The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The straw man in the new round of the reading wars

English teacher Laurel Taylor reads a children's book about how different animals perceive a cat to her 12th-grade honors students at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., in 2017. (Dayna Smith for The Washington Post)

The “reading wars” never go away — at least not for long.

What exactly are they? Fights in the education policy world about the “best way” to teach reading to kids — as if there were a single best way.

So what are the “reading wars” and when did they start? They go back to the 1800s, when debate began about the best way to teach kids to read. Horace Mann, the influential educational reformer who was secretary of education in Massachusetts, argued against teaching the explicit sounds of each letter, arguing that students would then not learn to read for meaning and that they should first learn to read whole words.

A debate over emphasizing “phonics” or “whole language” has been voiced ever since — at least by scholars and policymakers, who often don’t bother to pay attention to what teachers are actually doing in the classroom.

The debate flared in 2013, when the National Council on Teacher Quality, a group created by a conservative think tank to diminish the influence of teacher education schools, published negative ratings of many of these institutions and attacked their literacy instruction.

Rachael Gabriel, associate professor of literacy education at the University of Connecticut, wrote a piece for this blog at the time critiquing the ratings — and now she is back with a new piece looking at a flare-up in the reading wars, sparked by some articles in the news media attacking “balanced literacy.” Though the term suggests that is a combination of whole language and phonics, it is actually more. Gabriel explains:

By Rachael Gabriel

We are seeing new articles in the media saying that American elementary school educators don’t understand the science of how to teach kids how to read — and even if they do, some resist it.

These reports then suggest that a return to explicit phonics instruction and the dismissal of other approaches is the only valid response to scientific research. Though pendulum swings between phonics- or basic-skills-focused instruction and meaning-focused instruction have been ongoing for decades, this round of debates has set up a new straw man, Balanced Literacy.

Unfortunately, what these reports get wrong about Balanced Literacy demonstrates exactly the kind of thinking that limits opportunities to develop literacy for all children. Many students aren’t being taught to read because of the same misconceptions perpetuated by articles that have recently raised the alarm about current methods of teaching reading and identifying reading disabilities such as dyslexia.

There is a wide divide between political debates about the teaching of reading and the actual instruction students receive in classrooms. The sloppy, mudslinging nature of these debates has led to confusion, distrust and a tribe-like affiliation with single approaches among practitioners, researchers and policymakers.

There is resistance to reading mandates in both directions. “Scientific research” — sometimes the very same studies — is used to argue both sides. Philosophical differences are frequently acknowledged, but rarely understood. Like different denominations of a single religion, different approaches to reading instruction often have significant assumptions in common, but some core disagreements that each believes is the fatal flaw of the other and the reason to dismiss it completely.

Distrust and misinformation on both sides perpetuates dramatic pendulum swings back and forth between contrasting approaches. These rob educators of the continuity needed to master and innovate in any direction, and eliminates the possibility of meaningful integration of ideas.

Teachers are sometimes painted as being recalcitrant and/or ignorant, workers within failing public institutions that ignore or are ignorant of research. Whether or not every elementary educator and leader is engaged with research from the full range of disciplines relevant to literacy, these caricatures do more to limit educators’ potential to improve than they do to shed light on their areas for improvement. They set up a false either-or binary that makes everything schools do “bad”’ and everything (some) scientists and advocates want them to do “good.”

Here are a few things news stories tend to get wrong:

Balanced Literacy is not “a little bit of phonics.” It’s not “whole language under a new name."'

It’s also not a good description for what goes on in most classrooms I’ve visited over the past decade, including those that claim to use a Balanced Literacy approach (and many do not). Much has been written online about Balanced Literacy by many partially informed bloggers. Whoever recently edited the Wikipedia page for it clearly didn’t read the texts they reference, and either made things up, or reported based on limited experience for most of the page. Originally, Balanced Literacy was intended to “balance” several aspects of instruction which scientific research highlighted as important, but in tension: reading and writing (instead of focusing heavily on reading at the expense of writing); teacher-directed and student-centered activities (instead of being totally student-led inquiry, or complete teacher-directed explicit instruction); whole group, small group and independent configurations (instead of all one or another), and skill-focused (e.g. phonics) and meaning-focused (e.g. comprehension) instruction.

