Whole language teachers unabashed, hanging tough

Conventioneers back method over phonics

November 17, 2001|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Though it has been discredited nationally, the whole language approach to teaching reading is alive and kicking at the Baltimore Convention Center this weekend.

The "Whole Language Umbrella" - a subset of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), which is holding its convention here - rallied its embattled supporters yesterday behind the belief that children learn to read by being immersed in classrooms of books, not so much by breaking down words into their component sounds.

It was another skirmish in the decades-long wars over how best to teach beginning reading, a fractious political battle between proponents of phonics, lately in ascendence, and those of the whole language approach, lately on the decline.

And as such, the call to arms was loud and provocative - drawing immediate return fire from Maryland's state schools superintendent, among others who believe that the whole language method has ill-served many children.

Comparing the whole language movement's fall from favor over recent years to September's terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, Towson University professor Bess Altwerger pledged to NCTE members that, "We, too, have to rise from the rubble of education. We must not be paralyzed, defeated, demoralized."

Though far from everyone attending the convention believes in the whole language approach to reading instruction, the influential organization of 77,000 educators still has plenty of adherents - enough that yesterday they put on a series of seminars called "A Day of Whole Language."

"It's a hot-button word, a phrase that has become demonized," acknowledged Leila Christenbury, president-elect of the group and a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. "But we are still embracing it. Once you get to know whole language, you'll understand it and believe in it. We're standing firmly behind it."

An NCTE pamphlet on "Current Research on Language Learning" illustrated the group's continuing support for whole language.

"We used to think that in order for children to learn to read and write whole texts, they had to learn the smallest parts of language first," the pamphlet says. "We now know that learning to read and learning to write are a lot like learning to talk. ... It is through constant interaction with family and friends, teachers and classmates - through using reading and writing and observing others reading and writing in everyday situations - that children can learn to read and write."

The whole language approach uses literature to build reading skills, essentially sparking children's love of books to encourage them learn naturally.

The phonics approach stresses teaching children first how to decode the sounds used to form words, and then turning toward building comprehension skills - a method of instruction that's supported by a growing body of scientific research.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, teacher-training institutions and elementary schools in Maryland and across the nation embraced the whole language philosophy.

But since reading scores plummeted in California - the first state to use whole language - the pendulum has swung back to more systematic phonics.

A growing number of urban school districts, including Baltimore's, have seen improved reading scores after buying phonics-laden textbook series, and such states as Maryland have added requirements that all teachers complete extra training in reading instruction.

Grasmick favors phonics

"So many of these children who have been identified for special education services because they can't read are a direct result of the whole language philosophy," said Maryland schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, who is not attending the convention. "Trying to teach children to read without using phonics is a problem, and all of the research shows that.

"They've got to get on board," Grasmick said.

Yesterday's whole language seminars focused little on phonics - only one session had the word in its title - and instead offered such topics as "critical literacy in the classroom" and "nurturing the linguistic and artistic talents of urban children of color through the use of writing and visual art."

The opening speech by Towson University's Altwerger set the tone for the day, warning that the attacks on whole language were about corporations "seizing public education" and destroying "democracy and freedom" in public classrooms.

She said newspapers and the media were tools of the corporate mentality - targeting The Sun's "Reading by 9" campaign for extensive ridicule.

"Even though what we keep hearing the phonics talk and the phonemic awareness, don't be fooled, phonics is the instrument, not the battle," Altwerger said. "It is not the goal, it's the means to the goal. ... This is not about methodology. It's about ideology and freedom and democracy."

In 1989, when the NCTE convention was last held in Baltimore, Altwerger also gave the opening "Day of Whole Language" speech - and she filled a ballroom with more than 1,500 people.

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