March 12, 2007

When TAWLers Attack

looks like my recent post mocking the balanced literacy shenanigans being perpetrated in Madison has attracted the attention and ire of the Teachers Applying Whole Language listserv.

Go read my initial post first to get some context and I'll try to deal with the TAWLers arguments, such that they are, as they come up.

I don't understand how people cannot see that WL is offering MORE strategies, not fewer.

More strategies: yes. More productive strategies: no. Not only have they inserted a bunch of unproductive strategies to confuse naive readers, they've downplayed the most productive strategy, letter-sound correspondence, as the strategy of last resort.

It isn't like taking MOST OF THE LETTERS OUT of the words, it is not requiring every single letter to be agonized over every single time.

But, unfortunately, that is how skilled readers process words. That's what eye-movement research has shown us. Skilled readers do so at a very rapid pace. I would think any teacher of reading would be familiar with this research.

I watched Reading Mastery in Roseville one time in CA, and they were making the kids sound out SAID! Kids who could read better already than that lesson was calling for were penalized for being able to say the words automatically because they weren't slowing down and sounding out the parts.

"Said" is one of the first irregular words taught in the Reading Mastery sequence. We're talking like the second month of kindergarten when kids are just learning how to read. First the word is taught in isolation and then read in connected text. It is a difficult word for children because it is one of the first words they are taught that breaks the phonetic rules.

The kids are taught to sound it out /s/ /a/ /i/ /d/ phonetically and then taught that it is pronounced /s/ /e/ /d/. In this way, the child has a mental hook that the letter combination s-a-i-d equals /s/ /e/ /d/. They wanted to get to the meaning, and were told to stick with the single letters.

A child who can read the passages with no errors is most likely a child that is misplaced in the sequence. This would be a teacher placement problem, not a curriculum problem.

And, despite the effort to make it impossible to read that Call of the Wild passage, it wasn't so impossible, either.

It wasn't meant to be impossible, it should have been at an instructionally comprehensible level, but at a word identification level that was meant to be at the frustration level (80%). It also demonstrates how difficult it is to guess at the omitted words even when read in context and with some phonetic clues and word structure clues provided. It demonstrates that skilled readers aren't able to read a passage with fluency once the phonetic markers are removed. Skilled readers do not rely on context clues to identify unknown words. They do rely on context clues to ascertain meaning, as this TAWLer demonstrated. But, let's not kid ourselves, that's not reading. And, any kid whose decoding skills are so bad that he can only identify 80% of the words is a kid who will have no love for reading even if he can get the gist of the passage through context clues. This is the main fallacy underlying whole language pedagogy.

The example in the Times article, showed the boy "guessing" "pumpkin" and being told to "look at the word." How is that telling him to randomly guess? One clue was how long the word was, but if that did not cause him to actually look more closely at the letters in that word, another clue was surely to follow.

So, here's a few guesses that might have worked just as well as "pea" -- pop, pup, puppy, petunia, and the like.

The boy is guessing because he clearly hasn't been taught that the p stands for /p/ and ea stands for /ee/ or /aa/. All the kid needed to read the word was to know two phonics rules to read the word. Some kids will figure this out. But others won't unless it is explicitly shown to them and ample practice provided.

It is impossible to get what a real supportive reading session would be given one small example like that. The author of the article in the other publication made unfounded assumptions that the boy did not look at the word but at the picture. Well, if the picture was being used to give him the words, he wouldn't have said "pumpkin" then, would he.

Or maybe there was a picture of a pumpkin and a pea and the kid just happened to pick the wrong one. That wouldn't happen if he'd been taught to read correctly now would it. Guessing at pictures isn't reading. And guessing at pictures or predictable text does not translate into reading regular text without pictures.

They didn't point out that he was using background knowledge of what would fit in a sentence that must have been about food, vegetables, or farming...and that he didn't just throw out random words beginning with "p".

Another problem is that many at-risk kids lack the background knowledge that they'll be asked to call on to engage in these whole language guessing games. Again, this argument clearly shows that this TAWLer doesn't know the difference between using background knowledge for word identification as opposed to ascertaining word meaning. Most readers know all the vocabulary and background knowledge to fluently read the Call of the Wild passage, but once the letter identification clues are removed, skilled readers are unable to activate that vocabulary and background knowledge to identify the missing words from the context provided.

This makes me so mad. How can they gloss over the fact that the district is successful by the very measures that are being used to push other programs that they don't want to use?

