Lessons from the Reading Wars

On both the academic and political fronts of the ‘reading wars,’ the real issues have been ignored or trivialized by the heated rhetoric of the movement

By Jeff McQuillan

A review of Reading Lessons: The Debate Over Literacy by Gerald Coles (Hill and Wang, 1998).

The debate over teaching children how to read in school has tended to go in cycles over the past 50 years, at least in terms of the public’s attention. The pattern goes something like this: every five to seven years, a “crisis” in reading is declared. Our children can’t read, we are told, with millions on the verge of leaving the school system (or having left it) illiterate. The villain of these crises is always some form of soft-headed, feel-good “meaning-oriented” teaching, which has deprived children of the real “skills” they need to read. The solution is, naturally, teaching those “skills” explicitly, usually under the banner of “phonics.” Tagging along, and often provoking, these cyclical crises is a familiar team of eager entrepreneurs selling phonics wares, I-told-you-so researchers promoting “scientific” studies, and cynical politicians promising to “get tough” on offending school districts.

We are currently witnessing an upswing in the crisis cycle, as state legislatures, media pundits, and even the president proclaim expertise on (and solutions to) the latest “crisis” in reading instruction. Enter Gerald Coles, a psychiatrist by training and well-known academic gadfly. In his thoughtful and thought-provoking new book, Reading Lessons: The Debate Over Literacy (Hill and Wang, 1998), Coles takes on both the academic and political aspects of the “reading wars,” and finds that (as usual) the real issues in the fight have been ignored or trivialized by the heated rhetoric of the moment.

Reviewing the Controversy

Coles begins his tightly packed book (a slim 203 pages, including footnotes and references) by reviewing the familiar accusations and claims of both “phonics” and “whole language” advocates, noting correctly that the roots of the “Great Debate” in reading methodology go back not just decades, but centuries. More importantly, he provides a historical context for the disagreements over how children are taught not only reading, but other school subjects as well. Like writer and researcher Frank Smith, Coles is aware that the debates over reading are rarely just about whether teachers should teach letter-sound correspondences or use interesting children’s literature. They are often rooted in divergent views about the purposes of schooling, the role of parents and teachers, and much more. It is these deeper purposes, he observes early in the book, that should be our real concern in talking about how we approach reading in our schools.

But before getting to his larger agenda, Coles treats the recurring symptoms of the crises, the debate over “phonics” versus “whole language” methods in teaching children to read. To do this, Coles must dive into the often arcane world of experimental psychology, but he does an admirable job of explaining some of the more technical issues of the reading debate, especially the role of “phonological awareness” in reading. The general reader with a limited background in this area will appreciate Coles’ attempt to demystify the arguments over the role of sound in reading. Readers with a more academic interest are provided copious footnotes to satisfy their curiosity for citations and more detailed arguments.

In the end, Coles concludes that, contrary to sweeping pronouncements of some policy makers and researchers, the case in favor of teaching “basic skills” in an isolated, systematic manner is not supported by the existing scientific research. This is not to say that he sides whole-heartedly with the “whole language” movement on every point, but it is clear that Coles judges the “pro-phonics” evidence from a much more critical perspective than it has received in the media so far. Equally interesting is his discussion of the role of emotions in learning, and how what students feel about themselves as learners can have an important impact on their success in school.

While the analyses of the “technical” issues in the reading debates are thorough, meticulous, and quite persuasive, it is Coles’ discussions of the broader social context that are most compelling and deserving of greater attention. He provides the reader with a penetrating look at the goals of “reading” in school, and how school does and does not shape students in thinking critically about their world.

Both phonics and whole language advocates have failed, Coles contends, to provide an adequate definition for what we want children to know, for clarifying the ends of reading. If children are to “read for meaning,” what, Coles asks, is the content of that “meaning”? Meaning, he asserts, is not a neutral category, but requires a particular view of the world. Take as an example the wider use of trade books by many teachers. While many would applaud this shift in reading materials, the stories told by these books often do not challenge the status quo of inequality, racism, and sexism present in the society at large. What do we mean when we say a child “comprehends the meaning” of these stories? A real reform in reading necessitates, as Coles points out, that we think about which meanings children arrive at, and which meanings they have access to in the curriculum

Unfortunately, for many children, these important issues are played out in a world that limits the resources made available to them at nearly every level, thus denying them the opportunity to receive anything nearing a “quality education” in reading or anything else. An example: According to Coles, only one out of every six children eligible for the pre-school program, Head Start, actually received services between 1967 and 1992. These inequities of funding and resources continue throughout the life of poor and working class children, through academic segregation (“tracking”), large class sizes, and limited school budgets in urban schools, all combined with inadequate spending on health care, housing, and social services. It is against this dreary backdrop that schools and teachers are exhorted to “solve” the reading crisis.

It is a safe bet that the next “disaster” in reading education will look remarkably like our current crisis, with wild claims about the growing number of children who are illiterate, teachers who have abandoned “skills instruction,” and school systems that have failed to do their job. It will matter little if there is, in fact, any evidence to back up these claims. Witness our present crisis, which is taking place despite the fact that reading achievement has been unchanged in the U.S. since at least the late 1960s, and that U.S. students ranked among the best readers in the world in the latest international comparisons. The data do not matter. That’s because reading crises are not really about reading at all; they are symptoms, it appears, of our larger inability to grapple with deeper questions and more unpleasant problems in school, such as equity and democracy.

More than anything else, these debates serve to distract our attention from the more serious inequalities experienced daily by children in many urban areas. Faced with these truly urgent and deeply rooted crises, political leaders would of course prefer that we be alarmed at the inadequacies of second grade spelling instruction. Until we see past this deceptive crisis rhetoric, the reading wars will continue, cycle after cycle.

Jeff McQuillan, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of education at California State University, Fullerton, and author of The Literacy Crisis: False Claims, Real Solutions (Heinemann, 1998).