Developing a Whole Language Partnership

Michael Peterson & Karen Feathers, Wayne State University

Kim Beloin, Cardinal Stritch University


Over the last ten years, inclusive education has been growing as a movement to enhance education for all students, including students with severe disabilities. For the first time in the history of formal schooling, the education of students with disabilities directly impacts on the structure and operation of "regular" education; and the structure and operation of typical classrooms and schools impacts directly on special education. It is in this context that the debate regarding effective literacy learning for all students is significant and critical. . While schools are expected to teach many "subjects", the most central historical expectation of schools is that they teach children to read, write, listen, and speak.

The main goal of inclusive education is to provide students with disabilities the opportunity to learn alongside their peers, in "regular" classes, with supports and assistance for both students and teachers. A growing number of inclusive educators are adopting an educational philosophy that is centered in constructivist, authentic educational practices. These practices include: cooperative learning; student empowerment; community learning; authentic learning; multiple intelligences; and other related approaches (Peterson, 1995). Such practices are in direct conflict with the worksheet, factory model of schooling that continues to be so common in schools throughout the United States (Goodlad, 1984).

Authentic and constructivist approaches to learning are about the reconstruction of typical schooling, as is inclusive education. Change is never easy; and these practices are as controversial as inclusive education in many areas of the country. What appears at stake is a fundamental debate and conflict regarding, not only learning, but the type of society and communities which we wish to create. Constructivist practices, we believe, are rooted in commitment to democracy and equality and are linked to the celebration and appreciation of diversity. We believe that inclusive educators and those interested in authentic, constructivist, child-centered practices must come together to better understand, support, and collaborate with one another given our inextricably linked agendas.

It is in this context that literacy is critical and becomes a cornerstone of multi-level partnerships. Literacy learning, however, is in the midst of tremendous turmoil with the central debate being posited as one of "whole language" versus "direct instruction" or a "phonics" based program. Students with disabilities and others with special learning needs are, in many ways, at the center of this debate as schools are often judged as effective or ineffective based on the degree to which students at risk, including students with disabilities, become literate citizens. Further, the outcome of the debate will have tremendous impact on the education of students with disabilities in regular schools. As whole language approaches to literacy become more commonplace in schools, students with disabilities will be once again sent to special programs if the educational consensus is that highly structured direct instruction is the approach of choice.

To date inclusive and whole language educators have largely worked in parallel at local, state, national, and international levels. We are writing this article to explore issues, values, and educational approaches which we believe that best practices in both inclusive education and whole language share in common and to suggest the intentional formation of a partnership to build on these common themes to further enhance effective schooling for all children. We will discuss literacy and inclusive education, provide an overview of whole language, explore areas of potential common ground, and recommend a range of local to national partnerships which can strengthen and mutually reinforce our common goals.

Literacy and Students with Disabilities

Literacy instruction regarding students with disabilities and other at risk students has largely centered around structured, phonics-based approaches to both reading and writing. Such students are presumed to be incapable of engaging in a literature rich learning process that is the hallmark of whole language. For example, when observing reading instruction in general and special education classrooms, Allington (1983) found that students with disabilities rarely experienced the meaning-focused interactions around books that he observed in general education classrooms. Students with disabilities spent the majority of their instructional time working alone on isolated word or letter-sound worksheets and workbook pages. He concluded that students with mental retardation and learning disabilities are provided outdated ineffective remedial strategies while their nondisabled peers are exposed to instructional strategies that are intellectually stimulating and motivating (Allington, 1983; Park, 1986).

Many special educators, in fact, promote the skill-based methods which Allington was criticizing. Numerous observations in special education separate classrooms by one author of this manuscript (Beloin, 1995) confirm the impact of this literature. In observing special education separate classrooms, it is more typical than unusual to see students with disabilities involved in rote copying of letters, their name, and the date as their primary, if not exclusive, experience in writing. In a comparative study conducted by O'Connor, Jenkins, Cole, and Mills (1993), the effects of two widely used remedial reading programs for children with mental retardation were examined. This study found no clear indication of benefits of using specialized remedial reading programs for children with mental retardation. According to Will (1986), special educators often assume that these children cannot effectively develop their literacy abilities in general education programs with non-disabled peers and that they more readily develop their literacy abilities through intensive remedial instruction in special classrooms. The assumption that reading methods and materials appropriate for children with mental retardation or other disabilities need to be drastically different from those used with non-disabled students is referred to by Pugach and Lilly (1984) as the "myth of differentness" (p. 49).

