In the 1990s, debates over literacy instruction reached a tipping point in the nation’s most populous state. Learn more about the reading crisis in California and the start of the so-called “Reading Wars” in this episode of A Novel Idea. Plus, hear from:
“The Reading Wars,” Nicholas Lemann, The Atlantic Monthly
Episode transcript and sources
A Novel Idea website:
Welcome to the mid-1990s. While teens across the country were trading in their spiral perms and shoulder pads for scrunchies and baggy jeans, and artists like Pearl Jam and 2Pac were battling it out on the charts, America’s reading experts had their eyes on a different kind of clash. Tensions were rising on both sides of the literacy education debate, and soon, the issue of whole language versus decoding-emphasis instruction would erupt onto the front pages of newspapers across the country.
News Reporter (voice actor portrayal): So much hangs on reading and the test scores that reflect success, from parental peace of mind to property values. (Kastor, 1997)
News Reporter (voice actor portrayal): State education officials now agree that their plan was too unstructured and partly responsible for producing thousands of children who could not read at grade level. (The New York Times, 1996)
News Reporter (voice actor portrayal): They see children writing their own books, reading with pleasure, and yet, are told they are failing. (Kastor, 1997)
News Reporter (voice actor portrayal): Fourth graders in California—a state that once boasted a premier educational system and nationally recognized public schools—were among the worst readers in the country. (LoLordo, 1993)
As you just heard in these excerpts from articles published in The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Baltimore Sun, news articles of the mid-1990s sounded fairly similar to “literacy education Twitter” today, with explanations of the benefits of phonics instruction, demands for large scale education reforms, and crowds of people asking: why are we just learning about this now?
The truth is, not everyone was ignorant of the literacy crisis that the country was facing. Some people were even trying to do something about it. For example, in 1976, teacher Marva Collins withdrew five thousand dollars from her retirement fund and began a private school for low-income children in the Chicago area. Though she grew up during the heyday of Dick and Jane and the look-say method, Collins was a longtime advocate of explicit phonics instruction, and she regularly incorporated this type of teaching into her classroom. She believed it was by far a better way to teach students the skills and instill the confidence they needed to become proficient readers of complex texts. And she was clearly on to something. According to anecdote, Collins’ students were successfully reading and comprehending Shakespeare’s plays as early as second and third grade, rebuking the common whole language argument that phonics instruction eliminates the possibility of exposure to “great literature.”
Collins also dedicated years of her life to working with students with learning disabilities, many of whom had been written off as hopeless by their other teachers. She was known for her deeply compassionate and individualized approach to instruction, working diligently to inspire students to love learning and be willing to explore, while simultaneously providing her classes with the tools they needed to succeed.
However, despite the monumental efforts of pioneers like Collins, it took a while for these ideas to reemerge in the arena of public discourse.
From the Iowa Reading Research Center, I’m Meg Mechelke, and this is A Novel Idea. The field of literacy education has always been a breeding ground for dissent and debate, but at the end of the 20th century, tensions reached a new high, as the infamous “Reading Wars” exploded into mainstream conversation across the country.
In 1985, the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development began a massive review into the ways reading disabilities were impacting U.S. students. The results of this process set off massive alarm bells for educators and experts across the country. Years of research findings suggested that somewhere around 20% of American schoolchildren demonstrated neurological features that could be indicative of reading difficulties. The researchers behind the study, including an NICHD neuroscientist named Dr. Reid Lyon, argued that one way to support these students was by implementing a reading instructional curriculum that included “highly structured, explicit, and intensive instruction in phonics rules and [their] application to print.” This was exactly the kind of instruction that Marva Collins, and others before her, had found successful when working with students with disabilities. But this time, advocates were not just calling for an overhaul of the American special education system. They believed that this type of explicit, decoding-emphasis instruction needed to be implemented in all classrooms across the country.
Around this same time, California, a longtime trendsetter in American education, was in the process of adopting a brand new literacy curriculum. A whole language initiative known as “literature-based instruction” had just appeared on the desk of Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig. Honig would eventually become one of the greatest allies of the pro-phonics camp, but at the time, he was swept away by the allure of a teaching method that promised to get kids reading “great literature” as early as kindergarten and first grade. In 1987, California leaned heavily into this whole-language-endorsed approach to reading by creating an English language arts framework that was strong in its support of reading comprehension skills but neglected to emphasize the importance of explicit decoding instruction. Here’s Honig describing the framework in testimony delivered to the California Assembly Education Committee in 1996.
