The Science of Reading vs. Balanced Literacy: The History of the Reading Wars
This post is Part One of a three-blog series about the science of reading and balanced literacy. This series will explore what the science of reading is, how it differs from balanced literacy, and why these differences matter. In this blog post, we will dive into the history of different literacy approaches and how we got to where we are today.
It’s hard to imagine a skill more foundational to life success than reading. Unfortunately, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only about 35% of American children read proficiently or better. Even more worryingly, these low figures are nothing new; literacy rates in American schools have been low for decades, and they are largely remaining stagnant rather than improving.
For decades, educators and policymakers have debated about the best way to fix this pressing problem and teach children to read. Nicknamed “the reading wars,” this longstanding battle began with two camps: “whole language” and phonics.
The “whole language” approach got its start in the 1800s through Horace Mann, a politician who is today widely known as “the father of American education.” A fierce advocate for literacy and education, Mann warned against teaching children to sound out words letter by letter because he worried that it would distract them from the words’ meaning. As the American public education system grew and developed, many schools followed Mann’s lead and taught children to memorize the appearance of words instead of teaching them to decode the letters.
With a literature focus, whole language immersed students in reading and writing, operating under the assumption that learning to read comes naturally, and students would gain the phonics skills they needed within the context of their reading.
By the 1950s, the whole language approach was considered the “conventional wisdom” of teaching students to read, asserting that children should read for meaning from the very beginning by memorizing sight words and using context and picture cues. This can be seen in the “look-say” reading method that led to the Dick and Jane books that filled public schools from the 1940s to the 1960s.
On the other side of this debate were those who believed explicitly teaching the relationship between letters and sounds, or phonics, was the most effective literacy method. English phonics instruction is even older than the whole language approach and can be traced back to the New England Primer, published in 1690. In fact, phonics was the popular way to learn reading in the 1800s until Mann advocated for a whole-word method.
Phonics follows a bottom-up approach (letters and sounds before words), compared to whole language’s top-down approach (words first). Proponents of phonics placed an emphasis on skill-based instruction. Students would do drills to learn the sounds and letter blends that make up words, before moving into comprehension.
While whole language dominated American education for decades, phonics instruction continued to hold on, with advocates such as Rudolf Flesch bringing about a phonics revival.
Why Johnny Can’t Read—and What We Did About It
By the 1950s, most American children were receiving whole language instruction. The issue came to a head when bestselling author Flesch began investigating why American schools were failing to teach their pupils to read proficiently. In 1955, Flesch published a book called Why Johnny Can’t Read—and What You Can Do About It, the thesis of which was that the lack of explicit phonics instruction in American schools prevented children from learning to read properly. He argued that the average American third-grade student was “unable to decipher 90% of his own speaking and listening vocabulary” when he saw it written on paper, and that the solution was to teach students to decode letters.
Why Johnny Can’t Read sparked a national debate, leading to the “reading wars” as we know them today.
The Rise of Science of Reading
By the 1960s, other researchers began investigating how children learn to read, and the evidence that the whole language approach wasn’t cutting it continued to mount. In 1967, after conducting a four-year study of the existing research, interviewing proponents of the various methods of instruction, and analyzing different reading series, Jeanne Chall, head of the Harvard Reading Laboratory, published Learning to Read: The Great Debate.
Like Flesch, Chall determined that phonics instruction, specifically explicit, systematic phonics, was superior to the conventional whole language approach. In future publications, her research findings showed that a child must first learn to read before he can read to learn, and that explicit reading instruction would lead to better results, without compromising comprehension.
Chall’s work, and that of researchers across education, neuroscience, and psychology, would eventually become a part of the body of research known as the science of reading.
But Whole Language Remains on Top
While Chall, Flesch, and other advocates of evidence-based instruction shifted the needle to include more phonics instruction in schools in the 1960s, by the 70s and 80s, whole language remained the predominant literacy method in public schools. Consequently, literacy rates remained largely stagnant.
This is largely due to vocal proponents of whole language such as Kenneth Goodman and Frank Smith. Goodman described reading as a “psycholinguistic guessing game” while Smith hypothesized that reading was as natural as speaking and that phonics rules were too complex.
