Whole Language Approach

Whole language philosophies or approaches focus on the use of authentic language that is meaningful to students, proceeding from whole to part and integrating development of language modes and domains. This approach is a constructivist philosophy of learning that places emphasis on the integration of language and content, fostering personally and academically meaningful language development. Listening, speaking, reading, and writing—the four language modes or skills—are taught as an integrated whole, with written and oral language developed simultaneously. Whole language focuses on using language, focusing on meaning first, getting students to write early and often, accepting invented spelling for beginners but expecting conventional spelling as students advance in the writing process, exposing students to high-quality literature and authentic texts from diverse written genres, allowing students to make choices in reading, and encouraging all to be voracious readers. Lessons are learner centered and meaningful to students’ lives inside and outside of school. Language lessons engage students in social interaction and collaborative learning. The focus is on the social construction of meaning and understanding through the process of reading and writing. Students first acquire literacy through their own writings and share children’s literature as well as experiences across the curriculum through science experiments, recipes, games, instructions for making things, math problem solving, interactive computer communications, and map reading. Language is developed for meaningful purposes inside and outside of school. Whole language avoids the practices of teaching skills in isolation (sounds, letters, grammar rules, and words) or in a strict sequence, using books with controlled vocabulary, or using worksheets and drills.

Strategy of Whole Language Approach

English Skill Level: All
Grade Level: All

  • This approach immerses students in a rich language and literacy environment.
  • The teacher provides time, materials, space, and activities for students to be listeners, speakers, readers, and writers.
  • The teacher focuses on the whole because the mind makes sense of or constructs meaning from experiences—whether the experiences are spoken, listened to, read, or described in writing—when they are communicated as wholes.
  • The teacher acts as a communication role model in listening, speaking, reading, and writing so that instruction, function, and purpose are meaningful.
  • The teacher creates an atmosphere of expectancy and a climate that is encouraging and supportive in which students are expected to continue their literacy development and feel comfortable doing so.
Applications and Examples of Whole Language Approach
  • To make the story The Little Red Hen more relevant to students’ lives, the teacher could ask students about times when they’ve needed help but no one was willing to give them aid, or a discussion could be shared about bread—eating it, baking it, favorite kinds, and so on.
  • The teacher reads aloud from the big book The Little Red Hen, written in the native language to lay the foundation for initial comprehension in a bilingual classroom. If in a classroom with diverse native languages, this step is omitted.
  • The teacher reads aloud the English big book version of The Little Red Hen. While reading, the teacher models predicting, demonstrates by pointing left-to-right directional reading, looks at pictures for clues, uses voice projection during dialogue, and so on.
  • In subsequent readings, the students read (choral reading) the main dialogue sections, “Not I, said the (animal)?” and the teacher may use cloze techniques (i.e., stopping to have students fill in words). As a cloze exercise, transform the passage “Once there were four friends—a pig, a duck, a cat, and a little red hen,” to “Once there were __________ friends—a pig, a _________, a cat, and a little red.” Children complete the blanks using the pictures in the story as clues.
  • After choral reading, the teacher asks the students to retell the story and writes on sentence strips. The teacher may teach students about using dialogue (quotation marks) to indicate speaking.
  • Students use the sentence strips to put the story into the correct sequence.
  • The students make animal masks and role-play the story.
  • Students are allowed to check out student copies of The Little Red Hen to read at home for pleasure.
  • Students could create their own copies of the book or perhaps expand the original by adding more animals to the story.
  • Extension activity: Students could make bread or pretzels in class. Pretzels (from http://bread.allrecipes.com/az/BrdPrtzls.asp)

1 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
3/4 cup warm water (110 degrees F/45 degrees C)
1/2 teaspoon white sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups bread flour
1 egg, beaten
2 tablespoons kosher salt

In a small bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water. Let stand until creamy, about 10 minutes.
In a large bowl, combine yeast mixture, sugar, salt, and 1 cup flour; beat well. Beat in the remaining flour, 1/2 cup at a time, until a stiff dough is formed. Place dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover, and let rise until doubled in volume.
Preheat oven to 450 degrees F (230 degrees C). Lightly grease a cookie sheet.
Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and divide into 12 pieces. Roll pieces out into long sticks and form into pretzel shape. Place pretzels on prepared baking sheet. Brush with beaten egg and sprinkle with kosher salt.
Bake in preheated oven for 12 to 15 minutes, until golden brown.

Strengths of Whole Language Approach
  • Whole language allows interactions with a variety of texts, experiences, and activities in a classroom atmosphere that supports literacy development.
Weaknesses of Whole Language Approach
  • Performance can be difficult to evaluate objectively when using authentic assessment.