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Making Whole Language Work
by Carol Castellano
Reprinted from Future Reflections

Whole language is an approach to teaching reading and writing which differs in many ways from the traditional system in which most of us learned to read and write. In the traditional approach children are grouped by reading ability and reading is taught during a certain period each day. Students read from basal readers, the grade-by-grade reading books which contain words chosen for their readability at a certain grade level. Phonics, spelling, and grammar are each taught as separate skills at separate times. The traditional approach might be characterized as skill-based.

In whole language classrooms a great deal of time during the school day is given over to reading and writing. In place of basal readers, "trade books" are used, authentic works of fiction and nonfiction that can be purchased at a bookstore. Instead of being grouped according to reading ability, all students read the various trade books. Students are exposed to a wide variety of materials, structures, and styles and also to the rich, poetic, and often complex language of real literature. Skills such as phonics and spelling are worked on in the context of what the children are reading and writing and are integrated into other curriculum areas. The whole language approach might be called meaning- or content-based.

Other hallmarks of the whole language approach include student choice of reading material and shared, cooperative reading and writing activities designed to develop appreciation, reflection, thinking, language, and speaking skills. Reading and writing are integrated into all curriculum areas. Teachers encourage intellectual risk-taking instead of rote memorization and answers. They subscribe to the idea that the learning is in the doing, thereby placing emphasis on the process of writing, not just on the finished product.

The whole language approach has provoked much discussion and controversy. Proponents of the approach say that it works—children not only learn to read and write with more pleasure and ease, but they become eager, independent, confident, lifelong readers and learners.

Those who object to the trend toward whole language fear that the approach is too loose and leaves too much to chance. The flexibility of whole language is in direct contrast to the controlled nature of traditional programs. Traditional teachers know and rely on the controlled vocabulary and skills checklists of basal readers and workbooks to gauge the progress of their students. Some feel it would be chaotic to try to keep track of what the children know and don't know if children read books of their own choosing and if reading is dispersed throughout the day. They fear the loss of formal phonics instruction. Some opponents of whole language are afraid children will not learn how to read. Some simply do not want to change. Despite the controversy, the whole language approach has been adopted in many school districts across the country.

What happens when a Braille student enters a whole language classroom? When my daughter entered first grade, the staff—committed, experienced whole language teachers who had never taught a blind student before—expressed great reservations. They believed she would not be able to participate successfully in the program. One even suggested that she change schools! The teachers expressed many reasons for fearing that whole language would not work with a Braille reader. Due to the need to introduce Braille contractions in advance, they felt Serena would not be able to cope with the random vocabulary found in trade books. A controlled vocabulary as found in basal readers, the teachers reasoned, would make for easier reading for Serena. In addition, they would have no lists of new vocabulary prepared to give to the Braille teacher as they would with basal readers.

Since trade books would also be used for subjects such as social studies and science, the teachers thought the reading for those subjects, also, would be too complicated. They wondered if it would be possible to get all the necessary books Brailled, since whole language requires many more books than just one textbook for each subject. And lastly, the teachers did not want to give up their freedom to use a wonderful poem or activity they found the night before because they would not have it in Braille the next day for Serena. They also felt that this would limit what would be available to the rest of the children in the class.

When I analyzed what was being said, I realized that the concerns of these experienced whole language teachers about whole language for a Braille student were identical to the concerns expressed by traditional teachers about whole language for any student! The concerns boiled down to one fundamental idea: we really don't know how to do this and make it work!

Serena has been in our school district's whole language program for two-and-a-half years now and as I write this (mid-third grade), she sits contentedly reading a Bobbsey Twins book. I think all her teachers would agree that Serena has fully and successfully participated in the whole language program and that she has certainly learned how to read! The inclusion of this Braille student in the program was accomplished without increased burden on the Braille teacher and without restricting the materials the teachers—and other students—could use. Several strategies were employed to make for a successful whole language experience (many of which would apply to any reading program). Here are some of our ideas:

Much advance planning and preparation was done so that books and materials were ready on time. Books were chosen well in advance (approximately seven months). Teachers were aware of books which were already available in Braille and books on computer disk which could be quickly obtained in Braille. The teachers took care to let the Braille transcribers know which books and materials would be needed in September and for each subsequent month.

We acted as a team—classroom teacher, teacher's aide, Braille teacher, and I—to discuss, plan, adapt, troubleshoot, and solve problems.

The Braille teacher previewed books for new contractions and taught them in advance until all contractions had been taught. When Serena did not recognize a contraction in class, the teachers looked it up on a "cheat sheet" (Braille contraction chart) and told her what it was. (Incidentally, with trade books, sighted children, too, are challenged with interesting new vocabulary! A blind student can simply participate with the others in whatever vocabulary activities the class is doing.)

Instead of taking Serena out of class for every lesson, the Braille teacher spent a great deal of time in the classroom, integrating the Braille lesson with the classroom reading activities.

Reading speed was an issue for the longer passages in chapter books. At home we practiced speedier reading exercises and games (see end of article). We were also advised to have Serena read EVERY NIGHT!

We taught Serena how to skim so that she could follow along efficiently when others were reading aloud.

The teacher occasionally sent home the book the class would be reading next for Serena to preview. Sometimes she sent a book home for Serena to finish reading chapters.

A print copy or photocopy of the book was sent home for all books that Serena was reading, including student-choice and library books. In this way, when Serena got to single-spaced, double-sided Braille books (second grade level and up), anyone, even those not familiar with Braille, could follow along as Serena read and provide ordinary help when needed.

An M-Print, a modified computer printer which translates Braille into print, was attached to the Braille writer so that Serena's writing—daily journals, comprehension questions, reports, paragraphs, etc.—was immediately accessible to her non-Braille-reading teachers.

The school purchased a Braille embosser. Attached to a regular computer, the embosser enabled the teachers to type in material and produce Braille immediately, thus preserving the teachers' freedom to use newly found materials without excluding their blind student and resulting in access to more Braille for Serena.

I am happy that my daughter was given the opportunity to take part in the school's whole language program and that she is progressing well in it. In addition to reaping what seem to be the benefits of the whole language approach, she has been allowed to experience what everyone else is experiencing. Our conclusion is that with proper planning, teamwork, flexibility, and careful outlay of funds, blind children can successfully participate in a whole language reading program.

Some Activities for Speedier Reading
Have the child follow along as you read aloud and then stop reading; child must pick up reading aloud where you dropped off.

You read aloud at a normal pace; the child skims along and follows your reading by paying attention to the beginnings and endings of sentences and end punctuation.

Child reads easy or familiar material and practices going fast (encourage "lots of fingers on the Braille").

Demonstrate an appropriate reading speed by gently moving the child's hands across the lines of Braille; have an adult blind friend demonstrate good reading technique to your child.

Practice fast page-turning exercises and activities which can help develop good reading habits and faster reading.

Resources for Games and Exercises:

Mangold Developmental Program of Tactile
Perception and Braille Letter Recognition

by Sally Mangold

Exceptional Teaching Aids
20102 Woodbine Avenue
Castro Valley, California 94546

Guidelines and Games for Teaching Efficient Braille Reading
by Myrna R. Olson, Ed.D., in collaboration with Sally S. Mangold, Ph.D.

American Foundation for the Blind
11 Penn Plaza, Suite 300
New York, NY 10001

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