The Reading Wars: Phonics or Whole Language? Librarians Shouldn’t Have To Choose.

The most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress results, showing that only 37 percent of fourth graders read proficiently, renewed debates over how to teach reading.

Reading together at the Brooklyn Public Library
Photo by Gregg Richards/BPL

Catherine Snow had finally done it. The Harvard professor of education had been asked by the National ­Academy of Sciences to chair a committee that would study reading instruction, identify why some young ­children have trouble learning how to read, and put to rest, once and for all, the reading debate.

The committee took three years to study the issue and prepare a 448-page book, Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children. “It was touted as a book to end the reading wars,” Snow says today. It was published in 1998. But dissent over how to teach reading is still alive and well.

In the span of two months earlier this year, the Washington Post, the New York Times, Psychology Today, and Forbes all ran major stories about the reading wars. “It’s like Halley’s Comet,” Snow says, although this issue resurfaces much more frequently than every 75 years.

What’s the debate? Simply put, it is a battle over two prevailing methods of teaching reading. In one, focusing on phonics, students are taught how to sound out letters and letter combinations as a way to break down the decoding of words. The whole language approach, on the other hand, is when students use context strategies and other cues to decipher words.

The impetus behind the recent revival of the debate was last year’s National Assessment of Educational Progress results. Reading scores for fourth graders decreased nationally, with only 37 percent of students at the proficient level. While 17 states posted lower scores, there was one outlier. Mississippi raised its reading scores four points, bringing it up to the national average of 219. (Mississippi’s score still ranks behind 28 other states.) When experts rushed to find out how the state accomplished this, Mississippi’s renewed emphasis on phonics was mentioned prominently.

So how does this debate impact librarians, both in and out of schools? In many ways, it doesn’t. Librarians, strictly speaking, don’t usually teach reading as much as they reinforce it, cultivating a love of reading and leaning on their vast knowledge of the expanding universe of books to guide children to smart choices. But that doesn’t mean librarians can ignore this argument. Knowing what questions parents are likely to ask, as well as what, specifically, is being taught in various grades, can help librarians do their jobs better.

The makings of a fight

According to Snow, the philosophical split began sometime after the publication of the 1967 article “Reading: A Psycholinguistic Guessing Game” by Kenneth Goodman. In the paper, Goodman argued that learning readers use cues selected from their expectations to decipher words. As they process these cues, their tentative decisions about words are confirmed, rejected, or refined. This theory that learning readers use a sequential process of guessing and meaning to identify words has since been “completely debunked,” Snow says.

The backlash against Goodman’s approach remains so strong that “anything that seems to be associated with ‘think about it and take a guess’ is automatically toxic,” says Snow.

As a result, first and second grade teachers are wary of using this tactic at all, even though adult readers use it as needed. “That shouldn’t be the first strategy,” Snow says. “But it won’t ruin kids’ lives to do it once or twice a day.”

On the phonics side, Snow readily admits that children need to learn the 44 phonemes—the smallest unit of sound—and about 200 spelling rules to become strong readers. Teaching this can take anywhere from several to 18 months, she adds, but the work isn’t infinite. At the same time, students need to learn 80,000 vocabulary words, 27 topics in science, 15 topics in social studies, as well as story structure, plot, and character. “You can’t let the important focus on decoding instructions in their first year completely overtake and derail attention to all other things,” she argues.

Deconstructing Mississippi’s reading gains, she notes that the state gave teachers a series of thorough professional development courses that included adding a stronger phonics push than what was already being taught. “I’m perfectly willing to believe it helped. It’s a very good thing to do in the context of other activities,” Snow says.


Librarian dos and don’ts

If understanding the debate is a librarian’s first step, the next is to see how they fit into this puzzle. Librarians want to help teachers, offer solid advice to parents, and, most of all, encourage emerging readers.

“We’re not classroom teachers,” says Alea Perez, Kids Library head at the Elmhurst Public Library (EPL) in Illinois. “That’s something a lot of librarians can forget. The nature of librarians is to be everything to everyone. We can take it a bit too far.”

Librarians should show children the passionate side of reading, Perez says, which can get lost in a structured school environment.

“The library is a bridge between school and home” when it comes to reading, says Kimberly Grad, coordinator of school age services for Brooklyn Public Library. Before the coronavirus closed the library in March, she was in the middle of an eight-part program she described as an expanded storytime. Grad isn’t preoccupied by the debates over reading instruction; she tries to reinforce reading habits and comprehension while keeping the work engaging. The series, which was run by schoolteachers on weekends, aimed to dive deeper into reading instruction with children, breaking down what was happening in the stories by doing crafts and other activities.

As chair of ALSC's School-Age Programs and Service Committee, Grad is also working with a team on producing a series of webinars that would explain explicitly how to handle the issue of teaching reading in libraries. While the shutdown has affected these plans, she expects to use both school and non-school librarians to create three webinars in the future.

The best path for librarians is to understand what’s being taught in schools and reinforce those lessons, Snow says. If students are in a school that teaches phonics, “Find out what phonics patterns they are focusing on, suggest fun and interesting books that enable kids to practice those same tasks.”

What doesn’t help, Snow adds, is offering haphazard tips to children learning to read. “Hopping around doesn’t substitute for something more structured and sequential.”

Librarians should lean on their strength: their knowledge of books. Since they know which books repeat a sound pattern or which ones have multisyllabic words, they can support school instruction of phonics, as they are asked to, with those titles.

For many librarians, storytime is the closest they come to teaching reading. Marti Valasek, a library associate at EPL, says her main goal during storytimes is to reinforce the love of reading. But she was a teacher for 13 years and admits that it’s natural to point out rhyming patterns, ask her audience what the first letter of the word is, or encourage them to shout out words that repeat on every page.

Valasek also has children use visual clues to guess at a word’s meaning when that is appropriate. “I call it balanced literacy,” she says of freely mixing phonics and whole language techniques.


When parents want leveled books

Librarians say that while the language of the reading wars hasn’t filtered down to parents extensively, it can be hard to shake their adherence to leveled books for their children.

“There’s been a significant increase on the focus of leveling,” Perez says. A 10-year veteran at EPL, she says requests have evolved from parents seeking books for their fourth grader to parents asking for level F books. Of course, with various rating systems in place, it can be hard to pinpoint what exactly parents want, she adds.

Valasek says these constant questions led to her leveling all 7,000 books in her beginning readers collection. “We do what patrons want, but sometimes we have reservations about it,” she admits.

Grad says many of the parents she sees aren’t locked on reading levels, but are trying to arm themselves with more knowledge to have a better discussion with teachers about their children. “They get so few minutes to talk with teachers about reading levels,” she says. “I try to provide information so they feel empowered to ask questions.”

Melissa Thom said when she moved from being a teacher to a middle school librarian in Bristow Middle School in West Hartford, CT, she was surprised how many students mentioned Lexile levels when searching for a book. She quickly realized that being with students for three years gave her an advantage so she could sidestep using leveling. Knowing students over time allowed her to understand their reading ability and to find out what topics they were passionate about.

Snow says she thinks back to P. David Pearson’s criticism of No Child Left Behind when she considers the role librarians should play in developing a love of reading in children. Pearson, the former dean of Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education, used to say, “In the NCLB era, we figured out how to teach kids to read, but we forgot to give them any reasons to read.” Simply put, Snow says, “Librarians should give kids reasons to read.”

Wayne D’Orio writes frequently about education and equity.

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