A Phony War: Phonics and Balanced Literacy

A MiddleWeb Blog

There’s a cultural war in Congress. There’s an actual war in Ukraine. Do we need a war in reading, too? 

In one of my shortest posts of the year, I’m going to vote no. See you next month.

Just kidding. It’s true, however, that I have always voted no against binaries. This is such an ingrained insight for me that I have a tattoo on my front shoulder with only the word “and” in it – as opposed to “or.”

In the spirit of “or,” the increasingly shock-jock headlines of the New York Times would have you believe that proponents of phonics – or “the science of reading,” its other moniker (more on that later) – are “in revolt” and “on crusade” against an enemy of “balanced literacy.”

Here are a couple of problems with that.

One: phonics is not “a revolt.”

As the Times article itself actually stipulates when you drill down past the headline, while there is a powerful movement currently to align curriculum more tightly with what we have learned about the cognitive science of reading (and rightly so), phonics itself has been identified as critical to reading since the infamous National Reading Panel’s 2000 meta-analysis on reading research.

Further, turning around kids’ reading levels by implementing stronger science-based pedagogy is not a revolutionary process. For Jack Silva’s district in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, it took eight years – and they’re not done yet.

Two: phonics is not “the science of reading.”

What? It’s true. “The science of reading” is not synonymous with phonics and never has been. There is plenty of solid scientific research in the reading world supporting not only phonics, but the importance of self-regulating reading strategies, background knowledge, executive functioning skills, and motivation and engagement.

If you want a really thoughtful and well anchored model for reading, one that honors yet expands other well-regarded models, I would highly recommend The Active View of Reading put forth by Nell Duke and Kelly Cartwright in 2021.

Three: phonics is not “the answer.”

PS 124 in Chinatown, NY, where I student taught English as a New Language (ENL), has used Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study from when I was there and first learned about balanced literacy – 1999 – to the present moment, almost a quarter of a century later. They were, and remain, one of the strongest elementary schools in New York City and the state, despite over half their students being economically disadvantaged. Have they abandoned or misled their children and families for all these years? I would be very uncomfortable saying so.

I would argue that the teachers of PS 124 from whom I first learned about balanced literacy know that you must not sacrifice decoding skills for other “soft skills” like motivation, engagement, and background knowledge – nor the reverse. Both these aspects of learning are critical.

More than that, these aspects of learning are inextricable from one another. A child who can read feels the exhilaration of unlocking and mastering the mysterious black marks on a page. That same child, reading avidly about spaceships, vaping, or falling in love, acquires further practice, application, and refinement in decoding. Experienced teachers know you can’t separate these realities.

So ditch the reading wars, folks – for our students, our school, and our peace of mind.

Feature image by IvanPais from Pixabay 

Dina Strasser

Dina Strasser is a veteran educator of 20 years, 14 of those as a middle school ELA/ELL teacher. For six years she worked in many capacities at the non-profit group EL Education. Now she's back in the classroom, and this year she’ll be teaching middle and high school English language learners. Her early experiments with dirt have progressed into a lifelong love of the outdoors.

3 Responses

  1. Laure Boren says:

    Educator since 1994 here. I would seriously like to see the histories of all US curriculums and educational management be required for all admin certificates. Yes, all. We’ve done this over and over for the past one hundred fifty years. We slip into the same traps set by powerful educational product suppliers. The phrase, “those who do not learn history are condemned to repeat it,” fully applies here.

  2. Joyce Eddy says:

    I agree completely. I introduced balanced literacy into the last district in which I worked as a principal. I believed in it then and I believe in it now as I tutor a fourth grader who speaks a language in Chinese as well as English. I never thought phonics should be abandoned, but some thought there was too little emphasis on it – maybe, for some kids but by and large no.

  3. Janet says:

    I’m glad that’s been your experience, but there are teachers who’ve professed that they never learned how to teach phonics and never knew there was an issue until they realized their own kids were never taught phonics. There’s even a professor of teaching who’s been arguing against teaching phonics, and he has a lot of people agreeing with him. As long as there are kids who aren’t being taught decoding, it really is important that we work to change this.

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