The Reading Wars: Balanced Literacy v Phonics, Rekindled

Chancellor Banks to teachers in 300 schools:  “I know you’ve worked hard for years, dedicated, caring; however, you’re responsible for children not learning to read, balanced literacy doesn’t work, we’re switching to phonics, we’ll provide professional development as soon as we figure it out.”  The Chancellor has decided to rekindle the Reading Wars.

For the past three years, during COVID, I’ve spent a lot of time with my six year old grandson, watched his parents teaching him letters, numbers, colors, shapes and the beginnings of reading between his playing race car driver, firefighter and with his trains.  He started to sound out the J-E-T-S on my t-shirt and jumped up and down shouting, JETS, JETS, JETS. Do children learn to read by sounding out letters or recognizing words? Or both? At least he was learning to root for the right team.

In 1955 a book was on the Best Seller list for thirty-seven weeks, the book: Why Johnny Can’t Read. (Read here)

 [The book] advocated the teaching of phonics, a method that teaches children the common letter-sound correspondences of English words and a handful of rules they can use which, together with the sounds, allows them to read the word.

Why Johnny Can’t Read was one of the first shots fired in what later became known as the “Reading Wars,” a series of public debates over how children best learn to read.

The Balanced Literacy folk [See Lucy Calkins, Reading and Writing Workshop Model here] is favored by most schools in New York City, in New York State curriculum decisions are left to schools/school districts.  Carmen Farina, the New York Chancellor from 2013 to 2019 was a strong supporter of Calkins Balanced Literacy.

As the Balanced Literacy and the Phonics folks tussled Congress funded the National Reading Panel and in 2000 issued a detailed report (Read here) and the term Science of Reading was born, the report supported phonics instruction. Since the report was released about thirty states, either through statute or regulation adopted a phonics model.

The Reading War has deep roots, in 2004 Sol Stern in City Journal,slammed non-educator Chancellor Klein,  “Klein repeatedly derided phonics as outmoded pedagogy that subjects children to boring and counter-productive ‘drill and kill’ instruction. Yet even as Klein was defending the progressive-ed party line in end-of-the-year press interviews, his own Department of Education team was writing a grant proposal for a “drill and kill” program that might bring almost $40 million in No Child Left Behind money to the city.”


In a science of reading framework, teachers start by teaching beginning readers the foundations of language in a structured progression—like how individual letters represent sounds, and how those sounds combine to make words. At the same time, teachers are helping students build their vocabulary and their knowledge about the world through read-alouds and conversations. Eventually, teachers help students weave these skills together like strands in a rope, allowing them to read more and more complex texts.

Most teachers in the United States weren’t trained in this framework. Instead, the majority say that they practice balanced literacy, a less structured approach that relies heavily on teacher choice and professional judgment. While the majority of students in balanced literacy classrooms receive some phonics instruction, it may not be taught in the explicit, systematic way that researchers have found to be most effective for developing foundational reading skills.

New York State traditionally leaves curriculum at the discretion of the school districts, although under the stewardship of John King the state adopted the Common Core Learning Standards, and the required grades 3-8 exams results moved from 2/3 proficient to 2/3 below proficient and the battle was on!

See my blog from 2013 here.

The testing opt out movement emerged, King moved on become the US Commissioner of Education and under Commissioner Elia the state began the move away from Common Core Learning Standards [Read here] to Next Generation Standards [Read here].  

The teaching of reading never arose as an interest at the state level.

In spite of the National Teaching Panel report phonics instruction lags.

John McWhorter, a professor of linguistics at Columbia University is a proponent of phonics based instruction (See an Atlantic article here and a NY Times article here.

McWhorter avers,

Scientific investigators of how children learn to read have proved repeatedly that phonics works better for more children.

Crucially, the method works well with poor as well as affluent children.

However, there is a persistent disconnect between the world of reading science and the world of people teaching children to read. Only 15 percent of programs training elementary-school teachers include actual instruction on how to teach children to read. There remain people who favor the whole word method, or a combination of whole word and phonics, or even no particular “method” at all.

Mayor Adams jumped on the phonics instruction train in May, 2022.

New York City will require all elementary schools to adopt a phonics-based reading program in the coming school year — a potentially seismic shift in how tens of thousands of public school students are taught to read.

“We’re going to start using a proven, phonics-based literacy curriculum that’s proven to help children read … This is our opportunity to really move the needle on something that has been impactful for our children for a long time.”

