The Reading Wars Revisited





I woke up this morning in the wee hours with the strange thought going through my head that it was time to gird up my loins, put on some armor, get ready for battle, and head back out to front lines of war.

The Reading Wars, that is.

I have been on the sidelines of these wars for the last ten years—quietly, insistently, raising my voice and fighting small battles one school at a time.

I think the reason my subconscious issued me a call to action this morning was that I recently reread Daniel Coyle’s excellent book, The Talent Code.  Coyle’s perspective on learning is empowering and echoes and reinforces the lessons I have learned in my ten years as a Read Right training consultant and my seventeen years as a student of how learning works.  Coyle stands firmly for the science of how the brain learns by repeated practice that is focused on fixing mistakes.

I am with him!  Attempt, fail, analyze, adjust—this is the mantra I live my life by.  And it is how people get better at reading.

But, I think Coyle missed the boat with his take on the Reading Wars.

Here is Coyle’s view:

“For the last forty years or so American Education has been divided by what’s become known as the Reading Wars.  On one side stand the traditionalist forces of Phonics, who believe that the best way to learn to read is through memorizing the sounds of letters and letter-groups.  On the other side are the followers of Whole Language, a theory founded in the 1970s that says all children possess the innate ability to read and write, which arrives according to fixed developmental stages.  They believe the teacher’s role is to be, as the saying goes, “a guide on the side, not a sage on the stage.”

For much of the 1980s Whole Language was on the ascent.  “Matching letters with sounds is a flat-earth view of the world,” wrote Kenneth Goodman in What’s Whole in Whole Language.  Schools started providing literacy-rich environments of books, words, and stories where kids could express this presumably innate ability.  Meaning was emphasized over mere sound; systematic instruction in grammar was considered passé.  Students were encouraged to ignore errors and use invented spelling.  The movement caught on in education circles, and politicians trotted after.  In 1987 California mandated Whole Language for teaching reading and writing.

For midde- and upper-income kids, Whole Language seemed to help, or at least not to obviously hurt.  For minority and low-income kids, however, it was an unqualified disaster.  By the early 1990s California’s scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress ranked lower than every state’s but Louisiana.  Other states that adopted Whole Language experienced similar test-score drops.  In 1998 two major research efforts, the National Research Council and the National Reading Panel, found that the lack of Phonics contributed to lower rates of achievement for most students.  Charles Sykes writes in Dumbing Down Our Kids of a fourth grader who received above-average grades and a teacher’s comment of “Wow!” for writing, “I’m going to has majik skates.  Im goin to go to disenelan.  Im goin to bin my mom and dad and brusr and sisd. We r go to se mickey mouse.”

Accordingly, the pendulum whipped back toward Phonics.  Defenders of Whole Language have retrenched, incorporating Phonics into their theories but still lobbying for the essential truth of their view.  Phonics supporters, on the other hand, point to their own list of promising programs.  All of which leaves many teachers and schools wading through piles of seemingly contradictory theories and wondering who’s right

Looking at the question through the prism of the talent code, the answer is clear.  The relationship between Phonics and Whole Language precisely mirrors the relationship between deep practice and ignition.  Phonics is about building reliable circuits, paying attention to errors, and fixing them.  It’s about chunking: breaking down a skill into its component parts, and practicing and repeating each action involved in that skill.  It’s about the systematic firing of the signals that build the trusty high-speed skill circuits you’re using right now.

Whole Language on the other hand, is about ignition, about filling motivational fuel tanks by creating environments where children fall in love with reading and writing.  Like any ignition, Whole Language can create acceleration for those who already have the inclination and opportunity to deep-practice, but it is worthless for those who don’t.  To understand myelin is to understand that the Reading Wars should not be a war.  Students need both to succeed.”

I do not fault Coyle on his history of the Reading Wars or his science of myelination, but his view on what deep practice in reading should look like, as well as what constituted Whole Language theory, had me lying awake at 4:00 in the morning forming an imaginary rebuttal.

And Coyle’s voice wasn’t the only voice prodding my subconscious.  I also heard echoes of the high school librarian who appealed to me to help her convince her district’s leadership to keep their Read Right program going.

“They’ve cut our staffing—our program is basically dead.”

“I feel like this program literally saves kids’ lives!”

“We know what works—not providing it is akin to malpractice.”

