The Reading Wars

Today’s NYT continues to try and stoke the phonics versus whole language fight. ( It’s sad that, even after everything we know about educational research, there are still those pushing WL, an unproven philosophy that has cost us a generation of readers in places like California.

The article starts off with a depiction of a whole language classroom, where we expect students to learn to read, as if by divine inspiration. Guess “pumpkin.” If that’s too long, and you recognize the first letter as “p” then maybe guess “pea.”

What parent wants to see her child learn through guessing games, in the hopes that they accidentally stumble across the right answer? No, we all want our kids learning through proven methods — knowing they are learning effectively, We don’t want them playing an educational game of Russian roulette, hoping the right answer may eventually appear in the chamber.

Why are we still having these debates, with the New York Times and WL researchers trying to justify whole language? There is no base of research to demonstrate its effectiveness. In fact, it isn’t even a teaching framework — it is merely a philosophy used to embody a “if it feels right, do it” approach, with no regard for whether it actually works.

Reading First is the law of the land. Reading First works. If implemented with fidelity, it effectively teaches virtually ALL children to read. Unfortunately, that message has gotten lost in panicked talks about IG reports, conflicts of interest, and who did what when.

Those involved in the initial passage of NCLB or the current reauthorization of the law should be proud of RF and its successes. If anything, we haven’t pushed RF and the research behind it hard enough — we’ve given schools and policymakers too many outs when it comes to implementing what the research demonstrates is effective.

The time has come to refocus the debate. Let’s talk about the impact of the law, not the administrative brawls that happen behind the scenes. How has RF impacted schools and classrooms throughout the nation?

Instead of responding to IG reports and playing defense on the law, Spellings and company should be focused on:
* Measurable data demonstrating that reading scores are starting to rise (as reported by journalists from Sol Stern to Kathleen Manzo)
* The effect those rising scores are having on real children, real families, and real classrooms
* Demonstrate, through real teachers and real schools, that RF is a key to increasing student achievement overall

Victory comes when we successfully demonstrate that RF works in cities like ours, in schools like ours, with students like ours. Focus on the positive, on the aspirational, and on the measurable benefits. Let the critics attack the personalities behind the fight. RF can win the day if we focus on those on the front lines, most affected by RF — the teachers and the students who benefit from a scientifically based curriculum each and every day.

(Originally posted March 9, 2007)

2 thoughts on “The Reading Wars

  1. A key discussion point regarding reading instruction today involves those favoring skills-based instruction and those favoring content-based instruction. This is not the old phonics-whole language debate. Other than a few hold-outs, such as Stephen Krashen, most in the reading field would agree that this debate has been largely settled. The current debate involves whether teachers at all levels should be teaching the how or the what of reading.There are, indeed, some who would restrict reading to a measurable skill-set. These would pigeon-hole reading instruction into a continuum of increasingly complex rules, while ignoring the thinking process necessary to advanced reading. Teachers of this ilk love their phonics, context clues, and inference worksheets when they are not leading their students in fluency exercises, ad nauseum, whether the students need fluency practice or not.On the other side of the debate are those who would claim that content is the real reading instruction. These would limit reading skill instruction in favor of pouring shared cultural knowledge into learners. They favor teacher read-alouds, Cornell note-taking, and direct instruction. They argue that subject area disciplines such as English literature, science, and history often provide the best reading instruction by the content that they teach.Both are extremes. Students need some of each to become skilled and complex readers. More on how to strike this balance on my blog at

  2. I can see that you are an expert in this field! I am launching a website soon, and this information is very useful for me. Thanks for all your help and wishing you all the success in your business.

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