To hear [educators] talk, the word method is the only method of teaching reading that fits into the whole of modern educational theory. It's all part and parcel, they say, of modern, enlightened education.
I say it isn't so ... The fact is, I am on the whole on the side of progressive education. I have a Ph.D. degree from Teachers College, Columbia, and I am a sincere admirer of John Dewey. I think education should be democratic, free of senseless formalism and drill, based on interest and meaningful experience, and inseparably joined to the real life that goes on around the child. — Rudolf Flesch, Why Johnny Can't Read.
What really distinguishes Whole Language teachers, though, is not just a broader array of strategies for helping children learn to decode text, but the belief that reading is more than decoding text. A child filled full of phonics rules may be able to pronounce a word flawlessly without having any idea what it means, much less what its relation is to the words sitting next to it. (Some critics refer to the process of getting kids to call out the words in front of them as “barking at the page.”) Whole Language teachers insist that reading is first and foremost about meaning. — Alfie Kohn, On Teaching Reading, Spelling and Related Subjects
Frankly, I'd rather watch Younger Daughter "bark at the page", correctly, than guess wildly without even looking at the page, as she was taught at her "progressive" private school. As Rudolf Flesch says of a struggling whole-word student, "Characteristically, he doesn't look at the word in the book, but stares into space."
According to Alfie Kohn, "Once they can recognize the first letter of the word, that, along with other clues from the context, can help them predict the rest." Thanks, Alfie. That's why I've got a kid who, confronted with the word "on", guesses "octopus".
A Whole Language teacher would rather spend her classroom budget on the kind of children’s stories that can be found in bookstores and libraries. The underlying assumption isn’t just that reading material doesn’t need to contain controlled vocabulary, where new phonemes or skills are introduced on a specific schedule. Rather, it’s that such texts ought to be actively avoided. Better to have a child read a well-written story about an interesting subject. — Alfie Kohn.
Well, sure, that's the theory, but in practice schools teach whole-word reading using "leveled readers", coded from A to Z, that are just as boring as Dick and Jane. A typical "leveled reader" book would be something like "Kate Gets Dressed". Each page of the book has a sentence beginning "Kate puts on her ...", with a big picture on top. Under the picture of Kate putting on her socks, what do you think the text is? This enables kids like my daughter to fake reading, without ever actually learning to read the words the book allegedly teaches, like "socks" and "mittens".
As Rudolf Flesch points out, once they've learned phonics, kids can read anything they want. It's the concept of whole-word learning that dooms kids to boring books.
Alfie Kohn claims that Whole Language actually teaches decoding better, "Because it’s easier to decode a word when you already know what it means." That's ridiculous, and a terrible way to teach reading. What if the author wrote something unexpected? And why should we ask small children, with their limited life experience, to correctly predict what the author wants to say?
... a child may be temporarily stumped by a tricky word. In that case, the Whole Language teacher might invite him to speculate about what the word could be. Or she might say, “Skip that word; we’ll come back to it later.” And if he tries and makes a mistake? Suppose a child is slowly reading aloud from a story that includes the sentence I think my car needs new tires. He gets through the first six words and then pauses before blurting out, “Trees.” A skills-oriented teacher would likely say, “No. Look at the letters again. What comes after the t?” But a Whole Language teacher is more likely to respond, “My car needs new trees??” Does that make sense to you?” Then, once he gets the word right, she’d probably call his attention to the way it’s spelled. — Alfie Kohn.
Again, a terrible way to teach reading (and notice how it's being pushed by the district of Upper Tax Bracket!) If we can predict beforehand what the author will say, why bother reading at all? What if the kid is reading science fiction or fantasy, and the sentence is "I think my car needs new wings"? Notice that Kohn is suggesting kids should read only books that make sense to them, so they can predict what the words should be. Think how very limiting that is, especially to a small child! It's the exact opposite of what I want the reading experience to be for my kids. If reading doesn't communicate something new and surprising, really, what is the point?
You can bet that when I work on reading with Younger Daughter, I do exactly what Kohn says I shouldn't do. I say, "look at the word! What's the next letter after t?" If I used Kohn's method, I would "probably" get around to teaching the phonics, after telling my daughter she should have magically intuited the word from context.
On teaching spelling, Kohn suggests "They might be invited to write a word as many different ways as possible and then to evaluate the different spellings, finally checking out which one is in the dictionary." How is that less annoying than just telling the kid the correct spelling? And how likely is it that the kid will even remember the correct spelling after he's just laboriously written out all the possible wrong spellings?
This is the kind of thinking that gives "progressive" education a bad name.