Four things you need to know about the new reading wars (2024)

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Evidence backs some phonics and other strategies to help children read in the early elementary years

Four things you need to know about the new reading wars (1)byJill Barshay

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Four things you need to know about the new reading wars (2)

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Four things you need to know about the new reading wars (3)

The reading wars are back, reignited by radio journalist Emily Hanford of APM Reports, who in 2018 began arguing that too many schools are ignoring the science of reading and failing to teach phonics. My news organization, The Hechinger Report, recognized the importance of Hanford’s reporting and immediately republished a print version of the story.

The debate has elicited passions, vindication for proponents of phonics and distress for defenders of a so-called “balanced” approach to reading instruction. I’ve been obsessed with the renewed controversy over how to teach reading, consuming research and talking to scholars and educators. As a journalist who regularly covers education research, I wanted to boil down the key points of what we know from the research on reading and answer the big questions that people have been asking me.

1. Is phonics really better?

Yes, but proponents of phonics sometimes overstate how much more effective it is to teach kids the sounds that letters make. “Phonics is marginally better,” said Timothy Shanahan, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chi­cago and an expert on the research in reading instruction. Dozens of studies show that students who receive explicit phonics instruction, on average, score higher on reading assessments than students who haven’t been taught through phonics. But it’s not a huge difference.

READ MORE: What do parents need to know about this research? How do kids actually learn how to read?

“The fact is that most kids can learn to read with little or no phonics,” Shanahan said. Indeed, many kids figure out how to read on their own before reading instruction even begins at school. However, a minority of students won’t learn to read without phonicsand many students would read significantly worse without phonics.

The best argument for phonics is that no one is harmed by it and a large subset of students is helped by receiving explicit phonics instruction from kindergarten through second grade.

Related: Three lessons from data on children’s reading habits

Unfortunately, a bit of phonics on the fly isn’t terribly effective. The best results happen when teachers use a set phonics curriculum, typically 25 minutes a day, instead of making up their own phonics lessons as they deem necessary. In an Education Week survey of early reading instruction published in January 2020, only 22 percent of kindergarten, first and second grade teachers said they believed phonics should be taught explicitly and systematically. But a whopping 68 percent said they subscribe to an approach to reading instruction called balanced literacy.

2. What’s wrong with balanced literacy?

The concept now called balanced literacy arose in the 1990s as a compromise between the two prevailing camps of reading instruction: phonics and what is known as whole language. Whole language instruction is based on the philosophy that kids will learn to read naturally if you expose them to a lot of books. Advocates believe it’s better to devote instructional time to the ideas and stories that are in the books rather than forcing kids to memorize the sounds that letters make. At the time, the idea of balanced literacy seemed likely to stop the debate by taking the best from each approach. But in practice, balanced literacy curricula often don’t include a strong phonics program. Instead, I learned that these compromise curricula often retain three teaching strategies for which there isn’t good research evidence: cueing, independent reading time and leveled reading. Here’s a summary of the research on each of these.

Cueing. Hanford’s radio documentary “At a Loss for Words” focused on debunking a popular teaching approach called the “three cueing system” that guides children to guess and look for clues when they confront a new, unknown word. For example, a child might see a picture of an animal and guess that the word “horse” is “pony” in a sentence and then check to confirm that the wrong word, “pony,” makes sense in the context of the other words. No research supports this teaching technique. Shanahan said the theory came from analyzing students’ reading errors, not from studying what successful readers do, which is figuring out what the letters actually say.

Independent reading time. Kids who read more tend to score higher on reading assessments but research hasn’t been particularly supportive of using classroom time for unstructured, independent reading. During independent time, teachers typically allow students to select their own books so that the student is motivated to read something that he or she wants to read. But research shows larger learning gains — especially improved reading comprehension — when teachers are involved in book selection, hold students accountable for getting the reading done, guide a discussion about the narrative or end the book with a writing assignment. Weaker readers, especially students who are still struggling to “decode” and read words fluently, often get frustrated and aren’t able to accomplish much reading during independent reading time.

Leveled reading. A common feature in U.S. reading classes is to differentiate students by their reading level. Stronger readers get harder texts and weaker readers get easier texts. The theory is that students will get frustrated if they make too many errors in reading words or if the vocabulary is too difficult for them and they won’t understand the story. Eventually, as students’ reading improves, they can move up to harder texts. But reading research shows that students learn more when they’re challenged by difficult texts. Teacher time may be better spent helping students build their vocabularies and content knowledge so that students can tackle and understand texts that are appropriate for their grade level. Learning requires effort and you don’t learn much with an easy text.

3. What about memorizing sight words?

Kids “need other kinds of ways to break the code besides phonics because [English is] not a phonetically friendly language,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the Learning Policy Institute and professor emeritus of education at Stanford University. “They also need a whole lot of other things.”

