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Defining whole language in a postmodern age

Can whole language be ‘defined’ in the true sense of the word? Lorraine Wilson believes that while whole language can never be ‘defined’ in the sense suggested by the word’s Latin root (definire = to finish, finalise), certain core principles and assumptions can be made explicit. In this article she describes how a group of whole language advocates set about defining what whole language meant for them, and discusses the ten beliefs which emerged from this research.


In a paper in the Reading Research Quarterly entitled ‘The rhetoric of whole language‘, Moorman et al. (1994: pp. 310) complain that ‘no concise definition of whole language exists’. Whilst they may see that this is a problem, I don’t. The very nature of whole language is that there can’t be one, eternal, universal concise definition of it. There can, however, be some consensus about it. Whole language has been broadly defined as ‘a set of beliefs’ (Altwerger, Edelsky & Flores, 1987), ‘a point of view’ (Watson, 1989),’a philosophy’ (Clarke, 1987; Newman & Church,1990), or ‘a view of epistemology’ (Pearson, 1989). Cambourne more recently defined it as ‘an ideology’ (Cambourne, 1997). This raises the issue of whether ‘whole language’ can actually be ‘defined’ in the original sense of the word, i.e. ‘to finish/finalise’ (L. definire = to finish). The act of developing such a definition involves the construction of a knowledge system.

Scribner, DiBello, Kindred and Zazanis (1991) have argued that knowledge systems are socially created. Lemke (1990) has argued that learning the knowledge system of a discipline or profession entails a community developing a set of shared meanings (i.e. ‘a language’) for that discipline or profession. Thus, defining something called ‘whole language’ would entail a group of whole language educators reaching a sophisticated consensus of what they mean by ‘whole language’ through the reading, writing, talking and listening they do as members of such a community. This is what I set out to try to organise.

In this article I will describe how a community of whole language educators constructed a definition of whole language that was relevant for them and their purposes. The particular community of whole language educators comprised the membership of the TAWL (Teachers Applying Whole Language) Special Interest Group of ALEA.(1) Wanting to articulate its explicit beliefs about whole language, the group posed the following two research questions.

1 What are the explicit assumptions by which this TAWL community defines itself?

2 What implicit beliefs underly these assumptions?

In 1995 the membership was invited to submit, in writing, individual core beliefs and assumptions about whole language. The invitation was deliberately open-ended to encourage respondents to be as explicit as possible. Submissions were written by classroom teachers, university researchers, literacy consultants and school administrators, and thus can be considered reasonably representative of Australian whole language advocates. The responses were then analysed by a sub-committee of the group. The following beliefs emerged from this analysis.

Belief 1

Whole language is a dynamic, continually growing and evolving framework for thinking about language, learning, and literacy

This means that: Whole language is multi-theoretical in the sense that it continually draws upon and is informed by research from many areas including psycholinguistics, sociopsycholinguistics, systemic functional linguistics, cognitive psychology, child development, genre theory, critical theory, learning theory, classroom discourse, philosophy, epistemology, praxiology and ideology.

Belief 2

Whole language is meaning centred

This means that: The core of whole language is the construction of appropriate and sensible meaning. No one in the real world deliberately engages in speaking, reading or writing nonsense. We speak to mean. We write to mean. We listen to mean. We read to mean. Whole language is based on the belief that the teaching of language must occur in contexts that are meaningful for, and make sense to, every learner.

Belief 3

Whole language values the language, culture and lives of students to empower them to take control of their lives and be critical members of their society

This means that: Whole language teaching must start with the learners. Each child’s curriculum must start with that child, with his or her language, with her or his view of the world. It cannot start with fixed language outcomes and a fixed body of knowledge prescribed in a centrally determined syllabus, which assumes children of one age are identical. Consequently, the specific details of literacy programs will differ from school to school.

For example, at Geelong Rd Primary School, in Footscray, Melbourne, over 90 per cent of the children are of Asian origin, mainly Vietnamese. At this school, a Vietnamese teacher and Vietnamese teacher’s aide use traditional Vietnamese rhymes, songs and folk tales to provide the basis of the children’s early experiences with literacy.

On the other hand, children in other Australian schools may instead listen to Dreamtime stories in their first year of school. Such stories would not have the same meaning for children at Geelong Rd, Footscray, and vice-versa. Then again, the children of Moonee Ponds West Primary School are predominantly middle-class Anglo children. Neither the Dreamtime stories of the Aboriginal culture nor the Vietnamese rhymes and songs provide a bridge between preschool literacy and school literacy for these children in the way that popular picture storybooks do.

While whole language teachers value literacy as a medium for personal growth and development they are predominantly concerned with literacy for social equity. They view language as a cultural resource, and believe that access to power and equity in our culture is contingent upon control of many forms of language. They therefore aim to create classrooms which support learners in the acquisition of the skills and knowledge necessary for understanding the links between language and status and language and power.

