From a ‘Great Debate’ to a Full-Scale War: Dispute Over Teaching Reading Heats Up

By Robert Rothman — March 21, 1990 18 min read
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In 1967, one of the most prominent researchers in reading instruction, Jeanne S. Chall, analyzed the controversy that was then raging in the field in an influential book called The Great Debate.

Today, nearly a quarter of a century later, the Harvard University scholar says the “debate” not only persists, but has, in fact, escalated to a full-scale war.

The battle lines are drawn between advocates of phonics, who stress the importance of teaching the relationships between letters and sounds, and those of whole-language methodology, who believe children should be taught reading by reading whole texts.

And so fierce have their arguments become that two recent attempts to find a common ground--a federally funded study and a proposal for the 1992 national assessment--have not only failed to quell the de6bate, but may have exacerbated it.

“It’s always been, in reading, that there was restraint with all our fighting,” Ms. Chall says. “Now it’s as if all restraints are gone.”

Many other topics in education draw heated debate, but the arguments over reading instruction--the first “R"--have been perhaps the most vociferous--and the most public, often spilling over into school boards, state legislatures, and even the U.S. Congress.

And in recent years, as educators have grown increasingly desperate over students’ poor performance, and frustrated over a seeming inability to change their programs, the gloves have come off. The two sides have become intractable, with advocates at both extremes accusing each other of stoking the flames with incendiary rhetoric, rather than reason.

There are some educators who view the recent developments at the federal level as a hopeful sign. The fact that these efforts could find a middle ground that most, if not all, reading specialists can agree on is evidence, they say, of some success in outlining what could become a consensus-driven public policy.

“Suppose you are asked to organize a dessert for Thanksgiving, and one group likes mince pie and another likes pumpkin pie,” explains Chester E. Finn Jr., professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University. “If you bring a mince-pumpkin pie with whipped cream, neither group will be pleased, but they’ll probably all eat it with only minimal grumbles.”

“Our job is to make a consensus for the whole country,” says the chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, “not just please the pumpkin-pie fans.”

But to Francie M. Alexander, associate superintendent of public instruction in California, the continuing existence of the Great Debate threatens to obscure what should be its purpose: finding the best way to help children learn to read.

“We’re fighting the wrong enemy,” she says. “The real enemies are Nintendo and Saturday morning cartoons. They are the enemies of the cultural literacy we need, of the thinking and literacy skills we need.’'

Flesch and Beyond

According to Marilyn J. Adams, author of Beginning To Read: Thinking and Learning About Print, the Congressionally mandated study of the subject that was published this year, the debate over reading instruction is rooted in the language itself.

On the one hand, she notes, readers need the ability to recognize written words; but at the same time, they must understand that the words have meaning.

“How should teachers go about teaching such an abstract and complicated code,” she writes, “and how do they do so without losing sight of the very purpose of reading instruction--comprehension?”

“It is from the tension between these two questions,” she says, “that America’s controversy over how best to teach reading derives, and this tension has only grown over the years.”

While the controversy had raged among educators for centuries, she notes, it acquired its political overtones--and became public--when Why Johnny Can’t Read burst onto the best-seller lists in 1955.

In that book, Rudolf Flesch used highly polemical terms to denounce the “look-say,” comprehension-based, method of reading instruction that was dominant at the time, and to argue for rigorous instruction in letter-sound relationships.

Alleging that advocates of the “look-say,” or word, method were Communists, Flesch also charged that such an approach “is not a method of teaching at all; it is clearly a method of animal training. It’s the most inhuman, mean, stupid way of foisting something on a child’s mind.”

Such rhetoric drove a wedge through the reading community, which has yet to piece itself back together, says Steven A. Stahl, professor of education at the University of Illinois.

“Flesch couched the phonics-versus-whole-word debate in very political terms,” he says. “He equated reading methodology with right-wing ideology. People still tend to react to that.”

The field has become more polarized in recent years with the rise of the whole-language movement, adds Jean Osborn, associate director of the Center for the Study of Reading at the University of Illinois. That movement argues that reading should be taught holistically, through reading whole texts, rather than through parts of words.

“A great deal of what whole-language people are saying is very beneficial,” Ms. Osborn says. “But they frequently discard and find antithetical anything that smacks of phonics. In turn, the phonics people get more defensive, and more shrill.”

But Kenneth S. Goodman, one of the leaders of the whole-language movement, accuses “an organized right wing” of provoking the debate.

“Instead of looking at the progress that has been made in understanding literacy, they switch the agenda,” says Mr. Goodman, professor of language and literacy education at the University of Arizona. “They ask: ‘Are you for phonics or against it?”’

