It's Time to End The Reading Wars. Librarians Can Forge a Path Forward.

Literacy development depends on many factors, including access to learning that helps students crack the alphabetic code, their community's ability to meet social-emotional needs, and engaging curriculum. 

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With increasing regularity, my social media news feeds are full of click-bait headlines fueling today’s reading wars. The public discourse surrounding literacy instruction has been sensationalized as an all-or-nothing debate with phonics-only advocates on one side and love-of-literature folks on the other. Words like “failing” and “flawed” are used to grab our attention, hijack our emotions, and force us to choose a side. In reality, educators and researchers are engaged in nuanced, complex discussions about what we know about reading processes in the brain, how to teach children to become readers, and how to support children as they find a home in a world of books. As a teacher-educator whose work has focused on children’s literature and literacy methods and as a parent of a child with dyslexia, this debate and the consequences of polarized thinking hit home for me.

Like many children, my son loves reading and secretly hopes he’ll get a letter in the mail whisking him off to Hogwarts. He also has difficulty with phonological awareness and rapid automatic naming. This means it is harder for him to discern and manipulate the individual phonemes in spoken words and that his processing speed for visual information is slower than that of his peers. While he soars at listening comprehension and can tell you all about the Greek gods and goddesses from the myths read aloud to him, he guesses at multisyllabic words that are becoming more common in the books he is reading. Up until recently, his strong vocabulary and background knowledge about a range of topics allowed him to compensate as a reader. But as the language in books has become increasingly more complex, his compensation strategies have reached a limit.

As an early reader, my son was in classrooms where the curricula prompted children to use picture and pattern clues to help them read words. This seems like an easy fix to get children on the road to reading. But by looking away from words as a strategy to read, children build habits that are difficult to correct later. More importantly, they do not build the phonological or orthographic processing skills necessary for accurate, automatic reading. For many children, this becomes a concern in third and fourth grade when pictures and patterns disappear from texts, and when their limited sight recognition of words becomes more apparent.

When kids have difficulty learning to read or write, the academic, social, and emotional impact on children and families is profound. On the first day of third grade, my son wrote “NO!” in purple crayon on his “All About Me” poster rather than risk making his writing, and likely many misspellings, public. During the days of remote learning, he could be found in a fetal position on the floor during reading or writing lessons—eventually withdrawing from learning completely. By fourth grade, my son had become an instructional casualty of misguided practices from well-meaning and loving teachers. His love of stories and our family’s devotion to read-alouds were no longer enough to support him as a growing reader.

He is far from alone. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), in 2019, only 40 percent of American fourth graders and eighth graders were proficient in reading. The NAEP also found that 45 percent of white students are proficient, compared to just 18 percent of Black students and 23 percent of Latinx students. This data should raise collective concern about the literacy achievement of children from diverse backgrounds and whether the methods that have been used are teaching toward equity. It also points to a disconnect between reading instruction and what the science says about reading development; it impacts the majority of children, not just kids with language-based learning disabilities such as dyslexia.

In her 2020 American Educator article “Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science,” reading researcher Louisa C. Moats explains that “Fundamentally, these gaps are the result of differences in students’ opportunities to learn—not their learning abilities.” Unlike spoken language, which we pick up on innately, reading doesn’t come naturally. While there are many areas where research on reading is inconsistent, there is now broad consensus from the reading research community on how children learn to read, what causes reading difficulties, the essential components of effective reading instruction, and how to prevent reading difficulties.

Translating that science into classroom instruction is urgent, but often misunderstood.

We read to learn new things about the world, to be moved by stories, and to be inspired to take action. We also read to help us navigate the practicalities of life, including how to fill out a form at the doctor’s office, how to read a menu, or how to read signs as we make our way through the world. Reading advocates from all sides agree that children need tools and experiences to live literate lives and become agents of change. Yet discussion about the science of reading is full of misconceptions that assume science-aligned means phonics-only approaches to reading instruction. The Reading League, a nonprofit that promotes knowledge to reimagine the future of literacy education, defines the science of reading as “a vast, interdisciplinary body of scientifically based research about reading and issues related to reading and writing.” Advocates of reading instruction rooted in science call for reading comprehension as the goal of any encounter with print.



The science

Several models explain factors that impact reading comprehension. One of the models is the simple view of reading (SVR) formulated by Philip Gough and William Tunmer in 1986. The SVR explains the necessity of both word recognition and language comprehension as “the most important cognitive capacities underlying reading success,” Tumner and Wesley A. Hoover write in a 2021 article in Reading Research Quarterly. The SVR is a model that explains proximal factors in reading; think of it as the forest-view of skilled reading, not the trees.

