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Vol 34 No 2, April - June 1996
Page 28

Whole Language
Adapting the Approach for Large Classes
by Devi Chitrapu

The origin and development of the whole language movement is linked to the notion of literacy. Traditionally literacy has been defined as the ability to read and write, to spell correctly, and/or to punctuate according to convention. This perception naturally encouraged a fragmented approach to teaching.

But there is far more to literacy than mechanical skills, for it also includes making and communicating meaning. People, literate in the true sense of the term, feel a necessity to think, talk, read, listen, respond, and write about their ideas. The narrow conception of literacy together with the bifurcated, bottom-up approach to developing language skills has resulted in minimal learning. Neither encourage total language use or the making of meaning which are central to the whole language approach.

Practical problems

Learners in an EFL environment face a real hurtle in achieving communicative competence. The notion of durability of literacy is worth considering in this context. Students whom Brown and Mathie (1991) describe as dependent-a-literate do not see a functional necessity for using the target language (having a first language to communicate in) so they choose not to speak or write in it. Consequently, these learners make minimal use of the target language for communicative purposes and use it only for academic work. This is true of my students in India, where people learn English as a library language or for higher studies or better employment opportunities.

The mechanical way that English is taught deters students from engaging in sustained literacy activities. Students are exposed to English in artificial situations with minimal exposure to authentic use. They are trained to develop language skills in isolation, without using them for real communication or for making meaning. The emphasis on the receptive skills alone creates a serious gap in their foreign language learning experience. This situation can be corrected by using the whole language approach.

The whole language approach draws its insights from language learning theories, psycholinguistics, cognitive psychology, and anthropology. Language acquisition theory identifies communicative need as a motivating factor in language acquisition. It follows therefore that language learning emerges out of a necessity, and develops through using all its parts together, not in isolation. An interactive situation can be created in a classroom through such steps as creating contexts that necessitate communication, exposing students to comprehensible input, and immersing them in interesting tasks.

In addition to the lack of student motivation due to the absence of the functional use of the target language, class size makes acquisition problematic. The size of an undergraduate class in my teaching situation in India is 80-100 students; and in a graduate class there are 40-60 students. Besides the number of students, the physical setting of the classroom makes the possibility of having a communicative or interactive environment difficult. The long benches and desks, each of which is meant for six students, cannot be reconfigured easily for group work. This makes interactive and collaborative activities virtually impossible. Maintaining the attention of the whole class, dividing them into groups, and keeping them on task become herculean tasks.

Using a whole language approach for teaching literature

A major tenet of the whole language approach is that language use requires interaction. Since interactive situations do not occur naturally in the Indian context, I create them by using literature- both classical and modern. Language through Literature incidentally is the name of most of the textbooks used at the undergraduate level in my school.

Familiarity of context is an important prerequisite for comprehension and language use. Contemporary reading theory emphasizes the necessity of activating the students' schemata to facilitate connection with and comprehension of new concepts. In order to stimulate the students' existing knowledge and provide comprehensible input, I use Robert Frost's poem ` Out Out- ' (see Figure 1 ) as a teaching instrument. This poem portrays an accident wherein an innocent boy gets his hand cut off by the saw with which he is working-something with which Indian students can easily identify. This true-to-life situation draws the students' attention and helps get them to talk and write. Through language the learner makes sense of the world around him and through his/her mental activity, language emerges.

To activate their schemata, I give the students pre-reading questions to provide a connection with the poem. The following questions will guide the discussion:

  • Have you seen an accident in a workplace?
  • What could be the possible consequences of a small boy working with heavy, power-operated machines?
  • Who do you see at these accidents?
  • What is the attitude of these people towards what happened?
  • What would you do if you were present?

Students who learn a foreign language need assistance in learning to use the target language both for making and expressing meaning. Whole language with its guided participatory approach draws its strength from Vygotsky's concept, Zone of Proximal Development . This accentuates the teacher's role in empowering the learner. Assistance at the zone of proximal development can be obtained from the teacher or from peers in group work. Since group dynamics and interactive participation in the discussion are new for the students, I spend some time introducing them to the process. I hope to make them aware of the fact that learning is reciprocal by teaching them that one's learning depends on what one contributes to the class or group discussion. Group discussion also facilitates the simultaneous use of all the language skills.

Cognitive psychology also endorses the ideas that language must be learned as a whole and taught as a whole. It identifies three phases in language development: perceiving , in which the learner-through listening and reading-attends to certain aspects of experience; ideating , through which the learner reflects on the experience; and presenting , in which the student expresses new knowledge through speaking and writing (Goodman 1986). Though different cognitive processes are associated with each phase, they are in co-occurrence with each other.

In order to facilitate language development through these three phases- particularly in the productive skills-I use group work to involve the students in using the language collaboratively. This group work requires them to play five different roles that help them participate in class discussions. These roles are initiator, clarifier, summarizer, evaluator , and observer . Since it is necessary for every student to know what these roles mean, and how to implement them, I provide initial training. One way to make the students aware of these different roles is to elicit what they think each role implies. This I feel is better than having the teacher explain, because it builds on their knowledge, and gives them a sense that they already know certain things. This self knowledge is a strength that motivates them to learn more and to build on what they already know.

To motivate the students and make learning a meaningful experience, I give the students both rights and duties. This will keep them on task and help them take responsibility for their learning. I divide my class of 100 students into 20 groups of 5 students each and let them choose whatever role they want to play. Accordingly, one student in the group will act as the initiator, another as the clarifier, etc. Each group discusses the poem using the pre-discussion questions that I gave as guidelines. The purpose of these questions is to keep their discussion focused and productive.