Except that it's not successful. As I showed here. Madison's Reading First eligible schools are underperforming in the balanced literacy program.

As for the Call of the Wild passage... If a student had that many gaps in their reading, then I would say it is too difficult and they need to read at a lower level. They will spend their whole time trying to figure out the words and make no sense of the story.

Welcome to what reading is like for a kid who has weak decoding skills. Skills they won't be taught explicitly or in a systematic manner in balanced literacy.

And the Jack London example is beyond nonsense, because as someone ... has already said, a text this full of holes is far above the reading level of reader. Guess book choice and teacher guidance count for nothing!

It's an easy test. If the child struggles to identify at least 2 out of every 10 words read, then the level of the book is at the same level of modified Jack London passage I provided. Most books my first grade son comes home with in his balanced literacy class fall into this frustration level category because the books are not carefully vetted for decodability. These teachers really have no clue what they are asking of their students. Apparently, when it comes to whole language instruction, teacher guidance doesn't count for anything.

This guy makes it up as he goes along. Nothing is referenced to any citation. Obviously, he is not planning to debate ... using any recognized, peer reviewed research. He is only out to smash whole language. Makes me wonder why he is so passionate about this when you consider that there are probably fewer than 5% of teachers in the world who even know what whole language is, let along claim to be whole language proponents!

This is a pot, kettle, black moment. This is the crowd that cites their own opinions as research and doesn't know how to design a scientific study if it bit them. Please.

This blog isn't a research paper. I try to cite when I can, but I don't cite every well-known point. As always, if someone doubts any point I make, provide a reason why you doubt it, and request a cite. One will be provided.

Plus, I have nothing against Whole Language per se. I just dislike bad instruction. And, whole language is bad instruction based on bad science practiced by ideologues on unsuspecting children.

There's also a No True Scotsman fallacy thrown in there too. See if you can spot it.

Keep those arguments coming TAWLers. It's like shooting fish in a barrel.


Instructivist said...

The TAWLers should post this article to provide balanced reading:

ms-teacher said...

My two older kids were "taught" to read using whole language. My youngest was not. Guess who enjoys reading a whole lot more than his siblings? The youngest. I'm sorry but you can't use "context" if the kid doesn't have a "context" to beging with! furthermore, I would really, really LOVE to see what kind of research they have that supports that whole language works.

Finally, I would hazard a guess that some of the kids that I now teach in my intervention program were probably introduced to reading via "whole language." Now as 6th graders, I get to undo the damage (and disservice) done to them by my colleagues who hold on so tight to a teaching methodology that simply put, does not work.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I used to hear all this whole language nonsense from a good friend of mine as she navigated her way through her teaching cert. A decade later, with 5 years of classroom experience (K-3)and 5 years of remediation of whole language victims (she's a Reading Specialist now), she doesn't buy into any of the whole language philosophy.

I've met a former elementary teacher who had to reteach her own child to read because Whole Language didn't work for her (she homeschooled her child for 4&5 grades). During a discussion about this, the former teacher said she felt guilty for implementing WL during her career after seeing the damage it did on her own child.

CrypticLife said...

Grrrr. People make me so mad.

When I was a kid, I learned by phonics. The comment, "doesn't make kids agonize over every letter" disregards so much of what it means to read and spell well. I used to practice reading everything I could, even the ingredient labels on food. You'll never know what "monosodium glutamate" is just by looking at the overall shape of the letter. I agonized over every letter, and knew more words than I knew definitions. I started to learn to read in second grade. By fourth grade the standardized tests indicated I was on a twelfth grade reading level. I'm bright, and I like reading, but there are many who are just as bright as I am. Anecdotal evidence, I know -- but that's simply been my experience.

Essentially, the whole language approach reduces English words to Chinese characters. While I appreciate Chinese as a beautiful written language, it's horrible for learners (the Chinese generally recognize this, and reforms in their writing are being discussed). The Japanese limited the official use of Chinese characters to about 2000 "daily use" kanji. The Koreans adopted hangul, a phonetic system, and have almost completely abandoned chinese characters.

And as far as research goes, the WL people don't have a leg to stand on.

Catherine Johnson said...

Again, this argument clearly shows that this TAWLer doesn't know the difference between using background knowledge for word identification as opposed to ascertaining word meaning.

boy, no kidding

Catherine Johnson said...

My two older kids were "taught" to read using whole language. My youngest was not. Guess who enjoys reading a whole lot more than his siblings? The youngest.

