“A case for why both sides in the ‘reading wars’ debate are wrong — and a proposed solution” Is 50% Wrong

In her The Answer Sheet, Valerie Strauss offers yet another post about the current Reading War/Crisis: A case for why both sides in the ‘reading wars’ debate are wrong — and a proposed solution.

Strauss explains before offering the long post:

This is an unusual post about the “reading wars,” that seemingly never-ending battle about how to best teach reading to students — systematic phonics or whole language. This argues that both sides have it wrong, and the authors, two brothers who are literacy experts, suggest a new way.

While this is a provocative, often nuanced, and compelling, it makes a fatal flaw common in the seemingly never-ending false war between phonics and whole language by misdefining whole language and then failing to take care when citing research that seems to show neither systematic phonics nor whole language are more effective than the other.

First, let me offer an example of this type of failure in a slightly different context, the powerful and complicated work of Lisa Delpit.

Delpit has made for many years a strong case about the inequity of educational opportunities that cheat black students (as well as many other vulnerable populations). At times, Delpit’s work has been co-opted by traditional advocates for education—notably those calling for intensive phonics and isolated grammar instruction.

Here, Delpit make a very direct refuting of that sort of co-opting:

I do not advocate a simplistic ‘basic skills’ approach for children outside of the culture of power. It would be (and has been) tragic to operate as if these children were incapable of critical and higher-order thinking and reasoning. Rather, I suggest that schools must provide these children the content that other families from a different cultural orientation provide at home. This does not mean separating children according to family background, but instead, ensuring that each classroom incorporate strategies appropriate for all the children in its confines.

However, the sources of why Delpit came to confront how formal education often cheats black students is an important window into why many continue to misrepresent the Reading War/Crisis by defining incorrectly whole language (or balanced literacy).

As Delpit explains:

A doctoral student of my acquaintance was assigned to a writing class to hone his writing skills. The student was placed in the section led by a white professor who utilized a process approach, consisting primarily of having the students write essays and then assemble into groups to edit each other’s papers. That procedure infuriated this particular student. He had many angry encounters with the teacher about what she was doing. …

When I told this gentleman that what the teacher was doing was called a process method of teaching writing, his response was, ‘Well, at least now I know that she thought she was doing something. I thought she was just a fool who couldn’t teach and didn’t want to try.’ This sense of being cheated can be so strong that the student may be completely turned off to the educational system.

Yes, this teacher and experience had clearly failed that doctoral student, but if we are careful to note the details of that failure, what we discover is that the teacher had also failed process (or workshop) writing instruction.

Process or workshop writing instruction is far more that peer conferencing; it entails drafting and student choice of topics and text form, conferences with peers and the instructor, explicit instruction of all aspects of composing (including grammar, mechanics, and usage) based on the needs of the students revealed in their original essay drafts (typically called mini-lessons), careful and varied reading-like-a-writer experiences with rich texts, and producing final authentic artifacts or writing.

To be brief here, Delpit is correct that “other people’s children” are disproportionately cheated by reduced curriculum and inadequate instruction, but it is misleading to lay that blame at the feet of process/workshop methods since the student example shows this is not what was implemented.

Now, let’s circle back to the “both sides are wrong” claim by Jeffrey S. Bowers and Peter N. Bowers.

Bowers and Bowers discredit systematic phonics fairly carefully and fairly,  I think. But when they turn to the research on whole language, they make no effort to verify if the research cited in fact confirmed that whole language was being implemented with any level of fidelity.

As I have noted often in the 1980s/1990s, the media announced a Reading Crisis in California blamed on whole language. Literacy scholar Stephen Krashen, and others, debunked that claim [1], noting although whole language was the official reading approach of the state, teachers almost never implemented whole language.

As well, Bowers and Bowers make an odd choice about defining what whole language is by citing and defining as follows:

According to foundational theory for whole language, learning to read is just like learning to speak (Goodman, 1967). Given that virtually everyone from every culture learns to speak without any formal instruction in a context of being exposed to meaningful speech, it is concluded that children should learn to read in the same way, naturally, by reading meaningful text. The fact that not all verbal children learn to read with whole language should be a first clue that something is wrong with this theory.

This dramatically over-simplifies Goodman’s work, but also ignores decades of refinement of what whole language became, and then how many have embraced balanced literacy.

When we are referring to whole language, however, the fundamental problem with discounting whole language often rests with not understanding what it is: “Whole language is not a program, package, set of materials, method, practice, or technique; rather, it is a perspective on language and learning that leads to the acceptance of certain strategies, methods, materials, and techniques.—Dorothy Watson, 1989.”

And a failure to acknowledge that “… [w]hole language…builds on the view that readers and writers integrate all available information in authentic literacy events as they make sense of print. Whole language teachers don’t reject phonics; they put it in its proper place [emphasis added]” (K. Goodman, Phonics Phacts, p. 108).

Let me put this directly: Whole language does reject the need for systematic phonics for all children, but the language philosophy endorses entirely that some phonics is needed, that each child should receive the amount and type of phonics instruction needed to read independently—not to comply with a reading program, to cover a set of universal standards, or to raise test scores.

The argument posed by Bowers and Bowers is correct only if we misdefine whole language and fail to critically examine research that claims to be measuring whole language effectiveness or if whole language was even implemented with any sort of fidelity.

As it sits now, the Bowers and Bowers’s argument is 50% wrong.


[1] Note that the reading test score decreases (the reason for the claim of a reading crisis) were caused mostly by a large influx of non-native English speaking students and drastic budget cuts for education. The ways in which students were being taught to read are correlations at best with those scores.

For Further Reading

Defending Whole Language: The Limits of Phonics Instruction and the Efficacy of Whole Language Instruction, Stephen Krashen, Reading Improvement 39 (1): 32-42, 2002.

Facts: On the nature of whole language education (Heinemann)

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

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