Center for Expansion of Language and Thinking

CELT, founded in 1972, is a nonprofit educational corporation, international in scope, whose members believe in the principles of education for democracy with a focus on natural language learning and inquiry.  These principles are supported by beliefs in learners and learning, teachers and teaching, and language and curriculum.  The members of CELT are dedicated to the improvement of education through a greater understanding of the relationship between language, thought, and learning.

  CELT includes a rich diversity of people who share similar beliefs about language and learning but have widely varied background experiences.  CELT members are university educators, independent consultants, school administrators, and teachers.

What Whole Language Is Not: Common Myths and Misunderstandings

1. Whole language is just another name for the whole word, or "look-say" approach.

Not true. First of all, unlike the whole word approach, whole language is a philosophy, not an approach or a method. Whole word" is an approach to help children "get words." Whole language is a philosophy of learning and teaching. In a whole word approach, teachers emphasize learning basic sight words prior to reading meaningful text. In whole language classrooms, teachers provide and support children in reading predictable and meaningful text. What whole language teachers do not do, however, is emphasize the identification of words at the expense of constructing meaning.

2. Whole language teachers don't teach skills such as phonics.

Not true. Whole language teachers DO teach needed skills and strategies. They teach them as necessary within the context of reading a variety of genres and writing for a variety of purposes and audiences. What whole language teachers don't teach is skills isolated from their use or artificially contrived skills lessons. Whole language teachers know that no one can read an alphabetic language without taking into account the connection between sounds and symbols. But these connections are not the only cues readers use to make sense of what they're reading. Cues about meaning and language structure, pictorial cues, and cues to general knowledge about the subject are just as important as sound-letter connections. Whole language teachers help children learn how to use all the important cues as they read.

3. Whole language teachers don't do any direct teaching.

Not true. Whole language teachers DO teach directly. They teach directly within the context of reading and writing and exploring concepts across the curriculum, rather than in isolated lessons. What whole language teachers don't do is teach bits and pieces of language in a teach/practice/test format or teach lessons that are unrelated to students' demonstrated needs. Whole language teachers know that spelling, punctuation, and handwriting are important because they help the writer make meaning clearer for readers. They know that when children have real audiences, they have reason to pay attention to the conventions of written language. When it seems appropriate, then, whole language teachers may offer direct lessons on such topics to individuals, groups, or the whole class.

4. Whole language education is just a matter of teaching skills in context, rather than in isolation.

Not true. Whole language is much more than teaching or learning skills in context. Whole language philosophy is based on evidence that children learn while engaging in authentic acts and experiences, reading and writing for meaningful purposes. Contriving artificial activities for teaching skills in context and focusing on skills for their own sake are not what whole language is about. There is a world of difference in purposefulness and authenticity between, on the one hand, teaching a child to use quotation marks because his story for publication contains a lot of dialogue and, on the other, contriving a writing activity that contains dialogue in order to have an excuse to teach quotation marks. The former is characteristic of a whole language curriculum; the latter is "skills in context."

5. Whole language teachers don't assess and evaluate students.

Not true. Whole language teachers DO evaluate, and they base their evaluations on a much broader range of assessment measures than do most traditional teachers. Often, whole language teachers maintain for each student a portfolio containing samples of the student's writing, reading, and other work; systematic and anecdotal observations; notes on conferences and interviews; questionnaires and inventories; and excerpts from dialogue journals and learning logs. Periodically, both teacher and student review the student's work and consider ways in which the student might change. Thus, evaluation is an ongoing and integral part of whole language learning and teaching. Standardized testing is decontextualized, removed from day-to day learning. In contrast, whole language evaluation is contextualized. It is contextualized in that it is based upon what the students are doing and learning daily. It is also contextualized in relation to standards. Standards for evaluation in whole language class rooms require considerations of purpose and context (a good set of notes for oneself may have different hand writing than notes to be used by another). What whole language teachers don't do is test students on isolated and irrelevant skills.

