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Responding to the Reading Wars: Everyone’s Job

Published On: December 5th, 2019 | Categories: General, General Education, Latest News, Reflections and Commentary |

by Patricia L. Scharer, Ph.D.

The Reading Wars have a long, long history. Over the past 100 years, adversaries have argued for and against numerous approaches: whole word, literature-based reading, look-say method, sight words, Initial Teaching Alphabet, balanced literacy, decodable texts, whole language, and phonics first. The wars have recently taken a new twist: the “Science of Reading.” This notion appears to be new when, in fact, literacy acquisition has been the subject of scholarship by many researchers with varying perspectives for many, many years. Reading blogs, tweets, and articles promoting the “science of reading” argue that only one type of study (experimental on phonics and phonemic awareness) qualifies as science and this science has been ignored by educators and scholars conducting other types of research. This is simply wrong. No one approach can claim “science” as theirs and only theirs. A range of research is, in fact, scientific, and we need all of it to inform our practice. Some research questions can be answered through random assignment; others must be answered through close observation, interview, and documentation. It’s up to educators to read widely and make decisions based on the evidence available.

Reading Recovery and the Reading Wars

Reading Recovery has scientific data on every student taught in the past 35 years and clear evidence that investing in training teachers in Reading Recovery not only brings 70% of the lowest first-grade students to grade level in 12-20 weeks but also positively affects literacy instruction in the building. Reading Recovery teachers have become literacy leaders given the intensity of their yearlong training and expert as observing student reading and writing behaviors. The recent federally-funded i3 research documented that success with both random assignment studies and qualitative studies (May, Sirinides, Gray, & Goldsworthy, 2016).

Despite solid, scientific research using a range of methodologies, Reading Recovery has been critiqued since its beginning in the U.S. 35 years ago with notions like “Reading Recovery is just whole language” or “Reading Recovery doesn’t teach phonics.” For many years, our leading organizations, the North American Trainer’s Group (NATG) and the Reading Recovery Council of North America (RRCNA) have tried to inform critics and counter their claims through white papers in response to every critic. The critiques and responses can be found on RRCNA’s Responding to Critics webpage. Historically, our leadership has taken the “high road” by trying to focus on the positive message we have about the success of our Reading Recovery students and teachers and have avoided direct confrontations. More recently, however, even with the strength of the i3 federal research, using an experimental design, critics are taking an even more aggressive approach to promote the “simple view of reading,” the “science of reading,” and systematic, intensive phonics while arguing against Reading Recovery.

In 2017, however, when a negative, uninformed article appeared as in Learning Disabilities: A Multidisciplinary Journal, the Reading Recovery leadership took a more aggressive stance demanding that the journal editors take down the negative article which was the only one offered for free online and print our response, The Truth About Reading Recovery, both online and in the journal. The article in Learning Disabilities was full of misrepresentations, incorrect information, and concluded that “Reading Recovery teachers are not trained to provide explicit and systematic instruction in the essential and foundational components of reading” (Cook, Rodes & Lipsitz, 2017, p. 19). Based on these inaccurate assumptions, the authors “strongly recommend[ed] that schools not adopt the Reading Recovery program” (p. 19). This conclusion is simply wrong. In fact, Reading Recovery teachers are taught how to document students’ knowledge of phonemic awareness and phonics so they can explicitly teach an awareness of the sounds of English and the relationship to letters. Every lesson clearly attends to phonics instruction. I would argue that this instruction is both intensive and systematic.

Emily Hanford and the “Science of Reading”

Most recently, Emily Hanford, Senior producer and correspondent for APM Reports, has produced a series of blogs, tweets, and videos with two main messages: the education community has ignored the “science of reading” and teachers are not well-prepared to teach reading in colleges of education. Her arguments come from research done by psychologists using an experimental design to study pieces of the reading process and are void of studies of real children in real teaching settings.

In 2017, Ms. Hanford requested information about Reading Recovery and was invited to attend the 2018 National Conference as our guest. I was asked to design a schedule for her and accompanied her to many sessions over the 3-day conference where she was able to talk with teachers, teacher leaders, and trainers. I also arranged for her to see lessons behind-the-glass so that teacher leaders could help her understand our understanding of how to support children who struggle. She also interviewed and video-taped several Reading Recovery professionals during the conference. We expected her to write an unbiased report about Reading Recovery. We waited for the article to come out. It never did.

Instead, she has focused her attention on the “science of reading” with titles of web-casts such as “At a loss for words: How a flawed idea is teaching millions of kids to be poor readers” which posed many flawed ideas about Marie Clay and the cueing systems. Ms. Hanford had contacted RRCNA on a Friday that her article about the cueing systems was in preparation and asked for our response—by Monday. We sent a well-referenced, thorough reply by the Monday deadline along with a copy of an important article done by Marilyn Adams in 1998 which disproved a number of Hanford’s assumptions. Little of the information we prepared appeared in her final article.

Recognize and Respond: A Call to Action

I find it frustrating that the voices of educators who actually work with children who struggle are being silenced by a professor in a laboratory or a reporter. We need to recognize and respond to the messages described above which are prevalent in social media, podcasts, and webcasts. These critics do not understand how Reading Recovery supports children to develop a strong literacy processing system. Their “science of reading” and “simple” views are tightly held leaving them unable to grasp the complexity of what Reading Recovery teachers and students grapple with every day.

As a community of educators, we cannot leave advocacy to others, assuming that someone else is doing that job. It must be a part of every Reading Recovery professional’s job to be visible in social media, work with local news organizations, and get the message out that reading is not simple and our lessons ensure that the individual needs of every child are met.

How are you advocating for what you know is best for children who struggle?



Adams, M. J. (1998). The Three-Cueing System. In F. Lehr and J. Osborn (Eds.), Literacy for all issues in teaching and learning, pp. 73-99. New York Guilford Press.

Cook, P., Rodes, D. R., & Lipsitz, K. L. (2017). The reading wars and Reading Recovery: What educators, families, and taxpayers should know. Learning Disabilities: A Multidisciplinary Journal, 22(2), 12–23.

May, H., Sirinides, P., Gray, A., & Goldsworthy, H. (2016). Reading Recovery: An Evaluation of the Four-Year i3 Scale-Up. Philadelphia: Consortium for Policy Research in Education.

Patricia L. Scharer, Ph.D. is a Professor Emeritus at The Ohio State University in Columbus, OH.

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