For decades, teachers, parents, academics, scientists, and curriculum developers have been engaged in a pitched battle over the best methods to implement effective, comprehensive and practical reading instruction. This controversy, dubbed the “reading wars,” has had lifelong consequences for a generation of students who have been hostages and unwitting casualties of the war. Experts believe that balanced literacy, whole-word reading, and cueing approaches are systemically unreliable and have led to a nationwide literacy crisis. In California, where education leaders continue using faulty methods, there are a staggering number of public school students who cannot read at grade level and may never be functionally literate for the rest of their lives.
Shockingly, less than half (47.1 percent) of all public school students in California met state grade-level English Language Arts (ELA) standards during the 2021-22 school year. Even as early as third grade, only 42.2 percent of students met ELA standards for their grade level. This is particularly concerning since research has long shown that students who lack reading proficiency by the end of third grade are likely to face long-term challenges, including behavioral issues, poor literacy in high school, and lower chances of obtaining college degrees.
The reading scores of Black and Hispanic students are even worse. Across grade levels last year, only 30.3 percent of Black students and 36.4 percent of Hispanic students in California met grade-level ELA standards.
Additionally, California’s fourth grade reading scores are tied with those of four other states (New York, Texas, Virginia, and Tennessee) for 32nd place in the nation, despite an education budget amounting to over $21,000 per student each year.
But this literacy catastrophe is nothing new in the Golden State. In 2017, struggling students sued the State of California for failing to teach its public school kids how to read. The students argued that California had violated their constitutional right to a free education. The state settled in 2020, and agreed to implement a $50 million block grant to address literacy in 75 of California’s poorest-performing schools. The grant will run out this December.
But the literacy crisis isn’t limited to California; it threatens the future success of countless students throughout the United States.
In 2017, education reporter Emily Hanford began investigating why reading scores were so poor in the United States. In 2022, Hanford released a groundbreaking, must-listen-to podcast: Sold a Story: How Teaching Kids to Read Went So Wrong, exposing the history of the literacy crisis. While many listeners were shocked at what they learned, others said they’d been trying to sound alarm bells for years about flawed reading instruction.
A case in point: California parent Kenni Alden told Hanford that her son was a struggling reader at 12 years old.
“He omits words. He adds words. He’ll substitute a word…and just cruise right on,” Alden explained.
Alden’s son had learned bad reading habits in his public school — habits very difficult to break. Instead of looking at the letters to read the words, he is stuck in a guessing game because he doesn’t have the skills to decode what the actual words are. Alden considered sending her son to a different school in their hometown of Berkeley, but she soon discovered that all the schools in their area taught the same reading methods.
Why can’t kids read what the words say? Why are they having to guess? It’s the disastrous result of reading approaches called whole word, whole language, and cueing. In the 1980s, California implemented reading instruction methods based on these flawed theories advanced by Horace Mann, Kenneth Goodman, and Marie Clay.
The History of Whole Word, Whole Language, and Cueing
Horace Mann was an American politician in the 1830s and ‘40s, called the “father of American education” due to his advocacy for free education in the United States. Education expert Dale Chu writes that Mann described letters as “skeleton-shaped, bloodless, ghostly apparitions.” He perceived phonics as boring, and advocated for a reading approach called whole word: children should learn to read by looking at whole words as units, instead of decoding those words by reading the letters. He thought this would make reading more interesting for students, but this means a student has to memorize a word in order to read it in the future.
There’s a major problem with whole word reading. In English, words are made of phonemes — units of sound that convey meaning — and are represented with letters. This is why it’s important to teach children phonics: so they understand the relationship between sounds and letters. Learning to decode words by “sounding out” the letters does not come naturally, like learning to speak comes naturally for most children. We know this from the “science of reading,” the decades-old cognitive science of how we learn to read. But phonics instruction was the accepted strategy for reading instruction long before then; the 1690 New England Primer, for instance, was phonics based. It wasn’t until “reformers” like Horance Mann that phonics was replaced with unproven methods.
Mann’s misguided opinion, which dismissed letters and phonics, was the precursor to the whole language theory, which assumed children are natural readers who easily acquire reading skills. Whole language theory emphasizes that children should focus on the meaning of a whole sentence or story, rather than the meaning of individual words. With the whole language approach, like the whole word approach, phonics takes a back seat.
