Reading “Whole Language Lives On: The Illusion of Balanced Reading Instruction” (http://www.ldonline.org/article/6394/) brought me back to my own beginnings in education. In 1985, I had just completed my teacher credentialing program and was anxious to put all that I had learned into practice. I whole-heartedly believed in the Whole Language approach to reading because it made sense to me. As a kid, I remembered diligently filling out pages in a phonics workbook without any kind of understanding of how these pages connected to reading a book. In my mind, filling out a worksheet and reading a book were two very different tasks. There was no connection between phonics and real reading.
So… why am I mentioning this? Isn’t Whole Language an extinct dinosaur in our schools? Certainly no one claims to be doing Whole Language anymore, and yet, as you read this article, you will see that the philosophy still exists and is very much alive in our schools today. What we most often hear now is talk about the “balanced approach”, which is more the idea that you take a little bit of this and a little bit of that to make a stronger program. “The problem is that it doesn’t work that way. What’s going on in many places in the name of “balance” or “consensus” is that the worst practices of whole language are persisting, continuing to inflict boundless harm on young children who need to learn to read. How and why that is happening—and how and why such practices are misguided and harmful—are what this report is about. In its pages, Louisa Cook Moats describes the whole-language approach; shows why it doesn’t work and how it has been disproven by careful research; and explains why it nonetheless persists in practice and what should be done about that.” (Thomas Fordham Foundation, 2000)
I found this article interesting because I was one of the professionals the author speaks of. The thought of implementing a “direct instruction” program in my classroom was repulsive to me. I enjoyed planning my own lessons, and in my mind this type of instruction took all the creativity out of teaching. I will admit that teaching from big books with predictable patterns, using pocket chart activities, and playing with rhymes are more fun, but after spending the last 12 years using the Barton Reading and Spelling Program and reading the mountains of strong scientifically validated evidence on direct, systematic instruction, I have come to conclude that it is simply not the most effective way to teach.
Sadly, in my role as a facilitator at three different middle schools, I saw the effects of not teaching children explicitly how our language works. I saw many preteens who were stuck at the 3rd or 4th grade reading level and even several stuck at the first grade level. Can you imagine trying to do what your sixth grade teacher asks you to do all day when you can only decode at a first grade level? Is there any wonder that kids find undesirable ways to protect their self-esteem? Isn’t it better to be the class clown or the school bully than to look stupid? Isn’t it better to try to become invisible than to let anyone know you can’t do what is asked of you?
Fortunately, I also saw the incredible transformation kids made when they did receive the Barton Reading & Spelling program and finally received instruction that made sense to them. I will never forget the day one of the tutors informed me that a teacher stopped her in the hall to ask what she was doing with her student. “He’s a different person,” the teacher proclaimed. “He is suddenly paying attention in class and coming into my classroom to afterschool to ask for extra help.” This was a student who couldn’t attend his first day of tutoring because he was suspended. He had a reputation of being a bully. Yet, with the right type of instruction, he was able to improve his phonemic awareness ability from the 16th to the 84th percentile; a 425% increase in five months! Armed with a scientifically validated program like the Barton Reading & Spelling program, as well as being surrounded by adults who cared about him and believed in him, completely changed his personality. He became more confident and willing to be an advocate for himself. And he was only one example.