The Reading Wars Have Returned with New Labels

by | May 24, 2023

Why the phonics-based approach is the only legitimate approach to beginning reading

The reading wars between phonics and whole language has returned with new labels for each: the science of reading and balanced literacy, respectively. While the names have changed, the meanings have not.

In short, the phonics-based approach is still the only legitimate approach to beginning reading, but literacy professors have still not adopted it and prefer whole language. This is essentially educational malpractice and another example of failed progressive education in our schools.

By not teaching the phonics-based approach, American children’s reading will be delayed and probably irreparably harmed, which prevents them from attaining the minimum level of literacy necessary for a successful adult life. Fortunately, more than 30 states have passed laws requiring educational preparation programs to teach the science of reading or risk sanctions. This article explains the current reading wars and why the phonics-based approach is the only legitimate approach to beginning reading.

“Reading battle” is part of the Progressive war on American education

The “reading wars” does not exist in isolation. In fact, it should more accurately be referred to as the “reading battle,” because the real war is the takeover of American education by the “progressives.” Indeed, mainstream education is now essentially one and the same with progressive education. Progressive education is a type of so-called “student-centered” educational approach where the curriculum and instruction is centered on the student’s knowledge, values, and perception of reality instead of a carefully predesigned curriculum based on objective facts.[1] Its theory and practice equates to a form of subjectivist epistemology called constructivism, which will be described in more detail below.

Education is a process of teaching the young to think and act rationally, so they can grow up to be independent adults.

Writes philosopher Ayn Rand,

“The only purpose of education is to teach a student how to live his life—by developing his mind and equipping him to deal with reality. The training he needs is theoretical, i.e., conceptual. He has to be taught to think, to understand, to integrate, to prove. He has to be taught the essentials of the knowledge discovered in the past—and he has to be equipped to acquire further knowledge by his own effort.” [2]

A human’s means of grasping reality is with concepts. Despite all the lip service to the contrary, progressive education actually takes an anti-conceptual approach to teaching and stunts a student’s ability to think abstractly and logically, replacing it with concrete memorization. As we shall see, this approach is vividly demonstrated in the contrast between the conceptual approach of phonics, with the anti-conceptual approach of “whole language.”

The reading wars are one piece—albeit an important piece—of the overall progressive control of education in the United States and trying to fix reading without trying to fix education as a whole is not likely to work. In short, we have an educational system that is controlled by a political faction bent on changing the culture’s overall philosophy using the educational system to do so. Beginning reading is just one of the educational practices used to accomplish this goal.

And that part of the educational war began in earnest with the 1955 publication of Rudolph Flesch’s expose Why Johnny Can’t Read–And What You Can Do About It. His book explained why reading had declined in the United States, namely, by the implementation of something called whole language, an approach to beginning reading where the child memorizes whole words. Flesch argued this is simply not how people read. Reading, in essence, is sounding letters out and blending them together accurately and fluently, an approach that is called phonics for short. According to Flesch at the time, “The teaching of reading–all over the United States, in all the schools, in all the textbooks–is totally wrong and flies in the face of all logic and common sense.”[3]

Despite the enormous success of the book and the overwhelming body of evidence to support it, whole language continued as the dominant method for teaching reading because literacy professors in colleges of education preferred it to phonics. As time went by, however, the negative publicity and the mounting scientific evidence supporting phonics and discrediting whole language caused literacy professors to reluctantly make some changes.

Literacy professors made the case that whole language was not entirely wrong or flawed. There were other aspects to the approach besides memorizing sight words that were worth keeping. By contrast, they argued phonics was not without its flaws. It was boring and rarely focused on comprehension. This argument led them to develop a new way to teach reading they termed “balanced literacy” (BL), so named for its balance between some phonics and some whole language, based on the assumption that a mixture of the positive of both was better than either alone.

But as time went by it became apparent to reading scientists that balanced literacy, while officially not using the sight word method and incorporating some phonics, was still fundamentally misunderstanding reading and it should not be used at all. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an educational policy think tank, writes in their report on best beginning reading approaches:

“A lot of people who have a casual acquaintance with the research have persuaded themselves that balanced reading instruction means a little of this, a little of that. Take a cup of phonics from one cupboard, add a half-pint of whole language from the fridge, and the resulting blend will succeed with children while avoiding the battles and conflicts of the ‘reading wars.’

