H is for Holistic

20 05 2012

I took delivery of two books last week, both of which make liberal use of the term holistic. One (Samuda and Bygate, 2008) is about task-based learning, and its first chapter is titled ‘Language use, holistic activity and second language learning’. The other (Goh and Burns, 2012) is called Teaching Speaking and has the strap-line: A Holistic Approach.  But now I’m wondering if the term hasn’t become a little overused, to the point of becoming meaningless. What, for example, do the following have in common: holistic approaches, holistic learners, and holistic testing – not to mention whole-language learning, and whole-person learning?

According to Wikipedia, ‘The term holism was coined in 1926 by Jan Smuts, a South African statesman [and, somewhat ironically, an advocate of racial segregation], in his book, Holism and Evolution. Smuts defined holism as “The tendency in nature to form wholes that are greater than the sum of the parts through creative evolution”‘.

Holism seems to have been co-opted into psychology (particularly Gestalt psychology), and thence into education, where a holistic approach can mean one of two things: either “an approach to language teaching which seeks to focus on language in its entirety rather than breaking it down into separate components” (Richards and Schmidt, 1985:240), or – very differently – an approach that engages the whole learner: intellectually, emotionally, and even physically.  Thus, Legutke and Thomas (1991: 159), for instance, talk about “the holistic and multisensory nature of learning which involves head, heart and hands”.

In this latter sense, holistic learning is virtually synonymous with whole-person learning, and often used to characterize such humanistic learning methods as the Silent Way, Total Physical Response (TPR) and Community Language Learning (CLL) . Thus, according to Richards and Rodgers (1986: 117) “CLL advocates a holistic approach to language learning, since ‘true’ human learning is both cognitive and affective. This is termed whole-person learning. Such learning takes place in a communicative situation where teachers and learners are involved in ‘an interaction… in which both experience a sense of their own wholeness’ (Curran 1972:90)”.

Whole-language learning, on the other hand, is the preferred term (in the US at least) for those approaches that are holistic in the first of the senses I outlined above, i.e. that ‘learning proceeds from whole to part’ (Freeman and Freeman 1998: xvii), and that, by experiencing whole language – e.g. as whole texts or as communicative tasks – you internalize the parts. It’s a ‘deep-end’, experiential approach. Thus, you learn speaking by speaking, reading by reading, and so on. This is why Samuda and Bygate (2008: 7) align task-based learning with holism: ‘One way of engaging language use is through holistic activity. Tasks are one kind of holistic activity’.

Goh and Burns (2012: 4), too, label their approach to speaking instruction as holistic, but only in the sense, it seems, that it “addresses language learners’ cognitive, affective (or emotional), and social needs, as they work towards acquiring good speaking competence”. In terms of a methodology, however, they reject a ‘learn-to-speak-by-speaking’ approach, arguing that “both part-practice activities and whole tasks are necessary to facilitate the automatization of various components of the complex skill of speaking” (op. cit. p. 148), adding that “speaking lessons should include opportunities to focus on grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation at appropriate stages of the learning sequence” (ibid.).

This is consistent with what Cazden calls ‘whole language plus’, where the primary focus is on task performance, but where there is recognition of the need for ‘temporary instructional detours’  in which the learner’s attention is directed to lower level features ‘at the point of need’.  Moreover, such a two-pronged approach is more likely to accommodate the learning style preferences of both analytic and holistic learners, where the latter are defined as learners who “like socially interactive, communicative events in which they can emphasise the main idea and avoid analysis of grammatical minutiae” (Oxford, 2001:361).

More recently, complexity theory and an ecological perspective have deepened our understanding of what ‘whole-ness’ entails.  As Ellis and Larsen-Freeman (2009: 91) put it: ‘Cognition, consciousness, experience, embodiment, brain, self, human interaction, society, culture, and history – in other words, phenomena at different levels of scale and time – are all inextricably intertwined in rich, complex, and dynamic ways in language, its use and its learning’.

