Whole language proponents warn of conspiracy Leaders of movement claim opponents' motives extend far beyond phonics


CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Whole language, the dominant philosophy in reading instruction only a few years ago, is badly wounded, its supporters fighting to regain ground lost to phonics.

Leaders of the movement blame a conspiracy of conservative zealots, federally sponsored reading researchers, business leaders and news media publishers.

The Whole Language Umbrella, an international organization of teachers and supporters, devoted a full day at its annual meeting last week to planning a campaign to regain momentum that whole language proponents concede has been lost since the mid-1990s.

"I stopped calling it a conspiracy because that turns people off," Kenneth S. Goodman, a founder of the movement, told several hundred delegates in Charlotte. "It's a political campaign, tightly controlled, carefully manipulated, and most of the players don't even know they're being used."

Particularly alarming to whole language advocates are developments in states such as California, Texas, North Carolina and Maryland, where legislatures and school officials are insisting on "research-based" phonics instruction and, in some cases, ordering it in public classrooms.

Whole language proponents also fear the Reading Excellence Act, approved by the House of Representatives by voice vote last fall. The act, heavily supported by conservatives, requires that federal funds be spent on reading programs that produce measurable, positive results supported by "scientific" research.

"The mood is clearly winner take all and take no prisoners," Goodman said. "I have no doubt that people will be hauled into court for refusing to teach phonics. Think of the implications of that for our democracy."

More a philosophy than a method, whole language holds that children should learn to read "holistically" by immersion in literature. Whole language teachers don't ignore phonics -- the relationship between sounds and letters -- but consider it only one strategy.

Whole language's dominance began to erode, according to its supporters, when a series of glowing reports appeared in newspapers and magazines about reading research conducted by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHHD), a federal agency that has studied children's reading behavior for 30 years.

None of the reporters looked critically at the research, which is "seriously flawed," said Richard L. Allington, an education professor at the State University of New York at Albany.

Anyone sponsoring or promoting the NICHHD research came in for criticism at the Whole Language Umbrella conference. Delegates to the convention called the agency's officials "fascists" and "weeds in the garden of education." The liberal American Federation of Teachers also received opprobrium. The teachers union has endorsed reading programs based on NICHHD findings.

Some of the whole language proponents see in the phonics movement an effort to privatize public schools. If phonics advocates can ensure that whole language teachers get the blame for poor reading scores, the teachers' responses to attacks can be dismissed as self-interest. This leaves the schools vulnerable to control by business interests, they say.

"They're marginalizing us," said Frank Smith, a former newspaper reporter and another founder of whole language. "They've made us the extremists." Another speaker, Donaldo Macedo of the University of Massachusetts, said, "The issue isn't whole language. It's an attack on public education."

State business councils and the press also were targeted.

Using an overhead projector to flash headlines and graphics from The Sun's "Reading by 9" series, Towson University education Professor Bess Altwerger declared that whole language teachers "will continue to do what's best for children no matter what the 'Baltimore Sun University' tells them to do."

The newspaper, she said, "sits on the board of the Maryland Business Roundtable with the Maryland Department of Education and many of the same corporations that also fund the Heritage Foundation," a conservative think tank.

Teachers interviewed at the convention pictured themselves as politically naive Davids in a battle with a well-organized and well-financed Goliath.

"We don't have any money, and most of us are so busy with our jobs in the classroom that we don't have time to be politically active," said Kittye Copeland, president of the Whole Language Umbrella.

"Frankly, that's how we let it get away from us. We weren't watching closely enough. We've got to get out in the communities, call our congressmen and ask parents to support us. Parents are an integral part of whole language. They can become our best advocates."

While the phonics-whole language debate is about educating children of single-digit ages, two of the major antagonists are septuagenarians. Goodman, 70, retires this week from the University of Arizona after 40 years of teaching and research with his wife, Yetta.

In California, Marion Joseph, 71, a member of the state school board, is the catalyst for the national shift from whole language to phonics.

"She pictures herself as a sweet grandmother who only wants what's best for her grandson," Goodman said. "Actually, she's very politically astute -- and very dangerous."

"He knows it's his last stand," Joseph said of Goodman. "He's irrelevant."

Pub Date: 8/09/98

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