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The Reading Wars:
Time for a Truce?

Tuesday, 24 May 2022 at 9:29 am

For decades, if not centuries, academics, educators, politicians, and more recently, the public, have weighed in on the issue of how reading should be taught. Fuelled by the best of intentions, the virtues, and shortcomings of a phonic-centred, or phonological approach and a balanced literacy approach have been contested. Though the debate remains somewhat constant, erupting periodically and then simmering over time, it has re-ignited, hotter than ever.

As research reveals new or fresh insights, we should continue to evolve and refine our practices. However, does this mean everything we’ve done is obsolete? No. Educators have accessed quality research for many decades, and this should be central to informing teaching and learning practices.

Research considerations

Research studies reveal valuable insights and raise further questions. In scientific research, researchers suggest a theory, a set of ideas to explain something. They then formulate a hypothesis, or way to show a causal relationship between two things. Researchers hypothesise, ‘if A occurs, B will result’.

The purpose of the research is then to collect evidence which supports or refutes the theory. It’s important to note that scientific researchers will not claim the data ‘proves’ the hypothesis. And … reputable studies will clarify the study’s limitations. Any claims of ‘proof’ should prompt readers to question the research, organisation, company, or person making the claims.

“As readers, it is important that we are well informed, read broadly and understand why others hold views contrary to ours. It is particularly pertinent to consider whether there is a research basis for alternate views.”

It is therefore important for readers of research to check the quality of the study they are reading. In education, this may involve checking ‘product’ research adheres to ‘quality research’ criteria. It is also helpful to know whether product research has been funded by, or conducted by or on behalf of, the publisher or creator of the product.

As readers, it is important that we are well informed, read broadly and understand why others hold views contrary to ours. It is particularly pertinent to consider whether there is a research basis for alternate views.

Finally, it is essential to be mindful of research findings offered ‘on the grapevine’. The further we are from the original source, the higher the probability the integrity of the study is compromised. Messages may be diluted and even distorted.

The Debate

At the heart of the age-old debate are two lines of thought regarding early reading instruction and where this should be focused. On one side are those advocating for a heavy emphasis on phonics, and on the other are those advocating for a multidimensional approach.

A phonological processing, or phonic-centred approach, focuses heavily on synthetic phonics, the segmenting and blending of sounds. Commonly viewed as a bottom-up approach, the reader focuses attention on recognising and analysing letters, translating these to phonemes and using this knowledge to blend sounds to ‘sound out’ unfamiliar words. The approach follows a scope and sequence which ensures skills are ordered from simple to complex.

A balanced, or multidimensional approach, on the other hand, is an embedded or analytical instruction approach. Skills-based instruction occurs within the contexts of actual reading and writing. Supporters of a balanced approach view reading from the top-down; phonics is one dimension of reading, which when integrated with what readers know in terms of meaning, vocabulary, language development, fluency, and expression, supports them to solve words and comprehend ideas. This approach to instruction incorporates the ‘three cueing systems’ and is often termed a ‘whole language’ approach.

“Despite these differences, the two approaches share some common principles. Both aim to develop skilful readers with a love of and appreciation for reading.”

It is generally accepted by both groups that phonics instruction is imperative, and a well-developed scope with a logical sequence helps teachers to plan lessons and track content. It is also accepted that rigorous, explicit teaching is the most effective way to facilitate instruction.

A significant point of difference is that in one approach, skills may be targeted ‘out of context’ and in the other, skills-instruction is embedded ‘in context’. In both approaches, the aim is for students to transfer these skills ‘in context’.

Advocates of balanced literacy believe there is more to reading than actioning a single skill, and the absence of other strategies may result in readers good at barking words but lacking deeper comprehension. They believe readers should learn to use skills, strategies, and knowledge both in isolation and flexibly together.

Advocates of phonics-based instruction believe other reading skills are compromised if students cannot decipher the words on the page. Some believe the balanced approach encourages and promotes ‘guessing’. There is evidence in some studies to suggest some students used pictures and beginning letters to guess. However, many teachers on both sides of the debate argue they have never taught or encouraged ‘guessing’. There is also evidence to suggest some students learn sight words by memorising them as pictures or learning them by shape.

Some believe the focused teaching of skills was not a feature of balanced literacy. However, many ‘big books’ were designed specifically for the purposes of embedding opportunities for explicit instruction within the text, so this suggests otherwise. That said, a comprehensive scope and sequence of skills may not have been provided in reading schemes incorporating these resources.

Despite these differences, the two approaches share some common principles. Both aim to develop skilful readers with a love of and appreciation for reading. Both aim to develop transference and generalisation of skills. Both focus on teaching for reciprocity and both aim to develop mastery or overlearning of skills and subskills.