Each of these things are important: reading, writing, teacher direction, student inquiry, etc. None of these things should cancel out any of the others. But holding them in balance within a 90-minute period is challenging. Teaching a range of skills (for decoding and spelling) and strategies (for meaning-making), in a range of formats (whole group, small group and one-to-one), using a range of practices (read-alouds, shared reading, interactive reading, word work, guided reading, independent reading, interactive writing, shared writing, independent writing) is not only time-consuming but also requires tremendous skill in planning, execution, assessment and reflection from a knowledgeable, responsive teacher every single day.

So, most of the time, even when I see “balanced literacy” on a glossy poster in a classroom, I don’t see those things held in balance in real time. Sometimes what emerges is responsive to students and of great value. Sometimes what emerges is a mishmash of practices that do not fulfill original intentions or meet minimum standards. Depending on your philosophical orientation, you might swing right and say: more structure, more scripting, more focus will improve instruction. You might instead swing to the left and say: more knowledge, more freedom, and more flexibility will improve instruction. We can all agree we do not want to stay in a place where instructional quality is so variable and therefore inequitable.

To be clear: there are schools that do “a little bit of phonics” or no phonics, or such confused phonics that they may as well not have tried. There are also schools that do 20-45 minutes of high-quality explicit, systematic phonics instruction in regular classroom and intervention settings. There are even schools that do a whole period of phonics and spelling that is separate from other class periods of reading and/or writing throughout the day.

Poor instruction, jumbled instruction and unbalanced instruction do not occur because of Balanced Literacy, schools of education or the vestiges of a whole-language movement. Poor, jumbled and unbalanced instruction is just as likely to exist in settings where explicit, systematic phonics instruction is mandated in schools and teacher preparation programs.

Instead of arming educators with tools to manage the complexity of literacy learning, we put them in the middle of a political, philosophical conflict with religious overtones. We first tell them there is one right way. Then, 10-15 years later, we tell them they’re getting new materials, schedules, expectations and “professional development” because something else is the one right way. Some individual educators braid together coherent understandings in the midst of volatility. Others do not.

Schools do not categorically ignore “scientific research.”

As recent reports are quick to point out, the 2001 report of the National Reading Panel (NRP) should have been a good place to start conversations about scientifically-based reading research (SBRR) across U.S. schools. But what is less often discussed is that the 449-page report was summarized into a 34-page brochure that contained a fistful of claims that directly contradicted the full report. Most of the summary is devoted to findings related to phonics instruction — not because that was the focus of the NRP, but because it opened a new market for phonics-related educational materials and assessments. Free copies of the summary (not the full report) were mailed to every district and town. The effort to let the scientific research rule in 2001 was stymied by the publication of the error-laden summary. Now, anyone who claims the NRP report clearly held up a systematic-phonics-only approach clearly didn’t read the report or the many commentaries that came after it.

In much the same way that people with contrasting perspectives on social issues both cite the same religious texts as evidence, advocates for meaning-focused, inquiry in literacy and advocates for skills-focused direct instruction in literacy both routinely reference the NRP findings as evidence for their positions. There are findings in the full report that can be used to support a range of approaches.

Still, under the 2002 federal No Child Left Behind Act, schools were required to use SBRR for instruction and intervention, as defined by the federal government. In fact, as a nation, we tried mandating strict adherence to SBRR over time on a large scale. That experiment in mandating SBRR for schools that received extra federal funding was called Reading First. It failed — not because it is impossible to make such methods work (and it did work well in some places), but because they do not work for all children, all the time, in all settings and therefore, on average, they fail.

District- or statewide implementation of a Balanced Literacy approach will also fail on average because different learners require different pathways to reading proficiency and implementation of research-based ideas will always vary in practice. There is scientific evidence for the components of a Balanced Literacy approach, and there is scientific evidence for the need for more explicit and systematic instruction of phonics and phonemic awareness.

However, just as the NRP predicted, the most robust effect sizes across settings that exist in scientific research come from studies of programs that are multifaceted rather than narrow in their approach, regardless of the theoretical orientation.

Multifaceted means that while targeting reading for the most vulnerable students, these approaches make explicit use of research on: writing and its reciprocity with reading; motivation and affect, and their impact on cognition; comprehension strategy instruction and the benefit of practice with continuous, connected texts that are interesting and meaningful. The best evidence points toward approaches that attend to multiple pathways for learning.

U.S. public schools are not monolithic.

There is no way to describe how U.S. schools teach reading on average, in general or in most places. Significant differences in the execution of reading programs exist between classrooms, schools and districts even in the most standardized states.

