A group of kindergarten children sits in a circle talking with their teacher about the baby chicks that have just hatched in their classroom incubator. The teacher signals for silence and then asks, “Who can tell us the first thing that happened today in our incubator?”
Hands pop up. The teacher chooses a child to speak. “The eggs are wiggling.”
The teacher prints this on a large tablet in marker. “What else did we see?”
“Little holes. We see little holes.” The teacher writes, We see little holes.
“Why do we see little holes?”
The children can barely contain themselves. “Chickies is coming out!” a little boy nearly shouts.
The teacher writes, Chickies is coming out.
When the page is filled, the lesson stops. This page, written by the children themselves, will be used several times as reading material.
This is one use of the whole language approach to teaching reading. In another classroom, older children write their own stories about a field trip to the community garden.
Already written materials can also be used in the whole language approach to reading. Sixth graders may bring in newspaper articles they find interesting. They could report on books they have read. The whole class could read a children’s classic and follow up with discussion. They could break into groups, choose a subject of interest to them, and do research for a class presentation. All of these activities incorporate reading in a natural way.
Instead of breaking down words into sounds, the whole language approach teaches reading through experience. The theory is that children will learn to understand what they read if the exercise can be linked with their experiences. Practice is what brings about fluency, and any subject that interests the student can be used. Phonics may also be taught, but is not emphasized in this approach.
A whole language classroom will have nonfiction books available on many subjects. There will also be a collection of popular and classic children’s literature. The books will be on several reading levels, because the children don’t all read at the same grade level. They need material that is easy enough for everyone in the class to readily understand, and material that will challenge the more advanced readers. Story starters, pages with a single sentence written as a beginning, may be used to help students “prime the pump.” Journals are usually kept by the students, and are often written in at the beginning of the day. Learning centers may be set up with intriguing objects for the children to write about. Reading buddies may be appointed, with more advanced readers helping younger children from a different classroom. Letters can be written to thank various people for a field trip experience. Older children could write letters to their congressional representatives about issues important to them.
Clearly, this teaching method requires a great deal of work on the part of the teacher. But it addresses a most important key to learning: engaging the student’s interest.