American education professor Kenneth Goodman and New Zealand teacher Marie Clay were influential figures who advanced whole language reading, and rejected the importance of relying on letters. In 1967, Goodman wrote a paper titled, “Reading: A Psycholinguistic Guessing Game.” Remember the guessing strategies Kenni Aldren’s son was (unsuccessfully) relying on? Those guessing strategies are an outworking of whole language reading.
In the paper, Goodman criticizes the “preoccupation” with “precise letter identification.” He wrote that when he observed a child misread the word ‘your’ as ‘the,” it didn’t affect the meaning of the passage, so “there is no reason to reject and correct it.” In other words, he dismissed the importance of accuracy.
Goodman believed that when learning to read, a student should use “cues.” Cues are clues that a reader can use to surmise what a word might be. While the letters in the word might be one cue, the context and structure of the sentence are other cues, along with illustrations.
Also in the 1960s, teacher Marie Clay promoted a reading method that used cues, arguing that phonics is not a primary skill required for reading. By the 1980s, Clay’s program, called Reading Recovery, was being implemented throughout America. In line with whole language theory, Clay’s reading program directed students to use cues to get the meaning of a story — rather than phonics to read the actual words.
The Impact in California
Hanford explains in Sold a Story that under state Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig, “reading scores tanked” in California during the 1980s after the state “had gone all-in” on the whole language approach. In 1996, Honig was questioned by California lawmakers, and admitted that whole language is “not a good strategy to teach kids. It’s a second-rate strategy that will mean that they’re slow readers for the rest of their life.”
Honig was right. By the mid-1990s, there was a wealth of evidence that whole word and whole language methods, which rely on cueing, don’t align with how the human brain learns to read. So, in the 1990s and 2000s, California funded teacher training and pro-phonics textbooks aligned with the research that shows kids need explicit phonics instruction. The California Commission on Teacher Credentialing also developed the Reading Instruction Competence Assessment (RICA), a test to measure an educator’s ability to teach evidence-based reading practices.
Phonics instruction prevailed in California by the early 2000s, but its success was short-lived. Some educators, who felt that phonics instruction was too rigid and boring, pushed back against phonics and advocated for a return to whole language. This led to the push for balanced literacy, which began in California and blends (or is supposed to blend) phonics with cueing and whole language.
Balanced literacy wasn’t the solution its proponents claimed it would be. Sabrina Causey, a first grade teacher in Oakland Unified who used a balanced literacy curriculum, told EdSource in 2022 that the lessons “didn’t make sense.” She said her students “didn’t know letters or sounds. These kids had no basic skills. So [she] had one kid who could read that year” with a balanced literacy curriculum. Only one.
The impact of balanced literacy in California schools was devastating on an incalculable scale. Austin Beutner, former superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District, says, “A generation of kids got sold down the river,” having “no grounding in the fundamentals of phonics.” He continued, “Less than half the kids can read… How can we find that acceptable?”
Balanced Literacy Takes Hold in California
During the 2000s and 2010s, problematic balanced literacy curricula were being adopted throughout the nation, including in California. These include Units of Study by Lucy Calkins, and Leveled Literacy Intervention by Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell.
Education professor Lucy Calkins developed her Units of Study curriculum with a balanced literacy approach. It’s estimated that tens of millions of American students were taught to read with her program. Hanford reports that schools in Palo Alto, California contracted with Lucy Calkins’ company for more than a million dollars from 2013 to 2021.
Critics said the phonics component of Calkins’ curriculum wasn’t adequate. As the evidence mounted, Lucy Calkins admitted last year that cueing strategies taught in her curriculum were misguided. “All of us are imperfect,” she said, adding that “what I’ve learned from the science of reading work has been transformational.”
Despite Calkins’ recent shift to a more phonics-centered program, she’s lost the trust of many educators. The New York Times reports that school districts nationwide are dropping her curriculum. Palo Alto school board trustee Todd Collins told Sold a Story that his district is replacing Calkins’ curriculum because “there’s a trust issue there.”
The Leveled Literacy Intervention curriculum also uses cueing strategies. Sara Parker, a sales rep in northern California for Heinemann (the publisher of Units of Study and Leveled Literacy Intervention) said that school districts were clamoring for Leveled Literacy Intervention. She “never” had to work hard to convince districts to buy the curricula; they were coming to her, eager to get these reading programs.