Current practices in special education and literacy education are causing practitioners to create, discover, and describe approaches that will enhance the literacy experiences of all children, in particular those children with disabilities who increasingly stay in general education classrooms. For example, it is known that reading to children is a holistic strategy which significantly enhances literacy development; and that children with disabilities develop socially and academically when they have increased opportunities to interact with their non-disabled peers. Beloin (1995) conducted an in-depth qualitative study to assess the impact of read alouds in an elementary classroom on three students with mental retardation (moderate to severe) and discovered that students were engaged, asked relevant and meaningful questions, and connected with the story as much as their non-disabled peers.

As more and more teachers utilize whole language methods that engage children in the active use of literature as a methodology for literacy learning and skill development, it appears that we have two choices: either separate special students for direct instruction as advocated by some or allow them to remain in the mainstream instruction. Whole language, we believe, provides an approach for enhancing literacy learning in ways that is highly consistent with the intent of inclusive education.

Whole Language

Whole Language began in the 1960's with the work of Kenneth Goodman who studied the oral reading of children, analyzing their miscues, and developed his theory of reading from those observations (1968, 1969). What is now known as whole language is actually a theory of literacy, learning, and teaching, a "theory in practice" (Edelsky, Altwerger, Flores, 1991). Like inclusive education, whole language embodies a comprehensive theory and philosophy of literacy instruction. Consequently, whole language is not merely an "approach" or a "method" of instruction. As Weaver (1990) indicates,
----whole language is a philosophy, a belief system about the nature of learning and how it can be fostered in classrooms and schools. It is not an approach per se, though of course some kinds of activities can reasonably be characterized as whole language because they are consonant with this philosophy, while others are rejected by the philosophyThere is no single set of activities, much less a prepackaged program, that could be said to define whole language. (p.3)

Whole language educators base their teaching on their theoretical beliefs. Because these educators share a theory of language learning, their instruction also shares certain features. It is, however, erroneous to assume that the features constitute a "method" since these features can also occur in non-whole language classrooms.

The central belief of whole language that emerged from Goodman's initial work is that language consists of cueing systems all of which operate simultaneously and interdependently during any literary encounter (Watson, Burke, & Harste, 1989) . This complex system of language is used to create meanings through socially shared conventions (Halliday, 1978). Meaning can also be created through the use of other systems such as art, music, and movement. Based on social experiences, each language user develops his/her rules that then operate to produce and/or to understand language. These systems include (1) the display; that is, the phonological (oral language), the graphic and graphophonic system (written language) and gestures (sign language), (2) the syntactic, (3) the semantic, and (4) the pragmatic. The phonological rules indicate what sounds are possible given particular conditions, for example what sounds are possible in a given language. The graphic involves the appearance of written language, for example the shapes that will be considered the letter "B", and the appearance of letters versus poems. The graphophonic system consists of the rules that are related to sound/symbol relationships, what many refer to as phonics. The syntatic system involves what we commonly know as grammar; those rules that regulate the structure of sentences. The semantic system has to do with the way words, sentences, and texts convey meaning and includes such things as context clues, vocabulary choice, main ideas, and story structures. The pragmatic system includes the social rules regarding the use of language. For example, a teen-ager asked about his/her date last night will use very different language in replying to that question if asked by his/her parent, eight year old sibling, or close friend. Pragmatic rules in a sense govern the choices in the other systems. So the teenager will choose different content and different vocabulary for each person (semantics) and will use different sentence structures (syntax).

Given the belief that all language systems operate simultaneously, whole language educators view the separation of language, for instance isolated instruction in phonics or grammar, as detrimental to learning. Instead, in whole language classrooms, language is left intact while certain aspects of that language are highlighted. Instead of isolated instruction in phonics, whole language educators talk about sound/symbol relationships during authentic reading and writing events. Because this type of embedded instruction is often not recognized by observers, some suggest that whole language instruction does not include such things as phonics instruction; however, all cueing systems are addressed.

