Jessica Winter is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the parent of a student in a New York City public school. When schools were closed during the pandemic, she found herself teaching her child how to read. She followed the precepts of whole language/balanced literacy and became increasingly frustrated. This led her to write an in-depth review of the age-old battle between whole language and phonics. It is an excellent article. She interviewed me, and I told her that the debate began in the early 19th century, when Horace Mann disagreed with the Boston schoolmasters, who were devoted to phonetic methods. The same division of opinion flares up again and again, as it did in the 1950s when Rudolf Flesch’s pro-phonics book Why Johnny Can’t Read became a bestseller.

My own view is that phonics is a beginning method, and that teachers should know how and when to teach decoding. But I was convinced by Jeanne Chall’s monumental 1967 book Learning to Read that phonics is a first step, not the only step. Children need to learn the connections between letters and sounds, then move on to reading enjoyable books.

It is fair to say that Winter has some strong words about Lucy Calkins and her domination of the reading field.

But while I am a “both-and” person, I dislike the term “the science of reading.” Some children start school knowing how to read, having absorbed both phonics and a love of reading; they are exceptions, it is true. But I don’t think there is one method that is always right. There is no “science of teaching history” or teaching any other subject.

Where we can all agree, I think, is that children need to learn to connect letters to their sounds and to sound out unfamiliar words.

Good teachers are equipped to meet children where they are and to teach them what they need to know.