Maybe this more elaborated and multi-layered view will serve to conflate the two senses of holistic as applied to approach. Could a focus both on whole-language and on the whole-learner help blur the distinction between learning and using, and between learner and language, forming one complex system, such that (to borrow Yeats’s image) we cannot ‘tell the dancer from the dance’?

I’ll let Leo van Lier (2004: 223-224) have the last word:

An ecological approach sees the learner as a whole person, not a grammar production unit.  It involves having meaningful things to do and say, being taken seriously, being given responsibility, and being encouraged to tackle challenging projects, to think critically, and to take control of one’s own learning.  The teacher provides assistance, but only just enough and just in time (in the form of pedagogical scaffolding), taking the learners’ developing skills and interests as the true driving force of the curriculum.

(Don’t know about you, but it sounds oddly familiar to me!)


Cazden, C. (1992) Whole Language Plus: Essays on Literacy in the US and NZ, New York: Teachers College Press.

Ellis, N., and Larsen-Freeman, D. (2009) ‘Constructing a second language: analyses and computational simulations of the emergence of linguistic constructions from usage’, in Ellis, N., and Larsen-Freeman, D. (eds.) Language as a Complex Adaptive system, Special issue of Language Learning, 59.

Freeman, Y.S. and Freeman, D.E. (1998) ESL/EFL Teaching: Principles for Success, Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Goh, C, and Burns, A. (2012) Teaching Speaking. A Holistic Approach, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Legutke, M., and Thomas, H. (1991) Process and Experience in the Language Classroom, Harlow: Longman.

Oxford, R. (2001) ‘Language learning styles and strategies’, in Celce-Murcia, M. (ed.) Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language (3rd edition), Boston, MA: Heinle Cengage Learning.

Richards, J.C. and Rodgers, T.S. (1986) Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Richards, J., and Schmidt, R. (eds.) (2002) Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics (3rd edn.), Harlow: Longman.

Samuda. V. and Bygate, M. (2008) Tasks in Second Language Learning, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

van Lier, L. (2004) The Ecology and Semiotics of Language Learning: A Sociocultural perspective, Norwell MA: Kluwer.

 Illustrations from Goldschmidt, T. 1923. English by Intuition and Pictures. Leipzig: Hirt & Sohn.

P is for Phonics

27 02 2011

A recent item on the BBC website (Reading test for six-year-olds to include non-words) reminds us that the debate about phonics continues to polarise educationalists and the public alike. The fact that a government-mandated reading test for six-year-olds is to include nonsense words, like ‘koob’ and ‘zort’, which the children are required to sound out, has incensed advocates of a more meaning- and context-driven approach to developing first language literacy: “It’s just bonkers!” The very mention of  phonics is guaranteed to elicit this kind of knee-jerk reaction in some quarters.

Just to remind you, phonics (to quote the entry from An A-Z of ELT)

is an approach to the teaching of first language reading that is based on the principle of identifying sound-letter relationships, and using this knowledge to ‘sound out’ unfamiliar words when reading.

The analytic, bottom-up phonics approach contrasts with a more holistic, top-down approach to developing literacy skills that is called (in the US at least) whole language learning. Whole language learning is premised on the belief that, “in the development of both speech and writing, children begin with a whole and only later develop an understanding of the constituent parts… Parts are harder to learn than wholes because they are more abstract. We need the whole to provide a context for the parts” (Freeman & Freeman, 1998, p. 65).

Because so much is at stake (i.e. first language literacy, and hence access to all the ‘cultural capital’ that goes with being able to read and write) the debate between advocates of phonics, on the one hand, and of whole language learning, on the other, has become iconic – representing as it does the war between traditionalists (‘teach the facts’) and the progressivisits (‘nurture the child’). The former claim that there can be no learning without knowledge of the system (i.e. the rules), while the latter claim that the only real learning is self-directed, socially-situated, and experiential.

