Sunday, 1 April 2012

A critique of the "whole language" method

When you enter a library there are prominent signs everywhere requesting quiet. Patrons are allowed to speak in whispers if they must communicate at all. Why this insistence on a peaceful environment? People come to libraries to read, to do research, or to study. All these human pursuits require concentration, an ability to focus one's attention on a specific book or document, and to absorb the information it contains.

Later, for contrast, walk down the hall of the Primary section of your neighbourhood school any weekday when classes are in session. If the principal and staff have committed to "Whole Language" method of teaching, you'll hear talking, giggling, the odd yell, the scraping of chairs, and the insistent whine of little voices, "Teacher..., teacher...".

The Whole Language System of teaching was introduced into Ontario schools about five years before I retired. It originated in England and was supposed to be the greatest invention since sliced bread. Our principal, following the School Board's directive, adopted the philosophy and methodology without question. The fact that he was an English immigrant himself probably added to his enthusiasm.

According to this ideology, children would learn to read as naturally as they learned to talk. If they were surrounded with good literature, they would pick up a book and begin to read when they were ready. They were taken to the school library often and encouraged to choose books they found interesting. Picture books were fine if that was their choice.

Mathematics would be taught by discovery; activity centers would provide interesting and enjoyable experiences whereby the children would learn mathematical concepts. The teacher was to forget about drilling number facts. The children would learn through play. If they forgot concepts they had learned, they could always repeat that activity or another. Eventually, when they were ready, they would remember.

Worst of all, language was never to be stifled in the classroom. The children would learn from each other as well as from the teacher. Rows of desks were replaced by groups of children sitting in chairs around a table, usually four in a group. Naturally, there was lots of conversation. Chairs scraped noisily as the children went to choose an activity and return with it to their place.

In the last year before I retired, I had to wear a microphone clipped on my sweater, so that my voice could be transmitted directly into a headset worn by one student. He had with an auditory problem. He had trouble distinguishing important sounds (like the teacher's voice) from background noise. By that time, in my estimation, the whole educational system had gone completely round the bend.

Those children had as difficult a task as any library visitor. They were expected to learn to read, write and to work accurately with numbers within the space of a few short years. Most sensible people realize that learning is work, it can't always be fun. It can be accomplished best in a quiet, structured environment. And, like it or not, there are some things that have to be memorized. Welcome to the real world, kids!

The children are in school for five and a half hours a day. If they sleep ten hours, they still have seven and a half hours to play and socialize. Surely, for the short time allotted to their formal education, they should be expected to be quiet, attentive, focused on challenging material in a peaceful atmosphere which is conductive to learning.

Fortunately, Ontario schools are slowly but surely returning to former methods of instruction, after several years of plunging test scores and waves of illiterate students in high schools. Universities have, for the first time, initiated remedial English and Mathematics classes for first year students.

These days, I'm spending more time in the peaceful surroundings of the local library and no time at all in a noisy Primary Grade classroom. I guess I was one of the few who was able to learn an important lesson in the midst of all the commotion and racket. I learned that, without a doubt, it was time for me to retire.

No comments:

Post a Comment