History and Controversy

Whole language remains very popular is some parts of the United States and other countries, but its use has tended to wane over the past few years.


Whole Language Beginnings

Whole language was, to a large extent, the main educational paradigm of the late 1980s and the 1990s. Despite its popularity during this period, educators who believed that skill instruction was important for students' learning and some researchers in education were skeptical of whole language claims and said so loudly. Whether it was associated with whole language or not, the 1990s saw statisically-significant declines in student achievement nationwide on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Much of the blame for these declines was pinned on whole language.


Backlash Against Whole Language

Throughout the 1990s and into this decade, whole language skeptics generated considerable research that cast considerable doubt on features of whole language that de-emphasized skills, especially in phonics. This culminated with the reports of the National Research Council's Commission on Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children and the federally funded National Reading Panel. The latter remains especially controversial, but both panels found that phonics instruction of varying kinds, especially analytic and synthetic phonics, contributed positively to students' ability to read. Both panels also found that embedded phonics and no phonics contributed to lower rates of achievement for most populations of students.


The State of the Debate

Despite these results, many whole language advocates continue to argue that their approach, including embedded phonics, has been shown to improve student achievement. Whole language advocates sometimes criticize advocates of skill instruction as "reductionist" and describe the use of phonics as "word calling" because it does not involve the use of meaning. The National Reading Panel is criticized especially harshly by some in the whole language community for failing to include qualitative research designs that showed benefits for embedded phonics (the panel only considered experiments).


Common Ground

While rancor continues, much of whole language's emphasis on quality literature, cultural diversity, and reading in groups and to students is widely supported by the educational community. The importance of motivation, long a central focus of whole language approaches, has gained more attention in the broader educational community in the last few years. In this debate, there has not been much common ground. More recently, "balanced literacy" has been suggested as an integrative approach, taking the best elements of both whole language and phonics, something advocated in a well-known and highly-regarded book by Marilyn Jager Adams called Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print. The New York Public School system has adopted balanced literacy as its literacy curriculum. Despite the attempts to find some common ground here, some critics of whole language have suggested that "balanced literacy" is just the disingenuous recasting of the very same whole language with obfuscating new terminology. Equally vociferously, the whole language advocates have railed against the National Reading Panel. Allington went so far as to use the term "big brother" to describe the government's role in the reading debate.