A Novel Idea: The History of the Science of Reading

7: Let's Get Political

July 13, 2023 Iowa Reading Research Center Season 1 Episode 7
7: Let's Get Political
A Novel Idea: The History of the Science of Reading
More Info
A Novel Idea: The History of the Science of Reading
7: Let's Get Political
Jul 13, 2023 Season 1 Episode 7
Iowa Reading Research Center

Following the explosion of the Reading Wars in California, a push for nationwide literacy legislation swept the nation. In this episode of A Novel Idea we explore the consequences of this movement, including the influence of legislative efforts including The National Reading Panel and Reading First. Featuring thoughts from:

  • Dr. G. Reid Lyon, former director, NICHD 
  • Natalie Wexler (Twitter: @natwexler), author, The Knowledge Gap 
  • Dr. Timothy Shanahan (Twitter: @ReadingShanahan), distinguished professor emeritus, University of Illinois at Chicago 
  • Dr. Maryanne Wolf, author, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain and Dyslexia, Fluency, and the Brain

Learn More
National Reading Panel

Episode transcript and sources

A Novel Idea website:


Show Notes Transcript

Following the explosion of the Reading Wars in California, a push for nationwide literacy legislation swept the nation. In this episode of A Novel Idea we explore the consequences of this movement, including the influence of legislative efforts including The National Reading Panel and Reading First. Featuring thoughts from:

  • Dr. G. Reid Lyon, former director, NICHD 
  • Natalie Wexler (Twitter: @natwexler), author, The Knowledge Gap 
  • Dr. Timothy Shanahan (Twitter: @ReadingShanahan), distinguished professor emeritus, University of Illinois at Chicago 
  • Dr. Maryanne Wolf, author, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain and Dyslexia, Fluency, and the Brain

Learn More
National Reading Panel

Episode transcript and sources

A Novel Idea website:


Reid Lyon: I get a call from Texas, and there’s this guy that [adopting a southern accent] talks like this. He said, “This is George Bush. I’m the governor down here in Texas. I’ve got all these kids who can’t read. Will you come down and talk to me?

That’s Dr. Reid Lyon, a neuropsychologist and reading expert, recounting the early stages of what would turn out to be a pivotal conversation for the trajectory of reading education. Though Lyon was not a supporter of the Republican Party, he agreed to meet with then Governor Bush, as well as future First Lady Laura Bush and former First Lady Barbara Bush.

Reid Lyon: Now, the one thing I saw quickly was that they were very sincere about their passion to help kids develop literacy.

Lyon was taken with the Bush family’s genuine commitment to the cause of literacy education in the United States. So in 2001, after George W. Bush was elected president, Lyon, who also spent time as a dean, department chair, and professor at multiple universities, agreed to serve as Bush’s advisor on the issue of federal literacy initiatives. This was the beginning of a partnership that would make major progress in informing the public about the need for evidence-based literacy instruction.

From the Iowa Reading Research Center, I’m Meg Mechelke, and this is A Novel Idea. In this episode, we’re going to take a deep dive into the fallout of the Reading Wars of the 1990s, including national legislation and one of the largest reviews of reading research our country has ever conducted.

Nowadays, the National Reading Panel is frequently celebrated as a major milestone in the development of the science of reading movement. Its findings are cited by educators and activists alike, and in many ways, the report functions as the linchpin of the contemporary science of reading movement.

However, this panel was not actually the first federally-funded review of existing reading research to occur during this era.

Reid Lyon: In 1996, the NIH, my group, and the Department of Education funded the National Academy of Sciences to review all of the literature on beginning reading and early literacy instruction.

The National Academy of Sciences is a private, nonprofit research organization that conducted a reading research review in 1996. The goal of this project was to determine which approaches were most effective for teaching literacy. The problem was, the National Academy of Sciences’ review process did not involve the kind of stringent vetting of studies that National Institutes of Health leaders, like Lyon, would have liked.

Reid Lyon: Basically, we wanted study quality to be sifted early on so that the conclusions they were going to make wasn't [sic] based on stuff that was not well-designed.

