Underlying premises of whole language

The idea of "whole" language has its basis in a range of theories of learning (called epistemologies) related to "holism." Holism is based upon the belief that it is not possible to understand learning of any kind by analyzing small chunks of the learning system. Holism was very much a response to behaviorism, which emphasized that the world could be understood by experimenting with stimuli and responses. Holists considered this a reductionist perspective that did not recognize that "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts." Analyzing individual behaviors, holists argued, could never tell us how the entire human mind worked. This is--in simplified terms--the theoretical basis for the term "whole language."

Whole language posits the existence of three "cuing systems" that regulate literacy development. These cuing systems are the graphophonemic cuing system, the semantic cuing system, and the syntactic cuing system. These three systems, which overlap, help us read. Because reading is a holistic system, proponents say that pronouncing individual words can sometimes involve the use of all three systems (letter clues, meaning clues from context, and syntactical structure of the sentence)

Because of this holistic emphasis, whole language is contrasted with skill-based areas of instruction, especially phonics. Phonics is a commonly-used technique for teaching students to read. Phonics instruction tends to emphasize attention to the individual components of words, for example, the phonemes /k/, /a/, and /t/ represent the three graphemes c, a, and t. Because they de-emphasize the individual parts of learning, tending to focus on the larger context, whole language proponents do not favor some types of phonics instruction. Interestingly, some whole language advocates state that they do teach, and believe in, phonics, especially a type of phonics known as embedded phonics. In embedded phonics, letters are taught during other lessons focused on meaning and the phonics component is considered a "mini lesson." Instruction in embedded phonics typically emphasizes the consonants and the short vowels, as well as letter combinations called rimes or phonograms. The use of this embedded phonics model is called a "whole-part-whole" approach because, consistent with holistic thinking, students read the text for meaning first (whole), then examine some features of the phonics system (part) and finally use their new knowledge to read stories (whole). Reading Recovery is a program that uses a whole language approach with struggling readers.

The whole language approach to phonics grew out of Noam Chomsky's conception of linguistic development. Chomsky believed that humans have a natural language capacity, that we are built to communicate through words. This idea developed a large following throughout the 1960s and 1970s and was eventually recast by some educators as a way of thinking about literacy more broadly. This led to the idea that reading and writing were ideas that should be considered as wholes, learned by experience and exposure more than analysis and didactic instruction. This largely accounts for the focus on time spent reading, especially independent reading. Many classrooms (whole language or otherwise) include silent reading time, sometimes called DEAR ("Drop Everything And Read") time or SSR (sustained silent reading). Some versions of this independent reading time include a structured role for the teacher, especially Reader's Workshop. Despite the popularity of the extension of Chomsky's linguistic ideas to literacy, neurological and experimental research has shown that reading, unlike language, is not a pre-programmed human skill. It must be learned. Dr. Sally Shaywitz, a neurologist at Yale University, is credited with much of the research on the neurological structures of reading.

The contrast with skills-based approaches to reading also led to an approach to spelling called "invented spelling" or "inventive spelling." This generated considerable controversy in the public domain because parents, as well as some educators, were concerned that their children were not learning to spell well. Many whole language advocates argued that children went through stages of spelling development and that it was important to appreciate students' attempts to make meaning rather than harp on little mistakes. Popularly, invented spelling has been vilified by some, although little research has been done about the consequences of this shift away from spelling.