Category Archives: Lou LaBrant

Looking Back to Understand “Science of Reading” and Censorship: Lou LaBrant 1936-1949 [Updated]

One of the most important aspects of understanding any issue or field of knowledge, I think, is to have nuanced historical perspective. That is vividly true about education and especially reading.

The current reading crisis, often referred to as the “science of reading” movement, and the incredibly chilling impact of curriculum bans, book censorship, and attacks on teaching and learning are not, I regret to emphasize, all that new (except the degree of the bans are in many ways unprecedented).

I am currently working on completing my online annotated bibliography of Lou LaBrant, and offer below some historical perspective on teaching reading and why censorship is always wrong for education and democracy.

Access my blog post on each work by clicking the hyperlink in the essay titles; many of her publications can also be accessed through JSTOR (links at end of bibliographies when available). I am including memes of key passages from LaBrant with the recommended works below.

Witty, P.A., & LaBrant, L.L. (1936, June). Aims and methods in reading instructionEducational Trends, 5-9, 18.

LaBrant, L. (1939). The relations of language and speech acquisitions to personality development. In P.A. Witty & C.E. Skinner (Eds.), Mental hygiene in modern education (pp. 324-352). Farrar and Rinehart, Inc.

LaBrant, L. (1940, February). Library teacher or classroom teacher? The Phi Delta Kappan, 22(6), 289-291.

LaBrant, L. (1942, November). What shall we do about reading today?: A symposium [Lou LaBrant]. The Elementary English Review, 19(7), 240-241.

LaBrant, L. (1943, March). Our changing program in languageJournal of Educational Method, 21(6), 268-272.

Witty, P., & LaBrant, L. (1946). Teaching the people’s language. Hinds, Hayden, & Eldredge, Inc.

LaBrant, L. (1947, January). Research in language. Elementary English, 24(1), 86-94.

LaBrant, L. (1949, January). A little list. English Journal, 38(1), 37–40.


Provincialism, Ways of Being, and the Failure of Democracy

I had dinner and a few beers with a former student recently. Although he is about two decades younger than me, we share a hometown and grew up in the same neighborhood. And after I had moved out during young adulthood, as a child, he often spent time at my parents’ house, just playing and hanging out.

He’s worked all over the world and has been living in Europe for more than 15 years. Our conversation drifted to our hometown and his perception of living in Europe instead of near where he grew up. Eventually, he asked how some people “get out” of small hometowns, escape the trap of narrow-mindedness—what I referred to as provincialism.

We share a strong discomfort with conservative and fundamentalist thinking even though we were raised in that environment, which continues to this days in our hometown. His question reminded me of one of my favorite lyrics from The National: “How can anybody know/ How they got to be this way?”

Especially as a teacher, I have found teaching siblings complicates any solid answer to his question since two people raised in the same home and town can turn out to be very different people. We catalogued several people also from our community who, like us, no longer conform to the mold of our upbringing, trying to understand why some people change and others remain frozen in the provincialism of their upbringing.

My former student is very clear that the key for him was being an exchange student in Europe during his junior year of high school; his worldview changed once he had lived a different view of the world. I credit my education, especially literature, but it is the same dynamic—being exposed to different views of the world.

“The English class does not differ from other classes in responsibility for social situations which militate against prejudice and intolerance,” begins “The Words of My Mouth” in a June issue of English Journal. “Classifications which result in racial or cultural segregation, encouragement of small cliques, avoidance of crucial issues—all of these may be evils in the English classes as others.”

That opening builds to this key question: “Do the very words we use and our attitudes toward them affect our tendency to accept or reject other human beings?”

This essay is by Lou LaBrant and was published in 1946. LaBrant was vividly aware of the threats to freedom in the context of WWII and Nazi Germany, but her essay resonates today because of the threats from within the US, the Republican assaults on academic freedom, books, and individual choice by weaponizing “pornography,” “grooming,” “Critical Race Theory,” and any word or phrase to impose a narrow view of the world onto all of us.

“Not one facet of human experience will serve to insure the kind of society we need so desperately, and all aspects of living affect all others,” LaBrant warns.

The role of education, she emphasizes, must include: “A basic understanding which needs to be taught in school and home is that the existence of a word does not at all prove the existence of anything.” At the core of racism, sexism, and all types of bigotry and hate, LaBrant recognized the need to challenge the power of “word magic,” the belief that uttering something makes it so, gives it power.

In 1950, LaBrant returned to this topic, focusing on students as writers:

[Students] should discover the danger in word-magic, that calling a man by a name does not necessarily make him what they say; that describing the postal system as socialist does not transfer our mail to Moscow, nor brand either the writer or postman as disciples of Stalin. We must teach our students that words are symbols which they use, and that there is stupidity in word-magic. (p. 264)

LaBrant, L. (1950, April). The individual and his writing. Elementary English27(4), 261-265.

Over the past few years, I have made long trips from South Carolina into the Midwest, specifically Ohio and Wisconsin. Each time, I find the persistence of what is stereotypically “Southern” into the region that we in the South would classify as the “North” (which is everything outside of the Deep South, including Virginia and Texas). Fundamentalist billboards condemning homosexuality and abortion as well as huge signs quoting scripture line highways all through rural America.

Billboard in Ohio

These 8-10 hour drives left me certain I was not making just the specific trip I was on (conference presentations) but was destined for the flaming pits of Hell. Although I am a white straight man, I strongly believe in the rights of all people regardless of racial identification, gender, sexuality, religion (or not), etc., because I very much believe I deserve the same sort of freedom to fully be the human I have come to know that I am.

I also know that for women to be fully human, body autonomy is essential and that includes abortion rights.

Like Kurt Vonnegut, I am a humanist:

My parents and grandparents were humanists, what used to be called Free Thinkers. So as a humanist I am honoring my ancestors, which the Bible says is a good thing to do. We humanists try to behave as decently, as fairly, and as honorably as we can without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife [emphasis added]. My brother and sister didn’t think there was one, my parents and grandparents didn’t think there was one. It was enough that they were alive. We humanists serve as best we can the only abstraction with which we have any real familiarity, which is our community.

A Man without a Country, Kurt Vonnegut

To me, this is a foundational commitment to the country’s claim of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. How can any of us be happy if we are required to conform to a narrow mandate of ways of being determined by a few in power based on a provincial view of the world?

My gender identity and sexuality are who I am, and right for me, but that means nothing for anyone else. I want my ways of being to be honored; therefore, I believe I am obligated to honor that for everyone else.

As my former student can attest by experience, people have even more freedom in countries other than the US; Americans do not have a monopoly on individual freedom and certainly not communal support for those freedoms (universal healthcare contributes to individual freedom, for example):

[I]t seems to me that the myth, the illusion, that this is a free country, for example, is disastrous….

