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!"

The whole-language camp is hostile to the idea that scores on standardized tests of reading skills are the best way to measure quality of education. Frank Smith presents tests as commercial America's means for turning teachers into spirit-crushing personnel trainers (and ultimately replacing them with computers), rather than allowing them to impart true knowledge and intellectual independence. It's no wonder that many teachers who love children, who love reading, who feel underpaid and unappreciated, and who are intellectually ghettoized are attracted to whole-language.

The specific vehicle for the spread of whole-language through American public education was a program called Reading Recovery, developed by a teacher in New Zealand named Marie Clay, which supposedly produced nearly miraculous results with third- and fourth-graders who were having trouble reading. Reading Recovery itself draws upon both phonics and whole-language theory, but in America it has served as a transmission device for whole-language. Reading Recovery specifically, and whole-language reading instruction generally, spread like wildfire through the education world during the 1980s.

Rudolf Flesch, in tracing the roots of the word method he found so alarming, identified Jean-Jacques Rousseau as the original culprit. He was right: a profound disagreement over whether freedom or discipline brings out the best in people underlies the debate over reading instruction (and also over math instruction, in which the math-concepts camp wants to do away with times tables and long division). In a slightly different context Frank Smith writes, "The difference between the two sides was not one that evidence or argument could ever resolve. The difference was one of world view." From the other side of the current divide Marilyn Jager Adams, a leading phonics advocate, agrees: how best to teach reading, she writes, "may be the most politicized topic in the field of education." Although many people are for phonics simply because they believe it works better, phonics is also a long-standing cause of the political right; in a number of communities it is one of the main organizing issues for the Christian Coalition. Whole-language is generally a cause of the left.

EDUCATION trends have three means of transmission, all invisible to the public: the sale of textbooks and other instructional materials, teaching in schools of education, and teacher-training seminars conducted during the paid noninstructional days that are provided in teachers' contracts. As superintendent in California, Honig realized that he couldn't directly affect what was taught in schools of education, because they are independent of the state board of education, and so if he wanted to have any real influence over what went on in public-school classrooms, the best means at hand were textbooks and seminars. He moved aggressively to put his people in charge both of setting up California's eight annual "staff development" days for teachers and of writing state subject-matter "frameworks," which form the basis for textbook orders.

It is a sign of how recondite the debate over reading instruction then was that Honig, a former elementary school teacher and the head of the public school system in the largest state, had never heard of whole-language. The bulk of reading instruction, on which nearly all subsequent learning is based, should be over by the end of second grade. Most of it takes place in first grade, which even in the unglamorous field of elementary education stands out as an unglamorous and not very desirable assignment for a teacher. Even professionals like Honig, and parents who consider themselves to be greatly concerned about their children's education, have tended to focus on high school and to assume that not much can go wrong in the world of angelic six-year-olds.
The dispute on which Honig focused when he was superintendent was the one getting the most mainstream attention -- the "culture wars" between great-books advocates and multiculturalists. Honig took the great-books side, and pushed California schools hard to teach the classics of literature and history. (For example, although he is a liberal Democrat, Honig brought in Diane Ravitch, who was an official in the Bush Administration, in addition to being one of the country's most prominent authorities on education, to work on California's history frameworks.)

When it came time to develop frameworks for early-grade reading instruction, in 1986, Honig convened a large meeting of experts. As he listened to the whole-language people speak, Honig heard that they wanted not mindless drills but to instill in children a reverence for reading. "We thought we were pushing literature," he told me recently. "We were neutral on phonics. Then the whole-language movement hijacked what we were doing."

Before Honig noticed what was going on, California made a strong commitment to whole-language. In 1987 a committee he had appointed formulated a new "English-Language Arts" framework. This would appear to the uninitiated reader to be a collection of bland platitudes, but someone who knows how to interpret the code phrases would understand that it opened the way to a wholesale abandonment of phonics instruction. The framework made possible the victory of whole-language textbooks in the battle for California's business, which is so important that it influences the way all American textbooks are written. The teacher-training system took a sharp turn toward whole-language. In 1990 Governor George Deukmejian canceled California's standardized test of basic skills, which had shown steadily rising reading scores, saying that he objected to its being funded from general state revenues. The cancellation was widely interpreted as having more to do with a long-running feud between Deukmejian and Honig. Honig responded by formulating another of his ambitious plans, which was to have the understaffed state department of education construct a pathbreaking new test, rather than simply buying a standard one from a commercial test publisher. Thus whole-language's early years took place in a test-score vacuum.

Why Marion Joseph's Grandson Couldn't Read

AT this point the main character in the story became a woman named Marion Joseph, who likes to present herself as an example of that classic California type, the little old lady in tennis shoes turned amateur politician. That is only superficially accurate. Joseph is seventy years old and short and operates out of a suburban ranch house in Menlo Park, but she worked for many years in the state education bureaucracy in Sacramento and is superbly well connected in the legislature and in school districts around the state. Joseph met Bill Honig in 1965, when he was a junior aide to Governor Pat Brown. She came to regard him, she told me recently, as a younger brother. But in 1982 she stopped speaking to him, because of the tenor of his successful campaign for the office of superintendent of public instruction, in which he defeated her boss, Wilson Riles. (Honig framed the contest as one of competence against incompetence in a way that hurt and offended Joseph.) After the campaign Joseph and her husband spent a few years running a nursery in Marin County that purveyed high-end English perennials, herbs, and vegetables. The demands of her business, along with her estrangement from Honig, meant that she was not keeping abreast of California education during the years when whole-language came in.

