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  • Writer's pictureTobias Kroll

Saying Good-bye to Whole Language

A personal reckoning (Part 1)


I received my doctoral education in a hotbed of Whole Language. I am not going to name it here - not because I am embarrassed by the association, far from! I am proud of it and I have nothing but respect for everyone I worked with. I know their hearts are in the right place and I did, indeed, learn a tremendous amount in my time there.


Nonetheless, it is time for me to say good-bye to the movement. Not dismissively but with the sober acknowledgment that it did not achieve what it wished to achieve, and was, indeed, wrong on many fronts. In the field of reading and reading disabilities, we are scholars, first and foremost. And as scholars, we must be able to change our beliefs if they turn out to be out of sync with evidence. Which means taking a dispassionate reckoning, discarding what needs to be discarded, giving credit where credit is due, salvaging what is salvageable, and taking the good with us as we move on. And that's what I'm going to do here, in this post and the next few to come.


And that's why I'm not going to name my alma mater in this post. I don't want to make it seem like I call them out or say goodbye to them. I am, in fact, taking with me quite a bit of what they taught me. Contrary to popular opinion at the moment, there is much that has value.


 

I'm writing this in early August 2023, and it looks like the reading wars have flared up, once again. Nothing new here. For well over a century now, the cycle has been spinning in the exact same way, time after time. Alphabetic vs. whole-word method. Structured teaching vs. inquiry. Phonics vs. Whole Language. Dramatize, rinse, and repeat. A dozen or so years ago, while I was studying for my PhD, things were in full swing for the umpteenth time, and my cohort was in the midst of things. Back then, it was Whole Language vs. a phonics-heavy Science of Reading; currently, it looks like it’s the Science of Reading (less phonics-heavy) vs. everybody else. There was a quiet period in-between, during the later part of the 2010s. Silly me, that quiet had me thinking the “wars” were winding down, with both “sides” focusing more on their commonalities than their differences. So much for that.


So today, as the first part of my reckoning, I'm going to roll up my sleeves and look at an overlooked aspect of the reading wars: the importance of language, knowledge, and identity in our talk about one another. For you see, in any war, there is the temptation to vilify your opponent, to turn them into a hateworthy caricature. We did that with proponents of phonics, back during my PhD studies, and I am now witnessing the same thing happening in the SoR universe, where they rant on and on about how Whole Language was all about the money and the power. Yeah, that’s what we thought about you all, too.


So the first point I wish to make is this: In any conflict, we must keep up a certain mental and ethical discipline. So, too, when dealing with controversial scholarly issues. And no, I'm not saying I'm particularly good at this - only that we all should be better at it than we are. I want to give a shout-out to my doctoral advisor in this regard. A hot-blooded Italian American, he was as passionate about Whole Language as it gets. And yet, one day when his students were being particularly self-righteous about it, he roped us in. “Let us remember,” he said, “that everyone in the reading field has the best interest of struggling children at heart.” That quieted us down. And it’s stuck with me ever since.


 

One of the things I learned about in my education was the importance of culture and of interactional dynamics to any human endeavor. Including endeavors like teaching, learning, and yes, even science. And what I learned helps me see that our reading wars aren't just about reading. Or about the kind and quality of evidence. Or even about the students and our care for them, however sincere (and it always is). They are, to a large extent, about the human condition: our longing for an identity, our need to feel certain, our ability to know anything at all. Put those together with an important societal issue, like reading instruction and intervention, and you get a potent fuel for endless conflict.


This results in some eerie similarities between the WL discourse I used to be steeped in, and the current SoR discourse I am following online: they both have a tendency of veering into the ideological. All the same ingredients are there: the unquestioned conviction that one is on the “right side”, and that there is a “wrong side” to be fought; the corollary conviction that one’s side has all the knowledge one needs, and the other couldn’t possibly contribute anything; and the deeply held belief that there is an urgent crisis in reading that has to do with faulty instruction, and that one's preferred approach is the only salvation for our tragically faltering children. Like I said, I’ve heard it all before, and I’ve come to be highly skeptical of any such discourse. It simplifies a reality that forever eludes simplification, and dramatizes where a no-drama approach would be more helpful.


So let's de-dramatize. (Is that a word?) I'm going to do that by using what the SoR people like, namely, data. And what WL folks like, namely, scholarly thinking. Put together, they make up what I call "The Study of Reading (StoR)": a powerful way of inquiry that avoids both the extreme of mindless belief in data, and that of evidence-free philosophizing. And here is your first bit of thought to chew on: what if I told you that the fuel for our reading wars is a strawman argument?


Yes, indeed. The more I learn, the more I am convinced that the endless refrains of a "crisis" in reading are vastly overstated. And that's true for both sides. Their constant state of alarm glosses over one inconvenient fact: that the nation's reading achievement has barely budged for the past half century. Have a look at this.



This is the government's official record of American students' reading proficiency, straight from the NAEP website. And as you can see, reading achievement stays stubbornly similar, from 1971 all the way to 2020. The data starts long before Whole Language gained traction (in the latter half of the 1980s, according to P. David Pearson). The curve then remains flat all throughout the 1980s and 1990s period that according to SoR discourse was dominated by WL - and according to WL discourse, by a phonics-heavy SoR despite the advances WL had made. It even doesn't budge much in 2004, when a new assessment was introduced.


True, there are some significant differences in the graph. But we may reasonably question how those translate into real-world differences (also known as effect sizes). Also, they're significant in comparison to 2020 - which is when the pandemic hit. You can't really interpret data collected under such disruptive circumstances.


Most importantly, taking them into account just makes the picture murkier. For example, you could argue that 9-year-olds' scores went down around the time WL was introduced, starting in 1984 and reaching their lowest level in 1990. But what are we to make, then, of the fact that those same 9-year-olds went on to be perfectly "normal" readers at age 13 (cf. 1988 through 1994)? Or that 13-year-olds were more proficient readers than they had ever been in the 1992 assessment?


Or, for that matter, what are we to make of the fact that scores went steadily up starting in 2004, reaching their peak in 2012? Which approach was truly dominant in the schools during that era? The SoR folks think it was WL, rendering their own panic about it moot. My doctoral teachers thought it was SoR, rendering their panic about that approach equally moot. My point is, do we really know?


I know that I don't. All I know is that at this point, whenever someone yells "crisis" and "I have the solution", my red flags pop up on both accounts, and I reserve the right to be very, very skeptical. Call it trust issues if you will. I call it scholarship.


 

This post is the first in a series of personal reckonings with Whole Language and the latest iteration of the reading wars. In the next post, I will argue that when people pit "Whole Language" against "The Science of Reading", they don't really know what they're talking about - because the real-world referents of those terms are ill-defined, and, I suspect, nowhere to be found in a "pure" form. Stay tuned!

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