When Andrew Schuster was 10, his parents became concerned about the difficulties he was having in reading and writing. At his school in Guelph, Ont., teachers used the increasingly prevalent Whole Language approach to teach reading, a method in which students learn to recognize words in the context of stories. When the boy’s teachers said that Andrew, who is now 11, was learning to read at his own pace, Judy and
that anybody thinks Whole Language works for all students. It doesn’t.”
The Schusters are among the thousands of Canadians caught up in a debate about learning to read that is as bitter as it is heartfelt. Everyone involved—academics, teachers and parents—claims to want only what is best for the children. But when it comes to teaching reading, there is simply no agreement as to which approach is best. In recent years, the Whole Language movement, which grew out
teachers who, instead of focusing on meaning, focused on letter sounds or isolated word drills,” he said. “A word in isolation has no meaning.”
Whole Language stands tradition on its head. Such older approaches as phonics use small units of language like building blocks to construct ever-larger units—first sounds, then words, then sentences, then entire stories. But Whole Language teaching starts at the other end. Experts say that the Whole Language
James Schuster asked an independent testing agency to assess their son’s reading ability. The tests, which he took when he was starting Grade 5, showed that he was reading at a Grade 3 level. After nine months of private tutoring by teachers who emphasized the more traditional method of using phonics to sound out letters and syllables, Andrew’s reading level had improved by two grades. The Schusters say that their other son, 12-year-old Michael, was taught to read by the Whole Language method, but he taught himself the phonics system as well. As a result, the Grade 7 student now reads at a Grade 11 level. Said Judy Schuster of the Whole Language system: “It worked fine for Michael. But I can’t believe
of a number of educational theories about 25 years ago, has been gaining popularity. Orín Cochrane, a Winnipeg grade-school principal, estimates that perhaps one-quarter of Canada’s primary schools now use the movement’s teaching methods. He is president of The Whole Language Umbrella, a 27,500-member international organization that he says regards learning as an “innately joyous” activity. Whole Language advocates such as Cochrane argue that traditional forms of reading instruction, with their emphasis on rote teaching, spelling and grammar, can take the fun out of learning—and put many children off reading for life. “I see many children who have been taught how not to read by well-intentioned
system is particularly useful for teaching reading to children whose parents did not read to them at an early age. In the classroom, teachers help children to recognize words in the context of stories. The learning process is extended through other subjects, so that a child learning about dinosaurs will learn to associate the word with the prehistoric creature. “Once children get control of the whole story, then they can get down to the bits and pieces of language,” explained David B. Doake, a former professor of education at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., and one of Canada’s most prominent Whole Language theorists. Gradually, through what Doake calls “immersion in a rich, written-language environment,” children learn
to go on learning for the rest of their lives.” Still, some academics, teachers and parents side with Guelph parent Schuster: they insist that Whole Language is a costly, failed experiment. One of the most vocal opponents is Grant Sikstrom, a St. Albert, Alta., human-resources adviser who founded the Reading and Literacy Institute of Alberta in 1989. “Whole Language people believe that children learn at their own pace in their own time,” says Sikstrom. “But a lot of them aren’t motivated or don’t learn without direct instruction.”
Among the nearly 1,000 subscribers to the institute’s four-times-a-year newsletter is Stellarton, N.S., educator Elizabeth Skoke. In 1985, she graduated from the Nova Scotia
she calls “good old-fashioned hard work.”
Another outspoken opponent of the Whole Language system is Dr. Carl Kline, a Vancouver-based child psychiatrist who retired in 1990 after practising for 35 years. According to Kline, the problems associated with use of the Whole Language approach, along with phonics, that is part of British Columbia’s new, child-centred educational program in public schools are “so serious that we are advising parents to school-proof their children by teaching them how to read phonetically before they get into Grade 1. If they can read phonetically, they are in a way vaccinated against the system.”
Kline, a former associate professor of child
psychiatry at the University of British Columbia, contends that the Whole Language system is at the root of many of the difficulties that children encounter in school. “The failure to learn to read and spell,” says Kline, “is a primary cause of emotional problems in children and adolescents in North America.” According to Kline, numerous academic studies have shown that no method of teaching reading is equal to or superior to phonics. Said Kline: “If you know phonics, there is no way you can be a lousy speller.”
Depending on who is doing the grading, Whole Language can get anything from straight A’s to straight Fs. Like many academics, Dale Willows, an associate professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in Toronto, says that she is skeptical of the contention by Whole Language proponents that learning to read is as natural a process as learning to speak. Still, Willows praises the movement for “focusing on the importance of making learning a meaningful, motivating experience.” Some critics of current educational trends say that responsibility for teaching children to read must be shared by the parents themselves. “To get a child to learn how to read, you have to do individual reading with them for at least 15 minutes a day,” says Janice Thompson, a Vancouver nurse who has two daughters in grade school. “You can’t do that with a group of 20 kids and one teacher. My husband works and I work, but we have to make the time for the children’s reading.”
Context: In December, 1991, the authoritative quarterly Journal of Educational Psychology published a review of studies comparing Whole Language with other leam-to-read methods. The author, Frank R. Vellutino, a professor of educational psychology, at the State University of New York at Albany, concluded that phonics-based teaching was slightly more effective than Whole Language instruction. Said Vellutino: “Children need to be taught the alphabetic code directly.” He added that a blended approach—looking at words in context in addition to letter/sound relationships—is superior to either method on its own.
Many schoolteachers endorse that belief. Said Iain Stark, principal of Pineridge Elementary School in Prince Rupert, B.C.: “Welltrained teachers take tools—phonetics and Whole Language—and apply them as they are needed. They are not chucking out tools that work.” Still, the level of concern among parents who want their children to be better readers suggests that there may be something fundamentally wrong with the use of those tools in the classrooms of the nation.
PAMELA YOUNG with HAL QUINN in Vancouver
to recognize common words and guess the meaning of unfamiliar ones from their context.Doake observes that young pupils “come to reading as naturally as they come to talking, provided that we allow them to do so.” Advocates of the Whole Language system generally say that children should be allowed to develop at their own pace. Teachers who adhere to the system do not always correct young pupils’ spelling and grammar errors, on the theory that in writing, as in learning to talk, children begin with approximation and experimentation and move towards accuracy. The ultimate goal of the movement, says Doake, is to produce children who “enjoy learning and want
Teachers College in Truro, steeped in Whole Language training. Then, working as a substitute teacher in Grades 1 through 12, she used a phonics-based approach to tutor students who were having difficulties with reading. She said that she found the phonics system to be more effective than Whole Language. School administrators in Nova Scotia, she says, tended to be staunch Whole Language adherents. “If you wanted to use phonics, in general you would have to bootleg it into the classroom,” she recalls. In 1989, Skoke founded her own small private school, St. Joseph’s Academy, in Stellarton. She and her staff take a back-tobasics approach to teaching, rooted in what
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