The ruinous legacy of ‘whole language’
A failed experiment in teaching reading was a disaster for generations of Ontario schoolchildren
by James Franklin McDonald
For more than a quarter century, beginning about 1975, Ontario's public schools were lured into using an unproven beginning-to-read instructional method. Whole language (at least the learn-to-read segment of it) was dreamt up in 1967 by a controversial professor at the University of Arizona. Ontario educators were attracted to it as an alternative to the long-standing, tried-and-true systematic phonics method that taught children to read by teaching them the letter sounds to unlock words to enable them to read sentences. Educators claimed this method, used with basal readers, was too old-fashioned and boring to teach.
The new method used more sophisticated primary texts that contained interesting stories. It encouraged children to simply guess at whole words by relying on context clues, after repeatedly being exposed to a particular passage under the direction of a teacher. Countless children failed to learn to read using this program.
The new fad caught on quickly, sweeping across the U.S. and Canada. The red-hot innovation turned out, in the long run, to be a ruinous, dismal failure, but it remained in classrooms for more than 25 years. One researcher succinctly defined this method as "nothing more than rote memorization of every word in the English language."
Some classroom teachers quickly concluded this program doomed many children to failure, but they were ordered to discard the phonics method for this newest fad. Skeptical school principals who took the time to review the research evidence spoke out against it. They were bluntly told to "cease and desist" by board officials. Yet every respected empirical reading research study clearly concluded that systematic phonics instruction — the very system that was abandoned by the schools — is the most effective way to teach children to read.
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