The reading wars: What is the best way to teach kids their ABCs?

It is one of the most important elements of primary education – but it has split teachers and academics

Amy Tyrell was astonished. Her son Jason (6) had struggled with recognising words ever since starting school. Yet, here he was, with his school-issued reader in hand, perfectly articulating every word of The Ugly Duckling. Her heart sank.

“I knew from the way he was reading it that he wasn’t making any connections between the marks on the page and the sounds he was making,” she says.

“He had learned the sentences off by heart. So, it looked like he was flying through all these books – but if the teacher mixed up the order, or isolated the words, he’d get them all wrong.”

Amy and Jason’s story sits at the centre of what is referred to by some as “the reading wars”, a hotly-contested debate over the best methods for teaching children how to read.


Recent studies in the US, Canada and New Zealand have cast some doubts on the effectiveness of the Reading Recovery strategy

On one side, to put it simply, are proponents of a “structured literacy” approach which focuses on the use of phonics: this teaches children to read by helping them to identify and pronounce sounds which they blend together to make words.

On the other side is a “balanced literacy” approach, which combines some phonics with what is known as whole language instruction, based on the philosophy that children will learn to read naturally if you expose them to a lot of books and reading which incorporates multiple elements including context, grammar and meaning.

In an Irish context, the debate is especially heated when it comes to what intervention best suits struggling readers.

Reading Recovery, a type of balanced literacy, was introduced by New Zealand academic Marie Clay in the 1970s. It involves phonics but gives equal weight to understanding, enjoyment and “whole language”. This intervention, targeted at children who are falling behind their peers in the early years, operates in Deis – schools in disadvantaged areas – and others in Ireland.

Its strategies also appear in our primary language curriculum and inform the use of levelled readers (books differentiated by reading level). The idea is that a child might not be able to decode every word, but they will “get it” and the reading part will develop over time.

However, recent studies in the US, Canada and New Zealand have cast some doubts on the effectiveness of the Reading Recovery strategy. Two New Zealand studies show that over 40 per cent of children who are successful in Reading Recovery lose their gains within two to four years. At this later point, they read at levels significantly below average.

Structured literacy, on the other hand, is favoured by mum Amy who has established Bright Side of Dyslexia to support families. She wants to avoid any guesswork in his reading and believes structured literacy offers more opportunities to practice decoding words.

Amy Tyrell was at home with her son Jason (11).

Proponents of this approach argue that it is backed up by the “science of reading”. English primary schools, for example, employ systematic phonics instruction, a structured literacy approach. This was on foot of an independent review of early reading in 2006 – The Rose Report – which recommended “high quality systematic phonic work” as the prime approach to decode texts in the early years.

So, where do the experts stand? It depends who you ask. Dominic Wyse is professor of early childhood and primary education at the UCL (University College London) and co-author of a recent research paper, “Reading wars or reading reconciliation.”

He is critical of the language curriculum in England and points to the fact that other countries perform better in international rankings such as Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment). Alongside broader research, he highlights England’s failure in reading instruction, which he argues is due to its overly rigid systematic phonics approach.

“The research gathered from randomised controlled trials in English-speaking countries supports the conclusion that a balanced instruction approach is more likely to succeed,” he states.

Wyse is also critical of “dismissive attitudes” to whole language approaches. He recognises phonics as “one important component” which is “most likely to be effective for children between the ages of five and six″ but says “it is not optimal if synthetic phonics is all that happens in a young child’s classroom.”

The children appear to read well, but only when reading levelled readers. When given texts with no pictures, or words in isolation, they really struggle

He offers an example: “Take the word ‘read’,” he says. “How you pronounce the word depends on the sentence; is it past tense or present tense? You cannot separate the phonics from the meaning.”

However, Dr Jennifer O’Sullivan, assistant professor in literacy at Marino Institute of Education, says phonics is effective, especially among children at risk of falling behind.

She describes a “golden window of opportunity” within which to teach the foundational skills of reading that generally occurs before children reach second class. She is critical of any “wait to fail” approach with children having to display a difficulty with reading before they are supported by the interventions they need.

