Phonics Emerging as the Winner of the “Reading Wars”

Your first time hearing about the “reading wars”? It’s quite straightforward — it’s simply the name attributed to the ongoing debate about how children should be best taught to read. This is a disagreement that has been around for well over a century and continues to have consequential impact on the education system today. In today’s blog, you will find everything that you need to know about this conflict of ideas, and learn about the recent national movement that is changing the way that reading is taught to be aligned with the side that is emerging as the clear winner of the battle.

 Who are the parties involved in the “war”?

The clash takes place between proponents of two distinct methods of reading instruction:
The phonics-based method which teaches reading by correlating sounds with letters, thus enabling readers to “decode” the written language, or more simple put, to “sound out” words that they see.
The whole language method which suggests that children should learn to recognize words as a whole instead of broken down. Focus is put on teaching meaning and how words function in relation to each other in context.
A third party, sometimes seen as a sub-group of the whole language method, is the balanced literacy approach where whole language learning is combined with a variable amount of indirect phonics, with the exact recipe left largely to the discretion of the teacher.

 Well, what does the research say about which method works best?

In fact, science has a lot to say about this topic, and it has always been very clear which side it favors. Solid academic and scientific research backing the need for explicit phonics instruction–how to connect sounds with letters–has been around for decades. We could cite the 2000 report released by the National Reading Panel that credited systematic instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics as an important component to effective reading instruction, or other studies like those from neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene which suggested that the brain never really learns to read a whole word, instead, it just gets really, really fast at decoding–a skill that is acquired through learning phonics.
All this research conducted by reading experts and cognitive scientists on how people learn to read is commonly known as “the science of reading,” and it has clearly proven to us that the human brain isn’t naturally wired to read–just as most children, no matter how many times they’ve been in a car, still need to be taught to drive. So here is the bottom line of reading science: children need to be explicitly taught phonics and learn how sounds and letters go together.

So, where do we stand today? 

Unfortunately, the prevailing approaches to reading instruction in American schools have been inconsistent with the scientific findings. Since the early 2000s, it is the balanced literacy approach that became the dominant philosophy in classrooms nationwide; A 2019 survey of more the 600 elementary-school teachers by Education Week found that more than two-thirds used this philosophy. The reason behind its popularity? This less structured approach relies heavily on teacher’s judgement and thus offers the most flexibility to teachers to curate their reading curriculum–and the dose of phonics that goes into it.
 It is not surprise the that the ongoing literacy crisis traversing the nation has people increasingly questioning the effectiveness of such a loosely-structured teaching framework. According to 2019 scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only a third of American students were found proficient in reading. With the pandemic that further worsened the situation, a push for change has resonated nationwide among educators and parents alike. An enormous rethink of reading instruction is now underway in the U.S., and at the forefront, the demand for phonics-based reading instruction founded on “the science of reading”.

“The science of reading” movement making its way across the US

In 2013, Mississippi became the first state to pass a series of laws related to evidence-based reading instruction, including requiring teacher’s mastery of reading science, and obliging elementary schools to restructure their curricula accordingly. The result has been a wake-up call for the other states in the nation who are now scrambling to follow Mississippi’s footsteps –in 2019, Mississippi became the only state in the nation to see a significant improvement in its students’ reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
 As of August 2022, 30 states have passed legislation related to evidence-based reading instruction, with the majority joining the movement after 2019. More recently, New York City has also announced in May a mandate for phonics-based reading programs for all elementary schools.
Behind this colossal turnaround in the nation’s teaching philosophy is the renewed belief that phonics-based instruction can help save the day by providing the instruction that students need to become proficient readers. While we all know that miracles won’t happen overnight, the past few decades have proven that phonics plays a crucial role in promoting literacy, and putting it back in the picture is no doubt a step in the right direction.