The Reading Puzzle and the Media’s Caricature Blame Game

As an aging adult, I have returned with mature gusto to childhood things—comic books, Lego, and puzzles.

Puzzles are, like Lego, incredibly satisfying, and I have discovered a wonderful puzzle company, Magic Puzzle Company, that combines fascinating original art with its own version of “magic”; once the main puzzle is completed, you can move sections, reveal an open section in the middle, and then complete the puzzle for a big reveal:

I have a daughter and three grandchildren so I have watched child development paralleled with puzzles for many years.

Babies and small children often start with simple one-piece puzzles that challenge them with fitting that one piece into a basic shape. As the child develops, the puzzles become progressively more complex—more pieces and piece shapes more varied and unpredictable.

That sequential process is incredibly compelling for adults trying to teach children. In other words, most adults want learning to be that simple, and yes, predictable from child to child.

However, many human behaviors are not that simple even when they are linked to what we might call natural behaviors. Language is typically viewed as natural, yet reading and writing are somewhat artificial and constructed extensions of that natural inclination.

The current media-driven reading crisis, the “science of reading” movement, is fatally attracted to oversimplification, caricature, and fanning an ugly and misleading blame game.

According to journalists, student reading achievement is abysmal because teachers are trapped in balanced literacy and not the “science of reading.”

That is a one-piece puzzle view of reading and teaching reading.

If we just take one step forward, the three-piece puzzle, this caricature falls apart.

The problem at the three-piece puzzle level is that since about the 1990s, we can fairly identify three forces surrounding how reading is taught in the US.

The first piece, although not universal, is that balanced literacy (BL) has been a dominant reading philosophy (although popularly identified as a “theory”) since about the 1990s when media and public attacks on whole language, while misguided, were very effective in challenging that philosophy/framework.

However, the media version of BL is caricature (often presented as a cartoonishly incomplete reading theory or program) instead of its intent as a philosophical framing:

Next, the second piece of the puzzle, most pre-service teachers have been taught the “simple view” of reading (SVR) as the dominant reading theory over that same era (including currently). [1]

If we pause and consider the first two puzzle pieces—balanced literacy and the “simple view” of reading—the media messaging falls apart since the SOR movement has demonized BL as the core cause of reading failures, yet embraced SVR as settled science.

In the real world of teacher education, however, these two have equally informed how teachers are prepared to teach reading—although teacher prep is , in fact, highly diverse in the application of both.

And now the third puzzle piece—most teachers are required to implement reading programs once they are in the classroom, regardless of the their teacher education program.

Here the puzzle becomes incredibly complicated because despite the media’s misinformation campaign, reading programs are not all BL inspired; many of the dominant programs, in fact, assert reading philosophies and theories that are explicitly not BL.

While the media messaging is stuck in the one-piece puzzle and by moving to a three-piece puzzle the inherent logic falls apart in that oversimplification, the reality is that the reading puzzle is much more like the Magic Puzzle Company’s highly complex puzzle with moving parts and remaining work to be done:

The one-piece puzzle blame game, regretfully, is very compelling so the media message remains mostly unchallenged at the popular and political levels.

Culturally, the large and very complicated reading puzzle with moving parts may be more than we can handle, but even if we just move to the three-part puzzle, the story being told about reading proves to be a simplistic blame game.

Reading, teaching reading, and students deserve a bigger, better picture that simply isn’t easy to piece together.

[1] See the discussion of the SVR in this policy brief. Note that in this brief, BL is included in reading theories because of the popular use of the term as a theory, even as that contrasts with its original intent as a philosophical grounding, similar to whole language.

Compton-Lilly, C.F., Mitra, A., Guay, M., & Spence, L.K. (2020). A confluence of complexity: Intersections among reading theory, neuroscience, and observations of young readers. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S185-S195.

Duke, N.K. & Cartwright, K.B. (2021). The science of reading progresses: Communicating advances beyond the simple view of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 56(S1), S25-S44.