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The Reading Wars: Why Natural Learning Fails in Classrooms

The best practices for teaching reading in school do not mimic natural learning.

Progressive educators have always believed that methods of classroom instruction should be based on children’s natural ways of learning; that is, on the ways that children learn in life outside of classrooms. This has led to a variety of meaning-centered ways of teaching, which run counter to what we might call the process-centered ways of so-called traditional instruction.

For example, in teaching arithmetic, the progressive educator might set up conditions aimed at helping children discover, or at least understand, the purpose and meaning of multiplication. In contrast, the traditionalist might drill children on the multiplication tables and later teach a step-by-step algorithm for multiplying two-digit numbers, with little or no attention to the question of why anyone would be interested in multiplication or why the algorithm works.

In teaching reading, the progressive educator might focus on ways to help beginners recognize and thereby read whole words from the outset and allow them to figure out or guess at other words from the context (such as from pictures and the meaning of adjacent words), so they are reading for meaning right from the beginning. In contrast, the traditionalist might start with lessons on letter recognition and the relation of letters to sounds (phonics) before moving on to whole words and sentences. The process of reading requires the decoding of letters into sounds, and the traditionalist teaches this process explicitly before becoming concerned with meaning.

This post is about the teaching and learning of reading. I’m going to argue that the ways that children learn to read naturally, in life outside of the classroom, fail when they are imported into the classroom. Let’s start with children who teach themselves to read outside of school.

Precocious reader

Roughly 5% of children enter first grade already knowing how to read reasonably well, and perhaps as many as 1%, referred to as precocious readers, read fluently by the age four.[1] I have witnessed this phenomenon twice, as my youngest brother and my son were both precocious readers. I have no idea how they learned, but I can assure you that nobody systematically taught them. They were read to a lot, they were surrounded by reading materials and by people who read, and they somehow just picked it up.

Researchers have conducted systematic case studies of precocious readers, through interviews of parents, and have compared them with other children to see if they are unique in any way other than their early reading. The results of such studies, overall, support the following conclusions:[1,2]

  • Precocious reading does not depend on an unusually high IQ or any particular personality trait. Although some precocious readers have IQ scores in the gifted range, many others score about average. Personality tests likewise reveal no consistent differences between precocious readers and other children.
  • Precocious reading is not strongly linked to social class. Some studies have found it to be as frequent in blue-collar as in white-collar families. However, it does seem to depend on growing up in a family where reading is a common and valued activity.
  • Parents of precocious readers report that they or an older sibling often read to the child, but did not in any systematic way attempt to teach reading. In the typical case, the parents at some point discovered, to their surprise, that their child was reading, at least in a preliminary way, and then they fostered that reading by providing appropriate reading materials, answering the child’s questions about words, and in some cases pointing out the relationship between letters and sounds to help with unfamiliar words. In essentially no cases, however, did they provide anything like the systematic training in either phonics or word recognition that might occur in school.

In sum, precocious readers appear to be children who grow up in a literate home and, for some unknown reason (unlike even their siblings in the same home), develop an intense early interest in reading.

Interest, not unusual brain development, is what distinguishes them from others. Because they are interested and strongly motivated, they use whatever cues are available to figure out the meanings of printed words and sentences, and, along the way, with or without help, consciously or unconsciously, they eventually infer the underlying phonetic code and use it to read new words. For them, reading for meaning comes first, before phonics.

In the words of one set of researchers, “[The precocious readers] were not taught the prerequisite skills of reading such as phoneme-grapheme correspondence or letter-naming skills but, instead, learned to read familiar, meaningful sight vocabulary; the rules of reading were not explicitly taught but apparently inferred over time.”[1]

The fact that precocious readers learn to read relatively quickly, before they are four years old, with no evidence of stress and much evidence of pleasure, suggests that learning to read in this way is not very difficult when a person really wants to do it. Learning to read, for them, quite literally, is child's play.

How unschoolers and children in democratic or free schools learn to read

In a previous report (here), I presented a qualitative analysis of case histories of learning to read by children in unschooling families (who don’t send their children to school or teach a curriculum at home) and by children at the Sudbury Valley School (where students are in charge of their own education and there is no imposed curriculum or instruction).

I won’t repeat that work in detail here, but, in brief, some of the main conclusions were these:

  1. Children in these settings learn to read at a wide variety of ages
  2. At whatever age they learn, they learn quite quickly when they are truly motivated to do so
  3. Attempts by parents to teach reading to unmotivated children generally fail and often seem to delay the child's interest in reading
  4. Being read to and engaging in meaningful ways with literary material with skilled readers (older children or adults) facilitates learning

In sum, these children seem to learn to read in essentially the same ways that precocious readers learn but at a wide variety of ages. They learn when and because they are interested in reading, and they use whatever information is available to help them, including information provided by people who already know how to read. They are not systematically taught, and the people who help them generally have no training or expertise in the teaching of reading.

