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 Dr. Patrick Groff is professor emeritus at San Diego State University.  He is author of numerous books and articles.  He also is consultant for the Right to Read Foundation and is a frequent contributor to that newsletter.  This article was refused by professional journals for obvious reasons considering the political climate in those education circles.




Purposes of Reading Instruction Challenged

    A new, exceedingly radical approach to reading development, called "Whole Language," (WL) has insinuated itself into the nation's schools.   Even the critics of whole language concede that it is "a very active and prominent movement.  More and more, it dominates journals, conferences, agendas, workshop and inservice opportunities, course offerings, and even basic design and marketing strategies" (Adams, 1991, p. 40).  "Never have I witnessed anything like the rapid spread of the whole-language movement," exclaims a college of education dean (Pearson, 1989, p. 231).

Some Definitions of WL

    That those who write about WL have difficulty defining it was substantiated by Bergeron's (1990) study.  She examined sixty-four journal articles, published between 1979 and 1989, in which WL was defined.  Bergeron discovered on the one hand, that WL was identified as a theory, a philosophy, a general attitude by teachers, or a generic approach or orientation toward teaching.  However, other journal articles viewed WL differently, that is, as a program or a curriculum.   "One cannot draw from the literature a concise definition for whole language because no such definition was found to exist," she concluded (p. 318).

    Nonetheless, there are some distinctive features of WL described by its leaders.  They view learning to read and to speak as the same process, one no more difficult to learn than the other.  Therefore, it is said, there is no need for direct and systematic teaching of reading.  No controls over the vocabulary presented young learners is necessary.  Furthermore WL adopts the "deconstructionist" view of written language, that is, that its meaning is decided by the individual reader, rather than its author.  A common assumption of WL is that reading is a "guessing game."  The fact that the experimental research on reading development does not support these WL tenets is dismissed by the
heads of the WL movement.   Empirical evidence is invalid, they assert.  Only the anecdotal data we gather is authentic.

The Political Agenda of Whole Language

       The kingpins of the WL scheme protest that descriptions of WL may fail to report on another vital aspect of WL.  This sometimes overlooked feature of WL is said to be the political nature and ramifications of WL.   This omission has been rectified by the Whole Language Catalog (Goodman, et al., 1991), a volume that comes as close as any other to being an "official" statement about WL.  Two of the editors of this book were founders of the WL movement.  The Whole Language Catalog provides space for three interrelated explanations of the special political conformations and goals of WL.

    To become a full-fledged, bona fide member of the WL undertaking, the political commentators of the Whole Language Catalog emphasize, teachers are required to work not just for "a change in the social and political structures of schooling and society" (Altwerger & Flores, 1991, p. 418).  Reflected here is the contention that "whole language teaching, in its best sense, can be seen as a political activity"
(Rich, 1989, p. 226).

    Thus, to gain the status of an authentic WL teacher one must "engage daily in a political battle" (Altwerger& Flores, 1991, p. 418).   In practical terms, this means teachers must "join with others in the wider social movements that aim at democratizing (i.e., socializing) our economy, politics and culture" (Apple, 1991, p. 416).  It is necessary, then that WL teachers "openly acknowledge" politically "progressive
views of literacy" (Giroux, 1991, p. 417).

    The political activity by WL teachers called for the Whole Language Catalog, the volume makes clear, is not that designed to buttress a politically conservative view of schools and society.  To the contrary, the message here is that WL must be used as a means to aid and abet politically leftist goals and policies.  Political action by the WL teacher thus should aim at the realization of radically new values and ideals, the Whole Language Catalog stresses.  By all means, therefore, WL must avoid shoring up or perpetuating certain traditional or historically venerated socioeconomic mores or precedents.  In the ordinary senses of the terms, politically "left" and "conservative," the WL teacher should associate with the former camp, the Whole Language Catalog declares.

    Political leftism or socialism essentially is concerned with making changes in the world.  The main goal of literacy is to prepare people to make changes, the political writers in the Whole Language Catalog maintain.  In fact, literacy "can only be addressed in the context of social movements which wish to make serious social changes," Aronowitz and Giroux (1985, p. 64) insist.  It is held inevitable, therefore, that those
who gain literacy through WL instruction will rise up to challenge "the interests and values of the Anglo, white, middle and upper classes" (Giroux, 1991, p. 417).

