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  • Writer's pictureTobias Kroll

Where Whole Language went wrong

A personal reckoning (Part II)

To start with a confession, the title is a bit misleading. Yes, today and in my next few posts I'll focus on what's wrong with Whole Language. However, I'll also point out the right within the wrong. There is an important lesson to be learned here: almost no paradigm is ever fully wrong or fully right - especially vast and fuzzy ones such as "Whole Language" or "The Science of Reading". In fact, we can't even assume that we know what we are referring to when we use these lofty terms (and I'll give a rather stark example in an upcoming post).

So let's begin with the most detrimental wrong turn WL took. No, not the most obvious one - that would be the fixation on avoiding phonics at all cost. The most damaging move for WL's cause was its turn towards becoming a philosophical system, rather than a mode of inquiry. Put otherwise, they went wrong when they turned intuitions and assumptions into a system presumed to be complete, rather than a theory to be tested. Had they gone the latter route, who knows what insights may have come out of it. But the moment you make your ideas a self-referential whole built on premises that are not to be questioned, you are at the end of inquiry. That's the downfall of any intellectual movement.


Let's consult some data to help us make our case. And for today's purposes, I'll use what is probably the most comprehensive and ambitious attempt to collect all the evidence we have about what works in learning: John Hattie's Visible Learning, recently re-published. A "synthesis of over 2,100 meta-analyses", according to its subtitle, it doesn't only provide an overview of the state-of-the-art knowledge, but also a nice gimmick to visualize it. It's called the "temperature gauge", and it shows the effect size of any particular construct studied in an in-your-face kind of fashion. Here is the one for WL.

From: Hattie, J. (2023, p. 265)

As you can see, this graph shows you the details of the studies in question (in the bottom line), and the mean cumulative effect size gleaned from them (on the "thermometer"). In line with common practice, anything over 0.4-ish is in the red zone of the thermometer, indicating that this approach is, well, "hot" - it produces moderate to strong results. Anything between 0.0 and 0.4-ish (the green zone) is considered "meh" (my descriptor) - weak effects that don't translate to much learning. Effect sizes of 0.0 and lower are taken to "leave us cold" - those practices don't do anything for students, or have negative effects.

At 0.14, WL is decidedly in the "meh" range. Now, I know there are a host of criticisms begging to be lobbed at this. The most cutting - and valid! - of which is, "yes, but what are those effects?" For you see, WL isn't just a philosophy about reading instruction, but comes with a whole set of critiques of education writ large. The most powerful of those is that of standardized testing as the sole measure of children's achievement (which is, presumably, the case in the studies Hattie meta-meta-analyzed). For you see, serious WL has always come with a Freirean-type skepticism of our entire approach to learning. So we'll have to get philosophical for a second.

Freirean skeptics of education ask rather fundamental questions about it: for example, whether we are fetishizing a certain kind of achievement (on standardized tests and normed exams) at the expense of others (such as creativity and social skills); whether we are asking too much of children developmentally when we subject them to academic expectations starting in Pre-K; and so forth. Those are all important questions. But they do not typically remain questions. And that's where the problems begin.

All radical-utopian approaches, in all areas of life - think: Marxism in economics, Critical Theory in cultural matters, and Freirean thought in education - have one thing in common: they move, rather swiftly, from questions to answers. Marx was absolutely sure that capitalism would inevitably overcome itself. Critical Theorists are one hundred percent certain that if you dismantle all the "systems" and strip away all power relations, society becomes a paradise. And Freireans are convinced that education would have ultimate liberating powers if we just managed to rid it of its authoritarian tendencies. Including standardized tests of achievement, grade level expectations, and so forth.

I used to think along similar lines. When I was young and, let's face it, naïve. Getting older and a bit more jaded, I have found that the things of life are never that clear-cut. Yes, capitalism may well be on its way to destroying itself, but that's after various catastrophic attempts at communism have come and gone. Yes, society is rife with unhealthy power relations - and Critical Theorists are adding to them with their own form of psychologically abusive, conformist authoritarianism, rather than stripping them away. And education is slouching on, the big old mess that it always was, with competing paradigms vying for attention, each claiming to have the answers and shouting, effectively, if you just let me have my way, dagnabbit, we'd have a scholastic paradise in no time! (I'm seeing those same authoritarian-utopian tendencies pop up in Science of Reading spaces right now.)

In short, I too used to be a utopian, but I have become a pragmatist over time. No, that doesn't mean I worship convenience, nor does it mean that I just roll with "what works" without ever asking "by whose standards does it 'work'?" It means that I accept, as a conclusion borne from observation, that no single approach to big, important matters of life - such as education - has all the answers (including my favorite approaches!); that everything humans do is rife with contradictions; and that, hence, it is more damaging to impose utopian frameworks onto reality rather than working within its limitations. (My friend Ana Honnacker has given me the final impulse to cross over into this type of pragmatism; her little book is highly recommended.)

Thus, while I accept Whole Language's fundamental skepticism of the kind of data Hattie uses as an important question, I do not accept it as an answer, i.e. as a reason to dismiss his conclusions as meaningless. Within the current world of education, WL clearly doesn't live up to expectations. Would it fare better in a world where we valued fun and motivation over standardized measures, where we gave children all the time they needed to explore print, and so forth? Perhaps. But if your only claim to efficacy is based on far-flung, utopian realities, it is, well, far-flung and utopian. In the meantime, we have children to serve in this here world.

Plus, there are actually some good, Whole-Language internal reasons for its lack of effectiveness. Turns out that, like all human endeavors, it was rife with contradictions - and because of its utopian tendencies and its closed, unquestionable framework, it was unable to see and address those. We'll take a look at those in the next post.

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