The Great Debate: The Science of Reading and Where I Stand

(And what you can do to support your child in their journey of learning to read)

I’ve held off on writing on this topic for a WHILE, because once you get into it, the opinions and criticisms and arguments come fast and furiously, even if it’s unwarranted or unwanted. I’m a pretty rational person, even when it comes to controversial topics, which means if someone’s perspectives, beliefs, values, or philosophies are different from my own…rather than trying to argue and prove my point, I try to listen, learn, empathize, and understand. And when I listen, learn, empathize, and understand, sometimes my opinion stays the same, sometimes my opinion changes, and sometimes my opinion just adapts or evolves. None of these outcomes are bad scenarios, in fact, I’d argue, we learn a heck of a lot more when we fill our circle with those who are DIFFERENT from us than those who are the same.

If you’re in elementary education, then you’ve probably heard of the science of reading by now, and you most definitely have heard of ‘the reading wars’. And if you’re a parent of a child in elementary school, then you may have heard this too. If you’re a parent of a child who is struggling to learn to read, then you most definitely may have heard of this either in your own research or in your meetings with your child’s teachers and school personnel. So let me explain…

The Reading Wars: Defined

There are two ‘camps’ of reading experts out there right now, both backed by lots of studies and lots of research. Both camps also continuously attempt to discredit or disprove the other camp in an effort to promote their own as THE answer to teaching all children to read. So let’s meet the players:

On one side of the reading wars, we have those who support the whole language approach to learning to read. The whole language approach operates under the assumption that we learn to read and write best by engaging in language. In other words, we learn whole words by encountering them in context rather than understanding them in isolation.

On the other side of the reading wars, we have those who support the systematic phonics approach to learning to read. This camp operates under the assumption that direct, explicit, and systematic instruction in letter-to-sound correspondences is the best way to teach children to read. In other words, we learn to read by sounding words out, free from any supplemental information like context or pictures.

As with many debates, there’s also usually a player in the middle, and in this case, there is. Right smack in the middle lies the balanced literacy approach to learning to read. Balanced literacy pulls philosophies both from whole language and systematic phonics. In other words, those who support balanced literacy would agree that YES, it is important to teach kids letter-to-sound correspondences so they can ‘sound out’ words, but YES it is ALSO important to teach kids how context can help one learn to read as well.

Here’s a visual to illustrate these approaches, taken from a McGraw Hill publication, and chosen simply for the sake of simplicity:

My Beliefs, My Perspective, My Philosophy (Criticism Welcome!)

Ok, so, now that you have a basic understanding of the reading wars…which is now in its third decade or so…I’m going to share where my beliefs fall. First, you should know that my undergraduate and post-graduate education, work, and research would probably fall within the balanced literacy approach. Makes sense, because I’m typically a middle-of-the-road person…lines up best with the rational side of me – I’m able to see the strengths of both sides of an argument and come up with a compromise somewhere in the middle. And in most of my career so far, I’ve seen the biggest positive effects on kids with the balanced literacy approach.

BUT, in my work as a literacy specialist, I’ve had a relative re-awakening in the past few years. Maybe I’m late to this party, and there are probably loads of experts out there who have already realized this, and are a lot smarter and more impactful than me. My re-awakening, you ask? All players in the reading wars are right, and all players in the reading wars are wrong.

Let me be clear…

I DO think kids need direct, systematic, and explicit instruction in phonics.

I DO think kids need regular and easy access to trade books.

I DO think kids need to be taught to sound words out AND to use context to help.

I DO think kids need to self-monitor their reading and learn how they, themselves, can determine if they got a word wrong while reading.

I DO think kids need to know what to do to fix a word they realize they got wrong (called self-correcting), and I DO think there are various strategies to do this including BUT NOT LIMITED TO sounding out, looking at the picture, thinking about what sounds right, etc.

In fact, I think learning to read is so specific and individualized to the child who’s in front of you, that you can’t slap on a philosophy that is one size fits all and expect it to reach every single child. Where I disagree with the visual I included above is the part of the visual that says, “best for…”, because I think that statement compartmentalizes kids into labels that attempt to describe how they learn holistically, when learning in general and learning to read is much, MUCH more complicated than that.

In short, the best approach (IN MY OPINION) to teaching a child to read and write is to treat that individual as their own person with strengths and weaknesses, and how their strengths and weaknesses play off of one another (or don’t play off of one another). There are and will be students who need the phonics-based approach, and there are and will be kids who can learn to read and write with the whole language approach. And there are and will be kids who learn to read and write with the balanced literacy approach. But I feel strongly that teaching kids to read and write is more a concoction of different approaches based off of what that student is showing you they already do/know. The way I teach student A to read and write is 1000% different from the way I teach student B to read and write. In fact, I think I’d be hard pressed to find any two students in my career that I have taught to read and write in the exact same way.

So, as a parent, what can you do to support your child?

  1. Read often. Read with them, read to them, and create a general positive atmosphere and mood around reading. Talk to them about what they read. Have conversations about books. Instill a love of reading as best you can, and don’t force it.
  2. Notice how they read. Do they read accurately? Fluently? With expression and intonation? If not, try modeling for them. Show them (without telling them explicitly) how you read when you read accurately/fluently/with expression and intonation.
  3. Encourage and coach them. Don’t tell them a word when they are stuck, but don’t necessarily let it go either. Ask them to try a strategy (you don’t even have to know the strategies!) that might help, and if they aren’t sure what you mean by ‘strategy’, prompt them to think about what their teacher has been teaching them. Sometimes, even just telling them, “Go back and try that again,” is enough to solve the problem. And don’t get mad at them. If your child is frustrated, or you are frustrated, it’s time to put the book away, or change to a different book altogether.
  4. Be the parent, not the teacher. (Harsh, I know, I’m sorry!….and even I struggle with this one, for the record.) It’s easy to hop on Google and start researching and looking for ways you can help – we all want the best for our children and will do whatever we can to help them succeed. I’ve seen many instances of this where a parent has the best intentions, but they end up counteracting what we are trying to teach in school, and the child just ends up very confused. It’s even easier to begin ‘teaching’ your child to read the way you were taught to read (“Just sound it out!” or “Here’s some flashcards, memorize these words!”), but (1) your child isn’t you and (2) best practices in education and instruction have changed light years since we were in school.
  5. Avoid comparisons. Avoid comparisons to siblings, friends, or peers. It’s not that comparing is bad, it’s just that it can get you down a rabbit hole, and most of the time that rabbit hole is negative space. If you find yourself subconsciously comparing often, remind yourself that all children are different, all children learn at different paces, and all children learn in different ways.
  6. Question and advocate. If your child is struggling or begins to struggle, it is ok to question your child’s teacher(s) or advocate when you think you’re not being heard or your child’s needs aren’t being met. Ask what methods your teacher/school is using, ask if there are opportunities to try other methods or strategies out. Ask if your child has received targeted small-group or individual instruction to address his or her challenges and weaknesses. Advocate for assessments to determine your child’s strengths and weaknesses if the teachers haven’t already (hint: all good teachers should be able to tell you your child’s strengths and weaknesses, and have data to prove it). And don’t become complacent – trust your gut, and get second opinions from professionals (not other parents!) if something doesn’t seem right, or you aren’t seeing progress.

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