Friday, November 2, 2007

NCLB versus Whole Language

In today's Shelf Awareness, Jennifer Brown offers a thoughtful essay on the difference between the reader development of the Whole Language movement and today's emphasis on the narrow set of defined reading skills required by NCLB. The basic argument - whether phonics or language immersion is the better approach to teaching reading- has raged for a long time. For some years, phonics was omitted from teacher training programs while classroom teachers built large libraries and created a print-rich environment for their students. Students read from "authentic" sources - meaning actual children's literature as opposed to selections in a text book. The students selected the books themselves and were introduced to story within the context of a wide variety of situations and characters that reflected their worlds - their actual world and the world of their imaginiations. As a teaching methodology, whole language has waned under the onslaught of test requirements. One of the unfortunate casualties of NCLB is that while the whole language method empowered teachers , NCLB does not.

The truth is that the best teachers have always used both whole language and phonics to help students learn to read. Our human brains need context to learn and reading stories to children allows them to be captivated by story so that they seek out the learning for themselves. There is no substitute for self-directed learning. At its peak, whole language students spent their days in a print-rich classroom, spent time in their school library with a trained librarian, and optimally went home to read books with their families. Today, there is less money to invest in classroom libraries; librarians are losing their jobs because the library is deemed non-essential to schools struggling with funding issues; and fewer adults read for pleasure and are raising a generation of children who associate reading only with school.

In attempting to decrease the disparity between the lowest and highest achievers, NCLB is not accomplishing one of its primary goals - we are not creating more readers; we are not creating a culture of life-long learners invested in their own development. We are creating a generation of test-takers, not at all the same thing. The needs of children who are at the lowest end of the socio-economic spectrum have received the bulk of the attention from schools and districts as a result of the NCLB legislation. This is a good thing as every child in this country is entitled to a good public school education. But, as a practical matter, the needs of the rest of the children have been largely ignored. Some states are opting to lower their learning standards as bringing the children up to grade level proficiency is such a daunting task.

There is a lot of talk about teaching kids 21st century skills. The best way to prepare our children for life in the 21st century is to help them develop a hunger for reading and learning and self-directed exploration. Our approach to learning must expand not contract. Often, the greatest barrier to change is the teaching community itself. We need to put our money where our talk is and restore respect for reading, learning, and teaching at the core of our communities so that we do attract the best and brightest to teaching. We need to invest in our children by ensuring that they have the highest level of instruction so that they learn to exercise their highest order thinking skills - not rote memorization and mastery of non-contextual skills.

Our children and our future deserve more. Parents, educators, politicians, and every citizen of this country should be invested in education policy and practice. It's our future too.


Quinn said...

Thank you so much for your post. We are currently living overseas and my 5 year old attends a French speaking school. I have been concerned that he will be left behind in reading when we return to the States (just because the teachers won't understand if he slips up and spells cat - chat) So I have been reading hard for what to do with his blossoming reading skills.

We have been working subversivly with sight words and some phonics but I was not sure what the best route was going to be. (I say subversively because if you try and force a 5 year old more often they would opt for a different game.)

We are advid readers and he gets stories everynight at bed time. We read everything from picture books at his age level to chapter books. But both my husband and I felt that just us reading to him was not engaging him to try for himself.

I just found your blog and love your posts. I have always thought that if I was able to change careers I would review children's books because I find that there are so many books but the good ones get lost in a flurry of mass marketing. Most of my friends are baffled heading into our library to find a book for their kids and often I help offer up some good reads. Thanks for the help in selecting.

Annie said...

You are so welcome, Quinn. Sorry for the delay in responding but my computer came down with an almost fatal sickness and that took a week of my life!

You may be interested in some new study findings by ETS which is the testing group that puts out the SAT among other tests.

The study results show that how well a child does in school, both short and long term, has everything to do with their home environment as the home is a child's first school.

It also re-emphasizes the importance of parental reading to children in an ongoing way. Not just when they're too young to read for themselves. The degree to which parents read to their children is directly related to their literacy development and school success. For the detailed findings, visit

Annie said...

I know it's a long URL but it will take you directly to the results summary.