Reading Wars and Teacher Self-Efficacy

Whole Language advocates were wrong

by Ellen Hurst

If people believe they have no power to produce results, they will not attempt to make things happen.  (Bandura, 1997, p. 3).

Students who are blessed with efficient processing of text will learn to read in spite of poor teaching. On the other side of the spectrum are those who require organized, systematic, efficient instruction by a highly qualified teacher trained in research-based sequential, multisensory instructional approaches to be successful. The chance of these students finding their way into the classroom of a teacher who is highly trained to teach reading is slim.

Blank SlateThe overriding expectation of the teacher is to produce observable and quantifiable gains of student reading achievement. Each teacher’s belief in his or her ability to produce this outcome will determine the instructional course of action selected. The belief in one’s capability to organize and execute a course of action to produce predetermined attainments represents the construct of perceived self-efficacy.

The level of perceived self-efficacy will determine the amount of effort put forth in the attainment of instructional goals as well as the level of the perseverance maintained in the face of adversity. Teachers with a high sense of professional efficacy believe in their abilities to motivate and educate even the most difficult student through extra effort and appropriate pedagogy.  Conversely, teachers with a low sense of efficacy believe there is little they can do if students are underachieving, unmotivated, and economically challenged.

The responsibilities of the reading teacher require great skill and carry a high risk of negative consequences. Mastery of literacy as a process requires that reading teachers understand the overall system of language. Expertise in phonological Classmates and teacherawareness, phonemic awareness, comprehension, vocabulary and fluency provide the foundational components of a successful reading practice. In addition to providing instruction in these essential areas, the reading teacher must also address the confounding effects of motivation, attention deficit and linguistic diversity. The reading teacher’s perception of the severity of students’ reading difficulties, and confounding variables, will determine the reading teacher’s perceived level of efficacy and the subsequent intervention provided to that student.

The suggestion that a reading teacher’s instructional behavior is better predicted from his or her beliefs than from the actual consequences of his actions has tremendous implications for the ways in which reading teachers are prepared. At each subsequent grade level, the reading achievement gap widens. The question must be raised as to whether the expectations and beliefs concerning student achievement vary as result of teacher demographics and context of instruction. If expectations do vary, then the questions of when, where, and how the expectations and beliefs concerning student achievement must be considered.  The answers to these questions have a potential impact on the design of preservice and in-service training for today’s K-12 teachers.

light treeAlthough various reasons have been suggested for reading problems, inadequate teaching environment and poor reading instruction are rarely at the top of the list. Explanations of poor reading achievement include limited opportunities for adequate oral language development, lack of access to text material in the home, and few parental models of engagement in literacy activities. It is politically incorrect to suggest that higher education’s instructional focus on social justice rather than effective instructional methods has resulted in teachers lacking basic knowledge about the reading process.

The Dark Ages of Reading Instruction

The term ‘Whole Language’ describes a number of related teaching programs that swept the world in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Advocates of Whole Language share a common belief that learning to read is a natural process similar to learning to speak. If the child failed to read, parents were asked if they were reading to their child, implying that parental neglect was responsible for reading failure because of inadequate modeling. Whole Language encouraged children to use book illustrations as a basis for guessing the text or to read to the end of the sentence and then to try to guess any of the words that they couldn’t actually read. Publishers and book sellers then reacted by filling their shops with highly illustrated books rather than with books graded from easy-to-difficult text complexity.

raised handsWhole Language advocates also pointed out that when babies said words like ‘man,' they spoke it as a single unit. They, therefore, jumped to the conclusion that the traditional ‘phonic’ teaching practices of teaching sounds, of accurately blending those sounds into syllables and of blending the syllables into longer words, were not essential to learning to read. Teachers were trained to encourage children to guess words as a whole unit rather than to break the words down into their isolated sounds. Whole Language advocates actively discouraged teachers from using any phonics instruction approaches. Teachers were told that if the guess made logical sense, it didn't even matter if the word-guesses were inaccurate. Forgotten was a focus on the author’s meaning and the ultimate true comprehension of text.

Traditional phonic strategies were attacked and almost totally discarded by teacher trainers. This happened, not because of any supportive research, but merely to fit within their pre-occupation with word guessing and context cues. Researchers have never been able to demonstrate the efficacy of this guessing approach.

We now know that these Whole Language advocates were wrong; in fact, they have been wrong for three decades. They were only able to maintain their error because the philosophy that spawned Whole Language included opposition not only to teaching basic phonic skills, it also included opposition to testing those skills. By refusing to properly test the outcomes of their practices, educators thereby hid the failure of Whole Language.

grass and skyThe Whole Language assertion, that learning to read is the same process as learning to speak, has long been ridiculed by researchers. Speech is a universal, instinctive process, everyone can speak. But reading is not a natural process; it is a learned process. After 4000 years of learning to read, there are still peoples on earth who can speak but cannot read a word. The evidence of failure was there for all to see. Reading is an unnatural process which we challenge the mind to undertake.

One of the leading advocates of Whole Language guessing practices was Kenneth Goodman. He once described reading as a 'psycholinguistic guessing game' and yet, as far back as 1978, Goodman’s own university (Arizona) demonstrated, in one of the biggest literacy studies ever carried out, that Whole Language strategies failed in almost every aspect of literacy. The margin of defeat for the Whole Language method was fourteen times that necessary to prove statistical significance. And yet the Whole Language advocacy continued unabated, impervious to data, driven by belief. Until California, historically the most literate state in the USA tested outcomes.

Californians found that in the years during which Whole Language had been mandatory in California, the state had slipped from top to the bottom of the educational literacy league. Other states followed, including North Carolina, Ohio, Massachusetts and Texas. Even Arizona, the birth place of modern Whole Language advocacy has since also officially abandoned Whole Language.

children in classroomThe Whole Language advocates’ in education departments of the universities of the United States still remain in place and in control of teacher training. They still refuse to accept any contrary evidence. Many introductory reading courses have gone to an online format and provide teachers with little more than busy work and an emphasis on critical literacy rather than reading instruction. They do this because this is all they know. University instructors were never taught how to teach a child to read because most are products of the philosophy of whole language instruction. Most left the classrooms themselves and have little hands-on knowledge of how difficult it is to teach a child to read. This is not mere hindsight; researchers had been issuing warnings right from the outset... the evidence and the science were simply ignored for almost three decades.

I meet many teachers-in-training and have yet to meet one trainee who has a working knowledge of the linguistic foundations of learning to read. They complain that their literacy classes focus on social justice rather than improvement of literacy skills. It is up to parents to fill in the instruction gap with a strong knowledge of how children learn to read.

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