As a teacher, I have always viewed the whole language philosophy to be most characteristic of the principles that frame my teaching and define my teaching space, whether that be an actual classroom, a makeshift multi-purpose shed beside the train tracks, a clearing under a tree. It is a set of beliefs around which swirl much controversy and many debates. It is largely misunderstood because it espouses progressive ideas that may seem unacceptable to many teachers, even in today’s modern context.
Whole language teachers are guided by instructional practices based on the recognition that “children learn most readily when they actively pursue their own learning.” They try to replicate natural acquisition of literacy and language by mimicking parental language teaching strategies. Whole language classrooms are characterized by action, where students are actively engaged in doing – reading, writing, discussing, and playing – instead of being taught directly and passively receiving information because whole language teachers know that students learn best by doing and using, and not by being told how. Teachers engage students in the subject matter and the learning process by presenting these as relevant to their lives, employing fun activities and games to teach, and using authentic texts for authentic reading and writing purposes. Social interaction is regarded as key in learning, and as such, whole language teachers facilitate productive learning interaction. Viewing students as “capable and developing, as opposed to incapable and deficient” communicates a positive regard of respect and confidence.
As a whole language teacher, I teach with the following principles as the rationale for the way I deal with my students and the way I conduct my classroom:
- To believe in the capability of each individual, her or his different intelligences and learning paces;
- To foster an emotionally-safe learning environment that encourages creative risk-taking;
- To manage a transactional classroom where everyone can learn from each other and where the teacher is a facilitator, not the all-powerful source of the only correct and acceptable knowledge;
- To view mistakes as an important part of learning;
- To give credit for “logical mistakes” (such as with idiosyncrasies of a language, where the student guessed based on an established grammar or spelling rule but was faced with an exception to the rule or a choice among a number of possibilities – “bring” and “brang”, for example, in the tradition of “ring” and “rang”) along with the distinction between the mistake and the correct answer;
- To develop activities using authentic texts in the context of authentic reading and writing contexts and purposes;
- To model problem-solving processes (or “think-aloud” protocols);
- To “seize teachable moments” and use targeted direct instruction within mini-lessons
- To value and affirm interests and expertises of the learner as contexts for relevance and springboards for motivation in learning;
- To provide opportunities for students to be experts and authorities;
- To spend much time engaged in actual reading, writing, discussing, and exploring of activities, concepts, and ideas – and not on direct teaching;
- To make learning relevant and fun;
- To celebrate differences in perspectives and opinions while promoting respect;
- To teach strategies towards the goal of rendering myself obsolete.
Whole language classrooms can be deceptive because the free-flowing nature of classroom activities and the relaxed spontaneity with which the teacher manages the class is often interpreted as a classroom with no planned lessons. I must point out that it is much easier for any teacher to lecture and do direct teaching all the time – that’s what transmission classrooms are all about. It requires much more planning to put into place activities that will get the learning across by doing in combination with focused direct teaching while ensuring that the learners are engaged and empowered. Making informed decisions in order to accomplish curricular objectives within a framework that espouses active participation, positive regard, and enjoyable learning is a challenging feat that is well worth all the conceptualizing, planning and research once the teacher steps into the classroom and feels the difference in the productive buzz and the eagerness with which students take charge of their own learning.
 Understanding Whole Language: From Principles to Practice by Constance Weaver (1990), p.22.
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