Bill Honig: That framework, I think, was strong and still is strong on the literature, the language, the making sure the kids write and talk about what they read. It was, I think derelict, or it missed being clear enough in the area of being specific about the phonics part and the skills part. It said it, but it wasn't clear. And I have some personal responsibility in this whole effort, obviously, because I was the Superintendent then, and I got a call from Jeanne Chall, who's a very famous researcher, who was the first one that said that decoding, code breaking, is the way to go, not these other whole word systems. (Hagopian, 2019a)
Here, Honig is referring to Dr. Jeanne Chall, a renowned literacy researcher who was, at the time, serving as director of the Harvard Reading Laboratory.
Bill Honig: She called about a year later and said, because I knew her and we had a good conversation, she said “Bill, people are going to misread this framework as saying you don't have to teach the skills.” I said, “why will they do that?” And she said, "you watch, they will.” And I said, “I don’t think they will.” She was right, I was wrong. (Hagopian, 2019a)
The implementation of this new ELA framework in California opened a lot of doors for the whole language movement. Policymakers, publishers, and educators latched on to the idea of surrounding children with quality books and reading opportunities but largely abandoned instruction in foundational skills like phonics and phonemic awareness. And the thing is, California was—and still is—the most populous state in the country. Textbooks and curricula used in California have long set the standard for educational materials used across the United States. So the state’s pivot to whole language instruction gave the movement a significant amount of both political and financial support.
For a year or two, it looked like whole language had won out as the most popular form of reading instruction in the United States. However, not everyone was on board with this shift, and one California activist, a sixty-something year old woman named Marion Joseph, was determined to make her voice heard. In an interview conducted as part of the 2002 Reading by 9 conference, Joseph stated:
“My oldest, beloved grandson was in first grade, and I went to visit his school to hear about the new reading program. I came home and told my daughter that I didn't understand a word the teacher said, and that was because I thought she really didn't understand it herself. My daughter was helping my grandson. We went to school to get the next little primers, and the teacher said, ‘We don't use those anymore,’ and she showed us a very beautiful anthology of stories. My daughter looked and she said, ‘Well, my little boy can't read those words.’” (Hagopian, 2021b)
In the ‘70s, Joseph had worked as an advisor to Superintendent Wilson Riles, Honig’s predecessor. According to a 1997 article published in The Atlantic Monthly, Joseph responded to her experience in her grandson’s classroom by calling up several of her old friends from the superintendent’s office. Joseph claimed that her contacts across the state echoed her fears about the effect of whole language on California’s children. Later, while driving along the freeway, Joseph heard an NPR interview with neuroscientist Reid Lyon, the same neuroscientist who made major contributions to the 1985 study into reading disabilities. Now, Lyon was talking with the hosts of an NPR radio show about the importance of phonics instruction in early literacy development.
Reid Lyon: And in fact, the research evidence replicates well on this point—that if you're a slow, labored reader and reading single words on a page, the chances are about 98% of the time that you're not going to get a thing out of what you've read. There's this bottleneck that exists if you're a slow, labored reader, no matter how much you want to get out of what's in the story. So clearly, one simple, straightforward finding that the research replicates on and one critical condition that has to be in place to be a good hefty reader is that you've got to automatically and fluently and accurately read words, even though that's not why we're teaching children to read to read words. I've heard one assemblywoman mention that. You teach kids to read so that they get the meaning out of it and the rich tapestries of literature. But they'll never get that if they're, again, bottlenecked at this print stage. (Hagopian, 2019b)
That’s a clip from a 1996 speech Lyon gave to the California Assembly Education Committee. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Lyon carried out a number of large, well-funded studies that demonstrated the clear efficacy of phonics and phonemic awareness instruction in early literacy development.
Reid Lyon: When I came to NIH, I asked these four questions.
That’s Lyon speaking to me during a phone interview.
Reid Lyon: How do kids learn to read? Why do some kids have difficulty? How do you prevent reading failure? And how do you remediate reading failure when it's been in place for some period of time? Those four questions.
Lyon’s work was hugely influential. In a 1997 article for The Atlantic Monthly, journalist Nicholas Lemann described him as “a nightmare figure” for the whole language movement. As it turns out, Lyon’s interest in reading science stemmed from personal experience.
Reid Lyon: I became interested in doing the work I did in reading for a variety of factors. One is that I had a tough time learning to read, and that left a mark on me, and I didn't want other people to have that same difficulty. And two, I served overseas, and several of my fellow paratroopers received some hefty damage, particularly brain damage, and in visiting them, I saw, you know, a very peculiar but sad kind of thing, and that is they had lost the ability to read.