Some teachers have for decades, integrated the two approaches. In a combined or integrated approach, students learn and apply skills using both methodologies. Learning focuses on integrating the multiple dimensions whilst maintaining a strong focus on analysing and synthesising phoneme-grapheme relationships. A key feature of the combined approach is the teaching for metacognition.

Science of Reading (SOR): The controversy for educators

“In fact, if we are not implementing evidence-based strategies, we are not only ‘not helping’, but we may in fact, be ‘hindering’.”

On the path to building a deep understanding of what to teach, to whom and how, research is invaluable. As educators, we all want our practices to be informed by rigorous research which reveals evidence-based approaches. In fact, if we are not implementing evidence-based strategies, we are not only ‘not helping’, but we may in fact, be ‘hindering’. So, it is important to know which studies contribute to the body of research related to the SOR.

Those arguing the SOR are often strong advocates of phonological processing as the most critical early reading skill. There is no argument these skills promote accessibility to texts and are critical.

However, there are many studies which explore the impacts of attitude, motivation, culture, and identity on reading achievement. Adding to the criticism are hundreds of studies which highlight the lack of convincing evidence that some phonic approaches are more effective than others in showing real reading gains.

The absence of these studies in mainstream conversations about the SOR, contribute to some of the polarising views. It’s not the teaching of phonics per se which whole language supporters object to. It’s this focus ‘at the cost’ of other reading processes.

Some educators want more research highlighted in the debate. Reading words and constructing meaning in the most efficient, systematic manner, may in fact incorporate research findings on both sides of the debate.

So, is there more to the SOR than synthetic phonics and whole language?

What is the Science of Reading (SOR)?

“Whilst it may sound simple and straightforward, the term means different things to different people and there is no agreed upon definition.”

Whilst it may sound simple and straightforward, the term means different things to different people and there is no agreed upon definition. It is accepted that the SOR is a body of research across multiple disciplines which relates to literacy and literacy-related issues.

The growing body of research into cognitive science as this relates to literacy is of great interest. However, not all the research is new. Neuroscientific findings as these relate to many facets of learning, including reading and writing have been applied to education for many decades. The neurocircuitry required for reading and writing is created by teachers with high levels of expertise … this is well accepted. These teachers think, speak, and act in specific and highly intentional ways . . . ways informed by, and supported by many, many decades of research.

The International Literacy Association (ILA) defines the SOR as,

“a corpus of objective investigation and accumulation of reliable evidence about how humans learn to read and how reading should be taught.”

Amanda Goodwin and Robert Jimenez coedit the leading global journal, Reading Research Quarterly (RRQ), for members of the ILA and with the mission to provide the latest literacy research for teachers. In a special edition of RRQ, one specifically addressing the SOR, Goodwin and Jimenez highlight the “lack of consensus as to what has been cited to inform theory, research, policy, and practice in the name of the SOR.”

In the special issue, Goodman and Jimenez invite 77 authors to evaluate the SOR to get to the heart of the debate: science. Authors, reviewers, editors, academics, and other industry experts interrogated this issue to accurately determine ‘what’s included’ in the SOR research.

What became clear is the narrow focus on word reading and systematic phonics instruction, driven largely by the media and which has monopolised perceptions, polarised views and misled educators and the public about what the SOR research includes and what has been ‘debunked’. Turns out … there’s a lot more to the SOR than synthetic phonics and orthographic mapping.

Steve Graham, contributor to the special issue writes,
“The science of reading involves studying how reading operates, develops, is taught, shapes academic and cognitive growth, affects motivation and emotion, interacts with context, and impacts context in turn. It includes genetic, biological, environmental, contextual, social, political, historical, and cultural factors that influence the acquisition and use of reading.”

The SOR is broad. It incorporates new research findings, but it also incorporates much of what researchers, academics and educators have known for decades.

Research Implications

“Even those connected to the research weigh in on this debate, cautioning educators about making too many assumptions between the relationship between the disciplines of neuroscience and psychology to educational practice.”

Despite the research, some caution is necessary. Even those connected to the research weigh in on this debate, cautioning educators about making too many assumptions between the relationship between the disciplines of neuroscience and psychology to educational practice.

Cognitive scientist, Daniel Willingham, warns about the implications of generalising data from studies from the natural sciences, such as neuroscience, to the artificial sciences, such as education. Though one can inform the other, Willingham advises against drawing conclusions when research findings occur away from the context in which they apply, as is the case with most studies of reading and neuroscience. He explains that when this occurs, “the probability of learning anything useful diminishes”. Even amongst academics and researchers, there are warnings to be heeded.