Supporters of the phonics position cite research studies that suggest that the best predictors of reading ability are good phoneme-identification skills (the ability to sound out a word like c-a-t) and a knowledge of letter-sound correspondences, enabling accurate decoding of the written word. In one of a series of studies, for example, Byrne & Fielding-Barnsley (1995) found that children who had been instructed in phonemic awareness in pre-school “were superior in nonword [i.e. nonsense word] reading 2 and 3 years later and in reading comprehension at 3 years” (cited in Grabe & Stoller, 2002).

Advocates of whole language learning, on the other hand, argue that learning to read emerges out of immersion in a world of texts. “Children growing up in literate societies are surrounded by print. They begin to be aware of the functions of written language and to play at its use long before they come to school. School continues and extends this immersion in literacy…” (Goodman & Goodman, 1990, p. 225). Krashen (1999) cites a number of studies that show that what he calls ‘free voluntary reading’ “profoundly improves our reading ability, our writing ability, our spelling, our grammar, and our vocabulary” (p. 54).

Is there a compromise position? In her fascinating book, Proust and the Squid, (Wolf, 2008), Maryanne Wolf argues that successful decoding is contingent upon “knowing the meaning”, and that “for some children, knowledge of a word’s meaning pushes their halting decoding into the real thing”. One clue to a word’s meaning is its context, and an understanding of context requires reading skills, such as predicting and inferencing, of a more global kind than simply knowledge of sound-letter relationships. And it also assumes the existence of an already extensive and well-connected lexicon: “The more established our knowledge of a word, the more accurately and rapidly we read it” (p. 153).

Thus, successful readers are able to marshall both bottom-up (i.e. phonics) and top-down (i.e. whole language) processes more or less simultaneously, drawing on the one when the other is less reliable. Effective teaching of reading, arguably, achieves a similar balance. In the Reading Recovery approach, as pioneered by Marie M. Clay, the child’s reading aloud is supported and scaffolded by the teacher, allowing both a bottom-up or a top-down focus, as appropriate. As Clay & Cazden (1992) observe:

This program should be differentiated from both ‘whole language’ and ‘phonics.’  It differs from most whole language programs in recognising the need for temporary instructional detours in which the child’s attention is called to particular cues available in speech or print.  It differs from phonics in conceptualising phonological awareness as an outcome of reading and writing rather than as their prerequisite (pp. 129-130).

How does all this relate to second language learning? As I point out in An A-Z of ELT “the phonics debate is less of an issue [for us] since most adult second language learners are already literate”.  Nevertherless, the more fundamental argument – as to whether the parts should be taught in advance of the whole, or vice versa – is just as relevant to  language teaching as it is to literacy learning, and just as capable of inflaming similar passions.


Clay, M. & Cazden, C. (1992) A Vygotskian interpretation of reading recovery. In Cazden, C. 1992. Whole Language Plus: Essays on Literacy in the US and NZ. New York: Teachers College Press.

Freeman, Y.,  & Freeman, D.  (1998).  ESL/EFL Teaching: Principles for Success. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Goodman, Y., & Goodman, K. (1990). Vygotsky in a whole language perspective. In Moll, L. (ed.) Vygotsky and Education: Instructional implications and applications  of sociohistorical psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grabe, W., & Stoller, F. (2002). Teaching and Researching Reading. Harlow: Pearson.

Krashen, S. (1999). Three Arguments against Whole Language & Why They are Wrong. Portsmouth, NH.: Heinemann.

Wolf, M. (2008). Proust and the Squid: The story and science of the reading brain. Thriplow: Icon Books.