Some students need help with eye-tracking across and down a page of text, for example.

A big question is the number of sight words. When phonics is tested head-to-head against word memorization, phonics wins. But word memorization programs that also teach phonics do well too.

Related: Mining online data on struggling readers who catch up

It’s certainly possible to learn to read through memorization. Every child in China learns Chinese characters this way because it’s not a phonetic language. But it’s harder. Many young children struggle to memorize. It takes a lot of repetition and the words are quickly forgotten.

Shanahan argues that once kids have a solid idea of decoding through phonics, they learn words very quickly.

“It’s as if phonics is a kind of glue that allows words to be learned quickly,” he said. “Trying to learn lots of words by memory alone is just inefficient and overwhelming to some kids.”

To be sure, there are a host of basic words that cannot be sounded out easily, such as “the,” “have” and “would.” Reading researchers say children should memorize these tricky ones as sight words — but not hundreds and hundreds of them, as some teachers ask. Teachers should try to minimize the number of sight words to be memorized. For example, there’s no point in having students memorize “green” as a sight word since it follows the phonics rules perfectly.

4. What about reading comprehension?

If you want kids to become great readers, the kind who score well on comprehension tests in fourth grade and beyond, the most important things to teach may not be taught in reading class at all.

“Over the long term, kids’ reading achievement is driven substantially by whether they’re getting access to the content, the science and social studies and things about the world,” said Darling-Hammond, “because what you understand from what you read depends on whether you can hook it to concepts and topics that you have some knowledge about.”

For years, educators have felt pressure to cut time for science, social studies and the arts in order to carve more time for the basics: reading, writing and math. That was misguided. Many children need explicit reading instruction to decode the letter symbols and read fluently but reading comprehension can be developed throughout the school day. If one good thing can come from the latest round of the reading wars, I hope it will be a “balanced” schedule.

Related: Evidence increases for reading on paper instead of screens

It’s tricky for parents to know if a classroom is using evidence-based approaches for teaching reading. Explicit teaching of oral reading fluency, reading comprehension and writing isn’t always visible. Classrooms don’t need phonics charts and short lists of sight words festooned to the walls. But you can ask if the teacher is using a set phonics curriculum in kindergarten through second grade. If you see bins of books sorted into different reading levels, that’s a sign that the school may not be teaching reading in a way that researchers say is grounded in scientific evidence. It’s better for all students to be working with high-quality texts that are appropriate for a student’s grade. Shanahan also advises looking for a school that protects time for students to learn about science, social studies and the arts. For more details, read my colleague Jackie Mader’s story on what research-based reading instruction looks like in the classroom.

This story about the reading warswas written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused oninequality and innovation in education. Sign up for theHechinger newsletter.

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24 Letters

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  1. I serve as an ESL teacher to the kindergarten students in a poor area in NJ. This year, the general teacher asked me to help her to conduct the running records for her class. The results were very interesting showing that the ELL’s had higher levels than the the regular students. I believe this difference can be explained by the explicit teaching of phonics. I use the Phonics First program.

  2. Thank you so much for continuing to write about the Reading wars and making sure to include the research. It is unbelievable that something so important is ignored by so many. The saddest part is our children are used as guinea pigs and when some of them can’t read, we put the blame on them.

    Our district is currently evaluating our reading curriculum ( a balanced literacy approach program – yes we swallowed the “believable pill” a few years back when we adopted it) and we have been reading and discussing the research to figure out our next steps. Thank you again for keeping this very important topic front and center!

  3. I applause this article– Four things you need to know about the new reading wars (Barshay, 3/30/20)–because it summarizes the issues so succinctly with a great deal of common sense. Not only logical, the points are, indeed, scientifically based. There are years and years of debate, research, publications, and outcomes from which to draw, which, for the purpose of this article need not be repeated. Having Shanahan as a clear voice in the article was an excellent, most respected professional.
    I especially appreciated the historical and current view brought together in clear style. It’s well worth archiving. As a 50 year (now retired teacher, professor, coach, and tutor/mentor), it was like the article was clearing the fog filled with rhetoric and emotion and presented a valuable set of guidelines. Thank you.

  4. Hi, I think your column “Four things you need to know about the new reading wars” is a great summary of current thinking on reading that is backed by science and research. However, your first point about the limited benefit of phonics is somewhat misleading. You do note that a large subset of students is helped by explicit phonics instruction; however, the bigger point is that many of these students may never learn to read effectively without it. In particular, poor students and English language learners are less likely to be exposed to the vocabulary, dialogue and questioning, and content knowledge that helps many other students learn to read even in the absence of systematic explicit phonics instruction. My second grade son attends a “high performing” district public school in NYC that has adopted the Teachers College approach, but added Wilson Fundations a few years ago to address the lack of phonics. However, I discovered that this program is designed to be implemented 30 minutes daily, but teachers pick and choose what to use only about three days per week. When I asked the principal about it, she said “Well, the teachers find it kind of dry.” The school has a large performance gap in reading between high and low income families and English language learners, which I suspect has a lot to do with the failure to effectively teach phonics.

