A Brief History and Background on “The Reading Wars”

By Brian Southwell

The reading wars are a debate between two methods of teaching children how to read: phonics and whole language. Many people believe that phonics is the best way to teach children to read, while others believe that whole language is the best way. Phonics teaches children how to read by putting sounds(phonemes) and letters together, while Whole Language teaches children to read by learning the meaning of words. The debate between these two methods is often called the “reading wars.”

There are many benefits to teaching children to read using phonics.

Phonics allows children to see letters written on a page and gives them the tools to understand them properly. Beyond reading and writing, phonics helps children develop general thinking skills such as probabilistic reasoning and reasoning by analogy. In addition, phonics also allows children to spell words correctly. Another benefit of phonics is that it helps children to understand what they are reading.

Phonics teaches children the relationship between words, letters, and sounds, also called phonological awareness, and phonemic awareness vital skills for reading and understanding language.

Whole Language Benefits

The whole language has a few benefits, as well. One of the main benefits of the whole language is that it helps children learn how to read by understanding the meaning of words. Whole language also allows children to learn vocabulary. However, there are some drawbacks to whole language. One of the main drawbacks is that it can be difficult for children to learn how to read if they do not understand the meaning of the words or the word is unfamiliar to them, whole language provides few tools to help someone in that situation. However, sight words are a whole-language concept used in most good reading programs, especially when combined with the phonics tools that the children learn to sound out a “new” sight word they may not have seen before.

A Little on The History of the “Reading Wars”

The so-called ‘Reading Wars’ have a long history within reading education. They began as a series of competing pedagogies, “Method A” versus “Method B.” The debates were heated and often captured by the media’s tendency for polarized thinking that only extends into today’s classrooms, where one approach is seen positively while another gets negative attention.

In 1779, a German educator named Frederick Gedike introduced the debate between whole-to-part or parts-read instruction with his essay “On The Study Of Reading.” He argued that by teaching students how each word was made up of smaller units called letters, you could help them become better readers. They can break down written material into its smallest parts, enabling them to gain insight into what is happening within any text without having trouble understanding its meaning.

The debate over how children should be taught to read was re-ignited with the publication of “Learning To Read” by Chall. She renamed these two approaches code-based versus meaning-based.
Still, reading pedagogy remained framed in terms of either/or choices between theories – one being a part–to-whole process where you turn sounds into letters which are then blended into words; another option being that we directly access meaning without any premeditation on what those symbols might mean first (meaning whole-to-part).

The use of this military metaphor first appeared in an article by Robert Rothman in 1990, entitled “From a ‘Great debate’ to full-scale war: Dispute over teaching reading heats up .” It was quickly picked up and echoed across the nation by Marion Joseph, who claimed that her grandchildren were being denied access to becoming literate because Chall’s research wasn’t being taught within California’s public schools. With help from Superintendent Bill Honig, she mounted a relentless media campaign using the term ‘reading wars.’

Where do we go from here?

The controversy of phonics vs. whole language reading is a long-standing debate on how children should be taught to read. Phonics teaches children the relationship between letters and sounds, also called phonemic awareness, an essential skill for reading and understanding language.

The bottom line is that both approaches have their pros and cons.  Recent studies suggest that our brains process and learn to read by putting together sounds, which is the basis of phonics. While whole language concepts are still important in teaching reading, the research shows that phonics must be the basis for reading instruction and is also a vital tool in helping dyslexic children. The media has hyped the battle of whole-language vs. phonics as they tend to do; there is no need to exclude good portions of whole-language instruction to declare the “winner .” Reading instruction should be about getting results and using the best research and tools available.

Share This