Research from the 1970s indicated that poor readers, not strong readers, relied on whole language’s context approach to word recognition. Good readers did not skip unknown letters or words (as recommended by the whole language approach) but processed all the visual information in the text. Further evidence showed that to become a strong reader, children needed strong phonemic awareness skills. However, as these findings were only published in peer-reviewed journals and academic conferences, the evidence did not yet have a significant impact on educational practices.
The Emergence of Balanced Literacy
In the 1990s, a new approach arose: Balanced literacy. The term originated in California in response to low reading scores, with the intent of incorporating elements of both whole language and phonics.
According to Fountas and Pinnell (1996), balanced literacy is 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.” In other words, balanced literacy looks to balance several aspects of instruction, not just skill-focused and meaning-focused instruction, but also reading and writing, teacher-led and student-led activities, and whole-group, small-group, and independent configurations.
However, the definition and practice of balanced literacy has since proliferated, to the point where it is often unique to each teacher. But for most balanced literacy educators, it means teaching reading in a way that meets student’s needs while also promoting a love of reading. Since its conception, balanced literacy has become the most commonly taught approach in American schools: 72% of teachers report that balanced literacy is the instructional method they use most often in their classrooms.
With its flexible definition and approach, balanced literacy was appealing. Even better, it worked for some students. But without a universally standard implementation, its success remains inconsistent. And because all iterations of balanced literacy lack the structured explicit instruction and content needed for students with learning disabilities like dyslexia, it will never work for all students.
Experts Continue to Study Reading Skills
For more than five decades, educators and researchers have continued to add to the growing body of research known as the science of reading. Studies from education, literacy, developmental psychology, educational psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience fields continue to provide evidence about how the brain learns to read, and what is needed to effectively teach reading.
What has evolved is more than just phonics instruction. In 2000, a National Reading Panel determined that effective reading instruction requires five key concepts: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.
More recently, the International Dyslexia Association® coined the term “Structured Literacy” as a comprehensive approach that teaches the structure of language (phonology, orthography, syntax, morphology, semantics, discourse) in an explicit, systematic, cumulative, and diagnostic way. Structured Literacy covers the five key concepts identified by the National Reading Panel, and adds word recognition, and written expression, as well as expanding comprehension to include both listening and reading comprehension. Structured Literacy is proven to be effective for all students, but more importantly, essential for students with dyslexia.
While much of this research accumulated quietly, in recent years the science of reading has made headlines in a concerted effort to turn the tide against low reading scores.
In the year 2022, when most teachers in America report using balanced literacy, the majority of children still struggle to read proficiently. This problem is fixable, but improving literacy proficiency will require challenging the status quo of literacy instruction and transitioning toward an evidence-backed approach that is proven to help every student learn to read.
Before students can truly develop a love of reading, and before they can read to learn, they first must learn to read. Explicit literacy instruction rooted in the science of reading, the decades of cognitive and neurological research into how reading is processed in the brain, is proven to close equity gaps and achieve the goal of literacy for all. Transitioning to science of reading-based instruction, whether a Structured Literacy approach or otherwise, will improve students’ reading levels, help students reading below grade level catch up to their peers, and help us achieve a more just and equitable world in which every student can enjoy reading.
Join us for Part Two of this series, where we dive into the science of reading and how the human brain learns to read.
You Might Also Like
Common Threads From All For Literacy Season 1
Catch up on what you missed in season one of All For Literacy by joining host Dr. Liz Brooke for a wrap-up episode that sets the stage for an exciting second season.
Sound It Out: The Shifting Landscape of Literacy From Three Cueing to Science-Based Reading
As educational policies evolve, the three-cueing system is coming under increased scrutiny and many district administrators are grappling with the shift toward evidence-based reading instruction. This blog post serves as a critical touchpoint for anyone navigating this transition.
Four Realistic Expectations About Implementing Evidence-Based Practices in the Classroom
Increase long-term commitment and successful implementation by developing realistic expectations for educators and administrators about translating research conclusions into tangible instruction practices with Dr. Shayne Piasta.