  5. Thank you. This was an excellent, accurate, informative, well-researched, well-written, well-balanced article.
    However, for some children who have difficulty with phonemic awareness (identifying and manipulating individual sounds within words), a sight word approach may be more effective than a phonics approach for them.
    Thank you.

  6. Dear Hechinger Report
    I enjoyed Jill Barshay’s March 2020 report on the reading wars, as I enjoyed your previous investigatory pieces on reading. I wish to add to the discussion by extending the description of ‘independent reading’ as an unstructured activity where students can do as they wish, and for which there is a lack of support in research.
    Good independent reading is structured, it is designed by good teachers and librarians – it involves reading communities made up of students, teachers, and parents in dialogue about their reading and reading choices. However, its structure is both ambitious and ambiguous and thus more difficult to measure. How to measure the value of a child’s personal reading experience or their understanding of reading as an important cultural practice?
    More importantly, independent reading’s primary goal is motivation and passion for reading – phonics and comprehension are important but independent reading recognizes motivation as the starting blocks in a long-distance running race. This approach is commonly called ‘Reading for Pleasure’ and there is ample research for its benefits, here’s one:
    Reading often gets pulled into the so-called reading wars, which is actually more about classroom practice and might better be renamed as the ‘literacy wars.’ The literacy wars are mostly about reading as a cognitive practice, broken down into a set of techniques such as phonics, sight words, & comprehension. In the literacy wars the child’s feelings about reading are often forgotten, we can see this in the March 2020 article, which hardly mentions motivation, affect, or enjoyment.
    I believe that the literacy wars are important, I agree that we need well trained teachers who follow the latest research, but please don’t stomp over the reading lives of our children while you march to battle.

  7. The research that my colleague, Anne McGill-Franzen, and I have completed has demonstrated convincingly that increasing the volume of reading that poor children do during the summer months serves as one evidence-based option for reducing, if not eliminating, the rich/poor reading achievement gap. In both of our studies we simply ran book fairs in schools serving children from low-income families. At the book fairs each child was asked to self-select 12 children’s books and these books were delivered to the children on the final day of the school year. We did not require that the children write book reports or take quizzes on the books they chose. Instead, we simply hoped that these poor children would be attracted to reading the books they had selected. In both experimental studies the children who were randomly selected to receive summer books outperformed their classmates who had not been selected to receive summer books. After three summers of books/no books we examined to records of these children’s performance on the state test of reading achievement. Basically, easy access to summer books eliminated the rich/poor reading gap! Eliminated nearly a full year reading achievement gap over three summers. The average reading growth of the books children equaled or exceeded the growth made by children attending summer school (and for a lot less money per child).

    Our studies are currently the only multiple-year studies of summer academic gains/losses. However, two quite different pools of children participated — Black urban and rural white children participated in the two studies but even with residences in different states and with different racial/ethnic backgrounds providing the opportunity to read over the summer produced striking academic outcomes.

    We can teach all children to read and to read well. But the latest evidence that our children (from ages 9 to 24) read less today than adults in every older age group. The fact that entering college freshman today voluntarily read less than other adults is shocking but that they read less than any other group of young people have read for the past 50 years! The past two decades of American education have not been good for children and because of that, children’s reading proficiencies have largely stagnated (Today,17-year-olds read about as well as 17-year-olds read back when I completed high school.. That is, no improvement in reading achievement over the past 40 years!

    I will close by noting that for at least 50 years more phonics has been on the federal agenda. For 50 years that agenda has failed to improve reading achievement of children. My suggestion is that it seems time to give up on the phonics advancements and to, instead, create schools where all children not only learn to read but actually do read during the school day (currently elementary students spend about 15 minutes of the 300+ minute school day actually engaged in reading activity). What would happen if all children engaged in one-hour of self-selected reading every school day? I’ll bet that is we could restore the balance such that workbooks and skills tests were eliminated and free reading became a one-hour daily block in every elementary classroom we would have kids who not only read better but they also have larger vocabularies, better writing skills, and greater knowledge of the world than kids do today.

  8. The way you are explaining the three cuing systems is inaccurate. It is not guessing. The cueing systems tell how a reader is thinking about text while reading and can show a skilled teacher how to coach the thinking for self monitoring.

