- Has Whole Language Failed?
University of Southern California
Rossier School of Education
(Reprinted with permission of the author)
- The "failure" of whole language in California has been widely reported. I attempt here to
give a clear definition of whole language, discuss some of the research, and provide some
information about the impact of whole language in California.
- What is Whole Language?
- There are several competing definitions. One use of the term "whole language" refers to
what we will call the Comprehension Hypothesis. Other definitions are very different,
even contradictory to the Comprehension Hypothesis.
- The Comprehension Hypothesis
- The Comprehension Hypothesis (a.k.a. the Input Hypothesis, Krashen, 1985) claims that
the development of literacy and the development of language in general occur in only one
way: When we understand messages. Smith (1975) stated the Comprehension Hypothesis
in the title of his book: Comprehension and Learning, claiming that comprehension and
learning are very much the same thing. Reading pedagogy, according to the
Comprehension Hypothesis, focuses on providing students with interesting,
comprehensible texts, and the job of the teacher is to help children read these texts, that
is, help make them comprehensible. The direct teaching of "skills" is helpful only when
it makes texts more comprehensible.
- More precisely, comprehension of messages is necessary for language acquisition and
literacy development, but it is not sufficient. It is certainly possible to comprehend a
text or message and not acquire anything. We acquire when we understand messages that
contain aspects of language that we have not yet acquired but are developmentally ready
- The Comprehension Hypothesis claims that we learn to read by reading (Goodman, 1982;
Smith, 1994a), and that other aspects of literacy competence are the result of
meaningful reading. Reading, it is claimed, is the source of much of our vocabulary
knowledge, writing style, advanced grammatical competence, and spelling.
- Whole language has been defined in several other ways:
- The Incomprehensible Input Hypothesis
- Incredibly, whole language has been described as just the opposite of the Comprehension
Hypothesis: Providing incomprehensible input. Los Angeles Times reporter Richard
Colvin (1995) characterizes whole language as giving children texts they do not
- "The frustration of students taught with the whole language method was obvious last year
in the faces of her first graders, said Tammy Hunter-Weathers, a teacher at Hyde Park
School in the Crenshaw area of Los Angeles. 'The children were in tears,' she said, when
they were asked to read texts even though they did not know the letters or sounds. 'They
look at you with three paragraphs on a page and they say, 'What do we do with this?''"
- This is not the Comprehension Hypothesis version of whole language. Practice based on
the Comprehension Hypothesis will focus on providing interesting and comprehensible
texts, and an important role of the teacher is to help children understand them.
- The Output Hypothesis
- Delpit (1986) has argued that "holistic teaching approaches" do not give minority
children competence in the forms "demanded by the mainstream' (p. 383), and
recommends the teaching of skills in context. Delpit's view of whole language, however,
was instruction that emphasized a great deal of writing: "I focused energy on 'fluency'
and not on 'correctness'" (p. 381).
- Delpit's conclusion that a focus on writing fluency will not do the job, although not
supported with data or writing samples in her report, is consistent with research on
writing (Krashen, 1993). There is no support for the hypothesis that writing in of
itself causes language acquisition or literacy development. Acquisition of the conventions
of writing, it has been argued, is a result of reading, not writing (Smith, 1994b;
Krashen, 1993). Delpit does not mention whether reading was emphasized in her
- The Comprehension Hypothesis does not suggest that we avoid writing. There is evidence
that writing, while not a means of language development, is a powerful way of clarifying
thinking (Krashen, 1993).
- Shanahan, the CEO of Gateway, the company that produces Hooked on Phonics, claimed
that his son had been taught "with what was known as the whole language method and was
expected to remember hundreds of whole words by their shapes, with occasional clues
from pictures or context ..." (Shanahan, 1994, p. 3). This is neither whole language nor
an application of the Comprehension Hypothesis, but is Look-Say, a method which
focuses on the memorization of sight words.
- No Phonics?
- The Comprehension Hypothesis does not forbid the direct instruction of phonics. Weaver
(1994) and Krashen (1996) have pointed out that proponents of phonics typically
support the teaching of just the straight-forward phonics rules, and expect children to
"induce" the more complex rules. This is exactly the position of those sometimes
considered to be anti-phonics. There is surprising agreement when one looks at the
research. Smith's conclusion (Smith, 1994a) appears to be the most reasonable: Teach
"skills" when they help make texts comprehensible. It is, of course, an empirical
question just how useful direct teaching of phonics is in making texts comprehensible.
