Winning the reading wars
Happy Friday, everyone.
Once in a blue moon, a podcast about education gains traction in the wider world of discourse. Emily Hanford’s podcast, Sold a Story, made a splash a month or two ago. If you haven’t heard it, I definitely recommend listening. It’s six episodes long, and extremely well researched and produced—very entertaining. And it concerns the reading wars.
The reading wars are over the question: how should we teach children literacy? The reading wars have been going on for over a hundred years. The two main sides in the reading wars—the two competing methods of teaching literacy—are phonics and whole word.
The phonics approach says: what is fundamental to literacy is learning how sounds (phonemes) correspond to written symbols (graphemes). It basically says that the foundational skill in literacy is understanding written letters. What are the alphabetic elements of words, and by what rules do these elements combine into words? By mastering a small number of elements, you unlock the capacity to read any combination of letters, that is, any word. (In English, this is 26 letters, plus a significant number of digraphs, e.g. th, sh, and other such phonemic complexities.)
The whole word approach says: what is actually fundamental to language is not letters or sounds but whole words. Words are the things that children learn first, they are what children are, in fact, interested in. Letters and phonemes don’t carry meaning, words do. If you want to spark a child’s interest, have a word-centric approach: see what words they can recognize visually, and what context cues they can use to figure out what an unknown word might be. Letters are just one type of cue, with others being, for example, the meaning of the rest of the sentence.
I find this war fascinating on a number of fronts. First, it is fascinating because, unlike many polarizing and never-ending debates, this is a case where one side is clearly just correct. More on that in a moment. Second, it is fascinating because the motivations for the war get mixed in with a more fundamental pedagogical war in which all sides are wrong. Third, it is fascinating because it is a case where this pedagogical war has become linked to general ideological and even political wars.
One of the things Hanford covers in Sold a Story is the extent to which phonics has been seen as a Republican agenda. Sound strange? Well, to get students to read phonetically, you typically need fairly directive, traditional reading instruction. How else do you get students to learn a bunch of otherwise meaningless graphemes other than by memorization and repetition? And how else do you get that other than some sort of authority-based direction by a teacher? That sort of traditional education generally codes conservative, which generally codes Republican. Add in some particulars—that George W. Bush was a huge advocate for literacy and that he favored funding for phonics-based approaches—and now the reading war is political.
You can also see this from the other side: whole word pedagogy is focused on something that children are naturally, biologically, universally interested in: words. Prima facie, it seems more suited for child-centered, progressive approaches to education. It takes the child’s happiness, nature, and motivation seriously, and attempts to build an approach on a child’s capabilities and interests. These progressive affinities generally code politically progressive and anti-conservative, and indeed, liberal politicians have accused conservative ones of everything from educational malpractice to grift and corruption on this front.
The reading wars are the most important and bloodiest front in a more fundamental pedagogical war between traditional and progressive pedagogy.
Where does our Montessori approach fit into all of this? Here’s where it gets even more interesting.
In terms of the fundamental pedagogical war, Montessori education is neither traditional nor progressive. It is progressive in the sense of being uncompromisingly child-centered. But it is traditional in the sense of being rigorous and opinionated on issues of foundational knowledge and skills. It extols the virtues of offering children extensive freedom—and shapes their choices with specific curricula and exercises. The freedom being offered is unusual, not just the freedom of selection but, first and foremost, the freedom to persist in concentration. And the curricula and exercises are unusual, in being designed to entice the child’s interest and draw out the proper exercise of her faculties, and ordered to form a uniquely child-centered, inductive, developmentally tuned scope and sequence.
Montessori education is something new, and it doesn’t fit either mold.
What about with respect to literacy education in particular? Well, here Montessori does fit into a mold. The Montessori approach to literacy is phonics-based. Learning alphabetism is its central, fundamental objective. The whole word approaches are wrong, and the phonics approaches are right.
In The Formation of Man, Montessori quotes this passage from David Diringer’s book The Alphabet:
This conquest is greater and of more importance than all others for the progress of civilization because it enables us to unite the thoughts of the whole of mankind all along the successive development of the generations. The alphabet concerns not only this outward development, but the very nature of man, because it completes the natural language by adding another form of expression to it.
Montessori sings the praises of the alphabet, precisely for the reasons that phonics advocates sing its praises: it is a sort of periodic table for literacy, where innumerable words and sentences are composed of a small number of elements. To unlock the former you just need to master the latter.
Her pedagogical method is laser-focused on phonics. From sound games to sandpaper letters to the movable alphabet, there is a scope and sequence running from the Toddler years into Elementary, with a special focus on Children’s House, where a phonics-based approach to literacy is practiced and mastered. (I describe this at some length, along with other elements of Montessori literacy education, such as nomenclature and motor control, in a previous Friday Note: “Doubling Down on Literacy”).
Montessori does not fit into either traditional or progressive schools of educational thought. But she does fit squarely into the phonics school of literacy education.
Samantha Blaisdell just published an excellent essay, “A Better Future for Phonics”, exploring the idea that Montessori actually saves phonics-based education. It does this by decoupling it from the traditional approach that can be mind-numbing and authoritarian. Samantha writes:
Phonics must be decoupled from its traditional approach, and a better method, one that optimizes for both joy and skill development, must be pursued.
Montessori herself in her writings was both an intransigent advocate of phonics, and an intransigent critic of most particular phonics approaches.
Locked up within bare cells, kept sitting on wooden benches, under the sway of a tyrant who insisted that the children should think as he wished, learn what he wished and do what he wished. The delicate hand of the child was made to write. His mind, full of imaginative powers, had to concentrate on the dry shapes of the alphabet, which did not reveal to him any of the advantages, which its possession confers upon us.
One of Montessori’s most enduring innovations was an approach to the alphabet that is not dry and that does reveal to the child its advantages. It’s to make phonics, the only effective way to impart literacy, child-centered.
There’s so much here to explore. If you’re looking for a deeply fascinating educational content this weekend, again, I recommend the Sold a Story podcast, coupled with Samantha’s essay on Montessori’s relationship to phonics. The podcast goes into much more depth than I did here about what is wrong with whole word (and whole language) approaches to literacy, including the scientific research on both approaches. Samantha’s essay goes into much more depth on Montessori’s approach to phonics and how it is the one weapon that could win the reading wars and truly bring literacy to all children.
Have a great weekend,
Executive Director, Montessorium