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.

Some Key Principles of a Whole Language Perspective on Learning and Teaching

1. Authentic language and literacy experiences are central throughout the curriculum.

That means when students talk, read, and write, they do so for some communicative function. They talk, read, and write to inform or to persuade or to wonder or to thank or to entertain, but not just to do lessons in talking or reading or writing. In whole language classrooms, teachers avoid assigning stilted texts or severely edited and excerpted materials characteristic of basal readers. Instead, children read real literature--whole books and texts that appeal to them. Whole language teachers also avoid asking children to fill in the blanks of workbooks, to merely copy what others have written, or to write on such topics as "The day I was a pencil." Instead, children are invited to write from personal experiences and to draw upon their experiences with literature to write poetry, fiction, memoir, and other kinds of literature; and to write to other audiences outside the classroom: pen pals, legislators, newspaper editors, environmental organizations, and other audiences they genuinely want to address for their own purposes.

2. Skills are taught in the context of children's interests, needs, and uses.

Students are not asked to deal with bits and pieces of language in isolation; whole texts in functional contexts provide the impetus for studying parts and pieces of language as needed (whole-to-part and back to whole, not part-to-whole). For example, students are taught to use punctuation when they want to make their writing clearer and more readable, not in isolated lessons on punctuation marks. Children are taught phonics through writing and reading. Teachers help young children write letters to represent the sounds in words; call attention to interesting sound elements like alliteration and rhyme in texts they have read together, and help children use phonic cues along with prior knowledge and context to identify words as they are reading.

3. Learning is transactional; meaning is actively constructed by the learner.

This principle reflects the work of researchers and educators like Jean Piaget, John Dewey, and Lev Vygotsky. What this means in practice is, for example, that children discuss books rather than answer pre-set questions. In the give-and-take of genuine discussion, children try out their interpretations of what they've read, listen to others' interpretations (including the teacher's), and thus, develop a richer under standing of the text. In other areas, too, the curriculum is planned so that students actively construct meaning. For instance, they do their own science experiments rather than simply read about the results of others' experiments. They may also experiment with social roles in the classroom by developing a classroom governmental structure or by enacting conflicts such as those between environmentalists and developers who promise to enhance the economic base of the community. Such activity encourages students to be engaged in their learning.

4. Teachers play various nontraditional roles in whole language classrooms.

In addition to directly teaching information, they often share their knowledge while collaborating with students on projects: doing experiments to determine effects of acid rain, writing a skit on the post-Civil War era, researching the lives of the Native Americans who once lived where their school now stands, and so forth. Frequently, they lead students in brainstorming, sharing, and extending what they know. They facilitate learning by fostering a community of learners in which all members of the classroom community share what they knew and help each other solve problems. They support learning by creating an environment in which students can take the risks necessary for significant learning, however imperfect the students' efforts may be by adult standards. And one of the most important roles of the teacher is to model or demonstrate for the students. The best whole language teachers are themselves enthusiastic readers, writers, and learners who share that enthusiasm with their students. By being eager learners themselves, whole language teachers demonstrate for their students what it means to be a lifelong reader, writer, and learner.

5. Teachers and students are all learners, risk-takers, and decision makers.

In whole language classrooms, teachers and students often collaborate in making curricular decisions. Teachers too take risks, trying new materials (e.g., trade books), new ways of organizing the curriculum (e.g., reading and writing workshops, theme study), and perhaps most important of all, new ways of helping students learn and new ways of responding to students' efforts. By observing their students, teachers learn what kinds of assistance the students need and how they might modify their own teaching accordingly. And sooner or later, whole language teachers develop new ways of assessing students' learning and development, and of evaluating their own teaching as well.

6. Choice is crucial in whole language classrooms.

As risk-takers and decision-makers themselves, students make many choices about their own learning, within parameters established by the teacher. Choices may be broad or relatively narrow. For example, during "choice" time, students may be free to choose any activity they might nominally do in the classroom: read a self-chosen book, write whatever they want, carry out science experiments, work with math manipulatives, play in the "home" center, go to the library to find material on a particular topic, and so on. Or the teacher may set aside a reading/writing time during which students are free to read or write anything they want, but not to do anything else. Or teacher and students may meet in small groups to discuss literature the students have chosen from among that provided by the teacher. As the culmination of a unit of study, the teacher may expect every student to work on some project that will demonstrate understanding of what the class has been studying, yet the teacher may offer students several alternatives--including the option to design their own project. The teacher and students may together brainstorm possible topics for study; in a significant sense, they are negotiating the curriculum. Or, the teacher may determine a broad topic (e.g., the future) and guide students in brainstorming subtopics and finally in deciding upon a specific topic they would like to pursue individually or in a small group. In whole language classrooms, students frequently have the opportunity to choose an activity that has meaning for them, and then to determine when, where, and with whom they will carry out that activity. Such choice encourages students to take ownership of their work and responsibility for it.

7. Students are treated as capable and developing, not as incapable and deficient.

Whole language teachers resist imposing arbitrary standards and timetables on children. They know from experience that the testing undertaken by school psychologists often finds weaknesses that scarcely exist, if at all, when a child is engaged in authentic learning activities rather than the artificial kinds of activities encountered in the tests. They know that standardized academic tests are too limited to reveal children's actual accomplishments and growth. And they know that it is unreasonable to expect children to develop in the same ways or to learn exactly the same things at the same time. Therefore, whole language teachers do not give students repeated batteries of tests to determine deficiencies in isolated skills, nor do they constantly try to ferret out and criticize their students' weaknesses. Rather, they notice and praise children's strengths and their developing competence as learners and literate individuals. With inexperienced readers and writers, for example, they appreciate and respond positively to children's increasingly sophisticated control of reading and writing as communicative processes. In whole language classrooms, all students are treated as capable and developing, including those with limited proficiency in English, those considered "at-risk," and those labeled as having learning disabilities and "special needs."

Thus, while virtually all students flourish in a whole language environment, it should not be surprising that the students who seem to grow most phenomenally are those traditionally considered deficient or likely not to succeed.

8. Assessment is continuous, intertwined with learning and teaching.

In whole language classrooms, assessment relies heavily on the teacher's daily observations. When observations are recorded frequently, they provide powerful documentation of students' growth and accomplishments. Student self-evaluation is also crucial in whole language classrooms. Major ongoing sources of information about students' growth include portfolios containing periodic samples of students' writing, reading, and other work; records of conferences and interviews; inventories and questionnaires; dialogue journals and learning logs. Such records preserve data for both teacher evaluation and student self-evaluation. Whole language teachers know that, taken together, several such means are far more valid as indicators of student progress than standardized tests.


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©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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