  9. As I was reading through this blog, I noticed the very first question, “Is phonics really better? “I know that we as early educators, in the prekindergarten setting, struggle with this. I know that I desperately want to teach the students letters and the sounds they make, blends, etc. but our hands are tied. We are forbidden to teach letters in isolation. However, according to this article it states, “phonics is marginally better,” according to Timothy Shanahan. I for one, as do many other educators, feel that phonics really is the very first building block that is necessary to teach our students. They will learn how to say and read words correctly. Now, I know that phonics is not going to work all the time, that is why we must memorize our sight words, but it starts off the groundwork and it allows for us to build upon their knowledge and experiences.
    Another area that this article/blog talks about is the use of balanced literacy. So many schools have bought into this concept and they have spent so much money on materials and trainings that I do not see this ever leaving the schools. The older teachers love the fact that it is almost scripted for them and they have little work to do. They feel that if they follow along exactly as it says, everyone will do a great job and learn. However, we know this to not be the case. Many of us are forced to differentiate our lessons, one mold does not fit all! This works very well for our students. We provide readings that have the same content but at their reading levels. We are wanting to encourage our students and not break them down.
    This blog does a fantastic job at pointing out all the bad, but I would like to see more of the good. Tell us what works and how do we implement it. How do we buy into a new program? How do we convince the powers that be that we need a change?

  10. After reading your post, I believe that much of your points portray an accurate depiction of reading within the classrooms and issues that many are facing. However, I feel like your first point regarding phonics, along with Shanahan’s beliefs, is slightly flawed. You mention that many benefit from phonics. However, you state that many people overstate the effectiveness of phonics instruction and that there is not a vast difference between test scores with students who have or have not received phonics instruction. However, I have to disagree. I have seen firsthand the downfall of test scores and students’ ability to read the moment our school system chose to do away with phonics instruction. Not only did students begin struggling with reading, but I also saw a huge deficit in their ability to spell and write. In the third and fourth grade classroom, we were having the majority of students unable to read or write fluently due to a lack of a phonics program for much of their education. These students were then expected to learn other reading skills but were not able, considering they had not even mastered the foundations of reading. It was very frustrating to see these students struggle so greatly when much of this could have been avoided if they had had phonics instruction from the beginning of their education. With that being said, our county now has a reading curriculum that includes phonics. It has been implemented for two years now, and teachers are seeing huge improvements and gaps closing as students can truly understand what they are reading. They can then learn the reading skills they need to have to read and write across the content areas. As you mention, I agree that phonics instruction can not harm any student but help students regardless of their needs, whether they are struggling or advanced.

  11. I enjoyed reading your column “Four things you need to know about the new reading wars”. You provided a great summary on the current ideas of reading. However, I did not agree fully with your idea of phonics. As a teacher at a Title 1 school, I have seen the effects that a low socioeconomic status has on student achievement. The article mentions the notion of phonics and other strategies to help children read. You stated that phonics is helpful to a large group of students, yet that many of these students may never learn to read without it. Many of the students I serve come from backgrounds where English is not the primary language. Although many of these students are in the 6th grade, some are far behind on their reading levels. I strongly believe that many of these students struggle with reading because they lack phonological awareness. It is important that teachers explicitly teach these struggling readers the relationship between sounds and letters in order to improve their reading skills. Phonological awareness can help students become better readers.
    I try to incorporate literacy in my science classroom each day to give students exposure to new vocabulary words. I am trying to create a group of learners who not only can read, but also are content area literate. While reading the article, the idea of whole language instruction grabbed my attention. As an educator, I understand the importance of being literate. I agree that students need to be able to read and write. However, the 21st century learners that we have must have the skills to have content area literacy. How many times have you had a student to read a text, and then as soon as you ask them what they read, many cannot respond. Our focus has been centered on literacy, the ability to read and write. Our new focus should be content area literacy. Content area literacy would ensure that our students develop language skills, while also develop content knowledge in the subject area.
    My school has just kicked off a new literacy pilot in the school. All classes will now have literacy block on Fridays. During this time, both the teachers and the students will read independently or as a whole group. The idea is to get students reading. The teachers also read during this time in an effort to model the expected behavior. In addition to the reading component, students have to summarize the reading through a journaling activity. This initiative is aimed at promoting literacy cross curriculum. We want literacy to be an active component in not only language arts, but also science, math, etc. I truly believe this is a great idea that will help our students by exposing them to more literature and ultimately increase their literacy skills.
    I believe it is important for us to teach students how to read, however, if students cannot comprehend the material to understanding of the content, then we have only reached them half of the way.