There is an illusion about America, a myth about America to which we are clinging which has nothing to do with the lives we lead and I don’t believe that anybody in this country who has really thought about it or really almost anybody who has been brought up against it—and almost all of us have one way or another—this collision between one’s image of oneself and what one actually is is always very painful and there are two things you can do about it, you can meet the collision head-on and try and become what you really are or you can retreat and try to remain what you thought you were, which is a fantasy, in which you will certainly perish.

“Notes for a Hypothetical Novel,” James Baldwin

The hostile environment in the US today fostered by conservatives is also eroding those freedoms day by day; people are less free in the US than 6 months ago, and we are very likely on the precipice of the erasing of even greater freedoms in the coming months.

The Republican agenda of rolling back freedoms and rights as well as increasing bans and censorship is an agenda grounded in provincialism, which, as I have observed, seems to be rooted in rurality, the isolation of people creating an isolation of worldview.

We know rural America is red and urban American is blue, but I think we fail to examine fully why this is the case. For me, my former student’s experience illustrates the dangers of narrow thinking when you have limited experiences and why a cosmopolitan worldview is a doorway to expanding how you think and your ability to have empathy for people who appear to be unlike you.

I use “appear” because, for example, a gay person and a straight person have different sexualities but share the need for having that sexuality honored. That is our commonality.

Yet, democracy is failing us in the US because those who want to use their political power to control have the same rights to vote as those who want to use their political power to insure everyone’s freedoms and ways of being.

And in 2022, those voting to control seem to the have the upper-hand, not because there are more of them but because the system has been gamed to favor them and they often have the greatest passion for asserting their control. Sadly, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity” (William Butler Yeats).

Some see their ideologies and beliefs as baseball bats; others see them as safety nets. In a democracy, those votes are equal—and the humanity of individuals hangs in the balance.

I am not concerned, however, that I am in fact going to hell for wanting individual freedom for everyone regardless of their ways of being, regardless of how their gender, sexuality, or whatever appears the same or different from mine.

The irony is that Republicans are creating hell on earth for all of us right here in the US; they are proving Sartre right: “Hell is other people.”

And because of the failure of democracy, there is no exit.

The “Science of Reading” Multiverse

Published in 1947 in The Elementary English Review, a flagship journal of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) that later became Language Arts, “Research in Language” is one of the most cited pieces by Lou LaBrant in my scholarship and public writing about education and literacy.

LaBrant served as president of NCTE in the 1950s, and along with being an active and influential literacy scholar, LaBrant was a practitioner over a staggering 65 years of teaching.

LaBrant made two incisive claims in this article:

A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods. (p. 87)

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.

Having written an educational biography of LaBrant for my doctoral dissertation, I am vividly aware that LaBrant taught and wrote as a complex progressive who used the term “research” in broad Deweyan terms that included everything from gold-standard experimental research to the daily observations made by classroom teachers.

I cite her because as a practitioner and scholar I also embrace a very complicated understanding of “research,” “evidence,” and the word of the moment, “science.” I am also deeply skeptical of textbooks and programs.

Since early 2018, the phrase “science of reading” has entered and often dominated media, public/parental, and political discourse around the teaching and learning of reading in the U.S.

Almost for as long—I discovered the movement a few months after it began—I have been waving a red flag, advocating for skepticism and extreme caution about that discourse, the media, public/parental, and political rhetoric. For that reason, I persist in placing the phrase in quote marks since I am specifically criticizing the discourse.

If anything, my criticism is having far too little impact on the consequences of the “science of reading” discourse that is driving many states to adopt new reading legislation. And on social media, I am routinely attacked, often quite aggressively, as a science denier and someone intent on hurting children (although I have been a life-long educator across five decades as both a K-12 classroom teacher and a college professor).

I am also often discredited and told that journalists, parents, and politicians understand my own field better than I do.

Part of the problem with debating the “science of reading” movement is the term itself, one that has at least three different meanings, a multiverse if you will (although absent, darn it, Doctor Strange or Wanda).

Before anyone can, or should, answer “Do you support/reject the ‘science of reading’?” we must first clarify exactly what the term means; therefore, here, then, I want to detail the three ways the phrase currently exists since it entered mainstream use in the media during 2018.

“Science of Reading” as Media, Public/Parental, and Political Discourse. Beginning with Emily Hanford and then perpetuated by mainstream media (Education Week and the New York Times, notably), the “science of reading” is a narrative that claims teachers are not teaching students to read using the “science of reading” because teacher educators have failed to teach the “science of reading” in teacher prep programs. Concurrently, this discourse also blames low student reading achievement on the dominance of balanced literacy reading programs (often erroneously) since, as advocates claim, balance literacy is not grounded in the “science of reading.” This version of the “science of reading” maintains that primarily (or even only) cognitive science research is the “science” that counts and that the “simple view” of reading is the one valid theory of reading supported by the “science of reading.” [Note: This is the version of the “science of reading” that most of my scholarly and public writing challenges as misguided and harmful; see here, here, and here.]

“Science of Reading” as Marketing and Branding. Since the “science of reading” advocacy identified above has been extremely effective, states are adopting new reading legislation, some of which directly bans popular reading programs and then narrowly mandates the use of materials and programs that meet the narrow characterization above. This means education companies, especially ones focusing on literacy, have begun to brand and rebrand their materials as programs with the “science of reading.” For example:

As a market response to legislation, as well, some popular reading programs have responded to this version of the phrase. This marketing dynamic is very common in education. Many years ago, I attended a state-level literacy conference where Smokey Daniels spoke. Daniels is one of the top literacy scholars associated with the term “best practice”; however, he warned then that the term had been quickly co-opted by textbook publishers and that there was no mechanism for insuring that something labeled “best practice” was, in fact, demonstrating those concepts (the same problem exists for “whole language” and “balanced literacy”).

“Science of Reading” as Shorthand for the Research Base for Teaching Reading. This is what LaBrant referred to as the “research currently available” in 1947. The irony in this use of the phrase is that many people have been using some form of this phrase for a century—”research,” “science,” “evidence.” And of course, scholars and practitioners are often aware of and practicing many aspects of that “science”—even though science, research, and evidence are all necessarily in a state of flux (and thus, LaBrant’s nod to “currently available”). To be blunt, no reasonable or informed person would reject this use of the “science of reading.” However, I must note that this use is almost entirely absent in public discourse; it remains used almost exclusively among researchers and some practitioners. Another irony, in fact, is that the first use of the phrase above is itself a gross mischaracterization of this complex and broad use.

