To answer this question, you must understand the core aspects of both approaches.
A Quick Definition of Whole Language & Direct Instruction
In whole language, students learn words, letters, sounds and skills within a meaningful context.
Teachers who use Direct Instruction teach specific knowledge and skills before guiding students to apply them within different contexts.
Sometimes whole language is equated with the whole word approach to teaching reading, while Direct Instruction is equated with teaching kids phonics. However, this can be quite misleading. Teachers using whole language can introduce phonics, but they do so within the context of reading a book or writing a text. Conversely, teachers using Direct Instruction can teach whole words (vocabulary) and comprehension skills, but they do so explicitly and sequentially.
Both approaches often use ability grouping (e.g. guided reading groups in whole language and mastery levels in Direct Instruction).
Key Differences Between The Two Approaches
There are 4 key differences between whole language and Direct Instruction.
- Whole language involves exposing students to skills and knowledge in context, while Direct Instruction involves introduces skills and knowledge on their own before helping students to apply them in different contexts.
- In whole language, skills and knowledge are introduced haphazardly (determined by the context), while Direct Instruction introduces skills and knowledge in carefully sequenced manner.
- In whole language, teachers often expect students to pick up skills and knowledge incidentally, while in Direct Instruction, they are explicitly taught what they need to know, and they are shown what they need to be able to do.
- In whole language, teachers create a safe environment where students can practice holistic tasks (e.g. writing for different purposes). In Direct Instruction, students focus their practice on particular skills, while the teacher gives them feedback as needed.
Why Is Direct Instruction Better?
The aspects of Direct Instruction that seem to be responsible for success are:
- A carefully sequenced curriculum, where knowledge and skills are taught in a set order.
- Building students’ knowledge and skills before moving into contextual application.
- The explicit teaching of what students need to know and be able to do.
- Focused practice, where students are striving to master one aspect of the material.
Those worried about the prescriptive nature of set Direct Instruction programs can take a lot from these four points.
While many schools are moving towards explicit instruction, some of the other elements may still need attention in your attention.
- A Sequenced Curriculum: Do you have a clear sequence of knowledge and skills that you will teach the kids in your class? Does this fit into an agreed sequence of knowledge and skills across year levels in your school?
- Foundations First: Do you teach the foundational skills and knowledge before asking students to apply what they learned, or to engage in higher-order thinking?
- Explicit Teaching: Do you explicitly teach students comprehension strategies, writing strategies and higher-order thinking strategies, or just basic knowledge and skills?
- Focused Practice: Do you give students the opportunities for practice and feedback before asking them to complete a similar task for assessment?
This doesn’t mean that there is no value in whole language strategies. Encouraging a love of reading (or any other area) and incidentally reinforcing things as they appear in different contexts are both great ideas. However, the holistic teaching of language, when used as the primary method of instruction, is not enough to help most kids succeed.