John Merrow is sick of the “reading wars.” So am I. I studied them intensively and wrote about their history in my book Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform (2000).

In my opinion, Jeanne Chall (kindergarten teacher turned Harvard professor of literacy) settled the issues in her book called Learning to Read: The Great Debate. Her authoritative book, commissioned by the Carnegie Corporation, was published in 1967. She came out in favor of both early phonics and a rapid transition to children’s literature. She insisted that learning to read was never either-or. I wish she were alive to slap down the journalists and pundits who are now insisting that phonics and phonics alone is “the science of reading.” I feel sure she would laugh and say there is no science of reading. She warned that if we didn’t avoid either-or thinking, we would continue to swing from one extreme to another.

I am patiently waiting for evidence of any district (not counting affluent suburban districts) where “the science of reading” brought every child of every demographic and economic group to proficiency (not grade level, proficiency). The New York City Department of Education recently announced that it was mandating “the science of reading” across the entire city school system. We will be sure to check back in a few years and see how that worked out. Under Michael Bloomberg, Chancellor Joel Klein mandated “balanced literacy” (specifically, the work of Lucy Calkins of Teachers College, Columbia University, which was heavy on “whole word” and light on phonics). Phonics advocates were outraged, but they were ignored. Now the NYC Department of Education is swinging to the other extreme; balanced literacy is out, phonics is in.

John Merrow’s recent post about the “reading wars” reminded me of Jeanne Chall, who was a good friend.

I will post here a bit of it and urge you to open the link and read it all.

Learning the alphabet is a straightforward 2-step process: Shapes and Sounds. One must learn to recognize the shapes of the 26 letters and what each letter sounds like. There’s no argument about this, and certainly there has never been and never will be an “Alphabet War.”

The same rule–Shapes and Sounds–applies to reading. Would-be readers must apply what they learned about Sounds–formally called Phonics and Phonemic Awareness–to combinations of letters–i.e., words. They must also learn to recognize some words by their Shapes, because many English words do not follow the rules of Phonics. (One quick example: By the rules of Phonics, ‘Here’ and ‘There’ should rhyme; they do not, and readers must learn how to pronounce both.) To become a competent, confident reader, one must rely on both Phonics and Word Recognition.

Ergo, there’s absolutely no need, justification, or excuse for “Reading Wars” between Phonics and Word Recognition. None! And yet American educators, policy-makers, and politicians have been waging their “Reading Crusades” for close to 200 years. As a consequence, uncounted millions of adults have lived their lives in the darkness of functional illiteracy and semi-literacy.

Here’s something most Reading Crusaders don’t understand: Almost without exception, every first grader wants to be able to read, because they understand that reading gives them some measure of control over their world, in the same way walking does. And skilled teachers can teach almost all children–including the 5-20 percent who are dyslexic–to become confident readers.

Skilled teachers understand what the Reading Crusaders do not: Reading–again like walking–is not the goal. It’s the means to understanding, confidence, and control. Children don’t “first learn to read and then read to learn,” as some pedants maintain. That’s a false dichotomy: they learn to read to learn. And so skilled teachers use whatever strategies are called for: Phonics, Word Recognition, what one might call Reading as Liberation, and more.