The Great Reading Debate Part 2


I introduced this topic in my previous blog, where I attempted to condense into a few paragraphs, a century of reading instruction that veered between the extremes of whole-word literacy immersion and explicit but tedious phonic based instruction. In this concluding part, I examine the main battles of the Reading Wars and the important reading models that developed through attempts to reconcile both camps. Incidentally, the label “whole word” gradually morphed into “whole language,” and I have used the latter term from here on.


The Great Reading Debate Part 2


In 1967 the battle heated up sufficiently to attract Federal interest, and two big projects were implemented. The first, funded by the U.S. Office of Education, was The First Grade Studies[1] under Bond and Dykstra. The second came out of the Harvard Reading Laboratory, founded by Dr. Jeanne Chall[2].


The First Grade Studies involved over 200 first grade classes. The students were divided into projects, some of which used code-emphasis (phonics) programs such as DISTAR[3], while others used meaning-emphasis (whole-language) programs such as “Dick and Jane.” After three years of research, involving seven independent project directors, the inescapable conclusion was that children learned better using the code-emphasis programs.

“Pretty much any alternative was superior to the conventional
‘Look-Say’ basals popular in the 1960s” (Pearson, 1997.)


However, Bond and Dykstra also pointed out that teachers weren’t being prepared to differentiate instruction according to their students’ needs. Something that is still not part of the training for today’s student teachers. 


Jeanne Chall took a different approach. Instead of designing and conducting a new study, she reviewed reading instruction studies that had already been published. These studies had compared the prevailing instruction method of the day with the previous methods, from the 1900s until 1965. She also visited some 300 classrooms in the US, England and Ireland and, in 1967, published her book “Learning to Read: The Great Debate.” Her conclusions echoed the results of the First Grade Studies: Systematic phonics teaching approaches were found to be superior to the Look-Say approach in 90% of the studies. 


Was this Phonics First approach to reading accepted along with the findings of the First Grade Studies? Of course not! Dr. Chall’s findings were immediately challenged in the academic community and she was frequently vilified. 


I Quest


Dr. Chall was unafraid to challenge other apocryphal beliefs, daring to state that a knowledge of letters and sounds was a more important predictor of future reading ability than IQ. This was linked to the misconception that continued into the 1980s, that children who failed to learn to read using the whole language approach were cognitively inferior. She was also perceptive enough to emphasize that both decoding and comprehension were important for young readers, and she foresaw that a purely phonics approach risked children failing because they lacked comprehension. 


Despite the rigor of these two groups of researchers resulting in some new phonic workbooks in the 1970s, the attractiveness of whole language had a lot of inertia; it resurged again in the 1970s and 1980s. Whole language guru Frank Smith said, “It was clear to me that reading was an intellectual activity that could be learned by children in the same self-directed way they learned to talk.” [4]


In contrast, Jeanne Chall spoke about learning to read as a difficult process for most children, regardless of environment, and Maryanne Wolf in her book, Proust and the Squid, reminds us that our brains evolved for speaking, not for reading. Reading is far from the natural process Frank Smith would have us believe. 


“Underlying the brain’s ability to learn reading lies its protean capacity to make new connections among structures and circuits originally devoted to other more basic brain processes that have enjoyed a longer existence in human evolution, such as vision and spoken language.” [5]


Ken Goodman, another proponent of the whole language approach, spoke of reading being “a psycholinguistic guessing game.”[6]  He was convinced that we don’t read every word in a text and also figure out words we don’t know using cues. To explain this, he produced a top-down reading model, where a child figures out an unknown word by using cues, such as:


● Syntactic cues. That is word order, rules and patterns of language.

● Semantic or meaning cues.

● Graphophonic cues. That is letter-sound relationships. 


He proposed that a child would make a tentative guess of a word, based on the cues, and then confirm if that made sense before either moving on or re-reading. He said that the reader sampled just enough to confirm or guess what is coming. In other words, reading is a predictive process. 


This is a model with which I am personally quite familiar; it formed a huge part of my reading instruction as an elementary school student teacher in the mid 1980s. 


There are children who are going to read regardless of how we teach, and for them whole language is a wonderful and interesting way to learn. However we all know there are a large number of children who have failed miserably with this kind of approach. As a young teacher it did not take me long to discover that struggling early readers do not learn in a whole language environment. To help them I needed another approach.


1980s: New Views of Reading 


In the late 1970s Louise Rosenblatt spoke about reading happening in the mind, and how the readers reaction to the text created meaning. About the same time, there was a move away from individual learning to focusing on the group with the teacher as facilitator, rather than instructor. Literature circles and book clubs became popular during this period.


In 1983 Jeanne Chall produced her 2nd book, “Stages of Reading Development.”[7] This described the first of two reading models I plan to discuss in greater depth in a future blog. Her work is still relevant today in determining what we should teach in each of the five stages of reading, knowing when we should teach it, and understanding why that is important.


