Opinions presented are those of the guest authors and not necessarily those of SPELL-Links | Learning By Design. They are presented to generate new insights, critical thinking, and solutions for educators and learners.

Comments? Questions? Divergent opinions? We’d love to hear from you! Post them on SPELLTalk, the FREE online professional discussion group dedicated to improving literacy through discussion of current research and evidence-based best practices.

Our Choice: Rapidly Translate, Evaluate and Adopt Innovative Literacy Methods or Prolong the Reading Wars

Bruce Howlett with Caitlin S. Howlett, Ph.D.

September 6, 2023

If I had fallen asleep at my classroom desk thirty years ago and woke up today, I would be in for a shock. I would find that the Internet exploded, molecular biology has transformed medicine, and that our pockets now hold a revolution in information technology. And yet, if I woke up curious about the debate about teaching reading, I would be shocked in a different way: Had I only lost a night’s sleep? Despite these transformative inventions and innovations, the Reading Wars rages on today as it had before, with little lasting change having been achieved in the literacy capabilities of our students.

This situation shows that our current developmental reading methods simply aren’t working at the scale needed to end this stagnation throughout the English-speaking world. We must embrace innovation so that this generation of students can universally find great excitement and meaning in printed words. Breakthrough concepts, methods and learning processes exist, as do ways of rapidly translating them into functional and effective tools for teachers, but they are obscured by endless debate over traditional reading instructional methods.

The Reading Wars are also perpetuated by the belief that it is a debate about phonics intensity and the importance of meaning. In reality, it is about deeper values at the heart of learning, including the relationship between student and teacher, and even the purpose of instruction. Beliefs – what we think is true – are pliable but values – what we feel is important – are hard to change unless they are deeply questioned – which we will do shortly.

One camp believes in the lasting value of phonics-based, explicit teaching of basic skills. Recently, this approach has been expanded and redefined as the Science of Reading (Phonics/SoR) but retains these fundamental values. The second camp values a Whole Language approach embracing implicit learning based on innate language and cognitive abilities to construct meaning, now referred to as Balanced Literacy (BL). Decades of evidence shows that both approaches have failed to produce widespread and lasting improvement in student outcomes or to simplify the task of teaching reading in today’s demanding classrooms.

Importantly, this divide in values has widened into a cultural dispute with opposing camps more interested in protecting their chosen beliefs and practices than embracing creative solutions. Both sides have reduced the complex, interconnected language, cognitive, and social-emotional processes of literacy to a few basic abilities, starting with decoding for Phonics/SoR and text reading for BL.

As we will see, scholars have questioned the major points of contention — explicit teaching versus implicit learning, and word recognition versus meaning – and found them to be false dichotomies; what the two camps see as opposing concepts are so interdependent as to be inseparable. From this fresh perspective these thought leaders have crafted a new path forward for developmental literacy instruction.

This refreshing perspective has been hiding in plain sight, with its transformative concepts and methods wholly absorbed into the preexisting beliefs and values of both camps. So too, has a solution to the other pressing literacy improvement issue, the lack of a process to rapidly translate and evaluate innovative research into activities that any teacher could successfully use with any student.

We have a choice – continue to debate illusionary conflicts, keep talking past each other and attempting to convert the opposition to our side, while pushing for more time-consuming training — or we can move forward, embracing concepts and methods that clearly supersede – but do not negate – our present beliefs, values and practices.

Four Reading Shifts

Rather than add fuel to this endless debate, I’d like to share with you exciting advances that are being drowned out by the Reading Wars, which I call reading shifts. These include:

1. A breakthrough framework supported by respected scholars that intertwines the four major aspects of reading development from the start, coupled with learning processes supported by the cognitive sciences of learning, which will be facilitated by using…

2. New methods developed out of contemporary research that rarely see the light of day in the world’s classrooms, which can be created through…

3. A rapid research translation scheme that turns these advances into classroom compatible lessons that allow a first-year teacher to be as successful as the most experienced veteran while providing evidence of effectiveness that both teachers and researchers will embrace, leading to…

4. Adoption by Phonics/SoR and Balanced Literacy advocates after applying open-minded questioning strategies that are known to transform cultural conflicts like the Reading Wars into broader perspectives easily embraced by all parties.

