The phonics v whole-word battle has always been about politics, not pedagogy

Leading sociologist tracks strange history of the “reading wars” and explains that they were never really about teaching

Frank Furedi

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For some time now the inflammatory language that surrounds what Americans refer to as the "Reading Wars" has troubled me. Competing claims about the virtues of phonics or whole-word teaching are certainly not conducted in the dispassionate language of pedagogy. In my own research on the history of reading, I have been struck by the frequency with which criticisms of different approaches to the teaching of reading have been made in a political or moralistic tone.

It all began in France in the aftermath of the French Revolution when education in general, and literacy in particular, constituted one of the most durable lines of cleavage between left and right. Since the middle of the 19th century, and particularly since the 1940s, there have been periodic explosions of public outcry about the peril of illiteracy or the decline of literacy. With the publication of the best-selling text Why Johnny Can’t Read (1955) the "literacy crisis" turned into what is frequently characterised in the US as the Reading Wars. And since the 1960s – in a more muted form – this development has been mirrored in the UK.

The frequent use of the term the "politics of literacy" reflects the tendency to associate reading and its teaching with a variety of ideologically motivated agendas. For example in the US, the Whole Language Movement describes itself as a political movement and claims that it speaks for the disadvantaged. It condemns advocates of phonics for allegedly promoting a right-wing or neo-liberal agenda. Supporters of phonics are sometimes represented as closet Christian fundamentalists who use phonetics instrumentally to bolster traditional authority. Advocates of phonics adopt a language that is no less intemperate than that of their opponents. In turn, supporters of whole-language teaching of reading are denounced as counter-cultural progressives who are committed to undermining educational standards and authority.

It is difficult to have a genuine and open-ended discussion about the merits of the diverse approaches to the teaching of reading when it is conducted in the moralistic language of good and evil. Yet the language of the moral crusader often serves as the medium for the conduct of the reading debate.

One of the most frightening symptoms of the zealousness that surrounds the controversy over reading pedagogy is the way that some advocates on both sides manipulate our concern for children’s well-being. Both sides accuse one another of using teaching methods that create health problems for children. Writing of "phonics toxicity and other side effects", US neurologist Steven Strauss asserts that phonics turns off children from reading and leads children to become "emotionally damaged" and to "all sorts of emotional and psychological distress".

Strauss has even coined the term "Phonics Toxicity" to capture the supposed perils of this pedagogy. And Durham University academic Andrew Davis, who claims that imposing synthetic phonics on children who can already read when they start school is "almost a form of abuse", echoed a similarly moralistic approach.

Some proponents of phonics are also happy to condemn their opponents' pedagogy as an instrument of child abuse in order to justify their claims. They also condemn whole-language pedagogy for "destroying the innocent" child. Other proponents of phonics teaching assert that their opponents "are killing the hopes, and the potential, and the mental health of the children who are victims of the reading disability epidemic".

So how do we account for the acrimonious language that surrounds this debate? A closer inspection indicates that the anxieties that surround reading often serve as a sublimated expression of concerns about how children are socialised and of the ideas that are influencing the younger generations. Referring to the controversy and publicity surrounding Why Johnny Can’t Read, political theorist Hannah Arendt pointedly remarked that "certainly more is involved here than the puzzling question of why Johnny can’t read". In her 1958 essay "The Crisis in Education", she linked the disquiet regarding the question of why Johnny can’t read to the more profound problem of uncertainty about just what it is that society wants Johnny to read.

It is time that reading pedagogy is de-politicised. Reading pedagogy needs to be freed of the moral crusader. The experience of history indicates that children can be taught to read through a variety of approaches. What we need are reading experiments and not wars.

Frank Furedi’s Power of Reading: From Socrates To Twitter is published by Bloomsbury on Thursday


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Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi is emeritus professor of sociology at Kent University

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