The Unnecessary Collateral Damage in the Misguided Reading Programs War

Since I am a man of a certain advancing age—creeping north of 60—I am bombarded on social media with push-ads for a variety of supplements claiming to address the various and common challenges of growing older.

These supplements are often advertised by first discrediting other supplements or earlier versions of the supplements being sold. Next, of course, comes the sales pick: But our supplement works the way no other supplement does or ever has!

Regretfully, this dynamic in the supplement world (where virtually no products have ever “worked” or will ever “work”) is replicated in the on-going reading programs war that is a subset of the incessant reading war that has plagued public and political debate since at least the 1940s (see an overview of the reading wars included here).

In fact, one of the least credible and most harmful aspects of the current “science of reading” (SOR) movement is blaming dominant reading programs for failing to teach students to read, and then, uncritically offering a new program/approach as a silver bullet for “fixing” low student achievement in reading (see an important challenge to that blame here).

So let’s start with a problem of logic in the SOR onslaught against the dominant reading programs in the US.

Since the panic around low literacy rates among draftees in WWII, the US has experienced a recurring cycle of reading wars that are grounded in overstatements about the lack of phonics instruction, the persistent and “normal” but unsatisfying level of reading achievement among US children (notably even more dire among children living in poverty, minoritized students, second-language learners, and special needs students), and impassioned blame focused on simplistic agents of that failure.

SOR advocates, especially in the media and among parents, are today placing blame on balanced literacy (BL) and a few dominant reading programs. One problem is that these programs didn’t even exist during most of the decades before that had the exact same low and unsatisfying reading achievement (read literacy scholar Jeanne Chall’s work addressing the lack of scientific research, absence of systematic phonics, and failure to address dyslexia starting in the 1960s, examined well here).

Even more frustrating is that many of the demonized reading programs today are not even identified as BL and that most critics of BL—nearly universally in the media—mischaracterize BL (similar to the attack on whole language in the 1990s).

SOR advocates, then, turn immediately to championing a new approach!—usually structured literacy (SL to replace BL) or Orton-Gillingham approaches.

Like the supplement wars, the reading programs wars are entirely trapped in a futile paradigm grounded in misidentifying the problem, shouting misguided blame, and offering nearly the exact same solution as the blame-agent being attacked.

In a recent keynote, I made a point that always makes educators and stakeholders in education angry: Measurable student learning is overwhelmingly linked to out-of-school causal factors (about 60% – 80%), and teacher quality (including instructional strategies) is only about 10% of those measurable outcomes.

Reading programs, regardless of the program, are likely very small factors in how well students learn to read in terms of the quality of the program itself (teaching/learning conditions and living conditions of students far outweigh program quality).

And if we are being honest about teacher practice, over the last 80 years and every single day, there is a tremendous variety in how teachers teach students anything—even when teachers are in rooms side-by-side and teaching the same required reading program.

Since I have a long record of opposing all reading programs, I want to emphasize that the problem is not any specific reading program, but how and why the program is implemented.

Let’s go back then to the 1940s when Lou LaBrant accurately identified the reading program problem:

It is not strange, in view of the extensive literature on language, that the teacher tends to fall back upon the textbook as authority, unmindful of the fact that the writer of the text may himself be ignorant of the basis for his study. (pp. 88-89)

LaBrant, L. (1947, January). Research in language. Elementary English, 24(1), 86-94. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41383425

Regardless of the reading program, if and when that program becomes the instructional authority, instead of the teacher and despite the demonstrated needs of the students, we have failed students and we have failed teachers and we have failed the promise of learning to read.

At best, a reading program is one dynamic resource for the professional autonomy and expertise of the teacher to serve the individual needs of all of their students.

At worst (which is historically and currently common), reading programs are scripts for teachers to follow and ways to hold teachers accountable for implementing the program (regardless of the needs of the students, regardless of the professional authority of the teacher).

SOR advocates are no different than supplement hucksters. In their righteous anger about Lucy Calkins and Fountas and Pinnell, they are jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire by waving the structured literacy! flag and claiming SL will save children, save reading.

Let me take a commercial break and throw a very chilly and unwelcome blanket on the SL party: SL will not work, and in a decade or so, we will start the panic, blame game, and new! reading program/approach all over again.

Why?

Because many are too damn stubborn, and too filled with missionary zeal, to step back and admit we have been going about this all wrong.

Reading achievement by students is a metric strongly linked to poverty and inequity; if we had the political will to address poverty and inequity, reading achievement would increase (but since human behaviors are mostly idiosyncratic, we will never have universal success among humans for anything because there is some truth to human behaviors falling on a range something like the bell-shaped curve).

Next, we are focusing on the reading programs themselves instead of how they are implemented.

The real problem with all the currently adopted reading programs in the US is that they are implemented badly, often in lock-step ways that put implementing the program with fidelity over student learning and teacher autonomy.

So the great and sad irony of the SOR assault on reading programs is that SOR advocates are calling for SL, which is often scripted curriculum that defaults to treating students monolithically (see a powerful critique here):

The collateral damage, then, of the reading programs wars will always be students, teachers, and the promise of reading—because the real concern isn’t the reading programs themselves (although reading programs as resources can and should be better).

It is easy and effective to whip up emotional responses with anecdotes in order to manufacture a problem and put a face on all-that-is-evil (makes for clickable podcasts).

But in the end, the real story being sold is no different than the supplement sales pitch that points an accusatory finger at those other failed supplements before holding up the new! and improved! product (uh, program) that in all honesty is the same useless shit in a different package and under a different name.