“Why isn’t Read Right in the What Works Clearinghouse?”

“What can we do?”

Her words reverberated in my mind and refused to let me fall back into sleep.

“Not providing it is akin to malpractice.”


Someone else’s words kept echoing in my mind as well—a teacher I sat next to at a conference on culturally responsive teaching.

I shared with her what I do and my concerns that our schools were not currently excelling at producing excellent readers who are grounded in meaning and capable of reading completely comfortably and naturally.

I shared that in school after school that I visit, the majority of students are not excellent readers and how I think that is because we do not currently offer opportunities for students to keep training their brains in reading to the level of excellence—and we also often send students inadvertently down a path towards developing reading problems by focusing on intense direct instruction in phonics and decoding at the expense of making meaning.

Later she said, “When I listen to you talk, it sounds like you’re down on teachers.”

This made me sad, because I am not down on teachers.  I am a teacher.  I understand how challenging it is to work in classrooms today.  I have tremendous respect for all of those engaged in educating our youth.  The teachers who are doing direct instruction in phonics are doing what they know to do—what they have been trained to do—and what they believe is in the best interest of their students.

The problem is, it isn’t working.

Our experiment in “Whole Language” didn’t work.  Coyle’s reading of the history of the movement is correct.  Reading and writing skills deteriorated.

However, our experiment with “Explicit Instruction in Phonics” is not doing much better.  In 2011 California was still ranked 46 out of 52 states and jurisdictions according to the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress.

And I know from my visits to schools around the country that even in districts that are posting better test scores, most students are not avid readers who are grounded in meaning when they read.  In other words, most students are not excellent readers even when they are reading at grade level.

We can do better.

We must do better.

Read Right Systems has been demonstrating for thirty years that there is a better approach–one that acknowledges that reading is a complex neural process that happens mostly below the level of consciousness, and that brains can get better at this process by engaging in deliberate practice in real reading within the “zone of proximal development” with ongoing specific feedback about what is working and what is not.

Is not giving all the children in our care the opportunity to become excellent at reading akin to malpractice?

No, it’s not, if we are sincerely doing everything we know to do to help our students learn to read.

But once we have seen something that works, and works reliably with all types of learners, then, yes, we have a moral urgency to move forward and try that something new.

Chris Sturgis, from Competency Works, recounts how a teacher in Colorado felt about his district moving forward with performance based education (which is essentially what Read Right methodology is) after seeing it in action in California.

“I’ve heard this phrase before, of not having a choice but to go forward, during other site visits. Often it is described as “moral urgency.” I asked Cook about it. He explained that after visiting a district that had been trying to balance teaching students at their performance levels part of the day with grade-level curriculum the other half (as far as I know, this was a failed experiment, so don’t try it at home) he realized that trying to do P-BL in baby steps, small chunks, halfway, or as hybrids wasn’t going to work. “There are many who don’t realize that delivering grade level curriculum day after day to kids regardless of whether they are learning or not is based on an archaic pedagogy,” he explained. “Many students are harmed by this – they end up thinking that they aren’t smart or give up on school. We know so much more about how students learn today, and our schools should be shaped around it. But if they don’t know that they are doing something harmful, are they really responsible?” He continued, “Once you see personalized, performance-based learning in action, you face a moral question. Are you going to be like Thomas Jefferson who knew that slavery is wrong but kept doing it anyway? Or once you realize that there is a better way to help students learn, are you going to do it, even if you bump up against other parts of the system?” He emphasized, “As a school system, we need to be clear – are we chasing students or test scores? Or trying to do both at once?” (You can listen to Darren Cook yourself on this video.)”

My anguish is that in 30 years of training teachers to deliver a methodology that is working to turn struggling readers into excellent readers, Read Right has not succeeded in shifting the national conversation about how to teach reading.

I haven’t seen any research on our methodology other than what Read Right has done itself.

I haven’t heard anyone talking about the implicit aspects of reading and how those implicit aspects cannot be taught explicitly because the brain doesn’t work like that.

I haven’t succeeded in convincing any schools that Read Right methodology is more than a reading intervention that they should only offer to their struggling readers.  I ask them, “Why should we only offer the opportunity to become excellent to a few?”  Their answer is always that they can’t afford to deliver the methodology any other way.

