The constructivist classroom is an environment where students build or construct their own knowledge. That does not mean they work alone or that they do not learn from what others have learned. To the contrary, many activities are hands-on and involve building on the work of others. Problem solving is often done within cooperative groups, and the tasks are meaningful to the lives of the students. This is the context of a whole language classroom. Proponents of this approach to teaching literacy stress the importance of relating what is new to what is known. After converting this to Piagetian jargon, we would say the student is given opportunities to assimilate and accommodate (http://web.psych.ualberta.ca/~mike/Pearl_Street/Dictionary/contents/A/adaptation.html) in a continuos process of achieving equilibrium (http://web.psych.ualberta.ca/~mike/Pearl_Street/Dictionary/contents/E/equilibration.html) and building schema (http://www.valdosta.peachnet.edu/~whuitt/psy702/cogsys/piaget.html). Perhaps the most fundamental principle of the whole language approach is that written language is learned the way oral language is. Children are expected to learn to read and write as they learned to talk, that is gradually, without a great deal of direct instruction. Learning is emphasized more than teaching. There is no division between first learning to read and later reading to learn. Whole language approaches also tend to emphasize writing about what the child already knows and can explain verbally. Early "writing" activities, for example, might involve the child describing his or her neighborhood and the teacher writing what the child says on a large piece of paper.
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Whole language learning is less focused on rules and repetition than is phonics. It stresses the flow and meaning of the text, emphasizing reading for meaning and using language in ways that relate to the students' own lives and cultures. Whole language classrooms tend to teach the process of reading, while the final product becomes secondary. The "sounding out" of words so central to phonics is not used in whole language learning. Instead, children are encouraged to decode each word through its larger context.
There are pros and cons to both methods of teaching. Phonics-based reading programs tend to build better pronunciation and word recognition. The phonics formulas can be applied again and again, and will help a child with spelling far more than the memorization and guesswork of whole language. If only taught phonetically, however, a child may have difficulty understanding the full meaning of a text, due to the constant breaking down of words into parts. Phonics critics also state that the rules and rote learning it entails are stifling and may cause children to develop the attitude that reading is a chore.
Whole language learning is thought to provide a better understanding of the text, and a more interesting and creative approach to reading. However, whole language learning may come at the expense of accuracy and correctness. A child might be awarded high marks for "overall language use," even if he or she has misspelled many words.
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