The “science of reading” stands in contrast to the “balanced literacy” theory that many teachers are exposed to in schools of education. That theory holds that students can learn to read through exposure to a wide range of books that appeal to them, without too much emphasis on technically complex texts or sounding out words.

Education Week, the weekly publication devotes an issue to the move to phonics and the multitude of questions,

A national movement seeks to change how reading is taught. Will it work?

More than half the states have passed laws or policies mandating a “science of reading” approach to early literacy.

In a sense, these mandates mark the end of one story—that of the activists and educators who have pushed forcefully for an evidence-backed approach to reading. But they’re only the beginning of another story—the monumental challenge of shifting teaching practices on the ground, classroom by classroom.

Are states providing enough coaching for teachers to feel comfortable with an approach still unfamiliar to many of them? Have they provided curriculum and teaching models in time? Are they selecting trainings and materials backed by science? Where is teaching truly changing and where are old habits still holding on?

Education Week has a series of stories about the Science of Reading movement here.

When the Science of Reading Goes Too Far”   (7/29/22) 

5 Insights in Getting the Science of Reading into Classrooms” (8/22/22)

While systematic, explicit instruction in these foundational word-reading skills is a key component of an evidence-based approach to reading instruction, the “science of reading” involves more than just phonics.

Experts say that students also need to have rich conversations to develop oral language, vocabulary, and critical thinking—even before they can read text. 

Daniel Willingham, a cognitive scientist, finds the science of reading team too didactic. In the Reading Mind (2017) Willingham explains the complexity of the learning to read process and how it is different from child to child.

Read Willingham’s comments on the science of reading here and a review of the Reading Mind here.

Eric Nadelstern, a deputy NYC chancellor during the Klein years and the founding principal of the first International High School, a school for new immigrants wrote in a letter to the editor in Hechinger Reports, [See full letter here]

While teaching reading is complex, learning to read doesn’t have to be. In schools where the primary learning methodology provides children the opportunity to work in small groups on interdisciplinary activities and projects designed to strengthen literacy skills, further knowledge, and deepen inquiry skills, all youngsters can progress to their full potential. In such classrooms, teachers guide and support rather than transmit and lecture. They understand that literacy skills and content study are inextricably linked, and that in the final analysis, learning is talking and teaching is listening.

Diane Ravitch questions the term “science of reading,”

Having studied the history of teaching reading and written about it, I believe that teachers must be prepared to meet the needs of students with an array of methods. Some children need phonics for beginning literacy. Some children start school already reading. I do not believe there is a “science of reading” anymore than there is a “science of teaching history” or a “science of teaching math.” Good teachers have a toolbox that includes but is not limited to phonics. Do what works with the goal of encouraging children to love learning.

Nancy Dunetz, an experienced teacher and staff developer agrees with Ravitch,

I am so tired of this. It is all politics-driven or capitalism-driven. I’m with Diane Ravitch. There is only ONE approach that makes sense, and that is an eclectic approach. Every child is different and learns differently. Good teachers know this.

The Reading Wars are a long way from resolution. Reading is a complex neurological function, we don’t know why one child acquires the skill faster than others, nature or nurture, we do know the skill of the teacher matters and we also know ineffective teaching strategies are difficult to extinguish in a teacher. Telling a teacher what you have been doing for years is wrong and we going to teach you a new approach are commonly seen as punishment. My “go to” reading expert tells me the skill of the teacher is the key element in the process,

Only the Lone Ranger can depend on silver bullets.

One response to “The Reading Wars: Balanced Literacy v Phonics, Rekindled

  1. I’m glad that I learned to read using phonics. I should add that my parents read and read to me early on. English is a language that had many, many exceptions to sound/letter combinations. I’m glad that I learned it first since other languages are more consistent in this regard. Our children saw my husband and me reading daily, and we read to them. My husband bought an online program called “Reader Rabbit” which taught simple three-letter words in a game format: consonant – short vowel -consonant. Our children had a strong leg up before they went to school. We did this because we didn’t know what flavor of the month approach to literacy would be at their school. They were delighted to be able to read some words and figure out other words in the world around them using phonics and context. They are avid readers to this day. I feel sorry for some adults who are functionally illiterate because they never “cracked the code” of being able to sound out new words. At a Quest Conference some years ago, I attended a session on literacy. Both rich and poor kids excel initially, mastering phonics. Where the poor kids began to falter was in reading comprehension since often the texts referred to objects and experiences foreign to them. Learning to read, having real-life hands-on experiences of the world, and reading to learn must be braided together in order to make a successful student.


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