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CreoVille Oct-Dec-2019

Paradigm Shift towards Whole Language Approach

Reeta Sonawat

‘Our schools are churning out the so-called literates who can read and write in school (for example, in exams), but do not necessarily read and write in other contexts’,  says the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2018, a nation-wide household survey of children’s schooling and learning. It is seen that teachers take it for granted that children understand all that they read and write. Thus, in the present day, we have to re-evaluate how we teach our children to speak, listen, read, think and write.

A term that teachers hear often nowadays is ‘whole language,’ which is used to describe instructions that stem from extensive research and observations of the natural acquisition and development of literacy. It is a perspective about how language is acquired and used. 

What is the Whole Language Approach? 

‘Whole language approach’ is a way of discerning how children learn a language. In their early years, children naturally acquire language by listening and talking to the people they meet on a daily basis. During these developing years, perfection in language or speech is not expected. Children are free to make mistakes and approximations and even rely on non-verbal communication, which helps them to gain confidence while talking. Adults understand and accept these because they realize that learning the language takes time and practice.

Re-thinking Whole Language Approach 

However, even though the seeds of the whole language philosophy were planted much before 1986, the shoots are becoming visible only in the present day. For starters, teachers needed an accessible way of finding out about each other’s work in order to improve the quality of learning and teaching at all levels of education. This improvement could be accomplished in at least four ways:

  • Encouraging the study of whole language philosophy, not only through the teacher applying whole language groups in the classroom but also in the development of the school staff, and in teacher education programs. 
  • Promoting research and creating whole language curriculum and programs.
  • Publicizing and disseminating whole language information to any interested individual or group.
  • Facilitating collaboration among teachers, researchers, parents, administrators and teacher educators in the development of whole language theory and practice for better understanding.

Whole Language Aliases

  • Universal instruction
  • Visual methods
  • Look-and-say method
  • Whole word
  • Sight-reading
  • Top-down approach
  • Whole to part
  • Real books

Whole language materials that can be used in the classroom are:

  • Magazines
  • Newspapers
  • Signs
  • Food boxes
  • Soap and toothpaste boxes
  • Telephones
  • Paper and writing tools

Whole language respects the ideas that all language processes are learned:

  • naturally,
  • in meaningful context,
  • as a whole and not in parts,
  • through listening,
  • through speaking,
  • through reading and,
  • through writing. 

Benchmarks for children’s oral language development at the preschool level:

  • Understanding the overall sequence of events in a story
  • Understanding and follow oral directions
  • Connecting information and events to life experiences while reading a story 
  • Understanding that it is print that is read in stories
  • Paying attention to separable and repeating sounds in language, e.g. Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater
  • Using new vocabulary words in own speech
  • Demonstrating understanding of literal meaning by asking questions and making comments

Whole language teachers believe in:

  • a holistic perspective to literacy, learning and teaching.
  • a positive view of all learners.
  • language as central to learning.
  • learning when it is from whole to part in an authentic context and functional.
  • the empowerment of all learners, including their language, culture and experiences.
  • learning as both, joyous and fulfilling.

Instructions to be followed in a whole language classroom

The teacher gives equal importance to the content being taught as well as the process of learning.  They implement classroom activities which are learner-centric and meaningful. They also integrate language processes across content areas and provide quality literature to support the development of literacy.  The goal is to achieve children’s empowerment through ownership and choice. 

Children share the responsibility for their learning with their teachers and parents. It is believed that offering them choices and opportunities to take part in literacy activities is an important way by which teachers can empower children as learners.

Teachers can aim for the following at the kindergarten level:

Being able to track the print while listening to a familiar text being read out or while reading their own writing: This helps the student to consciously keep track of the sentence, and learn not to miss out words, and to gradually improve their fluency.

Making appropriate switches from oral to written situations: This eases the transition from speaking to writing, and makes the student comfortable in communicating in ways other than speech.

Connecting information and events in text-to-life experiences: This makes the reading material more relatable and memorable for the student, and as a result, more interesting.

Retelling, re-enacting or dramatizing stories or parts of stories: Taking an active role in the stories being read out in class etch them firmly in the child’s memory, as they feel that they were a participant in the story, and thus relate to it on a more personal level.

The whole language approach creates an environment where children are immersed in the spoken and written aspects of the language, and where there is an emphasis on listening, speaking, reading, writing, and meaningful communication. The teacher as a role model imbibes the whole language approach, which is reflected in his or her expressions, behaviour and actions, and overall teaching method. As children learn, they practise what they are learning over and over on their own. They are constantly interacting with each other and responding to adults in many ways, including through avenues like speech, reading and writing. 

Reeta Sonawat
Reeta Sonawat

A leader in early childhood education recognised internationally, she has offered her expertise to several schools and universities in the US.


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