Winning the 'reading wars' is just the first step

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

There has been no shortage of controversy in American schools in the past few years, with lawmakers and parents battling over everything including COVID-19 protocols, the history curriculum and which books are allowed in the classroom. But a quieter, more foundational, fight has also been taking place over one of the most fundamental tasks schools are responsible for: teaching kids to read.

Debates about the best method of reading instruction have been around for decades, with the main faultline being disagreement over how much time should be spent on the basics of letter sounds — phonics — versus time dedicated to less regimented exploration of words and their meanings. One area of agreement is that reading instruction in the U.S. is not good enough. In 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic set students even further behind, only a third of American fourth graders met reading proficiency standards. The numbers were even worse for low-income and minority students.

In the past several decades, one of the most popular methods of teaching students to read has been through Balanced Literacy, an approach that deemphasises phonics and focuses on creating opportunities for students to organically learn to read through exposure to words alongside context clues like pictures. This strategy relies heavily on a philosophy known as Whole Language reading, which is based on the idea that reading — like speaking — is a naturally occurring skill that children will develop if they are given enough time to explore books on their own and are provided the right cues from their teachers.

There is substantial — many would argue definitive — research that the Whole Language approach simply doesn’t work. In 2000, a comprehensive government review of more than 100,000 reading studies found that any effective reading curriculum must include “​​explicit instruction in phonemic awareness.” This view has been bolstered by advances in neuroscience, which have found that focusing on letter-sound relationships triggers parts of the brain that are wired for reading.

Despite these findings, an estimated 75% of teachers working with early readers in the U.S. used Balanced Literacy learning strategies as of 2019. The tide in the “reading wars” has shifted decisively over the past few years, though. Since 2020, more than two dozen states have passed laws mandating that schools follow a phonics-centric approach known commonly as the “science of reading.”

Why there’s debate

There are real-world examples showing that switching strategies can make a major difference. Mississippi rose in the ranking of states in reading, from 49th to the middle of the pack, in only a few years, after passing a series of laws emphasizing the science of reading in 2013.

But experts agree that simply changing instruction strategies, important as that may be, won’t solve illiteracy on its own. Implementation of the new approach, most argue, is equally important. With nearly 100,000 public schools in the U.S., a nationwide shift in reading instruction represents an enormous logistical challenge that requires widespread buy-in, training and a significant amount of money. Passing laws to promote the science of reading doesn't necessarily mean that the new strategy will automatically get put into practice — especially when schools are struggling to overcome COVID-related disruptions, long-standing funding issues and a lingering teacher shortage.

Some education experts also say that the risk of overcommitting to phonics is that it could lead to more “drill and kill” lessons that suck the joy out of reading and don’t promote reading comprehension. There are also those who say phonics only serves as the foundation of reading, meaning that functional literacy won’t meaningfully improve if reading isn’t treated as a priority throughout a student’s education.

Others argue that no curriculum, regardless of its merits, can fix the main reasons American kids struggle to read: inequality, structural racism, underfunded schools and long-standing efforts by conservatives to undermine the U.S. public school system.

What’s next

The transition to phonics-based reading instruction seems primed to spread to even more parts of the country. It will likely be several years, however, before it becomes clear how much, if at all, the strategic change has affected reading levels in the U.S.


Solving illiteracy will never be as simple as adopting new strategies

“First, beware of overhyped and oversimplified versions of the debate. Good advice; reading is a complex and personal act that humans have been trying to unravel for centuries. Anyone who claims they have a true, simple answer (and who presents other views as simple and obviously wrong) is selling something.” — Peter Greene, Forbes

Teachers face so many challenges, it’s hard to ask them to make such a major change

“Elementary-school teachers are already having to recalibrate after two years of disruption; vicious fighting about public-health mandates as well as what kids should be taught about race and gender; and a widespread parental freak-out about how little their children have learned during the pandemic. Now the most fundamental skill that society asks them to pass along is also being completely shaken up.” — Belinda Luscombe, Time

There are a lot of things that can help that have nothing to do with teaching strategies

“We can fix this, imperfectly, if we’re relentlessly empirical and focus on the evidence. It’s also noteworthy that lots of other interventions help and aren’t controversial: tutoring, access to books, and coaching parents on reading to children. And slashing child poverty, which child tax credits accomplished very successfully until they were cut back.” — Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times

Educators who cling to the wrong way must be overcome

“In a country built on the idea that free, competent public education is the bedrock to the success of individuals and society in general, the most dangerous cult is the one that promotes unscientific methods of teaching reading.” — Chris Reed, San Diego Union-Tribune

Any plan that focuses solely on beginning readers will fail

“Leveling up literacy in America means teaching decoding skills as a starting point. But that’s only the foundation. A literate society requires active, continuous instruction in how to read for comprehension and critical thinking. If we got everybody decoding but then only reading on a fourth-grade level, we’d still be failing.” — Matt Bardin, The 74

Teachers need to be educated about why the science of reading is so much better

“Many teachers, unaware of the compelling brain research, do not realize that skimping on phonics and other fundamentals may come at a cost. … It’s only by looking back on their experiences with struggling readers that many teachers have a light bulb moment. Many say they will never forget the children they tried, and failed, to help because they didn’t have the expertise they needed.” — Karen D'Souza, EdSource

Ditching bad curricula won’t fix the biggest things holding back American students

“I’ve come to think that we home in on the shortcomings of [balanced literacy] because dumping them is relatively straightforward. You can’t just fix absurd teacher-student ratios by force of will — you need money and buildings and teachers. … Likewise, it is hugely difficult to break the habit of chronic lack of funding for public schools. … Overcrowding and underinvestment have a disproportionate impact on Black and brown kids; the systemic racism inherent in those failures, and the overt racism of the anti-critical-race-theory hysteria embroiling school districts across the country, cannot be simply undone.” — Jessica Winter, The New Yorker

Change will be slow, but will gradually move in the right direction

“This kind of change is happening slowly, unevenly, school by school or even teacher by teacher. It relies on a careful alchemy of encouragement, incentives, and teacher buy-in — a challenging balance when most school systems and many individual teachers traditionally make their own decisions about what to teach and how to teach it.” — Sarah Schwartz, Education Week

Treating education as a war to be won will cause serious harm

“The reading wars, it turns out, created a false dichotomy between meaning versus phonics as primary drivers of beginning — and later proficient — reading. The scientific answer is more nuanced. It takes both phonics and meaning to create strong readers. … Meaning making is the key to finding richness in the narratives and the motivation for wanting to read.” — Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Brookings

Phonics alone is no way to teach true literacy

“If schools get the idea that all they need to do is switch to a new phonics program, they’re going to be in for a shock when it becomes apparent that students at higher grade levels still can’t understand what they’re expected to read or write well about it.” — Natalie Wexler, Hechinger Report

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Photo illustration: Jack Forbes/Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images