The Great Debate: The Science of Reading and Where I Stand

(And what you can do to support your child in their journey of learning to read)

I’ve held off on writing on this topic for a WHILE, because once you get into it, the opinions and criticisms and arguments come fast and furiously, even if it’s unwarranted or unwanted. I’m a pretty rational person, even when it comes to controversial topics, which means if someone’s perspectives, beliefs, values, or philosophies are different from my own…rather than trying to argue and prove my point, I try to listen, learn, empathize, and understand. And when I listen, learn, empathize, and understand, sometimes my opinion stays the same, sometimes my opinion changes, and sometimes my opinion just adapts or evolves. None of these outcomes are bad scenarios, in fact, I’d argue, we learn a heck of a lot more when we fill our circle with those who are DIFFERENT from us than those who are the same.

If you’re in elementary education, then you’ve probably heard of the science of reading by now, and you most definitely have heard of ‘the reading wars’. And if you’re a parent of a child in elementary school, then you may have heard this too. If you’re a parent of a child who is struggling to learn to read, then you most definitely may have heard of this either in your own research or in your meetings with your child’s teachers and school personnel. So let me explain…

The Reading Wars: Defined

There are two ‘camps’ of reading experts out there right now, both backed by lots of studies and lots of research. Both camps also continuously attempt to discredit or disprove the other camp in an effort to promote their own as THE answer to teaching all children to read. So let’s meet the players:

On one side of the reading wars, we have those who support the whole language approach to learning to read. The whole language approach operates under the assumption that we learn to read and write best by engaging in language. In other words, we learn whole words by encountering them in context rather than understanding them in isolation.

On the other side of the reading wars, we have those who support the systematic phonics approach to learning to read. This camp operates under the assumption that direct, explicit, and systematic instruction in letter-to-sound correspondences is the best way to teach children to read. In other words, we learn to read by sounding words out, free from any supplemental information like context or pictures.

As with many debates, there’s also usually a player in the middle, and in this case, there is. Right smack in the middle lies the balanced literacy approach to learning to read. Balanced literacy pulls philosophies both from whole language and systematic phonics. In other words, those who support balanced literacy would agree that YES, it is important to teach kids letter-to-sound correspondences so they can ‘sound out’ words, but YES it is ALSO important to teach kids how context can help one learn to read as well.

Here’s a visual to illustrate these approaches, taken from a McGraw Hill publication, and chosen simply for the sake of simplicity:

My Beliefs, My Perspective, My Philosophy (Criticism Welcome!)

Ok, so, now that you have a basic understanding of the reading wars…which is now in its third decade or so…I’m going to share where my beliefs fall. First, you should know that my undergraduate and post-graduate education, work, and research would probably fall within the balanced literacy approach. Makes sense, because I’m typically a middle-of-the-road person…lines up best with the rational side of me – I’m able to see the strengths of both sides of an argument and come up with a compromise somewhere in the middle. And in most of my career so far, I’ve seen the biggest positive effects on kids with the balanced literacy approach.

BUT, in my work as a literacy specialist, I’ve had a relative re-awakening in the past few years. Maybe I’m late to this party, and there are probably loads of experts out there who have already realized this, and are a lot smarter and more impactful than me. My re-awakening, you ask? All players in the reading wars are right, and all players in the reading wars are wrong.

Let me be clear…

I DO think kids need direct, systematic, and explicit instruction in phonics.

I DO think kids need regular and easy access to trade books.

I DO think kids need to be taught to sound words out AND to use context to help.

I DO think kids need to self-monitor their reading and learn how they, themselves, can determine if they got a word wrong while reading.

I DO think kids need to know what to do to fix a word they realize they got wrong (called self-correcting), and I DO think there are various strategies to do this including BUT NOT LIMITED TO sounding out, looking at the picture, thinking about what sounds right, etc.

In fact, I think learning to read is so specific and individualized to the child who’s in front of you, that you can’t slap on a philosophy that is one size fits all and expect it to reach every single child. Where I disagree with the visual I included above is the part of the visual that says, “best for…”, because I think that statement compartmentalizes kids into labels that attempt to describe how they learn holistically, when learning in general and learning to read is much, MUCH more complicated than that.

