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Why the ‘reading wars’ are a waste of time

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The larger point is that the conflict is a waste of time, and I suspect most people know it.
— Professor Daniel Willingham on the "reading wars"

The conflict to which University of Virginia cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham refers is the one over how to teach kids to read — specifically, the never-ending argument that pits phonics against whole language, erupting in new skirmishes every few years, including right now.

The “reading wars” have roots in the 1800s, when Horace Mann, the influential educational reformer who was secretary of education in Massachusetts, argued against teaching the explicit sounds of each letter. If students were taught that way, they would not learn to read for meaning; instead, Mann said, they should first learn to read whole words.

A debate over emphasizing “phonics” or “whole language” has been heard ever since. The first is skills-based instruction, in which children learn sounds and letter blends that make up words through drills and corresponding storybooks before moving to literature and comprehension. The other is literature-based, known as the whole language approach, in which students are immersed in activities such as reading and writing stories and learn phonics skills within the context of that kind of work.

What does the research say, you ask? Some people will tell you there is conclusive evidence that phonics is better. Others will tell you the opposite. Meanwhile, there is something called “balanced literacy,” which is sometimes portrayed as being whole language with a little bit of phonics thrown in, but it is far more than that, as Rachael Gabriel, associate professor of literacy education at the University of Connecticut, explained in this piece, “The straw man in the new round of the reading wars.”

The straw man in the new round of the reading wars

A National Reading Panel, mandated by Congress, issued a controversial 2000 report. Many reading experts said the panel relied on a limited set of studies that supported, among other things, intensive drilling in phonics. President George W. Bush used the report as a basis for Reading First, a program to improve standardized test reading scores that became the centerpiece of his No Child Left Behind law.

What most people took away from the report was information found in a summary of the findings, which was largely produced by McGraw-Hill authors who wrote phonics-based materials.

As Gabriel wrote:

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.

Here is a new look at what we know about how to teach kids to read, this by Willingham, a psychology professor at U-Va. who focuses his research on the application of cognitive psychology to K-12 schools and higher education. He was appointed by President Barack Obama to the National Board for Education Sciences, the independent and nonpartisan arm of the U.S. Education Department, which provides statistics, research and evaluation on education topics.

He is the author of several books, including “Why Don’t Students Like School?” and “When Can You Trust the Experts?” He also blogs here, and his posts have appeared frequently over the years on The Answer Sheet. He can be reached at and you can follow him on Twitter @DTWillingham.

By Daniel Willingham

Last Friday, Emily Hanford published an op-ed in the New York Times that argued there are errors of omission and of commission in the education of future teachers concerning how most children learn to read. Curiously, but not unexpectedly, most of the comments on the New York Times website and on social media did not concern teacher education, but student learning, specifically whether phonics instruction is effective.

These comments put me in mind of the polarization of American politics, and this recent survey showing that relatively small percentages of those on the left and right are really far from the mainstream. In other words, we are not as polarized as the media and social media make it seem. Also, the people closer to the center are sick of the yammering anger of those on the far left and right.

I think that may be true of the controversy regarding the teaching of reading. So have a look at these six statements about children learning to read.

  1. The vast majority of children first learn to read by decoding sound. The extent to which children can learn to read in the absence of systematic phonics instruction varies (probably as a bell curve), depending on their phonemic awareness and other oral language skills when they enter school; the former helps a child to figure out decoding on her own, and the latter to compensate for difficulty in decoding.
  2. Some children — an extremely small percentage, but greater than zero — teach themselves to decode with very minimal input from adults. Many more need just a little support.
  3. The speed with which most children learn to decode will be slower if they receive haphazard instruction in phonics than it would be with systematic instruction. A substantial percentage will make very little progress without systematic phonics instruction.
  4. Phonics instruction is not a literacy program. The lifeblood of a literacy program is real language, as experienced in read-alouds, children’s literature, and opportunities to speak, listen, and to write. Children also need to see teachers and parents take joy in literacy.
  5. Although systematic phonics instruction seems as though it might bore children, researchers examining the effect of phonics instruction on reading motivation report no effect.
  6. That said, there’s certainly the potential for reading instruction to tilt too far in the direction of phonics instruction, a concern Jean Chall warned about in her 1967 report. Classrooms should devote much more time to the activities listed in No. 4 above than to phonics instruction.

I think all of the six statements above are true.

The number of people who would defend only the even or odd numbered statements (and deny the others) is, I’m guessing, small. I would also say they are ignoring abundant research and have above average capacity to kid themselves.

Most people believe both sets of statements but often emphasize only one. When challenged, they say, “Yes, yes, of course those others are true. That’s obvious. But you’re ignoring the statements I’m really passionate about!”

Naturally if you mostly emphasize the odd-numbered statements or the even-numbered statements, people will bark about the other. ​

I’m sure that as you read these six statements you disagreed with the way one or another is phrased, or you thought it went a little too far. I won’t defend any of them vigorously; I didn’t spend that much time writing them, to be honest. The larger point is that the conflict is a waste of time, and I suspect most people know it.

There’s plenty of other work to be done.