  12. I am a firm believer that multiple approaches to teaching a student to read need to be implemented. Students are all different. They come from different backgrounds, they learn differently, and they each come with their own learning styles. I feel that the teaching of Phonics is very important. I have been a teacher for 19 years, but I have a personal reason behind my belief. My two daughters were only a year apart in school. Even though they were only a year apart and attended the same school, one daughter received phonics instruction and the other did not. Although they both grew up to be great readers, my daughter that did not receive phonics instruction is a horrible speller. She can write the most beautiful, eloquent pieces, but she must rely on spell check (or her mom) to proofread her writing for her. I always felt that had she had that phonics instruction to help her learn and understand letter/sound relationships, she would have been better able to spell. Having said that, I believe that there is a place for sight words in the curriculum. In my school we take a balanced literacy approach with our students. Unlike what was stated in the article, we do place a big emphasis on the phonics portion. All students are different and we have to meet the needs of all students…that means teaching in a variety of ways.
    I had a very hard time with reading comprehension when I was in school. I could read beautifully and felt that I understood what I was reading. Unfortunately, my test scores didn’t always look so great. Because of this, I try especially hard to help my students develop good reading comprehension skills. The article emphasized the importance of being able to read and comprehend Science and Social Studies texts. Our school integrates Science and Social Studies with Reading so the majority of our stories are informational. While I fully understand the reasoning behind incorporating Science and Social Studies into Reading, I sometimes feel as if the students would excel more in Reading if they were allowed to read fiction or books they enjoyed. I feel that comprehension would increase if students were invested in what they were reading. I teach Kindergarten…where are the nursery rhymes and fun books that capture their attention and make them WANT to read???

  13. Thank you for this posting this writing column; it confirms that literacy educators face many different battles in the War on Reading. I want to add to the discussion by including information on the leveled reading section. For some background, at the beginning of each year, my campus assesses each student’s reading level using a resource that determines students’ independent and instructional levels and observes and quantifies student reading behaviors. Literacy teachers use this data to make informed decisions about the best instruction for individual students. Your column featured this process to differentiate students reading levels. The International Literacy Association recently posted a home webinar for members titled “Instructional Level or Challenging Text: Too Hard or Not Hard Enough,” presented by Dr. Timothy Shanahan. This webinar explores the research on the instructional level and teaching with complex text. This relates to your statement about research showing that “students learn more when they are challenged by difficult text.” Below I have included a statement from the research mentioned in the webinar. Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey, authors who work closely with the International Reading Association (IRA), were longtime advocates of leveled reading. They reexamined published research and found that the use of leveled text beyond first grade “yielded no achievement gains in students.” Dr. Danielle S. McNamara concluded in a 1996 study on college students that “high-knowledge readers performed better on the open-ended questions after reading low-coherence text.” After reading this column and attending the webinar, I was shockingly surprised. I kept asking myself, “ have I failed to uphold my literacy mantra?” I spent weeks after the webinar thinking, “Is this text too easy?” or “How to do model higher complexity?” I laugh at these troubling questions now. These are questions teachers should always ask, especially if they are modeling reading daily. It is clear that if you want students to think at a higher level, model what that looks like; plant the seed. If you want students to read at a higher level, model what that looks like, plant that seed. Once the seed grows, nurture, water (but not too much), condition, then repeat.

  14. I agree that “a bit of phonics on the fly” is not beneficial to students. The balanced approach sounds good, but the children do not receive the in-depth phonics instruction they need. Then it becomes a meaningless practice that the students and teacher are just participating in during class. To be successful, the children need to be immersed in a strong systematic approach and there should be progress monitoring to see if there is growth or not. I understand that it is boring and tedious, but I feel that it is necessary. The three teaching strategies that you say do not have enough good research evidence, can in fact increase a students’ reading skills. Cuing indicates that a child is analyzing for meaning and drawing from prior knowledge, both skills that are needed. Independent reading time gives a child the opportunity to engage with text on their own terms and not under pressure in the academic setting. I personally have seen children read more and read better because they get this quiet time to enjoy a story and lose themselves in it, which makes them want to read more. As far as leveled reading is concerned, I think that this is good practice for students starting out. However, once a child is hooked, they should be able to explore texts above or below their level to encourage them to continue reading. As Jenifer Schneider says in The Reading Wars (2016), “there is no single path to reading achievement.” Explicit phonics instruction is a good foundation for beginning readers and should be implemented in classrooms correctly. There should also be many opportunities in the school day to incorporate rich, high-quality texts across the content areas to foster comprehension, curiosity, and provide the skills needed to be successful readers. If a teacher is focused on the student’s response to the text when reading with the children and can engage them with meaningful questions, discussions, writings, and projects, then there will be success. As long as the teacher is not “too global” in her approach and knows her students and when and how to teach specific strategies and skills, there should be success. A dedicated teacher implementing thorough, deep, explicit teaching with a mixture of other literacy practices is going to produce successful readers.

