Should Elementary Teachers Learn How To Teach Reading or Just Wing It?

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Reading instruction is one of the very few areas where it is not the case that “more research is needed.” Education policy makers have had the theory and the evidence for decades. The central problem they face in providing effective reading instruction and a sound reading curriculum stems not from an absence of a research base but from willful indifference to what the research has consistently shown. In The Academic Achievement Challenge, the last book she wrote before her death at the age of 78 in 1999, Jeanne Chall makes this point over and over again, with exasperation and sorrow.

She spoke to many of her former students in the Boston area regularly, including me. In one of my last conversations with her in 1998, I asked her what kind of reading research she thought was still necessary. Her answer was quick and cutting:  We don’t need any more. It’s clear what we should do. It’s been clear for decades. The problem is that we don’t do what the research evidence supports, and in fact often do just the opposite.

Most of the problems in the curriculum could be seen, she suggested, as a reflection of the tensions between a teacher-centered and a student-centered approach to instruction. As Chall noted, there have been two basic competing theories about the development of reading skill. In one theory, repeatedly confirmed, development of reading skill takes place in a series of stages, with beginning reading differing from skilled reading. Phonological factors play a major role at the beginning because beginners must learn the relationships between spoken words and the written symbols for their sounds in order to become skilled readers. In other words, they must learn the alphabetical principle. This multi-stage theory predicts that a lack of success in the early stages — in sounding out and identifying words in print whose meanings the student already knows — retards success in later stages when the student must, among other things, learn the meanings of words the student may be able to sound out with ease but not understand.

In the other theory, known as whole language or a psycholinguistic guessing game, beginning reading does not differ as a process from skilled reading. Reading skill, its proponents claim, develops naturally, with language and cognition maturing together independently of direct instruction. Proponents of this one-stage theory analogize learning to read and write to the natural process of learning to listen and speak, asserting that beginning readers learn to read through their effort to derive meaning from written language just as they have with oral language. 

To implement the multi-stage theory, children must receive systematic instruction in phonics for identifying printed words, use textbooks with vocabulary controlled by spelling patterns to practice the phonics skills they are taught from lesson to lesson, regularly read aloud to demonstrate fluency, practice enough to acquire decoding skills to the point of making decoding automatic, and receive instruction in vocabulary through the grades to develop their knowledge of word meanings. 

To implement the one-stage theory, children must induce on their own the alphabetical principle underlying the written code (however idiosyncratic) in the same way they induce the syntactic structures of their native language, rely on a word’s context to identify a word, acquire the meaning of difficult words naturally through multiple exposures to them in varied contexts, read independently and silently to concentrate on comprehension, and read only “authentic” literature from the beginning. 

As is well known, the evidence has consistently supported the multi-stage theory and as implemented by a pedagogy emphasizing explicit instruction in skills and mastery to the point of making automatic. In particular, the evidence has clearly supported the superiority of highly structured teaching for children deemed “at risk” (such as low-income students and students with learning disabilities).

 Chall traced the root of the problem to conflicting philosophical beliefs about the child’s inherent nature and the goal of education in a democracy. In her last book, Chall frankly noted that the problem today is the identification of each theory and the pedagogy that best implements it with a political preference. She is right, but she did not explain how this alignment took place in reading. Phonics instruction was not aligned with any political party or label until the late 1960s and early 1970s. Advocates of a subject-centered education like Richard Hofstadter, Albert Shanker, and E.D. Hirsch were political liberals, not conservatives. Phonics instruction was one of the first areas of pedagogy to be politicized, and by the founders of the whole language movement.

In an attempt to ascribe the low reading achievement of low-income children to language differences, whole-language supporter Kenneth Goodman claimed that phonics instruction imposed standard forms of speech on dialect-speaking children through the teaching of conventional sound-letter correspondences, leading to a lack of motivation to learn to read and to these children’s failure to connect what they decoded with their native language. Because they could not associate the words they identified with the language they spoke, he argued, they could not read with meaning. Phonics instruction, he also implied, was the preferred strategy of Christian fundamentalists, darkly hinting that it was favored by conservative parents because it fit in with attempts at controlled literal understandings of a text. In effect, Goodman smeared phonics instruction as a tool of “white” fanatics.

Did Goodman’s ideas make sense at the theoretical level? No, his ideas were untenable as language theory. Dialect-speaking children in this and every other country can comprehend the standard dialect orally; there is no comprehension mismatch when children sound out a word according to its standard pronunciation. (Goodman himself later corrected his claims on this issue.) Nor could Goodman’s ideas be implemented consistently by linguists because they could not agree on how to transcribe black dialect or indeed on which black dialect to use for a beginning reading textbook.

His ideas were also unsupported by research; no peer-reviewed-and-published research found black children’s reading skills improved by the use of reading textbooks written in dialect. Indeed, dialect readers were opposed in practice by black teachers who didn’t want the stereotype of dialect-speaking blacks promoted in children’s reading materials. But none of this mattered. Phonics instruction was a civil rights issue — beyond theory, research, and the scientific method.   

Just about every pedagogical strategy was lined up politically in the following decade. Also identified as “conservative” were a specified curriculum, direct teaching, assigned expository writing based on reading, assigned literary texts (especially if they were by dead white males), grammar study, specific writing skills, and indeed, anything requiring a teacher’s judgment. Ironically, strategies damned as “conservative” tended to be supported by research as useful for low-income children.

In concluding her book, Chall noted how intractable ideological preferences are. But she failed to note that scientific research in education — something the early Progressives did want, John Dewey among them — has itself been consistently disparaged as “positivistic” and irrelevant by the major proponents of whole language since the early 1970s.

They have cleverly argued from the start that their theory and its associated pedagogy could not be assessed by scientific methods. Goodman regularly and outspokenly disparaged the value of scientific research in education.  

Here the plot of this saga thickens. The reading process advocates were joined in their disparagement of experimental research very early on by Donald Graves, the first to emphasize a holistic writing process for teaching writing in the elementary school. In his view, most experimental research “wasn’t readable and was of limited value.” It was “devoid of context and concerned only with sterile and faceless data.” If experimental research is declared inappropriate, no evaluation of the efficacy of the reading and writing process approach is possible. How convenient!

Many of those who prepare new teachers and retrain experienced ones do not appear to accept the results of scientific research on the nature, development, and teaching of reading and writing. They do not accept the results because they have declared scientific research irrelevant. Rational argument is not possible with those who maintain that evidence does not matter — or that evidence may be an opinion (or the “right” opinion) about an issue or an appealing anecdote.

A society cannot afford to continue funding teacher training institutions whose educational philosophy promotes a bankrupt theory and its pedagogy in the name of social justice (or “inquiry”). Alternatives to dysfunctional institutions must be created.


Sandra Stotsky, former senior associate commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, is professor of education emerita at the University of Arkansas. This essay is a shortened version of a paper given at an education conference at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at New York University. Read other articles by her here.