The report issued by the National Academy of Sciences ended up being what’s called, “a consensus-based report,” rather than the evidence-based report Lyon and his colleagues were hoping for. Evidence-based reports are based on thoroughly vetted, high-quality research. In contrast, consensus-based reports are defined as “recommendations formed by consensus or agreement among topic experts without an evidence-based systematic review.” According to Lyon, the decision to issue a consensus-based report may have been influenced by lobbying from the era’s whole language advocates. As a reminder, whole language is an approach to literacy instruction based on the idea that children learn to read naturally, through exposure, and that explicit instruction in decoding and other foundational skills is therefore unnecessary. Generally speaking, whole language theories tend to be based on case studies and anecdotal evidence, rather than the hard data that typically forms the foundation of an evidence-based report. Thus, one can see why whole language advocates might be in favor of a consensus-based review. However, Lyon was not satisfied.

Reid Lyon: I was really concerned that this group was going to publish a set of recommendations where the science wasn’t validated.

Lyon took his concerns about the National Academy of Sciences’ review to legislators and lobbyists whom he had briefed previously on issues of literacy education in the United States. These policymakers tasked Lyon with developing legislation to support the creation of a new review panel that would be thorough, meticulous, and above all evidence-based. In response, Lyon wrote the legislation for what would come to be known as the 1997 National Reading Panel, a monumental undertaking that many hoped would put an end to the so-called “Reading Wars” once and for all.

Reid Lyon: My feeling was that we had to get this science out in an unfettered way. And the National Reading Panel was fully objective. There were members from all different parts of the reading community. So what you’re seeing in the National Reading Panel is a set of findings and recommendations that are solely based on the output of a number of different research reviews and meta-analyses and so on.

The National Reading Panel had bipartisan support from federal lawmakers, including then President Bill Clinton. The panel’s goal was to conduct a review of all the existing research regarding early literacy instruction, a body of work containing more than 100,000 studies. 

Timothy Shanahan: Essentially, they wanted a panel appointed that would make a determination of fact as to what did the research say.

This is Dr. Timothy Shanahan, a reading researcher and Distinguished Professor Emeritus from the University of Illinois at Chicago who served on the National Reading Panel.

Timothy Shanahan: Because what they were hearing was, it wasn’t just that one side was arguing for one kind of instruction and the other side was arguing for another kind of instruction. Both groups were saying “the research is on our side, the research proves that what we’re doing is the right thing to do.” And so they asked for a determination of fact as to what the research had to say.

Around 300 people were nominated for the panel, including researchers, professors, teachers, policymakers, parents, and more. The panel selection process was rigorous. Officials wanted to avoid stacking the committee with extremists from either side of the Reading Wars. 

Timothy Shanahan: What they did is they made a call for public nominations, and you know, both the Department of Education and NICHD could make nominations, but so could various professional groups and individuals and so on. 

Once applicants were nominated, they were vetted by officials from both sides of the decoding vs. whole language debate, with NICHD Director Dr. Duane Alexander and U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley making the final decisions.

Timothy Shanahan: I guess the two sides had to somehow sit in the room and go, you know, we'll let you have Tim Shanahan if you let us have, you know. I don't really know how that happened, but it had to be something like that. 

Ultimately, Shanahan and fourteen other individuals were selected to participate, with one person dropping out immediately after the review began.

Timothy Shanahan: And so then it, yeah, I got a phone call from, I believe, the director of NICHD, asking if I would be willing to serve, and I remember my response being, “Okay, so we're going to do this, it’s going to be very controversial, we're not going to get paid, and it's going to be a lot of work. Yeah, it sounds perfect for me, I’ll do it.” So I accepted.

According to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, or NICHD, the panel had three primary goals. First, to determine whether existing research was sufficiently ready for classroom application, second, to identify appropriate means for communicating this research to school administrators and educators, and third, to identify gaps in the existing research and create a plan for closing those gaps. Additionally, like the National Academy of Science review, the panel would attempt to determine which methods of teaching children to read were most effective, according to the reviewed research.