  15. Danielle Trimble
    Posted January 17,2021

    After reading the article, I have so many contrasting thoughts. Are we as educators doing the best we can to ensure that reading and phonics are taught on the appropriate level for every student?
    I am a Pre-Kindergarten educator who teachers all subjects yet phonological awareness has a very limited space within our daily schedule: we are allowed to teach rhyming, syllables and beginning word sounds and families but are not allowed to focus on any given particular letter. The article states that phonics only helps readers be marginally more successful; however, I find that statement hard to believe. I think for a younger age group, phonics should have less restrictions and be implemented more into the classroom atmosphere. Students will learn to say words before reading them because we are constantly showing word pronunciation unintentionally through our everyday conversations with our students. But, that is all that is just listening to words, we are not writing down everything we say on a daily basis so a student is not going to be able to recognize that word when it is seen in print.
    Is balanced literacy really what it claims to be? Balanced? I do not think this simple instruction provides fair and equal opportunities for all students within the classroom. The information is given to the teachers and there is not much work that has to be done other than to implement it. Who is taking the time to implement these lessons at a different pace for our higher and lower learners of the classroom? So, in my opinion, the fact in itself that teachers are having to differentiate and remold lessons simply already means that the lessons were not balanced for all learner to begin with.
    This article is great at pointing out educational areas of learning but I would love to see more information on how to make learning equal for all kids. Maybe some instructional personal learning tips (one on one work with the teacher). Education certainly has a way of keeping us on our toes and striving to be the best we can for all of our learners.

  16. I agree with your post. The educational system has a long history of using teaching approaches for literacy that aren’t necessarily research based and instead we tend to follow trends. I am a fairly new teacher with only 3 years of experience. From my personal experience as a special education teacher, I have seen the benefits of a structured phonics curriculum for struggling readers, however, the older the students are the less motivation they is when it comes to learning phonics. Secondly, my only experience with teaching literacy comes from the “balanced- literacy” approach. I have taught the 3- cueing system, emphasized the importance of independent reading time, and used flexible reading groups for teaching and monitoring student progress in reading. I was very shocked to learn that the cueing system has no research that supports this teaching strategy. I also agree that requiring students to memorize loads of words is not necessary when many sight words can be decoded. I feel that sight words are extremely important for emergent and struggling readers when fluency is causing delay in reading comprehension. As for reading comprehension, I also believe that there should be a balance schedule. You stated “Many children need explicit reading instruction to decode…but reading comprehension can be developed throughout the school day.” I couldn’t agree more with this statement. I often think about how as teachers, our goal is to have students that are critical thinkers and are able to be real world problem solvers. We know that most of the knowledge and skills used are seen when students are immersed in literacy instruction that is intentional, intensive, relatable, and uses students’ funds of knowledge and their strengths. Overall, I think that literacy instruction has ways to go before it will become exactly what children need, although, there is research that supports some strategies versus the use of others. However, with the politics and systematic issues within, I’m not sure if we will reach that point. My only issue is that many educators are aware of this, but what do we do to ensure our students get the literacy instruction that they deserve and need in order to be successful?

  17. Thank you for your article, it was informative and intriguing. There were a few points I agreed with and a few I did not. “The fact that most kids can learn to read with little to no phonics” seems like a very broad statement that relies on research taken from schools with high English as a first language populations. As a teacher that educates at a school with a 70% English as a Second Language population, explicit phonetic instruction assists those students that come from immigrant families (many of whom still speak their native language at home). Barriers will arise without students understanding common patterns in the English language (as flawed as they are at times). This must be explicitly taught and practiced since they cannot get that from their family members. I do agree they would benefit more from a consistent phonics curriculum that follows them through their early elementary years (something my district doesn’t currently have). I do believe that the balanced literacy approach can help those same students if it has the added phonics component. I have found that the Daily 5 Café does a great job of doing that (I used it in previous Kindergarten classes). While I have seen educators talk about cueing and heralding independent reading, I agree with the writer that these two concepts do not provide research into what successful readers do. I have some experience with them and find that independent reading is more useful because you can use it to reinforce good practices during reading (ex. gently flipping pages, reading left to right, understanding the parts of a book and what they mean). One strategy I would like to defend is leveled readers. An important buzzword in classes, schools, and districts is differentiation and leveled readers provide that while allowing all students to learn the same concepts. “Learning requires effort and you don’t learn much with an easy text”. While I agree with the statement, I think we should be careful to find the distinction between challenging students and making students struggle. We are all aware that challenging students learning is beneficial, however, research shows that students that struggle get frustrated and eventually give up. Fountas and Pinnell use running record assessments that helps teachers understand their students reading levels. Depending on their fluency and comprehension scores, you find their independent level and their guided reading level (the challenging level you want to teach at). Their guided reading level should be one (no more than two) level(s) above that. Anything more does more harm than good. This is why I would not create a guided reading group with a student on a G level and a students with a K level. On another note, I did find the sight word section to be interesting. I’ve never thought of having students only memorize the words that do not follow conventional English patterns. I do plan on implementing that from now on because it really does make the most sense and teaching sight words is time consuming with little pay off. My final thought is about the statement, “It’s better for all students to be working with high quality texts that are appropriate for the student’s grade”. I know I may be reading too much into it, but this is another statement that does not take our ELL students (or any other unique learners) into consideration. While everyone deserves high quality text, what is appropriate to their grade has nothing to do with their age or grade level and everything to do with their abilities. I just think the “student will become good readers if they are exposed to texts” sentiment doesn’t go far enough for our most vulnerable students.

  18. Looking at both your blog and Dr. Schneider’s chapter on The Reading Wars one thing that really stood out to me was the difference in the approach of the leveled readers. I understand and appreciate when you say “Learning requires effort and you don’t learn much with an easy text,” however, getting my students to grow in reading requires them to feel successful. Dr. Schneider reminds us that for someone to get better at something “One must be motivated to perform and motivation comes from feelings of success, enjoyment, and accomplishment.” I have found that leveling texts within the same content helps my students grow. Allowing all students to read texts about the same topics helps create a community in the classroom, but also allows my students to perform and grow within their own levels. I also live in the world of differentiating with questions, not every text needs to be at a different level, but the questioning will vary to allow for a deeper understanding and a greater ability to analyze a text. In your post you also mention the student getting frustrated as if thats not a major factor in performance, allowing a student to continually reach a level of frustration does not help them to be successful. There needs to come a point where the student needs to feel successful, after a minimal amount of struggle. Allowing them to be successful will motivate them to work harder and want to attempt the harder texts. There are so many conflicting ideas and research based theories that as educators we get lost on what we should be doing, which theories we should follow and try, and which ones are not benefitting our students in the long run. I am an educator doing what I think is best for the students I teach each day and trying to keep up with the continually developing world of literacy instruction.

  19. I enjoyed reading your article concerning the “reading wars”. In my experience, with so many different models and recommendations for teaching reading, there is little time for actual reading to take place in the classroom. Although there have been and will be many different approaches to teaching reading, they all seem to be well intentioned and have the same goal. There needs to be a balance. Balanced literacy is a good strategy, but there is little time to cover everything without other areas suffering. Our school is working on guided reading partnered with a phonics program. It is also expected that students will have independent reading time and instructional time with mentor texts. Every student is unique and has different needs. Working with guided reading the teacher is able to determine the student’s needs and can differentiate the lessons for the needs of the students. This is the time when leveled readers are used. I am in agreement that leveled readers should not be used at other times and I do not think schools/teachers should rely on programs such as Accelerated Reader to motivate students to read. The points become more important than the reading. Students should be allowed to choose books that they are interested in reading. Although they may choose books that are above their level, I have found that my students begin this way but after becoming disengaged with these books, they begin looking for books that are a “just right fit” for them. Let me also add that I do think that students need a model and that time must be set aside for read aloud time. Students may only have the opportunity to hear books being read to them while they are in school. It is as important for students to hear reading as it is for them to read independently. This may look different in each class and if a teacher is crunched for time in her reading block she may choose to video or record a read aloud along with her thought and questioning process while reading to model what good readers do. Our school is also using phonics, we have seen an increase in reading levels since implementing phonics instruction in our school, especially K-2 grade and for those readers that were well below their peers in intermediate grades. I do not think there will ever be one way to teach reading that will fit every student but we should never give up trying to reach every reader.

  20. From being a parent to someone who works with children learning, I have engaged with a variety of learners and seen some of the effects of this “reading war” mentioned by Ms. Barshay in her post. I grew up on being taught phonics and many of my peers as well. However, the children that my peers and I am educating are of a younger generation that do not always have the same phonics-based curriculum. I have two jobs and at my secondary job I work with students at the elementary school level. I found that many could not read words like “thanksgiving” or “milkshake”. The reason as mentioned by this article is the battle between teaching students who learned phonics versus a list of words to memorize. Therefore, since many of my students read these words with the “t” and “h” separate and the same with the “s” and “h” instead of their combined sounds. As agreed both by Barshay and Scheinder’s work from The Inside, Outside, and Upside Downs of Children’s Literature: From Poets and Pop-ups to Princesses and Porridge, points out that cultural and age differences can affect the student’s ability to read. It is noticed that the war between implementing reading programs are all about a sense of balance when it comes to the success of the students involved. Phonics have been tested several times to be proven effective for students. In some cases though, it is not enough to make a noticeable difference. As we know that students are not all the same, this is why the studies help show that combining the different methods instead of battling for a predominant system will help the students learn how to read.

