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Published in Print: November 25, 1998, as No End to the Reading Wars

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No End to the Reading Wars

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At a "reading summit" this fall in Washington, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley called for an end to the "reading wars," the battle that pits skills against meaning in beginning reading. This call for peace is based on the conclusion that beginning-reading instruction should be balanced, taking the best from both sides in the conflict and teaching both skills and meaning. As Catherine Snow of Harvard University put it, we "really know enough that we can't fight about it anymore." Remaining stubbornly partisan to either side, say peace advocates, is not supportable by research and can only have divisive effects on children's education.

But should these wars end? If so, those who advocate a step-by-step, top-down, direct instruction of skills in beginning reading show no sign that a peace treaty equitable to both sides is at hand. Although they give lip service to "balance," it is merely the "balance" they had proposed in the first place. As Barbara Foorman, a proponent of "direct code" instruction explained, "We're really trying to create a balance here so that kids master the alphabet and then have every opportunity to use that in reading texts and being read to" (my emphasis). Within this progression of stages, children must learn first phonological (or phonemic) awareness, that is, hearing and manipulating individual sounds in words, the skill regarded as the primary "causal" influence in learning to read. Next comes learning the essential, related skill of associating letters and sounds.

Whether in scholarly books and journals, educational or popular magazines, or state and federal hearings on laws to mandate skills instruction, skills-first advocates, while acknowledging the value of a "literature-rich environment," persistently encourage instruction well encapsulated in the following list of some of their publication titles: "training phonemic awareness," "early intervention and phonological awareness," "direct-code vs. embedded-code teaching," "stimulating phonological awareness," "children with phonological-processing problems," "the elusive phoneme," "teaching decoding," and "why Johnny can't decode."

Whole-language advocates have viewed this peace as surrender to a step-wise, parts-to-whole, direct-instruction model of reading instruction. They have no problem with the concept of "balance" because (with few exceptions) they have always maintained that whole language does include teaching phonological and other skills as part of meaningful, rich written-language experiences and activities. For the skills-first advocates, who have done considerable research attempting to demonstrate that "direct code" is superior to "embedded code" teaching, this form of balance is unacceptable. Whole-language supporters are also well aware that entreaties for ending the war have been accompanied by state policy and legislative "peace" missiles aimed at vanquishing whole-language teaching.

Rejection of this balance and peace as it is being proposed is justified because there is no substantial research evidence--despite claims to the contrary--that teaching phonemic awareness and similar skills through top-down direct instruction is superior to teaching skills as children need them through a whole-language approach. If youngsters arrive at school requiring more competence in skills, the research shows that these skills can be learned in various ways. Can they be taught through a skills-training program? Yes. Is there significant evidence that learning these skills this way necessarily leads to future success in reading? No. Although some studies show a connection between early skills learning and later reading achievement, others have found that children trained in these skills do not transfer this knowledge to reading words and stories. While it is certain that phonological and similar skills are essential for learning to read, identifying them as the "causal" agents nevertheless cuts short the causal trail because it misrepresents the written-language opportunities and experiences that "cause" children to learn skills. If we follow the entire trail, we see that children's competence with these skills can be conceived more as a marker of these opportunities and experiences than as distinct abilities.

Is this "war" really about skills and how to teach them? On the surface it is, but adequately understanding the conflict requires addressing deeper issues ingrained in the arguments about teaching method. One concerns broad goals for children's development. Accompanying the call for the direct instruction of skills is a managerial, minimally democratic, predetermined, do-as-you're-told-because-it-will-be-good-for-you form of instruction. Outcomes are narrowly instrumental, focusing on test scores of skills, word identification, and delimited conceptions of reading comprehension. It is a scripted pedagogy for producing compliant, conformist, competitive students and adults. It is not a pedagogy that explicitly asks, "How do children think, feel, and act; and how do we want them to think, feel, and act as they learn to read?"--questions always implicit in, and inseparable from all reading instruction and all education.

