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Will the reading wars never end? Part II

Finding the balance in balanced literacy

image of two brains and how phonics affects learning regarding reading wars

A complementary systems account of word learning: neural and behavioural evidence. Image by Matthew H. Davis1 and M. Gareth Gaskell.

An uneasy peace has settled over the land regarding phonics instruction and its critical contribution to reading competency. Since the heyday of whole language, phonics has returned to classrooms as part of a “balanced literacy” approach to reading.

Shouldn’t this put an end to the reading wars? Not so far, although the current state of the debate is a welcome de-escalation of the intense hostilities of the past. Critics of balanced literacy say it still does not emphasize enough the teaching of letter-sound correspondences in spoken language or sound-spelling relationships in written language, and that it relies too heavily on strategies long associated with whole language.

Unfortunately, overall student performance statistics seem to support the inadequacy of the now widely used approach, especially — but by no means exclusively — for certain segments of the student population. Results of the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress revealed that only 35 percent of fourth graders and 34 percent of eighth graders are reading proficiently in U.S. public and nonpublic schools.

Moreover, reading scores continue to fall, despite the reintroduction of phonics instruction into the curriculum. Between 2017 and 2019, scores for fourth graders declined in 17 states and for eighth graders in 31 states — echoing what critics of balanced literacy believe about the cumulative effect of an inadequate grounding in phonics: students fall further behind as they are introduced to increasingly complex texts that demand better decoding skills.

Those cumulative effects inevitably extend into adulthood. A study of adult literacy, published in 2014, estimated that 26.5 million Americans have low literacy skills, meaning that they struggle to read directions on medicine labels; and more than 8.4 million are functionally illiterate, or “unable to successfully determine the meaning of sentences, read relatively short texts to locate a single piece of information, or complete simple forms” — to say nothing about being able to read a newspaper, a ballot initiative, or a legal document. The societal implications of poor reading skills are hard to miss as the nation grapples with a pandemic and the approach of a hotly contested national election.

What are we still doing wrong? Parents looking at the statistics above may well ask.

The balance in balanced literacy, it appears, is out of balance, and so the reading wars continue — but at a more granular level. The necessity of skills-based (phonics) instruction is now settled science; the narrower debate that has arisen in response to persistently low performance is, how much phonics is enough phonics to change outcomes for struggling students? And is the inadequacy of phonics instruction the only systemic problem reflected in national reading scores?

The genesis of balanced literacy

Whole-language proponents believe that learning to read, like learning to speak, is a natural process requiring only exposure to and love for real, aka “authentic,” children’s literature. (Basal readers like the Dick and Jane series were produced specifically for the classroom.) The idea was that children would pick reading up as they read, spurred on by their interest in books that engaged them, and that they would begin to recognize words they saw often and to notice the patterns that governed their pronunciation and spelling. But the whole-language movement was forced to confront the statistics that revealed the inefficacy of the approach and to acknowledge the decades of accumulated research that did not support it. In fact, the term balanced literacy was coined in California in 1996, when plummeting test scores indicated that the state’s hasty adoption of an untried whole-language curriculum had failed to teach students to read proficiently — whereupon California reinstated phonics instruction almost as hastily as it had been withdrawn.

Balanced literacy is still not particularly well defined as a framework, and that is the essence of the problem. Aside from the reintroduction of some phonics instruction, the elements of balanced literacy look very similar to the elements of whole language: lots of reading in the classroom, in several forms, including shared reading, guided reading, and independent reading. And balanced literacy still favors teaching high-quality, published children’s books over decodable books.

Two of balanced literacy’s foremost proponents, Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, describe it as a “philosophical orientation that assumes that reading and writing achievement are developed through instruction and support in multiple environments using various approaches that differ by level of teacher support and child control.” The use of “various approaches” invites a lot of, well, variation across districts, schools, and classrooms. One researcher has described balanced literacy as “take a cup of phonics from one cupboard, add a half pint of whole language from the fridge … and everyone will be happy, and all will be well.”

To employ the same kitchen metaphor, whole language instruction is akin to presenting a child with flour, yeast, oil, salt, and an oven, and expecting him or her to figure out how to bake a loaf of bread, motivated only by the enjoyment of eating bread. Balanced literacy is an improvement, but it provides only a sketchy “recipe” for phonics instruction, often applied only in response to a child’s mispronunciation of individual words and his or her teacher’s subsequent, and momentary, focus on the letter-spelling relationships in those particular words. The English language is crammed with irregular words, however, and learning to decode one word does not necessarily help a child decode others. Less persistent or less prepared children may not have the fortitude for the lengthy process of trial and error — one mistake at a time — that proficiency by this method requires. Without comprehensive phonics instruction, miscues accumulate and dishearten students, who may not consider the rewards of reading worth the struggle (especially when there are video games waiting at home) and who will likely never learn to love reading.

