The Reading Wars: Understanding the Debate Over How Best to Teach Children to Read

Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 18, 2000

12 Pages Posted: 16 Oct 2006 Last revised: 6 Jul 2010

See all articles by Kenneth Anderson

Kenneth Anderson

American University - Washington College of Law


This 2000 review essay from the Los Angeles Times Book Review examines the perennial debate over teaching reading to children - phonics or whole language. It focuses first on the 2000 report of the National Reading Panel of the National Institutes of Health, a study examining reading pedagogy limited to statistically defensible studies, rather than anecdotal reports in education journals. That report, in carefully couched language, endorses the use of phonics while acknowledging the importance of (eventually) learning to read 'in context'. The NIH study indeed concludes that the characteristics of phonemic awareness "most effective in enhancing" reading and spelling skills included "explicitly and systematically teaching children to manipulate phonemes." The review concludes, on the basis of that report and other recent books on reading, that the phonics arguments clearly have the better argument grounded in actual evidence. It addresses the political and ideological undertones to the debate - the recent election of Bush as the No Child Left Behind president, and the association of phonics instruction with conservative reformers - and discussing the writings of Gerald Coles, who endorses whole language pedagogy as a mechanism for left-wing social change, for pedagogy and schools as ideological agents of progressive social change, going far outside any agenda of teaching reading. It takes up broader critiques of prevailing self-esteem pedagogy from the right-wing in Maureen Stout's The Feel Good Curriculum. It ends with a discussion of practical ways in which parents can address gaps in their children's reading skills through Diane McGuinness's provocative, useful, but somewhat over-confident (given the state of current scientific evidence as found in the NIH report) advice to parents on dealing with remediation. The general conclusion of the review is that given by linguist Steven Pinker in the preface to McGuinness's book: "Language is a human instinct, but written language is not ... Children are wired for sound, but print is an optional accessory that must be painstakingly bolted on. This basic fact about human nature should be the starting point for any discussion about how to teach our children to read and write."

Keywords: reading, phonics, whole language, Steven Pinker, Gerald Coles, National Reading Panel, self-esteem, education, language, linguistics, No Child Left Behind,

JEL Classification: 20, 21, 28, 30

Suggested Citation

Anderson, Kenneth, The Reading Wars: Understanding the Debate Over How Best to Teach Children to Read. Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 18, 2000, Available at SSRN:

Kenneth Anderson (Contact Author)

American University - Washington College of Law ( email )

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Washington, DC 20016
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