Battles won and lost in American education’s bitter reading wars
Thursday, January 23, 2020
American and British educators are divided into two opposing camps over the best way to teach children to read: the “whole language” camp and the “phonics” camp. Both methods have been taught for over a century, but since 1955 the two camps have become stridently opposed to a degree that justifies the popular title for the dispute: “the reading wars.”
Below is a brief review of this curious battle of angry academics and legislators, along with my answers to three cogent questions: What does each group propose? Why do they distrust and dislike each other so much? And, finally, is there any hope of a truce?
The Origins of Phonics
Rudolf Flesch fired the opening salvo in the 20th and 21st century reading wars in 1955 with the publication of his popular and influential book, “Why Johnny Can’t Read.” Flesch blamed the American education system for adopting the whole language reading method. His tone in support of phonics was strident and accusatory.
Misguided and often badly educated teachers, he proposed, were using books like the Dick and Jane series — uninspiring to begin with — to bludgeon kids into memorizing the look of whole words without giving them the essential phonic tools that would eliminate all the memorizing — with nearly 1 million words in the English language by some accounts, clearly a hopeless task. Instead, kids should learn how to read by learning how letters and a limited number of combinations of letters usually sound — the argument of the phonics camp.
The response to Flesch’s book was almost immediate, and within a few years a majority of U.S. teachers taught reading through phonics.
The Origins of Whole Language
Educators who had been teaching a relatively undogmatic version of whole language reading were naturally upset by Flesch’s book. For a few years there were no significant counter-attacks. By 1980, however, the pendulum began swinging back toward whole language with the rapid spread of a reading program called Reading Recovery.
Designed particularly for at-risk students by child psychologist Marie Clay, it was a whole language program designed to bring struggling students up to grade level in just a few weeks. To an impressive degree, it succeeded.
One inarguable limitation on phonics that Clay’s work took into account is that a substantial percentage of English words have spellings that a general understanding of phonics won’t help you decode, for example: indict, mortgage, Colonel, asthma and, for that matter, language.
Soon, educators with ties to state governments had reversed the two-decade long reign of phonics and began backing and sometimes formally legislating whole language reading instruction.
Wins and Losses
From 1980 forward, there have been wins and losses on both sides. At one point, the state of California had swung entirely to whole language reading; at a later point it’d swung all the way over to phonics.
This not entirely gratifying history of partisan attack and counterattack is nicely summarized in The Atlantic’s 1997 “Reading Wars.” Since then, the battle has continued. As I write in January 2020, the latest update is Dr. Jon Reyner’s “Reading Wars,” published this month by Northern Arizona University.
It notes that some late 20th century and early 21st century studies (which the author qualifies as “scientific” studies) show that phonics instruction produces better reading scores than whole language. Reiner counters that ethnographic studies show the lower scores were associated with students living in poverty.
Why the Bitterness?
When you look at other early education teaching areas — arithmetic is a good example — you see there’s no unanimity among teachers about how the subject is best taught. But, you’ll also find a degree of tolerance among advocates and an acknowledgment that some students learn better with one teaching approach while other students do better with another.
There’s also agreement that mixing teaching methods works particularly well. Writing in a 2012 Concordia University blog addressing teachers, Dr. Alisa Bates writes, “The key to teaching basic math skills that students can apply and remember for future instruction is to use several teaching strategies.”
Looking back at the history of the reading wars, it becomes clear that there’s more than pedagogical disagreement underlying the dispute. One of the better-known promoters of phonics was Phyllis Schlafly, a controversial conservative movement celebrity particularly reviled by liberal activists, women especially, for her public opposition to the Equal Right Amendment.
Being a Catholic, and having been educated in Catholic schools that commonly taught phonics, she was an early and abrasive proponent of that reading method. Soon, phonics became identified with political and religious conservatives and whole language became identified with liberals.
In the reading wars, each side’s coincidental connection with one method or the other assumed a larger significance that grew with the widespread adoption of phonics instruction in fundamentalist Christian schools. The battle had been joined and continues today: Christian conservatives who favor phonics vs. liberals who favor whole language instruction.
When Will It End?
Objectively, who can say when this battle ends? My own opinion, as a former English teacher, is that the devolution of reading methods into a sectarian battle that’s really about something else, us vs. them, is one more regrettable instance of our national polarization into two camps that oppose each other about almost everything.
What typifies this polarization is a deep distrust of the other side’s motives and an unwillingness to accept whatever evidence the opposing side provides. Most teachers with actual classroom experience know a reality that’s far more nuanced. Phonics, for instance, works best when it’s introduced early.
Older kids have more associational experience generally and as their vocabulary grows, they recognize words on the printed page through association — they’re less dependent on sounding words out. And, of course, some kids take to one method, other kids take to the other.
Studies have repeatedly shown that kids who come from relatively affluent backgrounds and from families with larger vocabularies where reading is a part of daily life do equally well with either method. This suggests that reading difficulties don’t originate with the teaching method, but arise from cultural deficits and, especially, poverty.
As the title of a 2018 Washington Post article asserts, “…the ‘reading wars’ are a waste of time. ” I agree, but expect it to continue.
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