Five kids getting onto the school bus in the morning

As of 2022 or so, it became evident that many state legislators were making a serious and increasingly successful effort to require public schools in their states to teach phonics in elementary school. This marked another shift in the century-old reading war between the phonics movement and the whole language movement. The whole language movement made serious inroads during the first two decades of the 21st century, until the Covid-inspired Zoom meetings exposed its teaching strategies to parents everywhere. Aghast at what they were seeing in many schools, parent organized and legislators listened.

English is a Phonetic Language

During those ubiquitous Zoom meetings, parents discovered that their children in many schools were being taught to read by using strategies that ignored the phonics structure of most words. Put simply, they were not being taught phonics. Granted, the English phonics structure is messy, but that structure is still there. Being messy just means that additional attention needs to go into curriculum design, not ignoring it altogether.

So why did it happen? Why were whole language advocates able to install reading curricula that ignored the obvious phonics structure inherent in nearly every English word, and then get it adopted by the vast majority of American school districts? Why did they again get the upper hand in the ongoing reading war between phonics and whole language advocates?

Why were whole language advocates able to install reading curricula that ignored the obvious phonics structure inherent in nearly every English word

Well, Because Dyslexia, That's Why

It's an acknowledged fact that between ten and twenty percent of young children struggle to learn to read. And they will struggle even when taught using a good phonics program. The better the phonics curriculum, the more they will learn, but they will still struggle with the act of reading.

These children are the ones that we generally tack the "dyslexia" label onto. But beyond meaning "doesn't get reading," the label gets fuzzy. Over the years, researchers decided that there was a problem in the auditory realm, that dyslexic kids couldn't process sounds like good readers could. This resulted in some kids being called auditory learners (the good readers) and others visual learners (the kids considered dyslexic.)

Phonics Instruction Is Auditory Learning--It's All About Sounds

But if the struggling readers weren't auditory learners, then logically phonics instruction would come hard for them since it's all about relating sounds to letters. And, in fact, this is true. Some kids do struggle with phonics instruction. And that's exactly why whole language curricula thrive. The auditory learners supposedly figure out the relationship between letters and sounds (phonics) on their own, just by reading a lot. But supposedly the visual learners, they need something else; they need to be shown strategies for learning words. Not phonics, but strategies.

Supposedly the visual learners, they need something else; they need to be shown strategies for learning words. Not phonics, but strategies.

And this is what parents of first and second graders witnessed in those Zoom sessions, the application of three strategies for figuring out a word. Guess what word would make sense here. Guess the word from the picture (hence lots and lots of pictures in their books.) And look at the first letter or two of the word and how long it is and, yes, then guess the word. With those three strategies being taught to the majority of young readers, is it any wonder that we now have high schools with struggling readers whose main strategy for figuring out a long word like circumference is to take a shot at guessing it?

But They're Not Visual Learners, Quite the Opposite

In my experience working with nearly two hundred struggling readers over a decade, a large percentage of them, perhaps well over 50%, have trouble learning to read because their visual skills are not well developed. And until those visual skills, especially convergence ability but others also, are addressed, they will continue to struggle.

Fortunately they can be addressed, with vision therapy. I personally witnessed this over and over. Kids who just couldn't "get" phonics became easy to teach following a few months of vision therapy. They were anything but visual learners before. Instead their vision skill sets had failed to develop sufficiently to enable them to make sense of print.

Fortunately deficient vision skills can be addressed with vision therapy. I personally witnessed this over and over

Where We Now Stand in the Reading Wars

Phonics instruction is again ascendent. Legislators, pressed by parents informed by those Zoom classrooms, are taking action in state after state to ensure that phonics instruction returns to the classroom. But will it? And the better question, will it stay there?

The answer is that it probably will return, for a time anyway. But that same ten to twenty percent whose vision skills are poorly developed will continue to resist phonics instruction, or at least will continue to resist reading generally even if they do absorb much of the phonics instruction.

And teachers and curriculum designers will point to that group and convince those same legislators that phonics isn't working, that kids are still failing to learn to read. And the cycle will continue as before, unless we take notice of deficient vision skills and make vision therapy available to the kids who desperately need it if they are to ever become readers.