Ask Reading Kingdom: Will the “Reading Wars” Ever be Over?


Frank (Reading Teacher) asks:

Will the “reading wars” ever be over?

Reading Kingdom answers:

Prediction is hazardous and I will try to avoid it by taking a somewhat different tack in approaching this question. Rather than comment on the future, I will start by dealing with the past—in particular, the forces that I believe are responsible for the continuation of the so-called “reading wars.”

Although reading instruction is endlessly discussed, the actual range of techniques for teaching reading is extremely limited. When I lecture about the Reading Kingdom, one of the first questions I am typically asked is: “So you’re not teaching (traditional) phonics. Does that mean you believe in “whole language?” In other words, the entire teaching universe is defined as being either “phonics” or “whole language” (or perhaps “whole word”). It is as if people cannot conceive of teaching content and methods that go beyond these borders. The reality, however, is that both those systems have an extremely narrow base of techniques.  When this narrow base is combined with the monopoly they hold in the teaching world, the end result is the extremely high failure rate that mark our children’s achievement.

On average, approximately 2 out of 3 children cannot read with proficiency.

It is clear that both teaching camps are failing to meet the needs of the nation. However, instead of concluding that we need different and expanded techniques, we have the wars where the same inadequate systems keep fighting one another. Those wars, by the way, have shown that phonics (which has a level of systematization) is better than whole language (which is far less systematic). This has led some to conclude that phonics has “won” the reading wars. However the reality is that neither is truly effective. Until this is recognized and until the teaching of reading is opened up to new content and methodology, the wars are likely to continue.

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