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The Science Of Reading and The Reading Wars

Young adult in poverty

The reading wars are sides taken by teachers and educationalists on how best to teach students to read.

Jenny Lemond believed that if a child could readily spell a word, then that child could read that word. If the word was ‘because’, then ‘because’ will be recognised when seen in a line of text, and therefore read. She correctly said, "The teaching of spelling must be based on phonic instruction, sounding out the words, decoding letter combinations, along with attention to detail and repetition." If no reading instruction had been given for the word ‘because’, it may be recognised when seen in text. But if asked to spell the word later it might prove difficult. In the Jenny Lemond method, reading is delayed until such time as the phonics and decoding has been understood for the age group’s word lists (growing the student’s vocabulary for the age group).

Jenny Lemond developed her method long before science started providing answers to what was working what was not for reading instruction. Yet, her methods were the very methods that neuroscientists espoused ten years later.

But not everybody was following the science for early reading instruction and so there were those who pushed for methodologies that had no scientific backing, and against the recommendations of the neuroscientists. This was the start of ‘The Reading Wars’. As you read the below you will see that these non-scientific methods did not encourage spelling instruction.

Below is a summary of the events of those wars over the last fifty odd years. From about the 1960s there were two approaches to the of teaching of reading. These were:

  • the phonics approach, incorporating the sounding out of words.
  • The whole word approach, which later became The Whole Language approach.

The Whole Word approach was where a word was seen by the student (whilst reading text) with the belief that the word would be remembered (hence, whole word approach). The belief was that if the text was read, ‘with meaning’, the understanding of how to spell those words was (somehow) learned along the way. Therefore, The Whole Word practitioners did not teach spelling. The children had to work it out themselves. A few did, most could not. And remember, spelling is harder than reading because the word is not in front of the student.

Unfortunately, the lobby groups that pushed The Whole Word approach had funding and backing behind them, and so their ‘marketing steamroller’ played havoc in the classroom. This has been going on for forty years or more and continues in many parts of the world. If you read the other opinion piece called How to teach English spelling for parents and teachers, you will see oodles of research and statistics that shows how badly our children are reading. They are reading badly because they cannot spell. But gradually teachers and educationalists are realising the folly of those systems, and now are moving towards the scientific methods. These scientific methods became known as ‘The Science of Reading’.

The Science of Reading in a nutshell:

  • Explicit spelling instruction. For without spelling instruction approximately 60% of children will battle with reading.
  • Phonics instruction.
  • The importance of sounding out words.
  • The teaching of letter-combinations/sounds.
  • Attention given to a growing vocabulary (where previous sounding out was mastered)
  • Practice.

Once again, we urge you to read our document, How to teach English spelling for parents and teachers as it offers a much deeper understanding.

N.B. For almost all students, the teaching of phonics is not arduous. Most students ‘get’ the basics with only a few hours of qualified instruction. Therefore, the holding back of reading instruction is only for a very short time.

The Whole Word approach was meant to be taught for only the first few years of reading instruction, and to those students who were being left behind. Seemingly, this method was working in those early years but much of the student’s method was guesswork, where perhaps the word ‘pony’ was guessed at instead of the word ‘horse’. And I just used the word guessed because this was part of what those practitioners termed ‘to read with meaning’ – that is, filling in the gaps, or guesswork – like this reading, Mary rode her ….. (With a picture of a horse). The student would take in the context, see the picture of the horse, and announce what the word is. No writing, no spelling. Saying pony aloud does not teach how to spell horse – nor does it teach how to spell pony.

When students guess correctly, they are complemented and made to feel good. Further to this, the teaching of phonics and the sounding out of words is discouraged and so students have no idea of the sounds of letters or letter combinations. They do not know what a ch for church is or any of the other digraphs or blends.

Two things manifested with this approach. The first is that as a student advanced in school years, and as The Whole Word method had been ‘grown out of’, students battle to read new material correctly. The second problem was that those students could not spell. But the marketing steamroller kept on rolling, and these methods were adopted in the school curriculum across the USA, Australia, New Zealand, the UK, and other English-speaking countries. Teachers were forced (and many still are) to teach The Whole Word method.

Over the years there have been numerous methods that were pushed, and all similar to The Whole Word Approach. Some of these are; The Reading Recovery, Letter Literacy Intervention, Balanced Literacy, The Reading and Writing Workshops, and The Three Cueing Method. These methods follow a similar theme, and according to research, notched up, not millions but billions of dollars in sales all over the English-speaking world as the teaching of reading was big business.

