The whole language approach in reading is a method of teaching that assumes kids don’t need to learn basic skills, that kids are able to “pick up” on reading and spelling just by watching someone else read. Proponents of the whole language approach view themselves as advocates of social justice. They say they put kids in touch with their innate knowledge. They claim there’s no need to teach systematic phonics, because kids already come programmed with the ability to read.
This method has been proven false by study after rigorous study. Yet, its infectious philosophy is still prevalent in schools. The whole language approach, and the also horrendous “balanced-literacy approach” has failed many English-speaking kids worldwide.
The problem is so pervasive, whole language victims reside in both poor and affluent school districts.
So today, let’s imagine whole language swimming lessons. Perhaps it’ll help highlight the absurdity of the whole language approach.
Whole language swim lessons
The 5 and 6 year old students are lined up next to the swimming pool. They feel the warm breeze. They’re excited to learn how to swim. They’ve seen their older friends playing in swimming pools, splashing each other, doing handstands, playing mermaids or pirates or games like “Marco Polo.” They know swimming is magical.
The swim coach walks in. He’s wearing his swim trunks and a jolly smile. First, he tells all the moms and dads to relax. “Swimming is so natural,” he utters.
Whole language swim coach assumes kids already know how to swim
“Students,” he says with confidence. “There is no need to learn any technique. When you jump in the water, feel the current, the coldness, the gentle sway of your body. Then, do what feels natural. You’re body already knows how to swim! After all, you were in a womb once? What do you think you did there? You swam of course. You were immersed in amniotic fluid. In sum, you have prior knowledge and you can already swim.”
“Instructor!” yells a mom. “Umm, my son might not be able to use that prior knowledge. You know, because he was attached to the umbilical cord and didn’t need to worry about staying afloat and all.”
“Nonsense! Class, what do you think it feels like to be in the water?”
“It splashes!” says Tim.
“I feel wet,” says Manpreet.
“I get to bring toys inside so it’s fun!” says Gabby
“And I slide around,” yells Daniel.
“See?” says the instructor. “They already know a lot. They’re doing great. Maybe you should wait a bit longer before you speak up.”
The mom glares at the instructor, silently thinking that the kids knew all that from bath time.
Whole language swim coach does not teach strokes
“Students, there’s no need to practice swim strokes. The butterfly, the backstroke, freestyle…these are all parts of a whole. The parts are meaningless. They are but little pieces of big movements. If you focus on a little movement, you miss the invigorating experience of swimming. You don’t get to imagine yourself as a bedazzled mermaid or an illustrious pirate. Instead, the focus on one particular stroke turns you into someone that can’t have fun in the water! What a travesty.”
“Hmmm…but I learned the different strokes,” says a dad. “And, um, I have lots of fun in the water!”
“Well maybe you could’ve had more fun,” says the instructor.
No drills either
“We will not do any drills. They have no relevance to you. Instead, let’s pick something you already know, like walking. Everyone! Walk around the pool. You already know how to walk, and if you walk around a pool, this makes you more interested in swimming. One of my students, David walked around a pool, and became so interested in swimming that he turned, dove gracefully into the pool and swam like a sleek dolphin. It was amazing. Case studies are everything. Kids: walk around the pool so you can be like David.”
Whole language swim coach doesn’t correct students
“And smell. That’s something you already know too. Kids, what does water smell like?”
“Like nothing!” yells Harry.
“Yes, sometimes it does smell like nothing. Keen observation Harry. Now let’s use this smell, this nothingness, to embrace the water, it’s properties and our own natural abilities to stay afloat. Now, what is water?”
“It’s jello!” yells Carrie.
“Yes. The student is always right. Kids, if I say you are wrong, you will begin to question your own abilities. Since you’ll be so full of doubt, you won’t ever be that bedazzled mermaid we talked about earlier. You come with the ability to swim. Thus, you are not empty vessels. You are cups overflowing at the brim, full of so much knowledge that if you were to jump in this pool right now, you’d swim just fine.”
“Um…excuse me!” hollers one worried mom. “I don’t think Carrie knows how to swim. That’s why were here…so you can teach her.”
Whole language swim coach assumes kids will “catch on” to swimming
“Carrie is doing fine,” carps the instructor. “She’s progressing well. Just wait, very soon she’ll be swimming and you’ll wonder why you ever worried.”
“If you’re not teaching strokes and doing drills, what are you doing exactly?” asks a dad that had a fear of the water because he almost drowned at age 5.
“I’m teaching them a philosophy,” says the instructor with an air of importance. “I’m teaching them how to forget about all the little movements and blossom their limbs into the most beautiful, radiant flower. They’ll become rainbows and hearts and sun rays in the water. They’ll use so much of their inborn knowledge, their collarbones will shine, their legs will sprout glossy scales, their lungs will turn into gills, and they’ll pummel through the water like free whales. Then, they’ll sprinkle social justice everywhere they go.”
“We have not done drills, strokes or practice sessions and… Oh look, here’s David.”
The case study David arrives. He does a few laps so the kids can observe his excellent swimming.
“He’s showing you how it’s done. Look at him. Observe,” says the instructor.
“Ready kids!” shouts the instructor. “When I say jump, turn at once, and with confidence, harness all your inner knowledge, and leap into the water.”
“JUMP!!!” hollers the instructor.
And all at once, the kids jump into the pool.