“The problem is that it doesn’t work that way. What’s going on in many places in the name of “balance” or “consensus” is that the worst practices of whole language are persisting, continuing to inflict boundless harm on young children who need to learn to read.” [4]

In an effort to put pressure on balanced literacy advocates, SOR advocates renamed phonics to have a more authoritative sound, the “science of reading” (SOR), to denote its basis in facts and empirical research. Despite the name change, literacy professors have shown little to no sign they are ready to accept it and teach it to new teachers. So state legislatures around the country have begun passing laws that in effect force them to comply or risk losing their licensing authority.

This is where we are now. Over 30 states have passed laws that mandate educator preparation programs teach the science of reading. More states like Ohio and Wisconsin are currently debating the issue. The reason for the movement is simple. The results speak for themselves. In 2013, Mississippi ranked 49th in the nation for reading proficiency. By 2019, it had risen to 29th in the nation.[5] Based on their success, other states are eager to reform their reading approach. But literacy professors are not persuaded as most have instituted mandated changes reluctantly.

 

The Science of Reading: Decoding & Comprehension

The science of reading is based on two fundamental principles. The first one is “decoding,” which is the act of translating written letters (graphemes) of a word into sounds (phonemes) and blending the sounds together accurately and fluently. When a reader can do this to the point where they can pronounce virtually any word correctly, they can read. An example would be when a reader sees the word cat and can sound out the individual letters cat, correctly and can blend them together fluently to form the word cat.

While the principle of decoding is simple enough, there are many factors that make it difficult to accomplish. For one, consider the limits of human memory. Adults can only effectively work with a small number of new items in “short-term” or “working” memory at a time. What we commit to “long-term” memory is often that which we mentally attend to often and or that which has meaning or importance to us. Young children’s memory is even weaker. That becomes especially relevant when you consider that there are 26 letters in the alphabet that represent the 44 sounds in the English language. For even children with the best memories that is a lot to remember, especially since there is no inherent meaning associated with the visual appearance of the letters. Furthermore, many letters represent more than one sound, which adds to the confusion. Finally, some letters look the same as others, e.g., d, b, and p are all the same letters but pointing in different directions.

SOR based beginning reading programs deal with this inherent complexity through careful systematic instruction in the letter-sound code that teaches new information in small manageable chunks to mastery before moving on to new material.

But even once a reader becomes fluent in decoding, they cannot necessarily comprehend what they read, which leads to the second principle of SOR: reading comprehension. Reading comprehension is essentially vocabulary or the number of words a person knows. Generally, the more words a person knows the better the comprehension. Research says that vocabulary explains at least half of the variance in children’s reading comprehension scores. For example, students with the highest NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) vocabulary scores performed in the top quarter of the NAEP reading comprehension test.[6]

Although vocabulary can be increased through direct instruction or by memorizing individual words. By far the most effective way is indirectly by reading. Children who read less than 15 minutes a day have encountered 1.5 million words by 12th grade, while children who read 30 minutes or more a day have encountered 13.5 million, over ten times the amount.[7]

But what is interesting about this fact is, in order to read, one must first be fluent in decoding. Research says that decoding also explains some of the variance in reading comprehension. One study found that between 8% and 43% of the variance in reading comprehension could be predicted by decoding fluency.[8] This should be obvious to anyone paying attention to the meaning of these concepts. You cannot understand what a word means if you cannot pronounce it correctly. Imagine a child reading out loud making at least one mistake in decoding per sentence. Reading would be not just a laborious task, but also a great strain on short-term memory. In essence the child is reading a blank space where a word should be. That blank then compounds the difficulty in comprehension, essentially it would be like encountering a word you do not know. Researchers believe a child should rarely read anything without decoding at least 90% of the words correctly or else comprehension is virtually impossible.

In summary, these two principles of reading—decoding fluency and reading comprehension—comprise the bulk of what learning to read entails. This is not an opinion or up for debate. It is a fact.

We also know that for a beginning reading program to be successful it must systematically address these two principals over the course of Kindergarten through at least eighth grade and if it does students—regardless of background—will learn to read. Yet most school districts, schools, and teachers are not only not addressing these two principles, they often do not even know that this is what reading consists of.

Obviously, the next question is why not? How can it be that so much time and money is spent on education and yet educators are completely unaware of the most important educational practice? Unfortunately, the answer lies in the fact that the dominant educational philosophy—progressive education—continues to control educational practice. Progressive education’s view of reading—balanced reading—is what is taught instead of the SOR and until that changes expect more of the same.

 

Balanced Literacy and the “Progressive” Anti-Enlightenment

In contrast to SOR, BL is not a science or a distinct method for beginning reading. Rather, it is more of a collection of beliefs and intentions considered good practice by literacy professors in the BL camp. The literacy professors that typically develop and promote it are more like intellectuals than reading scientists. The main principles and practices of BL include but are not limited to the following:

  1. Learning to read is a natural process that will occur over time when children are immersed in and guided through a literature rich environment.
  2. Reading for meaning or comprehension should be taught right from the beginning by practicing skills that advanced readers use such as inferencing, context clues, and predicting.
  3. Children should read literature to which they relate and find interesting.[9]

The official description of BL sounds benign enough, perhaps even good, but taken in the wider context of what we know about beginning reading its practices conflict with the SOR. Learning to read is not natural and that fact has important implications for practice. If parents and teachers act on that principle, children’s reading will most likely be delayed and perhaps misdiagnosed as dyslexic. Comprehension is also not a skill, so teaching students to comprehend by teaching skills when they do not have the necessary decoding fluency and background vocabulary will only cause confusion and frustration. Finally, selecting literature aligned strictly with progressive values is not likely to be well received by parents and schools that have different values.

But these three principles of BL miss the bigger issue and that is BL is the progressive way to teach reading and it is done for the same reason all progressive practices are done. It is believed that teaching in this way is more likely to bring about a way of thinking in the child and student that will lead the United States away from its founding values towards a “progressive” society.

Years before Flesch’s expose was published progressives began taking over the American school system including and especially higher education. Their purpose was and still is to dismantle American culture. By “American,” I mean the Enlightenment values directly stated or indirectly implied in the American founding documents and discourse, values such as truth, free will, reason, self-interest, individual rights, and laissez-faire capitalism to name a few. These values were and still are seen as obstacles to their desire to attain a “social democracy.” So they have set about re-educating the young by undermining these values in our educational institutions.

The effort to change the culture has been more direct in higher education. These values are often explicitly attacked in the college curriculum while their philosophical opposites are promoted. Most courses in the liberal arts and social sciences teach from a critical race theory and or diversity, equity, and inclusion perspective and expect students to think the same way. Once just the content of a few courses throughout the college curriculum, students and faculty alike are expected to demonstrate commitment to these ideologies.

But the process of indoctrinating the young in Kindergarten through 12th grade is less direct. It happens in the way the subjects are taught. How teachers teach is influenced heavily by progressive education’s primary educational philosophy (i.e., epistemology) known as constructivism.

Constructivism is the view that we do not observe reality as it is. Rather we “construct” reality. In other words, we create our reality. According to progressive educators there is no way to know reality as it is because our perception and conception of it are inherently biased. What we know is determined by our culture, not through careful and systematic observation and generalization of facts. The traditional American curriculum, for example, what we think of when we think of the typical history, science, math, and English course, is not factual knowledge disseminated by our greatest thinkers and educators. It is, rather, a cultural construct of the dominant culture, which for years has been “white Western male” culture.

This assumption has been taught in educator preparation programs and thus has led to educators teaching a different way, namely, a way that has students “construct” the curriculum. One of the most popular examples of this is the teaching of “thinking skills” in mainstream education. Thinking skills is just the broad meaning. It has other labels such as critical thinking skills, higher-order thinking skills, inquiry learning, problem-based learning, discovery learning, and so on. The practice actually goes back to the father of progressive education, philosopher John Dewey, who coined the term “critical thinking” in his book How We Think.

Since, according to constructivism, knowledge is inherently biased, we should teach students how to think and they will be able to deal with reality in a way that is culturally relevant to them and their way of thinking. Thus, schools now put an emphasis on teaching “thinking skills” rather than knowledge. Never mind that the theory is false. Psychologists have determined that there are no general thinking skills, only domain-specific thinking skills.[10] For example, one such skill is to question articles we read in the media. This seems like a reasonable skill to teach that would be helpful in life, but would it be possible for students to question articles if they have no background knowledge about that which they are reading? Of course not. If you want to solve a problem you first have to have a lot of knowledge about the problem, not generic thinking skills. You need a specialist, not a generalist.

