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Whole Language and Christian Education

by Jan Joss

You hear about it everywhere. Mothers discuss it with concern in the dentist's office. Major news magazines run feature articles on it. Education colleges in major universities declare it an answer to the challenge of teaching reading, spelling, and writing. "Whole-language" teaching abounds.

What is this whole-language teaching? There are as many definitions of whole language as there are people involved in it. Those educators who are responsible for the thrust of the movement describe it as a teaching philosophy rather than a method of teaching. As is true of most educational movements, the whole- language movement is a reaction to unsolved educational problems. To many teachers, skill teaching had become so important that the act of reading was neglected. Zealous teachers would take the language apart and put great amounts of energy and student time into teaching all of its little pieces. They would teach each skill, check it off, test it, and sometimes teach it again and again. Workbooks, designed to be used in addition to reading, became the focus of reading. In short, children had little time to really read.

To correct this imbalance, educational leaders could have reminded teachers that the skills are taught only so that children can read and that the actual reading must be the focal point of the instruction. However, because of the reactionary nature of educational movements, the swing of the educational pendulum took the teaching of skills out of the picture. The emphasis now, the whole- language emphasis, is to surround children with literature and provide an abundance of writing opportunities. Students are expected to become readers through exciting encounters with books and to become spellers through spontaneous creative writing.

Teachers operating under the whole-language philosophy engage in many activities and methods that have been used for years. Let's glance into a whole-language classroom. One glimpse finds a little child dictating to the teacher a sentence about a shared experience. The teacher writes the sentence and then asks its creator to read it. Another glimpse finds a young child attempting to put his thoughts and ideas into writing. A third glimpse finds children enjoying books: one alone with his book in a comfortable corner, two sharing a book with each other, and the teacher reading a book to some other children. Most Christian educators would view each of these activities as healthy indications of a literacy-rich teaching atmosphere.

There are other parts of the whole-language agenda, however, that should alarm Christian educators--that should cause them to think carefully. In their zeal to make all teaching relevant to real life, many advocates of whole-language activities would do away with the systematic and developmental presentation of language skills. Those whole-language "believers" assume that all children learn incidentally as they recognize problems and seek to correct them. They feel that spontaneous learning is the only kind of learning that needs to take place. The whole-language advocates believe that the important skills of word recognition, composition, and handwriting can develop from a child's own awareness of what he hears, reads, and writes.

In the pure whole-language classroom, there is no scheduled time for the teaching of such skills as phonics and spelling. In reality, however, most teachers who say they believe in the whole-language philosophy have modified the idea of the purists. Some teachers attempt to teach the skills incidentally as they are encountered. Other teachers attempt to locate literature that can be used to teach a specific skill. And in some cases phonics is taught at the fourth-grade level--only to those who did not learn to read in grades one to three.

No one can argue with the premise that children learn through natural processes. The "teachable moment" has always been a good teacher's best tool. Incidental learning is sometimes the most permanent because of the circumstances that lead to it. However, several basic principles of learning are being ignored in many whole-language endeavors.

One concept often disregarded is that children learn bit by bit as they add new skills to those that are already established. When all the information surrounding him is brand new, a student can easily develop an attitude of frustration. Without direction and guidance a child can spend needless time floundering with nonsequential learning experiences. The foundation he gets through skill teaching in the conventional classroom gives him a comfort zone in which adding new information does not intimidate him.

The second concept that whole-language advocates ignore is the idea that children mature within tried-and-true developmental levels. When teachers evaluate their students appropriately and then plan meaningful learning experiences to teach the needed skills, every child in the class moves ahead at his own rate of readiness. Teachers who use whole-language techniques to meet these needs find themselves spending countless hours locating the right literature for every skill.

The teacher is the key to all teaching success, but in the whole-language climate, he is the whole door. It takes a very special kind of person to do the starting-from-scratch kind of planning that makes whole-language teaching work. That person must have a thorough knowledge of the skills that will be introduced. (In reality most teachers gain confidence with these skills as they teach them using developmental reading programs. An inexperienced teacher does not come to the classroom with these skills.)

The whole-language teacher, although seemingly in the background of the learning process, actually must be very b. And finally, this super teacher must have time--time for the planning, time for lesson development, time for thorough follow-up activities. The second casualty to the whole-language movement may well be the burned-out teacher. And needless to say, a teacher who attempts whole-language ideas and does not have the experience, knowledge, skill, and time mentioned above will encounter confusion and ineffectiveness.

Children's books are the featured reading materials of the whole-language classroom. I would be the last person to criticize the use of children's literature and "real" books. I teach children's literature courses, give books to my grandchildren for birthdays, and have an extensive and cherished collection of my own. But along with the trade books, I value good basal readers. The advocates of whole-language criticize basal readers; they say basal readers contain clumsy controlled-vocabulary stories and "dumbed down" literature. However, except for a few companies that set out to prepare materials for limited older readers, this accusation is false.

Sometimes when I read the articles in educational journals, I wonder where the writers got their research. The often ridiculed "Run, Dick, run!" is actually not a quote from a modern basal reader! Modern readers are written with a natural language flow and contain literature and writing styles as b as any found in children's trade books. A good beginning basal reader helps a child experience success and also grow gradually in his skills. Basal readers for older children contain many cuttings from literature, as well as exciting, well-written short stories. These stories are designed to bring children into reading by way of attainable steps. They provide a satisfying way for a student to grow in his reading skills.

For a Christian educator, however, the greatest problem in the whole-language philosophy lies in the description of the teacher's part in the learning process. Yetta Goodman ties the newly defined whole language to the theories of John Dewey ["Roots of the Whole-language Movement." The Elementary School Journal, 90, (2) (1989): 113-27]. The role of the teacher, in a whole-language situation, moves from one who disciples to one who is merely a partner. The teacher is only a resource for the child. Also, with the whole-language approach, the central purpose is for the child to develop autonomy in order to think and make his own decisions. Fundamental to Christian education is the Bible-based value system instilled in children through the influence of Christian teachers.

A basic premise of the whole-language philosophy is that society is enhanced when the natural processes of learning are unimpeded by the biases of adults. Therefore, Christian educators must regard this concept as humanistic and contrary to biblical teaching. It is good to provide enriched and realistic learning experiences; but these must add to, not replace, carefully researched and sequential learning opportunities. And for these experiences and opportunities to be "Christian," they must be planned and led by loving and sensitive born-again educators.

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