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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Reading & Literacy Opinion

Teachers, You Don’t Need to Choose Sides in the Reading Wars

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 12, 2023 12 min read
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The so-called reading wars have consumed a lot of oxygen on social media, in professional development, and teacher discussions—for at least 30 years and probably longer, and certainly before there was such a thing as social media.

This multipart series may or may not help clarify what it’s all about ...

‘Lay Down Our Weapons’

Michele Caracappa is a former teacher, principal, literacy director, and chief academic officer. She is currently the chief program officer at New Leaders, a national nonprofit focused on advancing equity by building the capacity of school and system leaders.

I’ll never forget my first year teaching 1st grade. The years prior, I’d taught upper elementary. My students were brilliant, brimming with possibility. Yet, most arrived in my classroom with significant gaps in foundational reading—gaps I knew little at the time about how to address. The summer before meeting my 1st graders, I was trained to teach a structured literacy program. Learning the ins and outs of structured literacy was transformative for my practice. And it would soon be transformative for my students and their families. Just a few months later, parents came to our fall conferences crying tears of joy. Their children, now beginning to read with accuracy and confidence, were accessing the keys to literacy that in many cases had been denied to them by an education system not set up to see all succeed.

Such was my introduction to the battlefield of the reading wars: neither through the media nor a research journal, but through the experiences of my students and their families. I quickly learned that choosing a “side” was far less important than choosing kids—and being curious and committed to the practices that would enable all my students to thrive as readers, writers, and thinkers.

So, what does that mean for teachers today, when the reading wars have particularly escalated and become so polarizing? What are the practical implications for teachers navigating this landscape in their classrooms?

Instead of choosing sides, teachers can:

Choose explicit phonics instruction AND content-rich curriculum: Too often, the reading wars are framed as a debate between whether and how to teach phonics. But this framing is inaccurate and misleading. A rich instructional program aligned to the “science of reading” includes both code-breaking and meaning-making. It includes knowledge-building and strategy instruction. Forget the oft-repeated dichotomy that students must first “learn to read” before they can “read to learn.” Instead, all students benefit from instruction that enables them to both read the word and read the world. As Gholdy Muhammad argues, there’s no need to choose between developing students’ skills and students’ intellect; great teachers do both and more.

Choose to let go of practices unsupported by evidence: Many educators, myself included, were trained to direct students to use multiple strategies to word-solve—such as looking at the picture or remembering the pattern in a patterned text. But research shows the strongest readers are least likely to rely on cues other than phonics. Another popular practice is to match students to leveled texts. Yet research suggests students benefit more when taught to overcome difficulties in challenging texts, rather than simply being given an easier book. Furthermore, because research shows that learning to read doesn’t develop naturally, simply surrounding kids with books is not enough to foster literacy success. It’s hard to let go of long-standing practices. But the success of our students requires us to release practices that are unsupported by research and instead embrace those that do.

Choose culturally and linguistically responsive practices; they’re evidence-based, too. In classrooms where all students thrive as readers, writers, and thinkers—particularly students who’ve been historically excluded from literacy success—instruction centers culturally and linguistically responsive practices. Yet, in the reading wars debate, these practices are too often sidelined. As Zaretta Hammond writes, “Principles of cultural responsiveness, when coupled with the science of learning, can be leveraged for liberatory education.” As Claude Goldenberg reminds, reading research applies to all students—including multilingual learners. To serve them well, we must invest in the best of what’s known about how to teach students to read and support students in acquiring a new language while affirming the cultural and linguistic assets they already possess.

Given this context, it’s time to sidestep the wars and lay down our weapons. Rather than choosing a side, choose curiosity about the practices that enable success for all students. Choose continuous learning about how to incorporate these practices into our pedagogy. And most importantly–choose kids. The power of literacy is transformative, and we can cultivate it in every student in our care by investing in evidence-based, culturally and linguistically responsive instruction for all.


‘Students Need to Be Taught Both’

Jana Echevarria, Ph.D., is professor emerita at California State University, Long Beach, where she received her university’s Outstanding Professor award. She is co-creator of the SIOP Model for multilingual learners and has co-authored the SIOP book series including Making Content Comprehensible for Multilingual Learners: The SIOP Model:

The so-called reading wars refer to the ongoing debate among educators and researchers about the most effective methods for teaching reading. This contentious issue has often divided professionals into two main camps: 1) the science of reading (SOR), or an emphasis on foundational skills and 2) the whole-language or balanced-literacy approach. Such a dichotomy is a misconception and not helpful, especially for teachers.

