Whole Leech-uage Instruction

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

In the past I’ve stayed out of the Reading Wars, but no longer. OCPA carries my latest, in which I compare whole language to leechcraft:

Whole language is based on a fundamentally wrong understanding of what reading is. It’s not a self-contained skill like throwing a baseball or riding a bike. I feel confident in asserting that nobody in the whole history of the world has ever read anything for any reason other than to access the content of what they’re reading. It’s a testament to the resilience of the human spirit that our children somehow manage to learn to read in spite of the methods we use to teach them.

For 17 years, since I got into the education reform business, I’ve been trying to convince people that there is no educational “one best way” that works for all children, and that goes for reading, too. But just because there is no one approach that works for everyone doesn’t mean there aren’t some approaches that don’t work at all. There’s no “one best medicine” that cures all patients, but leeches don’t work for any patients.

When it comes to getting public schools to use phonics instruction, I counsel despair:

There is nothing—I mean it, nothing—we can do to get teachers in public schools to drop whole language. They believe it works. And when the classroom door closes, they’re going to do what they believe works….

The bottom line is that teaching is not a science, it’s an art. There is such a thing as a science of education, such as when we conduct empirical studies and find out that phonics produces better results when the teachers actually do it, but that big programs designed to bribe them to do it don’t cause them to do it. However, the act of teaching itself is not something that can be engineered like a machine. Those classroom doors, which the technocratic reformers who want central control hate so much, simply have to close.

And despair leads to . . . school choice.

Use your mastery of phonics to read it and let me know what you think!

16 Responses to Whole Leech-uage Instruction

  1. sstotsky says:

    Can 40 linguists at MIT be wrong about Whole Language as a fraud?

  2. sstotsky says:

    40 linguists at MIT can’t be wrong that Whole Language is a fraud.

    Click to access 40-linguists.pdf

  3. Ann in L.A. says:

    My experience out her in La La Land is that parents (at least the well-off ones who I know and who should know better) are distracted by shiny surfaces.

    Call something “progressive” (even if it was developed in the 19th century) and they’re all over it. Talk about drilling killing the thrill of learning, and they vigorously nod their heads (while making sure their kiddo’s sports league has coaches who know the importance of drills.) I’ve sat in a room where a tony high school was selling itself on the basis that they worked with a big university to develop ergonomic desks! And, wow, were the parents impressed! Tack on key words like “whole child”, sustainability, diversity, social justice, and even project-based learning, and parents’ minds turn into a steaming pile of excited goo. Suggest that kids should take regular standardized tests, and watch them stare at you in horror. Too much pressure! (Never mind that the tests aren’t actually testing the kids, but are testing the school.)

    Then there are the parents who will scream to the principal if their little darling is actually challenged by a slightly bad grade.

    Darrin at “Right on the Left Coast” ( https://rightontheleftcoast.blogspot.com/2019/10/a-misunderstanding-of-problem.html ):

    “Teachers who give out lots of high grades are popular with both students and parents. If Tough Teacher holds the line, it’s the parents who try to get their children into Easy Teacher’s class. It’s the parents who harangue the principal. It’s the parents who want to penalize Tough Teacher for holding high standards. It’s the parents who try to lay a guilt trip that Baby will no longer be able to get into Stanford–all because of Tough Teacher! It’s the parents who try to convince the school board to order Baby’s grade changed because Tough Teacher is just a meanie and doesn’t have children’s best interests at heart and probably isn’t competent anyway and…well, you get the idea. It’s the parents who bring their attorneys to conferences to intimidate, and threaten lawsuits when they don’t get their way–when a teacher insists on rigorous and defensible standards.”

    It’s, fortunately, the less-well-off parents that have a bigger clue. I’ve know parents who immigrated from Mexico who were pissed to find their kids’ school emphasizing gardening and spending way too much time teaching kids that food comes from the soil! The parents left Mexico so that their kids wouldn’t *have* to get their hands dirty like their parents, grandparents, great grandparents, etc. They are more likely to *want* higher goals and standards, but less likely to recognize them when they see them.

    I do believe in parental choice, but the more I see of parents, the more I think even that might be hopeless.

    • Greg Forster says:

      I think the supposed educational incompetence of parents is not greater than the amply-demonstrated educational incompetence of the government school monopoly. However, that having been said, the argument for school choice is not that parents are educational experts, it is that children will get a better education if we take the power to make final choices away from educational experts and give it to parents. Long-term personal knowledge and love for that individual child is more important to good decision-making for the child’s education than professional expertise in pedagogical techniques on the part of someone who has no long-term personal knowledge or parental love for that individual child.

