Does Whole Language Enable Good Formative Assessment?

Two approaches to teaching and learning dominate in our schools. Daisy Christodoulou (2016) labels these the generic-skill approach and the deliberate-practice approach. In the generic-skill approach, the skills we wish our students to acquire are taught directly. If we want students to be able to analyse, then we should get them to engage in analysis. If we want them to solve complex mathematical problems, then we should get them to engage in complex mathematical problem solving. Skills are thought to be generic. The deliberate-practice approach argues that the best way to impart such skills is to teach them indirectly by breaking them down into their component parts. If we want students to be able to analyse, then we should teach them a lot of content related to the topic we want them to analyse. If we want them to solve complex mathematical problems, then we should first teach them prerequisite skills for solving such problems like times tables and number bonds. Skills are thought to be highly domain-specific.

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The research strongly indicates that the deliberate-practice approach is a far more efficient approach. Research has shown that skill is not generic, but relies heavily on domain-specific knowledge. This was confirmed in studies carried out by Herbet Simon through his infamous chess experiments (Simon & Chase, 1973). Further, getting students to engage directly in tasks of high demand like analysis and problem solving places a significant burden on working memory, making it difficult for students to actually focus on the target skill (Kirschner, Sweller & Clark, 2006). It is clear that the best way to teach is by breaking a target skill into component parts and systematically strengthening these parts over time.

Given the research, we know that good early reading teachers break the task down into its component parts and teach them explicitly. There are five components that need to be taught explicitly: phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, comprehension and fluency. Whole language does not break the task of reading into its component parts. Instead, reading is treated like a generic skill and taught through the generic-skill approach: the best way to improve a skill is to perform the skill; the best way to improve reading is by getting them to read.  A phonics approach, on the other hand, breaks reading down. It teaches reading indirectly through deliberate practice of its component parts, paying close attention to the skills most deficient in the early years: phonics and phonemic awareness. Whole language is therefore incompatible with good teaching, phonics is.

Formative assessment is widely accepted as a crucial aspect of good teaching. The purpose of formative assessment is to make valid inferences to inform future teaching. As we have seen, good teaching breaks skills into their component parts as outlined by the deliberate-practice model. When it comes to formative assessment, best practice adopts the same model: assessment should target the component skills so we can make valid inferences about what a student can and cannot do and then plan accordingly.

Here, it is important to distinguish between tests used for formative and summative purposes. A test used for summative assessment is very different from one used for formative assessment. A summative assessment is used to develop a shared meaning about how competent a particular student is in a rather wide domain. It is assessing the target skill. As mentioned, the purpose of formative assessment is to assess the student’s knowledge of the component skills. It needs to be specific enough to be reliable so that valid inferences can be made. Assessing the target skill in order to make valid formative inference is not a reliable form of formative assessment because it is not specific enough.

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Given what we know of the importance of formative assessment, good early reading teachers are also good formative assessors. As outlined above, good formative assessment is specific enough to be reliable so that valid inferences can be made. It is not aiming to assess reading but is looking to assess any knowledge gaps a student may have in its component parts. Whole language cannot formatively assess reading reliably because it does not break reading down into its component parts. Instead, whole language approaches assessment of reading by having kids read to them, a valid form of summative assessment, but not a valid form of formative assessment.

The Running Record is a widely used tool used for formative assessment by whole language educators. It assesses a student’s ability to decode by having them read a passage of text. This is not appropriate as a formative task because the task does not appropriately target word decoding’s component skills. By using a Running Record, the whole language teacher lowers the assessment’s reliability and therefore valid inferences of reading knowledge or skill cannot be made. If a student fails to decode the word clever whilst reading, it is hardly possible to make a valid inference as to why the student has stumbled on this word because the component phonic knowledge needed to decode the word clever (c-l-e-v-er) has not been isolated in the assessment. The teacher can infer that the student does not know how to decode clever but cannot infer why the student cannot decode this word. In theory, the teacher could make inferences about a student’s ability to decode and which components need strengthening but due to the unreliability of the assessment, such an inference would not be valid, causing weak formative assessment.

The Running Record is an example of whole language’s flawed approach to assessment, closely related to its equally flawed teaching models. A teacher assessing student skill using a phonics approach can assess much more effectively because it does break reading down into its component parts. For example, teachers using a phonics-based approach will often test student knowledge of letter-sound correspondences by having them recall the phoneme to a displayed grapheme. Because it is appropriately specific, this sort of formative assessment has a high level of reliability and therefore our inferences can be of high quality. If a child cannot recall the phoneme /l/ when shown its matching grapheme then it is clear the student does not have this essential component knowledge and so it needs to be taught explicitly. This formative assessment will strengthen the students knowledge and help them decode clever in the future. This is reliable and valid formative assessment that informs future teaching.

Whole language is a flawed approach as it does not break learning down into its component parts. Its flaws are carried over to assessment, where whole language assessments like the Running Record which assess students completing the target skill lack reliability and therefore lack validity. It is often said that in order to be effective, early reading needs to be taught well. We can also say that early reading needs to be assessed well in order to be taught well. Phonics-based approaches enable this, whole language approaches do not.


Key References

Christodoulou, D. (2016) Making Good Progress

Simon & Chase (1973) Skill in Chess

Kirschner, Sweller & Swan (2006) Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work


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