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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Reading & Literacy Opinion

Tired of the Reading Wars? Become a Conscientious Objector

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 19, 2023 14 min read
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Part Two in this three-part series on how teachers should handle the so-called reading wars starts now ...

Ignore the War

A former middle school teacher and professional development provider, Jennifer Borgioli Binis is the president of Schoolmarm Advisors, an editing, research, and fact-checking service for educational authors:

We in education do so love playing with the English language. Learning was “lost” as a result of a shift to virtual and remote learning during the pandemic. “Building a plane while flying it” is a common descriptor for educational decisionmaking, and one doesn’t need to look far to find “war” and all its sundry verbiage at use in contexts ranging from school safety to math instruction. (More here on how language is used in American education discourse.)

And, of course, reading. This war isn’t new. It’s not especially helpful or compassionate to those living through actual wars and too often puts teachers in the unenviable position of having to negotiate a knotty mess of jargon, intention, and allegiances to make sense of what’s being asked of them. Just like the “fog of war” that makes it incredibly hard for those involved to find the best way through, translating the reading wars into classroom practice is nearly impossible. Let’s not even try.

Consider becoming a conscientious objector. In effect, a conscientious objector is one who, when asked (or told) to join a war, plants themselves firmly in one place and says, “No. No, thank you.” I’m stretching the analogy as in many countries, objectors may still support war efforts far from the front lines, but it’s a helpful construct for thinking about being a teacher asked to fight in a figurative war.

Conscientious objectors are those that have arrived at, through reflection and/or religious practice, the decision they will not participate in an ongoing or future war. In this context, it’s teachers ignoring the war and focusing on their own beliefs, philosophies, and understandings. Consider questions such as: How did you learn to teach reading? What is your mental model for how we learn to read? How are you defining what it means to be a “good” reader? Who do you trust as an instructional expert, and what makes them trustworthy?

Basically, before even thinking about the righteousness of the war or the belligerents, spend some time thinking about reading itself. Then, seek out information that affirms and challenges your thinking. This recent piece from Rachel M. Cohen provides a nice starting point. Ask questions of those you trust and look for evidence of successful reading instruction. Revise your pedagogy and curriculum accordingly.

And then, forget about the war. It’s not yours. You didn’t start it and you won’t end it. There is no magic number of combatants on either side that will bring it to an end. Meanwhile, words like “war” are thrown around as shorthand, not as a way to add clarity, find solutions, change minds, or make change. So, just ignore it. To again stretch the analogy, it’s possible, in response to your “no, thank you,” someone might accuse you of being a draft dodger. They may imply by not engaging, you’re somehow failing your profession or your students. They’d be wrong. Your professional obligation is to your students, not to rhetoric or someone else’s war.

Being a conscientious objector is easier if you’ve only recently been called up or don’t feel a particular pull to any of the sides. It’s much harder, though, if you already see yourself as a member of Team [insert moniker here.] If that’s you, if you’re committed to a side, it’s not too late to become a conscientious objector; lay down your weapons.

In effect, this means stop publicly calling out those you think have it wrong. Familiarize yourself with Loretta Ross’ invitation to call in rather than call out. I created Schoolmarm Salons as a space to just talk about education, without a set goal or agenda in mind. Consider hosting one in your school faculty room and then guiding people to just talk about students and reading. Tell the group that everyone agrees no one wants to hurt children and the goal is to learn from each other; no one side is better or more noble or more righteous than any other.

In the immortal words of Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, “War, huh, yeah / What is it good for? / Absolutely nothing / Say it again, y’all.” Say it again.

askquestions

It ‘Can Get Ugly’

Valentina Gonzalez is a former classroom teacher with over 20 years in education serving also as a district facilitator for English-learners, a professional development specialist for ELs, and as an educational consultant. Her work can be found on Seidlitz Education and on MiddleWeb:

Hearing the words, reading wars makes me cringe. Immediately, I visualize teachers holding up stacks of books and supplies on opposing sides of a school glaring at one another in disgust. It’s upsetting and divisive to pit teachers against one another in a virtual “war.” Teachers who only want the best for their students.

For decades these so-called reading wars have existed. At times, the “wars” flare up. The term is meant to describe opposing views of how reading should be taught. On one side, there is a strong belief that early reading instruction should focus heavily on phonics, and on the other side, there is a strong belief that more of a balanced comprehensive approach to literacy should be applied. In reality, both perspectives have valid points for reading instruction.

The discussion around reading instruction can get ugly. And I’m not up for it. Maybe it’s the middle child in me. I’m not one to criticize and point fingers. I can listen and agree to see from both perspectives what is valuable. However, I will stand up for what is right and I will ask questions to seek clarity. This is where I stand when it comes to the classroom because over 5 million English-learners are served in our nation, and they deserve to be supported effectively.

Five million English-learners are all but monolithic. We can’t say that they each speak Spanish or that they can read in their home language. We can’t conclude that each of their home languages is similar to English. That they read from left to right or use the same alphabet or have and hear the same sounds. We can’t assume that their home-language structures align exactly with ours or that they have the same cultural experiences and traditions. All of this and more affects the way learners meet reading.

More recently, the term “science of reading” has been made popular and public although it is not new, either. The science of reading refers to the body of research on how the brain learns to read.

Science is necessary, but scientific research is ever-evolving. It changes. We learn from it and we apply what we gather. There is also a reciprocal nature between scientific research and practical application. Educators gather data daily in their classrooms, and over time, they can begin to see trends. They, too, can conduct their own research.