    So, as WL "self-consciously connects itself to political, economic and cultural issues," it is destined to come into opposition to "the political right of the United States" (Apple, 1991, p. 416).  By so doing, WL will use its "collective powers to change the world so that democratic (i.e., socialist) power replaces corporate power" (Aronowitz & Giroux, 1985, p. 66).   Clearly, it is "the economic, cultural, and social policies of business and industry" (i.e., capitalism) that WL must be dedicated to eliminate, Apple (1991, p. 416) announces.  Courts (1991, p. 4) agrees that to be "literate in the full and finest sense" means that one is eager to "disrupt the political status quo."  Whole language teachers thus are expected to get involved in socioeconomic class warfare whenever and wherever it is ordained.

    It is vital, therefore, for WL teachers to understand that the "view of reality as fundamentally revolving around profit and loss, of accumulation and profit," must be discarded (Apple, 1991, p. 416).  In like fashion, schools that have fostered "the promise of individual success in competitive global markets" to their students must be redesigned so that they discourage this practice (p. 416).  In this manner, WL can become a prime factor in the resistance toward an overturning of the capitalistic notion that a main function of the schools is to help their graduates "hold jobs" and thereby become "productive members of the community” (Rich, 1989, p. 227).

    Whole language leader Shannon (1989) also deplores the intrusion into reading instruction of the capitalist ideas that this teaching "should be organized to produce students with verifiable levels of reading competency (p. 110), and that "hard work and personal involvement are the keys to success" (p. 114).   Such notions lead to the "rationalization of reading instruction (which) has a destructive impact on teachers, students, and literacy," Shannon (1989, p. 114) warns.   "Students, especially lower-class and minority children, do not fit easily into the structures and routines of rationalized (reading) lessons," he contends (pp. 115-116).  Emphasis on the accomplishments of
the individual must be abandoned in favor of WL teaching aimed at "building a society based on the common good" (Apple, 1991, p. 416)
(emphasis added).

    The political commentators in the Whole Language Catalog, and those cited so far who mirror their views, thus agree with Edelsky, et al. (1991, p. 45) that "whole language has the potential to be the liberation pedagogy" needed to overthrow what they consider to be the dangerous and abusive aspects of capitalism, and to correct the economic and social ills it has created.  One of these distressing aspects of capitalism, Shannon (1990, p. 150) vouches, is its power to run schools "according to principles of science and business."  A principle of business is to act purely in its own interests, Shannon maintains.  Thus, while schools are ruled by business ostensibly to ensure "education for all and strictly meritocractic results."  They actually are directed by business to maintain the present socially and economically stratified society, Shannon (1990, p. 150) contends.  The current business-controlled schools, he argues, therefore are aimed exclusively at
enabling the "upper continue to enjoy their economic, social and political power" (p. 150.  But WL can be instrumental in helping "subvert the schools' role in maintaining a stratified society," Edelsky, et al. (1991, p. 54) advise teachers.  With the help of WL, the model classless society can become a reality.

The Freire Connection

    The commentary about WL's supposed political responsibilities found in the Whole Language Catalog and elsewhere appear to depend to a great extent for their validation on Freire's (1985, p. 188) previous judgements that "education worldwide is political by nature," that "Politics is the soul of education," or that "All instances of education become political acts."

    With the basic principle he expresses here in mind, Freire argues that education either must become (a) a project for undertaking a radical economic and political transformation of society toward a collectivist ideal, and thus away from capitalism, or (b) a means by which to strengthen and perpetuate free enterprise entrepreneurship, privatization, enlightened self-interest, the profit motive, market control over the production and distribution of goods and services, and other capitalist practices.  Freire chooses to travel the former path, contending it is the only way by which lower socioeconomic classes can become empowered to gain a just and fair share of economic resources and political

    Freire's position is echoed by the Whole Language Catalog's contention that WL is a "new admission ticket for the lower class to an economy with limited seating" (Altwerger & Flores, 1991, p. 418).  It is only WL teaching purportedly that can "provide students with the skills and courage they will need in order to transform the world" (Aronowitz & Giroux, 1985, p. 157).   The assumption here being, as noted, that this transformation inevitably will be toward founding a socialist state.

A Historical Perspective

    Arguments in the past over the best way to teach students to read generally have ranged over the issue of how much formal teaching of reading skills should be conducted for this purpose.  The now infamous "look-say" method of instruction that predominated in schools until the 1970s provided only a minimum amount of formal teaching of phonics information, for example, and ways to apply it.  If learning to recognize words by "sight" (a process that never was explained satisfactorily) did not prove successful, look-say students were given remedial instruction that included added emphasis on phonics information.

