Many years ago, in the 1990s and the early years of this century, I was a vigorous participant in what was known as “the reading wars.” I supported phonics and opposed whole language. I was influenced by the work of Jeanne Chall at Harvard, who described the ebb and flow of reading philosophies. I wrote many articles explaining why phonics was crucial and why whole language was deficient. In my book, “Left Back” (2000), I wrote an overview of the reading wars and showed the deficiencies of whole language.

In 1997, Congress created the National Reading Panel, composed of literacy experts who mostly supported phonics. Its report in 2000 strongly endorsed explicit phonics instruction. In 2001, No Child Left Behind included a program called Reading First, which gave large sums to districts that gave preference to phonics. Phonics was winning, for sure. Proponents of whole language (which valued meaning over the mechanics or reading) began calling their program “balanced literacy” to remove the implication that they opposed phonics.

By 2001, it seemed clear that phonics had won the war. But in 2006, the Reading First program blew up; not only were the evaluations unimpressive, but there were allegations of self-dealing and conflicts of interest as some phonics promoters were pushing their own textbooks. And the “war” itself lost steam.

As for me, I no longer think this “war” is a worthy cause. Reading teachers understand that students need both phonics and meaning. They know that children need to be able to sound out words but that it is boring to do that for weeks on end. Children need meaning. They get it when their teachers read to them, and they get it when they learn to read by themselves.

I am no reading expert, but I can see good sense in both approaches. I have seen balanced literacy classes where children were enjoying reading. I understand the importance of phonics as a tool to help children get off to a strong start. Wise teachers know when and how to use the literacy approach they need. Children’s needs are different. Good teachers know that and don’t need to be told by legislators how to teach. (And for older children, I love grammar, spelling, and diagramming sentences).

I read recently that NYC Chancellor Carmen Farina was reviving balanced literacy in the New York City schools, and some of my old allies wrote to ask if I was outraged. No, I was not. Balanced literacy can co-exist with phonics. Children need both decoding and meaning. Most important, they need to learn the joy of reading. It unlocks the door to the storehouse of knowledge.

I am no longer a combatant in the reading wars. What matters most today is the survival of public education. We must stop nonsensical curriculum wars and stand together for equitable funding, stable staffing, and community support for community schools.