October 22, 2004

Conservative or Liberal?

Okay, this whole election thing has gotten way too serious. it's time for some political fun!

In religious discussions I avoid the terms "liberal" and "conservative" because they aren't Biblical terms, but in politics they are fair game. And speaking of "game" . . .

There are (at least) two theories of how to teach children to read. For our purposes these two theories are

1. Phonics.
2. Whole Language.

"Phonics" is learning to read by considering the sound of each letter in the order that they are written, or "sounding it out." The child strings the phonemes together, and "C-A-T" becomes "kuh-ahh-tuh" becomes "cat".

"Whole language" refers to recognizing the entire word as a group, and pronouncing it as a whole word. The child is taught to learn and pronounce letter combinations. Using the example above, "C-A-T" is pronounced "cat".

There is debate over which method is best. Note that this debate centers around how to teach children to read, not over how adults actually read.

Here's the game: Sometime in the course of human events one of these theories got tagged as "liberal", and the other one got labeled "conservative". Can you guess which one is which?

I don't think there is anything fundamentally liberal or conservative about phonics or whole language. To me, they are competing theories of learning that have to be evaluated on their own merits. It's unfortunate that politics has interfered with what should be a straightforward evaluation.

To play the game, first determine in your mind which theory is conservative and which one is liberal. Maybe formulate a reason for your choice Then go to the comments section of this entry. I will post the answer there.

Good luck!

Posted by Carl Drews at October 22, 2004 10:43 AM | National Politics
We welcome comments. However, use no profanity and be civil.

The Answer:

Phonics is conservative. Whole Language is liberal. Did you get it right?

The origin of this designation is not due to any practical reason that I can see. The origin is historical. The modern "whole language" approach originated in New Zealand (perhaps with researcher Don Holdaway). See http://www.tamucc.edu/~gblalock/courses/3360/readings/facts/whole_language.htm for more details. New Zealand is . . . well . . . um . . . you know, a liberal place. The people who accepted and proposed whole language in this country were fellow liberals, and the designation got transferred from the people to the practice.

The only sensible reason I can see for phonics being conservative is that phonics is based on phonetics, which goes back to the Phoenicians. The alphabet represents phonemes that can be strung together to make the word sound. As a general rule, conservatives like the way things were in the past, and liberals like new things (with lots of exceptions, I hope!). So if phonics dates back to 1,500 BC or so, we can expect conservatives to like it more and liberals to like it less than the "new way". Okay, it's a pretty lame line of reasoning but it's the best I could come up with.

I am firmly on the side of learning to read through phonics. Those letters are not just random arrangements! By denying children the mechanics behind reading and spelling, we are depriving them of the tools that they will need to figure it out on their own when the time comes. Sure, English has a lot of exceptions that languages like Spanish do not have. But there is a method to reading and spelling by letters, and it's not that hard to learn.

It's fairly obvious that adults actually read via whole language. The speed of reading, and the fact that you can read words fairly well even if the inner letters are scrambled, indicates that you are using "chunking" to recognize words as whole entities. Children naturally progress from phonics to whole language when they grow up. But they ought to be able to figure out some reasonable pronunciation for a word like "Maher-Shalal-Hash-baz" even if it's unfamiliar. Don't just give up - try!

I'll close this long comment with the true story of "My High School Classmate, And How Whole Language Undid Him".

In Mrs. DiNardo's tenth grade English class we were reading the Shakespeare play "MacBeth" out loud, taking turns with the various parts. MacBeth, of course, shall remain king "until Birnam Wood shall come to Dunsinane Castle", according to the prophecy of the Weird Sisters. They repeat this prophecy throughout the play. By and by the part of MacBeth rotated around to a classmate who shall remain nameless (even though I remember his name quite well). Let's call him "Dave".

I don't know for sure if "Dave" learned whole language instead of phonics, but that's my best guess. Malcolm and Young Siward and MacDuff did their thing, then MacBeth came back on stage. "Dave" confidently proclaimed something like this: "Fear not, my good man! The Weird Sisters have spoken that no harm shall befall MacBeth 'till Birnam Wood shall come to - Doozlebane!"

"Doozlebane??!!!" Where the heck did "Dave" come up with that pronunciation? The rest of us in class snickered. Hey Dave, there ain't no letter 'b' in that word! I don't know if "Dave" was just not paying attention and missed the correct pronunciation, or if he had decided on his own to correct everybody else's "mispronunciation" of the Danish castle. Mrs. DiNardo ignored the gaffe - either she wasn't paying attention either, or she simply decided not to embarrass the guy.