Some whole language supporters protested the panel’s creation as inherently unfair. Issues cited included the facts that the stringent nomination eligibility criteria eliminated a number of experts from consideration for the panel and that the NICHD, the entity responsible for the selection of panel members, had conducted a significant body of research with findings that supported decoding-emphasis instruction.

Duane Alexander, the director of the NICHD and the man responsible for many aspects of the panel’s creation, responded to these criticisms saying:

“An important feature of this report will be that everyone has had a chance to contribute. Convened meetings of the panel will be open to the public and announced in advance.” (NICHD Press Office, 1998)

Also, the panelists did not just review published research. They were also asked to travel to a variety of regional meetings with local administrators, teachers, and families in order to solicit as many perspectives as possible on the topic of reading instruction.

The panel’s findings were released on April 13, 2000, in a series of publications, including an executive summary, a teacher’s guide, and a massive, 480-paged scientific report. This was an evidence-based report, the findings of which had undergone a rigorous review process to control for quality and reputability.

The National Reading Panel highlighted several techniques that were proven effective at teaching children to read. These included explicit instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, and reading comprehension strategies, as well as the use of guided oral reading to promote fluency.

It is worth noting that one panelist, Dr. Joanne Yatvin, an educator, reading researcher, and former president of the National Council of Teachers of English, did issue a minority report disagreeing with her peer’s findings. In her words:

“Whether a review of the existing reading research literature could have provided answers to all of Congress’s questions, the Panel’s obligation was to dig in and find out. I am filing this minority report because I believe that the Panel has not fulfilled that obligation.” (Report of the National Reading Panel, 2000b)

Yatvin’s argument centered on two main issues. First, she suggested that the panel’s scope was too narrow, largely due to its limited funding, staffing, and timespan. While the panel worked for about year and a half, according to Shanahan, it was originally intended to last only 6 months. 

Timothy Shanahan: They had to get an additional year extension on the panel. They really thought this would be like a medical panel and it would, you know, we’d look at like nine pieces of research and disband, but you know, they didn’t quite... This was less like saying, “Is breast cancer screening of value to women under the age of 40,” which is a very, very specific kind of thing. But “how do you best teach reading?” It would be like saying, “What are the things that we could do that would protect people's health?” That becomes, you know, much larger. 

In addition to her concerns about the panel’s limited timespan, Yatvin argued that the panel ought to have focused its attention on assessing, “the validity of the claims of various commercial programs.” In an appendix to the report, Yatvin outlines several “hot” topics that she believes the panel should have addressed, including decodable texts, invented spelling, and access to quality literature.

Yatvin also questioned whether the assessments done by the panel would provide practical support to educators. According to her report:

“These reviews show comprehensive and painstaking work by the subcommittees. They will prove valuable, I think, to other experimental researchers as they seek to expand the body of knowledge on those topics and fill in the gaps. On the other hand, the reviews are of limited usefulness to teachers, administrators, and policymakers because they fail to address the key issues that have made elementary schools both a battleground for advocates of opposing philosophies and a prey for purveyors of ‘quick fixes.’” (Report of the National Reading Panel, 2000b)

Yatvin suggests that the panel’s findings should have been subjected to an external review by educators before their publication. She also argues that the panel’s conclusions fail to recognize practical barriers to the implementation of their recommendations, though she does not provide specific examples.

In a letter to the National Reading Panel, included as an appendix to her full minority report, Yatvin also criticizes the National Reading Panel for a failure to include ethnographic research, or research into the effects of home culture on children’s literacy development.

Yatvin’s dissent is often cited by contemporary whole language advocates as a reason to discount the findings of the National Reading Panel. It is true that Yatvin highlights some limitations and potential blindspots of the panel. However, the rest of the panel’s members were in agreement that while existing research was not perfect, it did confirm one thing: Early readers needed explicit instruction in both language comprehension skills and decoding skills if they were to succeed as readers.

All that said, the public response to the National Reading Panel’s results was relatively limited at first.