When Marion Joseph heard Lyon’s radio interview on the importance of phonics instruction, she realized that this was exactly what students like her grandson needed to succeed. According to the anecdote she shared with The Atlantic Monthly, she pulled off the freeway immediately, drove to a payphone, and called Lyon to get more information.
In the late 1980s, Joseph took the pro-phonics research findings she learned from Lyon and brought them to the desk of an old friend: California’s sitting superintendent, Bill Honig. Though Joseph was able to convince Honig of the dangers posed by California’s new whole language curriculum, Honig was unable to do much to help. He was in the middle of his own very public scandal, having recently been accused of funneling state funds into a non-profit education agency run by his wife. Following a conviction on four felony counts, it would take many years for Honig to rebuild his reputation as an educator and a policymaker, and his reemergence into the public eye was largely due to his outspoken advocacy for a shift to phonics-based instruction in the latter half of the 1990s.
However, Honig’s political troubles were not the only reason Joseph and her pro-phonics agenda were met with resistance.
In 1990, only a few years after the implementation of the new ELA framework in California, Governor George Deukmejian canceled the state’s standardized reading test. He alleged an objection to the use of state funds to support the examination. However, others, including Atlantic reporter Nicholas Lemann, have suggested that this cancellation may have been a way for Deukmejian to undermine Honig, his long-standing political rival who, at one time, was rumored to be considering a run for governor himself. In any case, the result of this decision was that the switch to a whole-language-based instructional method occurred in the absence of any statewide standardized testing to monitor the curriculum’s efficacy.
Additionally, as the phonics versus whole language debate began to receive more and more media attention, a number of ideological generalizations about both methodologies began to arise.
Maryanne Wolf: It became politicized. If you were a progressive, liberal person, the last thing you ever did was kill and drill the imagination.
That’s Dr. Maryanne Wolf. During her work as a reading researcher in the ‘90s, Wolf noticed that phonics had gained a reputation as being a cause of the political right, whereas whole language was associated with the political left.
Maryanne Wolf: People really, zealously believed that only if you were, you know, sort of, right-wing would you ever distort the child’s imagination.
Of course, there were and still are many whole language and phonics advocates on both sides of the political aisle, and in the early 2000s, the importance of reading reform was something legislators in both parties generally agreed on. Nevertheless, the political associations with the two sides of the literacy debate have carried on in popular discourse today, even as legislative efforts around reading continue to be relatively bipartisan in nature.
Also, though these political associations were definitely reinforced and reinvigorated during the 1990s, they were not new. As early as the Age of Enlightenment, anti-phonics reforms tended to be associated with politically liberal activists, and in the ‘50s and ’60s, some of the “return to phonics” rhetoric espoused by author Rudolph Flesch and others was couched in distinctly conservative language. For more insight into the politicization of the literacy conversation, consider this excerpt from Jeanne Chall’s 1967 book Learning to Read: The Great Debate.
“The fact that a heavy phonic emphasis has appealed so markedly to the ‘elite’ has actually prevented many of the people associated with public school education from making an objective examination of the claims of the code-emphasis proponents. These people have feared being in ’bad company.’ Until recently, some public-school people considered frank adoption and avowal of, say, a stronger phonics program a sign of joining up with the enemy—those who advocated cutting taxes, doing away with frills, and teaching only the three R's.” (Chall, 1970)
The early ‘90s also saw the reemergence of national curriculum debates being represented as “fun, liberating” whole language versus “boring, old-fashioned phonics.” This dichotomy, which is still very much at play in literacy debates today, can actually be traced all the way back to a philosopher we discussed in our second episode: Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau framed his principles of education on the idea that freedom, rather than discipline, was a more effective strategy of teaching and raising children, and he considered rote phonics instruction the epitome of this discipline-centered approach. This concept has persisted across decades, and it could very well have influenced how people in the ‘90s thought of phonics instruction, lumping it together with a general idea of outdated and authoritarian educational practices. In contrast, the whole language movement was often viewed through a rose-colored lens that ignored the evidence presented by years of reading research.
Maryanne Wolf: It was romantic, it was political, and it was saying all these things by teachers who really meant well, and who were as idealistic as could be.
This again from Maryanne Wolf.
Maryanne Wolf: And I love these people. I mean, I knew them. They even wanted me to work with them. And, you know, we were diametrically opposed on what children need.
Despite positive intentions on both sides, these ideological debates fulminated into sensational media coverage, tumultuous conferences, and even outright name calling.
Reid Lyon: It’s like going into a swamp.
This again from Reid Lyon.
Reid Lyon: People called me all kinds of stuff. I was the “Lyin’ King,” l-y-i-n-g. I mean, it just was so childish. And these dichotomies and these debates, basically, were titillating the adults, but the kids were falling by the wayside.