Because of these different and often conflicting uses of the “science of reading,” we are experiencing incredibly jumbled and even nonsensical outcomes such as teachers being required to attend training in programs that are not supported by research (LETRS) and states adopting reading legislation that implement practices that are not supported by research (grade retention).

So, if you return to LaBrant’s claims above, you may notice an eerie similarity between her valid assertions and the current “science of reading” discourse that is not credible even as it is highly effective.

The problem is that teaching, learning, and literacy are extremely complex human behaviors that resist simple labels or explanations—and also defy efforts to prescribe templates that will magically fulfill the urge for “all students must.”

Alas, in this multiverse there is no magic.


Paul Thomas How to End the Reading War and Serve the Literacy Needs of All Students

Transitioning from High School to College: (Re)considering Citation Edition

My first really challenging experience with citation as a student/scholar occurred fairly late in life, during my mid- to late 30s while I was in my doctoral program.

Although I had undergraduate and graduate degrees in secondary English education, I had functioned, essentially, as an English major in my academic as well as personal writing. That means I had done mostly textual analysis and worked my way over the years through the many versions of MLA—from footnotes to endnotes to parenthetical citation.

Before entering my doctoral program, I had been teaching high school English for a decade while also actively pursuing a career as a writer (submitting literary analysis, original fiction, and original poetry for publication). Frankly, my approach to citation as a teacher and writer had been uncritical and rigidly practical.

Even my dissertation—where I certainly learned how to navigate APA since I produced a final manuscript of over 300 pages with about 10 pages of references—was nothing more than a glimpse of the social science scholar and writer I would become; writing a biography allowed me to remain primarily focused on textual analysis, often more like a humanities (history, English) scholar than a social science scholar (writing educational biography). I culled a life of Lou LaBrant out of her memoir, her published scholarship, and her personal letters, augmented with a few interviews and a couple pieces of scholarship on her published before I took on my project.

Two pivotal experiences in my doctoral program changed me profoundly—being introduced to Joseph William’s Style (and later Jacques Barzun) and transitioning to APA citation and style after many decades using only MLA.

For about 15 years now, I have been fortunate to teach first-year writing at the college level, where I have dramatically changed how I approach citation and the teaching of writing. Much of my focus for undergraduates is fostering genre awareness and disciplinary conventions (including citation).

My approaches have pulled back considerably to the wide view so that students are invited to see and navigate at the conceptual level regardless of the writing or disciplinary circumstance they find themselves in.

I see in my eager and very bright students how paralyzing a reduced high school writing experience can be. These students have written almost entirely in English, primarily doing literary analysis (especially if they took Advanced Placement Literature and Language) and, as one student announced angrily, “memorizing MLA.”

When I explain to them that many (if not most) of them will navigate college and never use MLA again, that all of them will be expected to write at a high level across all the disciplines, and that each discipline has different style sheets and conventional ways of writing, they look deflated, if not outright angry.

At the broadest level, I think students and future scholars need to understand why academia incorporates sources and uses formal citation. There are two reasons, I think. First, students and scholars serve knowledge best by having intellectual humility—starting all writing and research projects by assuming other people have examined a topic already, likely many people with a great deal more expertise and experience that the student or scholar.

If a scholar is fortunate, they can eventually find themselves as one of the or the dominant voice on a topic, but this is rare (I am likely the Lou LaBrant scholar in the world, for example).

And second, related to that first foundational concept, students and scholars establish and gain credibility by “standing on the shoulders of giants”—those scholars, thinkers, and writers who have come before and already spent many years thinking and studying a topic.

Thus, most writing by students and scholars must begin with primary and secondary sources.

Next, students and developing scholars must understand the essential concepts that constitute citation.

In the positive sense, citation is clear and adequate attribution given to other people’s words, ideas, research conclusions, original creations (writing, photography, artwork, performances, etc.), and so forth.

In the negative sense (often how formal education approaches the topic), citation is avoiding plagiarism, which falls along a spectrum from purposefully to carelessly/accidentally presenting someone else’s words, ideas, etc., as your original work.

Finally, the most tedious aspect of citation—especially for students—is navigating the various standards for proper attribution in a variety of writing contexts.

For example, print journalism has a fairly simple (compared to academia) bar for attribution; for example, see this from an article in the New York Times by Anahad O’Connor:

“Sweetened beverages are a common purchase in all households across America,” Kevin Concannon, the U.S.D.A. under secretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, said in an interview. “This report raises a question for all households: Are we consuming too many sweetened beverages, period?”

In the Shopping Cart of a Food Stamp Household: Lots of Soda

Print journalists often use direct attribution in the writing (no complex citation or bibliographies provided). However, online journalism and publications have added another level of citation, the hyperlink; see this from Joe Soss in Jacobin:

In a New York Times story over the weekend, Anahad O’Connor massages and misreports a USDA study to reinforce some of the worst stereotypes about food stamps. For his trouble, the editors placed it on the front page. Readers of the newspaper of record learn that the end result of tax dollars spent on food assistance is a grocery cart full of soda. No exaggeration. The inside headline for the story is “What’s in the Shopping Cart of a Food Stamp Household? Lots of Sugary Soda,” and the front-page illustration shows a shopping cart containing almost nothing but two-liter pop bottles.

O’Connor tells us that “the No. 1 purchases by SNAP households are soft drinks, which account for about 10 percent of the dollars they spend on food.” Milk is number one among non-SNAP households, we are told, not soft drinks.

Food Stamp Fables

I have students write in these contexts (journalism and using hyperlinks) to practice clear and adequate attribution (citation) and finding credible sources, but most students and scholars eventually must navigate formal citation such as MLA, APA, and Chicago Manual of Style.

For many students who recently graduated high school and now must write and cite in college, they must shift to disciplinary writing and recognize that each writing situation has different conventions depending on the field of study.

Academic and scholarly writing (as noted above) require evidence for all claims, often incorporating sources as that evidence. Many students enter college confusing “evidence” with “quoting” because they have written a great deal of literary analysis.

While literature and history scholars often incorporate direct quotes from primary and secondary sources and forefront the authors and titles of those sources (conventions of MLA), most disciplines prefer paraphrasing and synthesis (citing multiple sources with the same content supporting your point) as well as forefronting the content from the sources, and not the sources themselves, as in this sample of synthesis:

From the 1980s (a hot decade for rebooting origins, highlighted by Frank Miller’s Batman) and into the early 2000s, Captain America’s origin continued to be reshaped. Notable for a consideration of race is Truth: Red, White and Black from 2003, which details a remarkable alternate origin as a medical experiment on black men (echoing Tuskegee), resulting in Isaiah Bradley ascension as the actual first Captain America (Connors, 2013; Hack, 2009; McWilliams, 2009; Nama, 2011).

