CM Archive
CM Archive feature Story line
Where Do I Start?

Whole Language in Theory and Practice

by Gail Lennon

Volume 20 Number 3
1992 May

Gail Lennon initiates us into the mysteries-- and advantages--of whole language with practical suggestions and a selected bibliography of professional reading and recommended Canadian fiction and picture-books.

Language learning is easy when it's whole, real and relevant; when it makes sense and is functional; when it's encountered in the context of its use; when the learner chooses to use it. Language is both personal and social. It's driven from inside by the need to communicate and shaped from outside by the norms of society. Kids are so adept at language learning that they can profit from any instructional system that nurtures their natural curiosity about reading and writing.

Language is learned as pupils learn through language and about language, all simultaneously in the context of authentic speech and literacy events. There is no sequence of skills in language development. Teaching kids about language will not facilitate their use of language. The notion that "first you learn to read and then you read to learn" is wrong. Both happen at the same time and support one another.

Language development is empowering: the learner "owns" the process, makes the decisions about when to use it, what for and with what results. Literacy is empowering, too, if the learner is in control of what's done with it!

Acquiring language is learning how to mean: how to make sense of the world in the context of how our parents, families, and cultures make sense of it. Cognitive and linguistic development are completely interdependent: thought depends on language and language depends on thought.

Three language systems interact in written language: graphophonetic (sound and letter patterns), syntactic (sentence patterns), and semantic (meaning). Ideally, these should not be taught in isolation but, rather, as three inter-related parts of a whole, interconnected language system.

Readers construct meaning during reading. They use their prior learning and experiences to make sense of the text. Readers predict, select, confirm, and self-correct as they seek to make sense of print. Effective reading makes sense. Efficient reading does it with a minimum of effort and output. Writers include enough information and detail so that what they write will be comprehensible to their readers. To be effective, writing should make sense to both the writer and his readers.

Comprehension of meaning is always the goal of readers; expression of meaning is always the goal of writers. Writers and readers are strongly limited by what they already know--writers in composing and readers in comprehending.

What is whole language?

Whole language is language kept whole: reading, writing, listening, speaking, viewing and presenting in every topic. Whole language is child-centred language geared to meet individual interests and needs. Whole language is literature-based, high-impact reading materials read to and by children. Whole language is context rich. Specific reading skills are taught within the context of rewarding material. Whole language is writing rich. Children are encouraged to write. This writing helps establish links between the three cueing systems for reading and enables children to practise being authors.

Whole language is talk focused. Children need to talk to facilitate thinking, reading and writing. Whole language is activity based. Children learn best when they are actively involved in structuring their own learning. The opportunity to play with language, materials and with one another is important.

Where do I start?

Create a literate environment in your classroom. Include materials that stimulate the development of language: books, magazines, newspapers, signs, posters, logos, labels, mailboxes, a writing centre, a listening centre, classroom library, book clubs. Encourage activities that emphasize the connection between a reader's experience and written language. Provide opportunities for stories that evolve from children's interests and activities. It is important in such activities to use the natural language of the children. No attempt should be made to limit or control their vocabulary. Have them write chart stories, letters, journals, playscripts.

Encourage shared reading experiences. Through shared reading experiences, children begin to understand how print and meaning are related. Initially, the teacher reads the story while the children listen, but, as children become more adept at the reading process, students share favourite books, authors, their own writings, choral technique, and other participatory activities. Materials for shared reading should include big books, multiple copies of children's books, and book/cassettes either created by the students or commercially produced.

Make use of "predictable materials," text with repetitive language patterns. The selections should be read many times and should be made available for independent re-reading and listening while reading along. Predictable materials include songs, nursery rhymes, poems, classical literature, contemporary children's literature, rap.

Read to your students. Stories read to one another and shared by adults, volunteers, older students, and classmates cannot be replaced. The more frequently they are read in a school day the better! Such experiences increase a student's familiarity with books and will increase his or her interest in print. Frequent story reading also builds a fund of stories from which children can draw ideas for writing.

Each day, some time should be set aside for independent reading. Whatever you call it--SQUIRT (Super Quiet Uninterrupted Individual Reading Time), DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) or USSR (Uninterrupted Sustained Silent Reading)--it's an invaluable tool at any grade level. Students should be given some choice of what they read. Classroom libraries, school libraries, book clubs and personal libraries are all excellent sources.

Children should have many opportunities to engage in writing. Keeping personal diaries and journals, publishing books and participating at a writing centre should all be integral parts of the classroom program. The writing folder should be a working tool for the student writer.

