April 29, 2004


"Whole language" is a stupid educational method that still holds considerable sway in Australia. Labor leader Mark Latham’s literacy policy is apparently driven by whole language fan Mem Fox, as Janet Albrechtsen reports:

In drafting his $80 million Read Aloud Australia program, Latham would not have needed to dig very deep to discover that Fox describes herself as "a passionate advocate of whole language" – a faddish method of teaching children how to read. It's there on her online diary. If he dug deeper, he would also have learned that science debunked that theory long ago. Had he dug deeper again, he would have learned that too many teachers, our learned learning professionals, have ignored that science. And so, appointing Fox as his new reading ambassador will be eagerly greeted as affirmation of a teaching method that is supported more by ideology than evidence.

A couple of schools in Sydney specialise in undoing the damage caused by whole language. Latham should cut Fox loose.

Posted by Tim Blair at April 29, 2004 04:36 AM

Time and again, phonics has been shown to be the best way to teach children to read. The fact that education idiots in the US and AUS still support whole language is just depressing.

Posted by: monkeyboy at April 29, 2004 at 05:04 AM

Phonetics versus whole word has been one of the enduring stupid arguments of public education. Its based on the assumption that all students should learn in the same way at the same rate. Some percentage of students (very likely a minority) do do better with a whole word technique.

I myself was an early phonetic victim. I had and still have what today would probably be diagnosed with as ADD and couldn't concentrate at the slow pace required for phonetic reading. I couldn't really read/comprehend until late in the third grade after I tought myself to recognize the whole words by repeatadly reading the first few pages of the bible over and over until I recognized the shape of the words.

By the beginning of ninth grade I was reading at a fourteenth grade level (whatever that means).

Of course most everybody eventually learns to read by examining the whole word and you also have to be able to sound out unrecognized words phoneticly. But the optimium transition probably varies from child to child.

Posted by: Nemo at April 29, 2004 at 06:03 AM

My wife and I have discussed with teachers the eerie continuing strength of whole language in a community that overwhelingly favors phonics. We've been told the answer is simple: teaching phonics is a whole lot more demanding.

Posted by: Bruce at April 29, 2004 at 06:13 AM

Ahem. "OverwhelMingly." See, I'm a victim too.

Posted by: Bruce at April 29, 2004 at 06:14 AM

For really useful information about phonics vs. whole lang. and learning to read visit www.lindamoodbell.com.

These people really do know what they are doing.

Posted by: Stacy at April 29, 2004 at 08:03 AM

Ah, but surely the point here is that once again Mark (Put his foot in it) Latham has once again shown how bloody inept he is.

Posted by: Toryhere at April 29, 2004 at 09:57 AM

Thanks for the link, Tim. I have added a whole lot of links in the comments page to help people (especially non-parents) understand what is at stake.

I am coming to believe that teaching reading through Whole Language may be a plot on the part of the elites to keep the urban poor and minorities down. (That's a joke, son, just a joke, but it is the net result. Middle class kids (and above) get the support and extra help to eventually read--it is kids from poorer families, who don't know to get the help or can't afford it, who are penalized by WL instruction.

Nemo has a fundamental misunderstanding of the issue, arguing from his own background. The issue isn't always staying with the phonetic, sound-it-out way of reading--it is getting the connection between symbol and sound firmly in place FIRST. That's where WL goes aground.

Bruce is also a bit astray, at least as far as the United States is concerned: to teach in state schools, you have to have a credential, obtained by graduate programs in education (typically two years)--whole language is all that is taught. Phonics is completely ignored.

Stacy is right, Lindamoodbell is a wonderful program (they were the ones who finally got my daughter reading)--but they aren't the only ones.

There are two separate but related issues here: One is what method a state or government selects to teach children to read, and the other is how do you teach children with a specific learning disability to read. Lindamoodbell is a proprietary, one-on-one remediation program for teaching kids with specific learning disabilities.

If you are interested in the subject, I would direct you to Read By Grade 3 (reading well by about eight years old).

Posted by: liz at April 29, 2004 at 10:10 AM

I would say that I learned to read because of phonics, since when I started school that was what they were using, but I can't -- I already knew how to read by the time I started grade school. I'm not sure how it happened, but I think my parents had something to do with it. Also, television really sucked when I was four -- body counts in Vietnam and the news with David Brinkley did not appeal to me.

Posted by: Andrea Harris at April 29, 2004 at 10:49 AM

Anecdote alert.

I learned reading, writing and penmanship in a remote, rural primary school in a large town of 8,000. It was hard-core phonics: literally, the c-a-t s-a-t on the m-a-t. All that which is now considered to be conservative crap. I read for pleasure at home, where I was plied with books, and borrowed frequently from the dusty, musty, gloomy Institute library, hidden down a narrow laneway beside the Town Hall. I still devour books.

We moved to a big city and my younger brother started primary school, on whole-word by that stage. He is a medical professional in the hospital system but doesn't read for pleasure - entertainment is from the TV - and is not a particularly good speller or punctuator.

Posted by: walter plinge at April 29, 2004 at 11:23 AM

Even the morons who run the CA state education system realized that whole word reading was a farce and dropped it about 5-8 years ago.

Unfortunately it took a generation for them to discover the damage they'd done.

Posted by: Kevin at April 29, 2004 at 11:57 AM

"Bruce is also a bit astray, at least as far as the United States is concerned: to teach in state schools, you have to have a credential, obtained by graduate programs in education (typically two years)--whole language is all that is taught. Phonics is completely ignored."