When it comes to the heated controversy of the 1990s’ Reading Wars, I would be remiss not to mention the elephant in the room: the issue of money. Curriculum publishing can be a lucrative field, which has led some to suggest that the resistance to a return to decoding-emphasis instruction could have been motivated, in part, by the efforts of those who have historically profited from the dominance of whole language programs. Extensive reporting on the economic side of the Reading Wars has been done by APM Senior Correspondent Emily Hanford in her critically acclaimed podcast series Sold A Story. If you are interested in exploring that angle, I would highly recommend her work as an excellent place to start.
For now, though, let’s return to our current concern: California’s literacy crisis. In 1992, the situation boiled over with the release of the National Assessment of Educational Progress’s state-by-state results. While state-funded standardized testing had paused under Deukmejian, national assessment had continued, and in 1992, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or the NAEP, delivered state-specific results for the first time.
Timothy Shanahan: In the 1990s, there was a blow up of the Reading Wars yet again, really very early in the decade, and it came about specifically because the federal government had changed the rules of how they gave the National Assessment.
This is Dr. Timothy Shanahan, a reading researcher and Distinguished Professor Emeritus from the University of Illinois at Chicago who was involved in several state and federal reading initiatives throughout the ‘90s and 2000s.
Timothy Shanahan: They were initially prohibited from collecting data that would allow them to evaluate how well a state was doing. They could say how well the nation was doing. They could take large collections of states and say, you know, “the northeast is doing really well,” or “the southeast is struggling.” They could do that, but they couldn't say, “Michigan is scoring higher than New York, and New York's doing better than Indiana.” That wasn't allowed. That changed with the first of the reports in the 1990s.
With this change, the NAEP released a list ranking each state based on its students’ reading performance. And for California, the results were abysmal.
Timothy Shanahan: California, which had always prided itself on being, you know, an educational leader and doing great, found themselves at the bottom of that list, and that was not a popular thing in California, to find out you’re not first, you’re 31st, and you might be 50th, y’know, we just don’t have those other 19 states.
According to the NAEP, less than half of California fourth graders were proficient readers. In fact, California ranked fifth from the bottom in the country for reading proficiency. In 1993 and ‘94, the state resumed administering its own reading assessment, and those results were even worse. According to this test, a whopping 77% of fourth graders were reading below grade level. Suddenly, reading education was a headline political issue for people across the state, and the rest of the country was watching closely.
It was around this time that reading researcher Dr. Hollis Scarborough created what is known as the Reading Rope. Scarborough is a developmental psychologist with an interest in early literacy learning. Interestingly, she has worked for many years with Haskins Laboratories, the same place where Dr. Isabelle Liberman conducted many of her studies. In lectures, Scarborough describes herself as a “centrist” on the issue of decoding versus whole language, with friends on both sides of the divide.
In the early ‘90s, Scarborough wanted to create an easy way to communicate the interwoven nature of vital reading skills such as decoding, print awareness, vocabulary acquisition, and more. She says she experimented with pipe cleaners and pencil sketches before finally landing on a printed image of a rope with glued-on labels naming each strand. This diagram was later translated into a sketch published by Guilford Press, which has since become one of the science of reading movement’s foundational images.
Scarborough describes the Rope as a tool intended to “illustrate to a non-researcher the complexity of reading and how skilled reading is acquired, according to research to date.” Furthermore, she hoped that this diagram would appeal to both sides of the Reading Wars, allowing them to understand that both decoding and meaning-based skills were central to the success of the developing reader.
Scarborough divides reading skills into two types: language comprehension skills and word recognition skills. Another way to categorize these two areas might be to call them “meaning-making skills” and “decoding skills.” Either way, the important part of the Reading Rope is that you need both strands in order to become a proficient reader.
In this way, Scarborough’s Rope is related to a concept called “The Simple View of Reading,” which we discussed in our last episode. The Simple View of Reading was developed in 1986 by researchers Dr. Phillip B. Gough and Dr. William E. Tunmer. It describes the ability to read in mathematical terms. According to this theory, students' reading comprehension abilities can be predicted by multiplying their decoding skills by their ability to make meaning from those words. Like the Reading Rope, the Simple View of Reading emphasizes the idea that both areas of skills are essential to literacy development.
