By Katie Kelly and P.L. Thomas
Several news articles, videos, reports on new state legislation, and commentaries across mainstream media have built a false narrative about a Reading Crisis. That story includes several key elements: Teachers do not know, and thus do not practice, the science of reading because teacher education has failed them.
Not only have the mainstream media offered only one narrative, but also, for example, the Education Writers Association chose one of the most prominent misleading articles for a Public Service, small staff award: Emily Hanford’s “Hard Words.”
In 2019, the Reading Wars have begun anew but with different language: Phonics advocates have simplified “the science of reading” to “all students need systematic phonics,” for example. And this round has resulted in dramatic changes in state reading policies.
As literacy educators and scholars, however, we contend that these messages are misrepresenting the Reading Crisis and the science of reading — both of which are far more complicated than being presented by much of the media, dyslexia advocates, and political leaders.
Those Who Ignore History: A Look Back at Reading Crises
The newest misdiagnosed Reading Crisis begs for a truism: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (George Santayana).
For example, the November 1942 issue of The Elementary English Review(National Council of Teachers of English) included a provocative piece, What Shall We Do About Reading Today?: A Symposium, prompted by the high rate of illiteracy among men drafted into WWII.
This symposium offers answers to the titular question from leading literacy experts of the time, including Lou LaBrant (former president of NCTE). Represented by assembled experts on literacy, this Reading Crisis foreshadows these debates are misguided and driven by ideology instead of evidence.
While we recommend reading the symposium responses in full, let’s focus on LaBrant: “Nevertheless, we hear many persons saying that the present group of near-illiterates are results of ‘new methods,’ ‘progressive schools,’ or any deviation from the old mechanical procedures. They say we must return to drill and formal reciting from a text book” (p. 240).
However, LaBrant discredits that blame because the recruits identified as illiterate or semi-literate “…are drop-outs, who have not completed elementary school, come from poorly taught and poorly equipped schools, and actually represent the most conservative and backward teaching in the United States [emphasis in original]” (pp. 240–241).
Next, in the 1980s/1990s, the media announced a Reading Crisis in California blamed on whole language. Literacy scholar Stephen Krashen, and others, debunked that claim, noting although whole language was the official reading approach of the state, teachers almost never implemented whole language. Further, the reading score plummet correlated with whole language being the official policy, but the causes of those lower scores were a large influx of non-native speakers of English and reduced educational funding.
Throughout much of the 20th century, reading instruction in practice remained skills-based, perpetuating a simple view of reading. That criticism of whole language, however, prompted a call for more scientific approaches to teaching reading, which meant mandated scripted instruction with an emphasis on phonics instruction. This was also driven by the high stakes accountability era of No Child Left Behind.
Contrasting thoughtful literacy, scripted reading programs narrow curriculum focusing on skills instruction and test preparation through teacher-directed learning (Kozol, 2005; Lipman, 2004). In this context, students serve as vessels with teachers depositing knowledge. This back-to-basics model of instruction encourages replication and regurgitation of information with little emphasis on comprehension instruction, critical thinking, and rich discussion of text (Comber & Nichols, 2004; Durkin, 1981; Leland, Harste, & Huber, 2005; Shannon, 2007; Taberski, 2011).
Being a good word caller does not equate to being a good reader, but can produce a false-positive on narrow types of reading tests. This unbalanced approach to teaching literacy is not only problematic, but also dangerous.
Misreading the Reading Crisis Yet Again
Despite the value of a more student-centered curriculum that fosters critical thinking, some advocate for a return to skills-based systematic phonics instruction, framed as the “science of reading,” and claim another Reading Crisis. With a new push for phonics as a single pathway to literacy, the role of the meaning making process in reading will again be neglected.
In her seminal study, Delores Durkin found an overemphasis on testing comprehension rather than teaching comprehension. Reading is a complex cognitive process mediated by social and cultural practices requiring instruction and interaction with text and others to construct meaning. Therefore, we must shift our view of literacy beyond decoding to include constructing meaning and reading texts critically by expanding instructional practices and the ways we assess reading.
The so-called science of reading is, in fact, balanced literacy, which includes a focus on multiple components of literacy including phonics, comprehension, and writing: “A balanced approach will privilege authentic texts and tasks, a heavy emphasis on writing, literature, response, and comprehension, but it will also call for an ambitious program of explicit instruction for phonics, word identification, comprehension, spelling, and writing” (Pearson, 2004, p. 243).
While phonics is an essential component of reading instruction in the primary grades, “it should be noted that phonics is one element of a comprehensive literacy program that must also include practice in comprehension, fluency, vocabulary, writing, and thinking” (ILA, 2018).
No Crisis, But We Are Failing Our Students
Crisis rhetoric misreads not only how we currently teach and historically have taught reading, but also misrepresents the causes of low student achievement in reading while perpetuating some of the worst possible policies and legislation such as grade retention based on high-stakes testing.
This Reading Crisis ignores that focusing on narrow standards and high-stakes testing combined with the de-professionalization of teaching and under-funding education has resulted in overcrowded classrooms where teachers and students conform to mechanical reading programs privileging the wealthy and overemphasize test scores.
As teacher educators, we can attest that regardless of what we teach about reading and literacy, most teachers feel pressured to implement programs and raise test scores.
Rather than blaming students and teachers for the opportunity gap entrenched in formal schooling, consider the achievement debt due to inequitable funding, poor healthcare, and a lack of political courage. With increasingly diverse student populations, we have a responsibility to address this debt by serving all students through culturally relevant teaching practices.
We must, then, disrupt the misguided narrative of crisis that disguises the sociocultural historical and political factors that influence reading instruction as a disease that simply needs a vaccination in the form of systematic phonics.
Katie Kelly is an Associate Professor of Education at Furman University. A former elementary teacher and literacy coach, Katie teaches courses in literacy methods and assessment at the undergraduate and graduate levels. She is the coauthor of Reading to Make a Difference: Using Literature to Help Students Speak Freely, Think Deeply, and Take Action (Heinemann). Follow her work at bookbuzz.blog and @ktkelly14.
P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education (Furman University), taught high school English for 18 years in South Carolina before moving to teacher education and teaching first-year writing. He is author of Teaching Writing as Journey, Not Destination: Essays Exploring What “Teaching Writing” Means (IAP). Follow his work at https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/ and @plthomasEdD.