With an abundance of online articles on the topic, it is critical to be prudent. Teachers should be mindful. Is the article an opinion piece? Has it been sponsored? Is it simply an opinion and if so, how well informed is the author? Is the author focused on the body of SOR research or representing only a narrow or simplistic view? A thorough reference list, or lack thereof, may assist in this area.

What have we learned?

The SOR research prompts us to learn and reflect.

Is research important? Yes. It should inform teaching practices and teaching content. Reading broadly, deeply, and reflectively will help to ensure the integrity of the message is protected and educators are accurately informed.

Is teacher efficacy critical? Yes, it is common knowledge that the quality of the expertise of the classroom teacher is the most significant factor impacting achievement. Why? Expert teachers actively observe. They:

  • use data to inform teaching content
  • explicitly, relentlessly teach skills in a logical sequence from simple to complex
  • plan for high levels of active involvement
  • achieve high levels of student ‘buy in’
  • understand there is a timeliness for students to apply new learning
  • adjust group sizes to increase student accountability
  • modify the frequency and duration of lessons to meet the needs of learners
  • actively monitor student’s control of the skill and use this to plan future instruction
  • plan for mastery to develop by setting specific tasks and monitoring student control across different settings and contexts.

Is a quality scope and sequence for teaching skills critical? Yes.

Is a scope and sequence for teaching skills in phonics and spelling critical? Yes. Instruction should follow a logical sequence from simple to complex. It should include a focus on building cognitive strategies around the coding system, making relevant connections and developing automaticity so new learning can occur. It must contain focused instruction which supports readers to rapidly recognise letter strings in context. For many struggling readers, we know we must double the speed at which this processing often occurs. And it must teach for metacognition.

Are there more effective ways to develop mastery than memorisation? Yes. We have known for decades that memorisation as a strategy has been problematic. Poor readers and spellers have often employed this strategy, but so have many others. Skilful spellers, on the other hand, tend to employ a wider range of cognitive strategies. In a spelling bee, even young contestants know to ask for the origin of the word, as this provides valuable information about how the word is likely spelled. Most teachers have observed students doing better on an out-of-context spelling test than when recording those or similar words in writing. Research data has for decades highlighted these findings and more recent research is revealing the benefits of connecting spelling with language and the importance of explicitly teaching cognitive strategies.

Are there practices we need to adopt, change, or replace? Yes.

Are there practices we should continue? Yes.

Do we need to ‘choose a side’ in a reading war? That’s up to us, but it may be prudent to remember we are all working together to achieve the best outcomes for students. A tunnel visioned approach may compromise outcomes. It is important that common areas of agreement not become casualties of a ‘war’ in which we all have the same goal.

Challenging our beliefs

“Cherry picking data to make an argument has become a common practice in politics. If this were to occur in education, we too could be guilty of misappropriating data to justify a position.”

The SOR is broader than a debate about phonics and whole language. Though phonics is core to early education and focused, systematic instruction around the orthography of English, a central feature of literacy learning, the SOR encompasses a broader view of reading and writing. It attests that both phonics and contextual knowledge are critical … a full construction of text meaning is what skilful readers acquire. However, the importance of genetics, lifestyle, vocabulary, natural language, social, cultural, and emotional experiences also play a vital part. Experiences with texts … both exposure to, attitudes towards, reading mileage gained and linguistic and general knowledge acquired through, are also highly relevant. And the level of individual and collective expertise of teachers is fundamental.

Cherry picking data to make an argument has become a common practice in politics. If this were to occur in education, we too could be guilty of misappropriating data to justify a position. A rich, balanced, informed conversation is required … one in which robust discussion with a high level of intellectual dialogue advances the conversation, rather than holding it in a stalemate. To do this, we may need to put long-held views aside, listen intently to those we might disagree with, and be prepared to challenge our beliefs. Some arguments may not be as black and white as they appear.

I hope this blog prompts you to seek more information, challenge existing beliefs, question practices and ultimately seek answers through wide reading and robust conversation, driven less by gut feeling and informed by a comprehensive examination and interrogation of the literature.

Should you be interested in delving deeper into this topic to guide your teaching practice, the ‘Science of Reading’ workshop or webinar may be of interest to you.


by Angela Ehmer

4 comments on: “The Reading Wars:
Time for a Truce?”

