AFTER California adopted the whole-language method of reading instruction in 1987, all grammar and spelling books were thrown out of the classroom.
At Heliotrope Elementary School in Los Angeles, teachers were told not to give spelling tests anymore but to design spelling lists for each student individually. "Whoever came up with that idea doesn't know what it's like to be in the classroom," says Patty Abarca, a teacher at the school. "I have 32 kids in my classroom, and I'm supposed to have 32 different lists?"
Some teachers at the school started closing their classroom doors and giving secret spelling tests. "It became almost a subversive activity," Ms. Abarca says. At Toland Way Elementary in Los Angeles, administrators held fundraisers so they could buy spelling books after the state stopped authorizing them.
At its most extreme, the whole-language philosophy allows students to use "invented spelling" so that they can write freely without constant correction. Rather than correcting students, teachers help students pick up the proper word spelling over time.
The whole-language approach advocates surrounding students with books and encouraging them to write as early as possible without stressing the rules of the language as is done through phonics instruction. Whole language teaches that children learn to read the same way they learn to talk - as a natural course of daily interaction with language.
Whole-language advocate and University of Arizona professor Kenneth Goodman calls phonics a "reduction of language to letters and sounds" and views whole-language as providing "authentic language activities."
"The idea was to go directly into reading for meaning and for enjoyment," says Jeanne Chall of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. "But reading is not the same as learning a language. Reading has to be taught, and in countries where people do not go to school, they have high rates of illiteracy. Somebody has to teach you what those squiggles mean."