Latest dispatches from the reading wars

Sarah Mitchell, the New South Wales education minister has announced the roll-out of a phonics screening check across NSW public schools in a robust article in the Sydney Morning Herald with the headline, “The reading wars are over – and phonics has won.” Great News. The phonics check is no panacea – and nobody is suggesting that it is – but we have found it very useful at my place and the findings of the pilot conducted in NSW this year are encouraging.

Mitchell makes the following point that made me wince as I imagined a few ‘balanced literacy’ advocates opening up their morning paper:

“Vice-chancellors need to take a broom to these faculties and clear out the academics who reject evidence-based best practice. A faculty of medicine would not allow anti-vaxxers to teach medical students. Faculties of education should not allow phonics sceptics to teach primary teaching students.”

A trip to Bunnings is on the agenda then.

Anyway, this put me in such a good mood that I decided to produce another one of my flashcards:

I have disagreed with Sarah Mitchell in the past on the topic of exclusions. However, it is not uncommon to find people who are pro-phonics and anti- school discipline – they usually work with children in a one-to-one setting. I guess some of these folks must be advising Mitchell.

It was only as few days ago that Diane Ravitch, once a profoundly sensible voice in the education debate, was objecting the the term, ‘science of reading,’ on her blog. It sounds, to Ravitch, much like talking about the, ‘science of cooking’. There I was thinking there was a science of cooking – an applied form of chemistry involving denatured proteins and the like. But, no, such a thing would be absurd! Good teachers are not scientists and good cooks are not scientists so there can therefore be no science of either. Got that?

However, while bending my head around this logic, I noticed something else. Ravitch mentions the late Jeanne Chall:

“Her 1967 book, Learning to Read: The Great Debate, should have ended the reading wars, but they continued for the next half century. She understood that both sides were right, and that teachers should have a tool-kit of strategies, including phonetic instruction, that they could deploy when appropriate.” [My emphasis]

Perhaps Chall’s 1967 book should have ended the reading wars and saved Sarah Mitchell the bother of doing it 53 years later, but it did not fit with my reading of Chall that she thought ‘both sides were right’. So, I grabbed my copy of Chall’s excellent 2000 book, The Academic Achievement Challenge. In this book, Chall writes:

“Several syntheses of the research comparing the effectiveness, for learning to read, of a meaning (whole language) versus a code emphasis (phonics)… found, in general, that classic approaches to beginning reading instruction (e.g. direct, systematic instruction in phonics – a code emphasis) were more effective than the various innovative approaches with which they were compared (e.g., a meaning emphasis, non phonics, incidental phonics, phonics only as needed, or a whole-language approach). The classic approaches were found to result in higher achievement in both word recognition and reading comprehension. They were more effective for different kinds of children and particularly for children at risk – those from low-income families, those of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, bilingual children, and those with learning disabilities.”

That reads to me as if Chall had a firm view of which side was right and it is a timely reminder of why systematic phonics programmes are an equity issue.

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4 thoughts on “Latest dispatches from the reading wars

  1. Karey says:

    Yes, I’ve never understood how those who claim to be progressive/support social justice and equity could do anything but support systematic phonics. However, even now, the preponderance of university academics, especially women, come from privileged backgrounds. As a first in family student and in my decades as a philosophy academic, I observed a tendency for academics from privileged backgrounds to see the failure of disadvantaged students at school or university as a personal failing of the student, rather than the result largely of systemic factors. This attitude prevents them recognising the contribution of their own teaching practices to student failure.

  2. kesheck says:

    I read The Academic Achievement Challenge a few years ago, and Ravitch’s report of Chall’s assessment that “both sides were right” didn’t seem right to me – but I was too lazy to pull out my copy of the book and confirm my suspicion. Thank you for making up for my laziness.

  3. Reblogged this on Kirsten Pomerantz and commented:
    I feel as though I am doing the hokey pokey. I will teach my first university elementary literacy classes this spring and have only entered into exploring our “literacy wars” in the past two-three months. Every time I think I have a grasp on what is “right”, my understandings shift again.
    Ultimately, I still feel that early elementary teachers MUST be competent at phonics instruction AND at creating literacy- and context-rich learning environments that are culturally-sustaining (to use Earnest Morrell’s term). Upper elementary and beyond need to be able to identify gaps in functional literacy AND be culturally-responsive.
    But I’m still reading, viewing, thinking, and considering.

  4. Pingback: Absolute classic | Filling the pail

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