So, yes, I believe I have a moral obligation re-enter the Reading Wars.  I have a moral obligation to be a leader of learning and begin to shift that national conversation about what brains need—and what kinds of environments give them what they need—in order to become not just good readers, but excellent readers.

However, now that I am fully awake, I can see that the metaphor of a war is the wrong metaphor.  I do not have enemies.  I have colleagues.

My colleagues and I are all engaged in learning.  We are all engaged in getting better at getting better.  We are all on a journey to move ourselves and our schools up the learning curve.

We are fellow travelers on the road to developing schools that work for everyone and reading environments that are personalized, engaging, holistic, based on brain science, and highly effective.

Image by Clem Onojeghuo from

Unhelpful Stories

It starts so early—the stories we make up about ourselves and our capacity to learn.  My nephew, the golden-haired king of playfulness and daring flips off the trampoline, came home from first grade and told his mother he was stupid. 

She is concerned about his abilities to learn too—as are his teachers. 

He is not keeping pace with his classmates.  His ability to shape his letters, use scissors, and make meaning from little squiggles on a page is not progressing as fast as his age-level peers. 

My sister got a letter sharing his teacher’s concerns and plans for “intervening”.

She is worried.

I am not.

I work with students all over the country who did not keep pace with their peers.  They did not excel at making meaning from squiggles on a page.  They too made up stories about themselves and their abilities to learn.  They too were labeled and given interventions—which maybe helped and maybe didn’t.  Regardless of the effectiveness of those interventions, they all ended up with a seat at a Read Right table.

They were placed at those tables by their schools because previous interventions had not worked well enough to help those students master the complex task of making meaning from text.

They likely were not given a choice (a mistake schools often make), but placed into this program because their test scores or their grades were too low.  They usually start out hating the work that we ask them to do—or the fact that they have a seat at that table at all—because they think it means that their school thinks they’re stupid…or slow…or unmotivated…or some other unhelpful story.

But they got a seat at that table and now they are working with a tutor who is trained not to “intervene” but to empower. 

They got a seat at a table with someone who is trained to ask not, “What grade is this person?” but, “What is the right level of challenge for this person?” 

They got a seat at a table with someone who is trained to ask not, “When should this group move up to more challenging text?” but, “When should this person move up to more challenging text?”

They got a seat at a table with a tutor who is trained to help students understand that the brain learns by making mistakes and fixing them, that there is nothing wrong with making mistakes, and that there is nothing wrong with not yet being excellent. 

It can take a while for those students to switch from disempowering stories about themselves to empowering stories, but when they do—they unleash the amazing learning power of their brains and make incredible progress in making meaning from text.  The results are usually life changing. 

It doesn’t just help them to become better readers, it helps them to see themselves as people capable of learning, of growing, of risking and daring.

So, no, I’m not worried about my nephew.

I work with him on reading.  He is making great progress.  His joy as he reads “Green Eggs and Ham” is a beautiful thing.

I teach him that all people learn at different rates and that his job is not to compare himself to his classmates, but just to show up and be a superhero-brain man who is always willing to learn, to fail, and to try and try again.

When we finish reading, I smile at my sister, and tell her not to worry—he is doing just fine.


Please note:  To all teachers and educators involved in interventions—I am not intending to demean the work that you do.  I recognize the intent and the challenge of working with students who are falling behind and needing extra support.  I applaud all efforts to make a difference for these students.  I am intending to suggest that our schools and our systems need to shift to a different mental model that does not view these students through the lens of, “Something is wrong,” but rather through the lens of, “Where are you on the learning curve?” and “How can I give you what your brain needs at this moment of learning?”

 Image by Joao Silas at

Shame and Learning

I am up for creating a world full of vibrant learning for all—and one of the biggest obstacles in my path is shame.  There is not much that shuts down learning faster.  There’s not much that shuts me down faster—that keeps me from taking risks, taking on new projects, or saying what I really believe.  And I’ve been playing the shame game for as long as I can remember.

My earliest, most vivid memory of shame is from first grade.  I made the dreadful mistake of forgetting to wear underwear to school.  But that wasn’t my biggest mistake.  I also was wearing a dress.  Forgetting to wear underwear when you’re in first grade is not such a big deal—unless you’re also wearing a dress.  Then, it’s a big deal.

But even that wasn’t my biggest mistake.  Forgetting to wear underwear when you’re wearing a dress in first grade is recoverable.  Just remember to sit and keep your skirts down.  Don’t go on the monkey bars, don’t go down the slide, and don’t do cartwheels.  Fairly simple.

