The Reading Wars

An old disagreement over how to teach children to read -- whole-language versus phonics -- has re-emerged in California, in a new form. Previously confined largely to education, the dispute is now a full-fledged political issue there, and is likely to become one in other states.

DURING the 1980s the idea of raising standards in public education emerged as a national cause and as an establishing issue for a certain kind of centrist politician. It provided a chance to demonstrate that the liberal impulse to offer opportunity to all and the conservative impulse to demand high performance could be joined. Among the people who used education reform to get onto the national stage were Bill and Hillary Clinton, in Arkansas, and Ross Perot, who was the head of a state commission on the subject, in Texas.
None of these people, however, could claim to be the most prominent neoliberal education reformer in the country. That position belonged to the superintendent of public instruction in California, Bill Honig, who was in charge of by far the biggest state school system in America, with a student population of more than five million. Honig was operating at a higher level of ambition -- for the schools, if not for himself -- than the other state superintendents, because he wanted not merely to make teachers and students submit to tests of competence but to change what was taught. A privileged idealist from San Francisco, tall, skinny, and enthusiastic to the point of obsession, Honig worked tirelessly to convert the California curriculum into an immersion in great books and ideas. The rumor was that he was thinking about running for governor in 1990.

Honig had made a lot of enemies, though, and he had a spectacular fall: he was indicted, tried, and convicted of having given state funds to an education foundation on whose board his wife sat. That wasn't the end of him. As energetic in exile as he had been in power, Honig threw himself into the study of elementary-grade instruction. He concluded that under his direction many of the policies of the state education department had been terribly mistaken; he publicly disowned them, and started an organization to undo what he had done only a few years earlier. One Sacramento lobbyist I spoke with on a recent trip to California sardonically called him "the Robert McNamara of reading."

The policy that caused Honig's recantation was whole-language reading instruction, which was practically unknown in the lay population five years ago but now, amazingly, has become a big political issue in California. In each of the past three years California legislators have passed bills designed to force the state's public schools to move the needle in reading instruction away from whole-language and toward its archenemy -- the phonics method. The view in the education world is that politicians have never before tried to dictate specific teaching methods to this extent. Phonics forces are agitating for similar laws in other states, and in California a related movement is pushing to establish political control over mathematics instruction as well.

Quite often in public disputes one finds that the controversy is on the surface and secretly the parties mostly agree (Medicare reform is a good example). The dispute over reading instruction is just the opposite: in California everybody now claims allegiance to a "balanced approach" incorporating whole-language and phonics, but the truth is that the two sides have one of the purest and angriest disagreements I've ever encountered. "We're in the midst of a huge war," one California state legislator told me. "This is worse than abortion," another of the combatants somewhat gleefully reported.

The dispute operates at three levels, which is one reason why it is so pervasive. It concerns how people learn, what schools should be for, and the essential nature of a good society.

A Joyful Alternative to Deadening Drills

WHOLE-language theory holds that learning to read and write English is analogous to learning to speak it -- a natural, unconscious process best fostered by unstructured immersion. In an atmosphere rich in simple printed texts and in reading aloud, small children make a wondrous associative leap from knowing the alphabet to being able to read whole words. Their minds receive print as if each word were a Chinese ideogram. If a word is unfamiliar it can be skipped, guessed at, or picked up from context. Phonics theory takes exactly the opposite position: the proper analogy for learning to read is learning music notation, or Morse code, or Braille, in which mastery of a set of symbols comes first. Children should first learn the letters and letter combinations that convey the English language's forty-four sounds; then they can read whole words by decoding them from their component phonemes. "Sounding out" words is a phonics, rather than a whole-language, technique.


Although the whole-language movement began in the early 1970s, the dispute about reading instruction goes back much further. Noah Webster believed in phonics, Horace Mann in the word method. In the late 1920s, as progressive education became an influential movement, schools began to switch from phonics to whole-word reading instruction. The much-lampooned mid-twentieth-century Dick and Jane readers, and also Dr. Seuss's are based on whole-word theory: they try to get children to familiarize themselves with a limited set of simple words (to memorize them, phonics people would say, like trick ponies), not to use their knowledge of letters and sounds to decode words they haven't seen before. Rudolf Flesch's scorching 1955 best seller turned the pendulum back toward phonics in the 1960s. By the 1980s, the glory decade for whole-language, the pendulum had swung again.

The founders of whole-language, Frank Smith, for many years a professor of psychology at the University of Victoria, in British Columbia, and Kenneth Goodman, a professor of education at the University of Arizona, see themselves as champions of teachers who are up against a hostile world. They present whole-language instruction as a joyful, humanistic, intellectually challenging alternative to deadening phoneme drills -- one that turns the classroom from a factory floor into a nurturing environment in which children naturally blossom. Phonics instructors heatedly dispute the idea that learning phonemes is dull. Nancy Ichinaga, the principal of an elementary school in the Los Angeles area that uses a phonics-based reading program, told me, "It's like learning a code; we like learning a secret code. They like breaking the code. It's just a mind and world expansion for them." Nonetheless, the juxtaposition of joyous whole-language learning and boring phonics is at the heart of the whole-language ethos. In his 1986 book about reading instruction, (the first three words of which are "Meet the enemy"), Smith wrote, "That learning requires effort is another myth." One member of the California state board of education, a phonics man who is married to a third-grade teacher, described the appeal of whole-language to teachers this way: "It's easier to teach whole-language. We had large class sizes, thirty kids. You're a teacher, and you're told, 'Just read to them, and they'll get it.' What a saving grace!"

Presented by

Nicholas Lemann

"The Atlantic has a national constituency of readers who are interested in high-quality writing about what's going on in the country and in the world," says Nicholas Lemann, "not just in politics and economics but also in their own personal lives. The Atlantic is a single source they can really trust to give them what they want."

Over the years, Lemann has written cover articles on the underclass, the War on Poverty, and the history of standardized testing in the United States. The articles on the underclass were "field tests," he says, for his best-selling book The Promised Land (1991), which received virtually unanimous acclaim from a spectrum of sources. The book established him as a sought-after commentator on race relations and other fundamental aspects of American society. "Thanks to Lemann, white America will never be able to think about the ghetto poor in quite the same way again," Esquire observed.

Lemann joined The Atlantic Monthly as national correspondent in 1983. His first cover article, "In the Forties" (January, 1983), introduced a striking portfolio of photographs that, Lemann wrote, "have the power to suggest the finality with which the life of the nation changed in a generation."

Lemann has also written numerous pieces in The Atlantic Monthly on subjects spanning national and local politics, education, television, and biography. He has contributed numerous book reviews and, in the Travel section, has guided readers through the past history and present beauty of the Catskill Mountains.

Lemann was born and raised in New Orleans. He attended Harvard, graduating in 1976 with a degree in American history and literature. Before joining the staff of The Atlantic Monthly, he worked at The Washington Monthly, Texas Monthly, and The Washington Post.

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