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  • Susan Stoderl

The Longest War | The Reading War Continues--Almost 175 Years Old

Two methods of teaching reading have been sparring since the mid-1800s. One is the “science of reading theory,” and the other is “balanced literacy.” The science of reading emphasizes systematic phonics instruction, while the balanced literacy method is based on whole-language instruction. 

In 1835, the McGuffey Readers, primers for students from grades one to six, became the most popular teaching method. They used a phonics-based literacy system. Then in the mid-1800s, Horace Mann began speaking out against the Readers. Mann believed it was better to teach children to learn whole words first, so they developed a love of reading, rather than breaking the words into phonemes and phonics. 

For decades, systematic phonics instruction prevailed. Then, in the 1920s, there was a shift to the “whole language approach.” In this method, children learn to read by analyzing the meaning and context of the words. In the 1950s and 60s, there was a shift back to phonics-based instruction. Then, in 1997, a federally funded National Reading Panel study concluded there were five essential pillars of literacy instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. This led to “balanced literacy,” which bridges the divide between “whole language” and heavily “phonics-based” approaches. 

Most recently, in 2023, New York City’s public school system changed the literacy curriculum to align with the science of reading theory which advocates teaching literacy skills focused on phonemes (the sounds heard in words), and phonics (linking sounds heard with the letters and letter combinations of what’s written). This came about because the 2022 testing showed that one-half of the third graders read below the third-grade level.

And so the war continues.


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