Or it should have been.  But first grade didn’t come with an instruction manual and nobody told me that the worst thing to do when you’re in first grade and wearing a dress with no underwear is to sit down and cry about it.  I sat and cried.

I sat and cried with my legs splayed, my head in my hands and my sobs bursting forth—and every naturally curious elementary student came over to find out what was wrong and ended up peeking up my skirts.

It took me years to share this story.  And even now, my cheeks are pink with embarrassment and shame.  Yes.  Shame.  Still, after all these years.  I keep thinking, “How could I have been so stupid?  Why didn’t I just hide my mistake instead of blaring it to the whole schoolyard?”

As an adult, I have some compassion and empathy for my seven-year-old self.  But I don’t always have that same compassion for my fifty-year-old self.  I still find myself saying unhelpful and unkind things about myself:  “How could I be so stupid?”  “How come I am still so fat?”  “Woman, you are ugly!”  “You should be better at this by now.”

What does any of this have to do with learning?

In some ways everything.

When I am in the throes of shame, I am not capable of the risk-taking that learning requires.  I pull in.  I shut down.  I hide.  I may not still be sobbing on the playground with my legs splayed, but that little girl is still alive in me shouting, “Don’t be mocked!  Don’t let people laugh at you!  Don’t let them judge you out loud!”

When I pull in, when I hide, when I shut down—I stop learning.  Because learning requires participation, engagement, and being willing to fail.

Learning requires failing and being willing to try again and again and again.  Learning requires asking for and being willing to listen to specific feedback about where we are not yet excellent and how we can improve our product or our process.  Learning requires us to acknowledge that we are not yet perfect.  Learning is an act of courage.  Learning is an act of daring.

In the words of Brené Brown, author of Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, learning requires shame-resilient cultures that “nurture folks who are much more open to soliciting, accepting, and incorporating feedback.  These cultures also nurture engaged, tenacious people who expect to have to try and try again to get it right—people who are much more willing to get innovative and creative in their efforts.”

Schools around the country have been engaged for years in fostering growth mindsets and building grit and resilience in their students.  In my work in schools I have seen evidence of this work that teachers and districts are doing to foster greater resilience.  All of these efforts are admirable and are helping to build shame-resilient cultures in our schools.

Yet, at the same time, the national conversation about schools and teachers is often a shaming conversation.  We blame teachers for the failures of schools to change.  We blame teachers for low test scores.  We blame teachers for lack of student engagement.  We blame teachers for making schooling so expensive. The list of things we blame teachers for is long and often strident.

And even when it is not coming from outside, we often blame ourselves.  “I should have known better.”  “I should have been able to reach that student.”  “I should be better at engaging students.”

And we blame students too…and parents…and subcultures…and ethnicities…and socio-economic status.  The list of who or what is to blame when learning doesn’t happen, or doesn’t happen fast enough, is also long and frequently aggressively articulated with ugly words.

But blame and shame are not very effective tools for bringing about the changes we really want and need in public education.

Peter Sheahan, author and CEO of Karrikins Group says:

The secret killer of innovation is shame.  You can’t measure it, but it is there.  Every time someone holds back on an idea, fails to give their manager much needed feedback, and is afraid to speak up in front of a client you can be sure shame played a part.  That deep fear we all have of being wrong, of being belittled and of feeling less than, is what stops us from taking the very risks required to move our companies forward.

I love how the Maine Department of Education says it:

It is important to point out that our schools are not struggling due to a lack of effort.  Educators in Maine and across the nation are working harder than ever… [O]our schools are not failing, they are simply obsolete:  They were built for a bygone era, and the world of the 21st century requires something new.  —Education Evolving, Maine Department of Education

Perhaps we can stop talking about how are teachers are failing, or our students are failing, or our schools are failing, and start talking about how to build the new kinds of systems that allow vibrant learning to take place where shame is no longer part of the equation.

To create the kinds of learning environments that allow students to dare greatly, requires allowing educators to dare greatly.  We have to trust in the talents and integrity and creativity of the adults we have entrusted with the education of our children.  We have to empower them to be risk takers, to be willing to seek and receive feedback, to be willing to try new things, to be willing to invent the “something new” without fear of losing jobs or public shaming.