The most popular early literacy curricula favor a balanced literacy approach, but a recent Education Week review of these curricula “found many instances in which these programs diverge from evidence-based practices for teaching reading or supporting struggling students.”

Reviewers found that 75 percent of teachers using a balanced literacy approach continue to teach whole-language reading strategies like three-cueing, which involves the reader in guessing at unfamiliar words using context, illustrations, and the first and last letters of the words. From these clues, students are instructed to ask themselves, what word makes sense?

The strategies may actually undermine students’ efforts to decode words by sending them wandering around the page looking for clues. If fluency is a goal of reading instruction, it should be apparent that cueing does not promote it. Early literacy researchers have shown that a systematic and sequential course of phonics instruction in the early grades, while intensive and time-consuming, eventually gives children the ability to recognize words within fractions of seconds, freeing up cognitive capacity for higher-order processing like comprehension and analysis.

Despite balanced literacy’s nod to phonics, a “philosophical orientation” is not science. Nor is balanced literacy yet a reliable framework that supports teachers in the trenches and rewards their efforts with improved student reading scores.

Some whole-language and balanced-literacy supporters argue that teachers have been asked to adapt to too many reading theories, suggesting that reading in the United States “is what it is,” to use a phrase that pretty much defines status quo. This argument ignores the fact that each subsequent approach, including the current one, has failed to produce proficient readers; or it is a coded message to the effect that only three out of 10 children are intellectually equipped to achieve proficiency. Learning to read is a complex neurological activity; science can illuminate, has illuminated, and will continue to illuminate, the intricacies of the activity. Resistance to science, which characterized whole language and which, to a lesser extent, inheres in balanced literacy, will keep seven out of 10 children in the dark.

To end on a hopeful note, the assessment news was not 100 percent bad: Mississippi had an increase in NAEP reading scores, which should invite a closer look at what Mississippi is doing right. There is a “simple view” of reading, and that’s the view Mississippi has taken: the ability to decode, multiplied by the ability to understand spoken language, equals reading comprehension. This formula requires not only instruction in phonics, but also the brisk acquisition of vocabulary. Children should hear words spoken and learn what the words mean, and then apply that knowledge while decoding words on the page. The more familiar they are with a range of spoken words and their meanings, and the better they are at decoding those words, the higher their degree of comprehension.

Other states have followed Mississippi’s suit, requiring teachers’ colleges to teach the science of reading, expecting graduates to demonstrate proficiency in science-based reading instruction, retraining teachers in science-based reading instruction, and requiring curricula based on reading science. Parents in these states have reason to hope that their children will no longer be left behind.


More Than Phonics: How to Boost Comprehension for Early Readers

Teens’ Online Video Viewing Soared Over the Past Four Years, Report Finds

Improving Literacy in the United States: Recommendations for Increasing Reading Success

See how U.S. students performed in reading at grades 4 and 8

Data: How Reading Is Really Being Taught

Covid’s impact on reading

Unfortunately, COVID-19 will have an out-size impact on reading acquisition in young school-age children, as effective phonics instruction is often a well-choreographed group activity that does not translate well to remote learning, nor are parents as a rule familiar with its intricacies. Most parents know how to help their children sound out words, but systematic phonics instruction has an established, detailed structure that also takes into account the frequency of words and sounds that children encounter as they learn, as well as teaching the “tricky” words — or those that don’t follow dominant phonetic patterns—in a specific and graduated way so that children regularly acquire them as instruction progresses. In the case of tricky words, memorization and repeated exposure is necessary for children to recognize these words automatically. During this difficult time, parents have access to online phonics materials that can help them keep their children on track. The rest is practice, practice, practice with your child until he or she (or they) can get back into the classroom!

Some of these websites might help with home-schooling children in the primary grades:

Letters and Sounds: Practical Ideas for Parents

Free phonics for parents

Oxford Owl for School

Help your child read and write

Next blog from this writer: Beyond phonics: Building content knowledge

Part 1: Will the reading wars never end?

About Barbara Crook

Barbara Crook is an ELA editor at Victory Productions.

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