Roll Call of Combatants in the Reading Wars

Dr. Patrick Groff, Professor of Education Emeritus, San Diego State University

The media is prone to dub the current international controversy, over how English-speaking students are best taught to read, as the "reading wars." The point in calling this dispute a "war" obviously is to leave the impression that there must be some reasonable, overlooked means by which this argument can be resolved among educators, so that children learning to read will be the beneficiaries of its termination.

Some reading instruction specialists have joined the media in denouncing a continuation of this controversy over reading instruction. They contend that there is an "eclectic" solution to the conflict over how children acquire reading ability in the shortest time possible. It is their view in this respect that the "best" aspects of the competing proposals for teaching reading should be identified. These best parts would then be melded together to make up a supposedly defensible "balanced" reading instruction program, that will please both sides to the dispute.

Unfortunately, both the media and the reading specialists in question ignore, or are unaware of the true nature of the world-wide altercation over what kind of reading instruction is the most effective. This battle began in the 1970s, when the Whole Language (WL) approach to students’ reading development was created, by Kenneth Goodman and Frank Smith. After that point in time, WL increasingly became a dominant force in reading instruction in English-speaking nations.

The guiding principle of WL is that students best learn to read in the same informal, natural way they previously learned to speak, as preschoolers. Therefore, in bona fide WL classrooms, direct, systematic, intensive, comprehensive, and early teaching, of a prearranged sequence of discrete reading skills, is greatly de-emphasized. The WL theory assumes that students best learn all reading skills in a simultaneous or instantaneous (holistic) fashion. Hence, the choice of the word, Whole, in WL teaching.

Also, only teachers who accept WL principles can properly determine whether students are learning to read satisfactorily, WL leaders insist. Standardized reading tests supposedly are unsuitable for that purpose. A cardinal goal of WL is to persuade educators to abandon their use.

Advocates of WL have produced many qualitative (nonnumerical, anecdotal, impressionistic, nonscientific) research findings that they claim confirm the validity of the fundamental principle of their reading instruction innovation, as well as its lesser doctrines. Nowhere in these many published reports is it ever written that WL teaching has any shortcomings. This is not a surprising situation since the goals of WL-qualitative research are to confirm, explain, and promote WL, not to determine if its ideological framework is supported by empirical data.

The other major type of research into students’ reading progress is the experimental variety. As opposed to qualitative research, the experimental kind is expressly designed to objectively test whether a given hypothesis about reading teaching is true or false. For that purpose, it typically gathers standardized test data on students before and after they have been provided a carefully defined version of reading instruction.

Experimental research thus is devised so that it can be replicated. Findings of an individual experiment are not considered generally applicable to reading instruction until they have been reproduced through repeated tryouts of the model experiment. Experimental research therefore is a self-corrective process, not a self-aggrandizing one, as is the case with qualitative studies of the WL ideology.

The present widespread controversy over how to teach students to read arose out of the fact that findings of qualitative as versus experimental research on this question consistently contradict each other. In that respect, it is found that none of the unique principles and practices of WL is corroborated by experimental research. For example, qualitative findings indicate direct and systematic teaching of reading is a relatively ineffective procedure. Experimental evidence, to the contrary, steadfastly demonstrates that students learn to read better with this kind of instruction than with indirect and unsystematic teaching.

The greater the number of reports of WL-qualitative versus experimental research on reading teaching published, the clearer it has become that the findings from these two investigative sources are irreconcilable, incompatible, and mutually exclusive. This is not an unexpected outcome since, as WL leader Carole Edelsky explains: WL "constitutes a different view of education, language and learning; uses different discourse; maintains different values; and emanates from a different educational community" from the one that honors experimental research. It thus is predictable that the two educational communities would strongly disagree as to "What is reality? Where do facts come from? What is truth?" about reading instruction.

As a consequence, when the findings of qualitative as versus experimental research on reading instruction disaffirm each other, as often happens, it becomes necessary, for everyone concerned as to how reading instruction is conducted most effectively, to make a forced-choice between these two sets of information. Therefore, teachers, school officials, teacher unions, parents, school boards, PTAs, community organizations, business associations, state and local legislators, and the voters at large all must reject WL if they believe that the scientific method for resolving instructional issues must be favored over that employed by qualitative research.

The Roll Call of disputers in the reading teaching controversy, as given to follow, is designed to assist anyone, who is convinced that reading instruction programs must be based on relevant experimental evidence, to determine if the reading program in his/her local schools reflects his/her belief. The Roll Call first provides a list of relatively well-known reading instruction specialists whose publications indicate they defend the scientific method for deciding how reading should be taught.

The second list of names to follow is of recognized reading instruction specialists whose publications indicate they are active supporters of WL. Through their publications that congratulate WL, these literacy experts signify they prefer qualitative research findings, over those from experimental research, when the two refute each other.

