The reading wars are alive and well. Should you pay attention or stay out of the debate?
Here’s what every teacher should know about the reading wars.
As a mom of six, I’ve refereed countless arguments.
It wasn’t much different in the classroom.
I loved my years as a classroom teacher, but I remember how incessant student squabbles can be.
The truth is … I’ve heard enough bickering to last the rest of my life.
But alas … the bickering is all around us.
If you teach reading, it’s impossible to avoid the reading wars.
We find arguments on Twitter, in Facebook groups, and in blog comment sections.
I don’t know about you, but sometimes I just want to bury my head in the sand.
As tempting as it may be, we shouldn’t put our heads down and keep teaching without being aware of the current debate.
There’s much to learn.
There’s much to say.
1. The reading wars have a long history.
AND IT ALL COMES DOWN TO PHONICS
In my podcast about the reading wars, I quoted David and Meredith Liben.
“The disagreements over the rightful role, intensity of focus, and approach within the phonics universe is a central part of the reading wars.”
And that’s because the phonics discussion leads to difficult questions …
- How structured should the teaching of young children be?
- How much should children practice new skills?
- How and when should we assess?
- Who’s accountable for children learning to read?
The phonics (sound it out) approach was pitted against the look-say (memorize the whole word) approach for decades – in fact, much of the early 20th century.
THE DEBATE GOT HEATED IN THE MID 1950’S
The reading wars really ignited when Rudolf Flesch published his incendiary book, Why Johnny Can’t Read, in 1955. In that book he blasted the whole word approach.
Prominent researchers such as Jeanne Chall joined the discussion, and they found that systematic, sequential phonics instruction produces better outcomes in word recognition in the early grades and even helps improve reading comprehension in the later grades.
The publication of Jeanne Chall’s book, Learning to Read: The Great Debate, should have ended the reading wars.
But in spite of what she shared from research…
Whole language (NOT systematic, explicit phonics instruction) became a popular approach.
WHOLE LANGUAGE BECAME POPULAR IN THE 1970’S
The whole language philosophy says that learning to read is very much like learning to speak. It says that if we surround kids with lots of quality literature, lots of print on the walls, and lots of reading aloud to them, they’ll pick up reading without a lot of explicit instruction.
Whole language isn’t technically against phonics, but it advocates more of a “teach it as needed” approach.
The wars raged on.
In 2000, the National Reading Panel completed its three-year study of the research surrounding reading. They recommended explicit instruction in phonemic awareness, systematic phonics instruction, methods to improve fluency, and ways to improve reading comprehension.
BALANCED LITERACY BECAME POPULAR IN THE LATE 1990’S
Around the time that the NRP released its report, balanced literacy was born.
Balanced literacy has a million definitions, but we can all agree that it was an attempt to end the reading words between the whole language and phonics camps.
Balanced literacy isn’t all bad. Balanced literacy teachers tend to be dedicated educators who are passionate about quality literature; they work hard to help their students develop a love of reading.
But there’s a problem.
And it’s a big one.
2. The current debate is between balanced and structured literacy.
The name “structured literacy” was coined by the International Dyslexia Association in 2016.
Structured literacy is a systematic and cumulative approach that teaches the critical elements (phonemic awareness, phonics, and the rest) through explicit instruction and with diagnostic teaching.
(It that sounded like a foreign language, check out my series about structured literacy. I break it all down.)
Those in the structured literacy camp are often referred to “science of reading” advocates.
The science of reading is simply the collection of research related to how we teach reading.
Structured literacy advocates (sometimes called the science of reading crowd) have quite a few problems with balanced literacy, but the biggest issue by far is with three-cueing.
In fact, the recent article that reignited the reading wars focuses on three-cueing itself. (If you haven’t read it, check out Emily Hanford’s article: “At a Loss for Words.”)
Structured literacy advocates claim that three-cueing actually teaches bad habits and guessing, and that early readers need to begin their reading with decodable books so they can practice the phonics knowledge they’ve learned.
Despite research showing that three-cueing is unhelpful at best and damaging at worst, Fountas and Pinnell are still holding fast.
Meanwhile, in a recent article, Mark Seidenberg notes that “the best ‘cue’ to a word is the word itself.”
3. The science of reading camp isn’t JUST about phonics.
It feels like the science of reading is all about phonics – and nothing else.
