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A Brief History of The Reading Wars

Disagreements on how to best teach reading are currently taking place all over the country. But why? Where did this debate start? And what does the science say? I briefly answer these questions.


Defining Reading

Before we can discuss the reading wars, we must first understand what is actually being debated: reading itself. Reading is an essential skill for learning and communicating in the 21st century. It is necessary for deciphering a medicine label, understanding a workplace email, and comparing prices on grocery items. Literate individuals meaningfully participate in complex activities such as voting in elections, analyzing online reviews of products, and managing checkbooks and financial investments (World Literacy Foundation, 2015). Education has been cited as the best means to overcome poverty; as such, it is essential that all children have access to comprehensive primary education of good quality (Brown, 2011). What defines good quality reading instruction, particularly good quality decoding instruction, is causing educators to choose sides.

Gough & Tumner (1986) defined reading (R) as “the product of decoding and [linguistic] comprehension” (p. 7). Decoding (D) is the process by which one uses letter-sound knowledge to cipher unknown words, such as phim; linguistic comprehension (LC) is the process by which lexical information, sentences, and discourses are interpreted. Neither decoding nor linguistic comprehension alone are sufficient to be considered “reading”. Gough & Tumner use the equation R= D x LC to illustrate that without skill in one area the product of reading is still 0. Although decoding and linguistic comprehension skills are highly correlated with reading, their development or acquisition is independent (Cornoldi, et. a.l, 1993; Gough & Tumner, 1986).


Two Approaches to Decoding Instruction

There are two approaches to teaching decoding. The phonics approach emphasizes letter-sound connections and is known to date back to at least the 16th century. It was given special attention in 1967 with the publication of Learning to Read: The Great Debate by Jeanne Chall (Castles et. al., 2018; Chall, 1967). Chall was among the first to study and write about the complex and widely debated ideas on how children learn to decode (Harvard, 2020). Her book argued that children learn best when stressing the “code”, i.e. letter sound connections. Children are taught that letters represent sounds and that sounds combine together to make words. For example, a student would learn that d says “/d/”, o says “/ɔ/”, an g says “/g/”, so “/d/” + “/ɔ/” + “/g/” = “dog”. (Chall, 1967).

Chall’s publication sparked outrage among some educators who found phonics to be rote, dull, unimaginative, and unengaging (Kim, 2008). In response, Kenneth Goodman published “Reading: A Psycholinguistic Guessing Game” that same year (Goodman, 1967). Goodman supported the whole-language approach to decoding, so named because a child is taught to attend to words as a whole unit, rather than looking at each letter and sound within the word. Goodman proposed that in order to read a child must see parts of a word, search their memory for related semantic or syntactic knowledge, and then make a guess on what the word is (Goodman, 1967). This model became known as “three cueing”, and proponents subsequently taught children to decode following three steps:

  1. Look at the first letter or beginning of the word;

  2. Consider what type of word it could be (part of speech);

  3. Consider what word would make sense in the sentence/context (Hanford, 2019).

For example, when reading the sentence “The dog jumped over the f____”, a student would recognize the letter F, understand a noun would be placed here, and then think of all the nouns that start with F that a dog might logically jump over. This is the process of psycholinguistic guessing by which a child would determine that the word is “fence.”


Reading Science

The debate over how to teach decoding that began with Chall and Goodman in 1967 ignited scientific interest in decoding instruction. Since then a large amount of studies have been conducted to understand how the brain acquires reading and how best to teach a child how to decode. Over 100 of these studies were subject to meta-analysis in 2000’s National Reading Panel Report, a highly regarded consensus document sponsored by the United States Government and based on the best judgments of a diverse group of experts in reading research and reading instruction (NRP, 2000). The NRP found that “teaching children to manipulate sounds in language helps them learn to read' (p. 2-5) and that “phonics instruction provided substantial reading growth” for students of all SES levels (p. 2-95). NRP authors ultimately found “solid support for the conclusion that systematic phonics instruction makes a bigger contribution to children’s growth in reading than alternative programs providing unsystematic or no phonics instruction.”

At the same time. Goodman’s 1967 “Psycholinguistic Guessing Game” paper has received criticism since its publication. Critics point out it ignored individual differences in subjects’ reading ability and did not preclude practice effects during testing (Hempenstall, 2003). Despite multiple attempts, researchers have not been able to replicate Goodman’s findings (Nicholson, 1985, 1991; Nicholson, Lillas and Rzoska, 1988; Nicholson, Bailey and McArthur, 1991). There now exists vast body of literature disproving three-cueing’s reliability as a reading strategy (Pesetsky, & Seidenberg, 2001, 2002; Rayner & Pollatsek, 1989; Stanovich, 1986).


The Reading Wars

With so much evidence in support of phonics and against three-cueing, it is surprising that a debate on how to teach decoding is still ongoing. This is likely due to a variety of factors, including political influences and limitations in how information is shared (Castles et. al., 2018). As a result, reading science is not in the hands of the educators who are entrusted to teach our children to read, enabling three-cueing to remain in vogue. Presently no hard data exists on how many schools teach decoding following three-cueing, but in the spring of 2022 it was estimated that nearly 25% of our nation’s 67,000 elementary schools were using a popular three-cueing curriculum called The Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project (Goldstein, 2022). Organizations such as The Reading League have taken it upon themselves to educate educators by liaising between researchers and practitioners in what has been called “The Science of Reading Movement''. Though noble, it may still be years before groups are able to shift the pendulum in favor of a phonics approach to decoding. In the interim, our students are suffering.


If you are an educator interested in learning science-based approaches to teaching reading, I recommend getting trained in Orton-Gillingham. Though mostly used as an intervention, the O-G principles can be applied to whole class instruction.


If you are a parent concerned about your child's literacy development, email me today to schedule a consultation: elizabeth@manhattanspeechlanguage.com

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Welcome to the Manhattan Speech, Language, and Literacy blog. Here I will share my ideas on dyslexia, reading comprehension, language development, education, policy, and more. Many of these posts wil