Thomas, P.L. (2017). Can superhero comics defeat racism?: Black superheroes “torn between sci-fi fantasy and cultural reality.” In C.A. Hill (ed.), Teaching comics through multiple lenses: Critical perspectives (pp. 132-146). New York, NY: Routledge.

Quoting, then, is simply one way to support claims and build credibility, and quoting should be confined in academic writing to textual analysis or highlighting passages from a source that demonstrates a uniquely powerful way of expressing the content.

Just as most students can navigate college without using MLA, they will incorporate many other types of evidence that are not quoting (and students will discover that some disciplines see quoting as weak stylistic choices of immature students and scholars).

Ultimately, academic and formal citation is about following a prescribed system while also understanding why each system exists. APA includes publication dates in-text because in the social sciences when research has been conducted matters; for literary scholars, when scholarship was published matters less than the credibility and stature of the critic (so all dates in MLA reside in the bibliographies, not the parenthetical citation in the text).

The mechanics of each citation system require students and scholars to pay attention to details and to copyedit carefully. Students must recognize that their credibility and authority are in part built on following those (often arcane) mechanics.

Of course, the quality of students’ original writing and the sources they depend on matter more, but citation systems exist in part to support what constitutes citation—clear and adequate attribution given to other people’s words, ideas, research conclusions, original creations (writing, photography, artwork, performances, etc.), and so forth.

On their journey to being writers and scholars, students are best served with these broad approaches to why academics depend on sources and how proper attribution/citation varies across writing situations and different disciplines.

Drama and the Struggling High School Reader

In my current trends in literacy course for our MAT program, I have 7 students across several content areas. Our discussion yesterday confronted how too often teachers (notably ELA teachers) assign texts and reading that discourage students as readers.

One candidate in ELA shared a story of a teacher who declared that most of their students “can’t read Shakespeare” so that teacher has the class listen to an audio recording of the play Macbeth.

I noted that required reading lists often do more harm than good for students as readers and added if I had to choose between required texts that students don’t read or choice texts that students actually read, I always want the latter.

Further, this example triggered a pet peeve of mine about how we teach different forms and genres of writing.

I asked the class what type of text Macbeth is, and they all identified it as a play. I followed up with asking how plays/drama are intended to be experienced, and again, they all noted that plays are written to be viewed, preferably as live performances.

Next, I shared with them recurring experiences I have with my first-year writing students (high-achieving students—disproportionately white and affluent—admitted to a selective liberals arts college).

Often on the first day of class, I ask students what novels they read in high school English, and several students will say A Raisin in the Sun, Hamlet, and such. I then point out that these are plays, and not novels. But the students have mostly read these plays in bound books that look identical to the novels they were assigned.

Also in the first few days, I have students do a writing exercise where they write a mimic passage from a chapter in Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street, “A House of My Own.” Students are told to mimic the grammar and style of the chapter exactly while changing the content.

The assignment is designed as a first transition to reading like a writer [1] (as opposed to reading text for literary analysis) so that students develop the skills needed to compose and revise with attention to not just what they express but also how they express their messages.

Invariably, several students email me their piece and identify it as their “poem,” despite my noting in class that they are mimicking a prose chapter from a novel.

In other words, very bright and often “A” students demonstrate over and over that they have garbled and often inaccurate knowledge about genre and form—and they learn these flawed lessons in school, typically in English, because of careless approaches to text like the one above concerning Macbeth.

I want to focus here on two aspects, interconnected, about how we teach text to students, particularly in high school.

First, concerning having students listen to or read plays, I always see lessons involving text as essentially lessons in genre awareness, a concept endorsed by Ann Johns instead of genre acquisition (her discussion forefronts composition, but this applies to reading as well):

Russell [and] Fisher (in press) distinguish between two approaches to genre pedagogy, two basic goals for a course or tutorial. The first is GENRE ACQUISITION, a goal that focuses upon the students’ ability to reproduce a text type, often from a template, that is organized, or ‘staged’ in a predictable way. The Five Paragraph Essay pedagogies, so common in North America, present a highly structured version of this genre acquisition approach. …

A quite different goal is GENRE AWARENESS, which is realized in a course designed to assist students in developing the rhetorical flexibility necessary for adapting their socio-cognitive genre knowledge to ever-evolving contexts. …I have concluded that raising genre awareness and encouraging the abilities to research and negotiate texts in academic classrooms should be the principal goals for a novice literacy curriculum (Johns 1997).

This juxtaposition of two quite different goals, genre acquisition and genre awareness, is reminiscent of another pedagogical contrast mentioned by Henry Widdowson years ago (1984) and, later, by Flowerdew (1993): that pedagogies are designed to either TRAIN for specific tasks (i.e., text types) or EDUCATE, to cope with an almost unpredictable future. It is my argument here that education should, in the end, be our goal for novice academic literacy courses, for a genre awareness education will prepare students for the academic challenges
that lie ahead. (pp. 238-239)

Johns, A.M. (2008). Genre awareness for the novice academic student: An on-going quest. Language Teaching, 41(2), 237-252.

Therefore, when I teach a genre or form, I typically invite students to ask questions and develop or refine their internalized rubric for what constitutes that genre or form (or medium): What makes a poem, a poem? What makes a comic book, a comic book? What makes a film, a film? What makes an essay, an essay? etc.

Reading and critical literacy require that the reader come to a text with some awareness of form and genre, and that awareness helps the reader navigate the text for meaning.

Sitting down to read Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Gate A-4,” for example, often challenges people since I have seen it identified and heard students refer to the work as a poem, a story, and a non-fiction essay (it is a prose passage, fictional, in Nye’s Honeybee: Poems & Short Prose).

Finally, we must confront why Macbeth was taught to these students through an audio recording—the conclusion that high school students couldn’t read Shakespeare.

I am deeply skeptical of the rush to identify high school students as struggling readers for several reasons:

  • Many high school students are non-readers and it is too easy to conflate non-readers with struggling readers.
  • Often, even in ELA courses, lessons and assessments are designed in ways that allow students to pass or even excel in a course without having to read [2] (students can access information on novels and plays or simply depend on the teacher to cover everything to be assessed in class, which most teachers do).
  • Students who are non-readers are not necessarily demonstrating they have decoding, vocabulary, or comprehension problems, but that they lack motivation to read texts assigned to them and to perform in ways that are not authentic. Many non-readers in the classroom go home and perform complex and advanced literacy that teachers do not see and traditional schooling does not acknowledge (video and board gaming, binge-watching TV, reading and collecting comic books, reading novels they choose such as YA lit or science fiction and fantasy).
  • Students who “struggle” with assigned texts and performing in ways that are often required in school (narrow analysis and multiple choice testing) may be struggling due to those expectations as well as lacking adequate experience reading (since they have passed courses without reading). I think “struggling” is a misnomer for that phenomenon.

Lou LaBrant warned in 1949, “We should not, under the guise of developing literary standards, merely pass along adult weariness” (p. 276).

And LaBrant (1937) held that belief because “the adolescent has much greater power to read and to think intelligently about reading than the results of our conventional program have led us to believe” (p. 34).

We ask too little of students when we fail to honor the fidelity of genre, form, and medium, but we ultimately fail students when we assume their lack of reading lies in a fault with them (“struggling”) instead of interrogating what we require them to read (or not read) and our reductive approaches to text and literacy.

[1] See here and here.

[2] I saw a former students several years after he was a marginal and combative AP Literature student of mine. He smiled and announced that he expected I would be surprised to know he earn a degree in English in college. Then, he added that he did so without ever reading a book assigned to him.


LaBrant, L. (1949, May). Analysis of clichés and abstractions. English Journal, 38(5), 275-278. Stable URL:

LaBrant, L. (1937, February 17). The content of a free reading program. Educational Research Bulletin, 16(2), 29–34. Stable URL:

Reimagining the Teaching of English

Published in The High School Journal (May 1951) by Dorothy McCuskey, a review of Lou LaBrant‘s most comprehensive work on teaching English, We Teach English, concluded: “In short, this is no ‘how to teach’ book. Rather, it is a book which will cause the reader to re-examine the bases of his [sic] teaching methods and the content of his [sic] courses.”

LaBrant was a demanding teacher and scholar with a career as a teacher of English from 1906 until 1971. And one of the defining features of that career was her persistent challenges to how teachers taught the field labeled, then, as “English.”

The field traditionally called “English” has evolved over the years, often at the K-12 level being envisioned as English/Language Arts (ELA) or simply Language Arts.

Nelson Flores, at The Educational Linguist, recently confronted “Language Arts” as a descriptor or teaching English:

Schools often teaches courses called Language Arts. Yet, little actual art happens in most of these classrooms. Instead, language is often treated as a static set of prescriptivist rules that children are expected to master and mimic back to their teacher. This is not an exploration of the art of language. This is linguistic oppression.

How about we actually bring the art of language into Language Arts?

Concurrent with this post from Flores, I argued that students must unlearn to write in order to write well at the college level and shared on Twitter the baggage students bring to college, what they must unlearn:

Having been a high school English teacher for almost two decades and then a teacher educator focusing on ELA and a first-year composition professor for an additional two decades, I carry on LaBrant’s tradition of mostly swimming against the tide of tradition in terms of what counts as “teaching English.”

Students majoring in the humanities, specifically English, has declined significantly—”History is down about 45 percent from its 2007 peak, while the number of English majors has fallen by nearly half since the late 1990s”—prompting many colleges and universities to reconsider and even cut those majors and departments.

We are well past time, I think, the need to reimagine the teaching and fields of English/ELA for K-16.

At one level, English/ELA includes a complex challenge since teachers and professors in that singular field/discipline are often tasked with addressing a wide range of content included in literature and literacy (reading/writing). Bluntly put, teaching English/ELA is a herculean, nearly impossible task.

If we teachers of English/ELA are to be successful in covering literature and literacy K-16, any success found in our students is necessarily cumulative over many, many years. This is no trivial point, and not mere metaphor, but when teaching or learning literature and literacy, there is no finish line.

While I firmly believe we must distinguish between the teaching of literature and literacy, specifically between teaching literature and composition/writing, I also recognize that the myriad aspects of literacy are inherently recursive, symbiotic: learning to read is learning to write; learning to write is learning to read.

For people learning to teach, for example, high school English/ELA (courses that are designed to address both literature and literacy [reading/writing]), majoring in English often proves to be inadequate since English as a discipline at the university level tends to be literature based, often very narrow in course content (an entire semester on William Butler Yeats, for example).

Yes, English majors tends to write a great deal, but writing literary analysis or even so-called creative writing does not prepare a person to teach writing. In higher education, English (literature) and composition are distinct and separate fields.

To emphasize my point, when I was teaching American literature for high school students and as I teach first-year writing at my university, bringing texts into class has completely different purposes; it isn’t that both sets of students aren’t learning reading and writing in the courses, but that we are interrogating texts for significantly distinct purposes.

Literary analysis and reading like a writer are complex but different behaviors for students with different purposes and outcomes.

In fact, literary analysis is a discipline-based type of writing that demands unique moves and conventions than other discipline-based writing, such as in history, psychology, or the sciences.

I spent 18 years teaching high school English and have spent a bit longer now preparing candidates to teach high school English/ELA. I can attest without hesitation that expectations for K-12 English/ELA are excessive, inherently impossible.

While I don’t want to linger on the problems with teaching math, I do want to note that math tends to acknowledge the unique aspects within the field since students take sequences and more clearly delineated courses (geometry, Algebra I, Algebra II, calculus, etc.) that have mathematical principles in common throughout while maintaining the distinct features of each course.

With math (and the sciences), we recognize that a geometry teacher may be ill equipped to teach algebra (or a chemistry teacher, ill equipped to teach biology), but we tend to see English/ELA teachers as a monolithic monstrosity.

Somehow, with only a bachelors degree and at the tender age of 22, I was deemed capable of teaching American and British literature as well as writing to my high school students, but college professors several years older than that and armed with doctoral degrees are hired in English departments to teach Elizabethan drama (and such candidates often wave off requests that they take on first-year composition as well since, well, they aren’t trained to do that).

Sure, professors at the college level teach outside their specialities, but this is seen as a stretch, and not the norm or ideal. And when professors are tasked to work outside their areas of specialization, outcomes are often disappointing (my university decided years ago any professor could teach first-year writing—until it became abundantly clear that that is certainly not true).

Since a significant percentage of my college teaching load is now first-year and upper-level writing, I witness the harm done to students at the K-12 level and the inadequacies at the university level for writing instruction, historically a shunned cousin of the field of English since, I think, composition is viewed as mere teaching (and we all know the status of the field of education in academia).

Students need and deserve in K-16 schooling courses and teachers/professors properly equipped to teach both literature and literacy (specifically writing), but not simultaneously.

English/ELA must be reimagined as a complex field with symbiotic but distinct elements that require time and patience for both teaching and learning—and a much greater respect for the complexity and difficulty involved in teaching any of those different areas.

