Opinion
Reading & Literacy Commentary

Ballast in the Battleships Of the Reading Wars

By Jerry Jesness — September 22, 1999 5 min read
It is time for the cyclical changing of the guard. Phonics is back in fashion.

Here’s a want ad we will probably never see: “Wanted: Director of reading program. Must have master’s degree in English literature or other academic subject that requires intensive reading, a verbal GRE score of at least 600, and a command of at least one foreign language. Must read at least one book per week simply for the joy of doing so. Formal training in teaching methods and knowledge of this year’s reading fad is optional.”

It is time for the cyclical changing of the guard. Phonics is back in fashion, as is direct instruction. Phonemic awareness is a hot new buzzword. Although whole language is still alive and well, its name is rarely publicly evoked, so whole-language methods are resurfacing in new packages.

Politicians across the nation are once again planning to save public education by mandating methods. California’s leaders, who once managed to guide their state into the national cellar by mandating whole-language instruction, have now mandated their new method of choice. In Texas, Lt. Gov. Rick Perry has proposed placing master reading teachers in schools and paying them $5,000 to $7,000 more than regular teachers. Improved reading is a top priority, and teaching methods are the means. Demand is certain to be high for reading specialists to impart these new, or at least recycled, methods.

Historically, the impact that reading specialists have had on our schools has not always been positive. The best-known reading debacle involves the whole- language method, but there have been other equally dismal failures. Several years ago, the hot fad was mastery learning. In some applications of this method, students began with a checklist of skills and then did ream upon ream of worksheets, checking off each skill as it was “mastered.” These worksheets consumed most of the students’ time, leaving them little opportunity to actually read. Before mastery learning, we had reading labs, and before that, programmed readers.

Some treatments for dyslexia and other learning disabilities have proven to be even more disappointing. One involves twirling a ribbon, supposedly to help learning-disabled students link the hemispheres of their brains. Another involves placing colored overlays on textbook pages or installing special filters on classroom lights. The crackpot fads that have guided our reading programs could fill an encyclopedia.

Many reading classes have been driven by sound but sometimes inappropriately applied methods. While phonics has stood the test of time, it can be carried too far. In a well-taught program, most students should have mastered phonics by the middle of 2nd grade. Any teaching of decoding skills is appropriate only for remedial instruction beyond that level. Nevertheless, there were schools in the golden ages of phonics that included phonics reviews even into the upper grades of elementary school. It was these excesses of phonics that opened the door to whole language.

If we could guarantee that the new reading specialists would bring only useful methods with them, their impact would be of value, particularly in early reading instruction. By 3rd grade, however, most well-taught students should have fully mastered decoding. When children switch from learning to read to reading to learn, knowledge becomes more important than methods. At this point, students need to gain vocabulary and background knowledge to progress in reading. It then becomes particularly important to have teachers who are knowledgeable in the content areas.

Educational research and common sense tell us the best teachers know their subjects well. Good musicians make good band directors, good athletes make good coaches, competent mathematicians make good math teachers, and so on. Doesn’t it make sense that good readers will make the best reading teachers? It would be ideal if all of our new reading specialists read two or three books a week themselves. Although it might be difficult to find enough teachers who meet this standard, we can find teachers whose university training involved extensive reading, not merely learning about reading.


Some of our best reading teachers, particularly in higher grades, studied literature, not reading methods. In my first teaching job, I followed in the footsteps of such a teacher. My predecessor had been a fanatical lover of literature. He forced his students to read novels, histories, and dramatic pieces. Since he knew and loved these works of literature and wanted his students to do the same, he explained them clearly. Because he valued literature more than his students’ self-esteem, he gave failing grades to those who would or could not read and comprehend the assigned works. He left me some of the most literate students in the vicinity. Never underestimate the power of an intellectual. >

Music and sports have managed to avoid the swinging pendulum of fads that has plagued reading and math.

Music and sports have managed to avoid the swinging pendulum of fads that has plagued reading and math. It is not that teachers of these subjects have not had fads to choose from. The Suzuki method of music instruction presented itself without influencing our school band programs, and the spate of physical-conditioning gimmicks and gadgets that are grist for television infomercials has not touched our athletic programs. The reason is simple: Band directors are musicians, and coaches are athletes or ex- athletes.

Sadly, many of our reading specialists are not particularly well-read themselves. This should not surprise anyone, since reading specialists spend much of their university time studying methods. At a recent reading conference, someone suggested that only those educators who read at least one book be involved in decisions affecting reading decisions. The group responded with laughter, and one wag suggested that nobody would qualify.

Perhaps the new reading specialists will be better than their predecessors, and maybe there won’t be any more whole-language-type fiascoes. Even if this is the case, teachers who return to college to study methodology are not likely to prove more valuable than those who undertake advanced study of an academic subject. If we must continue to allow the methods pendulum to swing from extreme to extreme, let us at least provide some stability by keeping a few extremely well-read intellectuals at the core of each reading program. Let them be the ballast in the battleships of the reading wars.


Jerry Jesness is a special education teacher working with bilingual students in Los Fresnos, Texas. He taught English as a second language for 15 years before switching to special education.

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