      Educational experts do not disappear from the scene with choice; that is why most parents exercising choice send their children to schools (public and private) to be educated by professionals, and even those who do choose home schooling usually purchase some kind of professionally-made curriculum and support services. With choice, the experts take their proper place as subordinate to parents.

      • Malcolm Kirkpatrick says:

        Competition between providers of education at least creates an incentive to use student time efficiently which (incentive) does not exist in the State-monopoly system. In the current State-monopoly system, enrollment determines budgets and so schools have a strong incentive to maximize residence time in the system (i.e., to waste students’ time with inefficient methods).

      • Greg Forster says:

        Indeed, and not only does choice create the right incentives, it also creates what Peter Berger called a “plausibility structure.” Ed reform activists yelling at schools to teach phonics are dismissed because we’re not seen as a credible source. But if you give parents a choice and they start leaving, teachers will be more willing to receive that.

  4. Tunya Audain says:

    School choice is the ultimate answer to check this decades-long, raging Reading War. Parents, who love their children, do NOT care about the politics that underlie these internal conflicts. BUT, they must be able get straightforward answers to their questions about what method of teaching reading is being followed in the school or by a particular teacher. This is where parents need some help and support to help them make informed choices about their children’s education.

    Meanwhile, about the politics of the Reading War, I bring forward some important insights about Whole-Language from Dr Patrick Groff (died 2014) who was a founding member of the National Right to Read Foundation. This is from an article he wrote in 1997 http://www.readinghorizons.com/research/whole-language-vs-phonics-instruction#special

    1. First, educators historically have been notorious for their inability to resist the lures of educational innovations, regardless of whether or not they have been empirically validated. If a pedagogical novelty dubs itself ‘progressive’ in nature, educators tend to adopt it.
    2. Second, WL relieves educators of much direct personal accountability for the results of their pedagogical performances.
    3. Third, WL appeals to many educators’ romantic and/or humanistic interpretations of what is healthy child development. In WL, honoring children’s freedom and dignity is held to be more essential than how literate they become.
    4. Fourth, in the past, educators have ignored or rejected most of the empirical findings in practically all aspects of their field of endeavor.
    5. Fifth, the apparent simplicity of WL is alluring for teachers.
    6. Sixth, educators who have liberal social, economic, and political views doubtless are charmed by WL’s decidedly left-wing agenda in these respects.”

    • Greg Forster says:

      Thanks for this! I think it is almost impossible to overstate the importance of points 2 and 3 on this list. And those points are related; point 2 provides the motivation for point 3, while point 3 provides the legitimization scheme for point 2.

  5. Mike G says:

    Great post and thread. Agree that experts should be subordinate to parents.

    Narrow question: On point 2 above, is the theory that teachers are relieved from accountability in an internal sense (“I no longer feel nervous that kids aren’t learning, which was keeping me personally awake at night, the notion that I’m failing them”) or external sense (“There is now no data that a principal can use to point out my students are failing, so my job is safe”)?

    I think Groff meant the latter. But in a system with 99+% of teachers “satisfactory,” is it plausible that any teachers (phonics or not) worry about personal accountability?

    • Tunya Audain says:

      I’m posting the section of Groff’s article on these points as he wrote them. I shortened them somewhat for brevity. Hope this is more clear.

      “The widespread acceptance of WL in the world-wide English language educational community stimulates speculation as to what are the particular attractions of WL that sway teachers, teacher educators, and school officials to such a ready acceptance of it.
      1. First, educators historically have been notorious for their inability to resist the lures of educational innovations, regardless of whether or not they have been empirically validated. If a pedagogical novelty dubs itself ‘progressive’ in nature, educators tend to adopt it.
      2. Second, WL relieves educators of much direct personal accountability for the results of their pedagogical performances. For example, in the ideal WL classroom there are no grade level standards set for student achievement. Independent standardized evaluation from outside of children’s progress in learning is rejected. Teachers are empowered to conduct reading and spelling instruction much as they choose – as long as it is not carried out in a direct and systematic way, and what is taught is not fragmented.
      3. Third, WL appeals to many educators’ romantic and/or humanistic interpretations of what is healthy child development. In WL, honoring children’s freedom and dignity is held to be more essential than how literate they become. Whole Language classes thus almost always are esteem-centered, rather than learning-centered. In this regard, a co-founder of WL claims that becoming literate truly is not the highly important agent for success in life that it normally is thought to be.
      4. Fourth, in the past, educators have ignored or rejected most of the empirical findings in practically all aspects of their field of endeavor. The fact that none of the original principles nor novel practices of WL is supported consistently by experimental research thus does not discourage numerous educators from holding positive views about it.
      5. Fifth, the apparent simplicity of WL is alluring for teachers. In WL they escape having to master much of the extensive technical knowledge about reading and spelling instruction. With WL, teachers do not have to submit to pedagogical discipline that a prescribed course of direct and systematic instruction demands.
      6. Sixth, educators who have liberal social, economic, and political views doubtless are charmed by WL’s decidedly left-wing agenda in these respects.”

