Skip to main content
Classical Christian Movement

The Next Reading War

By December 1, 2010January 30th, 2023No Comments

← Back to Resources

The First Reading War

Early in our nation’s history, most children learned to read phonically. They first learned the alphabet and a common corresponding sound for each letter. Then, they practiced reading simple two-letter combinations such as ma, me, mi, mo, and mu. Next, children learned to decode actual words by contiguously sequencing the sounds associated with the letters. Reading sentences of increasingly greater length and complexity would then follow. This general pattern was the basic outline for such notable American reading instruction books as the New-England Primer ( first published in 1690), Noah Webster’s Blue Back Speller (1783), and William McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers (1836).

The move away from phonics-based reading instruction began in the mid-1800s when educators began to take note of learning processes rather than the content to be learned. These reformers began attacking the traditional forms of teaching and learning. This was true of reading instruction. Even Horace Mann, the father of the U.S. public school system, was an early critic of phonics-based reading. He argued that learning the letters of the alphabet and their corresponding sounds was heartless drudgery.

Influenced by the educational reformers of the day, Mann championed the more modern approach to reading instruction that encouraged beginning- reading students to focus on comprehension by teaching them to recognize whole words, rather than connecting specific sounds to letters. While many grammar school teachers of this era rejected the whole-word method, this progressive approach to reading instruction spread like wild fire in the newly minted teacher-training schools. By the 1920s, the whole-word method was fully entrenched in America’s teacher preparation programs. In most of the colleges and departments of education of that time, teaching students to read by attaching sounds to particular letters was regarded as absurd as teaching that the world was at.

The new whole-word orthodoxy received its first significant blow in 1955 when Rudolf Flesch published Why Johnny Can’t Read. In scathing tones, Flesch ripped apart the whole-word method of reading instruction, insulted those who promulgated this process approach, and called for a return to phonics-based instruction. While most educationalists rejected Flesch’s critique, he received considerable attention from the public and the book became a best-seller.

In 1967, Jeanne Chall published a more scholarly review of early reading instruction. It supported Flesch’s overall conclusion: most children, especially those who traditionally struggle in school, learn to read much more quickly when they receive explicit, systematic phonics instruction. Chall’s superior scholarship had a greater impact on changing hearts and minds within the field of education than Flesch’s work.

One reason for Chall’s success may have been her ability to avoid over-generalizations. Chall, the godmother of phonics-based instruction, warned that taking any method of reading (even phonics- based instruction) too far was dangerous. She argued that in addition to the explicit instruction in the sound-spelling relationship, teachers need
to expose students to quality children’s literature as soon as possible. In the early stages of learning to read, teachers should read these stories aloud to students. Once students learn to read on their own, they can practice their reading on these same types of stories.

Even with Chall’s landmark study, the first reading war was far from over. Rather, it was just heading into its most volatile stage. Since the 1960s, the war has raged, with each side winning minor conflicts and temporarily gaining influence in the schools. The conflict has been ugly at times, with each side demonizing the other with unfair characterizations: phonics as boring “drill-and- kill” instruction and whole-word instruction as therapeutic “fuzzy reading.” Both characterizations are false, but the heated exchanges provided for incredible drama. Sadly, a generation or two of students suffered in the cross fire.

In 2000, phonics-based reading instruction received a significant boost with the publication of the National Reading Panel’s report, a rigorous review of research on reading and reading instruction. This report, commissioned by the U.S. Congress, supported Chall’s conclusion from more than 30 years before: most children, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds and with learning difficulties, learn to read much more quickly when they receive explicit, systematic instruction in phonics. The National Reading Panel report later provided the framework for George W. Bush’s Reading First program, a significant part of the No Child Left Behind legislation of 2002.

Even with the National Reading Panel’s clear advocacy for explicit, systematic phonics instruction, the first reading war raged on. Whole language and so-called “balanced” reading instruction advocates tried to discredit the Reading First program and phonics-based instruction in general, not by attacking the results of this rigorous research report, but by digging into the personal and professional conduct of those who administered the program. Scared of being tainted by accusations of scandal, many of Reading First’s most strident supporters abandoned the program and pulled back their support for phonics-based reading instruction.

This is not to suggest that these one-time supporters of phonics have lost faith in its effectiveness. Instead, they have concluded that Reading First is politically toxic and have gone to great lengths to distance themselves from it. Sol Stern recently documented these attacks on the Reading First program and their impact on reading instruction in a report titled “Too Good to Last: The True Story of Reading First.” Stern’s depressing description of Reading First’s rise and fall provides a glimpse of how politically charged early reading instruction can be. His sad tale shows us that the first reading war rages on with little end in sight. As a result, many teachers and administrators, who had once been empowered by federal and state governments to teach early reading through phonic- based instruction, now feel as though they have been abandoned.

The Next Reading War

As the first reading war continues, a different conflict has arisen. This battle has the potential to be equally as vicious. Interestingly, this war makes allies of enemies from the first conflict. Reading educators who disagree vehemently about how children learn to read find themselves agreeing on how to teach reading comprehension.

Before exploring the conflict further, it seems necessary to define the word “reading.” Educators use this term in at least two broad ways. First, reading can refer to the process of decoding text, or deciphering the string of letters on a page. Teachers in early elementary grades spend a great deal of time teaching their students this decoding process.

The word can also be used to describe the application of the acquired skill. Reading in this sense refers to the act of acquiring meaning from
a text. For example, last year I read Prince Caspian aloud to my six-year-old son. As I was about to start reading a new chapter, my son asked if he could read a little. Thrilled by his request, handed him the book and he began to read the text aloud with only a few minor errors. Halfway through the page, he handed the book back to me and asked me to start from the beginning. “But you already read that part,” I replied. “I know,” he said, “but this time I want to understand it.”

Now, I am confident that my son caught some of the story as he read, but he was expending so much mental energy decoding the text, that he was unable to focus on its intended meaning. At that time, he was still “learning to read” (definition #1), and was not quite “reading to learn” (definition #2). This is important because the first reading war rages over how to teach students to decode text, whereas the next reading war is being fought over how to develop students who can comprehend texts of greater and greater complexity.

In 1972, Mortimer J. Adler lamented the lack of attention on what he called “the higher levels of reading.” When he wrote How to Read a Book, both sides of the first reading war had spent a great deal of energy fighting over how to teach children to decode. Adler would most likely be pleased by all the attention that reading comprehension has received in the last decade. Indeed, studies on reading comprehension and reading- comprehension instruction have been the point of convergence for an increasing number of research projects in recent years. Many in the education establishment have put their hope in what are called literacy strategies.

Literacy strategies are formalized reading techniques that students can use to comprehend the various texts that they encounter in life. These strategies go by a variety of clever names (e.g., Sketch-to-Stretch, Open-Mind Portraits, Gallery Walks, Double-Entry Journal, and ReQuest) or acronyms (e.g., DR-TA, QtA, QAR, SQ3R, and SPAWN). Publishers of educational materials have capitalized on the literacy-strategy craze. On my bookshelf, I have a spiral bound book from a prominent publishing company that contains 50 literacy strategies targeted specifically at adolescent readers. Next to this, I have a similar volume with an equal number of strategies designed for upper elementary students. State departments of education have also jumped on the literacy strategies bandwagon. The State of Michigan, for example, requires all secondary-level teachers to complete a reading class prior to initial certification. No less than 33 state standards mandate the specific content for this single class. The words “strategies” and “techniques” are prominent throughout these standards.

The literacy-strategies movement received support from, of all places, the National Reading Panel. In the section of the report titled “text comprehension instruction,” the panel identified seven categories of literacy strategies that showed promise in helping students to comprehend texts. These categories include comprehension monitoring, cooperative learning, use of graphic and semantic organizers, question answering, question generation, story structure, and summarization. Reading educators, many of whom ignore the National Reading Panel’s pro- phonics results on early literacy, readily embrace its conclusions on reading comprehension.

But not everyone has been bi en by the literacy-strategy bug. Dan Willingham, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Virginia, has been a leading critic of the literacy-strategy movement. Willingham consistently points to the differences between learning-to-read and reading- to-learn. The first kind of reading (decoding) is a formalized skill that, once learned, can be applied to almost any text the reader encounters. The second kind of reading (comprehension), however, is not a formalized skill. Willingham claims that comprehension requires “domain knowledge.” In other words, the reader must already have some knowledge on the subject in order to comprehend what he is reading. Indeed, the author assumes that the reader’s prior knowledge will fill in gaps that are critical to the text’s meaning. The more knowledge of the text’s subject that the reader has, the greater the likelihood that the reader will comprehend the text.

E. D. Hirsch, the author of Cultural Literacy and founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation, has a great example for the importance of domain knowledge. Consider Hirsch’s classic example sentence: Jones sacrificed and knocked in a run.

Almost any fluent reader of English would have little trouble using this string of letters to come up with an accurate pronunciation of the text. However, understanding the meaning of the sentence is quite different from being able to pronounce it accurately. A reader with extensive knowledge of baseball comprehends this sentence. In order to do this, the reader draws upon his knowledge from the domain of baseball to understand the meaning of the sentence. The more experiences that this reader can recall, the easier it is for him to think of examples where he has seen a similar or related event.

Alternately, a reader with little knowledge of baseball might grasp some aspects of the text, but the overall meaning might trip him up. However, for the reader who has virtually no knowledge of America’s pastime, the intended meaning of the text is lost entirely. Therefore, while all three readers may have no trouble decoding the sentence, they most certainly vary in their ability to comprehend the text.

Willingham argues that literacy strategies can be of some use to readers. His review of the research shows that fluent readers often experience an initial boost from newly acquired strategies. Willingham also maintains, however, that the power is not necessarily in the strategies themselves. He suggests that many of these strategies simply serve as a reminder to the reader that he needs to be more active in his reading. Willingham equates the usefulness of these strategies to checking one’s work in math class to see if the answer makes sense. Willingham further argues that once students are fluent at sounding-out words (typically around the 3rd or 4th grade), teachers should avoid spending too much precious class time teaching strategies. Instead, they should work on developing students’ knowledge in a variety of domains so that they will be able to draw upon this knowledge when they encounter texts on a variety of topics. As Willingham likes to say: Teaching science, history, math, literature, music, and art is teaching reading.

Many in the education establishment reject this knowledge-based approach to reading instruction. They use the “if-you-give-a-man-a- fish” argument against knowledge-based reading instruction. They see knowledge-based instruction as limited because building knowledge in so many domains takes too much time. They conclude that there is insufficient time to provide the kind of knowledge that students will need to be good readers. Instead, they argue that if we teach the students the process or technique of reading comprehension, then they will be able to read “for a lifetime.”

It seems to be a case of the tortoise and the hare. Those who promote a literacy-strategies approach to reading comprehension instruction, see the opportunity for a quick boost in reading comprehension. Those who support a much more knowledge-based approach to reading instruction recognize that it takes time – perhaps, a lifetime – to develop good readers, and, in the end, those students who have a breadth of knowledge will ultimately become be er readers.

Knowledge is Controversial

The education establishment may be avoiding knowledge-based reading instruction for another reason entirely. In order for schools to provide knowledge-based instruction, those in charge of curriculum and instruction first have to identify what students should know. In designing the curriculum, school authorities would have to select literature pieces, historical events, scientific experiments, and mathematical proofs to be part of what all students would encounter in the school’s curriculum. Whether these school representatives would admit or even realize what they were doing, they would ultimately be making a claim about what constitutes knowledge in that school. As soon as the school made this decision, it would open itself up to criticism and controversy. Regardless of the headline-grabbing stories in newspapers (e.g., sex education classes or prayer at graduation), most schools make a concerted effort to avoid controversy at every turn. Controversy is risky and can be expensive. This is especially true when it comes to designing a curriculum.

In The Language Police, Diane Ravitch describes the great lengths to which many school boards, administrators, publishers, and others
in the educational establishment go to avoid controversy. Ravitch says that educational publishers strip the curriculum of solid content because someone connected to the school might be offended. In stripping away solid content and producing “value-neutral” literature, however, the publishers have robbed the curriculum of anything that might be interesting and inspiring to the students. Ravitch calls the end of this curriculum sanitation process “thin gruel.”

What does this have to do with literacy strategies? Well, remember that these strategies are reading techniques or skills. If knowledge is controversial and schools must avoid it to limit risk, a concentration on skills seems to be a logical alternative. After all, the curriculum must contain something. Unlike knowledge, skills are inherently uncontroversial. Skills show us how, not what. Skills do not put teachers, administrators, school districts, and state departments of education at risk. Skills are safe. Problem is, besides an initial boost, literacy strategies do not help students to become competent life-long readers. The analogy of the man looking for his keys under the streetlight comes to mind. Though the man lost his keys in a dark place down the street, he wants to look under the streetlight because it is easier to see. The same may be true for reading instruction. We will not create better readers by attending exclusively to skills, but it will be easier for schools to avoid controversy if they keep away from knowledge- based reading instruction and teach reading strategies and skills instead.

A Classical Response

A classical curriculum is a knowledge-based curriculum. Classical schools find their footing in the liberal arts. This tradition is dedicated to the idea that students should be liberally educated in a wide variety of interconnected subjects so that they will have a broad understanding of what it means to be free. Such an understanding develops as students pursue the good, the true, and the beautiful. Therefore, classical educators are rightfully skeptical of an over-emphasis in the classical school curriculum on techne, specialized skills that equip the individual for narrow lines of thought, inquiry, and work.

But are we not obligated to teach students the “tools of learning”? Can we ignore the skills that students will need to become life-long learners? Is not classical education different from the back- to-basics educational philosophies that load their students with large quantities of unconnected information to be memorized, only to regurgitate facts on Friday’s test?

These questions bring up one of the most important qualities of a classical education. Yes, classical educators must help students develop academic skills for later study. And, yes, the classical curriculum is grounded in the pursuit of truth. In other words, classical educators teach the skills of learning within a strong knowledge-based curriculum. What this means is that teachers use these truths as the substance on which students will learn, practice, and perform their skills.

How does this relate to reading comprehension instruction? Teachers need first to select quality content for their students to read. They then need to model the kinds of reading skills that students will need in order to understand these materials. Mortimer J. Adler demonstrates a classical approach to reading instruction in How to Read a Book. The book’s title gives away its practical perspective. However, if you know anything about Adler, you know that he believed very strongly in the pursuit of great ideas (knowledge) through the pages of great books.

How to Read a Book, has over 400 pages developing the good habits of “active reading.” Students can acquire these habits by following a set of basic rules or steps that ask the reader to do a number of things, including asking and answering questions; locating the text’s structure; identifying key words, sentences, paragraphs, and passages; and looking for problems with the argument presented in the text. True to these principles, of course, it illustrates the habits of active reading on some of the greatest works in Western Civilization. This book suggests that just as a skier will begin to forget the explicit rules of basic skiing once the habits of good skiing develop, so too will the rules of basic reading comprehension fade once the student becomes an active reader.

Classical educators should be explicit about the habits of active reading. They should model the reading skills necessary for a liberal education. But classical educators also need to commit themselves boldly to the fact that truth, beauty, and goodness exist, and, as God allows, we can know them. If we shy away from this bold proclamation, we will lose who we are as classical educators and doom our students to lives of servitude.