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Ending the Reading Wars and Fostering Better Readers

Science shows a path toward better reading instruction in America.

Most readers are familiar with the injurious, costly, and destructive Reading Wars that have plagued reading education across two centuries: the seemingly endless battles over how best to teach children to read. The forces consistently gather on two fronts, one supporting phonics instruction (in the U.S. dating back to Noah Webster’s 1783 “Blue Backed Speller”) and the other based on whole language methodology (previously the whole word approach ala “Dick and Jane” readers that dates back to the 1920s). The battlefields are not only educational turf, but ideological, political, economic, and epistemological. The crux of today’s struggle may be a single question: “What is real science?”

Today many quantitative cognitive scientists demand the retrenchment of qualitative reading research that has backed whole language for three decades during an era of disastrous and universally assailed poor reading scores in the U.S. Researcher David Pearson proposed a “balanced reading” truce and compromise accepting qualitative research in reading education among the troops on the battlefield (2004). Yet outspoken scientists, cognitive psychologists, and some educators aver that compromise may not be justifiable—quantitative science must win the battle, they say, and oppose whole language and its supporting multi-billion dollar edutech publishing industry.

Quantitative or qualitative notwithstanding—reading education in the U.S. must change.

The science of reading contingency is emboldened with powerful new weaponry—an explosion of new knowledge from both cognitive science and neuroscience on how the reading brain works. Scientists in alliance with the media are now leading the battle on a number of fronts—political as in state legislation, with parents as in grassroots groups such as the Dyslexia Advantage and Decoding Dyslexia, and with backing from a number of forward-thinking leaders in schools of education such as Deans for Impact along with highly respected reading-researcher/teacher networks such as The Reading League.

Ending the reading wars will not be easy. Teachers have been vilified and too often blamed while they do the best they can with inadequate training and inferior resources. The whole language side is buttressed with a multi-billion dollar war chest—education publishing companies who have invested in whole language over the last three decades (Seidenberg, 2019). In addition, whole language methodology sometimes disguised as “integrated curriculum” and “constructivist” and labeled as “research-based reading instruction” that can be stamped on any product has the ideological and political backing from three decades of whole language dominated leadership in reading education and in organizations such as the International Literacy Association, Reading Recovery, and the National Council of Teachers of English (See Seidenberg, 2019).

It was cognitive scientist Mark Seidenberg and his brilliant, provocative, science-based book entitled Language at the Speed of Sight: How We Read, Why So Many Can't, and What Can Be Done About It that exploded onto the scene in 2017 and rekindled the current Reading War conflagration. Responding to recent position papers he now posits the two sides as incompatible putting forth in December 2019 a scathing rebuke of the current traditional whole language leadership, whole language dominance, and $15 million K-3 education publishing industry. (See the link to his article, “This Is Why We Don’t Have Better Readers: Response to Lucy Calkins” below.)

With great optimism, I think change, reconciliation, and an end to the reading wars are possible. Both sides are fighting for a common goal, namely, the best possible reading education for children. But this must be done with reverence, respect, and reconciliation for battle-weary teachers and traditional whole language educators.

Change will require a coming together of disciplinary minds. As a former whole language advocate, my own personal growth came from teaming with two exemplary 30-year veteran whole language kindergarten and first-grade teachers and teacher trainers, Eileen Feldgus and Isabell Cardonick, who back in the 1990s recognized that teaching beginning literacy in the whole language context not only had to be joyful, and authentic but it had to include writing, intense phonics instruction, and both conventional and invented spelling.

They included a developmental phase observation method for targeting each child and monitoring his or her individual progress (Feldgus, Cardonick, & Gentry, 2017). Then I had the remarkable good fortune to team up with a renowned reading scientist who spends as much time in the classroom as in the laboratory and conveys the science of reading not only with clarity but with solutions for teachers (see Ouellette & Sénéchal, 2017; Gentry & Ouellette, 2019).

Change doesn’t mean tossing out the baby with the bathwater. Many of the current best reading teachers in the U.S. are trained in Reading Recovery, balanced reading, use of leveled texts and/or guided reading. Countless of these extraordinary teachers keep what they see working but many are moving away from practices denigrated by proponents of reading science such as the three-cueing system, miscue analysis, absence of phonics, absence of systematic spelling instruction, and absence of decodable texts.

Many embrace the much-validated Simple View of Reading, which if well-understood is actually a comprehensive and complex view of reading comprehension. It incorporates structured literacy instruction for Word Level Proficiency—a missing link in many classrooms which is essential and foundational for Text Level Proficiency. The Simple View of Reading utilizes both the sub-lexical (sounding out, phonics, decoding) pathway and the lexical (orthographic, spelling, encoding) pathway in the reading brain (Gentry & Ouellette, 2019).

One of the greatest teachers of reading that I have known—a leader of Reading Recovery—was Linda Dorn. Sadly she recently passed away. Her last book was on “changing minds” (Dorn, 2015). She signed my copy as follows, “Thanks for sharing your knowledge and expertise with us. You are changing the minds of literacy teachers with your theory of literacy development.” While giving me too much credit, Linda, always gracious and insightful, showed us—different disciplinary minds can come together.


Link to “This is why we don’t have better readers: Response to Lucy Calkins” on Mark Seidenberg’s Reading Matters blog: Seidenblog December 6, 2010

Response to No one gets to own the term “science of reading” by Lucy Calkins

Dorn, L. Forbes, S.,Poparad, M., & Scuybert, B. (2015). Changing minds, changing schools, changing systems: A comprehensive literacy design for school improvement. Los Angeles: Hameray Publishing Group.

Feldgus, E., Cardonick, I., & Gentry, R. (2017). Kid writing in the 21st century. Los Angeles, CA: Hameray Publishing Group.

Gentry, J. R. and Ouellette, G.P. (2019) Brain words: How the science of reading informs teaching. Portsmouth, NH: Stenhouse Publishers.

Ouelette, G. & Sénéchal, M. (2017). Invented spelling in kindergarten as a predictor of reading and spelling in grade 1: A new pathway to literacy, or just the same road, less known? Developmental Psychology, 53(1), 77– 88.

Pearson, P. D. (2004). The reading wars: The politics of reading research and policy—1988 through 2003. Educational Policy, 18(1), 216-252.

Seidenberg, M. (2017). Language at the speed of sight: How we read, why so many can’t, and what can be done about it. New York: Hachette Book Group.

Seidenberg, M. (2019). “This is why we don’t have better readers: Response to Lucy Calkins,” Seidenberg’s Reading Matters blog posted December 6, 2019.