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Whole Language: Down for the Count? No Way!

Whether we're talking about teachers' colleges per se or education departments at a university, teacher training programs are of the same cloth. Let's not mince words.

  • Carlo DiNota,
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Whether we're talking about teachers' colleges per se or education departments at a university, teacher training programs are of the same cloth. Let's not mince words. They're bastions of touchy-feely, amateur psychiatry. Examine any education textbook which is required reading for aspiring teachers, and you'll find a recurring thread: competition among children is bad, strong discipline is oppressive, teacher-centered classrooms are a no-no, and testing is an inaccurate and intimidating means of assessing students. These ideological taboos have helped to define what has become known as the progressive approach to education. No surprise that behaviorists like Carl Rogers and Benjamin Bloom are held in such high regard in any education theory class.

No surprise also that education professors unanimously disapprove of intensive, systematic phonics. It is, after all, uncreative, too rigid, and passe. In my year and a half of taking education courses in order to be certified by New York State in teaching English, I never met one prospective reading instructor who could adequately explain what phonics is, nor did I ever meet one professor who could either. Yet the response I received when I inquired about phonics was always, "There's more than one way to teach reading." Same answer every time.

While linguists worldwide argue that an alphabetic system like English must be taught phonetically, America's educracy remains enthralled by the anti-intellectual mumbo-jumbo of whole language, which maintains that children learn to read by reading and through osmosis they eventually pick up the association of letters and sounds.

News flash: Forty-four percent of U.S. elementary and high school students read below basic level and nearly half of American adults have trouble with such common mental demands of life as reading newspapers. And what has been the predominant form of reading instruction in U.S. public schools over the last fifty years? Whole language and its equally idiotic forefather, look-say (AKA Dick and Jane).

But let's remember that schools of education (from whence the Mickey-Mouse pedagogy arises) are hardly bastions of sound intellectual scholarship, and thus we should not be shocked that the proper way to teach reading — via phonics — is not emphasized in our nation's teachers' colleges. James Koerner summed it up poignantly in his 1963 book The Miseducation of American Teachers, indicting the education major as "one of the intellectually weakest, most nebulous, and generally unsatisfactory fields in higher education, although it is the biggest." Oh, and in case you've been away, standards in teacher-training courses have not improved in the 1990s. In April 1998, sixty percent of candidates seeking Massachusetts teaching certification failed a basic literacy test, with the Chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Education, John Silber, maintaining that a bright high schooler could have easily passed the exam.

The Phonics Movement
The phonics movement has gained momentum in the last few years, with California's Board of Education recently announcing its abandonment of whole language. The board's executive director has rightfully referred to whole language as a "heinous experiment." And the much anticipated 1998 report by the National Research Council, commissioned by the U. S. Department of Education and the National Institute on Child Health and Human Development, concludes that early elementary reading instruction must include phonics.

Public Education and Whole Language
Yet, expending tireless energy trying to incorporate intensive, systematic phonics into all our government schools is ultimately a useless endeavor. Phonics in every classroom would require the support of every teachers' college in America, which have heretofore abandoned phonics for the latter half of the century. It would mean that teachers' colleges would have to promote a structured, traditional curriculum, when it is rare to find any textbook used at these institutions that promotes "the old way." It would mean drastically reforming the National Education Association's caustic opposition towards phonics, and disbanding their hundreds of surrogate literacy councils that promote whole language. One look at the brazenly leftist resolutions passed at an annual NEA convention would reinforce anyone's pessimism that the teachers' union would support phonics, which for so many years has been a major issue with conservative education activists. And as The Wall Street Journal noted, when the National Research Council's study was released in March of 1998, the NEA was promoting whole language that very month at a Read Across America day.

It would mean forcing publishing houses, which have made millions due to the voluminous nature of whole-language reading curriculums, to trim down their books for the intrinsically lean and mean phonics primers, for a real phonics curriculum, like the McGuffey Readers of the nineteenth century, would take up but a fraction of the shelf space that present whole-language materials occupy in a typical classroom. Whole language means big bucks for the publishing houses, while the more frugal genuine phonics does not. Never underestimate the influence of a publishing company on a school board, for they wine and dine big-city board members in order to lull them into signing a lucrative and sometimes exclusive contract promoting whole-language reading materials. Of course, it is possible that the publishers would create primers that claim to be phonics-based, when in fact they are filled with the gibberish of the sight/whole-word method. Phony phonics curriculums are, in fact, running rampant today.

