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Are the Reading Wars 'Settled Science'?

It was on 'Morning Edition,' a few weeks ago—a cheery little piece on how we now know just how to teach students with dyslexia how to read. Interesting, I thought, expecting to hear about some new breakthrough technique in reading pedagogy. Instead, what I heard was this:

Dyslexia is the most common learning disability, affecting tens of millions of people in the United States. But getting help for children who have it in public school can be a nightmare. "They wouldn't acknowledge that he had a problem," says Christine Beattie about her son Neil. "They wouldn't say the word 'dyslexia.'"

Wow. Not true in my school. We talked about dyslexia and reading instruction endlessly. I found it hard to believe that parents who sought help for a genuinely dyslexic child would find the process 'nightmarish.' I spent most of my career in one school district, but teachers there expended a great deal of effort and analysis in teaching kids to read, and reinforcing 'reading across the curriculum' in upper grades.

Because I taught in the same district over four decades, I experienced several revisions to reading programs, and countless teacher conversations about how to incorporate new pedagogical thinking into their own practice. But teachers refusing to identify the issues with a student who struggled to read? Never.

Turns out, the Morning Edition piece wasn't really about a new, proven strategy for helping kids with reading disabilities. It was about a decades-old series of lawsuits against a school district in Ohio, wherein parents weren't really targeting help for their dyslexic kids, but forcing the district to change their reading program. The program was fanning the flames of the always-politicized Reading Wars:

Research shows that they learn to read better when they are explicitly taught the ways that sounds and letters correspond. And research shows that even students without dyslexia learn better this way. Upper Arlington had to retrain its teachers, who had, for the most part, learned whole language-based methods in their teacher-preparation programs. "I have started to call it not dyslexia but 'dysteachia,'" Tingley says. "It's the teachers who are not giving the right kind of instruction."

The last, collective lawsuit around reading instruction in this Ohio district was settled in 2011. So this was a victory lap, a chance to poke at public education, teacher training and teachers themselves. Again.

I studied the so-called Reading Wars (which have been going on for over 100 years) in graduate school, largely because I had witnessed local school boards tearing themselves apart in the 1990s, in an effort to determine which reading program was 'the best.' Many of these bitter arguments were framed as "Phonics" vs. "Whole Language," but anyone who's studied the acquisition of literacy knows that's a simplification so gross as to be useless.

Was it studying engaging texts, like Harry Potter books? Is it about making meaning, rather than decoding text? Was it about using as many available methods as necessary—either a 'balanced' approach for all children, or relying on teacher judgment to discern which combination works best for her particular students?

A national panel, convened by a government department with an agenda, put forth a major report, designed to settle the question, once and for all—but the lone practitioner on the panel strongly disagreed with the methodology and policy implications that rolled out, post-report—if not with the actual findings. So, hardly a consensus among teachers.

Then the heavy hand of accountability pushed the discussion—the professional work of reading teachers—out of the classroom, and into whatever place it is that reading programs are measured by their efficacy in raising test scores. And possibly forcing children to repeat the third grade.

I am sincerely happy to know that students identified with dyslexia, which is a very complex and multi-layered diagnosis, seem to be successful in learning to read, using a phonemic awareness/phonics-intensive program. Still, I am putting my faith, as always, in the discernment of the teacher.

As yet, there is no certifiably best method for teaching children who experience reading difficulty. Reviews of research focusing solely on decoding interventions have shown either small to moderate or variable effects that rarely persist over time, and little to no effects on more global reading skills. Rather, students classified as dyslexic have varying strengths and challenges, and teaching them is too complex a task for a scripted, one-size-fits-all program. Optimal instruction calls for teachers' professional expertise and responsiveness, and for the freedom to act on the basis of that professionalism.

It's worth mentioning—again—that formal reading instruction in Finland does not begin until students are seven years of age, long after some children in the United States have been identified as dyslexic or learning disabled, because they're unable to decode at age 6.

In a back-and-forth on Twitter, the author of the Morning Edition piece, Emily Hanford, claimed that the superiority of phonics/phonemic awareness instruction for all children—and the failure of whole language programs—was settled science, 'like climate change.'

I certainly hope there's never a rigid, unchanging agreement on the One Best Way to teach people of any age to read. All scholarly disciplines should undergo regular re-assessment, as research reshapes knowledge. There are still classrooms in the United States, after all, where evolution is not settled science.

In the meantime, check out Nancy Bailey's suggestions for improving reading.

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