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 About Skills in Whole Language Classrooms?

In whole language classrooms, students typically learn literacy strategies in the context of interest, need, and use--that is, when they have a practical reason for learning them. For example:

A young child learns her address in the context of pretend play about being a repair person who has to write down the addresses of her customers.

Another young child learns to use letters that closely represent the sounds of the words he writes when he begins writing to a pen-pal outside the classroom--a distant audience that cannot readily ask for a translation of what he has written.

While reading storybooks to her dolls, another young child accustomed to reading the remembered story teaches herself to use phonics along with context to get the actual words of the text.

Primary grade children learn concepts like "word," "letter," "sound," and the concept that letters represent sounds, while enjoying and discussing predictable literature.

Children learning English gain greater facility with English as they exchange written messages with classmates who speak English as their first language, as well as by hearing literature read aloud to them and by participating in daily classroom activities.

When they find that classmates have difficulty reading the stories they've written, young writers learn to write more legibly, use more consistent spacing, punctuate sentences, and spell more conventionally.

When they want to write a letter to the school principal protesting a school policy, students learn to support their argument with details.

When they need to locate fiction and nonfiction books relating to preserving the environment, a group of third graders learns to use the table of contents and the index.

In trying to locate professionals who might speak to them about issues like drug and child abuse, a group of fourth graders learns to use the yellow pages of the phone book.

Children learn to draw inferences and to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate as they read and discuss interesting literature. The ability to identify main ideas, causes and effects, and other comprehension skills develops through such discussions.

In a university teacher education class, a native speaker of Spanish increases his grasp of English grammar by reading a lot and by writing in his journal, while being encouraged not to worry about the finer points of English grammar.

Of course, students do not necessarily learn needed strategies without help from their teacher or their peers. But in whole language classrooms, reading and writing are not taught as skills in isolation, through worksheets and workbooks or through exercises and drills. Observant and informed teachers know that such isolated skills work is not only tedious but relatively inefficient and ineffective. Skills that are taught, practiced, and rested in isolation do not necessarily transfer well to authentic reading and writing situations. Therefore, whole language teachers mostly teach literacy strategies in context when students need them, aiming for learning for immediate use and, in the bargain, gaining a greater likelihood for later transfer to use outside the classroom.


Freeman, D., & Freeman, Y. (1994). Between Worlds: Access to second language acquisition. Portsmouth, NH Heinemann.

Freppon, P., & Dahl, K. (1991). Learning about phonics in a whole language classroom. Language Arts, 68, 190-197.

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

Goodman, Y., Watson, D., & Burke, C. (1996). Reading strategies: Focus on comprehension. Katonah, NY Richard C. Owen.

Graves, D. (1991). Build a literate classroom. Portsmouth, NH Heinemann.

Weaver, C. (1994). Reading process and practice: From sociopsycholinguistics to whole language (chapters 2 and 5 on Comprehension and Phonics). Portsmouth 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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