In Britain, ‘progressive’ and ‘child-centred’ education was advocated by the Plowden report, completed in 1966 and in tune with its liberal and optimistic times. Governments and local education authorities of all political shades implemented Plowden and embraced its ethos. The pendulum swung, however, as they do. By 1996 Chris Woodhead, Head of OFSTED under Conservative and Labour governments, was declaring, approvingly, ‘the burial of a concept of education that says … that the innate potential of every child has to be unlocked … [and] that that is what education is about’ (BBC Panorama 3/6/96). The period of ‘back to basics’ was in full swing.
Every now and then literacy, at least in schools and at least for a time, makes the headlines. For a while heated arguments rage. The media go into overdrive. Tabloid newspaper editors find shock-horror schools to run flamboyant stories about. Hard-won scientific insights are mangled. Misquotes multiply. Teaching is widely held up to ridicule as a blind and random mix of political correctness, sedition, indolence and ignorance. Everyone airs their expert opinion; after all, everyone has been into a school at least once and we all know that ‘those who can, do, those who can't, teach’. Politicians react to the uproar by loudly taking up grandiose and synthetically radical positions hedged about with get-out clauses, and by having their photograph taken among smiling schoolchildren. The most recent research is heralded as the answer to everything and applied by diktat in every classroom. Tentative and subtle conclusions are reduced to sound bites, theories become dogma, black and white become the new grey.
Literacy has a peculiarly prominent place in western social mythology. It is seen as a magical, infallible source of wisdom and wealth, a solution to most, if not all, social problems. Few causes arouse as much passion as the seeking out, and then the dramatic remediation, of ‘falling standards’. Literacy ‘…has been seen as ever more central to the salvation or advancement of man and society.’ (Vincent 1989 p.2). For something so ‘central to salvation’ it is striking that literacy is seldom defined when breasts are being beaten about its decline, nor is it always material to the breast-beaters whether a decline is, in fact, taking place at all. The sound of axes being ground, or prejudices stirred, is often plainly discernible. Arguments as to remediation are antique; methods now hotly promoted or despised were just as warmly debated in the nineteenth century as they are now. (Graff 1991, Soltow and Stevens 1981, Vincent 1989 and 2000) In the words of the Bullock report ‘… the main arguments of how reading should be taught have been repeated over and over again as the decades pass, but the problems remain.’ (Dept. of Education and Science 1975).
Rational discussion is hampered by the fact that everyone regards themselves, and any and everybody else, as absolutely expert in the field of education. The man on the Clapham omnibus, in the belief that he remembers his own well, feels he understands it perfectly. The status of the educational professional is correspondingly small, and public discussion frequently overheats. The duty to seek, evaluate and then respect evidence is widely overlooked, sometimes wilfully. As Pumfrey comments (1992 p.3) ‘The possibility that reading standards might be falling resulted in a severe decline in the standard of public discussion of the issue’. Half a statistic and a sound bite are all it may take to precipitate an outbreak of churning national concern, with the inevitable demand that ‘something must be done!’ Sometimes, and not always happily, it is.
The debate, known as the reading wars, (eg Coles 2000, Frank Smith 2004, Stanovich 2000) is presently hottest in the USA. It is primarily (began as) a debate between the proponents of highly regulated, imposed phonics teaching as the royal route to reading and those who favour a more visual and holistic approach more embedded in language experience - the ‘real books’ and ‘whole language’ approaches for example (Holdaway 1979, Stauffer 1970). Those who favour phonics regard the opposite camp as utopian romantics and are themselves regarded, in return, as authoritarian reductionists. Each side in the debate seems utterly to despise the views of the other side. We will look at it mainly from the British perspective in the 1990s, the period when the battle last raged most fiercely here. A headline from the Guardian newspaper of March 8th 1991 reads as follows: