The Reading Wars, a Brief History
Reading and literacy instruction has felt pulled in different directions over the years. In the 1980s and 1990s, the reading wars between “whole language” and “phonics” approaches led educators towards one camp or the other. Whole language was based on the idea that children learned to read by being immersed in literature and words in context and would eventually transfer the skills to reading. Alternatively, the phonics based approach focused more on connecting the individual sounds to letters and looked at the rules involved with decoding as an effective way to learn to read. As the reading wars raged on, a compromise emerged: “balanced literacy.” Balanced literacy uses a variety of teaching methods (such as read-alouds, independent reading and writing, and small group instruction) to address the five pillars of reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. Recently, out of renewed interest in the science behind how kids learn to read, a new controversy has emerged: balance literacy in practice often doesn’t include a strong phonics program. Further still, it is not premised on a theory of reading that is testable. Enter the structured literacy approach approach. In a nutshell, structured literacy instruction is the umbrella term used to unify and encompass evidence-based programs. Structured literacy is explicit, systematic teaching that focuses on phonological awareness, word recognition, phonics and decoding, spelling, and syntax at the sentence and paragraph levels.
Protecting Every Child's Right to Read
Learning to read is not a privilege but a basic and essential human right. In Canada, provincial inquiries and in the US, state and national panels have reviewed public education systems and found that we have been failing students, particularly those with reading disabilities (such as dyslexia) and many others, by not using evidence-based approaches to teaching students to read. Ministries of Education are now tasked with the challenge of how to address systemic issues and change the way we approach reading instruction.
Some key recommendations include:
- Curriculum and instruction- using research based explicit and systematic instruction that includes phonemic awareness, phonics and teaches letter-sound correspondence is critical to support learners as they decode and spell words
- Early screening- it is necessary to use evidence based screening assessments to screen students who may be at risk for reading difficulties as young as 3 or 4 years old and continue throughout the first few years of school
- Reading intervention- reading inventions need to be available to ALL students who need them and be evidence-based
- Accommodations- accommodations or modifications should not replace teaching students to read and should be timely, consistent, effective and supported in the classroom
- Professional assessment- professional assessments need to meet the needs of diverse learners (e.g. racially, linguistically, identity, socio-economically) while also being timely, and based on clear criteria
Making the Shift
Considering these five key factors, point us in the right direction to making a shift to reading instruction that works. In general terms, the graphic outlines what practices are “less effective” and “more effective” for our learners.
The Science of Reading
The Science of Reading is the name of the body of research that combines several disciplines to give a more thorough understanding of what is involved in the reading process. Similarly, “structured literacy” is a term coined by the International Dyslexia Association (IDA) that refers to evidence-based programs and approaches for teaching literacy. Whatever you choose to call the approach, the fundamental basis of these programs comes from evidence-based, systematic approaches to direct phonics instruction.
What makes the Science of Reading the most effective approach? It takes what we know about reading from all the disciplines and recognizes the value of multisensory instruction to create meaning and context for vocabulary, and considers what we know about the learners in front of us. It isn’t a one-size fits all approach, rather, it recognizes that assessment is key to determining what each individual learner needs and what instruction or interventions are most helpful. Having a plan is what sets the Science of Reading apart. It does not rely on children “picking up” literacy skills, but instead is a structured approach with a predictable sequence of skills that build on one another.
As an educator who talks to other educators, this was the missing piece in literacy instruction and many are thirsty for more. Here at Eyewords, we have some freebies that can help you get started.
Check out the free products below to get started with an effective, evidence based program that can be your first step towards reading success.
- Top 10 Multisensory Sight Words Cards
- Top 10 High Frequency Words Orthographic Mapping
- Multisensory-Orthographic Printable Worksheet