Today, the Simple View of Reading has been expanded into a model called “The Active View of Reading,” which was devised by Drs. Kelly B. Cartwright and Nell K. Duke in 2021. This model proposes four key areas of literacy learning, rather than two. First is active self regulation, or the concept that proficient readers must possess the motivation, executive functioning skills, and ability to apply reading strategies to text. Second and third are the word recognition and language comprehension skills named in the Simple View, and fourth is the learned ability to bridge those skill areas. This fourth area requires the development of fluency, morphological awareness, and more, which the active view distinguishes from skills related solely to decoding or meaning-making.
However, even in this revised model, there is no space for an either/or approach to teaching reading. Instruction that does not include the explicit teaching of both decoding and meaning-making skills is not likely to equip students to become proficient readers. And that’s exactly the kind of instruction that a lot of students in states like California were getting in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Between dropping test scores and the increased availability of accessible resources, such as the Reading Rope, it was becoming abundantly clear to parents, educators, and policymakers alike that California literacy education needed a change.
In 1995, the first of several literacy-related laws passed through the California legislature with unanimous votes in both chambers. The bills addressed issues in both ELA and mathematics instruction, requiring the explicit instruction of both phonics and various mathematical concepts. Over the next few months, several more bills were passed, reducing class sizes across the state and appropriating millions of dollars for professional development and the purchase of evidence-based instructional materials. In 1996, a special education task force began intensive efforts to create evidenced-based resources that could inform teacher preparation, staff development, and ELA standards throughout the state.
In 1999, the task force released a document titled “The California Reading Initiative.” This report refuted a number of common misconceptions about early literacy, including the ideas that many students with reading disabilities could never learn to read proficiently and that these students required significantly different reading instruction from their peers. The initiative advocated for direct, explicit, and systematic decoding instruction for all beginning readers, regardless of ability level. It cited decades of reputable scientific research and encouraged educators to utilize data when creating individualized interventions and lesson plans.
And California was not alone in its turn towards evidence-based instructional practices. According to Reid Lyon, the United States Congress was also concerned with the lack of reading proficiency amongst the nation’s children.
Reid Lyon: Bill Goodling, who was the chair of the Education and Workforce Committee, which is the committee that handles all the educational stuff on the House side—House of Representatives—had called me down to his office, and he said, “I just got the Pennsylvania NAEP results, and I'm mortified. And I can't believe that these thousands and thousands of kids in my state can't read well enough to read a simple children's book. What can you tell me about that?” And I said, “well we know why that is, and we actually know what to do about it.”
Goodling asked Lyon, along with congressional assistant Bob Sweet, to help him come up with a plan to get these research-based instructional methods implemented in classrooms across the country. Lyon and Sweet’s suggestion?
Reid Lyon: Make federal funding to schools contingent on them using evidence-based or science-based literacy and reading information.
And Congress took their advice. Sort of. The 1997 Reading Excellence Act did imply that federal funds should only be allocated to schools that used “scientifically-based” reading programs in their early literacy classrooms. However, according to Lyon, the legislation was not written in a way that allowed it to be enforced with any particular rigidity.
Reid Lyon: We knew that the Reading Excellence Act wouldn’t have any teeth in it because it wasn’t going to be monitored or evaluated. When this legislation went through markup and how Congress makes sausage out of this stuff, they took out the funds that would have been used to evaluate whether the program was having any effect and to see if schools were doing what they said they were going to do. So there was no monitoring.
What the bill did do, though, was set a new precedent for policymaker conversations around reading instruction.
Reid Lyon: What we were able to do in the Reading Excellence Act is put in legislation the definition of scientifically-based research as applied to reading.
For the first time, the expectation that reading instructional practices should be based in scientific evidence had been codified at the national level.
With the enactment of this clearly science-of-reading-aligned policy, it might seem like the tide had turned, once and for all, in favor of evidence-based instruction with an emphasis on decoding. However, as those of you listening to this podcast probably know, that was not exactly the case.
Even as reading research found its way into a national spotlight, popular literacy programs that many researchers said were using flawed instructional approaches continued to flourish across the country. It seemed California’s pivot had simply reignited the flames of the Reading Wars yet again, and for this reason, in 1997, the United States Congress asked the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to partner with the U.S. Department of Education to conduct a review that it hoped would settle this issue once and for all. Learn more in our next episode of A Novel Idea.
A Novel Idea is a podcast from The Iowa Reading Research Center at the University of Iowa. It’s written, produced, and mixed by me, Meg Mechelke. Editing by Sean Thompson, and expert review by Nina-Lorimor Easley and Lindsay Seydel, with additional review provided by Natalie Schloss, Grace Cacini, and Olivia Tonelli. Fact checking by Maya Wald. Additional voiceover work from Kathleen Guerrero and Colin Payan.
For further credits, including audio and music attribution, please see the link in the show notes.
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