A child begins to understand language by listening to his/her parents. All initial learning of language is through listening. Children hear sounds, learn to distinguish the differences between these sounds, then learn to blend these diverse sounds together. Once that skill is mastered, children begin to understand what the individually blended sounds (words) stand for, and how to form new language concepts. The next step seems logical. If a child can speak, then s/he already understands all the concepts of language implicitly. If they can speak in clear sentences, they already have comprehension! Our task should be to teach them how to access the incredible amount of stored knowledge humankind possesses through language. But how?
We teach children to understand the code or script used to write our language. The building blocks of reading are the 26 letters of the alphabet. All words flow from these basic 26 units. If for no other reason than it is logical and rational, we should consider using only phonics-first reading programs for our children. It is empowering and important for the development of their self-esteem.
But there is more! When we throw away phonics as the first and primary method of reading and switch to the whole word (whole language) method, we are telling our kids something that isn’t true. We are saying that there is no code; that there is no order to the development of language. We are saying that words, NOT letters, are the blocks of language. But, you make words from letters; you don’t make new words by two or three other words together. Words are NOT the blocks of the language – letters are! However, that’s not what our kids are learning. Language cannot simply be memorized, it must be understood. Can you imagine having to memorize BY SIGHT every single word in the English language? Well that’s what we condemn kids to do when we teach them whole words instead of letters.
It is not true that any old meaning will do. It is not true, and to imply it is, is not fair to our children. It says that accuracy is not important (but it is) and that fuzzy or ’sort of ’ thinking is all right (but it isn’t).
Children who do not understand and cannot use language correctly, do not learn how to problem-solve. They are less likely to take academic risks, and they are in constant need of structure and guidance. They don’t understand certain concepts and have trouble making connections or grasping relationships. They lack organizational skills and often become unmotivated, confused, angry, or defensive. They are unable to reach their potential and can suffer from low confidence.
Understanding the Meaning
Children work diligently to understand by studying, watching, and trying new things. When they feel they are right, they internalize their discoveries and move forward to new ones. If we communicate to a child that accuracy isn’t important and that our written language doesn’t have a code, we are saying that the child has been using his/her mind WRONG. If one thinks of the amount of struggle an adult goes through in order to understand the why’s and how’s of his/her life, and then considers that this same struggle is occurring daily in the hearts and minds of our children, one might begin to see why it is so important for them to feel that they are capable of understanding. Their very survival depends upon it.
Our reading programs pull the rug out from under our children. We discount the achievement of their minds and the confidence and pride they have developed as a result of that great achievement. In fact, what a child accomplishes in learning to speak is probably the greatest achievement of his/her life. It is certainly the hardest. Instead of celebrating this great achievement – that required precision, logic and understanding – we tell them to memorize and trust. We drive a spear into the very soul of their self-confidence and feelings of self-esteem. It is no wonder that they prefer to memorize and live in a structured universe! If their own minds are not safe or competent, then the only other option is trust and follow.
But it’s just a reading program you say! Teachers love kids and want to help them, why would school boards want to cause problems and confusion?This may be true, but it does not change the principles of a bad program and will not lessen the severity of its effects. Whole word, or whole language, reading programs are not teaching our kids to read well and are a major part of the reason why students are not thinking more clearly and effectively.
We have known how to teach kids to read for centuries. Modern teaching methodology has produced more creative and effective teachers. Let’s use these strengths to marry excellent teachers with effective programs. It’s time to call it a bad bargain and say goodbye to whole language.
Oxford Learning provides supplemental education services across North America. It offers programs for young people from preschool through university, and its cognitive approach goes beyond tutoring to ignite a lifelong love of learning. Find out more at http://www.OxfordLearning.com.