If we take you back a bit to the late 1980s, the neuroscientists stepped in to ascertain why so many students were behind their reading grade. Eye tracking technology was developed which showed that good (learner) readers scan every letter in each word. They do this in mini seconds as they decode the word (see also Kilpatrick, 2015). Good readers therefore rely on the letters (and decoding) to know what the word is. Thereafter, the student quickly moves from sounding out to instant recognition of words. (Moats’ research, 2010, wrote that good readers recognise between 30,000 and 80,000 words). Still, even proficient readers, when encountering novel words will (silently) sound it out and decode letter combinations, from there the word will go into memory (Orthographic Mapping is the name given by neuroscientists for the way in which words remain in our memory).

Of course, the scientists turned their attention to The Whole Word Approach (and the other methods as just mentioned) and found that some 40% of students somehow muddle through and become efficient readers. In many instances though, those within the 40% range had been subject to additional tutoring by their parents or professionals (who did not have to work with the school curriculum). For many of the 40% of the successful readers they got through because of that intervention. But for the 60% there was no or little intervention, and so they battled.

Some, over many years have gained reasonable spelling and reading skill. But most do not. Research shows that if a student gets behind, say by year four, then the intervention process (resources required) is usually four times greater to catch the child up to the age-grade. The resources needed for numerous students are simply not there.

The USA Department of Education instructs that each American child has a reading test every two years. This is based on the Department of Education’s levels of scales ( The report showed that 65% of fourth grade kids in the USA are not proficient readers for the age group. Sadly, 82% of black students are not proficient. The situation is so bad that these low standards are now considered ‘the new normal’. Yet, most of those kids are elevated to the next standard, otherwise the next year’s class will be cluttered with elder children. Sadly, this situation is repeated in many western countries.

Research shows that the brain can assimilate the language of the household by listening and observing, especially as children. Parents do not teach a child the vocabulary of thousands of words. The child assimilates the language, with guidance. There is no such brain function for reading. Reading must be taught. But spelling must be taught first, and phonics is a major necessity for that teaching. Once a student sounds out an unknown word, and where recognition is gained, and if sounded out several times, the word usually becomes a permanent resident of the student’s cell-memory (Orthographic Mapping). The research has shown that guessing words to fill a blank, and or looking at pictures does not constitute the teaching of reading or spelling.

Even though the scientists have consistently proven that the sounding out of words is an imperative in the learning of letter sounds and letter-combinations sounds, the remnants of the steamroller marketing still have a large number of schools. Many of the educators in those schools hold fast to those incorrect systems, believing the ‘Sound it out’ method old fashion. They do not take into consideration that research shows that sounding out unfamiliar words changes the circuitry of the brain by creating Neural pathways (Orthographic mapping).

Lucy Calkins the developer of The Reading and Writing Workshops (mentioned above) recently admitted on the wonderful podcast, Sold a Story and in her blog Units of Study, "…that for all these years I was wrong to not teach phonics". She went on to say that she is redeveloping her methods according to the research that is abundantly on offer.

As to why some children learn to read through those non-scientific methods, and why some don’t – science can only say that it is a lottery, that in the same way that some children are blessed to be faster runners than others, or some are better at drawing, and that some are better at card games than others.

From the 60% of the children that struggle, there are many who are considered to have high IQ’s. But as shown in this document, it is not IQ, or lack of it that is the problem, it is the teaching method. However, the failing 60% invariably fall into the lower socio-economic structure and so their parent’s do not have the funds or the time or even the knowledge to organise an intervention program (see our piece on Generational Poverty). There is the term ‘The Matthew Effect’, which is likened to the saying, "The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer" but in relation to literacy. The Matthew Effect is where only those who can afford reading/spelling intervention are likely to get through, and those that cannot are unlikely to ever catch up. For those children it does not take long before they hate reading, spelling and school.

It is worse for dyslexic, or the ‘different learner’. The Whole Word method almost never works for them. But, for The Whole Word practitioners, they are quick to say, "It’s not the method. It is the child." In their view, it is always the child.

For those who may blame the teacher’s of The Whole Word method, don’t, as that would be unfair. It is not the fault of the teachers – they can only teach what they are told to teach and if the curriculum is for The Whole Word approach they can only do the best that they can. In fact, we speak to many teachers from Australian education, and they are angry with the way things have transpired. Many are confused as they have never been able to teach The Science of Reading methods.

In summary, if you are a parent reading this, investigate the method that your school uses. If they use The Whole Word method, then you will need to intervene in your child’s reading and spelling education. If your child is falling behind, the only way for him or her to catch up is with an intervention programme.