One view of children's development is that of Ms. Foorman, a researcher whose work has been widely cited as evidence of the need for direct instruction of skills. In the Jan. 4, 1989, New York Times, Ms. Foorman predicted that cooperative learning "is doomed to failure" because "it goes against the American grain, the individualism that creates the entrepreneurship we as a people have historically espoused. In a utopia it would be wonderful," she conceded, but "education should prepare kids for life in a particular culture. In reality, the name of the game is dog eat dog. Kids have to learn that you get something through your own smarts."

Achieving the outcomes of "direct instruction" pedagogy might be successful literacy education for some educators and parents, but be an abomination to others. Within its standards, it might "work," but who would want his or her child's early education to: discourage participation in initiating and creating written-language activities; discourage experience making choices and solving problems; discourage exploration of multiple views on stories read; discourage experience developing, expressing, and contesting a viewpoint; constrict emotions in learning experiences; constrict creativity in written language; and assume a "dog eat dog" outlook? These are hardly qualities to help children understand their own thoughts and emotions, feel secure about themselves, be creative, assess accurately the views of others, care about others, understand the world, and make sound judgments.

Another way to see what underpins the literacy debate is by contrasting the following two questions. The first, What is the best way to teach reading?, has been central in the dominant debate. It is a vital question but a limited one for promoting reading achievement compared to another question, What needs to be done to ensure that children learn to read? This second question encompasses the first, but unlike the first, includes the array of influences, both inside and outside the classroom, that contribute to literacy success and failure.

Contained in the first question, as the debate is now formulated, is a "magic bullet" answer for literacy education that disregards the influence of political, economic, and social forces on literacy achievement. This is one reason political conservatives love skills-first instruction: It makes no challenges to the distribution of wealth and power, and the resources available to schools, classrooms, children, and their families. Research on skills teaching with poor children takes poverty as a "given" and seeks a minimally expensive "bootstrap" solution to a better life in a presumed meritocracy.

Answering the question "What needs to be done to ensure that children learn to read?" leads to the recognition that our society must provide ample resources to promote cognitive, academic, and literacy growth of all children. The Children's Defense Fund has identified many of the ways in which resources contribute to classroom teaching and learning. Among them:

  • Money buys good food and adequate nutrition that can prevent learning problems: Iron deficiency can impair problem-solving, attention, and concentration; moderate undernutrition can make children sluggish and distracted.
  • Money "buys opportunities to learn"--stimulating toys, books, and high-quality child care.
  • Money also buys transportation and communication. Decreased mobility may hamper a family's ability to reach "child care, medical care, and other services" for children, contributing to the health and developmental problems that impair learning.

Calling for an end to the reading wars does not address deeper questions of classroom teaching and learning, child development, educational goals, and social policy--questions that must be part of a new literacy debate. But when reconstituted, no early "peace" should be expected because the substantial differences over literacy are part of deep, divergent, and irreconcilable conflicts about people, social purposes, resources, and power that run through the entire society. But rather than despairing because the "wars" have not ended, a large portion of the nation should be grateful that many educators and parents continue to care and argue about the vital issues in literacy education.

Tell Us Your Opinion


Gerald Coles writes on psychology and education. His most recent book is Reading Lessons: The Debate Over Literacy (Hill & Wang, 1998). He is currently working on a book, Misreading Reading: How Bad Science Can Hurt Children's Learning.

Vol. 18, Issue 14, Pages 38,52

Related Stories
Web Resources
  • "English: What Students Need To Learn," was created by Teachers College, Columbia University, as a parent-friendly guide to lay out basic goals for any student of English and ways that parents can help reinforce learning in the home.
  • Read or order Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children, a book that the National Academy Press says "just may herald the end of the 'reading wars.'"
  • The Reading Debate, from MiddleWeb, is a page of links to resources and research on teaching reading using phonics and whole language.
  • Nicholas Lemann attempts to explain California's phonics vs. whole language debate in "The Reading Wars," The Atlantic Monthly, November 1997.
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