Education Opinion

The Reading Wars

By Walt Gardner — May 16, 2012 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The latest chapter in the book on the best way to teach reading was a study of 1,000 students at 20 schools in New York City that was released on Mar. 12. It found that children who were taught to read by the strategies advocated by the Core Knowledge Foundation outperformed children who were taught by the methods embodied in balanced literacy (“Nonfiction Curriculum Enhanced Reading Skills, Study Finds,” The New York Times, Mar. 12). Specifically, scores were five times higher in kindergarten. By the third year, the differences were still wide, although not as great.

To understand the results, it’s important to take a moment to explain the dueling terms. The Core Knowledge Foundation believes that reading cannot be taught in a vacuum. As a result, it uses a curriculum with heavy emphasis on sequencing. Although fiction is allowed, nonfiction is the centerpiece. Balanced literacy, in contrast, encourages children to read whatever interests them. In a way, the methods pit E.D. Hirsch Jr. against Michael Bloomberg because the former is the father of the Core Knowledge Foundation and the latter is the champion of balanced literacy in New York City schools.

Putting aside the obvious issues raised by the study, I think there are other questions that are relevant as curriculums and materials are being aligned with the new Common Core Standards. (Full disclosure: I participated in the sixteenth annual Education Summit on the California Curriculum Correlating Council that was held in the state Capitol in Sacramento on Mar. 9.) Although reading comprehension can be measured, as it was in the $2.4-million study in New York City financed by the Fund for Public Schools, there is also the matter of enjoyment. I’m not saying that comprehension and enjoyment are mutually exclusive terms, but it is possible to teach a subject well and yet to teach children to hate the subject in the process. When that happens, it’s a Pyrrhic victory.

On the other hand, allowing children to read whatever interests them can result in their remaining only in their comfort zone. For example, students from two middle schools in Colorado participated last year in what was called the Comic Book Classroom literacy program (“Pow! Comic Book Classroom project takes on illiteracy in metro schools,” The Denver Post, Jul. 28, 2011). The rationale was that at-risk students need a visual medium that is more inviting than traditional textbooks. I don’t doubt that students like to read comics, but I wonder if they will then move on to more challenging fare. I know that studies have found free reading to be as good as traditional instruction in literacy growth (“More Smoke and Mirrors: A Critique of the National Reading Panel Report on Fluency,” Big Brother and the National Reading Curriculum, Heinemann, 2002). Yet, don’t teachers have a responsibility to guide students to read books that are considered exemplary in their respective fields?

So before jumping to conclusions about the single best way to teach reading, we need to step back and ask ourselves some hard questions. The issue is not settled by a long shot.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP