The Reading Wars Explained

If you need a quick introduction to the Reading Wars, take a few minutes to read Valerie Strauss’s The Answer Sheet post “Another blast in the reading wars.”

The post consists mostly of a letter written by Steven Dykstra, and signed by others, in response to critics of NCTQ’s review and rating of teacher preparation programs (see previous The Answer Sheet posts “Literacy experts say reformers reviving ‘reading wars’” and “How the ‘reading wars’ are being reignited“).

Here’s a taste:

The Reading Wars are an ongoing struggle between those who understand that children must be taught to use letters and sounds to decode and spell words, and those who think children should mostly or entirely eschew that method (generally known as phonics) in favor of guessing.  The first side is guided by science, the alphabetic nature of our written language, and a common sense recognition that understanding the meaning of text is predicated on accurately identifying words.  The second side believes that children should be taught to construct meaning from text based on their own meaning-based intuitions about what the words might be.  That is, rather than reading the words of a text to expand their knowledge and understanding (as well as their reading prowess), this second side encourages children to use their own existing knowledge and understanding to guess at words.

Supporters of Reading Recovery might take note of a quote from Marie Clay:

“All readers, from five year old beginners on their first books to the effective adult reader need to use: the meaning, the sentence structure, order cues, size cues, special features, special knowledge, first and last letter knowledge before they resort to left to right sounding out of chunks or letter clusters, or in the last resort, single letters.” (citations omitted)

If Marie Clay sounds right on the money to you, we’ll have to agree to disagree on this issue.  I’m opposed to causing children to become “reading failures” before we clue them in that written English is a code system that uses single letters and combinations of letters to represent the sounds used to create spoken words.


2 thoughts on “The Reading Wars Explained

  1. Steve Peterson

    I teach reading and I’ve never figured out all the hoopla about the “reading wars.” To me, it’s self-evident. Most (all??) languages are code-based systems, albeit English is a complex one whose “rules” are filled with exceptions. I absolutely have to help students learn how to notice the way words are put together, and understand that it is their job to notice as well. If they can’t crack the code, then their ability to understand is limited.

    However, the purpose of language is to create meaning, so any instruction that doesn’t take that into account won’t work out well, either. In my experience, readers need to feel that “juice” of pleasure while reading — they need to feel that fundamental joy of communication, of understanding another across the gulf of the page — in order to overcome the significant obstacles that stand in the way of reading well. Reading for meaning is an important reason students to learn to read.

    Finally, I’ve found that students need to read a lot and make a lot of “guesses” about words I haven’t taught them how to decode. (Thankfully, they don’t wait for me to teach them before they engage in these practices, in the same way children who learn to talk don’t wait until they can enunciate clearly.) Often, students need to engage more than their orthographic knowledge base to understand a word they cannot yet decode. They use known words and concepts from speech or being read to to, along with the context of the text, with an approximation of the orthographic clues to work through the unknown words on the page. Ironically, by engaging other pieces of evidence, things like those that Marie Clay identifies, they also build their orthographic knowledge, which strengthens their ability to make meaning. As Frank Smith once said, the text has become another teacher.

    I’ve found the two sides of the reading wars are not at war in my classroom.

  2. Heidi Kroner

    You need both, I agree, but for kids who can’t “crack the code” the second side, reading for pleasure, and writing for pleasure, will never happen. When dealing with the kids who can’t crack the code, the people on the guessing side of the war are dead wrong. I am working with parents across Iowa who daily call me when their child is in 3rd grade, and is still reading at a K level, and their children are being ignored by teachers in the classroom because they don’t qualify for Sp. Ed, and all the reading help they’ve been given to date hasn’t worked. These students need a reading system that is intense and helps them crack the code. 80% of the kids can crack it, and the other 20% are swept under the rug. The AEA doesn’t have a place for these kids and it is costing us big time. OG tutoring is becoming a hidden, but cottage industry in Des Moines, and its about time the reading wars people wake up and smell the coffee.

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