In addition, whole language educators share some central beliefs about language learning: that learning occurs by connecting what is known to new information (therefore authentic texts that use the language with which children are familiar are best because they allow these connections); that knowledge is not transmitted from teacher to learner but constructed by the learner (therefore learning involves the active engagement of the learner); that learning is social (interactions are important); that multiple perspectives encourage better understanding and provoke additional learning (therefore diversity within classrooms is important), and that the teacher's role is that of facilitator. These basic beliefs of whole language educators will be explored next as they provide a common ground between whole language educators and proponents of inclusive education.

Arenas of Common Ground

Given mutual interest of whole language educators in understanding the impact of their teaching on students with disabilities and other special needs and the interest of inclusive educators in practices that support effective inclusion, developing an understanding of our common ground is important. The authors have identified many commonalities that we see in exemplary approaches to both whole language and inclusive education. This common ground centers on our beliefs about learning, features of the environment that provide support for effective learning, and key features of curriculum. We discuss these below.

Active learning
Social nature of learning

Multiple diversities
Learners supporting learners

Learner-centered classrooms
Meaningful learning
Diverse, integrated curriculum


Active learning An important belief about learning from a whole language perspective is that students learn best when they are actively involved in the process of learning. Passive learning involves teachers telling things to students, a transmission model of teaching, while active learning involves students in figuring out things for themselves, what Barnes (1975) calls an interpretive model and what others, based on Rosenblatt's work (1978, 1985), call transactional learning (Weaver, 1990). The learner must be active in the process because all knowledge is constructed (Anderson & Pearson, 1984; Neisser, 1976; Vygotsky, 1978). The role of the teacher is to provide the information, material, and experiences that enable students to learn and an environment that supports students in making choices and taking risks (Dewey, 1968; Harste, Burke & Woodward, 1984; Short & Burke, 1991)

Active learning is particularly important for students with intellectual and learning disabilities. Students with mental retardation, for example, have greater difficulty generalizing abstract skills learned in a classroom to their application in the community. Many students with learning disabilities may excel in more applied, performance-based activities while they may struggle with typical worksheet and text-based assignments in traditional teaching. In special education, the movement to teach "functional skills", the ability to engage in work, community living, and leisure activities, has been a central theme in working with students with both mild and more severe disabilities. When effective active learning occurs, such functional tasks are linked to the typical school curriculum objectives (Brolin, 1994; Falvey, 1994; Peterson, LeRoy, Field, and Wood, 1992; Stainback & Stainback, 1995).

Social nature of learning Whole language educators view learning as a social process, instead of an individual process(.Dewey, J, 1968; Halliday, 1977, 1978; Vygotsky, 1978). When students work alone, their only input is from the teacher and/or the book. However, when they are working collaboratively with other students, they have input from everyone involved. Additionally, the social act of discussing information and work with others helps students to better understand what they are learning. It is when we put language to our learning that we come to really comprehend new material .; The act of sharing with someone else causes new thinking as we attempt to present our understanding to another. Given that students with disabilities have most often been separated from other students and required to earn the right to belong, this basic learning principle has most often been violated (Kunc, 1991). Additionally, in classes for these students there is frequently little opportunity for students to work in social groups. Thus, the focus of whole language on the social nature of learning provides an opportunity for mutual learning.

Collaboration Given the belief in the social nature of learning, collaborative work is part of any whole language classroom (Short & Harste, 1996). Students work together in a variety of groups determined not by ability but by interest . Additionally, however, whole language educators believe in collaboration among everyone involved in the student's education. This might involve including collaborative teaching (teachers co-teaching classes), teachers and other school personnel such as counselors working together in classrooms, collaborations with parents to make decisions about students, curricula, and other school matters, and collaborations between schools and the surrounding community. For whole language teachers, their collaboration with special education personnel is seen as a natural part of their approach to teaching and learning (Choate, 1994; Ford, Messenheimer-Young, Toshner, Fitzgerald, Dyer, & Glodoski, 1996; Friend & Bursick, 1996); LeRoy, England, & Osbeck, 1994; Stainback and Stainback, 1995; Villa, Thousand, Stainback, & Stainback, 1992; Villa & Thousand, 1996).

