The Whole-Part-Whole Approach for Literacy Instruction


by Jeremy Wilson
Literacy Centre of Expertise Assistant

If you have been teaching EAL literacy for any amount of time or have looked through the CCLB’s ESL for ALL, you have likely come across the model known as Whole-Part-Whole (WPW).

Used in many areas where complex skills are being developed (from sports to budgeting to language learning), the whole-part-whole approach is especially relevant to teaching adult literacy learners as it provides for the use of both top-down and bottom-up strategies, can provide context and motivation for learning and also assist in planning instruction. Let’s take a look at what whole-part-whole is and why it is an effective approach for literacy learners.

What is whole-part-whole?

Whole-part-whole is an approach where learners are presented with an overall picture of the skill or task they are trying to learn (in any of the skills), then focus on the individual aspects or “parts” of that skill or task, and then return to the “whole” task and attempt to integrate both an overall understanding of the task along with the individual components they have practiced. In the context of language learning and literacy instruction, WPW is defined by ESL for ALL as an approach where “an authentic task is presented in its entirety and then broken down into individual components or parts that the learners work through systematically before the whole is addressed again” (Centre for Canadian Language Benchmarks, 2014, p. 12). Let’s take a look at each aspect of the process.

The First "Whole":

The first “whole” stage activates learners’ background knowledge about the topic or task and prepares them for new content (Swanson & Law, 1993). It also introduces a real-world context for the work with language they will do. This stage can involve discussion, videos and pictures and even field trips and is usually done as a whole class.

As an example, let’s look at the topic of grocery shopping. Learners may have expressed an interest in learning about food and grocery shopping in a needs assessment and reading a receipt may be an appropriate real-world task goal for this topic. The “whole” phase for working with this real-world task may involve a discussion where learners are asked where they buy groceries, what kind of groceries they buy, what they get back from the store upon purchase (receipts), and what kind of information is on a receipt (depending on the learners’ language levels and experience with receipts; we cannot assume they have prior experience with this, only find out if they do).

Asking these kinds of questions helps us discover the learners’ prior experiences with grocery shopping and receipts, what vocabulary and language about this topic they already possess, activates oral language necessary for literacy development, and draws on the skills and strengths they have outside of the classroom. Depending on the level, an instructor may display an example of a receipt and ask learners what they notice or recognize while in lower levels the instructor may read (and display) the whole text to the learners from the outset and have them listen to acquire basic comprehension of the text. After a basic grasp of the text is there, the instructor can move on to the “parts”.


“Parts” stages can be many and can involve any element of the task that is important for a more complete understanding of that task. It usually includes “specific language features” or literacy skills, such as those from the reading and writing continuums (including vocabulary, grammar, decoding, processing visual representations, comprehension, prediction, making outlines, editing, etc.), learning strategies, digital literacy skills, numeracy and others. Returning to our “reading a grocery receipt” real-world task above, this may involve a language focus on food vocabulary, sight word/decoding skills, scanning to find specific details, numeracy (prices/weight etc.), layout and features of a receipt or other “parts” in the form of skill-building tasks that help the learners successfully complete the real-world task of reading a grocery receipt.

The Return to the Whole:

After working with specific “parts” of the task, learners return to the “whole” and attempt to utilize the skills developed from working with the “parts” into a more complete understanding of the task. Going back to our receipt example, learners would now be presented with skill-using activities and assessment tasks where they practice incorporating all they have learned to complete the real-world task of reading grocery receipts (or in most cases an adapted approximation of such a task). The final whole may also focus on developing greater comprehension and/or fluency in the text or skill.

Why use whole-part-whole for literacy learners?

Personally, I had no prior experience with the whole-part-whole approach prior to teaching literacy learners. Having utilized it more and more often since then, I now find that using it helps me immensely with planning and delivering instruction. I had always focused on the “parts” but had often neglected the first “whole” phase and would be baffled by learner’s struggles with comprehending what they were supposed to do. In my experience, spending more time and attention on this first whole phase, as well as giving more consideration to what “parts” were needed to accomplish the task, has shown to be more effective in overall success for most learners.

What are your thoughts on whole-part-whole? How do you use it in your literacy classroom? Leave a comment below!

References and Further Reading

*To see whole-part-whole in action, check out the 20 hour synchronous course “An Introduction to the CLB:  ESL for ALL.” There is a great video which shows a demo of W-P-W from start to finish in an actual classroom.

Bow Valley College – School of Global Access (2018). A Practical Guide to Teaching ESL Literacy. Retrieved from Bow Valley College website.

Centre for Canadian Language Benchmarks. (2014). ESL for Adult Literacy Learners (ALL). Ottawa, ON: Centre for Canadian Language Benchmarks.

Centre for Canadian Language Benchmarks. (2017). CLB: ESL for ALL Support Kit. Ottawa, ON: Centre for Canadian Language Benchmarks.

St. Peter’s Catholic Primary School (n.d.). Whole-Part-Whole Fact Sheet.

Swanson, R. A. & Law, B. (1993). Whole-part-whole learning model. Performance Improvement Quarterly. 6 (1), 43-53.

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