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The Reading Wars

Updated: Sep 8, 2022

Did you know there has been a war going on in the US for decades over how reading is taught? It is true. It’s called “The Reading Wars”. The reading wars are educators and politicians arguing with each other over how to best teach reading to children. On the one side you have those that believe that “whole language” is best. Whole language advocates believe that reading should be taught by introducing children to whole words and stories. Not boring them with drills over the sounds of small meaningless pieces of words. They want to make reading interesting to children by introducing them to wonderful children’s literature. Stories that they will love to read. Who can argue with that?

By the way if you saw my last video you might notice that whole language was what I learned in my teacher prep courses. I never really thought much about it. I enjoyed it and didn’t question anything at the time. This is what many teachers are taught.

On the other side of the war are the phonics advocates who say you cannot just memorize millions of words. You must learn the letters and sounds that go with each of them. Children must know the rules of phonics so well that they will automatically know the sound of letter and then they will be able to sound out all the words they come across. This also sounds important. And as the Phonics proponents will tell you neglect of teaching the rules of phonics is the reason “Why Johnny Can’t Read.”[1]

As teacher and politicians have been arguing back and forth over these things scientist have been studying what methods of teaching produce good readers. The most frustrating part of this is that it seems that as scientist are quietly working no one is noticing. Scientist have learned many things that are not making their way into the teacher prep programs around the country. The fact that phonics is indeed a necessary part of teaching reading is the one thing that has been so firmly established that pretty much everyone knows this part by now. So pretty much all curriculum designed for reading in the early grades includes at least some phonics by this time.

Most children will catch on if they have a love of learning and a small bit of phonics. I did. I knew at least one sound for each letter – two for vowels, and I loved reading and I practiced a lot and I became a reader. (Not a speller mind you, just a reader.) I never thought about the fact that my teacher had told me that C says /K/ and then in the word “city” it doesn’t say /K/ at all. Somehow, I just figured these things out. This is what most kids do. But for at least 5% of the population – they don’t. We must be teaching not just a smattering of phonics here and there. For these children it needs to explicitly,systematic, cumulative and multisensory.

I am so happy to have found curriculums that teach this way. Because when my children were first struggling with reading, I didn’t know the phonics rules to teach or how to teach them. Nor did I know the other components of successful reading or how to teach them. If you find yourself having some of these same struggles with your children, please contact me at my website

[1] This is a reference to the 1955 book by Rudolf Flesch blasting the US public school system for not teaching phonics.

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