How The Reading War Became A Religious War

Jul 10, 2013 by

Bruce Deitrick Price – The Reading War was a fight over how reading should be taught.

Unexpectedly, this conflict also became a religious war. Progressive secular humanists declared that their method (Whole Word) was scientifically best. They claimed the opposing method (phonics) was favored only by irrational religious extremists (read: Christians).

The logic for those claims is convoluted. Probably there is no logic, merely propaganda.

Psychiatrists would also probably speak of “projection.” The progressives listed all the bad features of Whole Word, and then insisted that these dreadful results were characteristic of phonics. How convenient.

You might think the people in this fight would have to come up against reality at some point. In fact, that should have happened in 1955 when Rudolf Flesch wrote “Why Johnny Can’t Read.” He explained that Whole Word does not work, and schools must use phonics. However, the progressives simply refused to listen. They formed the International Reading Association for the purpose of attacking Flesch, and promoting Whole Word (also known by several other names).

So we had a total inversion of reality. In order to push this inversion on to victory, the Education Establishment more and more injected the hysteria of religious conflicts.


The country was told that foolish, misguided, possibly evil people chose phonics because these people were religious fanatics. Conversely, secular humanists endorsed Whole Word because they were logical and clear-thinking, never mind that this method produced tens of millions of functional illiterates.

This was the weird state of American education during the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Phonics, the proven winner, was dismissed as religious nuttiness. Whole Whole, a proven loser, was said to be research-based genius.

This long-running conflict often unfolded behind the scenes, a debate waged in scholarly slurs. Then came an event in 1974, in the backwoods of West Virginia, which caused the progressive views to be plainly articulated.

James Moffett, one of the country’s leading Whole Language proponents, had created an elaborate K-12 curricula for use in public schools. Many literary items were sophisticated and seemed inappropriate to the parents of West Virginia. Resistance formed. The Education Establishment screamed: “censorship.” The liberal media played it that way. A battle raged for many months.

In 1989 James Moffett wrote a book about this piece of history. In three amazing statements, he summed up the views which had propelled the entire drama throughout several decades:

“In my textbooks and workshops for teachers I recommend [favoring] the whole-sentence and full-text methods and to regard phonics as probably not necessary for reading.”

“Almost invariably parents and others not having these professional reasons side with phonics because it suits the conservative cast of mind.`God believes in the beauty of phonics’ means that those who see themselves as God’s spokespeople prefer phonics, precisely, I think, because it shuts out content by focusing the child on articles of language too small to have any meaning.”

“How to limit what they may find to read out of school? A good way is to cripple literacy at the outset, to make reading so technical and meaningless youngsters will…simply not seek books any further or will find the act of reading so painful that they virtually give it up.”

I believe Moffett has everything backwards (having accepted the sophistries of Frank Smith and Ken Goodman), and that most children do learn to read by mastering the small “articles” which he disparages.

Moffett lies in pretending that children learn these small parts so they can stop there. No, it’s a first step. All instruction progresses from crawling to walking to running, then to dancing, skiing, etc. You don’t crawl in order to crawl for the rest of your life but Moffett weirdly pretends that we do.

Conversely, Whole Word is built on what might be called the expert fallacy. Adults, according to Whole Word theory, read whole words. So let’s teach children to read whole words from the beginning. This is like teaching a child to ski by letting him loose on a steep slope.

Constance Weaver, another famous proponent of Whole Language, argued: “What motivates such advocacy? Oddly enough, it may not necessarily be what proponents claim: namely, the desire to teach all children to read. A great deal of the force behind such advocacy seems to be the desire to promote a religious agenda and/or to maintain the socioeconomic status quo.”

A third advocate of Whole Word instruction, Reggie Routman, actually wrote: “phonics instruction is a useless sore, even a handicap.”

In fact, it’s phonics that makes children into fluent, independent readers, the kind of people who can learn what they want and make decisions for themselves. Conversely, it’s the millions of functional illiterates created by Whole Word that turn out to have few skills. Talk about maintaining the socioeconomic status quo.


You can say that these Whole Word people were not just wrong, they were pathetically wrong. They drank the Kool-Aid and then denied the obvious: a phonetic language such as English requires that children learn that letters on a page stand for sounds. That’s the essence of phonetics, or phonics.

Ideally, all parents would understand how phonics works and that Whole Word can cripple a child. Additionally, they would be aware that many dangerous sophistries were devised during the Reading Wars, thereby rendering the entire reading debate muddled and dysfunctional. Working around this confusion is the first priority.

Bottom line: English words were never designed to be memorized visually. If you want to see how weird our words look to a first grader, just choose a random page of text, turn it upside down, and look at it in a mirror. You will see that the word-designs are annoyingly similar; and they change in unpredictable ways from typeface to typeface, from lower case to UPPER CASE. There’s a lot of visual complexity and chaos. Imagine trying to memorize many hundreds of these so-called sight-words on sight. This project is nearly impossible. The progressives’ Reading War was actually a reading scam.

Phonics, by proceeding one simple step at a time, enables all children to read, typically by the end of first grade.

via How The Reading War Became A Religious War : Veracity Voice.

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