Writing in 1939 about the experimental program at the Ohio State University High School, LaBrant posed a similar argument:

That not all teachers are, however, equally skilled in assisting with all phases of language experiences, as, for example with personal or creative writing or with leisure reading; and consequently that students need a so-called “English” teacher who will assume certain specialized responsibilities and who will, in addition, study the general language growth of individual students and classes, and see that, as far as possible, adequate and balanced growth takes place. (p. 269)

An English Program Based on Present Needs

At OSU, the University School recognized that a team of teachers with unique training and strengths needed to work together in order to address that “language growth and study are to be expected in all phases of school experience”—not simply laid at the feet of the English teacher.

It’s 2021, and “we teach English” needs to mean something more complex than it does currently, something similar to a nearly forgotten experiment in the early twentieth century where LaBrant practiced what she preached.

Did Balance Literacy Fail to Teach Your Child to Read?

For 36 years now, I have been teaching people to write; that journey is a large subset of my own being and becoming a writer, an experience that is captured well in an old Nike poster I used to hang on the wall of my high school classroom, proclaiming “There is no finish line.”

there is no finish line

For the last decade-plus, I have taught first-year college students to write. While I am teaching writing, however, I also am teaching young people how to do college, how to make the important transition from being a student to being a scholar.

Part of that work is unlearning bad habits from high school embedded in traditional approaches to writing essays.

Here is one of the worst: Many students come to college having followed a narrow writing process in which teachers require students to submit a one-paragraph introduction with a direct thesis statement. Once approved, the student is then released to write an essay that fulfills that approved essay thesis.

This instills in students two incredibly misguided practices. One is writing with a level of certainty that an 18-year-old has yet to reach (particularly on topics about which they have only second-hand knowledge); and another is failing to see drafting and writing as an act of discovery, as a journey to understanding ideas better.

Neither of these lessons from high school serve young people well in their quest of becoming more educated, being a scholar. Scholarship and deep understanding of a field or discipline comes mostly from interrogating ideas, not from grand pronouncements.

Knowledge is living forest; dogma is a rigid stone slowly wearing away to nothing in its resistance to the elements.

This also comes into play when anyone is trying to understand a situation outside their own areas of expertise. As Ballantyne explains about epistemic trespassing:

First, the intellectual characters of trespassers often look unsavoury. Out of their league but highly confident nonetheless, trespassers appear to be immodest, dogmatic, or arrogant [emphasis added]. Trespassers easily fail to manifest the trait of intellectual humility and demonstrate one or another epistemic vice (Whitcomb et al. 2017, Cassam 2016). Second, it’s useful to distinguish between trespassers holding confident opinions and investigating questions in another field [emphasis in original]. I assume it can be epistemically appropriate for people to look into questions beyond their competence, even when it would be inappropriate for them to hold confident opinions.

This is a key distinction (arrogance v. modesty) for an enduring question in the U.S., one that has remained at the forefront of public and political debate since at least the 1940s: Why are students not learning to read?

If we are going to focus on asking questions and not making grand pronouncements, we probably should first interrogate the question, and confirm whether or not students are learning to read in reasonable ways and when they genuinely need to read independently.

Here we have a serious problem because at no period in the U.S. has anyone pronounced reading achievement to be satisfactory; thus, the somewhat bell-shaped curve of reading achievement among school-age students could very likely simply be normal.

Yet, most of us view education as a 100% attainable venture—all students can and should learn to read by X age. This is a valuable ideal, but it certainly isn’t a reasonable measure for any sort of accountability (see the disaster that was No Child Left Behind).

We are left then with an enduring question that I think is valid and worth considering: Why do some students not become eager and critical readers at the same rate as most of their biological peers?

Data for many decades have shown that all sorts of achievement gaps, reading included, are strongly correlated with the socioeconomic status of any student’s parents, home, and community as well as the educational attainment of the parents (notably the mother). [Every administration of the SAT reflects those patterns, for example.]

Especially over the past forty or so years, however, emphasizing the correlation between inequity and academic achievement has been discounted with making “excuses.” Public and political concern for any problem seeks to find individual causes to blame, but Americans tend to balk at systemic explanations for negative outcomes.

When the U.S. declared a reading crisis in the 1940s during WWII, many immediately blamed progressive education, then strongly associated with John Dewey. But there were three practical problems with that blame.

First, as Alfie Kohn has explained, Dewey’s progressive education has never been implemented on any wide scale in the U.S. Despite mainstream arguments to the contrary, formal education in the U.S. has almost always been primarily conservative and traditional.

Second, as Lou LaBrant carefully detailed in 1942:

1. Not many men in the army now have been taught by these newer methods [emphasis in original]. Those few come for the most part from private or highly privileged schools, are among those who have completed high school or college, and have no difficulty with reading.

2. While so-called “progressive” schools may have their limitations, and certainly do allow their pupils to progress at varied rates, above the second grade their pupils consistently show superior ability in reading. Indeed, the most eager critics have complained that these children read everything they can find, and consequently do not concentrate on a few facts. Abundant data now testify to the superior results of purposeful, individualized reading programs [emphasis in original].

3. The reading skills required by the military leaders are relatively simple, and cause no problem for normal persons who have remained in school until they are fourteen or fifteen. Unfortunately the large group of non-readers are drop-outs, who have not completed elementary school, come from poorly taught and poorly equipped schools, and actually represent the most conservative and backward teaching in the United States [emphasis in original]. (pp. 240-241)

Third, and this is possibly the most important point for understanding our current reading crisis, many students were unsuccessful in situations where educators claimed to be practicing progressive education, but in fact, were not.

Let me offer an example—Dewey’s project method.

First, Dewey tended to offer philosophical and theoretical parameters for teaching, but refused to offer models and never templates or programs. This made, ironically, a practitioner of pragmatism (Dewey’s philosophical roots shared with William James) quite impractical for day-to-day teaching and the running of schools.

William Heard Kilpatrick, however, seized the moment and packaged the project method, which did find its way into schools, often ones that claimed to be progressive.

Here comes the real but complicated problem.

In 1931, LaBrant (the subject of my dissertation and a devout Deweyan progressive) launched into the use of the project method in classes where students are supposed to be learning reading and writing:

The cause for my wrath is not new or single. It is of slow growth and has many characteristics. It is known to many as a variation of the project method; to me, as the soap performance. With the project, neatly defined by theorizing educators as “a purposeful activity carried to a successful conclusion,” I know better than to be at war. With what passes for purposeful activity and is unfortunately carried to a conclusion because it will kill time, I have much to complain. To be, for a moment, coherent: I am disturbed by the practice, much more common than our publications would indicate, of using the carving of little toy boats and castles, the dressing of quaint dolls, the pasting of advertising pictures, and the manipulation of clay and soap as the teaching of English literature. (p. 245)

Let’s imagine that some students did not grow as readers or writers if they were crafting, and not reading or writing (as LaBrant argued for over six decades), and let’s also imagine that if there was poor reading growth in these classrooms, people certainly associated that with progressive practices since it was explicitly using the project method.