Then each student takes on a specific role utilizing some of the ideas that were generated during the brainstorming session. For instance, the student who acts as the initiator makes a list of all the topics his/her group wants to discuss. These may include the main idea of the poem, the number of characters and their roles in the poem, and the plot or theme of the poem.

The second person, who plays the role of a clarifier , talks in detail about each aspect of the poem, its characters, and their significance. In collaboration with the group, s/he can add additional information such as the meaning of the title or its symbolism and comment on the word choice or interesting usage in the text.

The person who plays the role of summarizer writes down the summarized version of their group's discussion. The observer takes note of the contributions made by everyone in the group, and the evaluator comments on the quality of the group's work suggesting alternative ways for conducting the discussion and improving the level of participation.

After the students have completed their discussion, one group member reports to the whole class on what they discussed. Another member writes the main points of their group discussion on the board. After each group has reported, the whole class can have a general discussion and come to a consensus.

As a last step, all the students can be asked to write an essay drawing from the collective ideas written on the board. (The black board acts as an idea bank .) Students can react to the poem personally, interpret it, or write a narrative. While they are reviewing their first draft, I direct the students' attention to those sentences which need revision and help them edit their work. Providing the students with an opportunity to self-correct gives them time to focus their attention on grammar. This results in greater retention of structure and builds up their confidence, giving them a sense of achievement. It also reduces their fear of getting corrected and removes the sense of humiliation associated with it. Self- correction is painless and helps students retain an interest in learning the grammar of the target language.


My aim in making the students partake in this group activity is to develop in them a complex repertoire of strategies for learning. I guide them initially, only to make them learn to be on their own later. Since I am not interested in diagnosing their weaknesses, I give them equal opportunities to try their hand at different roles and take the responsibility for their own learning. Because my goal is to encourage the students to use the language they are learning, I make it clear to them that neither the manner of their participation nor their written product are to be graded. By this means, I believe they are forced to take risks in using the target language, making mistakes and learning from them.

In the typical Indian classroom two significant features of the whole language approach are lacking- exposure to and use of the target language . For this reason I make both the focus of my teaching. I try to drive home the point that language is for negotiating and making meaning.

Participation in group discussion seems to improve my students' confidence and fluency. It also helps them develop strategies for improving all the language skills simultaneously. In collectively discussing and brainstorming the poem, they negotiate meaning, and listen to each other's views; and through writing, they synthesize everybody's contribution in a logical, organized manner. Though different, all these activities contribute to the development of the whole language. By taking on different roles as they relate to a piece of literature, students learn to take responsibility for their own learning, and they realize that each role contributes to everybody's learning.

Devi Chitrapu is head of the English Department at Women's College, Gudivada, India. She is presently working towards a doctorate in Applied Linguistics at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania.



  • Altwerger B., C. Edelsky, and B. M. Flores. 1989. Whole language what's new? In Whole language: Beliefs and practices, ed. G. Manning and M. Manning. West Haven: NEA Publications.
  • Brown, H. and V. Mathie. 1991. Inside whole language: A classroom view. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  • Fountas, I. and I. Hannigan. 1989. Making sense of whole language: The purist of informed teaching. Childhood Education, 65, pp. 133-137.
  • Goodman, K. 1986. What's whole in whole language? Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  • Goodman, Y. 1980. Kid Watching. An alternative to teaching. In Reading Comprehension. Reading Guide, ed. B. P. Farr, and D. J. Stickler. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press
  • Newman, M. J. ed. 1985. Whole language in theory and use. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  • O'Keefe, T. 1992. Whole language teaching today. Instructor, 102, 4, pp. 43-49.
  • Shrum, J. L. and E. W. Glisan. 1994. Contextualized language instruction. Boston: Heinle and Heinle.
  • Strickland, K. and J. Strickland. 1993. Uncovering the curriculum: Whole Language in secondary and post secondary classrooms. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton Book Publishers.

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Vol 34 No 2, April - June 1996
Page 28

Figure 1


The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood,
Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it.
And from there those that lifted eyes could count
Five mountain ranges one behind the other
Under the sunset far into Vermont.
And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled,
As it ran light, or had to bear a load.
And nothing happened: day was all but done.
Call it a day, I wish they might have said
To please the boy by giving him the half hour
That a boy counts so much when saved from work.
His sister stood beside them in her apron
To tell them `Supper.' At the word, the saw,
As if to prove saws knew what supper meant,
Leaped out at the boy's hand, or seemed to leap-
He must have given the hand. However it was,
Neither refused the meeting. But the hand!
The boy's first outcry was a rueful laugh,
As he swung toward them holding up the hand
Half in appeal, but half as if to keep
The life from spilling. Then the boy saw all-
Since he was old enough to know, big boy
Doing a man's work, though a child at heart-
He saw all spoiled. `Don't let him cut my hand off-
The doctor, when he comes. Don't let him, sister!'
So. But the hand was gone already.
The doctor put him in the dark of ether.
He lay and puffed his lips out with his breath.
And then-the watcher at his pulse took fright.
No one believed. They listened at his heart.
Little-less-nothing!-and that ended it.
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.

From The Poetry of Robert Frost edited by Edward Connery
Lathem. 1979. New York: Henry Holt and Co.
`Out Out-' is in the public domain.

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Vol 34 No 2, April - June 1996
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