In short, the best approach (IN MY OPINION) to teaching a child to read and write is to treat that individual as their own person with strengths and weaknesses, and how their strengths and weaknesses play off of one another (or don’t play off of one another). There are and will be students who need the phonics-based approach, and there are and will be kids who can learn to read and write with the whole language approach. And there are and will be kids who learn to read and write with the balanced literacy approach. But I feel strongly that teaching kids to read and write is more a concoction of different approaches based off of what that student is showing you they already do/know. The way I teach student A to read and write is 1000% different from the way I teach student B to read and write. In fact, I think I’d be hard pressed to find any two students in my career that I have taught to read and write in the exact same way.

So, as a parent, what can you do to support your child?

  1. Read often. Read with them, read to them, and create a general positive atmosphere and mood around reading. Talk to them about what they read. Have conversations about books. Instill a love of reading as best you can, and don’t force it.
  2. Notice how they read. Do they read accurately? Fluently? With expression and intonation? If not, try modeling for them. Show them (without telling them explicitly) how you read when you read accurately/fluently/with expression and intonation.
  3. Encourage and coach them. Don’t tell them a word when they are stuck, but don’t necessarily let it go either. Ask them to try a strategy (you don’t even have to know the strategies!) that might help, and if they aren’t sure what you mean by ‘strategy’, prompt them to think about what their teacher has been teaching them. Sometimes, even just telling them, “Go back and try that again,” is enough to solve the problem. And don’t get mad at them. If your child is frustrated, or you are frustrated, it’s time to put the book away, or change to a different book altogether.
  4. Be the parent, not the teacher. (Harsh, I know, I’m sorry!….and even I struggle with this one, for the record.) It’s easy to hop on Google and start researching and looking for ways you can help – we all want the best for our children and will do whatever we can to help them succeed. I’ve seen many instances of this where a parent has the best intentions, but they end up counteracting what we are trying to teach in school, and the child just ends up very confused. It’s even easier to begin ‘teaching’ your child to read the way you were taught to read (“Just sound it out!” or “Here’s some flashcards, memorize these words!”), but (1) your child isn’t you and (2) best practices in education and instruction have changed light years since we were in school.
  5. Avoid comparisons. Avoid comparisons to siblings, friends, or peers. It’s not that comparing is bad, it’s just that it can get you down a rabbit hole, and most of the time that rabbit hole is negative space. If you find yourself subconsciously comparing often, remind yourself that all children are different, all children learn at different paces, and all children learn in different ways.
  6. Question and advocate. If your child is struggling or begins to struggle, it is ok to question your child’s teacher(s) or advocate when you think you’re not being heard or your child’s needs aren’t being met. Ask what methods your teacher/school is using, ask if there are opportunities to try other methods or strategies out. Ask if your child has received targeted small-group or individual instruction to address his or her challenges and weaknesses. Advocate for assessments to determine your child’s strengths and weaknesses if the teachers haven’t already (hint: all good teachers should be able to tell you your child’s strengths and weaknesses, and have data to prove it). And don’t become complacent – trust your gut, and get second opinions from professionals (not other parents!) if something doesn’t seem right, or you aren’t seeing progress.

Social Justice through Children’s Literature Part 1: Ability and Strength

This is the first post of a mini-series focused on using children’s literature to discuss social issues and move towards social justice.

Preface: Throughout this piece, I use the word ‘disability’ when referring to individuals with conditions that are labeled as a disability in mainstream society. I suggest (and am trying myself) beginning to shift one’s understanding of an individual with a disability to an individual who is differently-abled. I am also committed to using people-first language, or language that puts the person first and foremost, not the condition. I try my best to stick with “individuals with disabilities” rather than “disabled individuals”.

I’m in the midst of working on a project at work involving a social-justice themed, after-school, virtual, book club (yeah that’s a mouthful). It’s year three of this club, and it has evolved so much since we started three years ago. But it feels like this year is different, given everything going on in our world right now. We’re trying to be brave and tackle social issues head on, and as a result I’m learning so much about my own identity, privilege, implicit bias, and ways I can become an ally to disadvantaged and minority groups. To put it bluntly, I’m an educated, straight, white, comfortably-living, female with a heck of a lot of privilege (that I will always be working to understand), and that makes me a member of many majority groups (with the exception of female, of course). I want to raise my own children to be able to understand and recognize their own identity, and privilege, and be thoughtful about ways they, too, can be an ally to peers and others who may be experiencing bias, prejudice, discrimination, and/or racism. So how has that landed me here, in another blog post, writing about books?