Belief 4

We learn language, we learn through language and we learn about language simultaneously as we use it

This means that: Whole language teachers believe students are best able learn about language as a by-product of using it to meet their social and cognitive needs. It is the opposite of believing that we first of all need to be taught language, and then after we’ve been taught it, we can be taught about it.

Belief 5

Whole language views listening, speaking, reading and writing as integrated, not separate domains

This means that: Whole language teachers treat reading, writing, speaking and listening as parallel forms of the same thing, namely, language. They further believe that each of these forms of language can both `feed off’ and `feed into’ each other and that this `feeding’ is what increases each person’s total pool of language. Thus they understand the link between reading and writing and the way that reading nourishes writing, and vice versa. Whole language teaching builds upon the relationships between listening, speaking, reading and writing.

Belief 6

Whole language recognises that an individual learner’s knowledge is socially constructed through collaboration with others

This means that: Whole language teachers value co-operative learning as children share, ask questions, hypothesise, compromise, argue, report, draw conclusions, teach and much more. Whole language teachers value the negotiated understandings that develop as children talk and work together. They also acknowledge that each child is active in constructing meanings through interactions with others, and that because of different life experiences, each learner’s perceptions will vary. They encourage children to ask questions, offer interpretations, challenge other children’s beliefs, and follow hunches. Because of all this, many whole language teachers favour multi-age classes. Finally, whole language means that competition is not highly valued.

Belief 7

Whole language acknowledges and recognises the relationship between text, context, and linguistic choice

This means that: Whole language teachers understand that context changes according to the subject matter, the purpose and the audience for the communication. As the context changes so do the linguistic choices. Language is always used for a purpose and has an audience. Purpose and audience mutually shape the text, and thus determine the genre.

Belief 8

Whole language recognises that students are active participants in their learning

This means that: Whole language teachers view language learning as a form of hypothesis testing. Children form hypotheses about how language works. They try out these hypotheses while actually using language. With further experience they test and refine them, forming rules or generalisations. These personal hypotheses are refined according to the social conventions of the language community of which the individual is a member.

Belief 9

Whole language recognises that students learn the subsystems of language as they engage in whole language use. It is only while students are using language that the teacher can observe the students’ control of subsystems, the needs they may have, and plan the appropriate strategies

This means that: Whole language teachers understand that language is a series of sub-systems (phonemic, graphic, syntactic, semantic, pragmatic) which all interact together to create meaning simultaneously. They recognise that students best learn the sub-systems of language (e.g. phonics, syntax, punctuation) as they engage in whole language use. Furthermore they understand that `phonics’, i.e. the meaningful and explicit teaching of sound-letter patterns, is an integral part of whole language.

It also means that whole language teachers do not `sit back and let it happen’. A whole language classroom is not a laissez-faire environment. Every time a whole language teacher plans a demonstration she is intervening. Every time a whole language teacher responds to an individual child’s writing at conference time he is intervening. Every time a whole language teacher makes explicit the invisible processes of reading, writing, spelling, thinking, she is intervening. Every time a teacher demands that students clarify their intent, every time a teacher refocuses, redirects or modifies their learning, he is intervening.

Belief 10

Whole language recognises that teachers are professionals who are life-long learners

This means that: Whole language teachers are perpetual learners. They learn by observing students closely. They learn from each other. They learn by engaging in on-going professional development. Whole language teachers are therefore able to articulate and develop their beliefs, and make informed curriculum decisions which are responsive to the needs of the students they teach.


In the introduction to this article I alluded to the issue of whether `whole language’ can actually be `defined’ in the original sense of the word; i.e. `to finish/finalise’. I am convinced that while I have been able to describe (define) those beliefs common to a group of Australian whole language educators at this current time, this set of beliefs will not remain static. I would expect that as we learn more about language and learning, and as society changes, this same community will also change its beliefs, and thus its definition.


Altwerger, B., Edelsky, C. & Flores, B. (1987). Whole language: What’s new? The Reading Teacher, 41. pp. 144-54.

Cambourne, B. (1997 in press). Ideology and the teaching of phonics: An Australian perspective. To be published in A. Marek and C. Edelsky (eds), A Fetschrift for Kenneth Goodman. New York: Macmillan & Co.

Clarke, M. (1987). Don’t blame the system: Constraints on `whole language’ reform. Language Arts, 64. pp. 384-96.

Lemke, J. (1990). Talking Science. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Moorman, G., Blanton, W. & McLaughin, T. (1994). The rhetoric of whole language. Reading Research Quarterly, 29,4. pp. 308-29.

Newman, J. & Church, S. (1990). Myths of whole language. The Reading Teacher, 44. pp. 20-6.

Pearson, P. (1989). Reading the whole language movement. Elementary School Journal, 90. pp. 231-41.

Scribner, S., Dibello, L., Kindred, J. & Zazanis, E. (1991). Coordinating Two Knowledge Systems: A case study. New York: New York Laboratory for Cognitive Studies of Work, City University of New York.

Watson, D. (1989). Defining and describing whole language. The Elementary School Journal, 90. pp. 129-41.

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