Literacy Wars: Why Are We Fighting? How Do We Find Our Way?

Written by Gen

I am a reluctant social media user. When Facebook was new, I waited years before tentatively starting an account. I was, and continue to be, careful about what I put out there digitally. You won’t find me on Snap-chat or Instagram. I have only just started using Twitter. I’m so new, in fact, that hardly anyone knows I’m out there! In my short time using it, though, I’ve become discouraged. I suppose it’s inevitable; with the anonymity of the internet we’re bound to see equal parts courteous and hostile when it comes to most matters, including literacy teaching.

What follows are my observations regarding the large-scale literacy conversation happening in our country and the world, as well as my thoughts on the matter. My first question is, why are we fighting? I’m sure I don’t have the definitive answer, but what you will read next are some of my personal observations and thoughts about the global literacy conversation. The second question I will pose is, how do we find our way? For this, I have a few ideas about how literacy teachers can remain steadfast in the midst of the turmoil.

Why are we fighting?

The short answer is, I don’t know! But you’re not reading this for my short answer, so my slightly longer answer has several parts:

My Hope

My hope is that we are arguing about the best way to teach literacy because we all care so deeply about children and recognize that becoming literate is crucial for future success in a child’s life. Passion is often linked to dedication and that’s not a bad thing. From my perspective, it seems as though literacy has been divided into two parts: phonics and authentic texts, and you are either for one or the other and whichever side you are on, the other one is wrong. If the argument is due to the fact that we all care about kids, then we can at least agree on one thing: literacy is important and we want to do what’s best.

My Fear

My fear, however, is that the argument does not originate from the heart. I wonder if it is coming from a more selfish place. For the most part, I believe educators want what’s best for their students and that causes them to seek out information, particularly when students start to struggle. The problem comes from those who are there to turn the conversation for their own interests, making claims to have answers that are sure to be the end-all to literacy teaching struggles. Some of them are very persuasive, causing teachers to line up behind one or the other. These entities rely on teachers who have big hearts becoming dedicated to them and, unknowingly, perpetuating the negativity and therefore their infamy.

How do we find our way?

I’ve had to do some deep reflection on this idea because I, too, am guilty of lining up. We all are, at times, which makes it even more important for us to find our compass in the abyss of information to determine what’s right for our students.

Beware

There are a few things that I look for when determining the validity of a source. Be cautious of the following:

The Attention Seeker: You can identify an attention seeker because this person or entity will make inflammatory statements and then you won’t hear from this person again on the topic. Rather, it will let its followers vehemently go back and forth in a cycle of argument. Such statements will be belligerent to the opposite side of the discussion and will (purposely) raise your blood pressure, making you feel like joining the argument. The perspective of the attention seeker is this, “if everyone is talking about me, then no one is productively discussing literacy instruction.”

The Teacher-Shamer: Have you ever been made to feel like everything you did before a particular product came into your life was wrong? Or that you shouldn’t be, or aren’t, trusted to make decisions for your own classroom and instruction? Good advice includes the presentation of information and encourages teachers to think for themselves, it doesn’t induce guilt. But people who feel guilty purchase things to “fix” their guilt, so…you see how that works?

The Attacker: An attacker will be the one who says disparaging things about another perspective. Attackers are opinionated and, frankly, mean. Their statements may be downright vicious and will aim to tear others down. This is different than someone who simply disagrees and provides evidence to respectfully counter an opinion. The remarks from an attacker will not be respectful, therefore bullying others into following their lead in the literacy discussion.

The Razzle-Dazzler: This entity will try to blind you with how easy teaching literacy can be if you would only purchase (fill in the blank product) without actually presenting any evidence for its success. The materials will be beautiful, it will require minimal or no planning time, and it will give the impression that it is a researched product.

(To learn more about understanding the difference between “researched” and “research-based,” check out this previous post: Truth & Research: What to Consider Before Selecting Literacy Curriculum and Programs)

Finding Your Bearings

Here are a few ways that I keep my bearings when discerning what to believe in the literacy world:

Find the research. I’ve written about this before, and I’ll say it again. I’m not talking about a product that is researched. I’m talking about research regarding literacy acquisition. Approaches, not products. If you understand how children learn to be literate, then you will be able to determine for yourself if a product is appropriate or not. Can you even believe I recently read a blog post that actually encouraged teachers to disregard research?!?! Valid, peer-reviewed research is invaluable!

Remember the balance. Reading is a complex process. If it wasn’t, all of our problems with instruction would have been solved by now. No single approach will work for everyone. Avoid entities that tell you it will. Literacy acquisition requires the systematic teaching of phonics AND the development of a meaning-making, problem-solving schema. We should use research to determine how much of each should be in our curriculum.

Get rid of reactive responses. If you’ve encountered a statement that makes your blood boil, you’ve probably found an attention-seeker who is banking on your indignant replies to add fuel to the fire. Think twice about what prompted this person or entity to put what they’ve said into the world and respond in a measured way with facts, not emotion, keeping in mind that sometimes it’s best not to reply at all.

Be empowered to make it about your students. Read everything. Think critically about both sides of the argument. Ask questions and seek to understand. Think about your students. Trust yourself to make informed decisions on a case-by-case basis. You are more than a script or a product or a program: you are an educated, observant, thoughtful individual who is qualified to decide what is best for your students.

Open-Mindedness

Out there in social media land, this phonics versus authentic text argument is heated. Remember that this is not about a person, it is not about a product. Be open-minded, but rely on evidence. We are all in this together for the future literate lives of our students.

