(2) the reading wars

My goal is to figure out the best way to educate my son, Walker, who for most of his life now has been stuck at home with me and his mother because of the pandemic. Approaching two years old, Walker is beginning his education at a time when conventional schooling has been turned on its head. God willing, COVID-19 will be long gone by the time he’s school age. But I wonder what lies ahead for him. Will education return to normal after this? Should it?


With their kids at home attending school over the Internet now, many parents have gotten an up-close look at what’s being taught, and some are none too pleased. In my last post, I mentioned one mother who was appalled to discover that her first grader couldn’t recognize the word “purple” without the actual color appearing on the page as a visual cue. The mom found that her daughter wasn’t being taught phonics, the skill of decoding words based on the sounds associated with their letters. Instead, she was being taught to guess at the meaning of written words by taking cues from the context around them. This method wasn’t helping her learn to read. 

The #purplechallenge conversation got me wondering about reading instruction in general and what might be the best approach for Walker in his early years. I began looking into the current state of early reading education, and it turns out there’s a slow-burning resistance to the established model. 

For decades now “balanced literacy” has been the dominant approach to teaching kids to read. What does it balance? Well, years back there was a pitched battle among reading educators between “whole language” and “phonics.” The whole language approach located reading within the wide universe of language and information we use to make meaning. A word—let’s take purple for example—means little in isolation; it acquires relevant meaning only when we consider it in vivo: When, how, and why is it being used, and by whom? Are we talking about sunsets? Bruises? Prince? The even distribution of Democratic and Republican voters in certain states? 

When we encounter the word purple on the page, we make meaning of it based on the context in which we find it, context created both by the author and by ourselves as readers. Whole language reading instruction therefore taught kids to focus on context as a way to discern meaning.

Whole language advocates were reacting against a phonics-based approach to reading instruction. Phonics is about decoding written words based on their letters, an activity mostly independent of meaning and context. Before we can begin to ascribe meaning to the word purple, for example, we need to be able to recognize what we’re seeing; we need to know the alphabet and the sounds that attach to the letters of the alphabet and how these sound-ladened letters work together to signify the words we use when we speak (in a language like English). If we run into a word we don’t recognize, we can sound it out based on its letters and the general rules we’ve learned for how those letters behave together. 

Puh – ur – pul. Ah, purple!

At their snarkiest, in the midst of the “reading wars,” whole language advocates characterized phonics as teaching kids to “bark at the page.” That is, it taught them merely to make sounds without making meaning. The phonics side in turn complained that whole language didn’t lead to real reading at all but only guessing at meaning using everything but the actual written words themselves. 

Balanced literacy came along to settle the dispute by saying “you’re both right.” It balanced whole language with phonics by recognizing the necessity of both decoding skills and the ability to make context-based inferences about meaning. The balanced approach has been widely employed for decades now, thanks largely to Lucy Calkins of the Columbia University Teacher’s College, whose curriculum Units of Study has been adopted by countless schools in the US. 

Unfortunately, over those decades students’ reading abilities have remained pretty poor.  The Nation’s Report Card consistently indicates that more than 60 percent of students across grade levels cannot read proficiently. In recent times, possibly spurred by all the at-home schooling, more people have begun to question whether balanced literacy is really the way to go. Even Calkins has reportedly seen the need for some “rebalancing.”

One problem, as the #purplechallenge mom discovered, is that balanced literacy as actually practiced in the elementary classroom has over-emphasized context cueing while giving short shrift to phonics. But some people see another problem, too: Early reading instruction has placed too much emphasis on skills and not enough on knowledge. That is, they’re finding that kids need to know something about the topic of their reading in order to make sense of it. Perhaps foundational knowledge about a wide variety of subjects is a necessary part of learning to read. 

I’ll look at this argument more carefully next time.    

—wb