A listening centre should be a permanent fixture in any classroom. Stories on audiocassette and videocassette and personal cassettes for individual reading logs, as well as commercially produced and student-produced books and cassette combinations, are a valuable part of this centre. In addition to "big books," tape recorder and headphones, a listening centre with multiple copies of books and headphones are all useful.

Choral speaking should be an integral part of whole language learning. Selections for use with this strategy should include poetry, pattern books, predictable prose selections, jingles, songs, rap and student-created works. Through the wider application of choral speaking, students become actively involved with language as they are introduced to rhythm, syntax, rhyme and expression.

How do I evaluate my students' progress?

Set up learning profiles for each student made up of your observations of each student's learning preferences. Look at the students' writing samples. Children try to show you all they know how to do when they write. Set up a meeting with each student to develop a list of skills demonstrated by the writing samples. Make two copies of the checklist--one for your files and one for the child's writing folder.

For spelling, check to see what cueing systems are being used. What kind of errors are being made? How do the students react when they are unsure how to spell a word? Is there a demonstrated knowledge of spelling conventions? What patterns can be found in the misspellings? Ask the students which words they think they spelled correctly, which ones they weren't sure about, why they decided on a particular spelling, how else they might have tried to spell a given word. If a word is spelled incorrectly, ask them how they could find the correct spelling. Keep anecdotal records, notes that give you insight into the students' interests, their thinking and their competencies. Notice reader behaviours. Who never seems to finish a book? Who chooses to read only one particular kind of book? Who is so concerned with neatness, correct spelling, and writing conventions that he is virtually unable to get his thoughts onto paper? Who stops reading at each word she doesn't know to ask or look it up?

Learn to recognize subtleties. Who writes only narrative? Who seems to focus on topics related to television? Who becomes frustrated when given the opportunity to express feelings? Keep log books of your conferences with the students and note the books each one reads and their behaviour (discusses openly, wants to publish, is still working on grandfather story). Date the children's writing samples. Keep self-evaluation records--reading logs, learning logs, formal tests, writing logs, miscue analyses, projects.

Do it now!

For whole language to work, there must be an attitude that treats learners at any age as active participants in their own learning. We must believe that they can learn and want to learn. We must incorporate an approach that invites them to make decisions and to work on activities that interest them, and at their own pace. If we do this we will help to nurture life-long learners.

Parents, teachers, siblings and classmates are travelling companions on this life-long voyage, as they talk, read, write, dramatize, and dance together. Everyone encourages fellow travellers. Successes, however small, are rejoiced in. A feeling of mutual respect permeates the learning environment as everyone learns from and teaches others. I

n a learning community like this, everyone soon becomes comfortable with his or her mistakes. Everyone recognizes that taking risks, ongoing evaluation, more mistakes and new attempts are the stuff of learning. Throughout this learning process, each learner must make his or her individual trip. However, the teacher stands by to facilitate, offer guidance and applaud successes. Through careful planning and commitment to success each learner will blossom.

Every expedition begins with the first step. The most important attitude in making whole language work is yours.

LANGUAGE LEARNING is easy when ...
it's real and natural
it's whole
it's sensible
it's interesting
it's relevant
it belongs to the learner
it's part of a real event
it has social utility
it has purpose for the learner
the learner chooses to learn
it's accessible to the learner
the learner has the power to use it

is hard when ...
it's artificial
it's broken into pieces
it's nonsense
it's dull and uninteresting
it's irrelevant to learning
it belongs to somebody else
it's out of context
it has no social value
it has no discernible aim
it is imposed on the child
it's inaccessible the learner is powerless


Professional Reading

Goodman, K. What's Whole in Whole Language? Scholastic, 1986.

Goswami D. and Stillman, P. (eds.). Reclaiming the Classroom: Teacher Research as an Agency for Change. Irwin,1983.

Graves, Donald. Writing: Teachers and Children at Work. Irwin, 1983.

Jobe, R. and P. Hart. Canadian Connections: Experiencing Literature with Children Pembroke Publishing, 1991.

McConaghy, J. Children Learning through Literature. Irwin, 1990.

Milne, A.A. The End in And Now We Are Six. McClelland & Stewart 1962.

Newman, Judith. The Craft of Children's Writing. Irwin, 1984.

Newman, J. Whole Language: Theory in Use. Irwin, 1985.

van Manen, M. The Tone of Teaching. Irwin, 1986.

Wells, Gordon. The Meaning Maken: Children Learning Language and Using Language to Learn. Irwin, 1986.

Picture-books and Poetry

Alderson, Sue Ann. Bonnie McSmithers (You're Driving Me Dithers). Illustrated by Fiona Garrick. Tree Frog Press, 1974.

