The allure of using Whole Language to teach children to read lies mainly in the fact that, as you’d expect, humans are heavily biased towards meaning and a whole word approach has an immediate appeal because, at the beginning, it seems so easy. On the other side of the methodological divide, learning how to recognise letter shapes as representations of sounds is hard work from the start even though it gets easier as learning progresses.
So, what is wrong with a Whole Language approach?
Well, firstly, whole word instruction isn’t generative! Each word has to be learned from someone who already knows that word. Thus, every unknown word constitutes potentially a barrier to meaning and understanding.
Secondly, and this follows on from the previous point, whole language is hugely time-consuming. Each new word requires oodles of practice and teachers need to provide multiple opportunities for practice, which is why books with a Whole Language orientation are filled with endless repetition of ‘key’ words.
If on the other hand we teach children even a small number of sound-spelling correspondences and we get them to practise the skills of segmenting and blending, they can quickly read (and spell) dozens and dozens of words.
Here’s an example of what I mean: if we teach children just 12 sound-spelling correspondences ([ a ], [ i ], [ m ], [ s ], [ t ], [ n ], [ o ], [ p ], [ b ], [ c ], [ g ] and [ h ]) and we teach them to segment and blend, they will be able to read and spell around 70+ words, as well as to be able to read and write sentences in which those words appear.
Thirdly, by demanding that pupils attend to whole words, there is no reason why they should give attention to the detail of words. In fact, research shows that children are likely to attend to the outer segments of words but not to the internal details. As there are so many words in the English language that look very similar, a Whole Language approach always makes children susceptible to mis-reading and mis-spelling even very common words. And this is exactly what we see in practice.
Finally, a Whole Language approach is very frustrating for children who simply cannot remember words as wholes from the start and anybody who teaches young children knows and can identify such pupils within weeks of them beginning school. However, it isn’t just such children who have trouble from the outset. In fact, pupils with lots of prior learning and very good visual memories are likely to be even more at risk in the long term because, inevitably, as they are required to learn more and more words, they begin to run out of visual memory and begin to guess wildly or to try and work out what words are from other, contextual clues, such as syntax, illustrations and discourse. Furthermore, once these bad habits have become ingrained, as with any habit that is practised, the longer it goes on, the harder it is to correct.
And all of this is compounded by teachers who haven’t been properly trained to teach the sensible and only alternative to Whole Language/Look and Say/Mixed methods.
So, I say again: train the teachers!