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The March of Folly

by Charles J. Sykes

In the late nineteenth century, a proto-educationist named James Cattell journeyed to Leipzig to study the psychology of learning. Cattell was later to found Columbia University's department of psychology and to train some of the most influential American educationists of the century. Most importantly, he provided a scientific gloss to the abandonment of traditional methods of teaching reading. Through a series of experiments, Cattell found that adults who knew how to read can recognize words without sounding out letters. From that, he drew the conclusion that words aren't sounded out, but are seen as "total word pictures." If competent readers did not need to sound out words, he declared, then there was little point in teaching such skills to children. "The result," wrote Lance J. Klass in The Leipzig Connection, "was the dropping of the phonic or alphabetic method of teaching reading, and its replacement by the sight-reading method in use throughout America."

As many of his successors would do, Cattell confused the "attributes" of readers (or in later edspeak, "the expected behaviors" or "outcomes") with the appropriate way of acquiring those attributes. Of course, skilled readers did not stop to sound out words; long practice had made that unnecessary. It was thus an "outcome" of learning to read; the mechanics of reading, including the ability to sound out words, enabled the reader to achieve that outcome. But since the actual process of sounding out words is not the desired "outcome," educationists decided that they could dispense with it.

The consequences of buying this argument included, as Richard Mitchell gibes, "not only the stupefaction of almost the whole of American culture but even the birth and colossal growth of a lucrative industry devoted first to assuring children won't be able to read and then to selling an endless succession of 'remedies' for that inability."

Looking back at the growth of the "whole language movement," University of Illinois professor P. David Pearson remarked that during the past two and half decades, he had seen succeeding waves of "movement, fads and panaceas," from open classrooms to mastery learning. "But," he mused, "never have I witnessed anything like the rapid spread of the whole-language movement. Pick your metaphor - an epidemic, wildfire, manna from heaven - whole language has spread so rapidly throughout North America that it is a fact of life in literacy curriculum and research." If Pearson is exaggerating, it is only insofar as he sees "whole language" as a relatively recent development. In fact, it is a reworking of ideas that have been fashionable for seven decades or more under a variety of names, titles, and sales pitches.

Yetta Goodman - who, along with her husband Kenneth, is a leading guru of 'whole language" - acknowledges that it is an extension of child-centered and progressive educational ideas in vogue in John Dewey's time. She also acknowledges that "whole language" differs little in substance from what was known in the 1940s and 1950s as "language experience." She describes whole language as an educational philosophy that focuses "not on the content of what is being learned, but on the learner.... The teacher is viewed as a co-learner with the students. The environment is a democratic one . . . [emphasis added]

In "language experience," educators of the 1950s emphasized a holistic approach to teaching - what was then known as the "all around development of the child." Rather than simply reading books, the mavens of Life Adjustment and "language experience" involved students in group activities, excursions, discussions, storytelling, drama, music, and art. From all of these "experiences," children were supposed to produce "charts, lists, menus, plans, magazines, newsletters," and other "reading materials." Yetta Goodman acknowledges the obvious: "There is much in whole language that is similar to language experience and, indeed, many whole language educators, including me, were initially advocates of language experience." The architects of "language experience" believed that traditional divisions of subject matters into different disciplines were obsolete and advocated turning the schools into places in which children could be made "fully functional and self-actualizing individuals" through "collaborative group settings."