In The Balance


In 1986, researchers Gough and Tunmer developed the “Simple View of Reading”[8] or SVR. They wanted to reconcile the “Reading Wars” argument between the bottom-up and top-down processing proponents. Gough and Tunmer proposed that reading is a combination of both types of processing, not one or the other. To this end, they suggested that two sets of abilities contribute to reading comprehension, word recognition and language comprehension. In addition to helping us understand what should be taught, this framework can be leveraged to assess a child’s reading. This model is important for all readers, but is especially significant for those that struggle. For this reason, the SVR will be featured in a future blog, where I will discuss it in greater depth.


Since 1986, other researchers have developed this model further, so like Dr Chall’s model, the SVR has stood the test of time, and still has relevance today. 


The Reading Crisis of the 1990s


Guided Reading[9] was a philosophy that developed in the 1990s, which involved small groups of children with similar reading behaviors working with a teacher for 15-20 minute sessions. In between working with the teacher, the students worked on set literacy tasks, while the teacher guided a different group. In the US, the Reading Workshop uses this philosophy for small group instruction. Groups used selected texts in one of the reading levels created by Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell. Emphasis was placed on whole language, understanding meaning rather than on phonics, and the books had illustrations that closely related to the text to further convey meaning. 


During this time, Reading Recovery became a popular intensive (12-20 week) method to help struggling readers. It was the brainchild of Marie Clay, a developmental psychologist from New Zealand, and was adopted there in 1983. The program is successful for some students, but despite using phonics, the instruction is not sufficiently explicit to help many struggling readers. 


Marilyn Jager Adams, like Jeanne Chall, worked at Harvard University. She further emphasized Jeanne Chall’s knowledge of best indicators for reading when she said: 


“The two best indicators of early reading success are
alphabet recognition and phonemic awareness.” 


Marilyn Jager Adams developed and published a classroom curriculum to teach the skills of Phonemic Awareness[10] in 1997. Despite her work, the emphasis of this time period was still on Whole Language, but not until the end of this decade was it recognized that children were presenting with more severe learning difficulties, compared to those taught using the phonic programs of the past. 


The 1998 National Reading Panel (NPR) was established to discover how to best teach beginning readers. They reviewed reading research to determine the most effective methods for teaching. The focus was on early reading and there was a renewed interest in field-based studies and Scientifically Based Reading Instruction, or SBRI. Their summary concluded that there were five essential components to teaching reading:


● Phonemic awareness.

● Systematic phonics.

● Fluency.

● Vocabulary development.

● Reading comprehension. 


Once this evidence was presented, there was a resurgence in text books emphasising phonemic awareness and decoding, and also of SBRI assessment using programs such as DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills.)


Since the turn of the new millenium, much of the discussion has focused on what emphasis to place on each of the essential skills for reading, and when and how they should be taught. However, even though Bond and Dykstra pointed out in 1967 that teachers weren’t being prepared to differentiate instruction according to their students’ needs, this is often still the case today. A first step is providing all teachers, and especially student teachers, with the reading research. Some states have passed laws that require graduates of teacher preparation programs to pass tests on the science of reading, before they get licensed. However, there is still a long way to go. I’ll return to explaining these essential reading skills in a future blog, along with an introduction to the latest cutting-edge evidence-based science in the field of reading.


For now, I will close this Great Reading Debate blog with the words of Dr. Jeanne Chall from forty years ago: 


“It’s not a question of phonics or meaning emphasis, it’s a question of how to deliver both in ways that meet the developing needs of all readers.” 


I must also acknowledge Jane Flynn, whose webinar The History of Reading Instruction in the US[11] was inspirational in my writing this blog.



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

[2] Harvard Reading Laboratory, founded by Dr Jeanne Chall

[3] DISTAR: Direct Instruction System for Teaching Arithmetic and Reading. Siegfried Engelmann and Wesley C. Becker. 1968

[4] Understanding Reading: A Psycholinguistic Analysis of Reading and Learning. Frank Smith. First Published 1971.

[5] Proust and the Squid. The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. Maryanne Wolf, 2007. 

[6] Reading: A Psycholinguistic Guessing Game. Kenneth Goodman, 1967.

[7] Stages of Reading Development. Dr. Jeanne Chall. 

[8] The Simple View of Reading is a model proposed by Philip B. Gough and William E. Tunmer in the paper Decoding, Reading, and Reading Disability, published in 1986.

[9] Guided reading. Good first teaching for all children. Fountas, I. C. & Pinnell, G. S. (1996). There is a second edition available, dated 2016.

[10] Phonemic Awareness in Young Children: A Classroom Curriculum by Marilyn Jager Adams, Barbara R.Foorman, Ingvar Lundberg and Terri Beeler.

[11] The History of Reading Instruction in the US: The Reading Wars by Jane Flynn


LornaLorna 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.

Become an OGOA Insider Today!
I agree to have my personal information transfered to MailChimp ( more information )
You will receive first dibs on webinar seats, freebies, and subscriber-only tips and tidbits.
We respect your privacy & will not share your information