Dorothy S. Strickland, the New Jersey professor of reading at Rutgers University, suggests that the two camps are in fact arguing over more than reading.

“What happens is, people start with the view they are dealing with opinions about teaching reading,” she says. “But as things get played out, people want power over the reading program. It goes beyond what is good for kids. It’s a power struggle that has very little to do with kids, [and more to do with] control over what happens in schools.”

Basic and Advanced Skills

In many ways, the debate between the two camps resembles one being played out in other disciplines over the proper emphasis of basic and higher-order skills.

In mathematics, for example, educators have called recently for a greater use of calculators and computers to enable students to spend their time learning to solve problems, rather than performing routine computations.

Similarly, in reading, suggests Ms. Alexander of California, schools should introduce literature as soon as possible to move children more quickly to more advanced skills, such as comprehension.

“There is a time to teach phonics, but don’t keep talking about blends and diphthongs in the 8th grade,” she says. “That’s like using a bike with training wheels.”

But Siegfried Engelmann, professor of education at the University of Oregon, counters that teaching higher-order skills without a solid grounding in the basic skills is tantamount to “throwing kids in deep water.”

“Some kids may learn to read that way,” he says. “But low-performers, we’re sentencing them to be non-readers. It’s not going to work. In two or three years we’ll look back and say, ‘what jerks we were.”’

A Straitjacket?

Unlike in the other disciplines, however, participants in the reading debate also differ over whether the basic skills should be taught explicitly at all.

New research on how children learn, says Ms. Strickland of Rutgers, suggests that children become readers by understanding words in context, not through isolated word-fragments.

“I don’t think we maximize what we know when we teach the most basic, rudimentary, low-level skills,” she says. “Literacy is thinking with text, not just pronouncing the words. It’s beyond the ABC’s. The ABC’s are part of that. But we don’t have to focus on those before you get to the other.”

In fact, she adds, direct instruction in phonics would be “counterproductive.”

“It is so skills-based and atomistic that it takes away all meaning and fun from the use of reading for children,” she says.

“As a black educator,” Ms. Strickland adds, “I am concerned that it is often the very kids who need a rich experience with literature that get the bare-bones, skill-and-drill instruction. In the guise that they need structure, they get something watered down. The truth is, these youngsters respond to a rich, interesting environment; they can read lots of poetry and novels and write about them.”

In addition, says Constance Weaver, director of the commission on reading of the National Council of Teachers of English, focusing on reading mechanics may impede children’s abilities to read.

“Straitjacketing children into basal readers and scope-and-sequence charts might teach skills, but it doesn’t teach a child to read effectively,” she says.

Rather than teach from parts of words to whole text, she says, schools should work the other way around, and allow students to read what they can from whole texts.

“If you look at how children learn to read in the home, it’s more in the way they learn to speak than in what we teach in the classroom,” Ms. Weaver says. As parents help children learning to speak by responding positively when they say words, she contends, reading teachers should reward “successive approximation” in reading.

“It’s reading to get pleasure, even if they can’t read all the words,” she explains. “They are moving toward adult conventionality--not word-perfect reading, letter-perfect spelling right away.”

But Ms. Chall counters that such a view is misguided. “I call it the ‘miniature-adult theory.’ It isn’t so,” she says. “There are two stages--first, mechanics, recognizing symbols. Then reading to learn--as a tool for learning.”

In her 1967 book, which was updated in 1983, the director of Harvard University’s reading laboratory concluded that programs including direct instruction in phonics improved student performance over those that did not contain such teaching.

Ms. Chall acknowledges that the whole-language movement has had the salutary effect of increasing the use of literature in beginning-reading programs, but says that, over all, it has been more harmful than helpful.

“Whole language may look very beautiful, and kids may be happy, but they’re not happy to find out they’re not reading,” the Harvard researcher asserts.

Ms. Chall argues that whole-language advocates have ignored a key fact about phonics instruction: it works.

Research Evidence

“It’s not that whole language does not have research evidence--and it does not--but they are deliberately turning their backs on the existing, solid research that exists for the opposite,” she says. “Most comparisons show students who know the alphabetic principle do better. But they would turn their backs completely and say no phonics.”

Ms. Chall notes that, following the publication of Why Johnny Can’t Read, the federal government provided $1 million--a considerable sum in those days--for studies comparing the two methods. The Carnegie Corporation of New York funded her book, Learning To Read: The Great Debate, which compiled the results of such studies.

The overwhelming majority of the research, Ms. Chall concludes, “showed children ahead if they do more phonics. Children can recognize words quicker and faster, and if they do that, they comprehend better.”

In addition, she says, results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, as well as anecdotal evidence from Harvard’s reading laboratory, a clinic to help children with reading difficulties, show the beneficial effects of phonics instruction.

