The New Reading Wars: Is There Any Hope For Another Truce?

Image by Darby Browning from Pixabay

There have been new developments in the ongoing Reading Wars recently and news of these undercurrents have popped up in the media, in blog posts – such as this one – and behind the closed doors of various curriculum headquarters.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the history of reading wars, let me explain. Two opposing factions held different schools of thought as to the best approach to teach reading. One approach embraced a bottom up approach by teaching students how to break the code of text through phonics (i.e. letters and sounds) instruction. The other advocated a top down approach by immersing the students in a literate rich environment and by supporting the students in their search for meaning in texts. The first approach was called the phonics approach; the second one was named whole language. Both of these factions claimed their viewpoint created a better foundation for teaching reading.

Even though the reading wars had been raging for decades, there appeared to be a truce made about 20 years ago after the NRP (National Reading Panel) published their findings concerning effective reading instruction in 2000. According to their findings, effective reading instruction incorporates explicit and systematic phonics instruction.

One might have concluded that this would make the phonics-minded educators victors of the battle henceforth.

Au contraire, my friend, the new findings did not bring consensus to the opposing factions. Instead, they created a temporary truce.

Since the NRP findings indicated that phonics instruction was one of the elements of effective reading of instruction, the two factions continued to debate the matter of how much phonics should be included as well as how and when it would be included.

As with any push and pull of binary arguments, people grew weary of the conflict and looked for a resolution. Thus, a truce was created. This Treaty of Versailles for Reading had its own title: Balanced Literacy. Why live in either extreme when you can embrace moderation? Moderation is the key to life and Balanced Literacy fit that bill.

Balanced literacy allowed the folks in the whole language camp to save face. If they could sprinkle in phonics instruction at various times and places, they could meet the requirements established by the NRP for effective reading instruction.

Balanced Literacy became the mediator of the conflict. And, thank god, because now all the text book companies could get back to publishing reading textbooks with new and improved vision and scope and sequence.

Unfortunately, this truce would not last forever. Just as WWI was not “the war to end all wars”, soon a new reading war would erupt bringing in new players (cognitive scientists) as well as new tactics (the science of reading).

Would there be a clear winning side this time or another temporary truce? We all wait (textbook companies included) with bated breath to find out.

This concludes part one of a series of posts describing The New Reading Wars.

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