Whole Language

language learning


This philosophy about curriculum–in both language arts and a broader, more general program–is based on recent research of how children acquire oral and written language skills.

Basic Elements

Because knowledge doesn’t exist separately from the people who construct it, whole language practitioners don’t see curriculum as a prescribed course of study or a particular set of instructional materials. Instead, they see it as the cognitive experience each learner has. Whole language doesn’t just include the specific content being thought about, it also includes how a student “demonstrates” a particular task, as well as what he or she expects from a language learning situation.

The fundamental concern of someone who uses language is making sense. To a learner, reading and writing are crucial to forming an understanding of the world. A whole language curriculum treats the learner as a legitimate conversation partner and someone who seeks meaning. Therefore, whole language practitioners support their students’ efforts–even those that aren’t entirely accurate–rather than directing their thinking and language use.

We learn language cumulatively by using it. Each language encounter, whether oral or written, builds more knowledge about the world, the function of symbols, and communication strategies. Consequently, each language transaction helps us perform the next one, whether it be oral, written, or mental. A whole language curriculum immerses students in situations requiring open-ended, complex language use.

The teacher’s role in such a curriculum is one of “interpretive” teaching, or “kidwatching”–in other words, making sense of how students engage in language learning and offering experiences that support their experiments.

Language learning is a social activity; it requires negotiating meaning and taking in feedback from partners. Whole language practitioners work to provoke, elicit, and show interest in communication exchanges–both learner-learner and learner-teacher.

With language learning, there is always the risk of trying new strategies, and error is inherent in the process. Practitioners encourage this spirit by reading meaning into children’s speech or writing attempts, and by “hearing and seeing through” errors and spelling inventions, rather than correcting and prescribing exactness. With the support of their teachers, the children’s spoken and written experiments help them locate and learn the conventional language usage.


Whole Language: Theory in Use, Neuman, Judith M. Heineman: Portsmouth, NH (1985).
Whole Language: Theory in Use Whole Language