Thursday, 2 July 2020

NCTE Whole Language beliefs: Would you like some science with that?

My attention was drawn today (thank you StephenParker) to this page, on the (US) National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) website, providing a summary of Whole Language beliefs. Yes, that’s right, beliefs, like the idiosyncratic personal values that we all hold on matters such as morals and religion. In 2020, however, when we’re talking about the life-changing lottery that is early reading instruction, beliefs are not enough. The date on this page (which is headed Literacies and Languages for All) is not stated, but it links to a pdf that is dated 2014. Given that it is currently displayed on the NCTE website, we can only infer that it reflects the organisation's current views.

The heading Literacies and Languages is something of a red-flag in itself, gently fogging the lens on discrete sub-skills that make up successful reading. In fact, the word "reading" appears only once on the page. 

Let's look more closely at these beliefs and see how well they withstand scrutiny. I have reproduced the NCTE beliefs below, and have responded to each in turn: 

NCTE Belief
My Response
Whole Language is a set of principles and teaching practices that draws upon scientifically based research from many areas including:  first and second language development, early literacy, the relationship between language and culture, children’s and adolescent literature, digital literacy, and on-going classroom research. Whole language pedagogy embraces goals of democracy and social justice.

These are broad, sweeping statements for which there is simply not an empirical basis. WL was roundly dismissed by three national inquiries into the teaching of reading: the US National Reading Panel in 200, the Australian National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy (2005), and the UK Rose Report in 2006. I’m not sure how many times this needs to be re-stated.

If by democracy the NCTE means every child reads as poorly as the next one, they may be right, but that does not address the social justice imperative. The only way for reading instruction to exert force on social justice levers is for it to be fail-safe for the overwhelming majority of students.

Given the dominance of Whole Language (WL) and Balanced Literacy (BL) approaches in most industrialised western nations in recent decades, where does responsibility lie for the appalling disparities in reading skills as a function of socio-economic status and other social determinants of health?

Please, no-one respond with some version of “parents need to do more”, “families need to step up” and so on. It’s not the job of families to teach children to read, it is the job of schools. It is one of the key reasons children go to school. When parents themselves cannot read, using low-impact WL/BL instructional approaches merely feeds the social injustice monster that lurks in every classroom, waiting to be fed.
Whole language educators know that language is always first and foremost about the construction of meaning. Whole language classrooms provide learners with opportunities to question, investigate, discover, agree or disagree, and pursue individual or communal interests. When students are engaged in authentic language use, three things happen simultaneously: they learn language, they learn about language, and they use language to learn.

Of course language is first and foremost about the construction of meaning. It is a representational system, providing a vehicle for symbolising thought, desire, memories, intentions, questions, instructions, requests, and so much more.

What WL advocates do not appear to understand however, is the important neurobiological difference between oral language and written language. Where humans have an evolutionary advantage for acquiring oral language, such that it is sometimes described as biologically “natural” or “primary” (see the work of David Geary), written language is recent in evolutionary terms, being only about 6000 years old, and is biologically “unnatural” or “secondary”.

If written language is natural, how do WL/BL advocates account for the high rates of low literacy in first-world, English-speaking nations?
Whole language educators believe literacy learning takes place in meaningful contexts. Listening, speaking, reading, and writing are best learned in an integrated fashion for real purposes rather than as separate subjects. Students learn phonics, grammar, punctuation and other conventions of language as they apply them within authentic experiences.

This is an extension of the belief above – the fallacy that there is no pedagogically important distinction between oral language and written language. There are certainly classroom contexts in which language enrichment is the goal, as this will foster oral language development which is important in its own right, and contribute to the background knowledge that is essential for reading comprehension. However, teaching children how to read is not like making a casserole. It’s not a case of “a bit of this, and a bit of that”, and we’ll be happy with the outcome however it turns out. We can tolerate (and even enjoy) variability in casseroles but we need low variability in reading skills.

The casserole approach to reading instruction is one that requires little or no specialised knowledge on the part of teachers about the core linguistic principles that drive early reading mastery. It does a double-disservice by keeping teachers in the dark about what should be highly-prized and specialised professional knowledge, and ensures that around 40% of students are left behind as instructional casualties.

This blunderbuss approach no doubt explains why university lecturers grapple with the frustration of trying to teach first-year students who do not know the basics of how to construct a sentence, in spite of the fact that they have studied English for 13 years and have passed Year 12.

As for “authentic experiences”, here’s a blogpost I wrote on this furphy in 2017.