This is relevant to the reading wars because what has become standard English language arts instruction today in grades three through eight is essentially teaching students generic thinking skills applied to reading. In the BL approach, English teachers teach their students to read as if they believe good readers use certain skills. The thinking goes something like if the novice reader would only use these skills, they too would be able to comprehend like the expert reader. The most popular skill in this scheme is “inferencing,” which is a logical deduction from facts. BL English teachers typically have students read canned texts and answer inferencing questions virtually every day on the assumption that if the students practice inferencing enough they will eventually be able comprehend what they read.

The mistake in this approach is in thinking comprehension is a skill, when in fact it is a function of vocabulary and decoding fluency–the two main principles of the SOR. It should be noted that there is nothing inherently wrong with asking students to draw inferences from what they have read. It is even advisable. The problem is in thinking that inferencing itself is comprehension. It is not. You first have to comprehend before you can draw an inference. Treating comprehension as a skill to be learned is perhaps the biggest feature of BL and the biggest cause of reading comprehension failure in the United States K8 educational system.

The other part of constructivism deals with what the students are constructing. According to progressive educators, mainstream society’s understanding of reality is determined by the dominant culture, which historically has been dictated by rich white males. Since this is only one view of reality and an arbitrary view there should be more cultures heard. The practice for this theory is called culturally responsive teaching or culturally relevant teaching. The theory behind this practice is that if we teach to the student’s culture the instruction will be more effective because it will make the information more relevant, and it will be socially just since we are acknowledging that their view of reality is just as valid as other cultures. Culture in this context can be almost any group, e.g., race, gender, class, religion, nationality, or even children or adolescent culture. The practice of this theory is children reading books that expose them to alternatives to the so-called dominant culture. Notice that there is a contradiction here. Culturally responsive teaching entails teaching to a student’s culture. However, literary works that are representative of Western culture are often absent or even smeared as “Eurocentric,” “white supremacist,” etc.

It should be noted here as well that children should read about different cultures, especially to understand what cultures have succeeded over time and why. But this is not primarily what culturally responsive teaching is used for. The indirect message of the approach is that there are multiple viewpoints of reality, all of which are equally valid. The problem with this approach, of course, is there is only one reality and a given culture is either consistent with it or not. Shouldn’t education be promoting this view? Instead, mainstream education is teaching students indirectly through their selection of children’s literature that there are no objective facts or values.

In conclusion, the proper stance on this issue is that SOR should be the dominant beginning reading practice. Instead, BL, the progressive education version of beginning reading, continues to dominate. Like so many other progressive educational practices, it does not work. It promotes a misunderstanding of reading and it teaches a postmodern culturally relativistic view of reality, knowledge, and morality. But changing beginning reading approaches alone is not likely to succeed. A full philosophical overhaul of our educational system is necessary before educational practice becomes functional again.

References

[1] Gerald Gutek, Philosophical, Ideological, & Theorertical Perspectives on Education, 2nd Edition, (New York: Pearson, 2014).

[2] Ayn Rand, “The Comprachicos,” Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, (New York: Meridian, 1999), 88.

[3] Rudolf Flesch, Why Johnny Can’t Read: And What You Can Do About It (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1966).

[4] Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Whole Language Lives On: The Illusion of Balanced Literacy Instruction, https://www.ldonline.org/ld-topics/teaching-instruction/whole-language-lives-illusion-balanced-reading-instruction

[5] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/10/06/education/learning/mississippi-schools-literacy.html

[6] https://www.renaissance.com/2018/01/23/blog-magic-15-minutes-reading-practice-reading-growth/

[7] https://www.renaissance.com/2018/01/23/blog-magic-15-minutes-reading-practice-reading-growth/

[8] Eun Young Kang and Mikyung Shin, “The Contributions of Reading Fluency and Decoding to Comprehension for Struggling Readers in 4th Grade,” Reading & Writing Quarterly, v35, n3 (2019): 179-192.

[9] I. C. Fountas and G. S. Pinnell, Guided Reading: Good First Teaching for All Children, (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1996).

[10] https://www.readingrockets.org/article/critical-thinking-why-it-so-hard-teach

 

A professor of educational theory and practice with specific research interests in Objectivist education, curriculum development, and the epistemology of education.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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