    As noted, WL carries this debate over the formal teaching of reading to a new extreme by insisting that no such systematic and direct instruction in reading is necessary, and especially that for the recognition of individual words.  It therefore is obvious that WL promotes the most radical form of reading instruction conceived of so far.  Illiterate children in WL classes simply are "immersed" in reading material, that is, they "follow along" in texts from which the WL teacher reads aloud.  From this experience, WL hypothesizes, each pupil will discover at his or her own peculiar pace, what is needed to learn to read.  No specified sequence of reading skills nor time schedules are set since it is held that each child employs a unique learning style when acquiring reading ability.

    But as is revealed in this discussion, WL leaders view the adoption of these empirically unverified instructional tenets as only a means to a more important end--a political one.  They assume that through their training in becoming WL teachers university students will come to endorse the concept of reading instruction as "liberation pedagogy."  They thus will accept the desirability of educating their future students to perceive the need to replace the present capitalistic economic system with a socialist one.

    Whole language holds, in short, that teachers who hold conservative political views are not only ineffective reading instructors, per se, but also stand as impediments to the attainment of the socialist economy that principal persons of the WL movement envision.  Literacy is a dangerous instrument in the hands of anyone but those with left-wing political inclinations, the chief writers about WL proclaim.   They therefore have set as their immediate goal the exclusion of teachers who are politically conservative from the ranks of those who are considered to be responsible professionals.

On to the Future

    Whole language has gained in popularity among educational professionals in spite of its dubious pedagogical effectiveness and its denunciations of capitalist economics.  The scheme is now protected from negative criticism by the journals that teachers read.  There thus seems little hope at present of appealing successfully to teachers and teacher educators to reevaluate their favorable opinions of WL. Nonetheless, there are ways to manage the threat that WL poses.

    The least desirable one is to allow WL to run its course.  In the past, many frivolous yet voguish fads and fancies have been widely adopted by the public schools only to dissipate over time as their numerous shortcomings became obvious.

    Actions to depose WL in our schools can take another, more positive route.  Anyone concerned about WL can demand of local school boards that they make public statements as to whether or not their schools; reading programs will be based on experimental research evidence.  Since such empirical data does not support WL, school boards then logically cannot allow the adoption of WL.  There is no better way to stop the spread of this menace.


Adams, . M.J. (1991).  Why not phonics and whole language?  In Orton Dyslexia Society (Ed.), All language and the creation of literacy
(pp. 40-53).  Baltimore, MD: Orton Dyslexia Society.

Altwerger, B. & Flores, B. (1991).  The politics of whole language.  In K.S. Goodman, L. B. Bird  & Y. M. Goodman (Eds.), Whole Language Catalog (pp. 418-419).  Santa Rosa, CA:  American      School.

Apple, M. (1991).  Teachers, politics, and whole language instruction.  In K.S. Goodman, L.B.  Bird, & Y.M. Goodman (Eds.), Whole Language Catalog (p. 416).  Santa Rosa, CA:                   American School.

Aronowitz, S. & Giroux, H. (1985).  Education under seige.  South Hadley, MA: Bergin and Garvey.

Bergeron, B. (1990).  What does the term whole language mean?  Constructing a definition from the literature.   Journal of Reading Behavior, 22, 301-329.

Courts, P.L. (1991).  Literacy and empowerment.  New York, NY: Bergin and Garvey.

Edelsky, C., Altwerger, B. & Flores, B. (1991).  Whole language:   What's the difference?  Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Freire, P. (1985). The politics of education: Culture, power and liberation.   South Hadley, MA:   Bergin and Garvey.

Giroux, H.A. (1991).  Literacy, cultural diversity, and public life.  In K.S. Goodman, L.B. Bird, &  Y.M. Goodman (Eds.), Whole Language Catalog (p. 417).  Santa Rosa, CA: American  School.

Goodman, K.S. (1989).  Whole language research: Foundations and development, Elementary School Journal, 90, 207-221.

Goodman, K.S., L.B. Bird, & Y.M. Goodman (Eds.)  (1991).  Whole Language Catalog.  Santa Rosa, CA: American School.

Pearson, P.D. (1989).  Reading the whole-language movement.  Elementary School Journal, 90,  231-241.

Rich, S.J. (1989).  Restoring power to teachers: The impact of whole language.   In G. Manning &  M. Manning (Eds.), Whole language: Beliefs and practices K-8.  Washington, DC: National   Education Association.

Shannon, P. (1989).  Broken promises:  Reading instruction in twentieth-century America.  Granby, MA: Bergin and Garvey.

Shannon, P.  (1990). The struggle to continue: Progressive reading instruction in the United States. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.


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