    • Greg Forster says:

      Mike G: I will leave aside the question of what Groff meant. I think the absence of external accountability structures and the presence of internal self-defense mechanisms are deeply interdependent. The external mechanisms would apply direct pressure through incentives, but would also serve as a “plausibility structure” for dismantling the internal defenses. At some point you are really talking about the same phenomenon manifesting itself in two ways. The difference is there’s not much we can do directly about the internal stuff, whereas the external stuff can be reformed.

      • Tunya Audain says:

        About the personal accountability matter (“the internal stuff”), I have over the years heard and read teachers (albeit rarely) comment that they are personally conscious of the biblical reference to the “higher standard” of expectations for teachers. They may say something like: “I’m well aware of James 3:1” and go on to mention the vulnerability of the young, etc. (I had to look this up, and this is the general theme: “My brothers, not many of you should become teachers, for you may be certain that we who teach shall ourselves be judged with greater strictness.” New English Bible, 1961) Greg says “. . . there’s not much we can do directly about the internal stuff, whereas the external stuff can be reformed.”

        Yes, it’s the external measure that needs attention. Surely the schools must know reading levels of students in primary years, not the least to be able to answer a parent’s question.

        But, if parents aren’t aware that this is one question they should ask, then that’s another story.

  6. JD says:

    Two years ago, I walked into a classroom and met a special education student. The young boy didn’t know his alphabet and was in the 2nd grade. Luckily, I was a specialist and his teacher was a novice, so no one cared about what curriculum or methods, I used for the student. I found a simple, but true curriculum (heavy phonics based) written for homeschooling students. Guess what? Within a grading period, he could recognize all his alphabet and read simple sentences, ex. “The cat is in the hat.” I used my knowledge and used methods from Orton-Gillingham to help another struggling student, too.

    The sad thing is, my background is not in education (I do have a number of 40 education credits), and I got involved in my new community. I was retaliated against for serving in my community, and was dumped by my district. Now I can’t get hired by a school system.

    Imagine that a teacher who can take a student from not knowing his alphabet to a 1st year reading level (His regular teacher was amazing, and helped a lot!) is without a job.

    • Greg Forster says:

      Sorry to hear about this – I hope you do get to teach again soon.

      One reason I support school choice is to make the teaching profession more accessible and give teachers more freedom to teach without arbitrary political interference.

  7. […] a popular US educator site also brings up the topic of the Reading Wars. See Jay P Greene’s Blog https://jaypgreene.com/2020/01/14/whole-leech-uage-instruction/#comment-709056 The guest writer, Greg Forster, decidedly takes a position against one of the two sides (he is for […]

  8. EB says:

    I am not as pessimistic as you are about the possibility of change. As a devotee of Engelmann (and I used a phonics-based curriculum many years ago in an inner-city first grade classroom), I want phonics to be the basis of all early-reading instruction. And the fact is that schools of education are increasingly basing their programming for future K-8 teachers on real reading science — see for example this report from the NCTQ, which is already out of date:

    “Since NCTQ first examined this issue in 2006, the percentage of programs teaching these strategies has only climbed slightly, from 17 percent of our original sample to just 39 percent of the 820 undergraduate elementary programs examined in 2016.”

    In my state of Illinois, well over half of teacher-training programs are using science-based methods. This is certainly a fast-moving trend, at least here. Sounds as if Oklahoma is not yet on board.

    I would also add that it’s common knowledge among teachers here that K-3 teachers use systematic phonics instruction whether or not it’s in the official curriculum. Whole language is definitely losing ground, although some of its better features are still used — not the actually damaging ones like 3-cues and “just-in-time” phonics lessons.

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