Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.
Let’s start broadly with literacy by acknowledging that speaking and listening are essentially natural while writing and reading are artificial (and thus benefit greatly from direct, formal instruction).
Now let’s consider some aspects of literacy and the assumptions many (including educators) hold about writing and reading.
One of the traditional/essential elements of reading is vocabulary. As I have noted, educators, the media, and the public tend to mis-associate the quantity of words a child knows or uses with the literacy of the child.
In part, that process is efficient, albeit misguided.
Therefore, remaining within that paradigm, a typical high school graduate knows/uses about 60,000 words. If direct vocabulary instruction (a traditional instructional strategy) successfully teaches students about 10 words a week for the entire 12 years of formal schooling (an unlikely feat), teaching vocabulary to increase reading has contributed only about 4000 words.
As an effective strategy, then, direct vocabulary instruction fails against the mostly non-instructional ways in which children acquire about 90% of their words.
This also highlights a significant problem with confusing cause and effect: Increasing vocabulary does not cause good readers, but being an avid reader results in an extensive vocabulary.
Something I learned as a high school English teacher: Dump the inordinate amount of time spent assigning vocabulary, covering vocabulary homework, and testing vocabulary while replacing that time with free and frequent reading.
In the professional and public debates about teaching literacy, along with this cause/effect issue related to confusing discrete literacy skills for the holistic acts of literacy (vocabulary = literacy, grammar = writing, phonics = reading) is the issue of direct and formal instruction.
Linguists often examine children acquiring language , often before formal schooling, and have noted that virtually all English speaking children utter “goed” at some point, although no adults use that construction (language acquisition appears not to be mimicry) and that children (and adults) tend to construct “might not have been seen” in this grammatically correct order of wording, having never been taught the rule (which is nearly incomprehensible) and never being able to explain the rule.
Before I move on to the reading wars, I want to emphasize that I am not endorsing a “natural” theory of language or of teaching language in which children are left alone by adults and expected simply to acquire writing and reading abilities—the sort of (false) charge typically leveled at whole language scholars and practitioners.
But I do want to emphasize that the narrow reading war and the larger, varied literacy wars (including teaching grammar as part of writing, for example) have some fundamental areas of tension that must be confronted before the substantive debate(s) itself/themselves can be understood. Those tensions are between:
- Incrementalists who hold fast to building discrete literacy skills in sequential and formulaic order versus those honoring the holistic nature of literacy.
- Technocrats and quantitative researchers versus qualitative researchers and practitioners.
- Missionary zeal (all students must have phonics!) versus inspiration (modeling a love for reading).
In that context, the reading war itself, I believe, results in collateral damage that is the real problem: children who are non-readers (some left without the ability to read, but even more left without the desire to read).
My life as a student included Dick and Jane readers; direct phonics instruction; year after year of vocabulary books, homework, and tests; and years of diagramming sentences. To this day I am a terrible speller (thanks phonics), and a highly literate adult who came to that despite my formal and highly structured and traditional literacy instruction (isolated and discrete phonics, isolated and intensive grammar).
My life of literacy was spurred by late adolescent comic book collecting, which led to science fiction novel reading.
That life story proves nothing, but it has made me skeptical of ways in which formal schooling will steamroll over students in order to implement this or that program.
That life story is why I am deeply skeptical of the phonics and grammar crowds, filled with missionary zeal and all too often bound to programs and structure at the expense of their students.
No credible person in literacy is against phonics or grammar instruction, by the way. That is a heinous straw man.
And all literacy ideologies or strategies are immediately ruined once they are codified (see California or New York) or reduced to a publisher’s program (see 4-block, reading/writing workshop programs, or literature circles).
“[L]anguage behavior can not be reduced to formula,” Lou LaBrant (1947) argued (p. 20)—emphasizing that literacy growth was complicated but flourished when it was child-centered and practical (for example, in the ways many privileged children experience in their homes because one or more of the parents are afforded the conditions within which to foster their children’s literacy).
By mid-twentieth century, LaBrant (1949) had identified the central failure of teaching reading: “Our language programs have been set up as costume parties and not anything more basic than that” (p. 16).
Writing and reading acquisition is always messy and unpredictable at the individual person level. Always.
That is why whole language and balanced literacy, for example, are philosophical constructs that create a space for the professional decision making of the teacher in the context of her class, a teaching and learning context that is always in flux.
All instructional strategies are on the table as long as the ultimate goals of literacy are being addressed for each student. And this is much more demanding of teachers as literacy professionals than scripted programs of any ideology.
Similarly, teaching and testing phonics and grammar, for example, ask less of students as well—including that acquiring discrete phonics and grammar knowledge (knowing the rules) is essentially merely academic, unlike being able and willing to read and write.
As early as the 1940s, hundreds of studies had revealed that isolated and direct grammar instruction failed to transfer to students’ original writing—a research base oddly ignored by the technocratic crowd.
However, the missionary zeal for Version X of phonics instruction is often built on a circular claim about “research”—failing to note that discrete phonemic instruction lends itself to multiple choice testing and measurement in a way that means a narrow view of research will always show phonics to be “better” than messier (and more authentic) literacy strategies that are not easily quantified or isolated at any point in time.
Our goals as literacy teachers include fostering children who are both capable and willing writers and readers.
Being an evangelist for phonics likely will not accomplish either of those—just as being an evangelist for whole language will not either.
Vocabulary books, homework, and tests are all very manageable, and continuing them all will likely cause not a ripple in your life as a teacher. But that process has mistaken “vocabulary” for literacy, and thus, does not achieve the larger goals of literacy while often insuring students will come to hate ELA class, reading, and writing.
The reading wars as a subset of the larger literacy wars are petty, I think, but that isn’t the real problem—the real problem being the collateral damage: children who are non-readers (some left without the ability to read, but even more left without the desire to read).
 Acknowledging the controversies around linguistic theories, I highly recommend Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct and Words and Rules—not to endorse Pinker/Chomsky linguistics, but as rich avenues to understanding better language and the debates about language acquisition.
LaBrant, L. (1949). A genetic approach to language. Unpublished manuscript, Institute of General Semantics, Lakeville, CT.
LaBrant, L. (1947). Um-brel-la has syllables three. The Packet, 2(1), 20-25.