Students entering kindergarten with little knowledge of reading learned more in whole-language classrooms, according to a year-long study of kindergartens in Marin County, California. It compared the reading achievement of below-average students in whole-language classrooms with similar students in classes that emphasized a more traditional phonics-based program.
Researchers Colin H. Sacks, Diablo Valley College, and John R. Mergendoller, Buck Institute for Education, report that there is little research comparing these two approaches using standardized achievement measures and large numbers of students. Sacks and Mergendoller were interested in analyzing the interaction between the initial reading ability of the student and the effectiveness of these two approaches to reading instruction.
Students in 11 kindergartens were given the norm-referenced “Test of Early Reading Ability 2” (TERA2) at the beginning and end of the year to measure gains in reading skills. TERA2 was designed to include items thought important by whole-language advocates, but these researchers report that TERA2 correlates adequately with the Basic Skills Inventory-Diagnostic Reading Subtest. Students were identified as either above or below the mean for beginning reading skills on the basis of this test.
Each teacher completed a questionnaire assessing the reading, writing and language components of her curriculum. On the basis of this questionnaire, six of the 11 teachers were described as using traditional, phonics-based curricula while five had a whole-language orientation to reading instruction.
There were many similarities across the classes, however. Every classroom was child-centered to a significant degree, with considerable time allowed for free-choice activities. To compare the experiences of students in the different classrooms, trained observers watched randomly selected target students and noted classroom activities at 10-second intervals.
Literacy tasks differ in two approaches
Students in whole-language classrooms spent more time dictating stories, using invented spelling and reading printed matter other than books. Students in classrooms emphasizing phonics spent more time looking through books individually; twice as much time copying letters, words, and sentences; and five times as much time doing worksheets than students in whole-language classes.
Teachers oriented toward whole-language activities talked significantly more than phonics-oriented teachers (73 percent vs. 48 percent of the time). Whole-language teachers worked more often with the entire class and less frequently with small groups, while the opposite was true for teachers emphasizing phonics.
The classes also differed in the amount of task engagement — how much time students actively attended to tasks. In phonics classrooms, higher-scoring children were significantly more engaged than lower-scoring children, while in whole-language classes, lower-scoring and higher-scoring children were equally well engaged. Higher-scoring children talked more in whole-language classrooms.
Whole-language benefits below-average students
In this study, students with below-average skills made greater improvement in kindergartens emphasizing whole-language activities. This study agreed with previous research that showed writing experiences and use of invented spelling were most beneficial for young children with the least skill in spelling. It appears that the kinds of literacy activities available in whole-language classrooms were especially beneficial to lower-scoring students. The greater engagement of low-scoring students in whole-language classes was probably related to their increased achievement.
These researchers point out that the achievement of higher-scoring students was not hindered in whole-language classes. Students in these classrooms had access to a variety of literacy tasks and could choose higher-level tasks. The high level of verbal interaction among high achievers in whole-language classes also may have reinforced their literacy development.
Study limited to kindergarten
Two limitations of this study should be noted. First, only kindergarten students were included, and previous research has suggested that whole-language approaches are more effective in kindergarten than in first grade. Second, this study used a test of reading achievement to define students as “at-risk.” Using other definitions of “at-risk,” such as ethnicity, school location or socioeconomic status, may produce different results.
Despite these limitations, the researchers conclude that whole-language classes appear to offer lower-scoring kindergarten students the opportunity to engage more frequently in literacy tasks matched to their level of reading development, resulting in higher levels of engagement and greater achievement. These classes managed to do this without penalizing higher-achieving students, who achieved as much as higher-scoring students in phonics-oriented classrooms.
However, these results should not be interpreted as meaning that whole-language instruction is more appropriate for all children at all grade levels. These researchers suggest that focused attention on specific reading strategies including phonics may be necessary to support continued reading development during the primary years.
“The Relationship Between Teachers’ Theoretical Orientation Toward Reading and Student Outcomes in Kindergarten Children with Different Initial Reading Ability” American Educational Research Journal, Volume 34, Number 4, Winter 1997, pp. 721-739.
Published in ERN April 1998 Volume 11 Number 4