Not strictly and entirely. More to the point, certain large education companies are aggressively marketing phonics to US public schools. My wife (we are both communications types) wrote direct mail and etc. for a company explicitly pushing phonics in Texas public schools. Inroads exist. Depends upon the jurisdiction.

Posted by: Bruce at April 29, 2004 at 12:30 PM

I'm partial to Ball Stick Bird. On a friend's recommendation, I got the package for my two year old niece. She ate it up. Ten years later, she's been tops in her private girls school, never mind class, for the last two years.

Posted by: Billy Hank at April 29, 2004 at 01:20 PM

Language teaching is one of those areas where occasionally educational Maoists capture the agenda and cripple a whole generation.

Look at the fashion in the '70s and '80s to throw out grammar in teaching English: as a result we have a generation with no pedagogical knowledge - who can't even parse a sentence!

Posted by: freddyboy at April 29, 2004 at 02:36 PM

Liz, I'm pretty sure you missed my fundamental point. My point is that the assembly line process of public education makes assumptions on the rate of learning and the best method of learning that will never be optimal for all students.

You seem to be quick to label people who don't fit the mold as learning disabled, but the term doesn't quite fit when it applies to such a large percentage of students and even students like myself who if anything are learning abled (my problem was the years of repetition before reading became a useful activity, followed by further years of pointless repetition in other subjects).

From a quick reading of the Lindamodbell article its clear that phonetics never worked for everyone either, that's why they've created whole word and whole language, but still with the assembly line approach.

Its my hope that education can reach heights as described in the fictional story Fast Times at Fairmont High, but that will never happen with education controlled by politicians, teacher unions and bureaucrats.

Bruce, I've suspected that the educational supply industry has had a hand in pushing phonetics (out with those nasty old books, in with the shiny new and improved ones) thanks for the info confirming it. I wouldn't mind seeing an open source movement for educational materials. The field is very much like software, where a lot of money gets spent over and over developing the same thing (with the added burden of politics, i.e. Biological changes over time, not evolution).

Posted by: Nemo at April 29, 2004 at 03:00 PM

Whole Language leads to Ebonics, which makes it inevitable that, not only is it not possible to hold two thoughts in one's mind at the same time, but also that it is not possible to form any thought at all, yet appear to communicate at the same time with felllow Ebonicists. This is convenient for American Liberals, who have nothing to say anyway, but want to appear to be nuanced or intellectual, as they deliver their pronouncements to us, which we can only witness as the babbling of brooks attempting to talk to one another [my apologies to the brooks].

Richard Feynman once refused to review a book proposed for the Calif. public school curriculum, on the grounds that it had not been written yet. He was roundly condemned.

Posted by: Joe Peden at April 29, 2004 at 05:26 PM

No, no, no, phonics is not harder to teach, phonics is actually much easier to teach than whole language. To successfully teach with a whole language approach you need to be an incredibly organised, hard working, creative teacher.

The sad and inevitable fact is, not all teachers are. Teachers are just like every other profession - some are completely crap, some are mediocre, some are great. The trouble is an approach which requires brilliance from every teacher will inevitably fail many kids.

Whole language is based on the fundamental misconception that we should look at how successful learners learn and apply those conditions to all children. But successful readers have a strong aptitude for language and often don't need much explicit teaching of phonics. Kids without a strong aptitude for language need lots of explicit instruction in phonics.

And yes, I figured that out myself, walking into classrooms where kids could guess (it was called 'predict') but not read. The good news is since the Howard Government was elected and the national benchmarks came in, the focus on the teaching of reading has come to dominate our primary schools - as it should. And most children are being taught phonics - programs like THRASS and Letterland are very widespread.

Posted by: rosemary at April 29, 2004 at 06:12 PM

The best refutation I have found of the 'whole language' approach is in Melanie Philips's 'All Must Have Prizes' from 1996. Have a look at that if you want to know more about the disastrous consequences of the fad in Britain, and about the insufferable ideological stupidity that sustains it.

Posted by: Dave at April 29, 2004 at 06:48 PM

Basically, some kids (maybe 30 percent) learn to read very easily, no matter how they're taught. These children tend to come from educated, middle-class families in which parents do a lot of informal teaching and conversation, though not all such kids find reading easy.

About 15 to 20 percent of children find reading very difficult due to problems in distinguishing individual sounds (phonemic awareness) and need special help as early as possible.

The largest category is made up of children who will learn if taught well but won't just pick up reading on their own.

There's lots of evidence that they'll do best if they're taught phonics, directly and systematically, and then taught comprehension techniques, such as anticipating what might happen next. This is especially true for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds who don't get taught the alphabet at home and don't get read to by their parents.

Good readers use phonics as their primary reading strategy. They're just very, very fast at it. Poor readers are more likely to rely on whole language strategies, such as guessing from the context.

Posted by: Joanne Jacobs at April 29, 2004 at 07:56 PM

When my daughter went to kindergarten she was taught whole word exclusively. She didn't learn a damn thing. Thank God her first grade teacher used phonics..had her reading within two weeks. She is 14 now and a book worm.

My 5 year old is in kindergarten this year. Her teacher uses a combination of whole word and phonics and it works extremely well.

Posted by: KellyW. at April 29, 2004 at 11:11 PM

I don't remember much about learning to read (I was two years old), but I believe I picked it up through whole language: Phonics was simply too systematic for a toddler's brain. Of course, when I was six years old and my classmates were learning how to read with phonics-based instruction, I was bored out of my mind.

Whole language is visually oriented, so it's potentially useful for highly visual learners. But most children experience language through their ears rather than their eyes -- so "whole language" methods are at cross-purposes with their sense of what language is.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey at May 3, 2004 at 09:17 AM