The Great Reading Debate Part 1


The Great Reading Debate Part 1


Ever since colonial times, educators have debated the correct way to teach reading. A century ago, this crystallized into distinct factions teaching either explicit decoding using phonics or more implicit learning through whole-word instruction methods. The argument between researchers, reading professionals, politicians, teachers and parents has become very heated at times, and in the 1950s the term “The Reading Wars” was coined to describe this debate. It will come as no surprise that the best way to teach reading is still a hot topic today. 




Through a pair of blogs and an upcoming webinar, titled “Three Reading Models That Matter,” I will introduce you to the reading models that have defined American classroom instruction since the 1930s. I will discuss the science based arguments for and against these models, and detail some of the reading programs that resulted. The second part of the “The Great Reading Debate” will consider the later models that have sought to combine the arguments from both camps.


Why is Reading Important? 


You may be asking yourself why this is so important? Well, here are some answers. 


Over half of elementary-aged students in the United States are not proficient in reading. The results of the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) report indicated that 64% of fourth-grade students and 66% of eighth-grade students were reading at or below basic level. This means two out of every three students have only partially mastered the skills necessary for proficient reading. Not only did NAEP report that these students fell below proficient reading levels, but also that this situation has changed little since 1977![1]


The next question that springs to mind is: If that’s what goes on in schools, what happens when students leave school? These US statistics are from 2010.[2]


● 33% of high school graduates never read another book during their lifetime.

● 44% of college graduates never read another book after graduation.

But, so what? Why is it so important to learn to read and keep on reading?  Well for starters, people struggling with literacy are more likely to be poor and to miss out on opportunities to participate fully in society and the workforce. [3]

From the point of view of personal enrichment:

● Reading develops the imagination and transports you to other worlds.

● Reading improves focus and concentration, memory, and communication.

● Reading provides cheap or free education and entertainment.

● Reading improves language development.

● And so on and on.  


Thorndike’s Model and the Dick and Jane Readers


Hopefully I have now convinced you of the importance of reading, so let’s step back in time to the 1930s, where we find the first model that heavily influenced teaching methods in American schools and beyond. Edward Thorndike’s Connectionism model of learning in animals led him to develop his theory for education. 


Thorndike was a firm believer in repetition and incremental whole-word learning. He published “The Teacher’s Word Book” in 1921, followed by books of the twenty thousand and then thirty thousand words, “Most Frequently and Widely Used in General Reading for Children and Young People”, in 1932 and 1944. As you might guess, he was fascinated with word frequency and that was a big factor in his choice of words for beginning readers. Examples of books that were influenced by his work were the “Dick and Jane” books and in the UK “Janet and John.” 


Meanwhile, other experts were raising the alarm over the “Whole Word” or “Look and Say” reading methods of this time. These included, Dr. Samuel T. Orton (1879-1948,) who with Anna Gillingham developed the Orton-Gillingham Approach. Orton warned that the “whole word” sight reading method would cause problems for a large number of children. He conceded that some children could benefit, but in the 1929 Journal of Education Psychology, he described the “whole word” method as an obstacle to reading for the majority of students. Sadly, his words went unheeded. 


Thorndike’s model focused on the 100 or so words that make up half of those encountered by third grade readers, but there are tens of thousands of unique words that third graders will also meet. This is an awful lot of words for children to learn simply by repeating them, and even Thorndike later changed his views on the benefits of repetition in learning.


Why Johnny Can’t Read and Why Lorna Struggled! 


With the publication of the book “Why Johnny Can’t Read,” in 1955, the Reading Debate really heated up. The author, Rodolf Flesch, who despised the Dick and Jane readers, furiously attacked publishers and educators for depriving children of phonics. However, it was the 1957 Russian launch of the Sputnik that lit the fuse and turned Debate into War. Science and math teachers shared the blame with reading teachers for the fact that Russia had beaten America into space. 


In the 1960s the behaviorists, led by B.F. Skinner, determined that reading requires a set of distinct skills that need to to be taught systematically and sequentially. They developed teaching materials that gave immediate feedback. Children first had to learn each letter or grapheme sound, and then build up to whole words. This is called a bottom-up approach where you move from the parts (letter sounds) to understanding the whole text (meaning.) 


However the behaviorist phonic-based materials, including DISTAR and Reading Mastery Programmed Reading, were not terribly stimulating and many children found them boring. There were still plenty of supporters of the Dick and Jane readers, resulting in Gestalt, or whole language, push back against the Skinnerian behaviorists. The Look and Say Approach continued and Language Experience, which uses the child’s own words, sentences and interests, became popular. I grew up in the Look and Say era in a British school system that used the “Janet and John” books. As a child with undiagnosed dyslexia, it is an understatement to say this was not a good time for me. School was a frustrating and bewildering place and reading an unfathomable mystery. Fortunately, my mother eventually took matters into her own hands, but not before I had fallen behind my peers and was struggling to keep up.  


In 1967 the whole-word versus phonics war was raging fiercely enough to prompt Federal level interest, and two big projects were implemented. The first, funded by the U.S. Office of Education, was The First Grade Studies[4]. The second came out of the Harvard Reading Laboratory, founded by Dr Jeanne Chall of Harvard University, …


I will pick up the story and continue “The Great Reading Debate” in part 2 of this blog. 



[1] AIM Institute for Reading and Research Integrated Literacy Model Executive Summary 2017)

[2] TEDX Auckland Reinventing Reading given Paul Cameron

[3] The quote about how people struggling with literacy were more likely to be poor was taken from this Project Literacy website, where you can find much more information about how poor illiteracy impacts people all over the world.

[4] The First Grade Studies, Guy Bond and Robert Dykstra, 1967. Supported by the U.S. Office of Education. 




Lorna Wooldridge is a dyslexia specialist tutor with over twenty-five years of experience and qualifications in the field of learning differences, from both the UK and USA. Lorna has a unique perspective on this condition as she has dyslexia, and her passion is to serve this community in any way she can.


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