Phonics win this round

One fateful day in 1989 Joseph's daughter called to say she was sick and needed someone to fill in for her at the open house for parents at her first-grader's school in San Leandro. Joseph went and heard her grandson's teacher give a twenty-minute presentation about reading instruction. Joseph told me, "I came home and said to myself, 'I don't understand a single word she said in the whole twenty minutes.'" Later in the school year her daughter moved to Modesto and enrolled her son in school there; she went to see his teacher and asked to see a copy of the instructional materials in reading so that she could help him learn. She was shown an anthology filled with long passages that her son had no way of figuring out how to read.

Joseph went on with the story: "So I started calling my contacts all over the state, and I asked this question: 'Is there a problem with the implementation of the new language-arts curriculum?' They all said yes, every one of them. At this point I'd never heard the term 'whole-language.' I kept trying to find out what the problem was. I went to a meeting of curriculum experts. I asked, 'Is there a problem?' A woman who was there just hit the ceiling, and when she came down, she said, 'You must be one of those phonics nuts!'"

One day while she was driving home, Joseph happened to hear an interview on National Public Radio with Reid Lyon, the head of the development and behavior branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Lyon was describing research he had supervised that demonstrated the necessity of phonics instruction as a prelude to actual reading. Joseph pulled off the freeway, found a pay phone, and called him up.

Reid Lyon is a nightmare figure for the whole-language movement, because he has the means to fund large, scientifically reputable studies of reading-instruction methods, the results of which have made him into a wholehearted and very public opponent of dropping phonics. A new study of 285 children in a poor neighborhood in Houston, for example, shows those who were taught the forty-four phonemes first to be 10 percentage points ahead of those taught in accordance with whole-language theory on a reading-comprehension test. The whole-language forces have studies of their own (Frank Smith has asserted baldly that phonics "just does not work"), but, as Lyon often points out, these studies haven't been successfully replicated.

After being briefed by Lyon, Joseph decided that the time had come to start speaking to Bill Honig again. She went to see him in Sacramento and laid out the case against whole-language. He said he'd think about it. Joseph, who is nothing if not relentless, set up a second meeting and made the sale. By this time Honig was deeply into his downfall, and could not do anything about reading instruction. Once he had been ousted, though, Honig plunged into the issue of reading instruction with his customary limitless energy. He met everybody and read everything and wound up as a phonics zealot (though he would describe himself as a balanced-approach zealot). When he gets on the subject of learning to read, words pour out of him in a great rush: names, anecdotes, phone numbers, Internet addresses, book titles, journal-article citations, theories about brain function. He is a man on fire. In 1995 he started an organization called the Consortium on Reading Excellence, and began lobbying state and local officials all over the country to abandon whole-language.

Sobering Scores

AT first the tide was still running against Joseph and Honig. In 1992, culminating a process Honig had initiated, the state board of education adopted a new set of mathematics frameworks that, like the language-arts frameworks of 1987, represented a strong shift of emphasis away from the acquisition of basic skills. The currents began to shift a year later, when the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a long-running federal study, released for the first time state-by-state comparisons of reading proficiency. California finished fifth from the bottom, among the Deep South states that always come in last in national surveys. Three years later a new set of NAEP scores was published, showing that California's reading scores had dropped to next to last, ahead of only Guam's.

California's new state reading test, administered in 1993 and 1994, was a political disaster. Passages about oppression, taken from the work of Alice Walker among other writers, generated furious opposition from the right, and Governor Pete Wilson canceled the test in 1994. But it had been administered, so the scores were released. Like the NAEP scores, they showed disastrously low levels of reading proficiency: 77 percent of fourth-graders were below their grade level.

By the time the shocking scores were coming out, the Republican sweep in the 1994 elections had given California a Republican-majority state assembly for the first time in years -- and, in Wilson, a presidentially ambitious Republican governor who had won a come-from-behind re-election campaign by running as a confrontational conservative. For the first time ever in California politics the elementary school curriculum became a political issue.

The consensus was that embracing whole-language had been a huge mistake. The newly elected state superintendent of public instruction, Delaine Eastin, quickly distanced herself from whole-language ("Good people do believe in alchemy at various points in our history," she told me recently, by way of explaining its adoption) and set up task forces on reading and math that wound up recommending more emphasis on phonics and computational skills. In Palo Alto and San Diego angry and well-organized parents' groups, made up substantially of engineers and scientists, emerged to combat the new math frameworks. In the fall of 1995 the legislature passed, without a single dissenting vote in either house, two bills mandating the use of instructional materials that teach reading through phonics and math through "basic computational skills." It also set up a commission to create comprehensive statewide academic standards, which would then become the basis for new textbooks and tests.

