PORTLAND – What have aptly been dubbed “the reading wars” continue.

On one side (“Let’s put our knowledge to work for children struggling to read,” Maine Voices, May 5) are author Wendy Gaal and others who believe reading is a skill that is best taught using teacher-directed lessons, repetition and phonics. This side supports the use of standardized tests to evaluate reading and the control of teachers by outside experts, test companies, textbook publishers, and the federal government.

The other side views reading as an extension of people’s capacity for using language in order to communicate and understand the world. This side believes reading is learned through purposeful engagement with printed language, and is best taught and assessed by teachers working with and observing students.

Despite Ms. Gaal’s rhetoric, there is no validity to the notion that such a thing as scientific-based reading instruction exists. Richard Allington and a host of other reading researchers debunked this myth in the book, “Big Brother and the National Reading Curriculum.” Research on both sides of the reading wars has not been able to (and most likely never will) reach any agreed-upon definitive answer related to how reading should be taught.

The problem is that what matters the most, but is left out, particularly in any research that seeks to be an objective measure, is the definition of a successful reader.

The goals of teaching and learning are all important and cannot be separated out by scientific studies. Thus what defines the two sides in the reading wars are philosophical and political differences rather than an understanding or acceptance of science-based reading research.

Unfortunately, the people affected the most by the reading wars are the students I work with as an adult educator — young men and women who can read, but choose not to read. My students admit they have not read a book since early elementary school and have never felt the desire or need to read since then.

They also tell me that at first they loved school and couldn’t wait to learn to read, but soon came to hate both. This tragedy is due in part to the teaching of reading through repetition and drills, and the use of multiple-choice tests to evaluate reading performance.

The reason to help children read shouldn’t be to boost the state’s fourth-grade reading scores; it should instead be so students are able to, and choose to, use reading and writing to gain a deeper understanding of themselves and the world they live in.

Ms. Gaal mentions that the students most likely at risk of not learning to read are children of poverty and children of limited English language proficiency. My wife, a kindergarten teacher, works with these children every day.

She is confident that if she provides all her children the time to hear, tell and write their own stories, they will eventually come to learn to read. But more importantly, she works hard to nurture in each child a love of reading she hopes they will carry with them throughout life.

Those of us who believe that reading is not a difficult skill, and that a successful reader is defined by more than a test score, understand that reading is developmental. We recognize that it is a uniquely individual process which needs to be nurtured by caring, attentive adults.

Ms. Gaal argues that reading is not naturally learned, citing the fact that all children do not learn to read. She implicitly suggests that it is different from learning to speak.

This is where the two sides in the wars differ. Children do not learn to speak without the guidance of adults. They need attention and interaction. And the support they receive greatly influences their language acquisition and development.

Reading is no different. The model of how children learn to speak is the ideal model for how to teach them to read. The road to helping all children become readers is not paved with so-called science-based reading research and instruction.

That is a road that perhaps may raise overall test scores, but will also leave a generation of non-readers as casualties of the reading wars, a result I argue we should not allow to happen.

 

– Special to the Press Herald