6. There is no structure in whole language classrooms.

Not true. Whole language classrooms ARE structured. Whole language teachers provide substantial and consistent structure in order to enable their students to take increased responsibility for their own learning. Some of that structure is designed to promote collaboration--collaboration among students, between teacher and students, and between home and school. What whole language teachers don't do is adopt a structure imposed by a prepackaged curriculum that is insensitive to children's needs and interests.

7. There are no specified expectations for students in a whole language classroom.

Not true. Whole language teachers expect children to grow in their competence as thinkers, speakers and listeners, readers and writers. They expect children to grow in their understanding and control of their world. Whole language teachers have sufficient understanding of literacy and conceptual development to facilitate, recognize, and document growth. What whole language teachers don't do is expect each child to learn the same things at the same time according to a predetermined scope and sequence chart or curriculum guide.

8. There is no research supporting whole language.

Not true. There is considerable research to support whole language. There is a solid foundation of research stemming from cognitive psychology and learning theory, psycholinguistics and sociolinguistics, language acquisition and emergent literacy, as well as from education, to support a whole language perspective. There is also a growing body of comparative research suggesting that whole language learning/teaching fosters a much richer range of literacy attitudes, abilities, and behaviors than more traditional approaches.

9. Anything that anybody chooses to call "whole language" is whole language.

Not true. Whole language is NOT everything that goes by that name. Despite the diversity among whole language practitioners, there is a common core of beliefs that serves to characterize a whole language perspective. This core of beliefs provides a benchmark for assessing the practices of those who claim to be implementing whole language or the materials touted as "whole language" by publishers.

10. You can buy whole language in a package.

Not true. Whole language Is NOT the materials, NOT the curricular package, NOT the typical literacy activities associated with it. Whole language is a set of beliefs, a way of looking at learning and teaching. Unless teachers have internalized that viewpoint, they may not use even the most holistic of materials appropriately. Holistic materials and activities do not, by themselves, constitute a whole language program or guarantee holistic teaching.

11. Only the best teachers can "do" whole language.

Not true. Anyone sincerely interested in becoming a whole language teacher can become one . This myth about whole language being only for the best teachers is based on the implicit assumption that teachers cannot become more effective. But whole language educators reject that assumption. They believe instead that all individuals can grow and change. That includes teachers and administrators as well as students.

12. All you have to do to implement whole language is mandate it.

Nothing could be much further from the truth. Becoming a whole language teacher, administrator, school, or district requires that all involved develop a whole language philosophy , and that requires rejecting a "transmission" concept of learning in favor of a "transactional" concept. It takes a great deal of time and requires substantial encouragement and support for people to develop such a philosophy.

Abbreviated and further adapted from Constance Weaver, Understanding Whole Language: From Principles to Practice published in 1990 by Heinemann.


Crafton, L. (1991). Whole language: Getting started. . . moving forward. Katonah, NY Richard C. Owen.

Edelsky, C., Altwerger, B., & Flores, B. (1991). Whole Language: What's the difference? Portsmouth, NH Heinemann.

Goodman, K., Bird, L. B., & Goodman, Y. (1991). The whole language catalog. Santa Rosa, CA American School Publishers.

Newman, J., & Church, S. (1990). Myths of whole language teaching. The Reading Teacher, 44, 20-26.

Pace, G. (1991). When teachers use literature for literacy instruction Ways that constrain, ways that free. Language Arts, 68, 12~25.

Weaver, C. (1994). Reading process and practice: From sociopsycholinguistics to whole language. Portsmouth, NH Heinemann.

©CELT, 1991. Revised, 1998. A project sponsored by the Center for the Expansion of Language and Thinking (CELT), c/o CED, 325 E. Southern, Tempe, AZ 85282. CELT Crisis Hotline 602~929~0929. This statement may be photocopied for distribution.

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