Every once in a while, someone observes real spelling/structured word inquiry work in the classroom or in a tutoring session and asks "Is this whole language?" I think it’s important to understand what differentiates real spelling from whole language and be able to explain it to others. I very much want to put this issue to bed, so if this comes up for you again and again, I encourage you to save this post and feel free to share it. I wrote it in response to a question on a facebook page this week, but I thought I'd cross-post it here in case it helps someone answer this question for themselves or help others understand. It requires a bit of personal history for context.
Here are three of the precepts of whole language as I understood them in the early 70s
1) that all reading material should be authentic literature.
2) that what phonics was needed could be introduced punctually, as need or opportunity arose in text.
3) that students should be encouraged to guess from context.
In the early 70s, I was an SLP being trained by my mentor as an OG tutor. To use my language of the time, I thought that the English writing system was a complex code of sound-symbol associations that had to be mastered by dyslexic students if they were ever to be able to read. The OG approach that I learned was a carefully sequenced and practiced, multisensory process that I know I do not have to describe here!
My sequence was flexible, depending on what my students’ already knew, but certainly if they didn’t know short vowels, that certainly would have been addressed first. Short vowels would have been practiced in real words and detached syllables, vc/cv syllable division would follow. Long vowels would wait for the mastery of short vowels. Vowel consonant e syllables would be next, and syllable division lists would incorporate vc/cvce words.
In order to provide practice in a context beyond single words and (I hate to admit it) non-words, I used carefully constructed phrases of my own at the beginning, rather than using controlled readers that I thought distorted natural language. I was also able to use whatever books were interesting to the student by doing joint oral reading where I’d fill in any word the student didn’t know. But the major part of my lessons involved carefully sequenced and practiced skills, a process that was disparaged by whole language advocates as “drill and kill.” Of course I felt strongly that the success my students experienced in this work did not “kill” and that what killed was sitting in a classroom failing to learn to read by osmosis. Oh, it was a contentious time!
So here I am in 2017, eschewing drill (though I hope you will never find me using the phrase “drill and kill” to disparage anyone else), incorporating phonology into the flow of discourse about meaningful words, and encouraging students to consider the context of sentences in which words appear. I can see how someone might ask why this is not “whole language”? While on the whole, I have no use for this term, and don’t want to be drawn into an extended discussion of the topic, I do think this merits at least a comment on the word “context.”
In addition to noticing the temporary context in which a word appears in text, real spellers conduct deep investigations into the permanent context of words. This context includes a word’s etymological history, its morphology, and , carefully and precisely, and only within those contexts, its phonology. The temporary contexts in which we find a word (a sentence, a paragraph, etc.) will vary, but its permanent context accompanies it everywhere. It is in researching families of words that we see how phonology operates within those families and develop a deep understanding of the principles of the writing system, including these central principles:
1) that the main purpose of spelling is to represent meaning and
2) although the pronunciation of a grapheme in a morphological family may vary (e.g., the <t> in <act/action/actual>, its spelling remains the same.
This work does not require that the student be able to read every word of the text. That can come later. The important thing is that concepts about the spelling system are revealed in every session.
My work starts with a word. That word may come from authentic text that the child is interested in or from oral language. Children may walk in with a word they want to study. The context in which the word is found is its temporary context. But our main work is in exploring the permanent context of the word – its etymology, its morphology, its family of relations, its phonology, its grammatical usage. Phoneme-grapheme correspondences will never be addressed outside the context of a meaningful word family.
To the extent that I use authentic text, eschew drill of any kind, deal with phonology punctually rather than in a carefully sequenced plan of attack, this work may look like whole language to someone who is used to OG or classroom phonics. But that is a very superficial look at a real spelling session!
Could a “whole language practitioner” come to this new understanding of context just as well as an “OG practitioner”? Of course! Let’s leave these old labels behind!