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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 to teach students to read in the most efficient way.

Jenny Lemond believed that if a child can spell a word, then that child could read that word, too. If the word was ‘because’, then ‘because’ will be recognised when seen in a line of text, and therefore it can be read. She said, "Teaching of spelling must be based on phonics 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’, then 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 have been understood for the age group’s word lists (growing the student’s vocabulary for the age group).

Jenny Lemond developed her reading instruction method long before science started providing answers to what was working. However, her methods were the very methods that neuroscientists espoused ten years later.

But not everybody was following the science for early reading instruction. So, some pushed for methodologies that had no scientific backing and were against the recommendations of neuroscientists. This was the start of ‘The Reading Wars’. As you read the examples 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 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 applied where a word was seen by students (while reading texts) with the belief that the word would be remembered (as the name implies, 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; instead, the learners had to work it out themselves. A few did, but most could not. And remember, spelling is harder than reading because the word is not in front of the students.

Unfortunately, the lobby groups that pushed The Whole Word Approach had funding and backing behind them, 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 blog piece called 'How to teach English spelling for parents and teachers', you will see oodles of research and statistics that show how poorly our children are reading. They have  inadequate reading skills because they lack the ability of spelling. But gradually teachers and educationalists are realising the incapacity of those systems, and now are moving towards the scientific methods. These scientific methods became known as ‘The Science of Reading’.

Let us describe The Science of Reading in a nutshell:

  • Explicit spelling instruction; without spelling instruction approximately 60% of children will battle with reading.
  • Phonics instruction.
  • The importance of sounding out words.
  • 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 blog post, 'How to teach English spelling for parents and teachers' as it offers 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). Students would take in the context, see the picture of the horse, and announce what the word is with no writing or spelling instructions. 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, teaching of phonics and the sounding out of words is discouraged, 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 was 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. Meanwhile 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 pushed (and many still are) to teach The Whole Word Approach.

Over the years, there have been numerous methods that were brought, and all were similar to The Whole Word Approach. Some of these include; 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, they notched up, not millions but billions of dollars in sales all over the English-speaking world as teaching of reading skill was big business.

If we take you back a bit to the late 1980s, 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, students quickly move 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 the 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.

While some students have gained reasonable spelling and reading skills over many years, most of them fail to do so. 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. Necessary resources and proper instructions needed for numerous students are simply hard to find.

Based on the Department of Education's levels of scales (https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/mathematics/supportive_files/2019_infographic.pdf) each American child has a reading test  every two years. The report showed that 65% of fourth-grade children in the USA are not found to be proficient readers for their age group. Sadly, 82% of black students are not proficient, too. Unfortunately, these low standards have become the new norm. Despite this, many of these children are still promoted to the next grade level to avoid overcrowding in the following year. This is a problem that is also present in other Western countries.

Research shows that the brain can assimilate the language of the household by listening and observing, especially as children. Parents do not explicitly teach a child the vocabulary of thousands of words. Instead the child assimilates the language, with guidance. However, reading is a skill that must be taught, unlike language acquisition. To learn how to read, students must first learn spelling, and with emphasis on phonics. Once a student can sound-out an unknown word, and gains recognition, with repetition, 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 effective reading or spelling instruction.

Even though scientists have consistently proven that sounding words is imperative in learning 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 is old fashioned. However, they do not take into consideration that research shows that sounding out unfamiliar words can alter 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 saying that she is redeveloping her methods based on extensive research.

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 like a lottery, which in the same way that some children are gifted 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, the main issue is not IQ, or lack of it, it is the teaching method. The failing rate of 60% invariably falls into the lower socio-economic structure, which can be related to the problem with funding, time, and lack of knowledge to organise an intervention program (see our blog post 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. Essentially, those who can afford reading and spelling intervention are more likely to succeed, while those who cannot are unlikely to catch up. Sadly, this can lead to children developing a dislike for reading, spelling, and school.

It is even worse for learners with dyslexicia, or the ‘different learners’. The Whole Word Approach almost never works for them. However, for The Whole Word practitioners, it is mostly said, "It’s not the method, it is the child." In their view, it is always the child.

For those who may blame the teachers of The Whole Word Approach, 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 designed within 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 not happy 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 concerned parent reading this, it is important to investigate the reading and spelling methodology of the school your child attends. If they use The Whole Word Approach, then you may need to intervene in your child’s reading and spelling education. If your child is falling behind, an intervention program may be necessary to help them catch up.

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