Timothy Shanahan: You know, initially, there wasn't… I think they were disappointed. There wasn't a huge amount of interest, I think, to tell you the truth. I believe that they, perhaps, assumed that there’d be a lot of press coverage and so on. Instead, there was like one small article in, I think, a Baltimore newspaper. 

This again from Timothy Shanahan.

Timothy Shanahan: But in 1998 Bill Clinton was president—1997 Bill Clinton, right, so this was under, you know, his auspices, and I don't care whether it's the president of the United States or the president, you know, your school superintendent in your local district. Typically, when they leave, the next guy kind of goes “I don't want anything to do with his stuff. I'm going to have my own programs and my own… I'll make my own mistakes.” So the assumption was it was a dead letter. 

However, despite these assumptions, Shanahan says it was actually after George W. Bush entered the White House in 2001 that the National Reading Panel finally received its moment in the spotlight.

Timothy Shanahan: What happened, of course, is when George W. Bush became president, he had been a very education-focused governor in Texas, and his focus specifically, was on reading education. When he became president, you know, the initial legislation that he wanted to put through, trying to be an “education president,” the term at the time, was to reform reading education. And essentially, they put through policies that said that if you… “We're going to spend, you know, $5 billion on reading education, and we've got all this money that already is going, that some of the $10 billion already going to Title I. It all has to focus on the findings of the National Reading Panel.” And so, all of the sudden, it was important.

The policy that Shanahan is referring to here was called Reading First, and it was one of the most significant pieces of reading legislation we have seen in the past several decades.

George W. Bush: So, therefore, we tripled the amount of federal funding for scientifically-based early reading programs. We got money in there for to make sure teachers know how to teach what works. We've got money in there to help promote proven methods of instruction. There are no more excuses, as far as I'm concerned, about not teaching children how to read. We know what works. The money is now available, and it's up to each local district to make sure it happens. (Bush, 2002)

That’s President George W. Bush in 2002, introducing the launch of Reading First, a program with a troubled and often controversial history. It was part of Bush’s signature No Child Left Behind initiative and was co-devised by Reid Lyon and congressional assistant Bob Sweet. The goal of the program was to increase funding for schools that agreed to use “scientifically-based reading instruction” in their K-3 classrooms. Reading First included an increased amount of time spent teaching decoding skills, such as phonics, and also moved away from the cueing system and other whole language methodologies. Billions of dollars were dedicated to the implementation of Reading First, making it a very large, very public commitment to the field of reading science. 

Timothy Shanahan: The most exciting thing about this was this combination of Democrats and Republicans saying, not only do we want to put money into [high] poverty schools, but we want to see that that money gets used to educate the kids better. No one had really ever done that before. Very, very exciting. 

It was also around this time that terms like “scientifically-based reading research” and “scientifically-based reading instruction” began to seep into educational discourse. Abbreviated as SBRR and SBRI respectively, these two terms were the early 2000s equivalent to the “science of reading.” Even as Reading First began to flounder, educators and policymakers alike stayed desperate to implement the latest in  “evidence-based” literacy instruction. And while the National Reading Panel had never stated that scientifically-based reading instruction included ONLY decoding instruction, this did tend to be the focus of many curricular revamps, including Reading First.

Unfortunately, despite the program’s promising start, its implementation was met with an overall mixed response.

First, the program was plagued by criticisms of mismanagement from its very inception. In 2007, Edward Kame’enui, one of its head officials, was removed following allegations of corruption.

Timothy Shanahan: The poor fellow who was in charge of Reading First, you know, was, I think, getting pushed and pulled a number of ways and ended up making some choices that certainly looked like he was favoring particular commercial programs over other ones. And so, he ended up in conflict of interest and corruption kind of charges. 

Then, in 2008, the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, a branch of the Institute of Education Science, or IES, conducted a study using test results from 248 schools, analyzing the effects of Reading First on student learning. 

Reid Lyon: For sure, there were large impacts on word level skills, phonemic awareness, decoding, word recognition. The rub was that the IES study, the Institute for Education Sciences study did not find impacts on comprehension.

