Over the past three decades, the so-called “reading wars” have raged on among educators, scholars, and policymakers. In one camp are those who advocate for reading instruction centered around phonics instruction, the explicit teaching of sound-letter relationships. In the other camp are proponents of whole language, an approach that prioritizes immersing young children in authentic literature.
Over the past year, the conflict between these two factions has been renewed by Emily Hanford’s ongoing reporting for American Public Media and her op-ed in The New York Times. Hanford argues that reading instruction in American schools doesn’t incorporate enough phonics instruction and so does not reflect “what scientists have discovered about how people actually learn.”
The recent skirmishes between phonics and whole-language advocates reflect several major problems with how the “reading wars” have been waged. The first problem is that phonics advocates rarely start where all of us who wish to enter into honest debate must: by defining our terms. In this case, what do we mean by reading?
All of us must be at least as careful about how we argue as we are about what we argue."
Often, the unstated and unexamined assumption in arguments in favor of phonics instruction is that reading is no more than a process of decoding printed words—seeing words printed on a page and then uttering those words. If we accept this assumption, it’s easy to accept claims about the primacy of phonics instruction. After all, phonics help young readers associate letters with sounds, which, in turn, helps them decode printed words.
But all of us who read—whether to stay informed of current events, to learn about our history, to encounter faraway minds in great essays or faraway worlds in great novels, or to conduct scientific research—must do much more than decode printed words. Literacy scholars in the whole-language tradition understand reading as a process of sense-making—one we engage in not for its own sake but for bigger real-world purposes.
Of course, we must be able to decode printed text to achieve our purposes for reading. That’s why there’s broad consensus that phonics is an indispensable part of early-reading instruction. But if all we can do is decode printed text, then what sense have we made?
Comprehension is not a given. The capacity to read in a way that allows us to take in new ideas and apply them to our work and our lives is not a given. Young readers have a right to instruction that supports them both in decoding texts and in comprehending and using them. We can’t afford to wait until middle or high school to teach our children how to make sense of texts. They have a right to this instruction from the very beginning.
On both sides of the reading wars, we have failed not only to come to a shared understanding of reading but also to fairly characterize opposing points of view and the research bases that support them. In her New York Times op-ed, for example, Hanford derides practices “rooted in the idea that children learn to read by reading rather than by direct instruction in the relationship between sounds and letters.” These practices, as Hanford describes them, include giving children books with letter patterns they haven’t yet been taught, encouraging students to guess at words they don’t know based on context and pictures, and decorating classrooms with alphabetical word walls.
The books that contain letter patterns that haven’t been taught are the books in which children can practice the challenging intellectual work of making sense of rich ideas and information. Should children’s earliest reading experiences be confined to texts that make use of a small set of words whose spelling patterns have been taught—confined, in other words, to commercially produced booklets that are almost by definition meaningless?
And “guessing” at words is what proficient readers of all ages do. We use a combination of the letters we see and the thread of meaning we’re following to identify unknown words. The most successful phonics instruction is self-extending, after all. Once children begin to learn letter patterns, they can pick up similar patterns when they encounter them in a meaningful context. It’s a good thing, because if we were to teach every letter pattern under the sun, there wouldn’t be time left in the school day for much else.
In the same op-ed, Hanford writes that alphabetical word walls, a fixture in many elementary classrooms, “rest on the idea that learning to read is a visual memory process.” They simply do not. Word walls, when they’re used well, support students with decoding words that do not follow the letter patterns they have learned explicitly. They also are an important part of what researchers call print-rich environments, which provide more opportunities for children to interact with printed text, stir up children’s curiosity about letters and words, and provide visual resources that increase children’s facility with the very sound-letter relationships that are taught in phonics lessons.
To say that children “learn to read by reading” isn’t to say that they don’t need any sort of instruction. It is instead to say that, as in most worthy endeavors, children need a high volume of practice in reading to develop proficiency.
Of course, what we mean by practice depends on what we mean by reading. Children need decoding practice, but they also need practice comprehending texts, which includes, yes, “guessing” at words and also determining what’s most important in a text, following narrative logic, relating ideas to each other, and so on.
These misconceptions about the whole-language approach certainly warrant clarification and critique. But the broader point is this: All of us must be at least as careful about how we argue as we are about what we argue.
A proper debate about reading, one that serves our children well, must proceed with an attention to the lineages of research that have produced these bodies of knowledge. Most of all, it must begin with a discussion of what we mean by reading in the first place, of why we teach reading in schools, of what we envision our children will do with the texts they read across their lifetimes.