After all, that’s where the discussions tend to go.
But SOR advocates know that we need both decoding ability AND language comprehension to be achieve the goal of reading: reading comprehension.
The reason the discussion revolves around phonics is because it’s taught in such a haphazard way in many balanced literacy classrooms.
It’s the thing that needs the most pressing attention.
If you doubt that comprehension gets attention in the science of reading camp, check out this post about Scarborough’s reading rope.
4. The science of reading is not a fad or pendulum swing.
It seems that every time I read a heated Facebook thread about the science of reading, someone always comes out and says something like this:
“I’ve been teaching for 35 years, and this is just the pendulum swinging back. It will swing again in a few years.”
Except … the science of reading isn’t just a bunch of people with opinions (even though we all have them). It’s the body of basic research about how we learn to read.
That research is going to be refined and added to, but it’s not going to disappear.
5. It’s every teacher’s responsibility to keep learning.
You may have heard the rallying cry of the science of reading crowd: “Know better, do better.”
I used to hate that.
It made me feel like they were sitting up on their high horse, looking down at me (I was still firmly entrenched in balanced literacy).
However, as I began to understand how wrong my approach was, I felt guilt and sadness for the students I hadn’t helped. I now realized that “know better, do better” is what we say to encourage ourselves to keep going … to do better for our current and future students.
Are you ready to learn?
Joining a science of reading Facebook group is a good place to start. The drama can get intense (ugh), but these groups often share links to free and inexpensive trainings that will help you on your journey.
Just like any setting, those groups are full of people with their own opinions (generally expressed IN ALL CAPS) that may or may not be backed by research.
It’s your job to do your own study.
Here are good places to start!
- Listen to my podcast series: Science of Reading Bootcamp.
- Read Know Better, Do Better, by David and Meredith Liben.
- Read Shifting the Balance, by Jan Burkins and Kari Yates.
- Get on the waitlist for my online course, Teaching Every Reader.
- Put more books on your reading list: Books to read on your science of reading journey
I’ll close this post with a quote from Cecilia Magro, one of many dedicated online educators.
As teachers, we need to be informed on research, how the brain learns, and critically analyze the practices we use in our classroom and decide if we need to change. When we know better, we do better.Cecilia Magro, I Love 1st Grade
Looking for more support as you learn about the science of reading?Join thousands of happy educators inside our monthly membership, The Measured Mom Plus! You’ll receive access to practical video trainings, plus thousands of low-prep resources for Pre-K to third grade!
Check out the rest of our 10-part phonics series!
Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
I enjoy your podcast and blog and find your thorough explanations of balanced literacy very clear. The science is very compelling.
I do wonder if any research has been done comparing English language literacy versus literacy and methods used in languages like Chinese or similar languages where the language is written in whole word form and most of this method is not applicable.
The short answer is yes, I believe so, as I’ve seen references to this kind of thing in some of my sources. But I skip over it because it doesn’t directly apply to what I’m doing. 🙂 If I see something again I’ll try to remember to come back here and link the article.
Just one quick search led me to this article, which looks like it will have some interesting insights: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/29833293_Orthographic_awareness_in_learning_Chinese_characters
🙂 I don’t know Chinese nor is my second language similar to it. However, I believe that all languages are logical and therefore, there are rules that help us break it down and can be understood in systematic way. Language itself is so vast, I cannot imagine not making connections between words. *And even without working knowledge of Chinese, I’ve seen how they put two words together to create new words. = order:)
Thanks for all of the information you’re putting out there about advancements in reading science and important instructional adjustments. I first learned the science a few years ago, but it was not clear to me that leveled texts and the “strategies” that accompany them can be damaging. I did start to notice my own frustration at how many of my students were guessing words they should have easily been able to sound out after phonics lessons. For my students, explicit phonics and three-cueing were completely opposing forces. Then there were sight words–they made children and adults cry! I now only use decodable text with early and struggling readers, and your recommendations were so helpful. The S.P.I.R.E. readers in particular have been a revelation.
Do you have any tips on gently encouraging these types of changes for teachers on my grade team? I work at a private school that is highly supportive of teacher autonomy, often at the expense of collaboration and consistency. Many teachers still drill sight words and explain that the words break rules. And since these teachers are mostly very experienced and used to being able to teach what/however they want, they are resistant to change.