The two lists provide help for determining whether or not a local school district’s reading program is based on: (1) the findings of qualitative research, as versus (2) experimental research, or (3) an irrational blend of contradictory evidence from these two research methodologies. To carry out this discovery, one should proceed in this way:

First, inspect the citations to authors of books, journal articles, or other published sources that the school district offers as justification for the kind of reading instruction that it provides students. If these references are exclusively those of reading instruction specialists named in list one of the Roll Call, the district doubtless has consulted experimental evidence in determining how reading instruction should be conducted.

On the other hand, if the citations so offered by the school district are entirely authors from list two of the Roll Call, it is clear that the district’s reading program is intended to be WL-oriented, if not dominated by WL’s experimentally unverified principles and practices. An equal number of citations of reading instruction specialists who favor WL evidence on reading teaching, as versus those who defend experimental evidence for this purpose, may be given. This means that the district has devised an irrational, unprincipled reading instruction program.

Thus, if a school district cites only authors from list two, or ones from both lists, it is open to negative criticism. Among the questions that it then should be requested to answer in these events are:

• Why did you select a reading instruction program based on qualitative evidence rather than on the experimental kind?

• How do you justify basing your reading program on a combination of types of research evidence that often contradict each other?

• If you propose you have chosen the "best" evidence from qualitative and experimental reading instruction research, what was the rationale used for this choice?

Roll Call Number One:Defenders of Experimental Research In Reading Instruction

Adams, M. J. Denchla, M. B. Hume, C.
Alexander, P. A. Downing, J.  
Alford, J. Dreher, M. J. Johnson, D. D.
Allport, A. Drum, P. A. Jorm, A. F.
Almosi, J. F. Durkin, D. Juel, C.
Anderson, R. C. Dykstra, R. Juola, J. F.
Anderson, T. H.   Just, M. A.
  Ehri, L. C.  
Backman, J. Engelmann, S. E. Kahmi, A. G.
Ball, E. W. Evans, M. A. Kameenui, E. J.
Balmuth, M.   Kavale, K. A.
Banks, J. Farnham-Diggory, S. Kinsbourne, M.
Baron, J. Feeman, O. J. Kintsch, W.
Barr, R. Feitelson, D. Kuhn, M. R.
Barron, R. W. Felton, R. H.  
Bateman, B. Fielding-Barnsley, R. LaBerge, D.
Baumann, J. F. Finn, C. E. Layton, J. R.
Beck, I. L. Fisher, F. W. Lesgold, A. M.
Becker, W. C. Foorman, B. R. Levy, B. A.
Bennett, W. J. Forness, S. R. Liberman, A. M.
Berliner, D. C. Fowler, C. A. Liberman, I. Y.
Blachman, B. A. Francis, D. J. Lindamood, P.
Blanton, W. E. Fredericksen, J. R. Lipson, M. Y.
Bradley, L. Freebody, P. Lundberg, J.
Brady, S. Frost, J.  
Brown, I. S. Gersten, R. Macmillan, B.
Bruck, M. Gleitman, L. R. Mann, V. A.
Bruner, E. Glushko, R. J. Massaro, D. W.
Bryant, P. E. Golinkoff, R. M. Mather, N.
Byrne, B. Goswami, U. Mattingly, I.
Burkard, T. Gough, P. B. McCaslin, E. S.
Butler, B. Griffith, P. L. McCormick, S.
  Groff, P. McCuster, L. X.
Calfee, R. C. Grossen, B. McGuiness, D.
Carnine, D. Gurren, H. McLaughlin, T.
Carner, R. P.   McKeown, M. G.
Carr, T. H. Haines, S. McKenna, M. C.
Carpenter, P. A. Hebert, M. Meister, C.
Carter, B. Hedley, C. N. Miller, J. W.
Catts, H. W. Henderson, L. Miller, P. D.
Chall, J. S. Henry, M. Mitchell, D. C.
Cornoldi, C. Hiebert, E. H. Moats, L. C.
Crowder, R. C. Hill, D. Moorman, G. B.
Cunningham, A. E. Hillinger, M. L. Morris, J. M.
Curry, L. Hirsch, E. D. Morrison, F. J.
Curtis, M. E. Hogaboam, T. Mosse, H. L.
  Holland, J. G.  
Danks, J. H. Hoover, W. A. Nicholson, T.
Daneman, M. Hughes, A. Novy, D. M.

Olson, R. Taylor, B. B.  
Orton, S. T. Thompson, G. B.  
Osborn, J. Treiman, R.  
  Truch, S.  
Paris, S. G. Tunmer, W. E.  
Pate, E. P. Turner, M.  
Pearson, P. D. Turvey, M. T.  
Perfetti, C.    
Peterson, C. L. Underwood, G.  
Peterson, O. P. Uhry, J. K.  
Pollatsek, A.    
Pressley, M. Vellutino, F.  
Putnam, L. R. Venezky, R. L.  
Rack, J. P. Wallach, L.  
Rayner, K. Wallach, M.  
Reinking, D. Wardhaugh, R.  
Resnick, L. B. Weaver, P. A.  
Rieben, L. West, C. K.  
Robbins, C. West, R. F.  
Robinson, R. R. White, W. A. T.  
Rosenshine, B. Wilce, L. S.  
  Williams, J. P.  
Samuels, S. J. Wilson, M. R.  
Sawyer, D. J. Wilson, W.  
Scanlon, D. Wise, B. W.  
Schermer, N. Wixson, K. K.  
Shankweiler, D.    
Share, D. L. Yussen, S. R.  
Shepherd, M. J.    
Shimron, J.    
Siegel, L. S.    
Silbert, J.    
Snider, V. E.    
Snowling, M. J.    
Spear-Swerling, L.    
Stahl, S. A.    
Stanovich, K. E.    
Stein, M.    
Stevens, R.    
Sticht, T. G.    
Stott, D. H.    

