Using the Top-Down or Whole Language Approach to Reading Instruction

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  • 0:03 What Is Whole Language?
  • 1:45 How Might a Lesson Look?
  • 2:40 Advantages to Whole Language
  • 3:35 Disadvantages to Whole…
  • 4:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

When it comes to reading instruction, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. This lesson will familiarize you with the top-down or whole language approach to reading instruction.

What Is Whole Language?

Ms. Pratt, a first grade teacher, is feeling frustrated with her literacy curriculum. Over the years, she's had great success in teaching children how to read, but she sometimes feels like her program, which relies heavily on phonics, fails to capture the joy and meaning of reading. This year, she's determined to investigate ways to diversify her instruction.

While doing research, Ms. Pratt learns about the whole language approach to reading instruction, also called the top-down approach. Whole language is a method of teaching reading that relies on the meaning of stories and texts. In whole language, meaning takes priority over individual words.

At first, Ms. Pratt is confused; she understands that comprehension, or understanding of reading, is important, but she also knows the importance of children learning sight words and understanding how to decode. As she researches further, though, Ms. Pratt comes to understand that a whole language approach doesn't exclude the teaching of phonics. Instead, it looks at language as a system that sees phonics as one part of a bigger picture, emphasizing real and quality literature rather than phonetic texts that are selected because of the word patterns they teach.

Ms. Pratt is excited to figure out more about whole language and begins to pinpoint some aspects of the philosophy that she already incorporates into her instruction. For example, the read-alouds Ms. Pratt does every afternoon help her students learn about the relationship between language, reading, and meaning. When Ms. Pratt's students write independently, they're also focusing on making meaning and expressing themselves, in line with the whole language method. However, she wants to teach a whole lesson using the approach.

How Might a Lesson Look?

At the beginning of her first whole language reading lesson, Ms. Pratt reads aloud a high-quality picture book, stopping to discuss the story with students and talk about the different meaning-oriented strategies the writer used. This asks students to engage with the richness of language.

Then, students work independently to read or look at books that are meaningful to them. Ms. Pratt circulates to ensure that students are reading books that are matched to their needs and interests.

After circulating, Ms. Pratt pulls small groups for guided reading, or small-group strategy instruction at an appropriate level. At the end of the lesson, Ms. Pratt pulls the students back together to share some things they learned or read about.

Important aspects of a whole language lesson are that it:

  • Focuses on real literature
  • Sees reading as primarily oriented toward meaning
  • Lets students work at their own level and from their own interests

Advantages to Whole Language

Ms. Pratt comes to believe that the whole language or top-down method, is advantageous in a number of ways. Some of the advantages she sees are:

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