As Lyon states, the study did show that students at Reading First schools demonstrated higher levels of decoding abilities than those in non-Reading First schools. However, no statistically significant differences were observed when it came to national performance on reading comprehension assessments.

These findings were disappointing to policymakers, educators, and researchers alike. The program was lambasted by the press and by Bush’s political opponents, and it was dismantled entirely by the summer of 2008.

In its aforementioned report, the Institute for Education Sciences provides a few possible reasons for Reading First’s apparent failure to deliver on its intended reading outcomes.

First, there was the question of funding. The IES study found that schools that received higher allocations of money from the Reading First program tended to score significantly higher on reading assessments. But in 2007, Congress cut Reading First’s budget by 61%, and the program had been criticized for executive mismanagement of funding since its inception. These facts have led some to wonder whether a lack of funding or overall financial mismanagement were responsible for the program’s perceived failure.

Another hypothesis is that Reading First’s focus on decoding instruction may have caused unintentional neglect of language comprehension instruction. It could be that some districts pivoted to teaching phonics in isolation, without the support of explicit instruction in areas like background knowledge and vocabulary. In 2008, U.S. Department of Education director of research Grover J. Whitehurst told The Washington Post that:

"It's possible that, in implementing Reading First, there is a greater emphasis on decoding skills and not enough emphasis, or maybe not correctly structured emphasis, on reading comprehension. Another possibility is that the instruction works, but it was not sufficient enough to have an impact on reading comprehension.” (Glod, 2008)

This idea is echoed by education correspondent Natalie Wexler.

Natalie Wexler: Why didn't Reading First stick? Well, one reason I would say is that it looked at the problem with reading instruction as really just a matter of phonemic awareness and phonics. Now the National Reading Panel report did identify three other pillars of early literacy: fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. But they didn't really do a great job of informing teachers about how to develop those things.

While phonemic awareness and phonics are a vital part of early literacy instruction, it is also important that educators have the knowledge and resources to teach other skills, including vocabulary acquisition and text structures, in a way that is equally as systematic, explicit, and evidence-based. It’s possible, as Whitehurst and Wexler suggest, that Reading First’s failure may have had to do with its inability to adequately address these other core elements of reading instruction.

However, other experts, including Timothy Shanahan, have suggested that the root of the study’s problem lay in a lack of understanding about the way the program was implemented between the Reading First’s creators and those studying its effects. 

Timothy Shanahan: You know, I don't think they fully understood the nature of the law, and I don't think those of us who were advising understood that they didn't understand. The way the people who were running the study were looking at it was each year that this law is in place, you're going to expand and, you know, supplement what you've been doing and do, you know, new things. And so, they didn't really understand that all the four things that the school had to do, they had to do the first year. And then they just had to keep doing it. 

Shanahan’s concern is that the individuals analyzing the effects of Reading First may have been looking for exponential growth over time as more and more Reading First elements were added to classrooms. However, that’s not how the program was intended to be implemented.

Timothy Shanahan: And so, they, you know, they were thinking, “Oh, we're going to see… each year it's going to get stronger because they're going to have more things coming online.” Well, no. We have to get that program in place, the first year. We just never said that to them, and they never asked. 

In addition, critics such as Reid Lyon have questioned the study’s attention to the types of instruction being used with both Reading First and non-Reading First students. They argue that the study did not spend enough time examining the quality of Reading First teachers’ instruction or their fidelity, which is how closely the implementation of Reading First was aligned to the way it was designed to be used.

Reid Lyon: I think, where you find limited impacts anywhere, it's because of the complexity of implementation.

Lyon and many others also noted that many participating schools that were not part of the Reading First program were implementing similar instructional methods to those that had received Reading First funding. According to Timothy Shanahan, while 75% of Reading First funds were dedicated to specific schools who had qualified for the program, the other 25% went to promoting evidence-based instruction and Reading First ideals to all public schools across the country. Because of this, many non-Reading First schools actually ended up implementing the exact same kind of instruction that Reading First schools did.

