The straw man in the new round of the reading wars

By Valerie Strauss for The Washington Post

The “reading wars” never go away — at least not for long.

What exactly are they? Fights in the education policy world about the “best way” to teach reading to kids — as if there were a single best way.

So what are the “reading wars” and when did they start? They go back to the 1800s, when debate began about the best way to teach kids to read. Horace Mann, the influential educational reformer who was secretary of education in Massachusetts, argued against teaching the explicit sounds of each letter, arguing that students would then not learn to read for meaning and that they should first learn to read whole words.

A debate over emphasizing “phonics” or “whole language” has been voiced ever since — at least by scholars and policymakers, who often don’t bother to pay attention to what teachers are actually doing in the classroom.

The debate flared in 2013, when the National Council on Teacher Quality, a group created by a conservative think tank to diminish the influence of teacher education schools, published negative ratings of many of these institutions and attacked their literacy instruction.

Rachael Gabriel, associate professor of literacy education at the University of Connecticut, wrote a piece for this blog at the time critiquing the ratings — and now she is back with a new piece looking at a flare-up in the reading wars, sparked by some articles in the news media attacking “balanced literacy.” Though the term suggests that is a combination of whole language and phonics, it is actually more. Gabriel explains:

By Rachael Gabriel

We are seeing new articles in the media saying that American elementary school educators don’t understand the science of how to teach kids how to read — and even if they do, some resist it.

These reports then suggest that a return to explicit phonics instruction and the dismissal of other approaches is the only valid response to scientific research. Though pendulum swings between phonics- or basic-skills-focused instruction and meaning-focused instruction have been ongoing for decades, this round of debates has set up a new straw man, Balanced Literacy.

Read more here.

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