The Whole Language method of teaching ESFL

Susan and group - I hope the following is interesting and useful for teachers. 


Hello, Paul and Colleagues,

The principles and practices of the whole language approach to basic skills instruction have been embedded in basic skills education for English language learners and English-fluent learners for decades.  While "the whole language approach" often was not specifically named as a source, the underlying elements of connecting instruction in written and oral language, numeracy, and other basic skills has been widely used in programs that use participatory instructional practices and authentic uses of basic skills for work, family, civic, and lifelong learning purposes. (Many of the resources found in the LINCS collections in one way or the other adapt those kinds of practices.) For more information about this history, you are invited to read "Contextualizing Adult Education: Learning from Six Decades of Experience and Research" a ProLiteracy Research Brief published in 2020 ( )

Paul Jurmo 

Hello Paul and Paul and all, I would love to hear from members regarding how they understand the term "whole language." For me, the whole language approach has been used as an alternative to phonics instruction when teaching reading.  I hadn't heard this term used in the context of teaching another language.

Thanks to Paul R. and Paul J. for explaining how they understand this approach-- which seems may not include attention to phonics. What do you all think?

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

English Language Acquisition CoP

Yes, Susan, I taught in middle school when there were reading wars between the phonics and whole language camps.  
     I researched it in grad school.  I was curious, since I'd worked w/ seventh graders who simply had. no. idea. what it meant to "sound out a word."   Oh, and their reading skills were between second and third grade.   I snagged a phonics program and saw pretty impressive gains of 2 years in a year -- from the folks who'd taken 6 years go get to 2nd grade level.   I wondered, though, would it have been more fun to do the whole langauge approach?  Might they just have been ready to learn? Drill and practice don't thrill me ;)  
      But, the research?  
      Lots of ed research isn't remotely scientific.   I read so many articles all about how those MEAN PHONICS PROPONENTS used emotions and invective  and they're right to a point -- Rudolph Flesch's "Why Johnny Can't Read and What YOu Can Do About It" was incredibly nasty... but ... they responded with the same.  

     I kept waiting for actual support that whole language worked better than phonics.  NOpe, it was enough that kids did better on the next test of what they felt was worth testing.  Many of the articles dismissed standardized tests entirely.  Control groups?  What?!?!?   Jeanne Chall's book also came to the same conclusion:  that students need to learn the code, and the "as it happens" approach (so many articles saying "we do teach phonics!!!" when it was occasionally included, in passing...)   works great for folks like me who was trying to sound out words when I was 2.... but for so many folks, especially the 20% or so of folks with dyslexia, reading is a guessing game. 

Be it also duly noted that readers in the 3rd quartile almost always think they're better than average readers. WHen I dove into remedial reading articles when I started working at college to see if anybody taught decoding (you coudln't even say "phonics"), I found something like 3 whole articles that even mentioned accuracy or decoding.  Two of them simply dismissed it.  "We knew decoding wasn't the problem."  They didn't say they'd assessed it. The third knew because they asked the students if decoding was a problem.  WHen I put a class of ours through a little assessment, about 15% were guessing left and right.  (I was surprised that 85%  were pretty smooth and I suspect it's because the schools here didn't use whole language...)   

    What really convinced me that the Ken Goodman "whole language" really wasn't good at teaching reading was from his own words.   He dismissed accuracy, saying that if words were important enough to be read right, they'd show up again.  I'm sorry, I think most authors would disagree.  

     They also tended to act as if people who explicitly taught phonics never read books to their students and never worked on comprehension.  They described horrible, oppressive "drill and kill" scenarios with mindless scripted lessons.  I wonder how many of those lessons they actually observed.  

    Tha'ts what whole language means to me.   LIke math, we can't teach it as rules and procedures without context --and understanding, but ... understanding means seeing patterns and connections, not just "getting to the answer" to that reading comprehension question. 

Thanks so much for sharing your experiences, Susan. With language learners, I have noticed that many students, especially those with limited formal schooling, try to memorize words instead of sound them out. Like you, I have seen that students value being taught the sound system of English. Trying to memorize all the words is not a useful strategy.

I have found this resource, Beginning Alphabetics Tests and Tools, by Marn Frank, which is reviewed in the LINCS Resource Collection to be useful with these learners.

We've had many robust discussion on LINCS about teaching phonics. Here's a link to a previous discussion with guest expert Kathy St. John who helped to develop a set of videos focused on teaching reading produced by Partners in Reading – San Jose Public Library and Read Santa Clara – Santa Clara City Library.

Thanks to Marn and Kathy for the wonderful tools they've shared with the field!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller