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The Reading Wars

Understanding the Debate Over How Best to Teach Children to Read

REPORT OF THE NATIONAL READING PANEL; Teaching Children to Read; An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction By the National Reading Panel (Donald N. Langenberg, PhD., chair, et al.) National Institute of Child Health and Development / National Institutes of Health: 33 pp., no charge,

MISREADING READING; The Bad Science That Hurts Children by Gerald Coles; Heinemann: 160 pp., $15

WHY OUR CHILDREN CAN'T READ And What We Can Do About It by Diane McGuinness; Free Press: 336 pp., $25

THE FEEL-GOOD CURRICULUM The Dumbing Down of America's Kids in the Name of Self-Esteem By Maureen Stout; Perseus: 320 pp., $26

READING LESSONS The Debate Over Literacy By Gerald Coles; Hill & Wang; 224 pp., $13 paper

June 18, 2000|KENNETH ANDERSON | Kenneth Anderson teaches law at American University, Washington D.C

Much ink has been spilled attacking and defending this view, especially in California. Though the self-esteem movement has lost much of its initial public acceptance and become something of a joke, it remains institutionalized in the schools. Its central assumptions lie at the center of the reading wars. Whole language pedagogy incarnates, within one specific part of the curriculum, the self-esteem model and progressive education. Stout, drawing on John Dewey's classic formulation in "Experience and Education" (1938), writes that it is characterized by the "cultivation of individuality, free activity as opposed to external discipline, learning from experience rather than from texts and teachers, acquiring skills that are deemed relevant to the individual at the present time rather than preparing for some unknown future, and becoming acquainted with the world rather than learning through static aims and old materials."

Within the dominant structure of progressive education, phonics is regarded as the polar opposite of whole language; it is rigid, authoritarian and fanatically concerned with the acquisition of skills such as spelling. Phonics is seen as deeply anti-democratic, and its critics, defenders of whole language, find it inconsistent with the abstract values of progressive education.

Indeed, one can detect such tones, for example, in a recent Washington Post editorial offering guarded congratulations to the home-schooled, religiously conservative children who took several top places in both the national spelling bee and national geography competition a few weeks ago. Of course these children excelled at spelling words such as "apotropaic," the editorial seemed to say, because rote training, mindless memorization and obedience to authority are what their traditional education (including, naturally, phonics) is good for.

Progressively schooled children may not spell well, but they do have democratic, multicultural values. Or as Stout correctly observes: "Until very recently anyone who ventured to suggest that phonics is still the best foundation for teaching reading was regarded as ill-informed or worse--uncaring."

But the nature of the debate is changing, partly as phonics advocates have won the political wars and partly as scientists, who are understanding how written language is actually acquired, have de-coupled the "effectiveness" debate from the "values" debate. Today the debate over reading pedagogy has fractured into three main strands. First, there are those seeking to split the differences between methodologies and declare peace in the reading wars by accepting that all reading methods are important and should coexist in the classroom. Second, there are whole language advocates, down but not out, alternating between strategies of defending whole language on the grounds of progressive education, "caringness" and democratic values, on the one hand, and attacking the scientific claims of phonics-oriented researchers on the other. Third, there are phonics advocates, who understand that they have politically and intellectually won the war with whole language supporters but who must now confront the difficult and uncertain task of finding the best phonics pedagogy to consolidate their victory.

Ultimately, the most important and exciting debate in the reading wars today is not between phonics and whole language but instead within the phonics movement, as it struggles to create practices that will make phonics a tool of reading success rather than simply another forlorn experiment in American education.


Nowhere is the anxiety over reading pedagogy more evident, despite an attempt to bury it beneath the surface, than in the long-awaited report of the National Reading Panel, "Teaching Children to Read," released just a few weeks ago.

Established by Congress in 1997 to undertake a comprehensive review of research on how best to teach reading to children in America, the panel, organized under the auspices of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health, consisted of 14 individuals drawn from leading scientists in reading research, representatives of colleges of education, reading teachers, educational administrators and parents. The resulting review of the research literature is the most comprehensive and rigorous to date--rigorous in no small part because it accepted only studies using standard social science quantitative design criteria.

Notwithstanding its methodological rigor, the panel was structured to give a place to all viewpoints and political constituencies in the perennial debate over reading pedagogy. The panel divided its review work into topics. The most important and politically fraught, not surprisingly, was the argument between phonics and whole language. Other topics included newer questions, such as the training of teachers and the use of technology in teaching reading.

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