Print this document
Estimated: 4 pages
Workbooks vs. Direct Instruction
Which builds stronger Language Arts skills?
by Myrna McCulloch
Will Teachers Spend Their Time Dispensing Consumable Worksheets or Imparting Skills
Through Direct Instruction? The Continuing debate asks just how explicit phonics,
correct spelling, and quality literature or composition-based programs fit into
the time frame teachers are given to solve the literacy problem.
In December, 1996, the California Board of Education adopted an array of phonics
and spelling workbooks offered by the giant "whole language" publishers. Two phonics-oriented
methods and two "purist" whole language methods were thrown out. We, and other publishers
who don't happen to have $25 million in slick, multi-colored "readers," of course,
were excluded from the competition altogether.
Meanwhile, across town, in 1996, the California Legislature enacted legislation
demanding and heavily funding the teaching of "explicit" phonics (cannot be taught
from worksheets), phonemic awareness and correct spelling (difficult to teach from
memorized lists to the non-visual learner) to be used with "decodable" texts (literature).
Because of higher interest levels and an expanded vocabulary, whole language literature
isn't usually "decodable" through incidental phonics taught from worksheets. The
plot certainly thickens, but the primary questions, it seems to us, have yet to
be addressed to satisfy the legislature, the state board, or the California Reading
Task Force which labored mightily for one year and then demanded explicit phonics
and correct spelling with whole language along with a strong recommendation
to use one-half of the instructional day (grades 1 - 3) for nothing but language
arts instruction. This report was completed just prior to the onset of the year-long
It would appear that the State Department did nothing significant to bring the bid
invitation into compliance with either the law or the wishes of the Task Force.
Otherwise, how could the situation have ended in such dichotomous disarray? All
of which brings me to our point of discussion -- what techniques are best used for
"skills" instruction, and how can we save enough time to do it correctly? How does
all this fit with whole language programs which the national press has oddly, but
widely reported as being "thrown out" altogether in California?
Many teachers in both public and private schools now believe that whole language
programs and philosophies are both dangerous and inadequate! Period! End of discussion.
No doubt this is the result of much adverse, and mostly well-deserved, criticism
of these popularly-used language arts programs which are not producing desired results
with all students. California's fourth graders came up lowest in the nation in the
NAEP assessments which triggered the investigative Task Force. We could end the
debate, but there are two growing and important dimensions of whole language that
I have not seen discussed.
I'd like to offer a fresh look and provide some further insights on teaching basic
language skills with literature and composition-based "whole" language arts programs,
(this could include the Core Knowledge Foundation's literature by the way) and the
time and attention this combination deserves in primary-level classrooms.
First, let me assure everyone that I am in complete agreement with objections to
one particular whole language program entitled, Impressions by Holt, Rinehart, and
Winston. I believe their literature and student activity books have little redeeming
literary value, plus they are dangerous in their heavy emphasis on violence, the
occult, witchcraft, and just plain ugliness. I believe they are now in great disfavor
across the country so this may be a moot point now. That is one question, one answer
and one whole language program! There are others which do have acceptable, if not
perfect, literature which brings us to the question of the method of instruction
and time allotments for teaching language arts skills.
Beginning students have spoken vocabularies ranging from 4,000 to 24,000 words.
The large, secular publishing houses which previously confined their efforts to
the "basal" programs (hard cover readers with many consumable workbooks) have been
producing whole language programs for about ten years. They had hoped to teach "integrated"
language skills through early creative writing and exposure to vocabulary-rich literature
designed to accommodate their students' speaking, listening and "interest" vocabularies.
Remember, I said, "hoped."
The beginning child has a spoken, comprehensible vocabulary ranging from 4,000 to
24,000 words according to experts Chall, Flesch, and Seashore; their interest levels
are keen, and, for many, the entire world is in their living rooms via television.
Basal/workbook programs which taught about 375 mostly sight-memorized words in grade
one and used them, with necessary repetition, in Dick and Jane-type "literature,"
did not capture the attention of such children. Using worksheets, basal programs
did teach about one-fourth of the known phonetic system over a 3- to 4-year period
of time -- just enough to convince both parents and teachers that they were
teaching phonics. Using worksheets with whole language literature will
accomplish the same. It is too little, too late, too inefficient, discriminates
against the non-visual learner, and it takes what little precious time teachers
have for teaching or children for learning. Phonics by definition is first auditory
as is training in phonemic awareness. Children and teachers must articulate the
sounds together, first, in isolation; that means NOT with key words or pictures.
Sounds go with symbols or the letters which stand for the sounds on paper. The English
alphabet is a sound/symbol system. It is not a pictographic system! That is not
merely my opinion; that is a fact! Phonics presented on worksheets is a visual
drill usually employing both key words and pictures. It represents implicit
phonics, not explicit phonics as the compiled research and California law
now demand. How phonics is taught is probably more important than what
phonics is taught, however, if we are concerned with correct spelling (and the legislature
and California Task Force were/are) then the phonetic organization becomes much
more important. What was linguistically correct for spelling and pronunciation
70 and 80 years ago is still linguistically correct for spelling in spite of our
Americanized speech patterns now legitimatized by nearly all dictionaries, i.e.,
the schwa was put into American dictionaries, generally, in the 1960's. It allows
us to pronounce "uh" for the vowels a, e, i, and o in unstressed syllables.
The problem is that doesn't help children learn how to spell the words as they,
at one time, were also pronounced.
So, what sound/symbol relationships need to be taught? When should we teach them?
How should we teach them? The questions, after some 60 years of heated, though undefined
debate, are anything but resolved.
Until recently, most whole language authors admitted that they left phonics instruction
out (except occasionally) claiming that children would learn to read and write (spelling
is taught by whole-word memorization or "invention") by simply being "immersed in"
or exposed to print. Apparently they know little of the neurological aspects of
teaching reading, and of developing adequate auditory, verbal, visual, and motor
cognitive skills. There is no known compiled research to support their theory, but
it is based on the idea that if children learned to speak by being spoken to, they
will learn print skills the same way. About fifteen per cent -- the visually gifted
-- probably will. These children can almost do without a teacher; most could be
put in a closet with a phone book and they would learn to read. And, strangely,
this does not necessarily mean that they are more intelligent than those for whom
remedial classes will likely triple in need, if not in reality.
All of which brings me to my point of digression from other whole language critics.
In spite of the obvious "holes" in whole language programs, dismissing the potential
advantages this movement has offered is to ignore the opening reading reformers
and explicit phonics, and direct instructional advocates have been seeking for the
past 70 years.
Time is the key word. What use teachers make of it is the question.
If we can agree that the end goals of whole language programs (successfully integrating
all of the language strands and using them "across the curriculum"), are desirable
goals, can we seriously believe they will be realized by returning to or staying
with a system which requires completion of 8 to 10 work sheets a day? Will simple
phonics alone do it? With or without work sheets? If texts are to be "decodable"
(we're not against that), we must ask, "Decodable to what phonics standard?" Which
philosophy best frees the teacher to use class time for research-validated "direct
instruction" which imparts knowledge through Socratic questioning, engages students
in give-and-take questions and answers, illustrates concepts, demands reasoning
and analysis, the independent use of reference materials, and assigns and supervises
varieties of practice for mastery, etc.?
If we like these teaching strategies, along with whatever is chosen for literature,
how can we find the time for it in this period of increased curricular demands?
If we believe students need basic skills -- phonetics, correct spelling, and legible
handwriting -- to enable virtually all of them to achieve "whole" and integrated
language arts capabilities, how can we best teach them? These skills can
only be taught through direct instruction or with work sheets. There isn't time
Teachers should not be turned into glorified stockroom clerks who spend their days
passing out papers, picking up papers, grading papers, and sending the rest home
to Mom. This consumable "paper blizzard" system was designed for one thing -- to
benefit big publishers. We've all been hearing about our student's deficiencies
in phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness must be taught by both students and teachers
articulating the sounds of the letters and the sounds of the combinations of letters
which are the spelling patterns of English. The accompanying "graphemic awareness,"
constituting almost two-thirds of the phonics equation, cannot be dismissed by an
over emphasis on just the phonemes. Dr. Linnea Ehri of CUNY
tends to agree. If BOTH the sound/s and the symbol/s are not taught, it naturally
follows that deficiencies will exist as surely as people who are nutritionally deficient
will experience a myriad of physical health problems. The human mind needs adequate
information and processing skills to function properly.
Skills must be taught through direct instruction or work sheets.
Teachers want to teach and they deserve the opportunity to do so. Quality,
uninterrupted time is absolutely essential to teach acute listening skills (with
phonemic and graphemic awareness), precise speech, legible handwriting,
and complete phonetics for correct spelling with the 47 rules of English orthography.
The revised 71 Orton phonograms shown here cover the commonly-used correct English
spelling patterns to encode the average fourth grade oral vocabulary and interest
a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k, l, m, n, o, p, qu, r, s, t, u, v, w, x, y,
z, er, ir, ur, wor, ear, sh, th, ee, ay/ai, ow/ou, oy/oi, aw/au, ew/eu, ey/ei, ui,
oo, ch, ng, ea, ar, ck, ed, or, wh, oa, ie, igh, eigh, wr, ph, dge, oe, kn, gn,
tch, ti, si, ci, ough
Children can then master and enjoy the expanded vocabulary of interesting literature
or other course work which entertains and educates, and in which all text will be
"decodable." Long words are but short syllables, made of even shorter phonograms
representing the 42 elementary English speech sounds. They can and will write easily
and creatively (about yesterday's science project??) because they now have the requisite
tools. Writing clarifies their own thinking. Analyzing the structure of sentences
in the students' creative composition is a very efficient way to learn grammar,
syntax, and analytical thinking. Comprehension "happens" because such children analyze,
think, deduce, and create as they move through these integrated steps to mastery
of their language. Once decoding is automatic, the mind "frees" for full comprehension.