But literacy coach Margaret Goldberg, hired by Oakland Unified School District as a teacher in 2015, describes her experience using Leveled Literacy Intervention as disheartening. She observed a first grade student say a sentence completely different from the words on the page. He was relying on the pictures since he could not decode the words. But he “breezed right through it, unaware that he hadn’t read the sentence on the page.” Goldberg realized that “lots” of students were in the same boat with that curriculum. She then switched to a phonics-based curriculum called Systematic Instruction in Phonological Awareness, Phonics, and Sight Words. The result? Goldberg’s students learned how to sound out the words and became proficient readers.
Goldberg still feels guilty about using the Leveled Literacy Intervention curriculum in Oakland Unified. “I did lasting damage to these kids,” she said. “It was so hard to ever get them to stop looking at a picture to guess what a word would be.” Leveled Literacy Intervention authors Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell maintain that cueing is a reliable strategy, though they now also offer a phonics and spelling curriculum.
Empowering California Parents
While some phonics advocates say local school districts should make decisions about reading instruction and curriculum, others say the Dept. of Education ought to work to reverse the damage the state caused by implementing whole language and balanced literacy decades ago and actively promote phonics.
In Fall 2022, EdSource — a California nonprofit that publishes education news and research — wrote that “despite the literacy crisis, California has yet to embrace a comprehensive strategy that will get all students statewide reading by third grade.” While California might not have a comprehensive literacy strategy, the state has taken some steps in recent years.
In 2015, California adopted a list of pre-approved reading curricula. Districts may choose a curriculum directly from this list, or opt for an alternative that conforms to state-adopted standards. Alternative curricula must also undergo a public review process where the district assembles a panel of educators, parents, and administrators to evaluate the material. The California Reading Coalition, which advocates for explicit phonics instruction, says that many curricula aligned with the science of reading did not exist in 2015 when the state’s list was made, and that the most-used curricula on the list demonstrate “no strong relationship” with student achievement. In an analysis of California’s 331 largest school districts, the Coalition found that only five of those districts use curriculum they identify as aligned with the science of reading.
Last year, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said he would reconvene a Task Force on Early Literacy amidst criticism that the state has not done enough to develop a cohesive, statewide plan to address the literacy crisis. He also announced the state would spend $250 million to place literacy coaches in high-needs schools and the creation of a new statewide literacy director position at the California Department of Education.
In 2021, the California legislature passed a bill (SB 488, Rubio) that requires teacher preparation programs to adhere to new standards of “phonological awareness, phonics and word recognition” by 2024. The plan mandated by the bill will replace the aforementioned Reading Instruction Competence Assessment (or RICA, required to become a credentialed teacher) with a framework that more strongly emphasizes the science of reading by 2025.
Some school districts within California have been taking their own steps to address the literacy crisis. The California Reading Coalition says Oakland Unified and Mount Pleasant Elementary school districts have adopted a science-of-reading-aligned curriculum called EL Education. Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Alberto Carvalho has also expressed support for the science of reading, emphasizing the importance of teacher training.
The National Council on Teacher Quality reports that more than 90 percent of all students could learn to read if they had access to teachers who employed scientifically- based reading instruction. California has no time to waste.
What Parents Can Do
If you do not know what reading curriculum is used in your child’s classroom, ask your child’s teacher. If you experience resistance, you have the right to file a Public Records Act request to discover what curriculum your public school utilizes. School districts are government entities and must abide by public records laws. You can learn how to file a public records request here.
If your school district uses a whole language curriculum, has poor reading performance, and/or isn’t transparent about what materials are used in the classroom, you can bring your concerns before your local school board during the public comment period of a regularly scheduled board meeting.
Parents in California can monitor annual ELA (English Language Arts) scores in their district and their child’s school using the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) portal.
Ultimately, and perhaps most importantly, do not leave your child’s reading instruction completely up to a school. While California is constitutionally obligated to provide a free education to each child, parents must hold schools accountable and advocate for their children. Observe your child’s reading habits and strategies. Red flags that indicate your child is a struggling reader include adding, skipping, or replacing words, and refusing to read a book aloud unless it’s been read aloud several times already. Concerned parents can also have their child screened to rule out dyslexia or impaired vision.
Getting a struggling reader on the right track can be challenging, but you can be your child’s best advocate by getting involved in your local school district. Most of all, do not wait on the state. Take steps at home to build your child’s understanding of tried-and-true phonics reading strategies and spend time reading with your child at home.