Holistic Literacy

Sometimes, the language of education can get away from you and leave you with the urge to place all key terms in inverted commas. ‘Constructivism’ is one such term. It is a theory of learning; one that suggests that we relate new knowledge to what we already know. Carl Bereiter rightly cautions us not to see memory as a filing cabinet in to which we may simply slot new information. Instead, I suggest that we should recognise that ideas and concepts are organised in ‘schema’ and that incomplete and possibly inaccurate schema already exist for many of the things that we want students to learn. Students may indeed hold misconceptions and these can be quite resilient.

However, there is a perhaps naïve view that constructivism as a theory of learning implies a particular set of teaching practices; constructivist teaching. Here, it is often assumed that we can only truly understand concepts that we have discovered or directly experienced ourselves. Whilst this may be true for most animals, humans are exceptional for our ability to communicate ideas; ideas that can live-on past the lifetime of any one individual. It is not the case that we must directly experience things in order to understand them. Think of all the books.

This slipperiness of language makes it hard to have clear discussions about teaching approaches. If you wish to comment on constructivist teaching techniques then, no doubt, someone will remind you that constructivism is a theory of learning and not a theory of teaching. You are then left without an alternative, agreed description for the thing that you are trying to comment on.

Similarly, imagine if you wish to raise questions about an approach known as ‘balanced literacy’. What kind of narrow-minded person would want to be critical of balance? Surely, any reasonable commentator would see that balanced literacy represents the best of all worlds, eschewing the false choice that is often presented between whole language and systematic, synthetic phonics (SSP).

Except that there may be reason to question this approach and it is closely related to the discussion of constructivism. The ‘systematic’ part of SSP is an attempt to order and structure the learning of phonics so that it best builds appropriate schema and avoids misconceptions. However, there are other approaches to phonics. For instance, An influential 1998 report by Snow, Burns and Griffin for the National Research Council in the US described two such approaches; embedded phonics and direct code instruction. Direct code instruction is essentially SSP and it is this method that Snow’s panel found to be most effective, particularly for struggling students.

So, the claim that balanced literacy includes a phonics component should perhaps be met with the question; what type of phonics component?

I have some sympathy with the proponents of SSP, given the evidence in favour of the approach. However, there is no denying that they have an image problem, particularly when they attempt to question a ‘balanced’ approach. Conversely, ‘systematic synthetic phonics’ might be an accurate description but it’s not a heart-warming one. I suggest a strategy.

The simple view of reading is that reading involves two components. The first is the decoding of words; turning the letters on the page into their corresponding sounds. The second part is understanding what those words then mean. For instance, you may be able to decode the word ‘trireme’ using your knowledge of letter-sound correspondences but you may have no idea what a trireme is. So you lack comprehension. The solution is to gain knowledge of the world and the words that describe it. This can happen in parallel to learning to decode.

Advocates of SSP are often accused of ignoring comprehension; unfairly, in my view. However, there are now a number of systematic approaches to building knowledge available such as the Core Knowledge Sequence. Perhaps there is a case for creating a scheme in which knowledge is systematically developed in parallel with reading skill. Given that this would deal with both aspects of reading – decoding and comprehension – we could call it ‘holistic literacy’. And who could possibly be against that?


9 thoughts on “Holistic Literacy

  1. Core Knowledge Language Arts does indeed have a phonics element and a knowledge element – or in their terms, a Skills Strand and a Listening and Learning Strand. http://www.coreknowledge.org/ckla

    “CKLA K–3 is broken into two strands—a Skills strand and a Listening & Learning strand—so that children can master sounds and letters for fluent decoding and encoding during one part of the day and then have additional time to build the knowledge, language, and vocabulary that are essential for strong comprehension.”

    Balanced and holistic literacy!

    Great post, thank you.

  2. ‘systematic synthetic phonics’ might be an accurate description but it’s not a heart-warming one

    That’s half of the reason why Phonics folk have won every battle in the Reading War for the last half century but has lost the war every time. We would see the same thing happen were effort devoted to popularize the phrase, Holistic Literacy. The phrase combines the best of the heart-warming “Whole Language” and “Balanced Literacy.” AntiPhonics folk would eat it for breakfast and lunch. “Phonics” would be the left-over in the “Balance”–as it is now.

    The other half of the reason is that “Phonics”, no matter how many adjectives we precede it with is not a full and accurate description of what is involved in reliably teaching kids how to read. The link between written and spoken English is the Alphabetic Code–not Phonics. “Phonics,” however is deeply embedded in general usage, and since SST has currency in the UK (and AU), the distinction can be bypassed for now.

    The “biggest mistake” made thus far in the 21st Century of the war has been the PhonicFolk buying and promoting the Simple Theory/View of Reading The buy-in relegates the Alphabetic Code to a “decoding component” rather than elevating it to its rightful prominence– sine qua non essence of reading. Worse, the view gives license to treat “knowledge of the world and the words that describe it” as the sole provenance of reading instruction. This leave teachers in the middle of the Simple View without a horse to teach kids how to handle the Code while shouldering reading instruction with the responsibility for kids to have “knowledge of the world and the words that describe it,” and taking the rap if kids don’t already have such “knowledge.” That’s not a good or fair deal.

    The buy-in is sad, because it is unnecessary. No one in LowerEdLand or World gives a rat’s eyebrow about the theories and views that run rife in HigherEdLand. They want kids who “can read and enjoy it.” Anyone in World can see with their own eyes when that is happening and when it’s not. World pays LowerEdLand to make it happen reliably, but ironically, LowerEdLand is its own worst enemy, choosing the heart-warming but instructionally-dangerous AntiPhonics f diet.

    That’s my take on “Holistic Literacy.” Filling the pail with something better is another story.

  3. Non-partisan Reading Method

    Here’s another term I’m proposing — non-partisan reading method.

    Seems that some political agenda is attached to either WL or SSP or all the other flavors — that teaching reading is “conditional” — dependent on committing to a mission of transmitting the status quo or a mission of liberating citizens for a new world order.

    This sidedness might go back to Dewey when he said that early reading and drill was a fetish and perversion (1898). Is he still acknowledged as the “father of progressive education”?

    In reading the foreword by Marilyn Jager Adams to a new edition of Chall’s book “The Academic Achievement Challenge” (2002) the political nature of the Reading Wars was pointedly referred to — these quotes (pg vi):

    “ . . .reviewing the research on phonics, Chall told me that if I wrote the truth, I would lose old friends and make new enemies. She warned me that I would never again be fully accepted by my academic colleagues . . . Sadly, however, as the evidence in favor of systematic, explicit phonics instruction for beginners increased, so too did the vehemence and nastiness of the backlash. The goal became one of discrediting not just the research, but the integrity and character of those who had conducted it. Chall was treated most shabbily . . . “

    For the sake of my grandchildren and future generations I wish there was a hopeful development to divorce the teaching of reading entirely from conditional political agendas.

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