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Beyond the Party Line on Whole Language
What Phonics Did For One Student

Terry Pruett-SaidIn a recent discussion about whole language versus phonics on the NIFL-ESL listserv, Terry Pruett-Said, an ESL instructor in Detroit, Michigan, made the following remarks, which she gave permission to share with the readers of the ESL MiniConference Online.

One of the problems with this issue, as I discovered while trying do some research on Whole Language, was that the term gets defined differently by different people and groups. In its purest sense, Whole language simply means what it says--that all aspects of language should be taught and learned.

However, after that the waters of Whole language start to become murky because obviously this is a very broad definition. And as is often the case in education we have a tendancy to swing from one extreme to another. And there are teachers and other proponents out there of Whole Language who insist that nothing bottom-up like phonics should be taught.

This, of course, was in reaction to teaching that was so bottom-up that students never got to see reading and other language structure in any kind of authentic context. I'd like to share a personal story. When one learner I know started school they had a difficult time with reading. Most teachers just said the student would grow into it. But another teacher said he might have a learning disability. As I worked with the student, it seemed to me they were having difficulty "sounding out words." So I did a fairly short and easy and pretty general phonics lesson, and the learner was amazed that there was a relationship between the letters and the actual sound they make. Somehow this had been missed in school.

Now I know at least one of the student's teachers did do some phonics work in her class as part of the Whole language, but without direct instruction this learner had missed that fundamental concept. After they caught on to that fundamental concept, reading became much easier for for them as they discovered they could sound something out, and it would be a real word that they had heard before.

Now maybe this student would have eventually caught on, but by then they might have fallen further behind. After that, the learner seemed to have improved in reading fairly quickly and with much less stress. I've also had ESL students thank me for straighforward phonics lessons, as they said it made everything clearer. Do I always teach a phonics lesson in my ESL classes? No, it just depends upon the needs of the class. Some students don't need it.

And maybe that's the point--as students have different learning styles they may have different ways of learning reading and so it would seem we shouldn't be doing one thing and not another. Yes, one could say that Whole Language subsumes all other aspects. BUT the reality is that many practitioners are not defining Whole Language in that all-inclusive way.

Story by Terry Pruett-Said
Detroit, Michigan

2002 ESL MiniConference Online