Reading & Literacy

National Education Policy Center, Deans’ Group Take Aim at the ‘Reading Wars’

By Sarah Schwartz — March 19, 2020 2 min read
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Two more education groups staked out a position this week in the ongoing national conversation on early reading instruction.

The National Education Policy Center and Education Deans for Justice and Equity released a joint statement on Thursday, claiming that “there is no settled science of reading” and criticizing recent media coverage, including in Education Week, for having “reignited the unproductive Reading Wars.”

In the statement, the groups raise concerns about “‘science of reading’ advocacy,” which they say has misrepresented the evidence base on reading instruction, blamed teachers, and emphasized phonics at the expense of other components of literacy.

Instead, the groups promote balanced literacy, which they describe as an approach that “stresses the importance of phonics and of authentic reading.”

“The overall body of high quality research in the teaching of early reading counsels us to make sure that our teachers have a complete toolbox, and are professionally prepared to use that full toolbox because different students have different needs,” said Kevin G. Welner, the director of NEPC, in an interview with Education Week. “The rejection of this idea of balanced literacy is potentially dangerous if we are removing tools from that toolbox.”

Balanced literacy is a term without a clear definition. In an Education Week survey, early reading teachers described it in different ways. But for many, balanced literacy included cueing—a method of word identification that encourages students to use pictures or context clues to figure out what a word says. Students can choose to sound words out, but they don’t have to.

But decades of research has shown that teaching early elementary students how to sound it out—teaching them systematic phonics—is the most reliable way to make sure that they learn how to read words. Many reading researchers have raised concerns about having cueing as a “tool in the toolbox,” because it takes students’ eyes off the words.

Still, once students have unlocked the code of written language, experts agree that they need access to authentic text with engaging stories. Reading research has also demonstrated the importance of teaching comprehension strategies and providing students with text that can build their knowledge of the world around them.

The groups’ statement said that states should be “avoiding prescriptions that will tie the hands of professional educators,” referencing the Reading First program mandated under the No Child Left Behind Act. The statement raises concerns about the recent flurry of state legislation aimed at early reading practices. Welner specifically mentioned concerns that students would lose opportunities to read authentic text.

“Top down mandates directed at teaching professionals about what they should teach don’t tend to work very well,” said Welner. “Legislators are not well prepared to dictate how reading should be taught by the professionals in the classroom.”

The brief is the latest in a series of statements from literacy organizations and curriculum providers that have weighed in on the ongoing national conversation on early reading instruction.

In December, the International Literacy Association released a brief claiming that “the current emphasis on dyslexia and direct phonics instruction is far too narrow.”

Lucy Calkins, the Teachers College professor known for her popular reading and writing curricula, wrote a statement in November responding to critics who say her early reading program doesn’t align to evidence-based practice.

Image: Getty

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.

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