that time of year. The yellow school buses are back on the road. The stores are
stocked with Disney-theme lunch boxes, pencil cases and loose-leaf paper. Kids
are wondering about their teachers. Parents are worrying about the quality of
education. And educators are arguing about educational philosophies.
of the controversies is over the whole language versus phonics approach to
of whole language believe that the best way to teach reading is to immerse the
child in literature, encouraging a love of books, an emphasis on overall
comprehension (rather than correct syllable-by-syllable “sounding out”), and
confidence that children learn words best in the context of literature (rather
than “drill and kill” flash cards). The whole language reading method
carries over to writing as well, emphasizing fluency and expression over correct
spelling, grammar, and paragraph structure.
of a phonetic approach to reading believe that children need tools to help them
decode written words, and that learning the rules of word families, vowel
sounds, the silent E, etc., will make children better readers. Writing skills
are rooted in correct grammar and structure, with less emphasis on expression.
liberal circles, whole language is considered progressive, holistic and positive
for all learners. The National Council of
Teachers of English (NCTE), in their promotion of the whole language
approach, say they support “the empowerment of learners and teachers” and
believe that “learning is easiest when it is in authentic contexts, and when
it is functional for the learners.”
phonics folks are the bad guys who will submit your child to dictatorial rules
and rote learning. One (perhaps extreme) example of phonics teaching is the
Distar program, which employs a strong teacher-lead behaviorist model to
familiarize children with letter combinations and sounds. Some refer to this
program as fascist. (Delpit, 28)
into the debate Lisa Delpit – African American scholar, elementary school
teacher, and author of Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the
Classroom. She argues that while whole language purports to be about
empowerment, it actually undermines less privileged children’s ability to gain
access to power. The problem is that “fluency” and “authentic contexts”
and “functional for the learners” are politically charged concepts that mask
power in the classroom and in language.
American parents, for example, may have children perfectly fluent in Black
English, their “fluency” evident at home and in their neighborhoods in rap
songs, jump rope games, and storytelling. But those skills will not get them far
in a society where power is brokered using white middle-class American cultural
tools. Middle-class white kids grow up in families and neighborhoods that impart
the skills, cultural cues, and language ability needed to get along in white
society. Black kids go to school for those skills. If they don’t learn them
there, argues Delpit, they are being shortchanged.
contribution to the debate about whole language versus phonics is that she
recognizes the existence of power in the classroom and in the wider culture.
Unless we acknowledge the existence of that power, and the fact that different
children have different amounts of access to it, we will not see the ways that a
whole language approach to reading and writing can potentially withhold
important tools from underprivileged children. Delpit says, “If you are not
already a participant in the culture of power, being told explicitly the rules
of that culture makes acquiring power easier.” (Delpit, 24) She adds,
I speak, therefore, of the culture of power, I don’t speak of how I wish
things to be but of how they are. I further believe that to act as if power does
not exist is to ensure that the power status quo remains the same. To imply to
children or adults (but of course the adults won’t believe you anyway) that it
doesn’t matter how you talk or how you write is to ensure their ultimate
failure. I prefer to be honest with my students. I tell them that their language
and cultural style is unique and wonderful but that there is a political power
game that is also being played, and if they want to be in on that game there are
certain games that they too must play.
language proponents have good intentions. They want to foster a lifelong love of
reading, which will in turn foster autonomous learners and thinkers. But
progressive educational philosophies must take into account the existence of
power in the classroom and in society. As one parent demanded of the school,
“My kids know how to be black – you all teach them how to be successful in
the white man’s world” (Delpit, 29). Delpit’s model acknowledges the
importance of biculturalism, which she believes will allow children in the
non-dominant culture to value their native style and language, but at the same
time will equip them with the tools and skills they need to negotiate the
dominant culture. This is an important short-term strategy. It will help the
African American teen have a successful job interview or write the kind of
personal essay that will get him or her into college.
the long-term, of course, we need to address the balance of power – finding
ways to fight institutional racism so that white skin, white English, and white
culture are not the only keys for opening doors to power and influence and
privilege. Because, as Delpit argues, “those with power are frequently least
aware of – or least willing to acknowledge – its existence [and] those with
less power are often most aware of its existence,” educators should prioritize
listening to parents in the communities where they teach. Educators battling
over how to teach reading and writing would do well to pause and listen to what
community members have to say about what they want for their children.
Cultivating and truly valuing grassroots participation in the schools would do
more to democratize, diversify and address the existence of power in schools and
society than any single educational philosophy.