Another message popped up in my inbox asking, in what I imagine to be an alarmed tone, if I’ve heard the Sold a Story podcast. I start typing what began as a thoughtful response but was starting to feel like a mass-automated reply, the email version of a sigh: glad that so much good info & context is being highlighted (again) about how kids learn to read and around reading instruction, frustration around the sensationalism and responding vitriol towards folks who want to help kids learn to read, and my desire to focus on building our capacity for knowing what students need.  

The reading wars are exhausting. 

In my almost 20 years of being an educator, and long before I set foot in a classroom, we’ve been fighting over how to teach reading. In the early days, I learned about the “phonics vs. whole language” debate that had been raging for decades. Today, it’s the “Science of Reading vs. the cueing system” (an indictment of Fountas & Pinnell Guided Reading and the Lucy Calkins Reader’s Workshop Units of Study), or sometimes even “Balanced Literacy vs. Structured Literacy.” All important discussions. And yet, the fight always seems the same: “No, THIS is the right way to teach reading and THAT is wrong.”

As we continue to fight over whether teaching systematic phonics and word study is essential (TLDR: it is), it pulls time, energy and focus away from doing the actual work of learning about the students in front of us and what they need. The decades-old argument can spark fear and confusion for teachers and families. Whether intended or not, that response distracts us from a lot else that is important — such as thinking more deeply about what it means to provide effective literacy instruction for lots of different kinds of learners and how the curricula we have access to is and is not meeting those needs.  

We are having the wrong conversations.

It’s time we move beyond bickering about the mountain of research that says students need explicit, systematic phonics instruction. It IS egregious that some classrooms across the country still do not have this vital component of literacy instruction. But I will neither demonize an entire curriculum nor remain loyal to only one, because the sad truth is that I’ve yet to see a literacy curriculum that had all the elements I wanted and needed to effectively teach each of my students to read and write. I value a number of research-based approaches and have had to learn how to weave them together to meet the needs demonstrated by each student and to think critically about which tools and instructional approaches I need to employ and when. This is what the neverending reading wars are missing: the importance of moving forward so that all teachers, administrators and folks who work at schools have the time and skills to interrogate the curriculum available to them and more deeply understand what they have access to — what is effective and what isn’t, what students respond to and what they don’t, what meets their needs and what doesn’t. 

Let’s reorient the reading conversation and highlight the deeper questions we are often not asking: Who is my student as a reader and what do they need next? How do I know? What is missing from the teaching materials currently available to me if I am to meet my students’ needs? How do I know? How do I get what’s missing? 

Over the next few months, this blog series will begin to unpack these questions and explore how we can evaluate reading curricula, along with a deeper dive into the student-centered conversations I know so many teachers want to be having about teaching literacy. Teaching, especially teaching students how to read, is complex. But I think educators can more than handle the complexity if we move beyond this old battleground.

This is the first part of Emily’s six-part blog series. Emily’s next post entitled Who is my student as a reader (and what do they need)?, will be published on March 24, 2023. For more on the series, click here.

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