P is for “Point of Need”

14 11 2010

I wish I could remember – so I could thank – the person who recommended At the Point of Need: Teaching Basic and ESL Writers, by Marie Wilson Nelson (Portsmouth NH: Heinemann 1991). This book deserves to be a classic, not least because it’s about more than simply the teaching of writing. It makes a convincing case for a pedagogy that, rather than trying to second-guess and thereby pre-empt the learners’ learning trajectory, is entirely responsive to it: that is, a pedagogy which is wholly driven by the learners’ needs, as and when they emerge. As Nancy Martin writes, in the Foreword:

The concept of teaching only at the students’ perceived points of need, and as they arise, presents a different view of learning from that of planned and sequenced series of lessons. The former view depends on recognition of the power of the person’s intention as the operating dynamic in writing — and in learning (p. ix).

The book describes a five-year experiment at a college in the US, where writing workshops were offered to small groups of mixed native-speaker and non-native speaker undergraduates, each with a tutor, and where there was no formal writing – or grammar, or vocabulary – instruction. Instead, the students (all of whom had scored below a cut-off point on a test of standard written English) were – in the words of the program publicity – invited to:

  1. Choose topics that interest you and your group
  2. Freewrite without worrying about correctness on the first draft
  3. Revise your freewrites.  Your group will help you […]
  4. Learn to copy-edit your writing for publication

Instead of pre-teaching or modelling the skills of writing, “this writing program was set up on a dynamic of retrospective planning” (p. viii) whereby “the tutors found that the most acceptable and effective teaching was to give the help the students asked for when they asked for it — that is, as the students perceived the need” (p. ix).

Despite some initial resistance (by both students and instructors alike), the results were spectacular (and carefully documented by the 40 or so tutors over the 5-year period). As Nelson describes it:

Despite the loss of drive some suffered at first without grades, motivation surged when they experienced writing’s rewards: pride of publication…, feelings of accomplishment, influence on others, better grades in other courses, competence, empathy and praise from friends, and … emotional release (p.85).

The program was based on the principle that “less is more“, and that effective writing instruction involves simply:

  • motivating students to want to practice and improve
  • giving students control of decisions about their work
  • limiting teaching to what students needed or wanted to learn

(p. 189)

Testimony to the success of the program are the many student ‘voices’ scattered throughout the text. One student, Kamal, for example, recalls:

In WTC [the Writing Tutorial Center] I’ve found that even though my writing is not very good, it’s very important to me, and I like to read it over.

Also, when I read it aloud, my friends said, “Wow, that’s good!”  So when they do, my tutors said, “Let’s publish that in Excerpts,” and I felt, “God, I am a writer!”

That feeling makes me come to WTC all the time.  I attend five semesters, twice a week.  And each time I attend WTC, I learned.  That’s why I love it.


Teaching “at the point of need” is, of course, a principle that underpins whole language learning, including ‘reading recovery’ programs: Courtney Cazden writes about “recognising the need for temporary instructional detours in which the child’s attention is called to particular cues available in speech or print” (1992, p. 129, emphasis added). It would also seem analogous to the reactive ‘focus on form’ promoted by proponents of task-based learning, described by some researchers as ‘leading from behind’ (e.g. Samuda, 2001), whereby the teacher intervenes to scaffold the learners’ immediate communicative needs. As Long and Norris (2009) write:

Advantages of focus on form include the fact that attention to linguistic code features occurs just when their meaning and function are most likely to be evident to the learners concerned, at a moment when they have a perceived need for the new item, when they are attending, as a result, and when they are psycholinguistically ready (to begin) to learn the items (p. 137).

In language learning, as in life, perhaps ‘the readiness is all’.


Cazden, C. 1992. Whole Language Plus: Essays on Literacy in the US and NZ. New York: Teachers College Press.

Samuda, V. 2001. ‘Guiding relationships between form and meaning during task performance: the role of the teacher’.  In Bygate, M.,  Skehan, P.  & Swain, M.  (Eds.) Researching Pedagogic Tasks: Second Language Learning, Teaching and Testing. London: Longman.

Long, M.  & Norris, J.  2009.  ‘Task-based teaching and assessment’.  In van den Branden, K.,  Bygate, M.  & Norris, J.  (Eds.)  Task-based Language Teaching: A reader. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.