Caution is essential when approaching research and applying it to all learners because all learners are not the same. In the book The Power of Language (2023), Marian describes how heart disease and diabetes were studied only on white men and then the findings were applied to many other groups. Later, it was found that heart disease exhibits itself differently in women and that diabetes breaks down differently in the Indigenous populations of North and South America. Marian correlates this with research on language saying that “people who speak more than one language or dialect have different linguistic, cognitive, and neural architectures than people who speak only one language.” The majority of brain research in reading has been conducted on monolingual English speakers. And the vast majority of programs, textbooks, and assessments were created for the same demographics of students.

Teaching is complex. Learning to read is complex. Learning to read in the language you are learning is even more complex. It’s not acceptable to take reading instruction that is intended for monolingual learners who have heard and spoken English since birth and apply it to children who have different background experiences with language. Aside from hearing and speaking languages other than English since birth, English-learners may also have varied sociocultural experiences that affect reading and learning.

So the question remains. What’s a teacher to do? How do make sense of this battle and war?

Focus on the children. We can make the right decisions for the children sitting in front of us when we take what we know about the research and what we know about the unique young humans we have in our care. As teachers, we are practitioners. We are the experts of the children we see every day. The instructional decisions teachers make should always include the individual child. That means that there will not be a one-size-fits-all approach.

It may seem easy to say that all children should learn to read with “said” prescription. However, it is imperative that before we prescribe and administer anything in a blanket way, we carefully observe EACH individual student, and that we know what their circumstances are. Only then can we truly provide equitable reading instruction.

While phonics is important, especially in the foundational years, it is only one piece of a large puzzle and can only take a reader so far. For English-learners, vocabulary, oracy, phonemic awareness, and language comprehension are critical. In the end, Temple Grandin reminds us that there is no magic bullet.

therewillnot

‘Both-And’

Ann Stiltner is a high school special education and reading teacher in Connecticut with more than 20 years of experience in education. She shares her passion and love for working in the classroom at her blog from Room A212 (www.annstiltner.com/blog). Follow her on Twitter @fromrooma212:

Teaching is both an art and a science. Scientifically-based research studies test teaching techniques to determine which actually achieve the results presumed. Once science has vetted techniques, the art of teaching comes in—developing rapport with students and determining which students would benefit from which instructional technique. Nowhere is the intersection of the art and science of teaching more apparent than in the teaching of reading. This dichotomy is part of the reason educators continue to engage in the reading wars. Whether it is arguing for or against the science of reading, balanced literacy, phonics, whole language, or structured literacy, this debate has been going on in some iteration for years.

One reason this argument continues is the human desire for all-or-nothing thinking. We, as humans and teachers, have a hard time with Both-And. The idea that we can teach both phonics in a structured, systematic way with drills and repetition and, at the same time, develop a love of reading and an ability to comprehend text deeply is no small feat. But by combining the art and science of teaching, we can achieve this goal for more students than we currently have been able to reach. No one can deny the fact that way too many students leave public school unable to read well. Add to that the disproportionate number of students of color in that group, and we see there is a significant problem educators can and must address.

My background allows me to come at this topic from a unique position. Trained as a special education teacher working my entire career in special education at the secondary level, I have also taught the Wilson Reading System, an explicit, systematic phonics-based reading program, to high school students for almost 20 years. In addition, I completed a master’s in literacy degree learning about balanced literacy and the development of early reading skills in elementary-age students. With this diverse experience, I continue to reflect on how to balance the art and science of teaching in my practice. Below are some practical implications in response to the debate over the teaching of reading.

1. All Teachers Are Reading Teachers - Reading is key to all areas of learning. As the saying goes “We learn to read, then read to learn.” This debate and these issues are important for all teachers to be aware of.

2. Individualize - “One size fits all” does not apply to teaching. Be ready to use your skills in differentiation to individualize your materials to a variety of reading levels to meet the needs of all students. Also, be aware some students might need, for example, more time in phonics instruction when others might master phonics quickly and be ready to dig into comprehension strategies. Making use of flexible groupings is an art in itself.

3. Create a Toolbox - Start collecting a variety of research-based techniques, strategies, and materials that cover the teaching of reading. Know the scientific-proven techniques for teaching various reading skills such as phonics, phonological awareness, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension so you are ready to pull one out of your hat when your gut tells you this student could benefit from something more or different.

4. Make Use of Technology - There are many online programs offering individualized reading practice for independent work and AI sites that can diversify the reading level of materials. Also, read reliable education websites to check what the latest research has to say about your lessons and techniques.

5. Timing Is Everything - In structured, systematic instruction, it is a challenge deciding when a student is ready to be introduced to a new skill. Reflect on the results of quality formative assessments to understand your student’s skill set and decide when they are ready to move on.

6. Admit This Might Be Hard - You might not like to teach phonics. You might think teaching classic literature or doing a read-aloud of the latest YA novel is a more exciting lesson. That is OK. Acknowledge that and then dig into tackling scientifically-researched phonics lessons with the support of more experienced colleagues.

teachingisboth

Thanks to Jennifer, Valentina, and Ann for contributing their thoughts!

The new question of the week is:

How can teachers best make sense of the so-called “Reading Wars,” and what practical implications does it have for their work in the classroom?

In Part One, Michele Caracappa and Jana Echevarria shared their reflections.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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