The Right Kind of Reading War

The phrase "reading war" has been the popular description for long-running disagreements about the best way to teach children to read. Fierce battles have been waged by academics and theorists since the late 1800s (McCormick, 1999), with classroom teachers often spinning like weathervanes as they tried to align classroom practices with the prevailing winds.

The most recent conflicts, fought in school boards and state legislatures, are just the latest attempts by proponents of phonics and whole language to dominate the teaching of reading.

Through the years, though, the United States has been losing the real reading war – the war against illiteracy. Today, 10 million American schoolchildren are poor readers (Fletcher & Lyon, 1998). As a nation, we have failed to ensure that all children are good readers by the time they leave the primary grades.

Even with changing fashions in curriculum and instruction, and the overall push for education reform, the percentage of children who read well has not improved substantially for more than 25 years (NAEP 1996 Trends Report). Among our poorest children, more than half of all fourth-graders who are eligible for the free lunch program fail to read at the Basic achievement level needed for academic success (NAEP 1998 Reading Report Card). In our highest-poverty public schools, a whopping 68 percent of fourth-graders fail to reach the Basic level of achievement. Only one in 10 fourth-graders at these schools can read at the Proficient level, the ideal goal for all students (NAEP 1998 Reading Report Card).

Clearly, pursuit of the same old strategies won't help more children master reading. To win this real reading war, it's time to broaden our views on responsibility for reading, and enlist new and more effective troops – involved parents, highly skilled child care providers, effective primary schoolteachers, and committed communities. We must start early and finish strong, to help every child become a good reader.


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Fletcher, J.M. & Lyon, G.R. (1998). Reading: A Research-Based Approach. In What's Gone Wrong in America's Classrooms, ed. W.M. Evers, 49-90. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press.

McCormick, S. (1999). Instructing Students Who Have Literacy Problems. 3rd edition. Columbus, Ohio: Prentice-Hall.

NAEP 1998 Reading Report Card: See U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, National Center for Education Statistics, 1999. The NAEP 1998 Reading Report Card for the Nation.

NAEP 1996 Trends Report: See U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, National Center for Education Statistics, 1997. NAEP 1996 Trends in Academic Progress.

Excerpted from: The Right Kind of Reading War. (July, 1999). Start Early, Finish Strong: How to Help Every Child Become a Reader. America Reads Challenge, U.S. Department of Education.


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"Reading should not be presented to children as a chore or duty. It should be offered to them as a precious gift." — Kate DiCamillo