To untangle this, we need to recognize that as LaBrant admonished, using the project method to craft instead of having students read and write was a misuse and misunderstanding of progressive philosophy.

Neither the project method nor progressivism failed these students, but the misuse of both certainly did.

This pattern has repeated itself at both small and large levels for decades.

The 1980s-1990s reading crisis was blamed on whole language, but almost no one was implementing whole language and the drop in test scores were easily connected to systemic factors such as reduced funding and an influx of English language learners (Emergent Bilinguals).

It is also interesting to investigate the many misuses of the term “best practice” and the instructional strategy literature circles, both important aspects of Harvey “Smokey” Daniels educational work and regrets he has explained in detail about too many people misunderstanding and misapplying the terms and practices.

At a state-level ELA teacher conference many years ago, I listened to Daniels explain that he wishes he could distance himself from the term “best practice” because nothing stopped publishers from slapping the term on any book because publishers knew the concept was in vogue. In short, like Dewey, Daniels was aware that he had no control over whether or not anything labeled “best practice” was in fact best practice (supported by evidence and research).

So this all leads to the blog post’s title: Did balance literacy fail to teach your child to read?

I suspect if you have made it this far and if you have fully interrogated the information I have provided, you can expect that the answer is very unlikely.

Are too many students not acquiring reading at rates we would prefer in the U.S.? Absolutely.

Are identifiable subgroups particularly mis-served in reading in our public schools—students with dyslexia, poor students, students of color, English language learners (Emergent Bilinguals)? Absolutely and inexcusably so.

Have these students who have experienced educational inequity sat in classrooms and schools that have adopted and implement reading programs labeled “balanced literacy”? There is no question this has happened, and continues to happen.

The paradox about blaming balanced literacy is that as a guiding reading philosophy and theory, balanced literacy supports that every student should receive whatever reading instruction the student needs (systematic intensive phonics, reading authentic texts, read alouds, special needs intervention, etc.); therefore, if a student isn’t receiving what they need, then the fault doesn’t lie with balanced literacy—just as Kilpatrick’s project method was being misused in the 1930s.

This may seem like a trivial distinction, but I think it is important because the current “science of reading” movement is laser-focused on blaming balanced literacy and offering a silver-bullet solution, systematic intensive phonics for all students.

This bodes poorly for students because with a false diagnosis, you are likely endorsing a flawed cure.

It is compelling to identify one thing to blame and to embrace a structured single solution, but that is a historically failed strategy.

Over the last few decades, we have no evidence that reading has ever been taught in any sort of uniform way, even in the same school (although analyses from the 1990s showed a positive correlation between whole language classes and higher NAEP reading scores). The causes for low reading achievement are incredibly complex, linked to out-of-school factors as well as teaching and learning conditions in schools.

We should focus more directly on out-of-school factors, but if we insist on in-school only reform to increase reading achievement, we would do better to start with teaching and learning conditions (low student/teacher ratios for struggling students, better funding) and then to abandon lock-step implementation of any reading program (not ones labeled “balance literacy” or ones prescribing systematic intensive phonics for all students).

And the one real reform we refuse to acknowledge or address is making sure every child and young person in the U.S. has access to reading in their homes, communities, and schools. When people wield “science of reading” like a hammer, they fail to acknowledge the enormous research base showing access to texts as the strongest indicator of students acquiring literacy.

In fact, the more things change, the more they stay the same. We are about 80 years late on listening to LaBrant:

An easy way to evade the question of improved living and better schools for our underprivileged is to say the whole trouble is lack of drill. Lack of drill! Let’s be honest. Lack of good food; lack of well-lighted homes with books and papers; lack of attractive, well equipped schools, where reading is interesting and meaningful; lack of economic security permitting the use of free schools—lack of a good chance, the kind of chance these unlettered boys are now fighting to give to others. Surround children with books, give them healthful surroundings and an opportunity to read freely. They will be able to read military directions—and much more. (p. 241)

Recommended: Literacy Crises: False Claims and Real Solutions, Jeff McQuillan [Update 2 February 2023]


After posting this in 2019 while working on the first edition of How to End the Reading War and Serve the Literacy Needs of All Students: A Primer for Parents, Policy Makers, and People Who Care, I have published the second edition and continued to work on the “science of reading” movement.

Regretfully, McQuillan’s work is even more relevant in 2023 because the media and political response to the SOR movement has gained momentum despite the evidence that it is mostly misinformation and another round of the exact reading war McQuillan debunked in the 1990s.

I highly recommend accessing this (which I will cite/quote below in the update of the original post):

McQuillan, Jeff (1998) “Seven Myths about Literacy in the United States,” Practical Assessment, Research, and Evaluation: Vol. 6 , Article 1.
Available at: [1]

Recently, I have been (frantically but carefully) drafting a new book for IAP about the current “science of reading” version of the Reading War: How to End the Reading War and Serve the Literacy Needs of All Students: A Primer for Parents, Policy Makers, and People Who Care.

Those familiar with this blog and my scholarly work should be aware that I often ground my examinations of education in a historical context, drawing heavily on the subject of my dissertation, Lou LaBrant. The book I am writing begins in earnest, in fact, with “Chapter 1: A Historical Perspective of the Reading War: 1940s and 1990s Editions.”

As I have posted here, the “science of reading” over-reaction to reading and dyslexia across mainstream media as well as in state-level reading legislation has a number of disturbing parallels with the claims of a reading crisis in the 1980s and 1990s. Few people, I explained, are aware of the 1997 report authored by Linda Darling-Hammond on NAEP, reading achievement in the U.S., and the positive correlations with whole language (WL) practices and test scores.

I imagine even fewer  education journalists and political leaders have read a powerful and important work about that literacy crisis in the 1990s, Literacy Crises: False Claims and Real Solutions by Jeff McQuillan.

In his Chapter 1, “What Isn’t Wrong with Reading: Seven Myths about Literacy in the United States,” McQuillan admits, “Serious problems exist with reading achievement in many United States schools,” adding, “Yet in the midst of media coverage of our (latest) ‘literary crisis,’ we should be very clear about what is and is not failing in our schools” (p. 1).

This leads to his list of myths ([1] updated with material from McQuillan’s article noted above), which are again being recycled in the “science of reading” version of the Reading War:

Myth 1: Reading Achievement in the United States Has Declined in the Past Twenty-Five Years.

Myth 2: Forty Percent of United States Children Can’t Read at a Basic Level.

Myth 3: Twenty Percent of Our Children Are Dyslexic.

Myth 4: Children from the Baby Boomer Generation Read Better than Students Today.