Questioning Long-held Beliefs

Implementing the first three Reading Shifts will first require the fourth, questioning and rethinking of all traditional approaches to developmental literacy instruction. I observed the power of deep questioning during my 12-year involvement in advanced biological research at an Ivy League university. I still remember clearly an incident wherein one graduate student questioned a key discovery by the esteemed professor for whom we both worked, contradicting his most valued finding. The professor thus firmly rejected the graduate student’s results. Years later, however, the student’s finding was confirmed by another research group. This group ultimately garnered a Nobel Prize. This life-changing experience taught me to question established findings and always search for broader answers and better solutions – the essence of scientific research.

I have long harbored deep questions about how literacy blossoms as I suffered from limited literacy, including fluency, spelling, and writing challenges, well into my forties. Despite years of undergoing intervention after intervention, the problem remained unresolved. Following my biological research experiences, I eventually went back to school and began a two-decade career as a special education teacher. This brought me face-to-face with my own reading struggles. As I became more experienced at helping students, I found myself questioning literacy practices more deeply, especially when my personal reading difficulties started to dissipate while working with a speech therapist to build a reading intervention for other teachers. After a few months of informal meetings, reading and listening became noticeably easier and more enjoyable. This forced me to further question instructional practices and to explore fresh solutions for limited literacy.

It is because of these experiences, and many others like them, that I have developed a deep commitment to questioning long-held beliefs, especially after an ongoing review of recent research findings. I have attempted to continually refine my practices to reflect what I have learned in the process. My current effort, the fifth iteration, resulted in the identification of the following topics that I believe ought to be rapidly translated into classroom compatible tools:

  • Foundational speech and reading instruction: statistical learning, multiple opposition words, minimally paired word analysis, lexical access, phonological syllables, connected phonation/continuous blending, phoneme discrimination and manipulation using word chains, naming practices, reciprocal learning of phonemic awareness (PA) and letter names, and set for variability.
  • Fluency development practices: prosody development, phrase reading, chunked text, sentence pyramids, onset-rime backwards reading, syntactic awareness, and heightened text difficulty.
  • Orthographic mapping activities: direct mapping of rime patterns, look-alike, irregular and multisyllable words, syllable analysis, phoneme substitution for sight word storage, and morphological awareness.
  • Cognitive learning methods: spaced memory retrieval practice, mixed interleaved instruction, active participation, Dehaene’s four pillars of learning(1) (active, attentive engagement, feedback, and consolidation) and Cartwright’s cognitive flexibility activities(2).
  • Multicomponent approaches: fusing separate parts of the reading process, starting with decoding, fluency and meaning, into integrated instruction. Jan Wasowicz’ Language and Literacy Network(3) shows this fusion in great detail. A prime example of this is the emergence of research on phoneme proficiency, orthographic mapping fluency, and morphological awareness (or POM) as a connected whole with the aim of developing automatic multisyllabic and poly-morphemic word reading. This approach is supported by noted researchers including Drs. Ehri, Gray, Wolf, Berninger, Seidenberg, and others (see below).

Recently, I have been experimenting with these concepts, creating lessons for my seven-to-seventeen-year-old learning disabled, disfluent, dyslexic and/or, more recently, pandemic-compromised students. The results of this ongoing experiment are as exciting as those reported in the research papers. This has produced both the hard factual evidence needed by my inner researcher, as well as what most teachers want – positive and lasting results with my own students. For me, this means that their progress more closely resembles that of their proficient peers, including experiencing the excitement of independent, self-improving reading.

Questioning Both Sides of the Cultural Divide

These results have once again made me question fundamental beliefs and values about both Phonics/SoR and Balanced Literacy. Further, to be direct, it is time for Phonics/SoR adherents to question their own viewpoints and practices as deeply as they criticize BL. And vice versa. This is essential for moving forward.

An open-minded review will not only show the width of the cultural divide but also its roots in opposing approaches to fundamental educational issues. Both sides adhere to different sets of facts, evidence, and reasoning, using dissimilar language while embracing distinct goals. Both camps hold limited understandings of the opposition’s views and are rife with stereotypes and black-and-white judgments, often resulting in the dismissal of the opposition for a single perceived fault. Cognitive research suggests that the very information that one side of such a divide finds most important and convincing is likely to be the same idea that its opposing side has already dismissedespecially when that side is well educated.

The positive news is that protracted conflicts like the Reading Wars are often fertile ground for innovation. Instead of endlessly defending our own positions without questioning, it’s time to face the doubts that have been raised by others about long-held practices. Doing so will be productive if it opens the possibility that there is a better way – which I reveal after this questioning process.