  21. I concur with Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the Learning Policy Institute and professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, that intentional systemic integration of content is important for reading. Students “need other kinds of ways to break the code besides phonics because [English is] not a phonetically friendly language, . . . “They also need a whole lot of other things.”

    When kids can’t read, educators ask why?
    While phonics can be integrated through songs and fun activities, it is eventually exposure to interesting content that captivates and motivates the continual pursuit of reading. Exposure and integration to relative content literacy is quite suggestive and directional for developing proficient reading skills.

    The attention span of students is a significant challenge. Getting the students attention and maintaining that focus is seminal. Students need more integrative opportunities and assistance with higher level relative texts; learning to read is more about interest and support in the reading experience; competing with games can also be a challenge.

    Comparatively, one can learn another language through phonics, vocabulary memorization, and fluency reads, it is the content literacy that allows one to read with significant comprehension.

    Content literacy has escaped us because students do not have a relative vocabulary. Vocabulary is the essence to becoming content literate after. Significant exposure to higher level text with support helps students address both the deficiencies of vocabulary and comprehension,

    Assessments clearly identify that literacy is a diminishing tool among students. The digital natives are not exposed to skilled reading; social media precludes literate students. Nationally, we can expect this trend to continue. Although some are trying to address the issue it is clear that this is a sub-cultural war. Home integrative support is expedient along with tapping into relative media can extend the learning. Educators have invested money in many reading programs to reverse the trend; however, only time and data can let us know whether these reading programs are going to address our literacy deficiency.

  22. I find your topic of reading wars to be of great significance due to the fact that these conflicts changed the trajectory of my own education in the early 90’s. I attended a public-school kindergarten where the trend was whole language. My mother, a former special education teacher, felt that I was not learning to read without phonics, so she began home-schooling me halfway through the year. Even though my path to read was through the journey of phonics, it was during my ECE courses that I discovered I did not know the difference between short e and short i sounds. Thus, I can personally attest to the fact that while teachers may emphasize certain trends, each learner is unique in their conquest of reading. What I have found from researching reading wars and reading your post is the lack of consideration that all learners tap into different learning methods. Regardless of the current trend, what budding readers need is a teacher that knows and utilizes their strengths to ensure success. While I appreciate your perspectives, I disagree that the best results happen from a set phonics curriculum occurring for 25 minutes daily. As a first-grade teacher, students come to me on all levels, so there is no reason for students to spend almost ten percent of their instructional time completing a phonics program. Above and struggling readers tune out because the program does not match their developmental readiness. Setting a mandated curriculum also belittles teacher efficacy. I also dispute the idea that cueing is not what successful readers do. Readers become successful due to prior mistakes and by equipping themselves with strategies to succeed. Differentiated instruction is an emphasis in education. Why is this not the case with the current reading wars? Instead of arguing over the best method to use to teach reading, the focus should be on the best method to inspire a love of literacy in students.

  23. While I agree with much of this, I also disagree with some.
    I think your description of the cueing systems is inaccurate. It’s not about guessing. It’s about monitoring and can begin the process of teaching students to self-correct. Hugely important.

    I also disagree with your comments on independent reading. Independent reading is all about engagement. We’re not going to get anywhere in teaching without engagement. And I would propose that independent reading shows students why they need to learn phonics.
    Lastly, I believe that many teachers of balanced literacy teach phonics in a systematic way. Read Jan Richardson. Her stuff is AMAZING. Additionally, as a past first grade teacher, I didn’t know anyone who taught hundreds of sight words, or taught words that were phonetically regular as sight words.

    Students pay attention to what their teachers pay attention to, and focusing too much on phonics, can make students think reading is all about sounding out words.

  24. I am always skeptical about authors that claim research shows… without citing the specific research so that I can judge for myself whether the research is both valid and reliable. This analysis seems simplistic and lacking nuance. Balanced literacy distinguishes between instructional and independent levels of reading and utilizes instruction to push students to accelerate their learning. The primary difference between a skills based approach to reading and balanced literacy is the principle that reading is a meaning making activity rather than if a reader can only break a code meaning will follow. As students are confronted with increasingly complex text, this becomes apparent. Any individual who has been asked to read and process texts as diverse as Shakespeare or Toni Morrison knows this to be true. Obviously there is a place for phonics in reading instruction just as thoughtful educators must address syntax and semantics. However, privileging one aspect of language acquisition over others is foolish as the experience of Great Britain illustrates. Great Britain instituted a national curriculum focused on phonics instruction and longitudinal studies have found a significant decline in reading ability. It seems to me that the attack on balanced literacy and the co-commitment emphasis on skill based reading instruction is reactionary in nature using “science” as a smoke screen to mask its own weaknesses and to demonize an approach to reading instruction that attempts to see language as the complex activity it truly is.

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Four things you need to know about the new reading wars (2024)
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