- What is Whole Language?
- The term "whole language" does not refer only to providing interesting comprehensible
texts and helping children understand less comprehensible texts. It involves instilling a
love of literature, problem-solving and critical thinking, collaboration, authenticity,
personalized learning, and much more (Goodman, Bird, and Goodman, 1991). In terms of
the process of literacy development, however, the Comprehension Hypothesis is a
central part of whole language.
- Does Whole Language Work?
- The claim has been made that skills-based approaches produce results superior to whole
language approaches. The origin of this claim is Chall (1967), who concluded that
methods that stressed systematic phonics instruction were superior to methods that
stressed intrinsic phonics (less phonics, and in context), and that both systematic and
intrinsic phonics were superior to Look-Say, which involved no phonics at all. None of
these comparisons dealt with the kind of whole language considered here, that is, methods
that emphasize a great deal of interesting, meaningful reading.
- After a review of more recent studies of method comparisons involving beginning
readers, I have concluded that when "whole language" is in fact real reading, it does very
well. Students in classes that do more real reading have better attitudes toward reading
(McKenna, Stratton, Grinkler, and Jenkins, 1995; Merver and Hiebert, 1989), read
more (Freppon, 1995), do as well as traditional students on tests in which the focus is
on form, do as well or better on more communicative tests (Merver and Hiebert, 1989;
Hagerty, Hiebert and Owens, 1989; Morrow, O'Connor and Smith, 1990; Klesius,
Griffith, and Zielonka, 1991; Morrow, 1992) and show better development of the kind
of language used in books (Freppon, 1995; Purcell Gates, McIntyre, and Freppon,
1995). Foorman, Francis, Beeler, Winikates, and Fletcher (1997) is the only apparent
counter example to the generalization that students who do more real reading will
outperform those who do less. It was not clear, however, that the "whole language"
children did more reading than the other children; the abysmal scores in reading
comprehension for all subjects in this study suggest that none of the groups did much
- On the other hand, when whole language is not defined as real reading, it does not do well
when compared to skills-based methods. Here are some examples: - In Holland and Hall
(1989), no differences were found between whole language and a basal method, but the
whole language method emphasized deliberate vocabulary development and a focus on
words in isolation. - In Reutzel and Cooper (1990), results favored whole language, but
both groups read a great deal. - In Eldridge and Baird (1996), a "phonemic awareness"
approach was claimed to be superior to whole language, but "whole language" included
"studying" words and sentences in stories, and the children in whole language "were
taught to read" using a basal reader (p. 198).
- Stahl, McKenna, and Pagnucco (1994) reported in their meta-analysis that whole
language students were better in four studies, traditional methodology was better in one
study, and no difference was found in 12 studies. While all studies analyzed by Stahl et.
al. are listed in their bibliography, they do not tell us which studies were used in their
analysis. In addition, many of the studies are unpublished. We thus have no idea what
"whole language" meant in this analysis.
- Method comparison studies thus show that whole language is not a failure: On
standardized tests, children who do more real reading do as well asor better than
children who read less, and consistently do better on other measures, a result very
similar to that found for sustained silent reading for more advanced readers (Krashen,
- A Decline in California?
- There is the perception that reading has gotten worse in California, because California
fourth graders did so poorly on the recent NAEP test, compared to other states, and in
1987 a literature-based approach was officially endorsed by the state. But there is no
evidence that reading scores have declined in California, as shown by CAP scores from
1984 to 1990:
- from: Guthrie et. al., 1993, cited in McQuillan, 1998.
To be sure, California did poorly on the NAEP test, but as McQuillan (1998) has pointed
out, performing poorly is not the same thing as declining (p. 18). There is strong
evidence that California's poor performance is related to its print-poor environment.
California ranks last in the country in the quality of its public libraries, and ranks near
the bottom in public libraries. In addition, its children do not have reading material at
home: California ranked ninth in the country in the number of children ages 5-17 living
in poverty in 1995, and near the bottom of the country in the percentage of homes with
more than 25 books in the home (McQuillan, 1998). Moreover, all of these variables
are strongly correlated with NAEP reading scores (Krashen, 1995, McQuillan, 1998).