I’ve said before I often turn to children’s literature to help me teach my students and children about topics that others might deem uncomfortable, controversial, or risky. I have found that when I am discussing heavy (loaded?) and important societal issues that can also be very emotional (and sometimes trigger fear and anger), I can create a safer space for dialogue and discussion by talking in the context of a book or it’s characters. This creates a “once-removed” experience that often then opens the doors for true and honest discussions and sharing of personal experiences within the group.

When we launch Reading Club 3.0 in a few weeks, we will be targeting categories of social issues each week, ranging from ability and strength all the way to race, culture, and religion. We’ve bit off a lot, and I’m not sure if we’ll be able to chew it all, but we sure as heck will try. The other facilitator and I decided to start with ability/disability, simply because this is a category that is accessible (usually) to young children, because it is spoken about much more openly than some of the other categories like race and religion. Also, since some individuals with disabilities kids are exposed to throughout their short lives in school and at home are physical and therefore visible (think wheelchairs, crutches, walkers, etc.), we start with the concrete in order to move into the more abstract (invisible) issues later on. (And we plan appropriately to address individuals with invisible disabilities as well, don’t worry.)

So, let’s talk about the identity category of ability/disability. I have already seen my 4yo and 2yo react to individuals with visible disabilities that we’ve seen or socialized with in our own lives. For example, I have a very dear friend with CP, and we get together usually once a year. The past few years, Luca has exhibited trepidation, nervousness, and overall avoidance during our visits. I also distinctly remember one occasion a while ago at Dunkin Donuts where we were waiting in line for coffee and donuts. A little person was waiting in line in front of us, and Luca was openly scared and asking questions. My point in sharing these examples? YOUNG kids, like babies and toddlers, start to identify and feel most comfortable with people who are LIKE them (research-based, not just opinion…look it up!), so as they start to experience differences in the real world, their implicit biases can already start to show – like Luca’s did in these instances. I use these examples to show how addressing ability/disability (and any other social issue) with third and fourth graders is nothing new to them, I promise. Still, it can be uncomfortable for anyone because our society’s norm is to ignore and pretend like it doesn’t exist so as to not offend…it hasn’t been until recently where people have started to speak up about addressing it openly and head on in order to educate and progress.

I’ve been rambling a bit, so to make a long story short, here it is: I’m going to share 5 picture books I’ll use with my students and with my own kids to address individuals with a disability, both the visible and invisible kind. I’ll link each one to an Amazon List called “Social Justice Children’s Literature” too!

And I’ll create follow-up posts recommending picture books to address gender, family unit, poverty and homelessness, immigration and cultural identity, and religion and race.

Here we go.

Wilma Unlimited by Kathleen Krull: A retell/biography of Wilma Rudolph, a US female Olympian runner, who became the world’s fastest runner after experiencing polio and a resulting disability as a young child. This book addresses a visible disability.

Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah by Laurie Ann Thompson: Another book that addresses a visible disability, this book tells the story of a West African boy who was born with “only one good leg” and experienced prejudice, bias, and discrimination as a result. Rather than feeling resigned to his disability, he persevered to learn how to ride a bike with one leg, and set an example of how being disabled is actually being differently-abled, and people with disabilities can still do everything one without a disability can do. You might be familiar with the movie Emmanuel’s Gift, narrated by Oprah Winfrey!

We’re All Wonders: Read Together Edition by R.J. Palacio: A companion to the chapter book (and movie) called Wonder, this books shares what it’s like to be Auggie, a boy who feels like any other kid but is not always seen that way, because of his facial deformity. It shows a child’s desire to belong, and encourages all of us to choose kindness and to understand empathy.

My Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay by Cari Best: This book takes the reader along with Zulay and her three best friends, who are all in the same first grade class. She is just like her friends, except she is blind. A fun school tradition is fast approaching…Field Day! Zulay decides she wants to run a race, and the story shows her journey to doing just that, much to everyone’s surprise.

My Brother Charlie by Holly Robinson Peete and Ryan Elizabeth Peete: Told through the perspective of his sister, this book explores what it’s like to have Charlie, a boy with autism, as a brother. Even though he doesn’t look any different, his brain works in a different way. I like this story because it explores an invisible disability.

There are sooo many other good choices for this category, and all categories, so be sure to check the Amazon links on each title for a full list of titles!

If I had one wish for this post, and the series of posts to follow, it would simply be to encourage parents and teachers out there to be selective and purposeful with the books we might be choosing to read to or read with our kids. Children’s literature can go a long way in helping to shape and form the character and values we hope our children develop and grow up to have!