Sunday, May 24, 2015

Putting the Student and Teacher at the Center of Reading Instruction

Take a moment and look at the chart below and ask yourself, “As a teacher and/or parent which of these two approaches to learning to read would I want for my students/children?”




Contrasting Approaches to Reading Instruction


1
2
Instructional Material
Self-selected multicultural literature
Prescribed reading material

Instructional Approach
Teaching for individual strengths & needs
One-size-fits all reading programs
Assessment of Performance
Authentic, teacher based assessment
High stakes standardized testing
Curriculum Design
Collaborative student-centered curriculum
Standards-based curriculum
Teacher Role in Instruction
Teacher as reflective practitioner
Mandated instruction
Purpose of Instruction
Achieving social justice and equity
Achieving global competitiveness

I think most of us would select #1. The first choice seems more student friendly, includes a wider variety of reading materials and empowers teachers to make instructional decisions based on the needs of the children in the seats in front of them.

Now let me label the two approaches to reading instruction.


Whole Language
Corporate Education “Reform”
Instructional Material
Self-selected multicultural literature
Prescribed reading material

Instructional Approach
Teaching for individual strengths & needs
One-size-fits all reading programs
Assessment of Performance
Authentic, teacher based assessment
High stakes standardized testing
Curriculum Design
Collaborative student-centered curriculum
Standards-based curriculum
Teacher Role in Instruction
Teacher as reflective practitioner
Mandated instruction
Purpose of Instruction
Achieving social justice and equity
Achieving global competitiveness

You might be thinking, “Wait a minute you fooled me. Isn’t whole language a discredited approach to teaching reading?” In many ways you would be right. Whole language approaches to teaching reading have been under attack almost from the moment they became prominent as a way of teaching in the 1980s. The reason whole language was discredited makes for compelling reading on its own.

Garn Press under the leadership of literacy researcher and family literacy advocate, Denny Taylor, has recently published a new and expanded version of the book that was central to the spread of whole language approaches to reading instruction, Ken Goodman’s What’s Whole in Whole Language? The new edition is called What’s Whole in Whole Language in the 21st Century?” It includes a new introduction and afterword from Goodman, a chapter by Taylor explaining the political and economic forces behind the discrediting of whole language, interviews with leading literacy experts reflecting on Goodman’s contribution, and a chapter by Bess Altwerger and Rick Meyer called “Teachers as Reflective Practioners”, from which the chart above was taken.

What happened to whole language? The short form of the answer is that whole language lost the war to the interests of corporate education “reform.” Whole language, which focused on good literature and teacher and student decision making, was a real threat to the large reading textbook publishers like McGraw-Hill and others. Imagine if schools spent their money on literature and stopped buying workbooks? To head off the economic threat and to appeal to right wing advocates who had long held that the one true path to reading was phonics, politically motivated “research” was funded and touted as “scientific” proof that phonics was good and whole language was bad. For the long form answer to what happened you can read Goodman’s book or you could readthis article by Northern Arizona University professor John Reyner.

I am a whole language advocate, in part because I could never figure out how to teach reading with “half language”, which is what phonics is at best. As a whole language advocate, I do believe that phonics should be taught. It is just that I believe that phonics is best taught in the pursuit of meaning and as the students need it in their pursuit of meaning. The purpose of all communication is meaning. And as I have said in other posts here and here, meaning plays a key role in decoding a text. Phonics plays a role, too, but it is subsidiary to meaning.

Ken Goodman says, whole language is a “way of bringing together a view of language, a view of learning, and a view of people, in particular two special groups of people: kids and teachers.” By putting kids and teachers at the center of instruction and by recognizing that becoming literate should be a joyful activity, whole language offers the best possible chance to bring children to literacy. Programs do not teach children to read, programs do not lead to joyous celebrations of literacy; teachers teach children to read, with help from parents and a community of readers in the classroom.

It is an error to think that whole language denies the teaching of phonics. Much of Marie Clay’s work on early literacy is indebted to Goodman’s work on miscue analysis and decoding. Clay’s work provides the foundation for early intervention programs like Reading Recovery and guided reading. Both these approaches also emphasize the informed teacher using good judgment and knowledge of the child to bring the child to literacy and both have a decoding emphasis.

It is, however, true that whole language puts phonics, and all other bits and pieces of language, second to the quest for meaning. It is the quest for meaning that drives the student to become a skilled decoder; it is not the other way around.

In a very large sense we can see the corporate education reform movement, with its standards, high-stakes tests and prescribed reading material as an effort to remove the teacher from the teaching/learning equation. Corporate education reform puts materials, instructional prescriptions, and tests at the center of learning. It is an anti-teacher and, ultimately, anti-child movement.

I think all of us want the kind of teaching that is indicated in the Whole Language column above. We want teachers making decisions about children they know well; we want children having choice and voice in what they read; we want a large part of literacy learning to be joyous. By putting the child and the well-informed, professional teacher at the center of teaching and learning, a whole language approach offers our best hope for a more literate, more equitable society.

Read this: Goodman, Ken (2014-11-05). What’s Whole in Whole Language in the 21st Century? Garn Press. Kindle Edition.