Teaching Reading and the Goldilocks’ Dilemma: A Case for Purposeful Literacy

Everyone teaching reading is confronted with the Goldilocks’ dilemma.

Using terms offered by Stephen Krashen, I see teaching children to read falling on a spectrum.

Intensive phonics (often called systematic phonics) is serving porridge that is too hot. Zero phonics is serving porridge that is too cold. But basic phonics is serving porridge that is just right.

The current reading war, the “science of reading” (SOR) movement, is little different than any of the proceeding reading wars; once again, the war is being framed as one between intensive/systemic phonics and zero phonics.

And once again, the “just right” option, basic phonics, is being left out of the rhetorical equation.

Let me be very clear. What I am doing is not a call for compromise or for a middle approach. I find the pendulum analogy to be one of the problems with the recurring reading war, in fact.

My proposal is more akin to the conclusions draw in England that showed systematic phonics has not achieved what was promised and that students would be better served with “balance.”

Of course, the word “balance” often triggers the caricature of “balanced literacy” (BL) offered in the SOR movement, a misrepresentation that erases the philosophical and theoretical framing intended in BL (teacher autonomy grounded in serving the individual needs of students).

Where people get lost, I think, and what I am proposing is that the balance isn’t about reading theories (such as balancing phonics and comprehension in instruction), but about how any teacher serves the individual needs of any student.

The balance is about balancing student needs with instructional goals, and then, making sure the teacher and student are provided the appropriate teaching and learning conditions for students to learn to read.

This sort of balance de-centers reading programs and standards, and centers students. As a result most any program or set of standards can be effective or not depending on the teacher’s ability to serve the student’s needs.

Another aspect of this dilemma, I think, is that intensive/systematic phonics will always prove to be too hot because it over-emphasizes the role of the letter-sound system. Nonsense words and decodable texts mislead students about the complexity of decoding and making meaning from text.

Students may be compelled to see phonics as a simple plug-and-play until they encounter “wind” or “dove,” two words that have differing pronunciations in different contexts.

Also consider the maze of problems when exploring the letter “C”:













“C” shares sounds with “S” and “K,” but this series of words presents some satisfying patterns as well as some baffling exceptions that students could better navigate with some background in etymology and with greater experience reading (and thus building their toolbox for making meaning).

The question (which still hasn’t been fully answered by research) has never been if students need phonics, but how much, when, and how that is acquired (upfront v. by extensive reading).

Intensive/systematic phonics is too hot and misleading, I think, for the same reason that worksheet approaches to context clues are ultimately harmful. The “rules” for using context clues tend to work only in sentences designed to prove context clues strategies work.

As I have noted before, this is the training wheels versus balance bicycle dilemma.

The SOR reading war is fundamentally no different than any other reading war; see McQuillan’s debunking of the whole language reading war from the 1990s and note the similar patterns found in the current SOR movement.

Currently, the media misinformation and the misguided political response have made yet another claim that reading instruction has failed to provide systematic phonics (porridge too cold), and now state reading policy and reading program adoption are scrambling to implement structured literacy (scripted curriculum, porridge too hot).

In the US, we have never stepped back from the same old reading war rhetoric that centers all the adults and their (often petty) ideological biases.

Too often, everyone is caught up in selling their thing by demonizing other people’s things.

It is a tremendous failure of logic to shout that current popular reading programs have failed students because publishers and program creators are grabbing the cash, and therefore, we need to change to a different set of programs (with publishers and program creators who are also grabbing cash).

Again, we must stop centering adult ideologies and market interests, and start centering the students themselves and also providing teachers the resources and conditions to serve student needs.

What I propose is purposeful literacy, which has the following framing:

  • The teaching of reading begins with individual student artifacts of reading (strengths, needs, etc.)—not programs, standards, or mandates.
  • Centering the individual needs of students requires that we address the equity in their lives outside of school as well as in school.
  • The effective teaching of reading requires teacher autonomy and teaching and learning conditions that allow teachers to serve individual student needs.
  • Reading materials, programs, and standards must be tools that serve teacher instruction and not goals and frameworks for teacher accountability. The current “problem” with reading programs is not the quality of any program but that programs become the goal of teaching (fidelity, “is the teacher implementing the program” v. “is the student being served”).
  • Purposeful literacy places reading skills (such as phonics) in both the context of comprehension and critical literacy (moving beyond mere understanding to interrogating text).
  • The goal of purposeful literacy is students who are eager, independent, and critical readers.

The reading war approach to education reform is not a fairy tale; it is a horror story, and almost no one survives.

We must set aside the quest for THE program and the THE theory of reading.

Instead of centering all the adults and the concurrent pettiness, we must center the individual needs of students, which includes honoring the autonomy of teachers and providing both teachers and students the teaching and learning conditions that make a “just right” approach possible.