Alderson, Sue Ann. Ida and the Wool Smugglers. Groundwood/ Douglas & McIntyre, 1987.

Andrews, Jan. The Very Last First Time. Illustrated by Ian Wallace. Groundwood/Douglas & McIntyre, 1985.

Bianchi John. Swine Snafu. Bungalo Books, 1988.

Blades, Ann. By the Sea: An Alphabet Book. Kids Can Press, 1985.

Blades, Ann. A Boy of TachÉ; Tundra Books, 1984 (1973).

Blades,Ann. Mary of Mile 18. Tundra Books, 1971.

Booth, David (ed.). Til All the Stars Have Fallen. Illustrated by Kady MacDonald Denton. Kids Can Press, 1989.

Booth, David (ed.). Voices on the Wind. Illustrated by MichÉle Lemieux. Kids Can Press, 1990.

Bourgeois, Paulette. Big Sarah's Little Boots. Illustrated by Brenda Clark. Kids Can Press, 1987.

Bourgeois, Paulette. Franklin in the Dark. Illustrated by Brenda Clark. Kids Can Press, 1986.

Bourgeois, Paulette. Grandma's Secret. Illustrated by Maryann Kovalski. Kids Can Press, 1989.

Carrier, Roch. The Hockey Sweater. Illustrated by Sheldon Cohen. Tundra Books, 1984.

Gay, Marie-Louise. Angel and the Polar Bear. Stoddart, 1988.

Gay, Marie-Louise. Rainy Day Magic. Stoddart 1987.

Harber, Frances. My King Has Donkey Ears. Illustrated by Maryann Kovalski. North Winds Press, 1986. Distributed by Scholastic Canada.

Harris, Dorothy Joan. Four Seasons for Toby. Illustrated by Vlasta van Kampen. North Winds Press, 1987. Distributed by Scholastic Canada.

Harrison, Ted. A Northern Alphabet. Tundra Books, 1987.

Harrison, Ted. The Blue Raven. Macmillan, 1989.

Khalsa, Dayal Kaur. I Want a Dog. Tundra Books, 1988.

Khalsa, Dayal Kaur. Tales of a Gambling Grandma. Tundra Books, 1986.

Khalsa, Dayal Kaur. My Family Vacation. Tundra Books, 1988.

Kilbourne,Frances. The Recyclers. Illustrated by Ann Powell. Women's Press, 1979.

Kovalski, Maryann. Brenda and Edward. Kids Can Press, 1984.

Kovalski,Maryann. Frank and Zelda. Kids Can Press, 1990.

Kurelek, William. A Northern Nativity. Tundra Books, 1976.

Kurelek, William. A Prairie Boy's Summer. Tundra Books, 1988 (1975).

Laurence, Margaret. The Olden Days Coat. Illustrated by Muriel Wood. McClelland & Stewart 1979

Lee, Dennis. Alligator Pie. Illustrated by Frank Newfeld. Macmillan, 1974.

Lee, Dennis. Garbage Delight. Illustrated by Frank Newfeld. Macmillan,1977.

Levechuk, Helen. The Dingles. Illustrated by John Bianchi. Groundwood/Douglas & McIntyre, 1985.

Lim, John. At Grandmother's House. Tundra Books, 1984 (1977).

Little, Jean. Hey World, Here I Am! Kids Can Press, 1986.

Lunn, Janet. Amos's Sweater. Illustrated by Kim LaFave. Groundwood/Douglas & McIntyre, 1988.

Lunn, Janet. One Hundred Shining Candles. Illustrated by Lindsay Grater. Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1990.

Muir, Stephen. Albert's Old Shoes. Illustrated by Mary Jane Muir. North Winds Press, 1987. Distributed by Scholastic Canada.

Munsch, Robert. Love You Forever. Illustrated by Sheila McGraw. Annick Press, 1983.

Munsch, Robert. Millicent and the Wind. Illustrated by Suzanne Duranceau. Annick Press, 1984.

Munsch, Robert. The Paper Bag Princess. Illustrated by Michael Martchenko. Annick Press, 1981.

Munsch, Robert. Thomas's Snowsuit. Illustrated by Michael Martchenko. Annick Pres, 1985.

Murdoch, Patricia. Deep Thinker and the Stars. Illustrated by Kellie Jobson. Three Trees Press, 1987.

Richards, Jack. Johann's Gift to Christmas. Illustrated by Len Norris. Douglas & McIntyre, 1980.

Roach, Gordon. A Halifax ABC. Tundra Books, 1987.