Hollis Scarborough’s 2001 reading rope model elaborates on the underlying subskills of reading and provides a representation of skilled reading that more clearly defines the trees. Scarborough’s reading rope defines word recognition as phonological awareness (an understanding of sounds in spoken words), decoding, and sight recognition of familiar words. It defines language comprehension as the intersection of background knowledge, vocabulary, language structures, verbal reasoning, and literacy knowledge. Both the SVR and the Reading Rope help us understand the cognitive aspects of skilled reading.

In 2020 and 2021, Reading Research Quarterly published two open-access issues devoted to discussion of the science of reading. Many literacy scholars who use different methodologies for conducting research contributed to the issues, including reading researcher Nell Duke and psychology professor Kelly Cartwright, who presented their model of the active view of reading in 2021. This approach builds on the SVR and the reading rope and calls for attention to three key understandings about reading: 1) there are reading difficulties within and beyond word recognition and language comprehension; 2) there is an overlap between word recognition and language comprehension, and there are bridging skills—including fluency, vocabulary, and morphological awareness—that support that overlap; and 3) self-regulation, an executive function skill, plays an important cognitive role in reading.

Together, these models help contribute to science-aligned understandings of literacy development. Greater attention to these concepts has helped teachers and school leaders take a hard look at their literacy curriculum and methods. Many educators are asking important questions: Does our literacy program have lessons in phonemic awareness and phonics that are explicit, direct, sequential, and systematic? Do our lessons support children to access, activate, and add background knowledge? Do we help children build vocabulary knowledge, a love of words, and word consciousness? Are we supporting all children to achieve access to complex texts?


What else matters for skilled reading?

“Any time we resort to ‘either/or’ dichotomies in education, children suffer,” says Mary Ann Cappiello, literacy professor at Lesley University and a fellow blogger of mine at “The Classroom Bookshelf.” Teaching children to read requires educators versed in empirically validated understandings of how reading happens in the brain, and it also requires teachers and librarians skilled in the art of building a life as a reader.

Recent research from the United Kingdom shows what can happen as a result of overcorrection when schools and national policy focus too much on phonics. Following analysis of survey results from over 2,000 teachers in England, coupled with analysis of data from the Programme for International Student Assessment and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, researchers Dominic Wyse and Alice Bradbury (2022) have called for changes to national curriculum policy on the teaching of reading in the UK. Rather than further intensification of phonics instruction, the researchers call for a more contextualized approach that gives children access to both the secrets of the alphabetic code and sophisticated understanding of texts.

A 2002 model from the RAND Reading Study Group (RRSG) offers us a way to think about the intersection of the reader, the text, the activity, and the sociocultural context in which children live and learn to read. In the RRSG approach, the reader brings a set of cognitive abilities like attention, memory, and inference skills. But the reader also brings a motivation for reading, various forms of knowledge, and life experiences.

When a child comes into the library looking for a book, librarians know that a reader’s age, specific interests, and self-efficacy as a reader all contribute to a child’s experience of the book. So does their reason for reading. Does the reader want to better understand the rules of Minecraft, to learn more about climate change, or to enjoy the next book in the “Warrior Cats” series? The RRSG model shows us that the reader’s motivation and the instructional context matters. What are students being asked to do with the text they are reading? Are they reading for pleasure and to relax? To gain information for a school project? Are they reading to analyze the text and the author’s precise use of words to convey meaning? The RRSG model reminds us that different contexts make different demands on readers.

All of this matters. So does the child’s understanding of the written code and how to turn the squiggles, dots, and lines that represent sounds into words that contain meaning. Building a literary life requires both opportunities to learn how to unlock the deep orthography of English and immersion in the joyful, voluminous reading that librarians hope to provide. A student’s overall literacy development is dependent on many factors: the access they have to learning that helps them crack the alphabetic code, the capacity of their community to meet their social-emotional needs, and the extent to which the curriculum in all content areas is relevant and engaging. Finally, it is dependent on how teachers and librarians foster their reading, writing, listening, speaking, viewing, and creating skills in relation to one another.


Rocket science and rockets

Moats is frequently quoted for describing the teaching of reading as “rocket science.” Teaching children to read is complex work that requires knowledge of reading science and of the child as a reader. If teaching reading is rocket science, books are the rockets sending children to places we can often only dream of visiting.

The books children read are critical to their development not only as readers but as young people making their way through the world. Books shape children’s world views. They help them grow knowledge about people, places, and the past. They help children imagine the future lives they want to live and the better world they want to live in. They allow children like my son to get lost in the world of Harry Potter or to linger over the pages of Jerry Craft’s New Kid.

Librarians will always be needed to bring the world of books to life for children. They have skilled expertise to support children to apply their literacy skills while also developing a love of reading. As the field continues to make sense of the science of reading, we need school librarians to continue to expand the literary landscape available to children. Together, with teachers and school leaders, librarians can call for an end to the reading wars and forge a new path toward reading reconciliation.

Dr. Katie Egan Cunningham is a professor of literacy and English education at Manhattanville College. She blogs at “The Classroom Bookshelf.”

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