Whole language educators create welcoming spaces for all learners. They celebrate the uniqueness of each individual’s linguistic, intellectual, physical, cultural, and racial characteristics. Whole language educators support bilingual and multilingual programs as they help students understand the richness of knowing more than one language.

All schools, teachers and classrooms should create welcoming spaces for learners. There is nothing special to see here, but nor is there anything special about providing a space that is aesthetically pleasing (mostly to the adults) while pedagogically lacking for the children.
Whole language educators believe learning is social activity. Whole language educators believe learning happens best in a community of learners where students interact and collaborate with each other rather than as individual students seated quietly at separate desks. In a whole language classroom, learners actively question, hypothesize, experiment, seek information, and present their learning across a wide range of disciplines including science, social sciences, math, and the arts.

There is no evidence, of which I am aware, that says that novice readers are best taught the processes of decoding and understanding text in a social context. This belief betrays a complete lack of understanding of the role of cognitive load in early learning, and the fact that novices need complex constructs broken down into small, manageable units, with repeated opportunities for mastery, repetition and consolidation, so that automaticity is achieved.

Executive functions such as attention, concentration, planning, and organisation are fragile for young learners, so social interactions actually work counter to the business of learning complex novel material. Asking young children to learn how to read in a social context is lining them up for the same kind of performance decay adults experience when they attempt to multi-task.

The prioritising of socialisation in classrooms is also an excellent way of creating an illusion of busyness, without necessarily providing any substantive evidence of actual learning taking place. US teacher and blogger Jon Gustafson has written about this problem on his excellent blog.

As for seating arrangements, there is longstanding evidence that this should be configured according to the nature of the skills being taught, not the other way around. If children are engaging in an activity such as creating and sharing oral narratives, then social seating might be appropriate. If they are trying to derive meaning from a written text they have not encountered before, or trying to write a sentence, minimising cognitive load is the sensible thing to do, and arranging desks in rows facing the front is the way to do this. This has been known for decades.
Whole language educators know that behind every text is an author with personal values. They help their students stand back from texts and identify the author’s values and underlying messages, as well as the voices that are not present in a text. They support their students’ thoughtful use and consideration of all types of media, including digital sources.

This should be a given in all reading and language arts / literature instruction. WL does not own this. Nothing to see here.
Whole language educators know learning language involves risk taking. Learners invent rules about language use, try out their rules, and gradually move toward conventional language use. The learner’s approximations inform whole language educators about how to help their students continue to grow as language users.

Thank you, yes, as a university professor, I see evidence of entrenched inventions in young adults’ writing every day and they are truly cringe-worthy and time-wasting for everyone.  Learners’ approximations are only useful if they are followed up with corrections (yes, actual corrections) and opportunities for repetition and mastery to the point of automaticity. In this way, cognitive capacity can be diverted to higher-order processes such as inferencing and resolving ambiguity.

Children do not learn to play the piano by sitting at the keyboard for hours and approximating a Mozart sonata. They learn by having a complex task broken down into units they can handle, practice, and master. Over time, skills are consolidated and the degree of complexity increases. These same learning principles apply in many other life domains, such as learning how to drive.
Whole language educators hold high expectations and respect for all students. They work to address individual needs and differences, and build curriculum that is rooted in research and national goals as stated by professional teaching organizations and that makes sense at a personal and local level for their students.

This is a motherhood statement that should not even need to be articulated. Why would proponents of any pedagogical approach not hold high aspirations for their students?

The problem here is the dominance of WL/BL approaches in western, industrialised nations over the last five decades and the consistent slide in levels of achievement. This claim does not stack up.
Whole language educators recognize that the role of assessment in the classroom is to inform teaching. Assessment involves talking with students, listening to them read, examining their writing, and observing their work over a period of time. In this way, whole language educators recognize and build upon their students’ strengths. Informed by their assessments and their knowledge of research, theory, and practice, whole language educators are in the best position to make curriculum decisions for the students they teach.

What do proponents of other pedagogical approaches think the role of assessment is, I wonder?

Notice what is missing here though – mention of the use of psychometrically robust measurement tools that actually indicate the extent to which mastery of key identified sub-skills is being achieved. This is because when the teaching using the casserole approach, you don’t worry too much about how browned the potatoes are, or whether the carrots should be diced more finely. There is no scope and sequence, and sometimes the casserole turns out OK and sometimes it doesn’t. Oh well.