  1. What an eloquently written piece enlightening us on the current version of ‘the reading wars’.
    As an experienced literacy teacher of 40 years including training and working successfully as an early years reading specialist and Reading Recovery teacher, my thinking has been challenged by some of the statements that come from the more extreme SOR advocates.
    Some of these advocates seem to have a very simplistic view of the reading process and it appears they are quite scathing in their comments about so the so called ‘balanced approach’ to teaching reading and writing.
    Your article provides excellent definitions of both approaches along with the warning to be sure to check the origin and purpose of the research.
    I have followed all the threads for the last few years and have gone back to current research myself, to ensure that I tweak my thinking and change my practice accordingly.
    I know that phonics instruction is paramount in early reading. This is not new and has not changed my viewpoint. I also know that explicit teaching requires teachers to link skills with context and to ensure that students are able to practice new skills in the context of reading/writing tasks. The further removed the skill practice from the ultimate goal of using literacy in meaningful contexts, the less likely the skill will transfer. Not new information.
    There have been so many commercial reading programs and which have been developed to profit from this phonics first approach. I see so many more worksheets being completed at the expense of learning skills in a context through the gradual release approach. Modelled, Shared, Guided and Independent reading and writing lessons are by far the best way to ensure our students are set up for success in literacy!
    Thank you, Angela for your insightful words.

  2. Thank you, Anne.

    It’s such a contentious issue. There is so much research and many teachers on both sides of the debate feel the SOR research narrows in on one area … phonics. This simplistic view is a misrepresentation. In the Reading Research Quarterly Special Issue on the SOR, the editors were inundated with submissions and the successful contributors were 77 of the top scholars and researchers in this field. These experts were tasked with the job of reviewing the vast body of research literature to determine what is imperative for inclusion in the SOR. The researchers unanimously agreed that despite loud messages suggesting a narrow vision relating to phonics, the SOR is actually a broad and wide-ranging construct.

    We should think about any products or programs which say, teach this, like this, to your class. This is anti-SOR. However, it could be badged SOR if it has a scope and sequence.

    Co-editor of RRQ, Robert Jimenez, shared some observations about the feedback on the articles from the special issue. Reviewers with a truer and more broadly informed understanding of the SOR research, the RRQ readership, commented with deep levels of professional reflection and greater insight. He compares this type of informed dialogue to the “insulting feedback you hear in the public sphere”.

    The articles in the special edition reflect the rigor in the debate, highlight broad perspectives and varying insights gained from the research. Not everyone agrees on everything. However, it is evident we can frame our ideas for robust, respectful conversation which advances our discussion and ultimately, our practices. Editor, teacher and researcher, Amanda Goodwin comments, “If I was a classroom teacher I would teach really differently if I was only using the SOR research relating to phonics, versus using this alongside the many other aspects identified in the SOR research”.

    A broad and deeper understanding of the research is required if we are to optimise instruction for students.

    In fact, to adopt a narrow and overly simplistic view which focuses significantly on one area whilst neglecting the accompanying SOR research is actually ‘anti-science of reading’. The SOR research is a collective body … and as such, it is the sum of the parts collectively which will yield the highest return. It’s a bit like going on a health kick and focusing only on meditation whilst ignoring sleep, diet, and exercise. Yes, meditation will provide a yield, but a greater yield will result from attention to the broader range of factors.

    John Hattie stresses the importance of teacher efficacy and the collective efficacy of teachers … if we continue to build and refine our skills, stay abreast of the latest industry research and engage in reflective teaching practices, we will be actioning the SOR research.

  3. Thank you for this calm and considered appraisal of the current debate over how to teach reading. I found your approach to be logical and thoughtful. By contrast, in my experience, the voices pushing a phonics agenda can sometimes be strident; at worst, they can degenerate into little more than teacher-bashing. That is not helpful. It is certainly not fair, either. Being able to read is a wondrous, powerful gift. As educators, we want all our students to be enriched with the capacity to read. Developing the skills to crack the code of how letters and sounds correspond is just one part of a complex suite of understandings. Advocates of phonics are accurate in pointing out the need for explicit phonics instruction, but they are misled if they believe that this should occur in isolation, out of context from other aspects of literacy teaching. Learning to read is an organic process in which children build on and make connections with what they already know. Good teachers engage children in learning to read by immersing them in a literature-rich, relevant, stimulating, safe learning environment – not by drilling them with letters and sounds that, for some of those children, may seem completely pointless. Your article has calmly outlined an overview of the current situation, making valid points around the efficacy of commercially-driven research and the need for educators to debate the teaching of reading with knowledge and grace. As always, you have contributed to further discussion about education in a positive, thoughtful, practical manner. In the recent political climate, where issues in education have often been treated disparagingly and negatively, this is a welcome achievement. Congratulations!

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