The teacher’s role in whole-language classrooms

iStock_000018120666XSmallCritics of the whole language movement contend that it fosters a laissez-faire, do-your-own-thing attitude in the classroom and that it lacks clear instructional objectives and standards. Dennis Sumara, a junior high teacher, and Laurie Walker, associate professor at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, concede that the flexibility of the whole-language model, together with imprecise language, has led to misinformation and misinterpretation of the principles of whole language.

Sumara and Walker state that effective whole language teaching is based on deliberate planning designed to lead children to improve their language skills, including traditional skills, such as understanding phonics and using conventional spelling. In an effort to develop more precise professional language and to clarify how whole language principles translate into effective teaching, Sumara and Walker observed and interpreted the practice of two successful whole-language teachers.

Successful whole-language classrooms

Both teachers, working in a small city in southwestern Alberta, were identified as successful whole language teachers by their peers, school administrators, and university faculty. The first teacher with 17 years’ experience, currently teaches a third grade class of 24 children in a largely middle-class, English-speaking suburb. Her school encourages holistic teaching and all instruction is organized around theme units.

The second teacher teaches a fourth-grade class of 34 students with diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. Fourteen of these students are recent immigrants from Southeast Asia and South America. This teacher reports that her whole-language approach has evolved over nine years of teaching. Whole-language principles, she states, coincide with conclusions about language learning that she reached following her experience as an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher and as a librarian. Her school has no policy about whole language teaching.

Each classroom was observed for 60 to 70 hours during one semester. All the records (notes, videotapes and transcripts) of these observations were shared with the teachers, who provided further clarification, correction and information about the activities. Interviews and samples of materials were gathered during these meetings with the teachers. The records and materials were analyzed to determine the existence of common patterns in successful whole language teaching.

Distinct parallels were apparent, particularly in the role each teacher played in creating an effective whole language learning environment. Sumara and Walker attempted to describe how, in their daily teaching, these teachers created such conditions of the whole language model as empowerment, control, predictability and authenticity. Both teachers demonstrated a method for enacting a whole language curriculum within a teacher-controlled environment.

Fundamental to the methods of both teachers is the whole language principle of child-centeredness which requires that teachers affirm and validate children and their ideas. Both teachers clearly defined and modeled for their students a social structure that allowed natural language to occur throughout the school day. They modeled listening and collaborative behavior, for example, by holding conversations with colleagues in the classroom, rather than in the hallway.

These teachers also explained to the children their out-of-class planning for instructional activities – why they chose particular books, developed a certain theme or required a particular assignment. Both stated that this kind of democratic socialization was key to the success of their program.

However, both teachers also exerted the necessary authority to ensure effective learning. They spent the first week or two of school training students in routines and procedures which they felt to be necessary for an efficient learning environment: how to move quickly from one activity to another, how to handle materials, how to keep records of their performance. They used direct, explicit explanations of expected behavior as well as demonstrations and modeling of values and expectations. Such rules taught directly at the beginning of the school year seemed to be internalized by the students so that classroom routines flowed smoothly.

This authoritative administrative role was separate, however, from the role each teacher played in the students’ learning. Once the expectations and necessary conditions were in place, the teachers demonstrated the more tentative role of learner. The teacher participated with the students in learning tasks, but did not tell them what to do. When the children asked for help, the teacher did not solve problems for them.

Instead, she offered encouragement and asked questions that enabled them to look at their problem in a new way, leading them to a new approach. Her questions also helped students evaluate their own products. Sumara and Walker believe that both teachers were effective in these dual roles because they were able to precisely define the kinds of rules, structures, expectations and values that are essential for whole language instruction.

Control of choices

Whole-language literature stipulates that students control or “own” their learning by making choices about their work. The teachers in this study demonstrated a specific method for allowing student choice while functioning within a teacher-controlled environment. Both teachers controlled learning by limiting the choices of language activities to those that would develop critical language skills. These teachers carefully controlled the content, sequence and structure of student time, yet both made certain that students had choice and flexibility within the established curriculum.

Students had little choice of the kinds of tasks or when they did them, yet it was evident from observations and student interviews that they did have considerable choice over how, with whom and where they would work. In a unit on pioneers, for example, students chose which books they would read and decided where in the room they would work, as well as whether they would read alone or with friends. They planned, rehearsed and carried out presentations with little help from the teacher.

The success of the whole language curriculum in these classes appeared due, in large part, to the structured environment created by these teachers. But, within this environment, the assignments themselves were actually much less structured than most traditional elementary school assignments. Despite this, students felt comfortable attempting them because they could discuss them with peers and work together in groups.

For example, the fourth grade teacher of the culturally diverse class was concerned that her classroom environment was equitable and comfortable for all students. To create an environment that would promote friendship, collaboration and language development, she carefully arranged the students in groups of four based on different language abilities, personalities and cultural background.

She says that she has learned to rely on children’s intense desire to communicate with their peers to facilitate their learning. (ESL students, she relates, are encouraged during reading and writing tasks to have the English-speaking students help them by correcting spelling, translating the text and re-explaining directions). This carefully structured, predictable and, therefore, safe atmosphere, enabled all students to be involved and engaged in learning.


The whole language model calls for “authenticity”, a term which refers to the quality of student engagement in language activities. Whole language tasks should involve genuine communication of important ideas, not simply practice of communication skills to be put to some later use. For example, an “authentic” task might consist of writing a report for presentation rather than practicing parts of speech or sentence structure.

These teachers increased student involvement in learning by modeling it themselves. Each teacher was able to bring a sincere interest to the learning activities she planned for her students because she used topics or materials which she enjoyed and knew about. Each believed that to effectively model authentic engagement in learning, it is important to exhibit a personal interest in the activity. Both teachers spent significant amounts of time sharing their own learning experiences with students.

The success of these teachers can be attributed to the clearly defined roles they created for themselves. Both teachers hold that empowerment begins by establishing the kind of organizational and social structures which facilitate student engagement in whole language learning tasks. By controlling the environment, as well as the learning activities available to students, these teachers ensured that the tasks students chose would enhance their learning. Within these parameters, learning activities were loosely structured to allow students a sense of personal autonomy.

Acknowledging the limits of this study, Sumara and Walker do not make generalizations from the examples of just two teachers. However, they believe that observation of successful practitioners helps other educators translate theory into practical knowledge.

“The Teacher’s Role in Whole Language” Language Arts Volume 68 pp. 276-85.

Published in ERN November/December 1991 Volume 4 Number 5

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