 

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14 thoughts on “Literacy Wars: Why Are We Fighting? How Do We Find Our Way?

  1. Kim Schwartz

    Another thought about research: I believe we need approaches that are also research-tested, not necessarily just research-based. Example: Reading Recovery is continually collecting data on current students and reporting it year after year. Anyone can find research to claim their approach is legitimate, but unless it’s actually been tested over a period of time with real teachers using that approach with real students, it doesn’t hold much validity in my opinion. Kilpatrick’s “research” base is many years old and some of the studies’ methods are questionable. To my knowledge he has not collected data on the methods he supports in an actual teaching situation. Clinical research is very different from what goes on in a classroom.

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    1. Thank you for your thoughts! I agree that independently research-tested programming leaves little room for argument. Unfortunately, this type of research takes lots of time and resources so we don’t find it too often for classroom curriculum. That’s why it’s so important to keep ourselves aware of what is out there and then command the trust of our higher-ups to trust us to design lessons for our individual students and classes.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. DeGee Brown

      I read one of his books this summer (recommended from some dyslexia training) and he claims to have the answer to solving all reading problems and doesn’t understand why teachers won’t listen to him. He is a school psych who believes that part of the problem is that teachers do not have access to all the research so he compiled it into this book and tells you which method he believes to be best. He’s in the process of doing his own research.
      He’s definately a ‘data person.’
      My opinion (and only my opinion) is that he is biased without a full understanding of the 3 cueing system. He also comes across in a rather arrogant manner that I found insulting. I made many, many notes in the margins and had to take long breaks from reading because I felt insulted. He uses the new brain research for dyslexia as the basis for teaching all to read.
      I got the book hoping to find some new information that would help me with some of my struggling readers. It just seemed like more of the same ‘reading wars’ talk and this book was telling me I was wrong and stupid.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Kim Schwartz

        Yes, I’ve read parts of it (can’t stomach very much at a time either) and our state’s initiative for literacy is based on his (old and biased) “research” that is all phonics based. I’m hoping the pendulum starts swinging back soon. Until then, all we can do is respectfully continue to stand up for what we know works in actual classrooms with real students and teachers. PD with teachers needs to continue to include all other parts of literacy (guided reading, comprehension, prompting/scaffolding, fluency, etc.). If not, our newer teachers won’t have all the information they need!

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Kim Schwartz

    That’s true, however, there are many OG programs out there that have been around for YEARS and have just chosen not to have independent, peer-reviewed research conducted. I love that the OG approach is so structured and systematic – it works wonders for those kids who need that. I just don’t agree with the “everybody needs this type of approach first (with no reading of authentic text in K/1 recommended) to be able to comprehend later”. My fear is that we will have lots of “readers” who can take apart any word they encounter, but won’t be able to think deeply about what they read. I believe we need to pay attention to ALL cueing sources from the very beginning!

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  3. DeGee Brown

    Any time that someone says they’ve found the “magic bullet”, I know to be cautious. Granted, they probably did find it for someone, but not for everyone.
    Many times, people say negative things about something that didn’t work for them (or someone they know) and disregard the fact that it really did work well for someone else.
    The 3 cueing system used in Reading Recovery is an excellent balance because not only does it use all 3, it allows lessons to adjust for a quick, indepth focus on whatever the weakness may be and then tie them all back together with cross-checking and text.
    I have often been very insulted when someone has told me that what I do doesn’t have valid research and is just based on wishing and guessing. They’ve pretty much told me that I’m stupid.
    I hope I haven’t been as rude and hurtful as they have.
    It’s nice to be reminded that we should mind our manners and speak (or write) in a prefessional and kind manner.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Shari Worsfold

    One thing I don’t read about often are those children who are taught using a memory based phonics program that have difficulty retaining and retrieving that information. Nevermind the approach, but the difficulty these children face often turns them off learning, period. Not only have we not found the approach that works for them, we disengage them early in their education! Not all children learn letters and sounds by rote memory – some require concrete associations or purpose (writing).

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree, Shari. Can you imagine how children who struggle to remember would feel in a program that asks them to use only what is weakest for them, and ignore other cueing systems that would help them? It would be like asking a fish to climb a tree every day until he could reach the top. Why wouldn’t we build on a child’s strengths?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Kim Schwartz

        Yes! And the thing is you cannot stop the brain from trying to make sense of things! Have you seen the looks from kids trying to read the decodable readers??? Granted, some are better than others but fat cats sitting on mats and pigs eating figs drive them (and me) crazy! 🤣

        Liked by 2 people

    2. DeGee Brown

      Writing is one of THE best ways to help children learn letters, sounds and words! Since reading and writing are reciprocal processes, writing helps students with reading.
      One size doesn’t fit all, that’s why building on student strengths is the best way to reach them.

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  5. Kathy Lancaster Grover

    Wow! This was such refreshing,rewarding information and comments to read. I am a retired teacher for two years now. For 8 of my years I taught Reading Recovery and then of course went on to use those methods in my teaching of struggling young readers. I miss it so much. My dream would be completing the O.S. on those children. I know that my district no longer offers Reading Recovery and is leaning toward more of a phonics approach. Please give me a place to just offer the O.S. and the ability to make suggestions to the parents in order to help these eager learners really read and write. The emphasis on REALLY. Well, it does my heart such good to see that I am not alone.

    Liked by 2 people

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