Empowerment Similarly, whole language and inclusive schooling both seek to empower students, teachers, and families alike. Students in whole language classrooms are empowered in the sense that they are allowed choice: choices about what to study, what to read, how to be evaluated, and who to work with. Teachers also must be empowered to make curricular decisions so that what occurs in each classroom is best for the particular students in that class (Short & Harste , 1996 ). Involving families in making decisions that affect their children in their schools empowers those families (Rhodes & Shanklin, 1993).

Students with disabilities have often been left with little power. Because they are often considered unable to make the best decisions for themselves, their schooling is frequently very structured with few if any choices for students. Families often report new motivation and excitement from students with disabilities as they experience the opportunities provided by whole language teachers. In recognition of this issue, the U.S. Department of Education has funded numerous projects in recent years designed to enhance "self-determination" of students in schools. In whole language classrooms, such efforts to build self-esteem, self-determination, and choices for students with disabilities has the potential to increase the conscious awareness of empowerment strategies for all the students in the class.


"Multiple diversities" Whole language educators believe that diversity promotes learning. As students share their different perspectives, learning is expanded for all. The multiple ways in which students may be diverse - age, ability, language, culture, intelligence, and physical feature-- provide multiple perspectives necessary for optimal learning ( Leland & Harste, 1994; Monson, 1994). Thus, the involvement of students with disabilities in whole language classes adds a rich source of diversity and opportunities to explore these perspectives. In inclusive whole language classrooms, students with disabilities have the opportunity to understand the perspectives of other students. They further have the opportunity to develop social skills and relationships that will make them contributing members of their local communities (Bradley, King-Sears, Tessier-Switlick, 1997; Stainback & Stainback, 1984, 1995; Tomlinson, Callahan, Eiss, Imbeau, Landrum, 1997; York, Vandercook, MacDonald, Heise-Neff, & Caughey, 1992).

Community Much has been written in recent years about the tendency of our society to focus on individual competitiveness at the expense of community and caring. Developing communities that are effective in providing mutual support and in accomplishing valued tasks such as learning are critical roles of schools for the 21st century. Students must view themselves as part of a community whose members share a mutual goal of learning. In this community, all members support the efforts of each member and all are viewed as valuable contributors to the learning process. Whole language proponents are committed to building such a community within their classrooms where all students are considered valuable partners and all contributions are valued (Short & Burke, 1991). For students with disabilities, isolation and segregation have been common. The building of relationships in a community where students with disabilities are valued members and contributors is a key interest of those who have been supporting moves towards inclusive education (Peterson, 1995; Stainback & Stainback, 1995; Tomlinson, Callahan, Eiss, Imbeau, Landrum, 1997; Villa, Thousand, Stainback, & Stainback, 1992; Villa & Thousand, 1996).

Learners supporting learners Both the whole language and inclusive schooling movements are based on the belief that the best way to support learning is through facilitation of methods by which students support one another in the learning process. In whole language classrooms, all members are viewed as learning sources, not just the teacher. Collaborative work among students in which students help each other learn and celebrate each others' successes is a key feature (Harste, Woodward & Burke, 1984). For students with disabilities, peer support, collaborative learning, buddies, and other learning processes found in whole language classrooms provide key academic and social support as well as an opportunity to contribute (Stainback & Stainback, 1995; Villa & Thousand, 1996).

Learner- centered classrooms Whole language teachers believe that active learning occurs when students are engaged in authentic experiences that allow for student choices. Therefore, they particularly facilitate learning through learning centered activities that are based on the strengths and interests of students. Students develop their own inquiry questions and study topics of choice in small groups. For children with disabilities, deficits have been the center of the educational process and learning has most often been highly teacher directed. , Learner-centered education provides a critical opportunity for developing a range of skills including the capacity for choice and selfdetermination (Falvey, 1994; Peterson, LeRoy, Field, and Wood, 1992; Peterson, 1995; Stainback & Stainback, 1995).

