Language Is Not Learned In Whole But In Part

Am I dead? Is this heaven?
Am I dead? Is this heaven? (Photo credit: mobil’homme)

As an English teacher I have noticed that there is one method of teaching children to read that needs to be completely eradicated from every elementary curriculum in the country: the whole language reading method.  The Whole Language method that is often taught in elementary is a method of sending large lists of “sight words” home with children who then have to memorize the order of the letters that make up those words.  Rather than learning the phonetic forms of consonants, vowels and the blends of those letters as phonics teaches, students are often read to, made to memorize giant lists of “sight words” and the result of this is in the research: it is producing terrible spellers, grammarians and readers.  What is needed across the board in elementary schools is a simple, but complete multi-sensory, explicit phonetic, and integrated language arts program.

I know from experience that this is true of whole language.  I notice three areas where students taught to read through the whole language method have difficulty:

  1. Capitalization – Many of my high school juniors have trouble recognizing which words must be capitalized.  I find frequent errors in capitalization on their essays that are not simply isolated incidents.  They seem to be common problems.  The research of the Riggs Institute is showing that problems in capitalization can be traced to strict whole language learning because students are not taught the “why” or “when” of capitalization.  If you do not believe me, give a student a list of proper nouns and let them pronounce them for you.  Those taught with the whole language method will exhibit more mistakes.
  2. Spelling – Students taught with the whole language method are poor spellers.  They have learned only their sight words and when they encounter new words they have no phonetic basis to figure out how to say them much less understand meaning.  There are definite phonetic rules for “why” words are spelled the way they are.  If students do not know the basic rules for how words are structured and how sounds are produced, they will have a more difficult time expressing those rules in their spelling.
  3. Reading – Whole language method students have difficulty with new words and will often read them as words that are similar or close to the word that is written.  This creates confusion which creates a feeling of inadequacy, which then causes them to associate reading with failure.  All four of my children were tutored in basic phonics and are avid readers.  You might say that this is because I am an English teacher, but their love of reading is their own, each of them choosing reading material that interests them and that usually is a little above their grade level.

This reading inefficiency translates to poor reading skills in history, math and science courses where they struggle to read new words and new terms required to be understood for state testing.  The research is clear that whole language has failed our students.  It is time that we demand that our elementary schools give students the basic building blocks linguistically to succeed in reading and to enjoy the process of discovering new and exciting text.

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Published by Roger Colby, Novelist, Editor

Roger Colby is a novelist and teacher who has taught English for nearly two decades. He is also an avid reader of science fiction who feels, like many other sci-fi readers, that he has read everything. He writes science fiction for the reader who is looking for the next best thing, something to excite them into reading again. This blog is his journey as a writer and his musings about writing. He also edits manuscripts for a fee and is an expert at helping you reach your full potential as a writer.

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