To accelerate the questioning and rethinking of literacy instruction and its delivery, I created the chart below showing beliefs and values of the two sides based on my investigations and experience working with skilled Phonics/SoR and BL teachers. As you read the following, engage in the type of critical thinking that we ask of our students during comprehension lessons. Keep an open mind while reflecting on your thoughts, metacognitively. Try to avoid the ingrained opinions and quick judgements that you see blurring your students’ thinking.

Remember that proving someone wrong doesn’t make you right. Just notice.

Hopefully, this chart has helped you see the depth and width of the cultural divide between these two camps. These differences are not subtle; there is almost complete opposition, which will continue to prolong the Reading Wars indefinitely. However, imagine a world in which only one side was completely right and the other thoroughly dismissed. Would that situation provide a complete solution to our chronic crisis in literacy? Would a compromise?

While both sides contribute important insights regarding selected aspects of reading development, both also hold piecemeal and outdated positions, obscuring a breakthrough perspective, a paradigm shift, about the content and delivery of literacy instruction that both sides should readily embrace.

The Emerging New Paradigm

The development of this perspective begins by addressing the limitations of framing debates about Phonics/SoR and Balanced Literacy through a dualistic lens, starting with the tension between explicit teaching and implicit learning. This is exactly the point that respected literacy scholars have rethought, leading to a breakthrough framework for reading development, one that supersedes, not replaces, both traditions. Below is a description of the work of six scholars who are at the center of this research. These divergent thinkers show that these two forces are not separate, but deeply interconnected and have worked to locate and understand the connections between components of instruction currently taught in isolation. The resulting perspective transforms both the content and delivery of developmental literacy instruction which is the key to effortless, enjoyable, and enriching reading experiences that don’t further complicate classroom life.

  • Linnea Ehri’s (2014) theory of orthographic mapping(4a) explains how explicitly learning to decode a few hundred words matures into the implicit ability to ‘map’, or memorize and retrieve on sight, a limitless number of reading words. The resulting word memory bank is the source of reading accuracy, fluency and meaning for all proficient readers – and should be the goal of developmental reading instruction. This process, which Ehri states is distinct from decoding, allows readers to recognize words as “phoneme maps that lay out the pronunciation of words visually.”  You are relying on this implicit ability right now. Dr. Ehri’s later work with Susan Gray(4b) on multicomponent reading instruction emphasizes that the three key aspects of developmental reading — morphological, phonemic, and orthographic awareness – are best taught in an integrated manner so that they reinforce and enhance each other.
  • David Share’s self-teaching hypothesis expands on Ehri’s work, pointing out that the vast majority of words we read are learned implicitly. He calls this process self-teaching through orthographic learning.(5) Building a reading lexicon without conscious thought frees up cognitive resources for comprehension and enjoyment. Share’s later work revolves around the limitations of approaches that focus heavily on reading accuracy and has found that they “overlook a fundamental unfamiliar-to-familiar/novice-to-expert dualism applicable to
    all words and readers in all orthographies.”
  • David Kilpatrick’s evolving concept of phoneme proficiency explains how explicit decoding is transformed into implicit sight word development. While blending and segmentation are sufficient for decoding, more complex phoneme manipulations, including substitution and deletion, help store longer sound patterns in our reading word bank. This is critical as sight words are stored as longer chunks of sounds, including onset-rime patterns, syllables, and morphemes – not as left-to-right spelling sequences. He shows that, “Orthographic learning is implicit. It typically does not involve conscious thought or effort. Adding words to the orthographic lexicon is implicit, unconscious, behind the scenes.” Kilpatrick’s Equipped for Reading Success(6) contains explicit orthographic and phonemic activities that spark implicit sight word development.
  • Maryanne Wolf, who is well-known for her seminal work on rapid naming and fluency, currently focuses on multicomponent instruction that links five convergent areas of word knowledge that form the foundation of literacy, abbreviated POSSuM: Phonology, Orthography, Semantics, Syntax, Morphology. These components not only fuel word reading and fluency but comprehension. This “expanded view of foundational skills illustrates how there is never a time when comprehension skills (even through the simplest forms of connected text like two -word sentences) are neglected in the acquisition process.”(7)
  • Nell Duke and Kelly Cartwright’s active view of reading(8) shows that reading difficulties have multiple interconnected causes that are best addressed in unison. This includes treating word recognition and comprehension together as they reinforce each other in important ways. Literacy components are further fused through bridging processes, including orthographic, phonological, and morphological abilities, which end the distinction between print and speech. Duke and Cartwright also include cognitive processes in this unified approach, including self-regulation, executive function, motivation, and cognitive flexibility.
  • Mark Seidenberg and others’ profound concept of statistical learning explains how readers implicitly pick up numerous patterns in written and spoken words and then generalize this learning to new and more complex words. Seidenberg believes that explicit instruction should only be a brief “onramp” to the overwhelmingly intrinsic act of reading, holding that “only a small fraction of this system can be explicitly taught.” He says, for instance, that “Explicit instruction and conscious effort are the visible tip of the iceberg; statistical learning is the mass below the surface.” Spelling, too, is largely learned implicitly as “children are powerful statistical spellers, showing sensitivity to untaught orthographic patterns.” Seidenberg also believes that instructors should de-emphasize step-by-step, single component instruction, exemplified by traditional approaches to phonics and PA instruction, as the components, including decoding and comprehension, are not independent: “Reading and speech become deeply intertwined, from behavior to brain.” A good overview of this work can be found in Joanne Arciuli’s piece, Reading as Statistical Learning(9), which includes a section on how we might supplement explicit literacy instruction with implicit learning methods.