My mom has the same story!

She was taught phonics; her sister was taught look-say (I think that was the look-say era---)

My moms says that to this day her sister doesn't read for pleasure.

This is an extremely smart woman in her early 70s.

Anonymous said...


I wish they would come over here. I think it would be a lively debate. Especially since they think you're making everything up.

My favorite line was something about you making them nervous.

KDeRosa said...

SusanS, you should go back in the archives and read the first post in that thread to see what she was talking about.

CrypticLife said...


One of the posters there, Debra Stewart, mentions the "statistical thing" bothers her, but only in an offhand way. And none of them attempt to address it in any way, and accuse you of "making up his own rules" and not wanting to discuss the evidence. It's not a pot, kettle, black moment, Ken -- this is like the kettle calling the birch tree black.

They also don't address that the measure is a test of reading comprehension. WL's strength should be in reading comprehension.

Tracy W said...

crpyticlife - one of my brothers studied Japanese at school and about age 16 went to Japan and attended a Japanese boarding school for 3 months with his age group.

Over there, his fellow students were amazed that he could read a newspaper (English-language one). They couldn't read a Japanese one. At the primary school we attended, we were taught about newspapers at age 10.

KDeRosa said...

They also don't address that the measure is a test of reading comprehension. WL's strength should be in reading comprehension.

In theory. Their theory.

I've yet to see any real research that shows that kids taught via WL have superior comprehension skills.

Anonymous said...

Technically, hangul is syllabic, not phonetic, though you're correct. Did you know that the characters are drawn to represent the shape of the mouth and tongue when pronouncing the syllable? And you've no doubt heard the legend that King Sejong had it adopted by drawing the characters in honey on leaves. The next morning, ants had eaten the honey, leaving the characters "cut out" of the leaves. He took the leaves to the priests, who declared it an act of God, and agreed to adopt hangul.

Anonymous said...


The thing about Japanese newspapers is that they use just short of 2000 kanji (Chinese pictograms). An 8th grade Japanese education generally involves only 1000-1200 kanji. (It is worth mentioning that this is in addition to 92 kana that with some modification represent all the syllables in the Japanese language. By high school many kids also know the roman alphabet).

So it isn't a question of "not knowing about newspapers" so much as it's question of not having the "vocabulary". Imagine trying to read a newspaper without knowing about the letters z, q, and l.

But to get on topic.... When I got home from kindergarten and mentioned that I was in a reading class (I was bummed because I thought I already knew how to read, why would I be taking a reading class unless I was a dummy who couldn't read), mom asked if they were using flashcards. Flashcards? What on earth would those be for? It turns out that Mom didn't learn phonics until high school French class.

Tracy W said...

Shortwoman - when I said "taught about newspapers" I meant we had a topic in primary school where we were taught the differences between the news sections and the editorial sections and the classified sections and so forth. That we could read the stories and ads in the newspaper was taken for granted at that age, that we might not know the difference between a news story and an editorial was not.

The Japanese students didn't expect to be able to read the stories in a Japanese newspaper after some 6 more years of education.

Anonymous said...

Technically, hangul is syllabic, not phonetic, though you're correct.

Technically, it's both. (Well, technically technically, it's not strictly "phonetic" but morphophonemic, but that's really getting into the linguistic nitty gritty.) Unlike kanji or kana, hangul is a true alphabet. However, one of its distinctive characteristics is that the letters are arranged in syllabic blocks (called jamo) instead of being written linearly.

For instance, the first camo of the word "hangul" is built up of the letters for h (on the upper left), a (on the upper right), and n (on the bottom). (For an illustration of how this works, see this Wikipedia page.)

Contrast this to a true syllabic writing system like Japanese kana. The word "kana" is written with two characters--the first represents "ka" and the second "na". There is no way to further subdivide these characters into "k" or "n" and "a". Furthermore, there's no systematic relationship between "ka" and "na" or "ka" and "ku"; the symbol corresponding to each syllable is unique and must simply be learned by wrote.

Instructivist said...

"muckefuck said..."

For anyone puzzled by this name, here is a bit of esoterica.

Muckefuck is German for a coffee substitute, usually made from various grains, often mixed in with chicory. Real coffee wasn't always available throughout history. For example, Frederick the Great denied it to common folks. The history of coffee is diverse and fascinating. I once read a book about it.

M. then appears to be a German corruption of the French Mocca faux.