Timothy Shanahan: So in my state, for example, one of the school districts I was working with, it had, I think, about 18 schools, two of which were qualified for Reading First money. I think nine of them were Title I schools, so we had two Title I schools getting this extra money, and it was like several hundreds of thousands of dollars, so it wasn't a little, you know, grant to these two schools. And the school district made the decision, if these were the right things to do, we're going to do this in all 18 schools. State of Florida did exactly the same thing with all of their public schools.

Imagine that a district contains two schools: School A and School B. School A participates in Reading First, and School B does not. At the end of the year, first grade literacy scores from both schools are compared, and there is no noticeable difference between the two. This would seem to suggest that the Reading First program had no effect on students' literacy learning. However, what if, upon further investigation, it was found that School B was implementing the exact same type of reading instruction as School A, even though they weren’t getting Reading First money? If this were the case, it would be impossible to use a comparison of these two schools to draw any clear conclusions about Reading First’s efficacy as a literacy learning program.

According to Shanahan, Lyon, and others who defend Reading First, this is exactly what happened with the IES study. The Reading First and non-Reading First schools compared in the study could have been using identical means of instruction, and Lyon and Shanahan suggest that this variable was not accounted for in the IES study. For this reason, it is very difficult to confidently attribute the study’s results to a specific style of instruction. 

Also, it’s worth noting that Reading First did have some successes. 

Timothy Shanahan: In a situation like that, the only thing you could look at is: was reading achievement going up during that period of time nationwide? And in fact, it was. And so that's, you know, I think what was really going on is this initiative that maybe seemed very targeted, wasn't very targeted. It was really kind of a nationwide effort to improve schools. It actually worked in that sense. Because when they ended it, it was the last time we've seen our reading achievement going up in the United States. 

Additionally, the Reading First program greatly increased educators’ access to quality professional development materials, and it also led to increased funding for many underserved schools. Furthermore, it created a big push for policymakers and other officials to educate themselves on the field of literacy instruction and to develop an interest in facilitating the implementation of evidence-based instruction in public schools.

Reid Lyon: And that’s really the focus of that legislation, is… to move away from he-said-she-said. Put in place something that has been studied, that has been found effective many times over, into a situation where people can see the results and buy into it.

Lyon suggests that Reading First may have been more successful had more time been put into planning its implementation, providing support for teachers and districts during the transition to evidence-based instruction, and monitoring the quality and fidelity of instruction being delivered under Reading First funding.

Reid Lyon: The problem is, in all of our studies, we had much more control over teacher knowledge. We had much more control over implementation fidelity. And, you know, that's on me because I, you know, I made assumptions that, you know, I shouldn't have made about the transferability or the ability to travel this information where you're in complex school environments. I mean most of the studies were in complex school environments, but we still had more control.

In the end, the Reading First initiative was viewed negatively by many educators and policymakers. The program also fell victim to many of the same criticisms faced by its parent program, No Child Left Behind. Many educators were frustrated with No Child Left Behind’s strict performance requirements, and the so-called “shape up or shut down” mentality endorsed by the Bush administration was often met with pushback from the education community.

The apparent failure of the scientifically-based Reading First program opened the door for whole language advocates to regain the ground they had lost in the 90s. This time, the charge was led by whole language superstar Dr. Lucy Calkins via an approach to teaching called “balanced literacy.” Calkins, a Columbia University professor and literacy specialist, is a huge name in whole language circles. An extensive amount of writing and journalistic reporting has been done on her repertoire of balanced literacy educational materials and what many literacy researchers and other critics have called their flawed empirical foundations. 

Terms like “balanced literacy” and “balanced reading” can be difficult to define. They aren’t always used in the same contexts, and they have historically been leveraged by both pro-phonics and pro-whole language activists as a way to make curriculum proposals more palatable. After all, who doesn’t like balance?

The problem is, the term “balanced literacy” is often co-opted by advocates of instructional approaches that are not evidence-based. Today, it is frequently used to describe an approach to literacy instruction that looks largely indistinguishable from whole language. 

Natalie Wexler: The term “whole language” sort of got a bad odor associated with it. And so educators decided, well, we need a new name and, maybe, what sounds like a new approach.

