Working and playing with words: Variations across teachers in a holistic curriculum

Karen Nolan, University of Pennsylvania


This qualitative study investigates an area of language learning that has captivated and divided educators and researchers for decades: the role of phonics and word study in beginning reading instruction. This inquiry focuses on how first and second grade teachers construct phonics and word structure instruction in a school district committed to a holistic approach to literacy learning and instruction that meets the needs of its diverse student body. Caught up in the conversation surrounding the use of phonics in beginning reading instruction, the district is seeking a deeper awareness of the multiple factors that determine the degree to which teachers address phonic and word structure elements in their classrooms. Six teachers, two from each of the district's three elementary schools, were identified as participants in the study. Data were collected over a nine month period during the 1995–1996 school year and included: classroom observation; fieldnotes; quasi-formal and informal interviews of teachers, district administrators, and reading specialists; audiotaped interviews and classroom literacy events; district documents; and informal conversations with various school personnel. Situated within a social constructivist paradigm the data were examined through three conceptual frameworks: the social, curricular, and instructional contexts through which the teachers constructed phonics instruction and word structure study as their students worked and played with words. Within these contexts teachers varied from skills-based to meaning-based in their construction of phonics and word structure instruction, often employing a combination of the two approaches. Veteran teachers were strongly committed to explicit, rule-based language instruction that aids in the development of metalinguistic skills and familiarizes students with the alphabetic principle, Teachers recently graduated from university programs that emphasize a whole language approach often lack a strong knowledge base in phonics, word structure, and the alphabetic principle. Implications for teaching and research focus on how teachers learn, staff and professional development, beginning teacher induction programs, preservice and graduate teacher education, curriculum development, and reflective practice.

Subject Area

Literacy|Reading instruction|Elementary education|Teacher education

Recommended Citation

Nolan, Karen, "Working and playing with words: Variations across teachers in a holistic curriculum" (1999). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9949186.