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The whole language approach is a term we hear batted around in the educational field, but does anyone really know what it means? This lesson will define the whole language approach and look at the practice.

What Is Whole Language?

In education, reading and writing instruction doesn’t always look the same. There are many different philosophies and approaches to teaching children language arts. The whole language approach to reading is a philosophy that stresses the importance of children thinking about their thinking, or being metacognitive. The whole language approach (WLA) focuses on children making sense of skills used in reading and writing, as opposed to just memorizing letter sounds and symbols.

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When did the WLA approach become popular, and why use it? Let’s take a peek into an instructional methods class at a university that’s learning about the WLA.

Teaching Language Arts 101

In today’s class, the professor, Dr. Tee, is teaching two approaches to teaching language arts: whole language and phonics.


Many people learn to read using a traditional method that relies on the memorization of letters and the sounds these letters make. This is called phonics.

Teachers who use phonics to teach reading and writing typically follow a systematic approach that doesn’t have context to real text, meaning words are learned apart from books or other written print. Instead, children learn letters, usually beginning with A and ending with Z, along with the sounds associated with each letter. They then put letter sounds together to blend sounds. You have likely been told to sound a word out as a young reader. Your teacher or parent meant to use your understanding of phonics to decode a word.

Whole Language

The whole language approach to reading instruction focuses on children making important connections between reading and real life.

Instead of phonics instruction, the WLA teaches children to memorize words. Teachers rely heavily on a sight word vocabulary, an increasingly complex list of words that children memorize, both in and out of context. The WLA uses simple readers to give children practice reading their sight words, believing fluency will be built and strengthened with real-life reading practice. It stresses the importance of children learning and making sense of their emerging reading and language skills in relation to other words, not by letter-sound use.

Roots of the Whole Language Approach

Dr. Tee goes on to explain that the WLA doesn’t have one solid source. It evolved as several different combinations of thought.

However, it is considered a constructivist approach to teaching. Constructivism is an educational philosophy that stresses student creation of meaning from experiences. In other words, constructivists believe children will naturally construct their own understanding of learning, including reading and writing, from their involvement and interaction with it. Constructivists don’t think children learn best by breaking learning down into small parts, as phonics does.

They believe each student brings individual experience to the classroom to help make sense of their learning.This cognitive approach to learning is based on Jean Piaget’s theory of making connections. Piaget was an early educational psychologist who taught a few important aspects used in the WLA:

  1. Children adapt to their changing world by making sense of their experiences.
  2. These experiences are assimilated, or taken in as new information and fitted with what is already known.
  3. Experiences can also be accommodated.

    When children accommodate, they create a new space for the information they’re learning.

Dr. Tee ends today’s lesson with a reminder that neither approach is right or wrong.

Educators, parents and policy makers need to explore each of them and conduct research on both before forming opinions.

WLA in the Classroom

So, what does WLA mean in the classroom? Parents and those of us who are not in the education field can be confused and a little worried if children come home using the WLA approach. The approach stresses the use of real books for young children, even if they don’t seem ready to read. It also lifts the limits of reading and writing as a stand-alone subjects. The WLA uses language arts across the curriculum in areas like science, math and social studies.Teachers in a WLA classroom read aloud to students and create opportunities for children to interact with text. They read with children one-on-one and in small groups to guide their increasing sight word vocabulary.

In writing, children are encouraged to not worry as much about the mechanics of spelling and grammar, and instead focus on the craft of writing. Because of this, children often use a best guess spelling approach, using what they know about the word and letters to tell a story.Today’s classrooms see a good blend of phonics and the WLA. Teachers have learned to adapt their teaching using both philosophies, providing phonics as a base instruction and letting children construct meaning and increase sight words using quality texts.

Lesson Summary

Educators today can build their teaching on several approaches to helping young children learn to read. They can use a method that relies on phonics (sound-letter instruction), or they can use the whole language approach, which stresses children making sense of words.The WLA teaches children to learn whole words and use them in context by introducing even very young readers to books for practice. The WLA has roots in constructivism, a theory that states that children adapt to new situations by making sense of their experiences. They assimilate and accommodate new information when they are given a chance to experience their world.

Classrooms that use the WLA read to and with children often, and give them plenty of opportunities to practice reading. Neither phonics nor the WLA is considered right or wrong by most educators, but rather, the two approaches are blended in regular classroom instruction.

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