This is education correspondent Natalie Wexler, addressing the early emergence of the term balanced literacy.

Natalie Wexler: And so they came up with the name “balanced literacy,” which is a real genius sort of marketing because who can be against balance or literacy? And the idea was that it was the combination of the best of phonics and the best of whole language.

Many balanced literacy curricula feature minimal, if any, systematic teaching of basic skills such as decoding and phonemic awareness, and for that reason, they are largely avoided by advocates of the science of reading. 

Natalie Wexler: The problem is that the leaders of the balanced literacy movement really came out of the whole language movement, and they brought with them their skepticism about phonics. And so what you end up with is, you know, sort of haphazard injections of phonics. But they were simultaneously still encouraging kids to look at pictures and look at the context and guess.

Lucy Calkins’ “Units of Study” is a particularly famous balanced literacy curriculum. This program bears many similarities to the three-cueing system, as it includes a series of cues Calkins calls SMV or structure/meaning/visual. It has historically lacked an emphasis on comprehensive or explicit phonics instruction, and a range of institutions, including EdReports and the Texas Center for Learning Disabilities, have claimed that the program does not align with the tenets of the science of reading.

Maryanne Wolf: Then we get balanced literacy coming in, where you have a little piecemeal of phonics, and you know, that’s certainly better than nothing, but it’s not what you need. You need systematic, explicit instruction that really goes after the reading brain’s circuits. 

That’s UCLA neuroscientist and reading researcher Maryanne Wolf describing one of the most common pitfalls of balanced literacy programs: their failure to include explicit and systematic instruction in foundational reading skills.

And Calkins was not alone. Two other major players in the rise of balanced literacy during the late 90s and early 2000s included classroom educators and professors Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell. They published their first work, “Guided Reading: Good First Teaching for All Children,” in the mid-90s, and their work continues to have a massive influence on the way reading is taught in the classroom today. For example, Fountas and Pinnell are often credited with popularizing the concept of “leveled literacy intervention,” where students are provided with books that are intended to match their current reading ability and grade level. However, unlike decodable readers or other science-of-reading-aligned instructional tools, leveled readers typically lack a systematic design, and often include detailed illustrations that make it easier for students to compensate for reading difficulties with guessing. Research indicates that these types of reading strategies are detrimental to becoming a proficient reader.

Even before the public collapse of Reading First, balanced literacy teaching methods had been quietly climbing in popularity in the nation’s largest school district. In 2003, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that the city would be pivoting to a balanced literacy approach to reading and writing instruction. This would include the introduction of leveled readers into school libraries and a heavy focus on Calkin’s workshop models of instruction. According to a 2022 New Yorker article, Calkins devised the first Units of Study program in only a handful of weeks, in direct response to New York’s decision to pivot to balanced literacy.

Like California, New York has a large influence on national education trends. Thus, the choice to adopt a balanced literacy curriculum would not only have major impacts for the huge population of children living in the city, but could also set an example for districts across the country to replicate. 

From the moment it was introduced, Bloomberg’s proposal, which was led by Chancellor Joel I. Klein, was met with harsh criticism from decoding-advocates across the country. According to The New York Times, Reid Lyon disparaged the program as lacking the support of any reputable evidence, meaning that the city risked losing millions of dollars in federal funding for its complete refusal to align with the national standard of science-based reading instruction.

Lorraine Skeen, a retired principal from one of New York City’s top ranked public schools, was hired to supervise the implementation of the new literacy curriculum. In her role as instructional superintendent, Skeen visited schools and classrooms across the district, and what she saw was deeply concerning. In a 2005 interview with PBS, Skeen said:

“What I saw was that teachers were floundering. They had taken the books away from the teachers. They had taken the teachers' guides. Children were not supposed to be directly taught. Because the way of teaching reading was so murky, it took teachers a much, much longer time to teach even a little bit of reading.” (Making the grade?, 2005)

Despite Skeen’s hesitations, the curriculum soon gained popularity across the city. Supporters of the program were quick to point out that it did technically include a phonics component, arguing that this meant that the curriculum did meet the recommendations of current research. New York schools were intended to use a program called “Month by Month Phonics” to supplement reading instruction for early learners. However, this program did not adhere to the recommended practices of systematic and explicit instruction. Rather than directly teaching students rules of phonemic awareness and alphabetics, the program encouraged them to learn through exposure to activities such as rhyming games and tongue twisters. 