There is no possibility for full comprehension when the student still struggles
with the automatic identity of each word.
Teaching all of the "strands" of the language arts (listening, speaking, penmanship,
spelling, composition, reading, comprehension, vocabulary, grammar, and thinking),
and their companion auditory, verbal, visual, and motor cognitive sub-skills (these
are accepted whole language goals), takes organization, skills, knowledge, and the
Direct instructional time permits the use of multi-sensory teaching techniques which
address every "learning style" without discrimination. Both basal/workbook and literature
and composition-based programs alone, as they are written, teach primarily to the
visually-oriented learner (only about 70%), and this one-pronged approach has been
going on for about seventy years. Auditory or kinesthetic learners , who sometimes
have even higher intelligence than visual learners, may learn better by listening,
verbalizing, and writing. We must stop discriminating against these learners for
they can fail completely with basal, or whole language programs as they are written.
Even those who can learn to read to a degree, often do not write, spell, or think.
Millions fall into this category of semi-literacy.
"Invented" spelling, (ITA revisited?) has always gotten, and still gets, dismal
long-term results because it programs the young mind with the wrong information
(see Kid's Brainpower article) which is not easily
erased. Many of these students are having great difficulty and some drop out of
school labeled as "functionally" illiterate. The fortunate few who do learn still
must live in a nation with citizens who can't read well enough to function in our
technological society, and thus, they must bear the high cost of residence in a
country less and less able to compete in the world marketplace due to an illiterate
workforce. According to the 1994 National Education Goals Report, we now have 90
million such adults in the two lowest reading categories which, by many estimates,
qualifies them as "functionally illiterate."
There are several steps involved in the creation of a highly literate population
which could move U.S. students to top place in international competitions. First
we must come to a recognition that language ability is a prerequisite for almost
all other learning of significance. Language arts instruction should take precedence
over all other disciplines in the early grades. As we have said, and to their great
credit, the California Reading Task Force recommended that one-half of the instructional
day, first through third grade, be spent on language arts. Bravo!! That alone, in
this writer's opinion, would bring test scores up about 25 percentile points. To
accomplish this, we must come to the realization that teaching about the hole in
the ozone layer could conceivably wait until fourth grade. We must find
a way to compromise our differing philosophies to bring our population to high English
literacy, and then, for all other disciplines, we must:
- Examine and set appropriate goals and standards (what are children learning in our
very best schools? What could they learn with better methods and better teacher
- Place very high expectations on all students
- Use research-validated teaching strategies and proven step-by-step instructional
All with proper time management.
I submit that the concept of whole language programs has created the first
real opportunity teachers have had to actually spend their time teaching since the
insipid Dick and Jane readers, complete with workbooks, were introduced in
the early 1930's. Though whole language authors have departed from validated methodologies
in the "guessing" and "discovery" strategies they use, their stated "end goals"
are neither incorrect nor undesirable. Teachers and schools are just beginning to
realize the golden possibilities. A few are now seeking the supplementary materials
and direct instructional training they need to fill in the gaps. They are going
to private sector alternatives because the colleges of education are refusing to
teach methodologies validated by the research. Meanwhile, teachers who are trained
in the techniques of direct instruction would rarely opt to go back to the basal/workbook
system or implement a simple, phonics-only program. True literacy
is more than the mere ability to read; one should be able to write, spell, to express
himself/herself orally, and in writing, and to think. Since we are not naive enough
to believe that the large publishing houses will disappear any time in the near
future, we need to take full advantage of the obvious - this new opportunity to
show them how to achieve the desirable language skills our students must have.
50 years ago, science, history and geography were not taught until grade four.
Time management, a critical factor for all schools of whatever size, at one time,
wasn't the very serious problem it is today. Although this is another subject for
another time, interestingly, about 50 years ago, many schools did not even teach
science, social studies, health, etc., at all until grade four. Think about it!
This was not to neglect these subjects, but rather to allow the serious time-on-task
needed to teach the basic tools of learning (language arts) which then enabled students
to independently pursue these, and any other areas of interest in their proper time
frame. Somehow, probably through lobbying by the publishing world, we let that thought
slip into oblivion and have been searching for answers ever since.
Myrna McCulloch is the founder of The Riggs Institute, a nonprofit literacy corporation
21106 479th Ave., White, South Dakota 57276
Phone (605) 693-4454
Fax (605) 693-5191
You may copy, publish, or distribute this article with proper credits given.