Maybe Dave was trying for a Teutonic pronunciation. You know, something like "Düsselbain". I doubt it. I think he just took a wild guess at the word and ended up with something that amused us all. He said his "Doozlebane" a couple more times before he rotated out again.

Posted by: Carl Drews at October 22, 2004 10:52 AM

"Language Experience" which North Americans call "whole language" was not invented by Don Holdaway.

Holdaway promoted the use of rich, interesting and relevant literature as a medium for enjoying, engaging and learning about language and literacy. He was as keen about the details of print (phonics) as he was about children understanding that written language was a special kind of communication which had conventions different from some of those in oral language. That's why he was passionate about teachers and parents reading TO children.

I'm a little disappointed that part of your argument is engaged with knocking down a straw man.

Posted by: John at October 27, 2004 5:05 AM

Thank you for supplying the additional information on Don Holdaway. I gave a link to additional information about whole language, and the "History" section of that article states the following:

"In New Zealand and Australia, where whole language is known as "natural" learning, the best-known researchers and theoreticians are Don Holdaway and Brian Cambourne, respectively."

I do not know which argument of mine you are contending is a "straw man". I made two arguments:

1. Teaching methods should not be politicized. They should be evaluated on their own merits.
2. Whole language, as a method for teaching children to read, errs by ignoring the phonetic sounds of individual letters.

Neither of these arguments depends on whether whole language originated with Don Holdaway or someone else.

I'm glad to hear that Holdaway knew the value of phonics. Other proponents of the whole-language approach are not so supportive of "sounding it out":


Posted by: Carl Drews at October 27, 2004 10:14 AM

"Whole Language" became "liberal" because as so much in education it was introduced and adopted because it was something new, not because there was any evidence it was any better at teaching children to read. "Phonics" became "conservative" because it was the old tried and true method that people wanted to keep in the face of progress.

I'd bet most home schooling material on learning to read is based on phonics, not whole language.

Posted by: Kevin Murphy at October 27, 2004 9:34 PM

I have to confess I don't know what Australians call "whole language".

In New Zealand the procedure where the language of the child learner and the more formal, structured language of books was related and explored, has always been called the "language experience" approach.

I spent 39 years in education in New Zealand, and for 10 years worked closely with Don Holdaway. I have never heard the term "natural learning" as a synonym for "language experience". Your link appears to be unreliable.

What we tried to do was to find a cohesive procedure which would beat the conventional methodologies and be successful for a greater number of beginning readers -- particularly those children who came from homes where books and reading were unfamiliar, or who did not have English as their first language.

What some people don't realise is that ANY focussed methodology to teach reading, will be universally successful with about 80% of its subjects. Phonics, look and guess, words in colour, language experience, whole language, ita (initial teaching alphabet), etc. etc.

Most children take what is taught, but also work out that what is NOT taught is also relevant to working out how written language is put together. So the kids that are taught to use only context and the pictures accompanying the text, discover for themselves that letters have certain consistencies and sound values. Without being taught, they add this strategy to their reading techniques.

The children that are taught to sound everything out in a phonic based teaching system, discover that they can short-curcuit the convoluted letter-sound thing by applying reasoning, ie because of what the story is saying, this word is likely to be something like ...

The beginning readers who fail to learn to read are usually the children who do, and only do, what their teachers have told them to do. They have too few strategies.

So about 20% of children fail because the learning system they are taught to rely on, doesn't encompass all the useful strategies the learner needs to be a successful reader.

Don Holdaway, Marie Clay, Ken & Yetta Goodman and others sought to empower beginner readers with an accessible RANGE of strategies and skills to use in the task of mastering literacy.

That's what we tried to do in New Zealand in the mid 1970s through the "Early Reading Inservice Programme" (ERIC) of which I was chairman. With Don Holdaway and others we produced a teacher re-training programme taken by over 20,000 teachers of Year 5-7 pupils.

It made a difference.

New Zealand was the top country in early literacy achievement in the IEA research.

Don Holdaway died about a fortnight ago.

Posted by: John at October 28, 2004 7:57 AM

Just one final (humorous) comment before this entry gets scrolled off into archive-land:

Proverbs 11:25

"Yes, the liberal man shall be rich." (Living Bible)

"The liberal soul shall be made fat" (King James)


Posted by: Carl Drews at October 28, 2004 9:35 AM