Questioning the Authority of Whole Language

I remember this mantra from my Doctoral program: Goodman and Smith Top-Down, Perfetti and Stanovich Bottom-Up.

The Top-Down theorists believed that readers are the source of meaning. A skilled reader samples the text, but the print itself takes a lesser role in comparison to how the reader interacts with it. Bottom-Up theorists, on the other hand, believed that skilled readers look at the writing itself, and pretty thoroughly at that. While I was working on my doctorate, I remember wondering, like it was yesterday, which theory our professors believed had merit. I asked a classmate; she didn’t know either. I never did figure that out.

So when someone recommended that I check out a Teachers Applying Whole Language Conference in order to help this newly minted specialist teach a new round of students, I did know something about what I was getting into. At this conference I was told that the best way to help students read was to encourage them to predict words using pictures, surrounding context, and their own prior knowledge.

It’s the reader who constructs meaning, they said. I wanted to believe this was my answer. But the doubts were there too and I hadn’t even left the venue.

Image result for questions

I handed in a question for Q and A time, “But don’t we read, at times, to learn something new?”

They didn’t pick that question.

Oral language is learned naturally, so written language is best learned naturally, too. They said we should teach students to read the same way they learned to speak, which is to say they will learn if they grow up in a literature-rich environment, with exposure to predictable books. I wanted so much to help my students, but those doubts kept nagging me. As a speech pathologist, I knew full well that oral language doesn’t always come along easily.

I jotted down another question.“Will children with language learning impairment learn best this way too?”

That question didn’t get picked either.

As I was driving home after the conference, I got to thinking. Writers select words for a reason. Don’t they? If readers create meaning, why can’t we just read a blank page? Along with little pesky details like, “How would this work if you’re a pharmacist?” I ignored myself for a time, followed the advice, and watched for results. I wrote about it in a few reports. I remember a sixth grade boy Adam. Listening to him read was like watching someone walk through sludge. It was halting, effortful. I wrote it all down on new letterhead printed on the finest paper. “Adam isn’t using all of the cues that facilitate reading. He needs to think more about what would make sense to make reading flow with ease.” I recall wishing it were true as I wrote it.

One kid, Kevin, actually learned to read. I could have interpreted this as the whole language approach working. It’s those other kids who are not reading enough at home/unmotivated/not picking the right books/just a puzzle (insert excuse here that would do everything but focus the blame on me). Instead, I was skeptical that I myself actually made the difference for Kevin. The rest of those students just slipped through my fingers.

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