Reading wars: Reconciliation will require more truth

This new paper on the teaching of reading is so set on its conclusions it has failed to make the best argument at its disposal, writes Tarjinder Gill

This new paper on the teaching of reading is so set on its conclusions it has failed to make the best argument at its disposal, writes Tarjinder Gill

28 Jan 2022, 5:00

This week, UCL’s Institute of Education published a paper by Dominic Wyse and Alice Bradbury. Accompanied by an open letter with 250 signatories, Reading Wars or Reading Reconciliation? represents an attempt to reverse the current government policy of teaching reading through systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) programmes ‘first and foremost’.

Wyse and Bradbury argue instead that the system needs to revert to including whole-language approaches as part of a balanced instruction programme (BIP) in which phonics would be taught not systematically, but in context alone.

Even putting aside the fact that the idea of BIP itself is ill defined, open to interpretation and has no studies to support it explicitly, it’s hard to imagine the authors’ conclusions weren’t foregone. The paper certainly reads like their ability to conduct a critical examination of reading policy and pedagogy was limited.

For example, they make no attempt to review relevant recent literature, such as Ending the Reading Wars: Reading Acquisition from Novice to Expert by Anne Castles and others, or the contributions made by cognitive psychologists such as Daniel Willingham. And if the authors truly believe that the end goal of reading is comprehension, then it is not clear why E.D. Hirsch is missing from this section.

To robustly disagree and highlight flaws in the arguments of any of these authors would have been a welcome contribution to the field. Instead, the theoretical section of the paper is stuck in a research and evidence time warp, where Chall and Goodman are still thrashing it out. If the authors appear out of touch and out of date, it’s because they are.

It’s hard to imagine their conclusions weren’t foregone

Beyond their selective approach to research, the authors’ next attempt to persuade is to argue that England’s reading curriculum is an outlier because of its exclusion of whole-language approaches when teaching reading. They claim data proves the superiority of other English-speaking nations who follow a BIP, yet they fail to perform the in-depth analysis required to make their case.

“Canada has been the strongest performer of English language-dominant nations in PISA and PIRLS,” the paper states. Yet the most recent PIRLS data shows England outperforming Canada. It is true that Canada outranked England in the last round of PISA, but others have persuasively argued that this one data point should be put into context: Canada is on a downwards trajectory in terms of reading scores, while England is on an upwards one.

If it is true that whole-language is a necessary component of reading instruction, why is this the case? Wyse and Bradbury skirt around the issue, arguing that the recent rise in reading scores is smaller than when the national literacy strategy was introduced – and conveniently ignoring the fact that the policy of teaching reading through SSP has enabled those gains not only to be maintained but actually built upon.

Saddest of all, perhaps, is that a strong argument was at their disposal but they ignored it – evidently because it contradicts their central assertion that whole-language approaches are essential components of teaching reading.

PIRLS scores show that the 2001 and 2006 cohorts scored 553 and 536 respectively. The 2011 cohort, who were taught using SSP, scored 552, rising slightly to 559 in 2016. Here, an argument could be made that would be acceptable to whole-language proponents: If SSP is superior, then why are the scores of the 2001 and 2016 cohorts so similar? If anything, it could be argued that schools should be free to select either a BIP or an SSP programme as they produce similar results.

But even this is roundly dismissed by Wyse and Bradbury, who see only ‘contradictory’ results.

Ultimately, the paper disappoints because the authors clearly don’t understand SSP theoretically or pedagogically. They allow their attachment to whole-language instruction to narrow the scope of their research, when it could have truly been a landmark study.

Who knows? It could have reflected the classroom reality that primary teachers are immersing children in rich reading curricula while also teaching SSP discreetly.

Wouldn’t that have been something? Reconciliation, indeed.

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    • Hepzibah Mcleod

      adjective: discrete
      Meaning: individually separate and distinct.
      “speech sounds are produced as a continuous sound signal rather than discrete units”

  1. Cranbourne, In a Brief History of the Reading Wars –

    sums up what is happening – “A consequence of these ‘reading wars’ was the demand that only pedagogies, which are ‘evidence-based’, or ‘scientifically derived’ should be applied in the nation’s literacy classrooms. However, invoking ‘science’ and ‘evidence-based research’ as a way to reduce the theoretical confusion surrounding literacy education doesn’t seem to have helped much.There are quite distinct views of ‘good science’ and ‘good evidence’ held within the education research community. All that seems to have happened is that a new round of argument and debate about whose science and whose evidence should be considered, has begun. ”

    Then provides the most sensible solution,

    “My research and the hundreds of research papers written on this topic have led me to believe that the notion of ‘teaching phonics effectively’ is contingent on how one defines, thinks, and talks about such concepts as ‘effective reading’ and ‘effective learning’. Until the community comes to some agreement on what these terms actually entail in the 2020s and beyond, the same theoretical squabbles will continue to plague education. Such theoretical arguments are not helpful for the teaching profession or the teaching of reading. To date, not enough attention has been paid to educators’ experiences and their evidence in helping children learn to read in classroom contexts.”