Myth 5: Students in the United States Are Among the Worst Readers in the World.

Myth 6: The Number of Good Readers Has Been Declining, While the Number of Poor Readers Has been Increasing.

Myth 7: California’s Test Scores Declined Dramatically Due to Whole Language Instruction.


McQuillan carefully dismantles each of these, with evidence, but many today continue to make the same misguided and unsupported claims.

In 2019 (and 2023), McQuillan’s work remains important, and relevant, both for understanding how we should teach better our students to read and how the current version of the Reading War is wandering once again down very worn dead-end roads.

The Wrong “Scientific” for Education

The release of National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) 2019 scores in math and reading, announced as an “emergency” and “devastating,” has thrown gasoline on the rhetorical fire that has already been sweeping across media—a call for “scientific” research to save public education in the U.S.:

While the media and the public seem historically and currently convinced by the rhetoric of “scientific,” there is a significant irony to the lack of scientific evidence backing claims about the causes of NAEP scores; for example, some have rushed to argue that intensive phonics instruction and grade retention legislation have caused Mississippi’s NAEP reading gains while many have used 2019 NAEP scores to declare the entire accountability era a failure.

Yet, none of these claims have the necessary scientific evidence to make any of these arguments. There simply has not been the time or the efforts to construct scientific studies (experimental or quasi-experimental) to identify causal factors in NAEP score changes.

Another problem with the rhetoric of “scientific” is that coinciding with that advocacy is some very disturbing contradictory realities:

And let’s not forget that for at least two decades, “scientific” has been central to No Child Left Behind and the Common Core—both of which were championed as mechanisms for finally bringing education into a new era of evidence-based practices.

We must wonder: If “scientific” is the answer to our educational failures, what has happened over the past twenty years of “scientific” being legislated into education, resulting in everyone shouting that the sky is falling because 2019 NAEP scores are down from 2017 as well as relatively flat since the early 1990s (30 of the 40 years spanning accountability)?

First, there is the problem of definition. “Scientific” is short-hand for a very narrow type of quantitative research, experimental and quasi-experimental research that is the gold standard of pharmaceutical and medical research.

To meet the standard of “scientific,” then, research in education would have to include random-sample populations of students and a control group in order to draw causal relationships and make generalizations. This process is incredibly expensive in terms of funding and time.

As I noted above, no one has had the time to conduct “scientific” research on 2019 NAEP data so making causal claims of any kind for why NAEP scores dropped is necessarily not “scientific.”

But there is a second, and larger, problem with calling for “scientific” research in education. This narrow form of “scientific” is simply wrong for education.

Experimental and quasi-experimental research seeks to identify causal generalizations. In other words, if we divide all students into a bell-shaped curve with five segments, the meaty center segment would be where the generalization from a study has the greatest effectiveness. The adjacent two outer segments would show some decreasing degrees of effectiveness, leaving the two extreme segments at the far ends of the curve likely showing little or no effectiveness (these students, however, could have learned under instruction not shown as generally effective).

Yet, in a real classroom, teachers are not serving a random sampling of students, and there are no controls to assure that some factors are not causing different outcomes for students even when the instructional practice has been shown by scientific research to be effective.

No matter the science behind instruction, sick, hungry, or bullied students will not be able to learn.

The truth is, in education, scientific studies are nearly impossible to conduct, are often overly burdensome in terms of expense and time, and are ultimately not adequate for the needs of real teachers and students in real classrooms—where teaching and learning are messy, idiosyncratic, and impacted by dozens of factors beyond the control of teachers or students.

Frankly, nothing works for all students, and a generalization can be of no use to a particular student with an outlier need.

While we are over-reacting to 2019 NAEP reading scores, we have failed to recognize that there has never been a period in the U.S. when reading achievement was adequate; over that history teachers have implemented hundreds of different instructional strategies, reading programs, standards, and high-stakes tests—and we always find the outcomes unsatisfying.

If there is any causal relationship between how we teach and how students learn, it is a cumbersome matrix of factors that has been mostly unexamined, especially by “scientific” methods.

And often, history is a better avenue than science.

The twenty-first century has not been the only era calling for “scientific” in educational practice.

The John Dewey progressivism of the early twentieth century was also characterized by a call for scientific practice. Lou LaBrant, who taught from 1906 until 1971 and rose to president of the National Council of Teachers of English in the 1950s, was a lifelong practitioner of Deweyan progressivism.

LaBrant called repeated for closing the “gap” between research and practice, but she also balked at reading and writing programs—singular approaches to teaching all students literacy.

While progressive education and Dewey are often demonized and blamed for educational failure by mid-twentieth century, the truth is that progressivism has never been widely embraced in the U.S.

Today, however, we should be skeptical of the narrow and flawed call for “scientific” and embrace instead the progressive view of “scientific.”

For Dewey, the teacher must simultaneously teach and conduct research—what eventually would be called action research.

To teach, for progressives, is to constantly gather evidence of learning from students in order to drive instruction; in this context, science means that each student receives the instruction they demonstrate a need for and that produces some outcomes of effectiveness.

In an elementary reading class, some students may be working in read aloud groups while others are receiving direct phonics instruction, and even others are sitting in book clubs reading picture books by choice. None of them, however, would be doing test-prep worksheets or computer-based programs.

The current urge toward “scientific” seems to embrace the false assumption that with the right body of research we can identify the single approach for all students to succeed.

Human learning, however, is as varied as there are humans.

This brings us to the current “science of reading” narrative that calls for all students to receive intensive systematic phonics, purportedly because scientific research calls for such. The “science of reading” narrative also rejects and demonizes “balanced literacy” as not “scientific.”

We arrive then back at the problem of definition.

The “science of reading” advocacy is trapped in too narrow a definition of “scientific” that is fundamentally wrong for educating every student. Ironically, again, balanced literacy is a philosophy of literacy (not a program) that implements Deweyan progressive “scientific”; each student receives the reading instruction they need based on the evidence of learning the teacher gathers from previous instruction, evidence used to guide future instruction.

Intensive phonics for all begins with a fixed mandate regardless of student ability or need; balanced literacy starts with the evidence of the student.

If we are going to argue for “scientific” education in the U.S., we would be wise to change the definition, expand the evidence, and tailor our instruction to the needs of our students and not the propagandizing of a few zealots.

For two decades at least, the U.S. has been chasing the wrong “scientific” as a distraction from the real guiding principle, efficiency. Reducing math and reading to discrete skills and testing those skills as evidence for complex human behaviors are as misleading as arguing that “scientific” research will save education.

Teachers as daily, patient researchers charged with teaching each student as that student needs—that is the better “scientific” even as it is much messier and less predictable.