These leading minds clearly show that explicit teaching and implicit learning are almost inseparable, a finding that both Phonics/SoR and BL should embrace. Furthermore, the other major divide – that between word recognition and meaning – is also an illusion of sorts. In fact, these scholars have proven that all the many components of literacy instruction are deeply intertwined and reinforce each other. This happens not just as an outcome of instruction, as the respected Scarborough’s Rope shows. Instead, they are all developed interdependently from the earliest stage, as Jan Wasowicz’ Language Literacy Network’s powerful illustration illuminates.

When integrated multicomponent content is linked to an explicit-to-implicit delivery model, we have what I believe is the foundation for a paradigm shift in reading development. It is senseless to waste more time and energy on defending incrementally effective traditional methods when a Reading Shift is at hand.

Thank you for your devotion to this important topic. 

Bruce Howlett, author Sparking the Reading Shift. b7howlett@gmail.com

Caitlin Howlett

References and More Reading

  1. Dehaene, S. (2020). How We Learn: Why Brains Learn Better Than Any Machine . . . For Now. Viking, New York, NY.
  2. Cartwright, K. B., Marshall, T.R., Huemer, C. M., Payne, J. B. (2019). Executive function in the classroom: Cognitive flexibility supports reading fluency for typical readers and teacher-identified low-achieving readers, Research in Developmental Disabilities, Vol. 88, pages 42-52.
  3. Wasowicz, J. (2021). The Language Literacy Network. SPELL-Links | Learning By Design, Inc., Naples, FL.
  4. a. Ehri, L.C. (2014). Orthographic mapping in the acquisition of sight word reading, spelling memory, and vocabulary learning. Scientific Studies of Reading 18(1), 5-21. p6. 4.b. Gray, S.H., Ehri, L.C., Locke, J.L. (2018) Morpho-phonemic analysis boosts word reading for adult struggling readers. Read Writing 31(1):75-98.
  5. Share, D.L. (1995). Phonological recoding and self-teaching: sine qua non of reading acquisition. Cognition, May; 55(2):151-218.
  6. Kilpatrick, D.A. (2016). Equipped for Reading Success. Casey & Kirsch Publishers, Syracuse, NY.
  7. Wolf, M. quoted by Dr. Jan Wasowicz from Wolf (Wolf, M. (In preparation). “Elbow Room:” A Developmental, Dynamic Sequence for Teaching Foundational Skills and Comprehension Processes. UCLA: Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice) in her talk: The Language Literacy Network: A New Twist on the Reading Rope to Advance Literacy Outcomes in Dr. Wasowicz’ Invited Keynote at the Los Angeles Branch of the International Dyslexia Association, Los Angeles, CA, March 2023.
  8. Duke, N.K., & Cartwright, K.B.(2021). The Science of Reading Progresses: Communicating Advances Beyond the Simple View of Reading. Read Res Q, 56(S1), S25– S44.
  9. Arciuli, Joanne. (2018) Reading as Statistical Learning. Language Speech and Hearing Services in Schools. Volume 49, Issue 3S. Pages 634-643.

© 2023 Bruce Howlett  

Opinions presented are those of the guest authors and not necessarily those of SPELL-Links | Learning By Design. They are presented to generate new insights, critical thinking, and solutions for educators and learners.

Comments? Questions? Divergent opinions? We’d love to hear from you! Post them on SPELLTalk, the FREE online professional discussion group dedicated to improving literacy through discussion of current research and evidence-based best practices.