The Latest Chapter in the Reading Wars

Idiom book tunnel, Prague

The Idiom book tunnel, an art installation in Prague



“The kids were sitting there going ‘Bah, Meh, Duh,’” groans a retired reading teacher, explaining that the pendulum of teaching theory has swung yet again. The way she learned, which fanned the love of reading and presented whole words for kids to gobble up, has given way to “the science of reading,” which returns the emphasis to phonics.

When she spits that last word toward me, Mrs. Ross’s ghost rises from the ground, inflating itself like a used-car-lot lure until she wobbles, a giantess, in front of me, mean as she was in second grade. Murmur dipthongs. To this day I do not know what they are, and yet they haunt me. Pairs of careful black letters on ruled cards that Mrs. Ross stuck above the bulletin board, reminders that even though I could already read big books I had this deficit, this weak-minded inability to even grasp what a dipthong was, let alone murmur one.

Phonics was my nemesis, and later, I heard it as Phyllis Schlafly’s battle cry. Why, I wondered, was reading instruction political? And would the shift take all the joy out of reading—already an endangered art, but one that civilizes us, opens the world, instills hope and knowledge and empathy. When my mother read to me, she used to say, warm excitement in her voice, “Soon you’ll be able to read!” Like it was Disneyland rolled into Christmas.

Her strategy worked. About “bah” and “duh” I am not so sure. Just what is this “science of reading?” I attend a panel discussion and interview an expert and read till blood veins my eyes. Searching every keyword combination I can think of, I keep finding articles that are meta and vague, insisting that cognitive psychology and neuroscience have proven the need to return to phonics but citing no specific studies.

Eventually, though, I do find studies, and they melt my prejudice. In the brain, the processing of spoken words and printed words is tightly linked. Letter-to-sound correspondence is one of the main neural pathways that pave the way for reading. Listening comprehension influences reading comprehension. The “hallmark of skilled reading is the integration of print with what a person knows about the spoken language,” sums up cognitive scientist Mark Seidenberg.

It also helps to visually break words into phonemes, because those shorter units of sound are prefixes, root words, and tense endings that carry meaning. Expecting kids to memorize (or guess) whole words without sounding them out or breaking them apart, often bombs. If kids cannot link the letters in a new word to sounds and meanings they already know, then all they are working with are the visual squiggles, and it is hard to make that kind of arbitrary memorization stick.

This makes sense, especially when you remember how many eccentricities and inconsistencies lie await inside the English language. “It’s a very attractive idea that children will figure things out on their own,” says Rebecca Treiman, Burke and Elizabeth High Baker Professor of Child Developmental Psychology at Washington University. The notion conjures “a liberal world view of children as these amazing learners, and we only need to provide them with the resources.” But some of the tactics were dubious, like covering up words and having kids guess by using the picture as a clue. Once the books have no pictures, a kid is in deep trouble. Phonics takes the conservative approach (cue Schlafly), giving children less freedom and more structured drills.

By most estimates, about 60 percent need that structure. Only one in three can read proficiently when they graduate from high school. The science of reading is currently being pushed by legislators in more than forty states; by universities, this one among them; and by young teachers across the country.

What they only whisper is that the fastest track to success is still parental attention, long before school begins. Reading aloud so the child hears new words. Pointing to the words, not just the pictures. Teaching the alphabet song, engaging the child in conversation, instinctively drawing on bits of all the educators’ theories. That preps the child for the biggest challenge, Treiman says: “understanding that the marks on the page represent units of their language and figuring out the code by which they do so.”

Studies show, again and again, that in low-income families, children have a much harder time learning the names and sounds of letters. They also have, on average, half as much experience talking or reading with their parents, who are often preoccupied and speaking only to give orders or scold. Or they are not literate themselves: “130 million adults are now unable to read a simple story to their children.” There is a strong, understandable push for apps that let technology do the teaching. Yet when a three-year-old is curled up with a parent, listening to a story read aloud, the language regions of the brain light up far brighter than when the child listens to an audiobook or reads from a digital app.

What if part of the problem is that kids are not growing up with physical books around them, not seeing their parents read for the joy of it, seeing only screens? Many argue that kids are reading more because of all their devices, but what they are doing is skimming, reading quick simple stuff in distracted mode. “More frequent reading of short texts on screen predicted less inclination to muster the cognitive persistence required for reading a longer text,” reports one study. A meta-analysis of many studies found that “digital reading does improve comprehension skills, but the beneficial effect is between six and seven times smaller than that of print reading.”

Deep reading is a skill, one that was easy to acquire when it was common to sit quietly and read a book for an hour or two. Now even grown-ups have a hard time doing that, because “when we read for hours on a screen whose characteristics involve a rapid speed of information processing, we develop an unconscious set toward reading based on how we read during most of our digital-based hours.” Which is faster, shallower, and primed for a dopamine hit as reward every few minutes.

A book was a way for me to get lost in my own mind, a place that became more interesting with every book I read. A device blows the whole world open at once—but yanks you around from bit to bit instead of encouraging reverie. A study published in 2023 monitored brain waves and found a profound physical difference: “Reading from a printed paper was accompanied by higher energy in high-frequency bands (beta, gamma),” while “reading from the screen was manifested by a higher power in the lower frequency bands (alpha, theta).” The lower-frequency energy of screen reading aligned with challenges in maintaining attention and focus.

Doubling down on phonics and phonemes is increasing reading scores already. But what about kids who have enough natural aptitude and have soaked up enough language to cut straight to the words? Are they already bored out of their minds? By fighting grown-up wars between politicized pedagogical theories and forcing teachers to choose sides, we are plopping all the kids into a single box. And we are ignoring what might be a core problem: the phasing out of print, and the reflection it allows.

It makes sense that kids need structure: the world is more chaotic by the day, and too many parents lack the time, skill, or patience to help them navigate its sounds and meanings. Teachers scramble to fill in the gaps—and the kids who read easily drift away.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.