Meaningful learning Whole language engages students in authentic experiences (for example writing real letters to people, mailing them, and receiving replies) as opposed to writing assigned letters that are graded by the teacher) and the use of authentic means of evaluation (Rhodes, & Shanklin, 1993). The material and experiences follow from students own inquiry questions and are therefore both relevant and meaningful. Students with cognitive disabilities particularly have difficulty with traditional educational practices based on worksheets. They need to experience meaningful activities for learning to be relevant for them (Armstrong, 1994; Falvey, 1994; Peterson, LeRoy, Field, and Wood, 1992; Peterson, 1995; Stainback & Stainback, 1995).

Diverse, integrated curriculum Because of the focus on authentic experiences, learning in whole language classrooms integrates various subject areas. In the real world, people rarely separate things into subject areas; people read, write, do math, engage in oral discussion with someone, draw, and use science as they engage in daily like activities. In whole language classrooms, students engage in all subject areas as they study topics of interest and use multiple sign systems such as art, music, math, or movement, to both record and share their learning (Leland & Harste, 1994). Similarly, effective education of students with disabilities is highly dependent upon approaches to curriculum that tap multiple modalities and replace typically fragmented curriculum with integrated approaches (Armstrong, 1994; Peterson, 1995; Stainback & Stainback, 1995).

Building a Partnership

In a recent article in Education Week (January 22, 1997, p. 20), Eric Schaps states that "these days those of us who subscribe to holistic, learning-centered visions of education are taking a beating. . . It is time to push back." Indeed, it seems to us that this is the case. There are many powerful advocates who are pursuing learning approaches that directly contradict the principles, goals, and practices of both whole language and inclusive schooling. We are confronted on every side with demands that subvert the learning interests of the student to those of the work place, replace active learning with more intensive and demanding skill-drill, and assess increasingly narrower skills via state examinations. Closely allied are the growth of programs that expand separation of students on many variables-- alternative schools, separate classes for students with disabilities, gifted programs, and separate bilingual programs.

It appears to us that if we value the common ground described above, that those of us working in related areas must join our energies. We must approach this with our eyes open to the goals of both whole language and inclusive education, building on our common ground, while committed to learning from one another. We also must acknowledge that both of our efforts are considered controversial by some and in collaborating as true partners we link our issues directly to one another. We think that our common ground is substantial enough to sustain such efforts. However, it is an important decision. Following, we describe some ways which we might work together at multiple levels .

Teachers and local schools

Given the grass-roots nature of both inclusive education and whole language, the most extensive and, ultimately, the most powerful arena for collaboration and partnership may be local schools and classrooms. Special and whole language educators may work together collaboratively through joint participation in various forums that impact on public school policy and practice. In a middle school in Southfield, Michigan, for example, a whole language reading teacher frequently makes presentations regarding her teaching strategies in which she describes inclusive education as a critical component of her teaching approach. Whole language and special education teachers may co-present in university classes to pre-service teachers to model collaborative efforts that link issues of true diversity with effective instructional methodology. As these efforts mature, whole language and special educators involved in inclusion may provide models for other school districts interested in developing effective literacy instruction for all students. Teachers working collaboratively may be especially effective members of building-based student study teams and working groups related to curriculum and school district policy. As the philosophy and technology of both become linked and trust develops, teachers may strengthen their mutual efforts in local schools discovering new allies in their work together.


Similar opportunities are apparent within states. Through federal and state funded initiatives, assistance has been provided schools in many states for implementing inclusive education. The active involvement of whole language educators in these efforts could help insure the utilization of effective educational practices. State and local organizations and networks in which whole language and inclusive educators get to know one another is needed. Much of this will be based on collaborative work and relationships that are developed in local schools. TAWL groups of the Whole Language Umbrella may intentionally invite inclusive educators to join them, and engage in dialogue. In many states, state or local networks have been formed to advocate for inclusive education. In Michigan, for example, the Inclusive Education Network was formed as a loose alliance of parents, educators, and advocates. Joint sponsorship of training events and conferences related to whole language and inclusive education could provide effective means of exploring common ground and needs for mutual support. As such efforts grow, joint work related to state policy is needed and could provide mutual assistance. In many states, inclusive education is part of policy and funding reform in special education; similarly, at both state and local levels, policies that support or work against whole language and related constructivist approaches to education are in process.