Service, Robert. The Cremation of Sam McGee. Illustrated by Ted Harrison. Kids Can Press, 1986.

Service, Robert. The Shooting of Dan McCrew. Illustrated by Ted Harrison. Kids Can Press, 1988.

Simmie, Lois. Auntie's Knitting a Baby. Illustrated by Anne Simmie. Western Producer Prairie Books, 1984.

Spears, Jean. A Candle for Christmas. Illustrated by Ann Blades. Douglas & McIntyre, 1986.

Staunton, Ted. Puddleman. Illustrated by Maryann Kovalski. Kids Can Press, 1983.

Stinson, Kathy. Red is Best. Illustrated by Robin Baird Lewis. Annick Press, 1982.

Stinson, Kathy. Teddy Rabbit. Illustrated by StÉphane Poulin. Annick Press, 1988.

Wallace, lan. Chin Chiang and the Dragon's Dance. Groundwood/ Douglas & McIntyre, 1987.

Wallace, Ian. The Sparrow's Song. Groundwood/Douglas & McIntyre, 1986.

Waterton, Betty. Orff, 27 Dragons (and a Snarkell). Illustrated by Karen Kulyk. Annick Press, 1984.

Waterton, Betty. Pettranella. Illustrated by Ann Blades. Douglas & McIntyre, 1980.

Waterton, Betty. A Salmon for Simon. Illustrated by Ann Blades. Scholastic-TAB, 1986 (1978).

Wynne-Jones, Tim. I'll Make You Small. Illustrated by Maryann Kovalski. Groundwood/Douglas & McIntyre, 1986.

Wynne-Jones,Tim. Mischief City. Illustrated by Victor Gad. Groundwood/Douglas & McIntyre, 1986.

Wynne-Jones, Tim. Zoom at Sea. Illustrated by Ken Nutt. Groundwood/Douglas & McIntyre, 1983.

Middle Grade and Young Adult Fiction

Bell, Williaxn. Absolutely Invincible. General Paperbacks, 1990.

Bell, William. Crabbe. Irwin,1986.

Bell, William. Forbidden City. Doubleday Canada, 1990/ General Paperbacks, 1991.

Bellingham, Brenda. Storm Chad. Lorimer, 1985.

Bilson, Geoffrey. Death over Montréal. Kids Can Press, 1982.

Blakeslee, Mary. Will to Win. Overlea House, 1988.

Bradford, Karleen. The Other Elizabeth. Gage, 1982.

Brandis, Marianne. The Quarter Pie Window. Porcupine's Quill, 1985.

Buffie, Margaret. Who is Frances Rain? Kids Can Press, 1987.

Burnford, Sheila. The Incredible Journey. Little, Brown, 1960/ Bantam, 1970.

Clark, Joan. The Hand of Robin Squires. Clarke, Irwin, 1977/ Penguin 1986.

Clark, Joan. The Wild Man of the Woods. Penguin, 1985.

Collura, Mary Ellen Lang. Sunny. Irwin, 1988.

Collura, Mary Ellen Lang. Winners. Western Producer Prairie Books, 1984.

Craddock, Sonia. The Secret of the Cards. Scholastic-TAB, 1990.

Craddock, Sonia. You Can't Take Mickey. Scholastic-TAB, 1986.

Dale, Mitzi. Round the Bend. Ground wood/ Douglas & McIntyre, 1988.

Doyle, Brian. Angel Square. Groundwood/ Douglas & McIntyre, 1984.

Doyle, Brian. Covered Bridge. Groundwood/ Douglas & McIntyre, 1990.

Doyle, Brian. Easy Avenue. Groundwood/ Douglas & McIntyre, 1988.

Doyle, Brian. Hey, Dad! Groundwood/ Douglas & McIntyre, 1978.

Doyle, Brian. Up to Low. Groundwood/ Douglas & McIntyre, 1982.

Doyle, Brian. You Can Pick Me up at Peggy's Cove. Groundwood/ Douglas & McIntyre, 1979.

Freeman,Bill. Danger on the Tracks. Lorimer, 1987.

Godfrey, Martyn. Mystery in the Frozen Lands. Lorimer, 1988.

Godfrey, Martyn. Plan B is Total Panic. Lorimer, 1988.

Godfrey, Martyn. It Isn't Easy Being Ms Teeny Wonderful. ScholasticTAB, 1987.

Greenwood, Barbara. A Question of Loyalty. Scholastic-TAB, 1984.

Greenwood, Barbara. Spy in the Shadows. Kids Can Press, 1990.

Haig-Brown, Roderick. The Whale People. Collins, 1962.

