The Real Reading Debate and How We Fail to Teach Reading

Sometimes cliches hit the nail on the head: It’s deja vu all over again.

Sometimes hackneyed metaphors paint the best picture: When you find yourself in a hole, keep digging.

And that brings us to the “science of reading” version of the Reading War.

Here, I want to address the often misunderstood real reading debate as well as outline how there has been a historical failure in teaching reading that continues today.

First, let’s clarify some facts about reading.

For over a century, measurable reading achievement (test scores) has been mostly correlated with socio-economic factors (the students home, community, and school) and not significantly correlated with how students are being taught to read.

In that same time period, there has never been a moment when the U.S. hasn’t declared “reading crisis.” And as a result of this myopic view of reading achievement, the U.S. has a recurring Reading War; some notable moments include the 1940s, the 1950s-1960s, and the 1990s (see especially McQuillan).

Throughout the history of reading instruction, phonics instruction has always been a key component of how students are taught to read in school. The Urban Legend that in some eras (such as the 1990s) and that some philosophies/theories of literacy (whole language, balanced literacy) have rejected completely phonics instruction has been compelling to the media and the public, but it is factually false.

The Real Reading Debate

Phonics instruction, however, is at the core of the real and enduring reading debate. That debate includes three approaches to phonics instruction detailed by Krashen: “(1) intensive, or heavy phonics, (2) basic, or light phonics, and (3) zero phonics.”

Here is where mainstream media, the public, and politicians fumble the debate; the popular framing is that the Reading War is about phonics versus zero phonics.

The real debate is between intensive phonics (systematic intensive phonics for all students or phonics first for all students to be able to read) and basic phonics (phonics as one component of teaching reading among many). But as Krashen clarifies: “Zero Phonics. This view claims that direct teaching is not necessary or even helpful. I am unaware of any professional who holds this position.”

From late 2018 until today, the “science of reading” movement has promoted intensive phonics and misrepresented the current field of teaching reading as being in the nonexistent zero phonics camp (this is how whole language and balanced literacy are typically mischaracterized, especially in media coverage).

This intensive phonics/phonics first advocacy also misrepresents that position as settled science, which it isn’t.

The basic phonics position (whole language, balanced literacy) embraces the following:

  • Phonics instruction is one of many instructional practices that can be effective in teaching early reading, but many students enter formal schooling already able to read without any formal instruction in phonics; therefore, formal reading instruction must be guided by student needs, not commitments to instructional practices (such as systematic intensive phonics for all students).
  • In-school reading instruction should include direct phonics instruction for students who need that, but reading instruction should recognize those students for whom direct phonics is ineffective or unnecessary. Broadly, beware any one-size-fits-all claims about teaching reading.
  • Phonics must always be an instructional means (never phonics for phonics’ sake), but evaluating the role of phonics in fostering fluency, comprehension, joy, and critical literacy is often incomplete or absent.

The current “science of reading” movement is also misguided in its claims about research. Systematic intensive phonics must be evaluated in terms of its effectiveness for student reading fluency and comprehension (not simply does systematic intensive phonics produce phonemic awareness, pronunciation).

The research base, in fact (and including the National Reading Panel), suggests that systematic intensive phonics is limited in effectiveness to first grade and only when that direct instruction is grounded in holistic and authentic literacy instruction. Isolated systematic intensive phonics is ineffective for fostering comprehension and necessarily wastes time better spent on other literacy instruction and practices.

There also is a large and compelling research base that shows out-of-school factors and access to books in the home and school are far more important in students learning to read than how much phonics they receive in formal schooling.

The paradox, then, is that every time the Reading War reignites, the media misrepresent the debate (phonics v. no phonics) while the real debate (intensive phonics v. basic phonics) is never really addressed.

How We Fail to Teach Reading

And thus, the paradox about how we fail to teach reading.

Historically and currently, we have mostly failed U.S. public education and reading in the same ways (but not how most mainstream critics claim).

The first level failure is that we consistently ignore the impact of out-of-school factors on all student learning and measurable achievement, including especially reading. Poverty, racism, sexism, and all sorts of systemic inequities are reflected in reading scores on tests such as NAEP.

Yet, most education reform, including reading legislation, targets in-school policies only, misdiagnosing the problem but also setting up the reforms for appearing to fail.

Next, responses to reading as a crisis are clouded by presentism, a lack of historical context. The reading crisis always includes the same flawed arguments and offer the same solutions that have never succeeded in the past.

However, the third level is grounded in more recent history, the accountability era in education begun in the 1980s and 1990s and driven by standards and high-stakes testing. This recent historical trend has failed reading instruction because student needs have been ignored because schools and teachers have been hyper-focused on standards (always changing) and high-stakes tests (always changing).

Connected to those distractions is that over the last 40 years districts and schools have overcommitted to reading programs that are correlated with those standards and high-stakes tests; most teachers have been held accountable for implementing those prescriptive reading programs, instead of being professional stewards of student literacy needs.

A key lesson we are not learning is that standards, high-stakes testing, and reading programs have been incredibly harmful for student learning and reading achievement. Changing the reading programs to ones that are systematic intensive phonics will not correct this flaw.

Finally, and cumulatively, we fail to teach reading well in the U.S. because we are negligent about the conditions of our students’ lives and then negligent about the teaching and learning conditions of our students’ schools.

Here is a very sad fact: It is easier for most people to say for the hundredth time that all students need systematic intensive phonics than to admit and then address the following:

  • All children deserve universal health care.
  • All children deserve food security.
  • All children deserve to have parents with work security.
  • All children deserve a stable and safe home.
  • All students deserve the highest quality learning environment (low student/teacher ratios, experienced certified teachers, well funded supplies and school).
  • All students deserve access to reading materials in their homes, their communities, and their schools.
  • All students deserve individual and patient instruction from their teachers and their schools.
  • No student is merely a test score.

Once again, however, we are faced with a very real reading debate and with how we are still failing to teach reading.

Once again, we are failing both.


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