All this points to the conclusion that California's problem is not whole language but a
lack of reading material.
Has Whole Language Failed?
Whole language has not failed. If it is defined, in part, as providing children with
comprehensible and interesting texts, and helping children understand them, it has done
Chall, J. 1967. Learning to read: The great debate. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Colvin, R. 1995. State report urges return to basics in teaching reading. Los Angeles
Times September 13, 1995.
Delpit, L. 1986. Skills and other dilemmas of a progressive black educator. Harvard
Educational Review 56: 379-385.
Eldredge, L. and Baird, J. 1996. Phonemic awareness training works better than whole
language instruction for teaching first graders how to write. Reading Research and
Instruction 35: 193-208.
Foorman, B., Francis, D., Beeler, T., Winikates, D. and Fletcher, J. 1997. Early
intervention for children with reading problems: Study designs and preliminary
findings. Learning Disabilities 8:63-71.
Freppon, P. 1995. Low-income children's literacy interpretations in a skills-based and
whole language classroom. Journal of Reading Behavior 27: 505-533.
Goodman, K. 1982. Language, literacy and learning. London: Routledge Kagan Paul.
Goodman, K. Bird, L., and Goodman, Y. 1991. The whole language catalog. Santa Rosa, CA:
American School Publishers.
Hagerty, P., Hiebert, E. and Owens, M. 1989. Students' comprehension, writing, and
perceptions in two approaches to literacy instruction. In B. McCormick and
J. Zutell (Eds.) Thirty-eighth yearbook of the National Reading Conference. Chicago:
National Reading Conference. pp. 453-459.
Holland, K. and Hall, L. 1989. Reading achievement in first grade classrooms: A
comparison of basal and whole language approaches. Reading Improvement 26: 323
Klesius, J., Griffith, P., and Zielonka, P. 1991. A whole language and traditional
instruction comparison: Overall effectiveness and development of the alphabetic
principle. Reading Research and Instruction 30: 47-61.
Krashen, S. 1985. The input hypothesis. Beverly Hills: Laredo.
Krashen, S. 1993. The power of reading. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited.
Krashen, S. 1995. School libraries, public libraries, and the NAEP reading scores.
School Library Media Quarterly 23: 235-237.
Krashen, S. 1996. Every person a reader. Culver City, CA: Language Education
Merver, K. and Hiebert, E. 1989. Literature-selection strategies and amount of reading
in two literacy approaches. In S. McCormick and J. Zutell (Eds.) Thirty-eighth yearbook
of the National Reading Conference. Chicago: National Reading Conference. pp. 529-535.
McKenna, M., Stratton, B., Grindler, M. , and Jenkins, S. 1995. Differential effects of
whole language and traditional instruction on reading attitudes. Journal of Reading
Behavior 27: 19-44.
McQuillan, J. 1998. Literacy crises: False claims and real solution. Portsmouth:
Heinemann Publishing Company.
Morrow, L. 1992. The impact of a literature-based program on literacy achievement,
use of literature, and attitudes of children from minority backgrounds. Reading Research
Quarterly 27: 250-275.
Morrow, L., O'Connor, E., and Smith, J. 1990. Effects of a story reading program on the
literacy development of at-risk kindergarten children. Journal of Reading Behavior 22:
Purcell-Gates, V., McIntyre, E., and Freppon, P. 1995. Learning written storybook
language in school: A comparison of low-SES children in skills-based and whole language
classrooms. American Educational Research Journal 32: 659-685.
Reutzel, D. and Cooper, R. 1990. Whole language: Comparative effects on first-grade
reading achievement. Journal of Educational Research 83: 252-257.
Shanahan, J. 1994. Letter. Hooked on Phonics Magazine 1:3.
Smith, F. 1975. Comprehension and learning. Katonah, NY: Owen.
Smith, F. 1994a. Understanding reading. Fifth Edition. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Smith, F. 1994b. Writing and the writer. Second Edition. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Stahl, S., McKenna, M. and Pagnucco, J. 1994. The effects of whole-language
instruction: An update and reappraisal. Educational Psychologist 29 (4): 175-185.
Weaver, C. 1994. Reading Process and Practice Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.