True, advocates for different sides seem to argue that there are vast differences in how to teach reading. However, as Jim Cummins says, “There is a huge amount of agreement when we get away from the political dimensions of how to teach reading effectively. … Everybody agrees that students need phonemic awareness, they need to have a strong foundational basis in understanding sound symbol relationships, phonics.” (2022).

The co-editor of Reading Research Quarterly, Amanda Goodwin, after working for several years with authors from both camps to publish a series of papers on reading, concluded that, “So, overall, I’d say that the experts agreed … not to insist that there’s a single, “one best” way to teach reading (Heller, 2022).

To clarify, the balanced-literacy approach has an emphasis on meaning. From the beginning, students focus on the meaning of what they’re learning to read. Balanced-literacy folks are not opposed to phonics teaching, but sounding out written words is considered only one way to recognize words. Students can also use pictures and other clues to guess at what the word is or what the sentence means.

The SOR camp, in contrast, emphasizes teaching foundational literacy skills (sometimes referred to as phonics or decoding) as fundamental for acquiring literacy. But at the same time, as students learn these foundational skills, they must also be engaged in activities such as hearing texts read aloud that they would be unable to read on their own. These and other experiences are just as fundamental if children are to develop language comprehension and other critical literacy skills (fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, and oral language).

SOR, which might simply be called research on reading, refers to studies conducted and published over several decades in the U.S. and around the world in multiple languages. These studies conclude, among other findings, that phonics is essential for becoming a skilled reader. Even those students with robust vocabularies and background knowledge need to be taught how to read the words on the page, a process that becomes automatic and effortless with explicit instruction and practice.

Literacy involves both learning the “code” of written words and deriving meaning from using the code to read written text. An excellent resource for teachers—and parents, administrators, and policymakers—called 10 Maxims, illustrates that literacy is neither solely “code” nor “meaning.” It is the integration of these processes. The focus of our attention should be on finding common ground as we continue working on deepening and expanding our knowledge of the many remaining issues such as whether there is an optimal balance of code- and meaning-oriented instruction and how the balance varies depending on individual differences, stage of literacy development, English-language proficiency, and other likely factors.

Unfortunately, teachers are sometimes caught in situations where policies or personal preferences and “philosophies” dictate extremes. Remember that reading is a complex process, and, although every child doesn’t learn completely differently from one another, some will require more or less instruction in the foundational skills and their application to word identification and text comprehension.

Teachers don’t have time to read the voluminous research on reading. In a nutshell, teaching phonics is essential, but it shouldn’t be the first and only skill to be taught. It should be part of a language-rich program with read-alouds, discussions, vocabulary development, and the like. Some specific points for teachers to keep in mind include:

· Decoding is essential, but other context clues can help students confirm the meaning of the words students sound out.

· Although phonics isn’t the only aspect of reading that makes a skilled reader, it is the bedrock of reading and literacy more generally.

· Detailed discussions of segments of text help students develop vocabulary and better understand the full text.

· Predictions related to a text’s meaning help students engage in and comprehend what they read, particularly when the teacher revisits predictions and confirms or refutes them based on evidence in the text.

· Explicitly teaching key vocabulary prior to reading and pointing out the words when they are encountered in the text help build vocabulary and comprehension.

· Reading a variety of texts is important: fiction, poetry, nonfiction (e.g., biographies) and informational from social studies and science.

· The practice of integrating discussion with reading and writing is beneficial for skill building. Talk about the text (predictions), read about it, talk about what was read, write about it (e.g., a summary, a graphic organizer, or an opinion piece), then talk about what was written.

For multilingual learners, the evidence suggests that they also need to learn to decode words and develop foundational skills in order to acquire and advance their literacy skills. In particular, teachers need to provide English oral-language instruction directed at students’ understanding the words being used to teach foundational skills.

Teachers should also provide lots of opportunities for multilingual students to develop English oral language that goes well beyond the relatively simple language used to teach beginning and early-literacy skills. Explicitly teach vocabulary or a language form, then have students practice using the language with peers. Since students are learning these new skills and information in a new language, teachers also need to make adjustments to instruction and provide scaffolds to help multilingual learners make sense of what they are reading and hearing. Link here for an excellent discussion of reading and multilingual learners.

Finally, regardless of your personal philosophy or mandate of your school, studies show that all students need to be taught both the skills that enable them to decode individual words and to experience read-alouds and other language- and knowledge-rich learning opportunities. Explicit skill-building activities are important for becoming fully literate, but alone they will not achieve the important goal that we all share—teaching students to become confident, skilled readers and writers.

Heller, R. (2022). Taking stock of the science of reading: A conversation with Amanda Goodwin. Phi Delta Kappan, 103(8), 32-36.


Thanks to Michele and Jana 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?

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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