, that the foci on quality literature, diversity, reading groups, and motivation are not the sole property of whole language. She, and others, contend these components of instruction are supported by those who favor phonics as well.
More recently, "balanced literacy" has been suggested as an integrative approach, taking the best elements of both whole language and phonics, something advocated by Adams in 1990. The New York Public School system has adopted balanced literacy as its literacy curriculum. Despite the attempts to find some common ground here, some critics of whole language have suggested that "balanced literacy" is just the disingenuous recasting of the very same whole language with obfuscating new terminology. Equally vociferously, the whole language advocates have railed against the National Reading Panel. Allington went so far as to use the term "big brother" to describe the government's role in the reading debate.
Despite the absence of closure on these issues, emphasis on outcomes arising from No Child Left Behind has brought a resurgence of interest in phonics. Whole language has lost some influence in the 2000s.
Prominent proponents of whole language include Kenneth Goodman, Frank Smith, Carolyn Burke, Jerome Harste, Dorothy Watson, Regie Routman, and Richard Allington. Widely-known whole language detractors include Marilyn Jager Adams, Louisa Cook Moats, Reid Lyon, James Kauffman, Phillip Gough, Keith Stanovich, Diane McGuinness, Douglas Carnine, Edward Kame'enui, Jerry Silbert, and Jeanne Chall.
The concept of whole language has been linked with reform mathematics approaches, as well as other standards for education reform in science and history. These similarly emphasize global understanding and de-emphasize skills instruction, as has been noted by critics. Proponents have responded vociferously to such charges. These instructional approaches are linked by a holistic epistemology and constructivist theory of learning, as described above.