“The longer we delay intervention, the more problematic it becomes. Research demonstrates that it can take up to four times longer to intervene with an eight year old child than it does with a four year old. Waiting until children who are struggling reach six years of age to access interventions is just too late,” she says.

“When it comes to children who have or are ‘at risk’ for dyslexia, it is imperative these children are supported by early interventions that promote systematic and explicit instruction primarily in decoding skills such as phonemic awareness and phonics,” she says.

“We cannot lose sight of those for whom this conversation matters most: our young beginning readers,” she says. “We have a moral obligation to ensure that we are providing them with evidenced-based practices that support their early reading development.”

The Department of Education says it is “satisfied that Reading Recovery does not use approaches which are in direct conflict with the primary language curriculum.”

“Reading Recovery is one of the most researched literacy interventions. There is substantial evidence evaluating Reading Recovery’s effectiveness with the lowest attaining pupils in a wide range of educational contexts.”

Reading Recovery Europe also defends its programme, suggesting that it helps “eight out of 10 of the lowest attaining readers around the age of six to become independent readers at the level required for their age and for their classroom curriculum.”

It highlights that “a systematic approach to phonics in the initial years of learning to read is of benefit to all pupils so that they get that initial opportunity to learn about the code and how to blend and segment.”

A child should draw on phonics knowledge to read words, and if they don’t have the appropriate phonics knowledge, it needs to be taught

Deirdre O’Toole, a primary schoolteacher and founder of Playful Classroom, an online resource for teachers, argues that Reading Recovery does not have any systematic phonics instruction.

She says it should be concern that the Reading Recovery approach is undergoing a “refresh” in its home place of New Zealand, while the state of Victoria in Australia has discontinued its endorsement of Reading Recovery, and concerns have also been expressed in Ontario.

She is also convinced by what she sees in her classroom. “The children appear to read well, but only when reading levelled readers. When given texts with no pictures, or words in isolation, they really struggle. Their first port of call is to use meaning and structure cues, rather than decoding the word.”

There are searching questions for Ireland: are primary teachers trained consistently in phonics instruction? Do they know when to provide cues for children? Is balanced literacy an appropriate approach for struggling learners? Or would a systematic phonics approach better serve struggling students?

Dr Patrick Burke, assistant professor in the school of language, literacy and early childhood education at Dublin City University, identifies the difference between Ireland and other countries in relation to the reading wars.

In the US, there have been justifiable concerns about the lack of phonics teaching in some contexts. There is little evidence to suggest that Irish teachers do not teach phonics,” he says. “This is not to say that some practices may benefit from further attention here.”

He gives an example of where nuanced knowledge is required: “A child should draw on phonics knowledge to read words, and if they don’t have the appropriate phonics knowledge, it needs to be taught. For example, if a child comes across the word ‘read’ they could pronounce it as ‘red’ or ‘reed’, but they should use phonics knowledge in the first instance to lift the word off the page. However, once the child has decoded the word, it is only through comprehension monitoring that they can figure out which pronunciation makes sense in that particular context.”

He notes that Ireland performs well in international assessments of reading and highlights the importance of teacher education. “Knowing how to teach phonics is an extremely important component of literacy education in any initial teacher education programme. Having the professional knowledge of the related terminology and concepts is crucial – knowing the why and the how,” he says.

For Burke, it’s also important to clarify what we mean by “balanced literacy”, because this is not the same in all countries.

“When ‘balance’ means that the full spectrum of literacy skills is given appropriate attention, based on ongoing assessment, this is fine. When ‘balance’ means that word recognition (or phonics) is taught in a scattergun or light touch manner, or that children are prompted to guess at words, this term becomes deeply problematic,” he says.

“We have a strong tradition of providing good literacy education in Ireland. I am confident that we can come to a consensus on research-informed teaching that puts our young readers first.”

As for Amy, her son is now 11. Jason is making great strides. She says a structured literacy approach, along with other interventions, have worked much better for him.

“He’s reading now and doing well ... homework used to be such a battle, but now he has more confidence. Our school has been great. There is so much help available nowadays.”