Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Whole Language Debate

New ideas die hard: Learning to Read

hole language: A decade ago, the “whole language” approach to learning how to read made inroads into education. Some scholars suggest that “whole language” has failed, and has done more harm than good. In many schools, teachers have reverted back to phonics. New ideas, however, die hard. Frank Smith, (PhD. Harvard) recently published a book entitled Unspeakable Acts, Unnatural Practices (2003). The book addresses what he considers to be “flaws” in the way we teach reading—namely, phonics. He asserts that the phonics method is neither natural nor effective in teaching children how to read. He calls this the “Just So” method (“just sound out”) and he is intentionally drawing a correlation between phonics methodology and Kipling’s “Just So Stories.” In other words, the Leopard didn’t actually get his spots from an artistic Ethiopian… and children don’t actually learn to read by sounding things out.

To make his case, he cites the word “cat” as an example. Smith writes, “C-A-T is not necessarily k-a-t. We only think C-A-T is cat because we know how the word cat is spelled. Therefore it’s obvious. C can also be s (city), a can be uh (about) and t can be ch (picture)—so C-A-T could equally well spell such” (41).

What he is arguing for is whole language methodology; he views C-A-T as a complete package—“cat”—the same way Chinese pictograms function. The problem is that English is a phonetic language, not pictorial. Regardless of the fact that various letters can have alternating phonemes and despite exceptions to the pronunciation rules, the word “cat” is made up of three phonemes: K-A-T. English, like all languages, is an oral language; words are collections of sounds. Children learn to speak before they learn to read. Consequently, Smith does make a good point about word recognition; we know C-A-T spells “cat” because we recognise that configuration of letters represents “cat.” We also know how the word “cat” sounds when it is spoken. Long before my sons could read, they knew how to say “cat.” But what about words we have not spoken before or seen before or words that are more complicated, i.e., words that consist of a variety of phonemes? How about the words “preponderate” or “supererogation”? I bet you just sounded these words out.

It goes without saying that children will often begin to read a word and “guess” what the rest of the word is; sometimes they are right. Eventually, as they mature as readers, the children will recognize most words without sounding out each letter. They will also use context to help predict words. Context is central to being able to read anything. Smith overlooks this fact. For example, “The mouse ran away from the such…” or “The mouse ran away from the cat…” A child will sound out the word that makes most sense.

As their reading level increases, they will also encounter new words that go beyond their vocabulary. One of the many values of reading is that it expands our vocabulary. At some level, people will always need to read words—phonetically—especially when an affix (suffix or prefix) is added or in the case of inflections, which will change the meaning of a word.

Because English is a language made up of parts, it behoves us to teach our children about these parts. I also teach my Latin students using the “parts” to “whole” approach. In spite of the fact the Latin is a heavily inflected language (meaning parts matter a great deal), there is a movement afoot to push whole language approach in the teaching of Latin. The barbarians are at the gate once again.

Work Cited

Smith, Frank. Unspeakable Acts, Unnatural Practices New Hampshire: Heinemann, 2003

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