According to a 2003 article in The New York Times, multiple respected reading researchers contacted Chancellor Klein within a month of the curriculum announcement, expressing their concerns with the  “woeful inadequacy” of the Month by Month Phonics program. Despite these words of warning from various experts in the field, the city pushed ahead with its plan and implemented this new instruction in schools across the district. Over the next year, several schools in the city performed so poorly that the federal government threatened to cut their funding if Month by Month Phonics was not replaced. An evidence-based program called Fundations was introduced in some of these schools. However, within the next few months, phonics instruction was made entirely optional for schools throughout the city. This was when Lorraine Skeen decided she’d seen enough, telling PBS that:

“I decided to leave because it wasn’t ethical to force people to do what I knew was wrong for children.” (Making the grade?, 2005)

If the balanced literacy approach was so unpopular with so many experts in the literacy field, why was New York City so determined to move ahead with the program? Journalist and education writer Sol Stern suggested to PBS that Chancellor Klein likely fell victim to the same sort of whole language rhetoric that advocates had been using for decades. According to Stern:

“Chancellor Klein surrounded himself with a group of progressive educators who prefer balanced literacy as a philosophy. It's warm, it's fuzzy, it's nice to kids, kids wander around the classroom, teachers stand on the side, they don't lecture. It sounds very nice and it works for some kids—particularly kids from middle class homes who have a tremendous vocabulary coming into the school—but it's not very good for kids from disadvantaged homes.” (Making the grade?, 2005)

Nevertheless, for the next several years, Calkin’s programs, along with other whole language and balanced literacy initiatives, enjoyed a fair amount of popularity in schools across the country. A 2019 survey conducted by two nonprofit news organizations, Chalkbeat and THE CITY, found that Calkins’ curriculum was by far New York City’s most popular reading program, with 48% of the 600 participating schools reporting its use. It is only recently that schools in this district have begun to consider an explicit shift away from balanced literacy, as part of a 2022 initiative spearheaded by NYC Department of Education Chancellor David Banks and Mayor Eric Adams.

With the continued popularity of programs like Units of Study, balanced literacy had started to become just as influential as explicitly whole language programs. In response, the International Dyslexia Association coined the term “structured literacy” in 2016 to describe the explicit, systematic approach to literacy instruction that researchers like Samuel Orton had been advocating for for decades. Sometimes, structured literacy is described as the practical application of the science of reading. Many decoding-emphasis advocates latched onto this new term as the perfect way of describing their perspective. Thus, instead of debating phonics or decoding vs. whole language, we now often hear a debate over structured literacy vs. balanced literacy, or balanced literacy vs. the science of reading. Whatever we call it, the core principles of the debate remain the same, the same as they’ve been since the days of Horace Mann and Noah Webster. 

In 2018, when APM Reports Senior Producer and Correspondent Emily Hanford published the podcast “Hard Words,” a rigorous investigation into the American literacy crisis, the fight for decoding-emphasis instruction was reignited across the country. Now, here we are, five years later, and that fight is still raging, leaving us with one central question: where do we go from here? Find out on our final episode of A Novel Idea, featuring insight from one very special guest.

Voice: All right. Thanks, Meg. All right. Bye.

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 and fact checking provided by Olivia Tonelli.

For further credits, including audio and music attribution, please see the link in the show notes. 

Visit us online at irrc.education.uiowa.edu to find more episodes and additional literacy resources for educators and families. Again, that’s irrc.education.uiowa.edu. You can also follow us on Twitter at @IAReading. 

If you want to help spread the word about A Novel Idea, subscribe, rate, and leave us a review wherever you get your podcasts. Institutional support for this podcast comes from the University of Iowa College of Education and the Iowa Department of Education.