Roll Call Number Two: Defenders of Whole Language Qualitative Research In Reading Instruction

Allen, J. Cutting, B. Hall, N.
Allen, P. D.   Hansen, J.
Allington, R. C. Dahl, K. L. Harp, B.
Altwerger, B. DeCarlo, J. E. Harris, L. H.
Anderson, G. S. Dechant, E. Harste, J. C.
Anthony, R. J. DeFord, D. E. Harwayne, S.
Apple, M. W. Delgado, L. Heald-Taylor, G.
Aronowitz, S. Desai, L. E. Heap, J. L.
Atwell, N. Dixon, C. Henke, L.
Au, K. Doake, D. B. Hittleman, D.
  Draper, K. Holdaway, D.
Barclay, K. Dudley-Marling, C. Hollingsworth, P. M.
Bayer, A. S. Dunn, R. Hood, W. J.
Beach, K.   Hornsby, D.
Bird, L. B. Edelsky, C. Hubbard, R. S.
Bissex, G. L. Eisele, B.  
Blansett, M. L. Eisenhart, M. Jaggar, A. M.
Bloome, D. Eldredge, J. L. Johnson, P. H.
Botel, M. Espe, C.  
Bridges, L. B.   King, D.
Brooks, J. Farris, P. Krashen, S. D.
Brown, H. Ferreiro, E. Kucer, S. E.
Brown, R. Fields, M.  
Brown, S. E. Finn, P. J. Lamme, L. L.
Buchanan, E. Fisher, B. Lancy, D. F.
Burke, C. L. Flores, B. Laughlin, M.
Burma-Washington, M. Flurkey, A. D. Lyle, M.
  Forte, I. Lyons, C. A.
Cairney, T. Fountas, I. C.  
Calkins, L. M. Freeman, D. E. Manning, D.
Cambourne, B. Freeman, Y. S. Manning, G.
Campbell, R. Freire, P. McKenzie, M.
Carbo, M. Froese, V. Meek, M.
Carter, M. A.   Mills, H.
Cary, M. Galda, L. Mohr, C.
Cazden, C. B. Gentry, J. R. Mooney, M. E.
Chow, M. Gilmore, P. Morrow, L. M.
Christie, F. Giroux, H. A. Murphy, S.
Church, S. M. Gitlin, A. Myers, J.
Clark, M. M. Goelman, H.  
Clarke, M. A. Goodman, K. S. Newman, J. M.
Clay, M. M. Goodman, Y. M.  
Clyde, J. Goswami, D. O’Keefe, T.
Cochran-Smith, M. Graves, D.  
Cordeiro, P. Gruber, B. Pace, G.
Cox, C. Grundin, H. Padak, N.
Crafton, L. K. Gunderson, L. Patterson, L.
Crowley, P. Gunn, K. Pavelka, P.
Cullinan, B.   Pearson, P. D.
Cushenbury, D.   Peetoom, A.

Pierce, K. M. Taylor, D.  
Pinnell, G. S. Teale, W. H.  
Polette, N. Teberosky, A.  
Powell, D. Templeton, S.  
Power, B. Thomas, J. K.  
  Tierny, R. J.  
Raines, S. C. Tovey, D.  
Raphael, T. E. Trelease, J.  
Raskinski, T. Tunnell, M. O.  
Readance, J. Turner, R. C.  
Reiff, J.    
Reutzel, D. R. Unhau, N. J.  
Reynolds, R.    
Rhodes, L. K. Vacca, R. T.  
Rich, S. J. Vail, P.  
Rigg, P. Van Allen, R.  
Robb, L.    
Robinson, A. Watson, D. J.  
Routman, R. Weaver, B. M.  
Ruddell, R. B. Weaver, C.  
  Wells, G.  
Sampson, M. R. Wilde, S.  
Sanacore, J. Winch, G.  
Schieffelin, B. B. Woodward, V. A.  
Searfoss, L.    
Sebasta, S. Yaden, D.  
Shanklin, N. L. Yeager, D. C.  
Shapiro, J.    
Sharp, Q. Q.    
Shor, I.    
Short, K. G.    
Smith, F.    
Smith, M. S.    
Smith-Burke, M. T.    
Spiegel, D. L.    
Stansell, J.    
Stephens, D.    
Stice, C. F.    
Stires, S.    
Strickland, D.    
Stull, E.    
Sulzby, E.    

Patrick Groff, Professor of Education Emeritus, San Diego State University

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