The Long and Tired History of Media-Driven Reading Wars

Consider the following excerpts from a scholarly journal of literacy. The articles included are responses from literary scholars to a political and media claim of a reading crisis.

First from Emmett A. Betts:

Next, from William S. Gray:

And then, from Lou LaBrant:

Finally, Paul Witty:

These patterns may seem familiar in 2023 to anyone following the “science of reading” movement:

  • Public schools are failing to teach adequately children to read.
  • Reading teachers are ill-equipped to teach reading.
  • Reading and teaching strategies are not scientific.
  • Political leaders and the media drive the criticism.
  • And literacy scholars carefully debunk the entire narrative, to no avail.

These excerpts are from 1942 and collected in The Elementary English Review (The National Council of Teachers of English), which would become Language Arts [1].

The reading crisis was spurred by high illiteracy rates in WWII draftees and Eleanor Roosevelt’s call to action and media coverage of the reading crisis.

The blame game, like now, is misguided and ill informed. Progressive education was the scapegoat, but LaBrant and others noted these soldiers had attended mostly traditional schooling.

Scholar after scholar also note that high illiteracy rates were caused by high poverty levels.

In 2023, as we are trying to stay afloat during the “science of reading” tidal wave of misinformation, we must acknowledge that this current reading war does not differ in any significant way from several since the 1940s.

We must also acknowledge that at no point has the US found reading achievement adequate regardless of teacher training, reading theories, or reading programs and instructional practices.

Reading Wars, then, are reductive, misleading, and ultimately ineffective—over and over.

The “science of reading” movement is another round of misguided blame, misinformation, and yet more hollow calls for “reform” that isn’t anything new or valid.

The “science of reading” is tired and lazy journalism, politics, and ultimately education.

[1] Betts, E., Dolch, E., Gates, A., Gray, W., Horn, E., LaBrant, L., . . . Witty, P. (1942). What shall we do about reading today?: A symposium. The Elementary English Review, 19(7), 225-256. [access HERE]