The Reading Wars are over.
While most of us were lost in the chaos of the pandemic, the political circus of the last five years, and the endings and beginnings of real wars around the world, a victor in the long and often bitter Reading Wars emerged cloaked in the mantle of science – the Science of Reading to be precise.
More than a simple synthesis of educational research, the Science of Reading draws upon the harder of the soft sciences as well – developmental psychology, cognitive science, and cognitive neuroscience. Ah, science. Who among those of us toiling in the muck of educational psychology and measurement has not looked upon real science with lust in our hearts.
But I have to wonder whether the victory those fine folks have achieved will prove to be Pyrrhic, or perhaps a case of too little, too late. Phonemic awareness, yes. Awareness of what has been taking place with regard to the role of reading in the real world, perhaps not.
As I sit here composing text for you to read, I ask myself whether Reading has passed its peak, like the once colorful, now browning, leaves that litter my yard. While we were busy arguing the merits of phonics and whole language, did we miss the multiple cues that the world around us was changing?
Is it possible that we are already living in a post-Reading world?
As we reimagine education, isn’t it incumbent upon us to start from the very foundation of the curriculum – Reading. Isn’t it our duty to ask whether we are devoting too many of our precious resources to teaching a skill and trying to engage students in an activity that is no longer as important or relevant as it once might have been?
After all, if Lea Michele can achieve so much without being able to read how important can it be?
At the very least, it’s healthy to put all of our long-held beliefs to the test from time to time, even if in the end our self-reflection only serves to reinforce those beliefs.
Friends, Romans, countrymen
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
Many of us remember that speech by Mark Antony as our first exposure to Shakespeare. We read Julius Caesar. We memorized the speech. In my English class, I vividly recall, we had to write the speech from memory and were graded heavily on punctuation. (We probably also discussed the meaning of the words at some point.)
Julius Caesar was joined by The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet. And we read Our Town, The Glass Menagerie, Long Day’s Journey into Night, A Streetcar Named Desire, Pygmalion, The Cherry Orchard, Death of a Salesman, etc.
All plays. All works created to be performed, seen, heard, and experienced – not read. Yes, I know there is hot debate about that point in some circles, but the thing is a play and the play’s the thing.
Why did we read those plays?
Did we read those plays because that was the best (perhaps only) way to share them with us at the time? Sure, the teacher could roll a projector into the room and show us a movie version of the Romeo and Juliet over a couple of class periods (and she did), but we couldn’t take the film home at night to rewatch, review, and study, unlike our little paperback versions of the plays.
But now you can. I can go online and find streaming theatrical versions of virtually any play a teacher might want to assign. I can watch and rewatch scenes on my phone or tablet.
If we were starting from scratch today, would we ask students to read Julius Caesar and the rest; or would we ask students to watch, listen, and experience them. Why? What is our goal? What are our claims?
There has been remarkable literature written over the course of the past six centuries. As individuals and as a society, we would be far worse off if those works didn’t exist, and we hadn’t been exposed to them. But, if alive today, how many of those remarkable authors, poets, and playwrights would choose a different medium to express themselves?
We and our works of art are products of our time.
Communication has changed
The way that we communicate has changed, has always changed, and will always change.
There was a time before reading.
Why would we assume that there won’t be a time after reading? Or at least a time when reading occupies a much more diminished role in society and in our lives. Perhaps that time has already arrived.
Reading and writing served a purpose – to preserve, to communicate, to teach.
The printing press made the written word the most efficient and effective method of communicating with the masses. Preserve, communicate, teach expanded to include entertain, inspire, manipulate.
Now we have TikTok, Instagram Reels, and Facebook Live for all of that.
We can listen to books.
We can dictate text messages into an app on our end that converts them to text before sending, and the person receiving the message may employ another app to convert that text to speech. (Or we can just send a voice message.)
The Maps app provides me with just about all of the information I need when driving both verbally and through well-timed beeps on my Apple Watch.
I love to preserve our family heritage by baking the treats that my mother, aunts, and grandmothers served on holidays and special occasions. And I love reading their handwritten recipes. But how much better the experience (and the cookies) would be if I could watch a video and come away with a better sense of what they meant by “enough flour” or “not too much anise” or “until it looks done”.
It’s not just my family recipes.
We turn to video for other recipes and just about everything else. When we need information about anything from learning how to play the Ukulele, to removing an object from a photo, identifying a rash, caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s, or preparing for heart surgery, there is a video on YouTube that shows us what to do or what to expect.
When I had to help my daughter assemble a bed purchased from IKEA, I’m not sure there was a single word in the entire instruction booklet.
There was a time when the world lived by the sage advice of long-forgotten Boston politician, Martin Lomasney:
“Don’t write when you can talk; don’t talk when you can nod your head.”
which has been expanded in various ways such as
“Never write if you can speak; never speak if you can nod; never nod if you can wink”.
Writing was permanent and could come back to bite you. Speaking, nodding, and winking were increasingly ephemeral. Now a sound bite, an open mic, an imprudent moment, or a grin, grimace, smirk, or wink at the wrong time captured on video can get you canceled in a heartbeat.
Don’t put something in an e-mail, text message, tweet, or blog post, of course, but what is more secure than passing (or showing) someone a note that can be read and readily destroyed.
Reading is Fundamental
Well, literacy is fundamental, and reading is a fundamental component of literacy.
Do I think that reading will continue to decline until it fades away completely? No.
Should we stop teaching children to read? Absolutely not.
Based on the Science of Reading and how children learn, there is no question that we should be doing even more with Reading and early childhood education.
But this post is more than simply an academic exercise.
While involved in the design of large-scale assessment programs, I spent countless hours watching passionate people argue about the appropriateness of the read-aloud (now text-to-speech) accommodation for students with disabilities or English language learners.
Is the construct decoding or is it comprehension and application?
Every year it that accommodation debate seems to include more groups of students and more alternatives to requiring students to read the written text.
Read to learn. But what if there are other ways to learn.
Read to engage. But what if there are more effective ways to engage students.
Even if reading retains its dominant spot in the curriculum, we know the teaching and learning of reading will look very different.
Different reading materials will be chosen as different authors, themes, and perhaps languages are privileged. Students will have greater agency over what they read.
There will be much less reliance of physical, paper-based books – if for no other reason than they are not good for the environment.
How different is digital reading? I have no doubt that we were only scratching the surface of issues related to reading on digital devices when we struggled with questions related to scrolling, screen size, font size, highlighting, etc. in designing computer-based reading tests.
To grow we must be open to critically evaluating what we do, why we do it, and how we do it. It is bad policy and practice to continue to do something simply because that’s the way we have always done it.
Times change and so must we. In the words of Paul,
When I was a little boy (when I was just a boy), and the devil would call my name, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. And in the end… with a little luck, we can make this whole damn thing work out.