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Kindling a Fire: The Reading Wars

Kindling a Fire: The Reading Wars

With war devastating Ukraine and school shootings all too common, we would all be wise to avoid military analogies when it comes to education. But the so-called “reading wars” continue to generate controversy among educators and parents regarding the best ways to teach early literacy. What is at stake in this long-running dispute, and how should schools respond?

The “reading wars” pit proponents of phonics-based instruction against adherents of the “whole language” movement. Both camps include well-intentioned educators searching for the best way to teach young learners to read. But while phonics instruction focuses on sounding out letter combinations that make up a word, whole language emphasizes a child’s discovery of meaning through experiences in a literacy-rich environment. A phonics-based lesson involves students identifying and sounding out letters to decode a word, while a whole language lesson encourages students to use “cues,” including sentence structure and pictures, to construct the meaning of words without analyzing letter combinations.

Over many decades, the pendulum of reading instruction has swung back and forth between phonics and whole language, with powerful interests – and sometimes political controversy – on both sides. For much of the past 40 years, the whole language movement has been ascendant, and educators such as Lucy Calkins have become household names along the way. Meanwhile, phonics instruction has fallen out of fashion in favor of literature-rich classroom environments seeking to unlock the “magic” of reading.  

But in recent years, the phonics (or “science of reading”) camp has used advancements in neuroscience and cognitive psychology to reframe the debate around early literacy. Taking issue with the whole language (or “balanced literacy”) assumption that children naturally learn to read by immersion the same way they learn to speak, phonics adherents have shown that acquisition of written comprehension develops differently than spoken language. This discovery has major ramifications for literacy instruction.

As Harvard cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker has observed, speaking is hard-wired into the human brain – “there is almost no way to prevent it from happening, short of raising a child in a barrel.” Not so for reading.

Researchers, including Stanislas Dehaene, David Kilpatrick, and Mark Seidenberg, have demonstrated that, far from being a natural process, reading requires a series of complex neurological connections whereby the brain converts arbitrary visual symbols into sounds and then meaning. This process requires (1) phonemic awareness, or recognizing spoken sounds; (2) phonic decoding, or understanding which symbols (“graphemes”) represent which sounds (“phonemes”); and (3) “orthographic mapping” whereby students use the oral language processing part of their brains to connect the sounds of words they already know to the spelling of a word, permanently storing the connection between the sounds and letters in long-term memory.

Crucially, this process is difficult to achieve without a solid grounding in phonics. This is because the brain uses the sounds or pronunciation of words already stored in long-term memory to attach to the letter sequence in a word’s spelling. As a result, phonics proficiency is essential to mapping written language into long-term memory.

Indeed, several international studies conducting large meta-analyses have demonstrated that systematic phonics instruction leads to student gains in text comprehension, word reading, and spelling. In light of this research, the International Literacy Association has stated that “the question of whether to include phonics instruction has been resolved; the answer is yes.”

But the whole language approach is not entirely without merit. First, explicit and systematic phonics instruction, as important as it is, is simply the starting point for building strong readers. To transform a novice reader into an expert reader, a student must also have instruction around writing systems, spelling, vocabulary, comprehension, and yes, even elements of the whole language.

Second, whole language’s cultivation of the “magic of reading” – with kids curled up reading books of their choice in classrooms stuffed with literature – can be pursued with equal zeal by a phonics-focused classroom. But the magic of reading is simply more likely to happen for a student with a strong phonics grounding because a student cannot love to read until she learns to read fluently. Not surprisingly, studies show that kids are more motivated to read when they are good at it. Anything a school can do to create proficient early readers will create more lifelong lovers of reading.  

At Country Day, we seek to follow the scientific evidence, not the pendulum swing of popular opinion. We must be vigilant in reviewing research, refusing to pick teams in the reading wars, and seeking out scientific consensus rather than self-satisfied groupthink. It’s not easy, but as any teacher who’s taught a child to read can tell you, it’s worth it.

"Kindling a Fire" is a column submitted regularly to Indian Hill Living by Head of School Rob Zimmerman '98. This article was printed in the April 2023 edition of the publication.