Teachers working next door to one other, using the same materials, in the same setting, often have differences in the nature of their instruction, use of time, and engagement with evidence-based practices. The idea that public schools are systematically minimizing or limiting phonics instruction is simply untrue. The idea that most places have embraced a whole language-inspired “balanced” approach is simply untrue.

That isn’t to say that some schools and classrooms haven’t tried to do these things, but it is to reject the premise that a single philosophy has ever successfully spread across the land. In fact, “scientific research” has convincingly demonstrated when it comes to areas plagued by a pattern of contradictory reforms, individual teachers tend to “hug the middle” doing some of everything and a pure or extreme version of nothing “on average” and “in general.”

Given this, it’s counterproductive to deepen suspicion and disdain for public schools at a time when their work is more vital than ever to the health of our democracy and the promise of equality. And, it is irresponsible to represent the science of reading as completely settled and schools as effectively ignoring it. The sheer volume of ongoing neuroscience, cognitive science and social science research on literacy development is evidence that there is more to learn and explore when it comes to teaching all students to read.

No matter whose voices are loudest in any given decade, scientific research has consistently shown that:

  • All children’s minds meet the task of learning to read a little bit differently. For example, some scientists estimate up to four different subtypes of dyslexia, rather than one as once assumed. Conclusion: One philosophical orientation toward reading instruction is never going to work in all U.S. public schools no matter whose idea it was. Students learn differently and the sources of potential difficulty are varied.
  • There are differences in experiences and outcomes related to reading and writing based on gender, race, language history, disability status and socioeconomic factors. These often appear before formal instruction has begun, and widen after. Conclusion: The question of how literacy is taught has everything to do with race, class, culture and identity, and any reporting or reform that ignores this is missing or misrepresenting reality.
  • Ultimately, our failure to teach all students to read is a failure of our ability to improve instruction that starts with well-researched ideas, and is molded by professional educators into individualized pathways to a common outcome: powerful literacies. Conclusion: We should be more focused on improving instruction than disproving philosophy.

Contrasting approaches are rarely explored with genuine curiosity as starting points for rigorous improvement based on practice-generated evidence of effectiveness (e.g., in classrooms rather than in lab settings). They are religions unto themselves, complete with leaders, deities, catchphrases, measures of fidelity, branded tote bags and pledges of allegiance that blind people to the pitfalls and possibilities each one carries. The leaders of one routinely dismiss the ideas of the other, and their followers follow suit, often without a full understanding of that which they dismiss. This won’t go away with the next pendulum swing.

So, before we take the usual “ready, fire, aim” approach and swing back toward phonics-focused instruction, let’s not assume any one approach has the monopoly on authoritative research. Let’s not just sound the alarm when we notice students struggling, but actually build in some improvements when whatever path we’re on leaves some students behind.

The question we should be asking in investigative reports, board meetings and individual classrooms is not, “Have we gone the wrong way?” The questions should be: “What is working here, when and for whom, and what can we improve?” Or at the very least: “As we go this way, who becomes vulnerable, and how do we support them?”

Shaming and blaming public schools for how they have attempted to manage the complex and sacred task of teaching reading will make the swing back toward phonics so rigid, narrow and self-righteous that it will certainly fail and come bounding back toward more holistic approaches with all their pitfalls and possibilities in a decade.

Instead of raising an alarm about current practices and running in the opposite direction, we should follow educators and neuroscientists who are genuinely curious about the complexity of literacy and of individuals:

  • Leaders who are thoughtfully experimenting with the possibilities of matching individual readers with individualized supports, regardless of who came up with them 
  • Leaders who understand the structures, pressures and realities of classrooms in different settings 
  • Leaders who are more invested in starting with sound scientific ideas, and improving rapidly and nimbly than being right and proving everyone else wrong 
  • Leaders who learn from the failures and excesses of the past and work to change the very thinking and tools that failed in the first place. 

It is time to change the thinking from rigid “either-or choices” in literacy instruction to responsive “yes-ands” that engage children’s unique pathways to literacy.

We can have classrooms with explicit phonics instruction and engagement with literatures that sustain the cultures and identities of our students. We can teach reading and writing, and let one support the other.

We can plan for motivation, engagement, identity development and rigorous skill development in the same lesson. We can build classrooms that teach all students to read, but not if we miss opportunities to learn from current practices before running in the other direction.