The Latest Reading Wars

Commentary in the Chronicle Herald, Saturday December 17 2022

Following a recent spate of letters and op-eds (Andrew Rankin, Nov. 22 et al) regarding the “failure” of Nova Scotia schools to teach all our children to read, I would like to add another perspective to what are now called the “Reading Wars” in education circles.  These new reading wars pit proponents of the “Science of Reading” (whole class systematic phonics instruction in early elementary) against the current “Balanced Approach” to literacy.

As an elementary teacher and researcher of over 30 years, I have taught many children to read, using many different methodologies, and a couple of things have stood out to me. One is that all children learn and develop differently and at different rates. Some children learn to read seemingly effortlessly before they even reach school, others learn in Grade 1 (where the curriculum dictates all should learn) and some need more targeted attention and learn to read in grade 2 and later. A small percentage of children don’t respond well to whole class instruction and will struggle with reading in early elementary, and some of these will fall through the cracks and be labeled dyslexic. 

The second thing that stands out is that after researching for years, I have never found an academic study that has definitively proved that early reading leads to better academic outcomes in high school and beyond. In fact, my observation is that there is no correlation at all – some early readers become bored with school and give up on it; other children who learn to read at 7 or 8 become academic superstars.

I have, however, read lots of research about the value of play in the early years, including in elementary school. Dramatic play, unstructured play and sensory play all have been shown to improve children’s creativity, communication skills, literacy, physical health, and cognitive and socio-emotional development – all important foundations for reading. In fact, prominent educational thinker Pasi Sahlberg and his co-author Bill Doyle, have written a book entitled “Let the Children Play: Why more play will save our schools and help children thrive”.

The “failure” of schools to teach all our children to read is not the fault of a particular methodology, but is instead a failure of our schools to provide the type of solid early basis for literacy (I would recommend 2 or 3 years of literacy-rich play-based learning} as well as a failure to provide the type of individualized reading help in later elementary to those children who need it (not just in Grade 1). At ages 6 and 7, when most children are developmentally ready to tackle the code that is written English, give them interesting books to read and exciting activities to write about as well as the phonetic knowledge to do those things. Most children will begin reading fluently and joyously in those years. For those that don’t, many just need more time, and a smaller subset will need small group or individual focus on phonemic awareness.

The Science of Reading lobby proposes whole class systematic phonics teaching in Primary and early elementary to make sure that those children who may be later diagnosed with dyslexia get the “early interventions” they will need. The problem with this approach is that the vast majority who are NOT dyslexic (95-98% of children), who are taught phonics intensely in Primary, may become bored with or worse, anxious, about reading, as well as being deprived of an opportunity for literacy-rich play. The UK, where systematic phonics has been taught at ever earlier ages for several decades now, has not substantially improved reading scores on national and international tests, and studies are showing a drop in numbers of children reading for pleasure.

Rather than thrusting a whole different approach to teaching reading on already overburdened teachers, let’s first deal with the underlying failures mentioned above. One way that could help would be to reorganize early elementary into multi-age groups, thus lessening the pressure on teachers (and children) to achieve grade level outcomes. Reading Recovery programs have not been completely successful because they are aimed at 6-year-olds, under the assumption that all children are ready to learn by then. If children are not ready, the program is wasted on them, even though a year later they may be ready to take in what it has to offer.

What if we thought of early elementary as a 5 or 6-year block?  Children would spend 2-3 years in the “pre-literacy” class – a mixed group of no more than 20 4 and 5-year-olds. Ideally, they would spend that 2-3 years with the same teacher and group of children, and the program would consist of enriched play-based literacy activities. When they are deemed ready, they would move on to the next stage, “Focus on Literacy”, where literacy is introduced formally (keeping in mind that a certain percentage of children will have already learned to read, either on their own, at school or at home). Again these classes should be no more than 20 children, and ideally they should stay with the same teacher for 2-3 years. The flexibility allowed here would eliminate many of the problems associated with “social promotion” and would address the cultural/socio-economic gap in later educational outcomes caused by lack of exposure to standard English or traumatic early experiences. As well many children start school at the age of 3 ½ and may benefit from an extra year of play just because they are so young. Teachers get to know the children well, and with smaller classes can make sure that each child gets what they need when they need it. 

When children are reading independently and are mature enough, they can move on to upper elementary, where they continue to build on their literacy skills and deepen their understanding of the English language and a whole world of knowledge that will unfold for them.

I am happy to learn from the developments in neurological research that are informing the “Science of Reading” and feel that used in a targeted way, it can be very helpful. But I know that phonics is only one skill in the vast array of skills necessary for good readers. Most children will learn to read when they are given the time and teaching that is developmentally appropriate, individualized and allows them to experience the joy of good literature. It seems self-evident that children who read a lot and read well will do better academically – but they have to want to read. Forcing them when they are not ready is a sure-fire way of discouraging them.