Most importantly, introducing intensive, systematic phonics into every classroom would mean that the educracy would have to temper its impassioned allegiance to the likes of John Dewey, Edmund Burke Huey, G. Stanley Hall, Arthur I. Gates, William S. Gray, et al. Having taken education courses not too long ago, I do not see this happening. Education Theory 101 textbooks view these disciples of progressive education and non-phonics alternatives to reading instruction as the bedrock from which all significant pedagogical theory stems. It would be the equivalent of telling communists to forget Karl Marx, or for Deconstructionists to forget Jacques Derrida.

I am often asked why the education establishment continues to embrace whole language when there is ample evidence that this system fails millions of children each year and has contributed to the epidemic known as functional illiteracy. In a word, entrenchment. Progressive education theory is deeply entrenched into the fabric of our government schools, and has been for the most part of this century. With teachers' colleges, teachers' unions, education publishers, educrats, and influential "experts" univocally joined in an almost Masonic-like brotherhood — embracing the gospel according to Dewey — one should not be so naive as to expect an "anti-progressive" method such as intensive, systematic phonics to ever assimilate into their value system.

Phonics did not sweep into government schools upon the publishing of Rudolf Flesch's best-seller Why Johnny Can't Read in 1955, and it won't make serious inroads today with the NRC report or pro-phonics editorials from the New York Times. And the noble edict from California's Board of Education which calls for the abandonment of whole language will inevitably be sabotaged by the teachers' colleges, teachers' unions, and other like-minded and influential brethren. Lest we forget, the Dewey cabal that created our nation's schools of education did so in part to establish homogeneous progressive thinking among all public school teachers. Today's educational professors who shape the impressionable minds of prospective elementary school instructors are simply incapable of turning on the disciples of look-say/whole language, if not philosophically unwilling to do so. In general, they haven't expunged dopey pedagogical theories such as guided fantasy, role playing, sensitivity training, encounter groups, and values clarification, and history shows us that they won't expunge whole language either. In fact, history shows us that they'll probably change its name and make this reading method even more illogical.

As Thomas Sowell brilliantly argues in his book Inside American Education, university education professors suffer from an inferiority complex. Their scholarship is hardly taken seriously by professors in other fields of study largely due to its touchy-feely value system that borders on dopiness. I would add, education Ph.D.s fill their textbooks with highfalutin, pseudo-scientific language in order to hide the innate absurdity of their pedagogy. Hence we have the reading issue. Prior to the advent of public schools, parents taught their children to read with relative ease using phonics. The teaching of reading, which is such an important part of the learning process, is hardly a mystery, as homeschooling parents today demonstrate. You don't have to be an "expert" to teach a child to read so long as you stick to the time-tested phonetic way of teaching an alphabetic language system.

Yet today's education experts need to justify their existence and save face in the academic world, so they hyper-obfuscate the reading process via whole language and drown their propaganda with such bombast so to give the impression that only the holier-than-thou "professionally-trained" instructor could teach Johnny to read. Kenneth Goodman, reigning guru of modern whole language, reinforces this elite status with seemingly every written word. "Reading is a psycholinguistic guessing game," he writes. Heavy stuff. Serious scholarship, he would like us to believe. Yet wrong-headed through and through. I marvel at the lengths education experts will go to complicate such a simple issue as reading.

Absurd non-scholarship is a powerful influence on American education today, yet illogical pedagogy translates into danger for our children who bear the damaging consequences of, for example, Goodman's silly approach to reading. And when such revered early pioneers of modern education theory as G. Stanley Hall actually extol the virtues of illiteracy — stating that illiterates "are probably more active and less sedentary," "escape certain temptations, such as vacuous and vicious reading," and that maybe "we are prone to put too high a value both upon the ability required to attain this art" of literacy "and the discipline involved in doing so" — it is clear that today's pedagogical theory is rich in loony tradition.

Government schools will never liberate themselves from the enthrallment of John Dewey and company. Therefore, enter at your own risk.

  • Carlo DiNota

Carlo DiNota holds a B. A. from Villanova University and an MA in English from New York University. He is executive director of Literacy Unlimited, Inc. and is a former Roman Catholic high school English teacher and Yonkers (NY) city councilman. He resides in Boston and can be reached at [email protected].

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