Between 1971 and 1980, a time when phonics instruction was used widely, NAEP scores for 9-year-olds--particularly black children--increased substantially, Ms. Chall points out. But since 1980, when phonics instruction waned, the scores for the 9-year-olds have declined.

In fact, as a member of a panel examining the “anomaly” in the 1986 NAEP reading scores, Ms. Chall argued that the unusual steep decline among 9-year-olds between 1984 and 1986 was real, and reflected a sharp drop in performance because of the reduction in phonics instruction. The majority of the panel, however, concluded that the anomalous scores were the result of a change in test design.

“A lot of people said, ‘Oh, Chall thinks [the NAEP declines are] because of the way they teach,”’ the Harvard researcher says. “Find me a better reason why scores went up or down!”

She adds that, in the past few years, “we’ve been getting into our reading lab more children who need help in reading in 1st or 2nd grade. Twenty years ago, we did not get any until 3rd or 4th grade.”

“Now,” Ms. Chall adds, “they are beginning to fall off in 1st grade, and they come from areas where they teach whole language, not skills. Something is going on.”

Research Skewed?

Ms. Chall’s critics, however, deny that the research points so clearly to the efficacy of phonics instruction.

In a widely discussed article in the November, 1988, Phi Delta Kappan, Marie Carbo questioned whether the facts supported the conclusions in Ms. Chall’s books.

“Many of the phonics experiments discussed in both editions of The Great Debate,” writes Ms. Carbo, an adjunct professor of education research at Antioch University, “contain design flaws that render the results virtually uninterpretable.”

“Furthermore,” she adds, “inaccuracies and omissions in The Great Debate appear to have skewed some of the research results in the direction of supporting more, rather than less, phonics instruction.”

In addition, says Ms. Alexander of California, a member of NAEP’s governing board, the results from the recent reading assessments suggest an interpretation different from the one Ms. Chall drew.

“In the national assessment, where they fell off was in understanding,” she says. “We’ve done a good job of teaching what some call basic skills.”

Preliminary results from her state’s literature-based curriculum, Ms. Alexander adds, indicate that that method appears to be successful in raising achievement levels.

“There are more books in class,” she says. “They are reading more books. If you had asked, ‘Read any good books lately?’ before, they would reply, ‘I am in the 2.1 reader.’ Now, they would say, ‘I just read Roll Away Thunder.”

“If you look at NAEP,” Ms. Alexander continues, “you see good readers are kids who read more. We’re getting at those things. It will happen in California. I can’t help but believe they are going to be better readers.”

Ms. Weaver of the NCTE notes also that the debate has obscured ways in which whole language is different from previous forms of teaching, such as whole-word instruction. In fact, she says, the movement is less antithetical to phonics instruction than phonics advocates may think.

“In part, it’s our own fault,” she says. “I don’t think whole-language educators have been making at all clear, by and large, how we do foster phonics knowledge.”

‘Lots of Frustration’

In the absence of a clear consensus from research, the debate over methods continues. But except for occasional pieces, such as the exchange between Ms. Carbo and Ms. Chall, the two camps do not often argue in the pages of academic journals or at conferences, according to Barbara Kapinus, a state reading official in Maryland who chaired the consensus-planning process for the 1992 NAEP reading assessment.

“You tend to talk to the people who think like you,” Ms. Kapinus says. “A problem in the field is that people don’t read each other’s stuff. If Reading Research Quarterly came out with a phonics study, whole-language people wouldn’t read it.”

Instead, says Ms. Weaver, the debate rages among lay people--and uninformed lay people, at that.

“What bothers us is that pro-phonics people, for the most part, are not reading scholars themselves,” she says. “They take information from research studies, and twist it. Instead of subjecting it to debate and refutation, they bypass reading scholars and go directly to legislators and an uninformed public and give them propaganda. It’s scary.’'

Mr. Goodman of the University of Arizona says phonics is a popular issue among parent groups.

“I’m convinced phonics is the issue the right picks up because they need simple solutions to complex problems,” he says. “Reading is the one subject parents can judge--they know if ‘somebody is trying to keep their children from being able to read.”’

But Ms. Kapinus notes that many parents have also been strong advocates for whole-language instruction.

“In Maryland, I’d get a call a month--that’s a lot--from people moving to Maryland who wanted their children in whole-language programs, and would ask where in the state they were taught,” she says.

In addition, adds Ms. Hinds of the Reading Reform Foundation, many parents and teachers interested in phonics are frustrated by schools that are unwilling to consider changing their programs.

“There is lots of frustration shown by teachers and parents who write to us,” she says. “They are not always heard. Or they may be heard, but do not get satisfaction--the curriculum materials are not changed.”

