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Whole Language vs. Code Emphasis: Underlying assumptions and their implications for reading instruction

Abstract

Promoters of Whole Language hew to the belief that learning to read and write can be as natural and effortless as learning to perceive and produce speech. From this it follows that there is no special key to reading and writing, no explicit principle to be taught that, once learned, makes the written language transparent to a child who can speak. Lacking such a principle, Whole Language falls back on a method that encourages children to get from print just enough information to provide a basis for guessing at the gist. A very different method, called Code Emphasis, presupposes that learning the spoken language is, indeed, perfectly natural and seemingly effortless, but only because speech is managed, as reading and writing are not, by a biological specialization that automatically spells or parses all the words the child commands. Hence, a child normally learns to use words without ever becoming explicitly aware that each one is formed by the consonants and vowels that an alphabet represents. Yet it is exactly this awareness that must be taught if the child is to grasp the alphabetic principle and so understand how the artifacts of an alphabet transcribe the natural units of language. There is evidene that preliterate children do not, in fact, have much of this awareness; that the amount they do have predicts their reading achievement; that the awareness can be taught; and that the relative difficulty of learning it that some childen have may be a reflection of a weakness in the phonological component of their natural capacity for language.

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The preparation of this paper was aided by grants to Haskins Laboratories (NIH-NICHD-HD-01994) and to Yale University/Haskins Laboratories (NIH-21888-01A1).

This paper is a revision of a talk given before The Orton Dyslexia Society in Dallas on November 29, 1989. For recent reviews that elaborate and document the views we here express, see: A. M. Liberman (1989) and I. Y. Liberman (1989).

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Liberman, I.Y., Liberman, A.M. Whole Language vs. Code Emphasis: Underlying assumptions and their implications for reading instruction. Annals of Dyslexia 40, 51–76 (1990). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02648140

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Keywords

  • Phonological Awareness
  • Speech Perception
  • Poor Reader
  • Reading Disability
  • Dyslexia