Evidence v. Advocacy in Teaching Reading: “We Should Not Mistake Zeal for Warrant”

There is a certain karmic irony to the rise of public intellectuals who start to drive outside their lane—actually who take over all the lanes—only to prove that, in fact, they do not know everything.

Current bloviator-know-nothings include Jordan Peterson and Steven Pinker, the latter who has squandered intellectual capital he had built in psycholinguistics.

Both are experts in the field of psychology, a discipline apt to include far too many scholars with delusions of grandeur (only surpassed in arrogance by scholars in economics and about on par with scholars in political science for knowing everything).

Those of us who are scholars, practitioners, or both in the field of education have suffered a long history of being marginalized as both not really an academic discipline (education as “teacher training”) and merely classroom teachers.

As someone with experience and expertise as a practitioner (high school English teacher for 18 years) and researcher in education, I often find I hold no sway in issues related to education in my public work or with my scholarly impact. Imagine if I held forth in book form on psychology, economic, or politics? Think the New York Times would scramble to hang on my every word as they did for a psychologist claiming to be an expert in teaching reading?

(These are rhetorical questions.)

There exists another layer to education that often remains unexamined: K-12 public education is almost exclusively run along partisan political lines through bureaucracy and legislation that is not created by practitioners or educational researchers.

Practitioners who teach literacy/reading and literacy/reading scholars are currently under assault again by a new round of the reading wars. As has been common in these periodic skirmishes, there really is no war because the so-called factions do not have anywhere near equal power.

As a self-proclaimed reading expert, Daniel Willingham, psychology professor, represents what is essentially wrong with the entire framing of debates about teaching reading as a war.

Stated perfectly by Andrew Davis in his careful debunking of intensive/synthetic phonics advocacy, “The zeal with which synthetic phonics is championed by its advocates has been remarkably effective in pushing it to the top of the educational agenda; but we should not mistake zeal for warrant.”

During the current media blitz once again hand-wringing that children are not being taught to read because teachers are not prepared properly in teacher education and students are not receiving intensive phonics instruction, Willingham held forth on his blog to answer: Just how polarized are we about reading instruction?

His post doesn’t answer the question very well, but in another moment of karmic irony, Willingham reveals why “we should not mistake zeal for warrant.”

Affecting a tone of being fair and balanced, Willingham offers 6 positions on reading:

  1. The vast majority of children first learn to read by decoding sound. The extent to which children can learn to read in the absence of systematic phonics instruction varies (probably as a bell curve), depending on their phonemic awareness and other oral language skills when they enter school; the former helps a child to figure out decoding on her own, and the latter to compensate for difficulty in decoding.
  2. Some children—an extremely small percentage, but greater than zero—teach themselves to decode with very minimal input from adults. Many more need just a little support.
  3. The speed with which most children learn to decode will be slower if they receive haphazard instruction in phonics than it would be with systematic instruction. A substantial percentage will make very little progress without systematic phonics instruction.
  4. Phonics instruction is not a literacy program. The lifeblood of a literacy program is real language, as experienced in read-alouds, children’s literature, and opportunities to speak, listen, and to write. Children also need to see teachers and parents take joy in literacy.
  5. Although systematic phonics instruction seems like it might bore children, researchers examining the effect of phonics instruction on reading motivation report no effect.
  6. That said, there’s certainly the potential for reading instruction to tilt too far in the direction of phonics instruction, a concern Jean Chall warned about in her 1967 report. Classrooms should devote much more time to the activities listed in #4 above than to phonics instruction.

He then claims the reading wars problem is that factions take either the side of the even or the odd numbered claims—although he argues “I think all of the six statements above are true.”

The problem is a sneaky one because most of Willingham’s audience, like Willingham, has no literacy expertise or practical experience teaching children to read. For a lay audience, it is unfair to expect anyone to notice that Willingham has misrepresented the so-called factions in the reading war.

One of the leading literacy experts in the U.S. is Stephen Krashen; in his relentless analysis of research on teaching reading, he notes that the pro-phonics research often is deeply flawed because it presents either garbled or false definitions of whole language (or balanced literacy) in order to make claims of intensive phonics being more effective.

Willingham’s claims about reading instruction and the failures of teaching, teachers, and teacher education can only stand on completely misrepresenting the field of literacy and the so-called debate itself.

Let me frame a different approach to understanding the problem pro-phonics advocates fumble.

Here is the real dynamic concerning the teaching of reading in U.S. K-12 education: Teaching reading practices are guided primarily by legislation (with no assurance that legislation is grounded in anything more than zeal at the expense of warrant) and then driven by the combination of textbook companies appealing to that legislation and accountability structures (most significantly the mandate to raise reading test scores without investigating if those scores are credible proxies for reading growth or—god forbid—reading eagerness).

That is almost the entire real-world power structure governing how students are taught to read.

Well outside this dynamic stand teacher education and literacy/reading researchers, practitioners, and advocates—all of whom have almost no power, yet are the scapegoats when psychology-professors-turned-reading-experts hold forth in book form or in the NYT.

I should note, as well, that an even smaller and less powerful group often not acknowledged is literacy experts with a historical perspective, a group that I strongly identify with.

The teaching of reading and the public debate about reading have always been characterized by overblown histrionics and a nearly complete failure to implement what we know about learning to read in K-12 public schools because of partisan political bureaucracy, textbook companies, the massive and growing testing industry, and the misguided influence of non-educators posing as reading and literacy experts.

I realize there is nothing sexy about this—there is no war, or crisis—and this message once again will fall on deaf ears because I do not currently hold a position in a psychology department or an elected position where I could pander to an uninformed electorate.


Recommended

To read or not to read: decoding Synthetic Phonics, Andrew Davis

What is wrong with NPR’s “why millions of children can’t read” (NPR Morning Report, Jan 2 and Feb 6, 2019), Stephen Krashen

Defending Whole Language: The Limits of Phonics Instruction and the Efficacy of Whole Language Instruction, Stephen Krashen

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