Things often come to my attention in education that make no sense. One of these has do to with the current state of the “Reading Wars”, which has changed slightly since the days when it was characterized as a battle between phonics vs. whole language advocates. The phonics people won, but conceded the point that teachers must also model and nurture a love of reading and expose children to real literature. This gave rise to the balanced literacy movement, which, to put it bluntly, is such a fuzzy concept in education that it leads to literacy instruction being as balanced or as unbalanced as an individual district, textbook, or teacher wishes it to be.

Now there seems to be a new fight brewing around the future of our elementary readers.

On one side are the folks who claim to support “balanced literacy”, but who, in practice, take an unsystematic, as needed approach to phonics; When children do not discover the letter-sound correspondences for themselves, they perhaps prescribe a bit of remediation, “just in time.” Instead of teaching phonics in a way that is consistent with the recommendations of the National Reading Panel (2000), or the research literature (i.e. Jeynes, 2008; Sermier Dessemontet et al., 2019), these pseudo-balanced literacy folks would spend the greater part of the school day, to the exclusion of science and social studies (Banilower et al., 2013), teaching reading comprehension strategies.

On the other side are the knowledge-rich folks. Famous names include E.D. Hirsch and Natalie Wexler, in which the latter recently published a book on this subject, titled “The Knowledge Gap.” Their approach is quite different than how most teachers, at least in the United States, would currently teach reading. Hirsch and Wexler advocate for systematic phonics instruction in grades K-2, while simultaneously building students’ background knowledge in science and social studies. If the knowledge-rich folks had it their way, even the literacy block would emphasize building background knowledge, and reading comprehension strategies would be taught mostly implicitly, or limited to just a few sessions over the course of the year.

This dichotomy completely boggles my mind. Why have the anti-phonics people gone from deriding “boring, soul-crushing phonics” to advocating for a greater emphasis on perhaps an even MORE boring and soul-crushing aspect of literacy instruction: Teaching comprehension strategies!? Why also, in the misguided thirst for more comprehension strategy instruction, have we seen science and social studies largely deleted from the curriculum, the two subjects that many elementary kids find the most engaging of all?  Given the evidence that teaching more sessions of comprehension strategies (i.e., 20-50) is probably no more effective at raising achievement than, say, only teaching 10 (Rosenshine & Meister, 1994), as well as the evidence that the key to comprehending text, once decoding is mastered, is mostly due to the interaction between a student’s background knowledge and the subject of the text (Schneider, Körkel, & Weinert, 1989; Kaefer, 2018), what a bizarre state of affairs we are in!

Why do the same teachers that hate “boring phonics” emphasize the teaching of boring reading comprehension strategies? Why has the wonder and excitement of science (U.S. average ∼ 19 mins a day) and social studies (average ∼ 16 mins a day) been sacrificed as a result? How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop? The world will never know.

– Zach Groshell @mrzachg


Banilower, E. R., Smith, P. S., Weiss, I. R., Malzahn, K. A., Campbell, K. M., & Weis, A. M. (2013). Report of the 2012 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education. Chapel Hill, NC: Horizon Research, Inc.

Kaefer, T. (2018). The role of topic-related background knowledge in visual attention to illustration and children’s word learning during shared book reading. Journal of Research in Reading, 41(3), 582–596.

National Reading Panel. (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. NIH Publication No. 00-4769

Rosenshine, B., & Meister, C. (1994). Reciprocal Teaching: A Review of the Research. Review of Educational Research, 64(4), 479–530.

Schneider, W., Körkel, J., & Weinert, F. E. (1989). Domain-Specific Knowledge and Memory Performance: A Comparison of High- and Low-Aptitude Children. Journal of Educational Psychology81(3), 306–312.

Sermier Dessemontet, R., Martinet, C., de Chambrier, A. F., Martini-Willemin, B. M., & Audrin, C. (2019). A meta-analysis on the effectiveness of phonics instruction for teaching decoding skills to students with intellectual disability. Educational Research Review26(December 2018), 52–70.

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