As a result, she says, these parents and teachers bypass school administrators and take their case to lawmakers.

“Those who are introducing legislation are looking at one way of bringing the research before the public,” Ms. Hinds adds. “It’s a means for local people to have an opportunity to call for what research says should be used in the classroom. Educators are not doing that.”

‘A Time of Desperation’

The level of frustration has increased, adds Ms. Chall, as study after study points out the poor reading performance of American students.

“Schools are desperate,” she says. “All of us feel a little pushed against the wall.”

And, she adds: “At a time of desperation, we are apt to say anything, do anything. We search for a ‘magic bullet’ that will promise us a quick solution.”

Mr. Engelmann of the University of Oregon cites California’s 1988 reading/language-arts framework as such a solution. That framework called for an extensive use of literature in the early grades, and less emphasis on skills instruction.

After a textbook he wrote was rejected by the California Board of Education for failing to meet the guidelines, Mr. Engelmann sued the board, charging that it had violated state law in adopting the guidelines. Last fall, Judge James L. Long ruled that the board had violated the Administrative Procedure Act, and ordered the board to rewrite the guidelines. The board has appealed the ruling. (See Education Week, Nov. 29, 1989.)

“These folks who are decisionmakers make it up as they go along,” Mr. Engelmann says. “Is it based on information? Are the selection committees who select textbooks selected on how well they work with kids? All you’ve got to do is look at the process. It’s based strictly on opinions, and not necessarily enlightened opinions.”

Ms. Alexander responds that the framework represented the best available research on how to teach reading, and adds that, Mr. Engelmann notwithstanding, the guidelines were widely accepted throughout the state.

“There was not so much criticism of the ideas in the framework, but in implementation,” she maintains. “It’s easier to say than to do.”

In other states, lawmakers have moved to mandate phonics instruction. In Ohio, for example, the legislature last year passed a measure requiring the state board of education to include phonics in its standards for grades K-3, and to provide inservice instruction for teachers on the use of phonics. Similar measures are pending in Michigan and Arizona this year, according to Ms. Hinds.

At the federal level, an adult-literacy bill passed last month by the Senate includes a provision, sponsored by Senator William L. Armstrong of Colorado, that would authorize the use of federal funds for training teachers in phonics instruction.

“Research shows phonics is the most effective way to teach people to read,” Senator Armstrong asserts. “It’s the way most of us learned to read. But it fell out of use in the last 20 years, with disastrous consequences.”

Hope for Synthesis

Two other recent federally sponsored efforts in the field have been aimed at finding a common ground in the debate. But the initial reaction to the projects suggests that such a synthesis may be elusive.

One, the study by Ms. Adams, was the result of a Congressional mandate that the Education Department study beginning-reading programs and compare them with the recommendations of Becoming a Nation of Readers, the 1985 report by the federally sponsored commission on reading.

Phonics advocates, however, charge that the study does not fulfill the mandate, and they have asked the department to carry out its charge.

Mr. Goodman of the University of Arizona, on the other hand, says the report is little more than a brief for phonics instruction.

“The far right wanted an actual list of intensive phonics materials, endorsed by the government,” he says. “When they take a look at the report, they’ll be very happy with it.”

Ms. Adams responds to such criticism by saying that she did not attempt in the study to take sides in the debate.

“My goal was to set up arguments,” she says. “If people think about it, they wouldn’t argue so much.”

The proposal for the 1992 NAEP reading assessment came closer to achieving a consensus in the field, according to Ms. Kapinus.

“We tried to find something everybody would buy into a little bit,” she says. “There’s something in the assessment that speaks to all camps.”

For example, she says, the proposal calls for assessing students’ word-recognition skills, a goal for phonics advocates, through a special study that tests their oral fluency.

At the same time, she notes, many in the whole-language movement who are skeptical about large-scale assessments have labeled as “promising” a proposal to collect portfolios of students’ classroom work in reading.

Nevertheless, Ms. Kapinus points out, the two camps challenged her every step of the way.

“I haven’t had reason to be attacked, or take major stands until this project,” she says. “I considered myself eclectic. [The debate is] fiercer than I ever thought.”

But while efforts such as the Adams report and the NAEP proposal may try for a general agreement in the field, the real hope for a consensus in reading is with teachers, suggests Mr. Stahl of the University of Illinois.

“Teachers are inherently reasonable,” he says. “They get the best things out of whatever’s out there.”

“If there is a synthesis, it’s going on in the classroom,” he adds.

A version of this article appeared in the March 21, 1990 edition of Education Week as From a ‘Great Debate’ to a Full-Scale War: Dispute Over Teaching Reading Heats Up


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