Halvorson, Marilyn. Let it Go. Irwin, 1988.

Halvorson, Marilyn. Nobody Said it Would be Easy. Irwin, 1987.

Hewitt, Marsha and Claire Mackay. One Proud Summer. Women's Press, 1981.

Hodgins, Jack. Left Behind in Squabble Bay. McClelland & Stewart 1988.

Houston, James. Frozen Fire. McClelland & Stewart 1977.

Houston, James. Ice Swords: An Undersea Adventure. McClelland & Stewart 1985.

Houston, James. River Runners: A Tale of Hardship and Bravery. McClelland & Stewart, 1979.

Houston,James. Tikta'liktak. Longmans, 1965.

Hudson,Jan. Dawn Rider. HarperCollins, 1990.

Hudson, Jan. Sweetgrass. Tree Frog Press, 1984.

Hughes, Monica. Blaine's Way. Irwin, 1986.

Hughes, Monica. Devil in My Back. Methuen, 1985.

Hughes, Monica. The Dream Catcher. Methuen, 1985.

Hughes, Monica. Earth Dark. Hamish Hamilton, 1977.

Hughes, Monica. The Ghost Dance Caper. Methuen, 1986.

Hughes, Monica. The Guardian of Isis. Collins, 1981.

Hughes, Monica. Hunter in the Dark. Irwin, 1982/ General Paperbacks, 1989.

Hughes, Monica. Invitaiton to the Game. HarperCollins, 1990.

Katz, Welwyn Wilton. False Face. Groundwood/Douglas & McIntyre, 1987.

Katz, Welwyn Wilton. Witchery Hill. Groundwood/Douglas & McIntyre, 1984.

Korman, Gordon. I Want to go Home. Scholastic-TAB, 1981.

Korman, Gordon. This Can't be Happening at Macdonald Hall. Scholastic-TAB,1978.

Korman, Gordon. Macdonald Hall Goes Hollywood. Scholastic-TAB, 1991.

Little,Jean. Different Dragons. Penguin,1986.

Little, Jean. From Anna. Fitzenry & Whiteside, 1972.

Little,Jean. Hey World,HerelAm! Kids Can Press, 1986.

Little, Jean. Kate. Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1972.

Little, Jean. Listen for the Singing. Irwin, 1977.

Little, Jean. Lost and Found. Penguin, 1985.

Little, Jean. Mine for Keeps. Little, Brown, 1962.

Little, Jean. Mama's Going to Buy You a Mockingbird. Penguin, 1984.

Lunn,Janet. Double Spell. Penguin,1986.

Lunn, Janet. The Root Cellar. Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1981.

Lunn, Janet. Shadow in Hawthorn Bay. Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1986.

Mackay, Claire. The Minerva Program. Lorimer, 1984.

Major, Kevin. Blood Red Ochre. Doubleday, 1989.

Major, Kevin. Dear Bruce Springsteen. Doubleday, 1987.

Major,Kevin. Hold Fast. Irwin,1984/ Stoddart, 1991.

Montgomery, L.M. Anne of Green Gables. Page, 1908/Seal, 1970.

Mowat, Farley. Lost in the Barrens. McClelland & Stewart, 1977.

Mowat Farley. Owls in the Family. McClelland & Stewart, 1973.

Richler, Mordecai. Jacob Two-Two and the Hooded Fang. McClelland & Stewart, 1975.

Smucker, Barbara. Amish Adventure. Penguin, 1985.

Smucker, Barbara. Days of Terror. Irwin, 1979.

Smucker, Barbara. Underground to Canada. Irwin, 1977.

Taylor, Cora. The Doll. Western Producer Prairie Books, 1987.

Taylor, Cora. Julie. Western Producer Prairie Books, 1985.

Taylor, Cora. Julie's Secret. Western Producer Prairie Books, 1985.

Thurman, Bernice Hunter. Lamplighter. Scholastic-TAB, 1987.

Wallace, Ian. The Sandwich. Kids Can Press, 1985.

Regular CM contributor Gad Lennon is a secondary resource teacher with the Bruce County Board of Education at Walkerton District Secondary School in Walkerton, Ontario, and an advocate of the whose language philosophy. She has taught every grade from kindergarten to grade 12 and has specialist certificates in special education, Primary education, reading, visual arts, and library II. She also gives workshops for teachers, and the material in this article is based on a workshop she presented as part of the Federation of Women Teachers' Associations of Ontario Summer Short Course in 1991.

line indexes


1971-1979 | 1980-1985 | 1986-1990 | 1991-1995


The materials in this archive are copyright © The Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission

francaisDigital Collections / Collections Numérisees francais