The reading wars, and the failure of progressive methods of reading instruction in schools

We turn now from self-motivated children learning to read out of school to children who are taught in school, where the assumption is that they must learn to read at a certain age and in a certain way, whether they want to or not.

In school, learning to read appears to be unnatural and difficult. It occurs at a snail’s pace, incrementally over several years, Even after three or four years of training, many children are not fluent readers.

Progressive educators have always argued that learning to read should not be slow and tedious. They have argued for “whole-word” and “whole-language” methods of teaching reading, which, they claim, are more natural and pleasurable than phonics-first methods.

Although the progressive educators commonly think of themselves as proposing something new contrasted with “traditional education,” the progressive arguments actually go back at least to the origin of compulsory state schooling in America.

Horace Mann, the first secretary of education in any state in the union, who oversaw the passage of the first state compulsory education law (in Massachusetts, in 1852), fought for the whole-word approach and railed against phonics. In the early 20th century John Dewey and progressive educators inspired by him were champions of holistic, reading-for-meaning approaches. Later, in the 1970s and ‘80s, Kenneth Goodman and Frank Smith took up the torch and promoted what they called the whole-language approach.

On the other side are those who have long argued that phonics is the key to reading and should be taught early and directly. Noah Webster, sometimes referred to as the “Father of American Scholarship and Education,” was an early warrior in the phonics camp. In the late 18th century, he created the first series of books designed to teach reading and spelling in secular schools, and they were founded on phonics.

In the mid 20th century, Rudolph Flesch turned the tide back toward phonics with his bestselling book, Why Johnny Can’t Read (1955). He argued convincingly that the progressive movement had produced a serious decline in reading ability in American schoolchildren because it ignored phonics.

In the most recent two decades, the leading proponents of phonics include educational researchers who base their argument on experiments and data more than theory. Many carefully controlled experiments have by now been conducted to compare the reading scores of children taught by different methods in different classrooms, and the results of the great majority of them favor phonics.[3]

Because of their intensity and presumed importance, these debates about how to teach reading have long been dubbed “the Reading Wars.” Today, the majority (though not all) of the experts who have examined the data have declared that the wars are over—phonics has won.

The data seem clear. Overall, children who are taught phonics from the beginning become better readers; sooner than those who are taught by whole-word or whole-language methods. The learning is still slow and tedious, but not as slow and tedious for phonics learners as for those taught by other methods.

Why natural learning fails in classrooms

So, we have this puzzle. Out of school, children learn to read by what appear to be whole-word, whole-language methods. They read right off for meaning and they learn to recognize whole words and read whole passages before they pay much attention to individual letters or sounds. Phonics comes later, based on inferences that may be conscious or unconscious.

Learning to read out of school is in some ways like learning oral language; you learn it, including the rules, with little awareness that you are learning it and little awareness of the rules that underlie it. But that doesn’t work well for learning to read in school. Learning there is better if you master the rules (the rules relating letters to sounds) before attending much to meaning.

The mistake of the progressive educators, I think, has been to assume that the classroom is or can be a natural learning environment. It isn’t, and (except in unusual circumstances) it can’t be.

The classroom is a setting where you have a rather large group of children, all about the same age, and a teacher whose primary tasks are to keep order and impart a curriculum—the same curriculum for everyone. In that setting, the teacher decides what to do, not the students. If students decided, they would all decide on different things and there would be chaos.

No matter how liberal-minded the teacher is, real, prolonged self-direction and self-motivation is not possible in the classroom. In this setting, children must suppress their own interests, not follow them. While children out of school learn what and because they want to, children in school must learn or go through the motions of learning what the teacher wants them to learn in the way the teacher wants them to do it. The result is slow, tedious, shallow learning that is about procedure, not meaning, regardless of the teacher’s intent.

The classroom is all about training. Training is the process of getting reluctant organisms to do or learn what the trainer wants them to do or learn. Under those conditions, methods that focus on the mechanical processes underlying reading—the conversion of sights to sounds—work better than methods that attempt to promote reading through meaning, which requires that students care about the meaning, which requires that they be able to follow their own interests, which is not possible in the classroom.

What do you think? Does this explanation fit with the ways that you or your children learned, in or out of school, or doesn’t it?

In my own family of origin, I can cite three examples that fit this story. I was taught reading by the “look and say” whole-word method (with Dick and Jane books), and I couldn’t read fluently until about fourth grade. My somewhat younger brother was taught from first grade on by a method strongly focused on phonics, and he could read fluently by second grade. My youngest brother taught himself to read at home with no explicit instruction and could read fluently by the age of four.

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[1] Lynn A. Olson, James R. Evans, & Wade T. Keckler (2006). Precocious readers: Past, present, and future. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 30, 205-235.

[2] Valerie Gail Margrain (2005). Precocious readers: Case studies of spontaneous learning, self-regulation and social support in the early years. Doctoral Dissertation, Victoria University of Wellington, School of Education. New Zealand.

[3] James S. Kim (2008). Research and the Reading Wars. In: Hess FM (Ed.), When research matters: How scholarship influences education policy, 89-111. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

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