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The March of Folly 2

by Charles J. Sykes

In the late 1950s, "language experience" was discredited in the collapse of "life adjustment" education, but its impulses toward a more democratic, humanistic classroom have proven impervious to failure, rejection, and miserable test scores. Indeed, the movement that was a rollicking bust in the 1950s is reemerging as an educational innovation and "reform" in the 1990s. Moreover, it is spreading without any research or evidence to show that it works. Its foremost advocates take the lack of such research as a badge of honor. "So dynamic is the whole language movement," Kenneth Goodman crowed in 1989, "that innovative practice is leaping ahead of research and rapidly expanding and explicating the fine points of theory." In other words, educationists are adopting whole language programs without waiting for any indication that they work and insist that the lack of research to support what they are doing is not a sign of recklessness or wishful thinking, but rather an indication of their dynamism.

What they lack in terms of evidence, whole language advocates make up for with their enthusiasm. Whole language, writes one devotee, is not merely a way of teaching kids to read, it is "a spirit, a philosophy, a movement. . . " with students "who have become eager and joyful readers and writers . . ." How can mere literacy compete with joyful reading? Another describes whole language as "a way of thinking, a way of living and learning with children." It involves "teachers who even outside their classrooms, are activists and advocates for children, for themselves, and for their curriculum." So what if children can't spell, when they can experience the "great authenticity of life"?

Wrote one educationist: "To empower learners, whole language teachers do not select all the books to read ... correct students' nonstandard forms at the point of production, spell on demand, or revise and edit for students." Thus, the teacher's abdication of responsibility and the semiliterate, ungrammatical, misspelled, run-on sentences he or she tolerates are transmuted into "empowerment," as if a child is made stronger through uncorrected mediocrity. The resulting mass of junk writing is justified on the grounds that students should not be "bound to someone else's standards of perfection." A whole language devotee argues that the child needs to be liberated from "an uptight, must-be-right model of literacy." Thus far, the liberation has proceeded apace, with only pockets of resistance. "Whole language" appears to have an iron lock on schools of teacher education, academic journals, and much of the education bureaucracy. Support for whole language is so uniform among professors of teacher education that many newly minted teachers have never been taught anything else. Critiques or negative reviews occasionally appear in educational journals, but they are rare and usually drowned out by a chorus of praise.

Professor Patrick Groff noted that over a recent five-year period, the journal Reading Teacher published 119 laudatory articles on whole language and only a single piece that referred to possible shortcomings. State education departments have been particularly susceptible to whole language programs and many have incorporated them into state guidelines - most dramatically in California. In addition, Groff noted, whole language "holds out the lure to teachers that they alone will become the judges of how well their pupils have learned to read. This totally unassailable exemption from accountability by teachers to parents and any other parties, is called 'teacher empowerment'" by advocates of whole language.

Not surprisingly, whole language advocates are decidedly cool to the suggestions that student reading or writing should be measured through tests. "As scores become important," sniffs one whole languagist, "students become invisible." Given the results of such theories in actual practice, her attitude toward instruments of accountability and measurement is understandable. Whole language teachers, she says, prefer "alternative" methods of judging how well a child reads. Rather than "narrowly conceived tests," they much prefer portfolios of written work, along with "pictures, anecdotes, and tapes." All of which, undoubtedly, are wonderful. The point, of course, is that whole language advocates insist that there are no solid measurements of ability because there are no fast and firm standards.