Note too, the reference to WL teachers being in the “best position to make curriculum decisions for the students they teach”. This is a veiled reference to the late Dr Kenneth Goodman’s undermining of the role of academic research in classroom practice, as the teacher is positioned as the supreme expert, whose judgement is above question. Imagine if we applied this anti-science thinking to the decision-making of health professionals in hospitals.  
Whole language educators are knowledgeable about teaching and learning. They are members of professional organizations, read constantly about the most recent findings relevant to their teaching, and attend professional development events that further support their learning. They endeavor to be informed about their students and their families and the communities from which they come. Evaluation of educators should be based on multiple measures that take into consideration the entirety of their professional abilities and responsibilities, and never on student test scores.

The problem is that there’s abundant evidence that in the main teachers are not highly knowledgeable about teaching and learning as this applies to reading.

Increasingly, individual teachers are discovering for themselves, that there is a science of reading instruction, and organisations such as The Reading League are doing an outstanding job of supporting such teachers on professional journeys away from WL/BL teaching.

Individual teachers should not have to have painful, expensive epiphanies, however, in order to be able to deliver on that most basic of parental expectations: that they can teach the overwhelming majority of children to read, and can identify and support those who struggle, doing so in a timely manner that does not waste valuable curriculum time and create complex mental health sequelae for students and their families.

One of the problems with beliefs, is their lack of accountability in the face of contradictory evidence. 

History will be the judge of belief systems such as this one espoused by the NCTE, but children in classrooms around the world in 2020 are not historical case studies or education experiments. In the same way that we expect scientific advances to be applied in medicine, nursing, psychology, and a raft of other professions, education cannot ignore the inconvenient denting of belief systems by the march of science. The stronghold of Whole Language and Balanced Literacy beliefs needs to give way to adherence to empirically tested science. As the science changes, so too the classroom practices should evolve. In addition to lifting children’s achievement levels, it is difficult to believe this would not have an immensely positive impact on teacher professional satisfaction, well-being, and retention. 

The longstanding reading instruction knowledge-translation failure is slowly beginning to crumble, but until this empire crashes completely, children will continue to be needlessly turned into educational casualties. As I have noted previously, first world economies have shrinking employment markets for semi-literate workers. This is a looming crisis of epic proportions. 

We need a class action (pun intended) to see Whole Language and Balanced Literacy relegated to the pages of history. Peak bodies such as the NCTE need to be trail-blazers not resistance fighters in this most important of endeavours.

(C) Pamela Snow (2020)


  1. Please don't stop making this case (again) in such an explicit and systematic (and entertaining) way, though it must feel repetitive to do so and symptomatic of Einstein's definition of insanity. In fact, you have found new ways to address old beliefs, which is truly admirable. Thank you for your willingness to step into the arena and confront the lions of balanced literacy/whole language head on. In turn, we practitioners are armed with solid arguments to take back to our school districts to fight for change.

    1. Thank you Harriett for those kind and encouraging words. I hope that this blog-post is of use to teachers in their workplaces, either as a conversation-starter or to move the discussion along. Yes, it does all start to become repetitive and tedious but we must not compromise our resolve on this. All the best in your work.

  2. Katherine Wang2 July 2020 at 15:55

    And the Earth is still flat.

    NB. all apply:


    Definition of delusion

    1a: something that is falsely or delusively believed or propagated

    under the delusion that they will finish on schedule
    delusions of grandeur

    b: psychology : a persistent false psychotic belief regarding the self or persons or objects outside the self that is maintained despite indisputable evidence to the contrary
    the delusion that someone was out to hurt him
    also : the abnormal state marked by such beliefs

    2: the act of tricking or deceiving someone : the state of being deluded
    … accused the Bohemian of having practised the most abominable arts of delusion among the younger brethren.
    — Walter Scott

    1. Yes I think you've nailed it here Katherine. These beliefs exist inside what seems to be a rather impervious echo-chamber unfortunately. I don't care what different groups of people think about matters that have no public policy impact, but this subject has enormous implications for children around the world. For this reason, the rest of us need to care and speak out.

  3. Thank you for sharing Pam.
    'Individual teachers should not have to have painful, expensive epiphanies' - and yet this is precisely my experience.

  4. Sorry, are we still using the "we haven't had time to evolve the writing part of our brain because we only started 6000 years ago" argument?

    We started writing because we CAN, evolutionary speaking.

    The capacity was always there, it has just been "recycled":

  5. The blog post on "NCTE Whole Language Beliefs" prompts critical thinking about the principles and practices of whole language instruction. It raises important questions about the effectiveness and relevance of this approach in modern education. The post encourages educators to reflect on their instructional methods and consider the balance between phonics instruction and whole language approaches. It serves as a valuable starting point for discussions on literacy instruction and the evolving landscape of language learning. French grammar