Thanks again for your work and perspective.
This is so hard, Gina! Old habits die hard. I love what you said here: “For my students, explicit phonics and three-cueing were completely opposing forces.” I think a positive thing might be to share articles and set up times to discuss them as a group. You could share Emily Hanford’s article and discuss it together – although that one does tend to get balanced literacy teachers defensive (speaking from experience here!). Another option would be to have an outside speaker come and talk to your group. I’ve done that before – as of this date I share a free presentation called “Embracing the Science of Reading after 20 Years in Balanced Literacy.” If that’s something you think your staff would be open to, please email my team: hello(at)themeasuredmom(dot)com.
I love the way you present things in a clear, non-hostile way. I’m not at a school anymore – I tutor homeschoolers now – and found you through This Reading Mama. An online workshop the two of you did really helped me understand what the Science of Reading was all about. I only knew about it because teachers were writing articles complaining about it! I tried joining a Facebook group and was immediately attacked when I asked a question. I had used a slightly different word than their preferred “Science of Reading” word with the same meaning, and was told to read something at a link to “change my mindset.” I was on their side! It was the fact that my coding revealed me as an “outsider” that got someone on the defensive. I read what was at the link, and I had to laugh. The diagram of Scarborough’s Rope used the same word I had just used. I made a new post to the whole group and recommended that they approach new people with a more welcoming attitude if they want this approach to be accepted. All I can say is I’m glad I learned it here! I’m using the methods (and your free resources, thank you!) and my students are learning to read. If someone came at me like that in a school setting, I would completely shut off and not listen to a word they said.
Hi Beth! I’m sorry to hear that you were treated that way – unfortunately, many people who want to see change think that being abrasive is the solution. They were clearly so focused on their desired outcome that they couldn’t see that you were on their side! We’ll definitely keep this a safe space for discussion!
I homeschooled my twins “many” years ago and had to use both options with them. My daughter took right to phonics and had no problems. My son could say the letter sounds individually but had trouble blending the letters into a word. For him, I had to use the whole word approach, and then as he felt like he was learning to read, we included phonics again and this time he did well. Even at that, he was 10 before he felt comfortable reading aloud. I know if he’d been in a school setting, he would have been labeled and sent to special classes. That would have been detrimental for him. I really feel for classroom teachers that have a student like my son; if the parents don’t help at home, the child can easily fall behind. Later, I had him tested and found him to have dyslexia.
I’m so glad you finally found success with your son, Debra! It sounds like he needed work with phonemic awareness to get to the point that he could sound out words. That’s often the missing key for struggling readers, but it’s only recently that teachers are becoming more aware of that. If this was many years ago, I agree that he would have likely been put in special education. These days we encourage schools to do more early screening so that kids with signs of dyslexia can get extra help right away, even in kindergarten. Your son is blessed to have such a caring, determined mother!
Thanks for the quick recap – it was clear and balanced >.< I always appreciate your openness about your previous bent toward balanced literacy and hearing your story about what made you question your beliefs. While I've always leaned in the direction of systematic phonics instruction, I was mentored by a Reading Recovery teacher and I remember using the three cuing prompts in my early years of teaching.
I'm in a unique position in our school – I am the Literacy Lead. I give the classroom teachers their prep time by taking their students into my room for literacy. This is my second year doing it and the program keeps growing (3 classes last year, 6 this year!) It's quite wonderful because once I get it all organized the way I want I will be able to give consistent instruction from K-4 and then support the older students as they grow their skills. I'm looking forward to this blog series because I'm still playing around with my methods and scope and sequence and it looks like there may be some topics of interest.
Thanks for all of your passion and energy spent on this very important topic!
What an amazing set-up, Phaedra! You really do have ownership. I love that you’re able to give consistent instruction through the grades. I think you’ll really love this series!
Hello Anna, I an involved in a program which provides volunteers To go into schools to mentor students. Many of them are seniors and they get involved with supporting students who are struggling readers. I am trying to help them find out what is the best way to do this. Ideally the classroom teacher would share with us the strategies that he/she is using- so many of them should be reading your work. I question how much training Primary School teachers get about this important aspect of a child’s education.
I am a great fan of what you are doing. Please, please, keep up the good work!
Thank you so much for the encouragement, Nola, and thank you so much for all you’re doing! Do let me know if I can answer a specific question.