Universities have important roles to play in teacher education and research related to both whole language and inclusive education. Continued research is needed in both of these areas . The "common ground" discussed above describes our understanding regarding how the beliefs and instructional practices of whole language and inclusive educators are mutually reinforcing. From a research standpoint, these statements are rich in research hypotheses. Part of our hypothesis, in fact, is that in whole language classsrooms students with disabilities will be most successful and, conversely, that the presence of students with disabilities will enhance the effectiveness of whole language instruction for all students. These and related hypotheses need ongoing testing. Faculty working together from both these perspectives in collaboration with local schools could provide a framework for inquiry and learning that may help build collaborative work that may inform state and local efforts. In teacher education, collaboration is particularly critical. Faculty may develop methods of connecting instruction in whole language and inclusive education.


Both informal and formal collaborative efforts are needed at the national level between organizations involved in both whole language and inclusive schooling. This may be done several ways. A simple and effective beginning would involve the development of special interest groups or committees in organizations representing both whole language and inclusive education that may provide forums for exploring and building on common ground.

An important beginning has been made in this area. In the Fall of 1997, a proposal was made to the board of the Whole Language Umbrella (WLU) to establish a special interest group on inlusive education within that organization. The purpose of this special interest group is to provide a place to explore both disability and broader issues of "diversity" and challenging students from a whole language perspective and provide a mechanism by which to explore organizational collaboration. We would encourage joint members of TASH and WLU to become active in this interest group and for TASH as an organization to reach out to the leadership of the special interest group and WLU to explore collaborative work.

In special education organizations inclusive education is considered controversial. In some cases the stances taken by special education organizations related to inclusive education leaves their commitment in question. The position statement of the Council for Exceptional Children (1994) is a case in point in which, on the one hand, the organization affirmed the importance of inclusive education while, on the other hand, demanding that a "continuum of options" be maintained. Similar dynamics are occurring related to whole language and related constructivist educational approaches. The point is that as whole language and inclusive educators work to collaborate at a national, state, and local level, they must listen carefully and understand the political and philosophical dynamics and the often subtle and potentially misleading ways in which language is used.

Among the national organizations, particularly TASH and WLU, increasing dialogue and collaborative work could be most helpful in a number of ways. These may include:
1. joint sponsorship of conferences and workshops. For example, a national conference on inclusive education and whole language would provide a focussed opportunity to explore common ground and collaborative work. This seems particularly critical given the national debate regarding best literacy practices for students with disabilities.
2. meetings of the leadership of key organizations involved in both arenas to develop strategies and joint working projects is .
3. Funded centers and institutes who are charged with research, training, and technical assistance in both these arenas could work together with national organizations to facilitate meetings and conferences. The Consortium for Inclusive Schooling Practices, for example, involves collaborative efforts among several universities coordinated through Allegheny-Singer Research Institute in Pennsylvania. Collaboration between whole language researchers and this organization could result in fruitful sharing of resources and strategy development.
4. Perhaps most important is collaboration between whole language and inclusive educators related to national educational policy. Major trends are occurring that have potential to help or harm the common ground principles and values described above. As IDEA, the special education law is reauthorized, and other major educational legislation is considered by Congress, such joint efforts are crucial.


We are in a time of social unrest in which opposing forces are struggling for control of our society. Schools are in the middle of this struggle. At the most basic level, we are in a critical struggle for the minds and hearts of our children. We are deciding whether we will move towards meaningful democracy, valuing of diversity, and encouragement of human potential; or whether we will continue a highly hierarchical society in which the actions of both children and adults are highly controlled and regulated. As Paolo Friere has made clear, literacy is at the center of such a debate (1970). Inclusive and whole language educators have the potential to join as allies and partners towards common ends supporting learning strategies that support democracy, empowerment, and diversity. The hope of the authors of this manuscript is that we will look for and find ways to do so.

Michael Peterson, Ph.D. Professor, Special Education and Rehabilitation, College of Education, Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan
Karen Feathers, Ph.D., Professor, Teacher Education, College of Education, Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan
Kim Beloin, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Special Education, School of Education, University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point.


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