Published Aug 3, 2023
min read
Parent Resources

Navigating the Reading Wars: A Guide for Parents and Teachers

Lauren Sittel
Literacy Specialist

Reading is a fundamental skill that plays a crucial role in a child's education and overall development, but a long-standing debate known as the "Reading Wars" has created confusion among parents and teachers about the best way to teach children to read.

Understanding the Reading Wars:

There are numerous perspectives and decades of research involved in understanding this buzzword, which popped up in the 90s and has resurfaced in recent years. But don’t let the combative tone of the term “reading wars” put you off—part of the reason people get so worked up about reading instruction is because helping all children learn to read because it’s a high-stakes enterprise. High levels of literacy are crucial to success in academic and adult life, and we all want our children to realize that potential.

The natural question that arises from the noble goal of literacy for all is: “Which methods or teaching reading are going to be the most effective for the most students?” And by the 1990’s there were two distinct answers to this question: the phonics-based approach and the whole-language approach.

Phonics-Based Approach:

The phonics-based approach emphasizes the systematic teaching of letter-sound relationships. It focuses on breaking words down into individual sounds (phonemes) and teaching children how to blend those sounds together to read words. The sounds and rules of written English are taught directly and progressing from easiest to most complex over the course of years. Proponents of this method argue that it provides a solid foundation for decoding unfamiliar words, ultimately resulting in crucial orthographic mapping in the brain that is critical for reading fluency and comprehension.

Whole Language Approach:

The whole language approach focuses on the need for motivation and engagement in order for a child to learn to read. It encourages children to develop reading skills through exposure to authentic, high-interest texts and comprehension activities. Whole-language emphasizes the use of context cues, sight words, and meaning-based strategies to read.  Advocates for this approach believe that it fosters a love for reading and promotes meaningful engagement with texts (see this definition from the Encyclopedia of Child Behavior and Development).).

Striking a Balance:

After several years of the whole language vs. phonicss battle, an argument arose for a balanced approach to reading instruction in the lat 1990/s. Incorporating elements of both phonics and whole language, the idea of balanced literacy was to combine phonics instruction with opportunities for reading authentic texts to provide a comprehensive and well-rounded reading experience.

Though the idea of balancing aspects of both approaches makes sense, evidence has shown that phonics instruction, especially in the early years of reading instruction, is far more effective in predicting strong reading outcomes later in life than whole language instruction. Even the educator who first coined the term envisioned the “balance” being the whole language strategies are great for motivation to read, but phonics was better for actual instruction in reading.

That brings us to the present day, where the main shift has been to use the vast body of interdisciplinary research on how our brains acquire, process, and comprehend written language to inform which instructional practices to use with young readers, aka the Science of Reading movement.

Why This Matters for Parents

As a parent, understanding the reading wars and the different approaches to teaching reading is essential for supporting your child's literacy development. By being informed about the phonics-based and whole-language approaches, you can actively participate in your child's reading journey both at home and in the classroom.

At home, you can apply whole language tenets of having a literacy-rich environment and providing plenty of opportunities for a child to positively engage with books and texts. Numerous studies show that a parent’s own reading habits and involvement in reading at home have a big impact on literacy development in early elementary school. By embracing a balanced approach and creating a literacy-rich environment at home, you can play a vital role in nurturing your child's reading skills and setting them on a path to lifelong learning success.

Knowing how critical phonics skills are for a foundation of lifeline literacy, you can be on the lookout for resources that build those skills. Whether something like letter-sound flashcards or a monthly subscription to Read With Ello, providing your child with engaging ways to practice phonics will make at-home reading time all the more effective.

You can advocate for curriculum and instructional practices in your child’s school that incorporate direct, explicit, and sequential phonics instruction in their reading curriculum. Knowing the importance of strong, early phonics instruction empowers you to collaborate effectively with educators so your child receives instruction that fosters confident, motivated reading and gives them a strong foundation for the lifelong development of literacy skills.

Why This Matters for Teachers

As an educator, understanding the reading wars and the different approaches to teaching reading is crucial for designing effective literacy instruction. Familiarizing yourself with what research says about effective reading instruction, both phonics-based and whole language-inspired, allows you to make informed decisions about your instructional strategies, ensuring that you confidently provide students with a wide range of abilities and need effective, evidence-based instruction.

Collaboration with parents is also crucial. By sharing your knowledge and insights about the reading wars, you can help parents understand the benefits of phonics instruction, as well as the importance of creating a literacy-rich environment at home and pointing them in the direction of tools like Read With Ello for at-home practice.

At the end of the day, all parents and educators want to empower young readers to become confident, skilled, lifelong readers. The key to cutting through the noise of the reading wars is understanding the history behind them and research spurred by them to help us all make better-informed, evidence-based decisions and evaluations about our children’s reading instruction

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