Last year Governor Wilson, strongly prodded by his adviser on elementary education, Maureen DiMarco, who is another late convert to phonics, proposed an annual budget containing $100 million for skills-based reading and mathematics instruction. During the spring and summer of last year the reading issue took off. A Republican legislator from outside San Diego, Steve Baldwin, a former aide to Newt Gingrich who has the mischievous, troublemaking quality and the fascination with ideas that the young Gingrich had, held a dramatic hearing on the failings of whole-language; the repentant Honig was lead witness. Marion Joseph began working the legislature full time, drawing on her experience as a lobbyist for the state education department.

By that September the legislature had passed seven separate reading bills with a total authorization of nearly a billion dollars; among other things, they reduced class size in the early grades to a maximum of twenty, directed funds from the federal Goals 2000 program toward supporting phonics instruction, and funded phonics training for teachers. Wilson began filling the state board of education with phonics advocates (including, recently, Marion Joseph). The board decided not to re-adopt the leading whole-language textbook for use in California. The state board of education set up a new math-frameworks committee, on which members of the back-to-skills parent groups in Palo Alto and San Diego are well represented. The California state university system, which educates teachers, set up a new center, headed by a retired state senator, to make sure that the system's graduates would be trained in how to teach phonics.

This year the legislature passed another reading bill, providing more than $50 million to train teachers in phonics instruction for grades four through eight. The bill establishes much tighter central control over the choice of training companies for the state's staff-development contracts in reading; Marion Joseph had heard from her sources around the state that the new training programs were being hijacked by the whole-language forces, and she lobbied to have that changed. Next year may bring more bills, particularly if the math-skills movement feels that the new math frameworks do not undo everything it objects to. Honig and Joseph do not appear to think that their work is done either. "As long as Marion's around," one former legislator told me, "there will be more legislation."

The Phonics Test

WHOLE-language is being made to bear a very large load of blame -- all the blame, essentially, for what is wrong in public education in California. The mythos of the state holds that public institutions, including freeways, law-enforcement agencies, and universities as well as public schools, have fallen in just one generation from a state of grace during which they worked much better than their equivalents back east and formed the foundation of a casual, open, efficient, democratic society. Terrible reading scores also tap into the large reservoir of emotion about the decline of reliable government as the basis of a good society in California. Real fury has been directed at whole-language.

What about the teachers?

If elementary schools were ever golden, a great deal more than whole-language is responsible for their not being so anymore. During the 1970s first the "revenue limits" policy of Ronald Reagan's governorship and then Proposition 13 severely reduced school funding in California. In 1965 the state was fifth in the nation in per capita funding; now it is thirty-seventh. Class sizes mushroomed. Immigration filled the schools with non-English-speakers. Public school libraries in the state now have three books per child, when eighteen is the standard nationwide. "The thing that troubles me is, What if it wasn't whole-language?" says Jerry Hayward, a veteran California educator who co-directs a policy-research organization in Sacramento. "What if it was the teachers? Or the textbooks? Or class size? Or money?"

The next few sets of NAEP results should settle the question, though if California scores go up, it will be difficult to tell how much of the increase is owing to phonics and how much to class-size reduction, which has received the great bulk of the new funding. Certainly, whole-language has been isolated. Support for it is limited to an enclosed community of devotees, including teachers, education-school professors, textbook publishers, bilingual educators, and teacher trainers. Virtually no one in the wider public seems to be actively promoting whole-language. No politicians are crusading for it. Of the major teachers' unions, the American Federation of Teachers is a wholehearted opponent and the National Education Association is neutral. No independent scientific researchers trumpet whole-language's virtues. The balance of parental pressure is not in favor of whole-language. (In contrast, parents are supporting out of their own pockets a private phonics industry, consisting of instructional materials like "Hooked on Phonics" and the computer program Reader Rabbit, and after-school tutoring operations like Score and Kumon.)
With apologies for being another national reporter who has gone to California and seen America's future, I'd like to offer three predictions arising from the California curriculum wars. First, efforts to establish greater quality control in public education, which will almost inevitably mean trying to impose more central authority over the advanced countries' most decentralized system of schooling, will go on constantly over the next few decades. Second, given that the traditional side is now winning the ongoing battle between traditional and progressive education, schools all over the country will be pressed hard by parents and politicians to move toward imparting skills and away from simply inculcating the joy of learning. Third, the longer the United States remains in its current peaceful and relatively prosperous condition, the more issues like school curricula, which politicians and the press aren't used to considering at any length, will come to the fore in American politics. Politics can be contentious and consequential without being about the adjudication of world affairs. Great clashes of ideas and interests can take place on the battleground of everyday life.

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.

How to Build a Tornado

A Canadian inventor believes his tornado machine could solve the world's energy crisis. The only problem? He has to prove it works.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Build a Tornado

A Canadian inventor believes his tornado machine could solve the world's energy crisis.


A New York City Minute, Frozen in Time

This short film takes you on a whirling tour of the Big Apple


What Happened to the Milky Way?

Light pollution has taken away our ability to see the stars. Can we save the night sky?


The Pentagon's $1.5 Trillion Mistake

The F-35 fighter jet was supposed to do everything. Instead, it can barely do anything.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In