The standard of debate was embarrassingly poor on two counts. Weak evidence was treated as if it were robust and important inferences, supported as much by prejudice than real evidence, were very publicly and assertively drawn. Nowhere among the evidence was there any data indicating causation. It was, as a result, conveniently possible, albeit improper, to attribute the purported decline in standards entirely to the perversity of the teaching profession, ‘progressive’ teaching and the newly coined ‘educational establishment’. It was reassuringly possible, and politically expedient, to avert the gaze from the abundant, and excellent, evidence we have had for years showing clearly that literacy performance correlates rather poorly with school factors but very well with social class and social advantage measures. (Bynner and Steedman 1995, Lake 1992, Parsons and Bynner 1998, Pumfrey 1992, Reid 1998, Statham, Mackinnon and Cathcart 1989.)
The whole debate was a fine illustration of the power of ignorance to generate hot air. Policy changes were made, and implemented, powered entirely by this hot air. Chalk-and-talk, drill-based, traditional teaching methods, especially the teaching of literacy through phonics, were enforced in classrooms from the early 1990s. To call a teacher ‘progressive’ became an insult.
The lurid colours of argument have become more pastel now, and the knives are wielded less ferociously, at least as this is being written and at least in Britain, and the public no longer concerns itself much with the debate. The ‘real books, whole language’ army is scattered and demoralised and the field of battle empty apart from the occasional band of bloodied fighters most concerned with survival and minor acts of subversion. Phonics is in the ascendancy and the battle, a pallid shadow of its former virulence, continues mainly among phonics aficionados who espouse either analytic or synthetic versions of phonic attack. A malign side effect of the virulence of the debate and the inability of politicians to resist bandwagons has been and is the central imposition of prescriptive methodology and curriculum in schools, an authoritarian governance of the teaching profession. Teachers, particularly inexperienced teachers, have been disempowered as a result (e.g. Vivienne Smith 2004).
The reading wars proper may be in abeyance in Britain, but they recently erupted again, across the Atlantic. In the fall 2000 edition of Reading Today (the newspaper of the International Reading Association) it is felt urgently desirable to mount a defence of non-phonic teaching methods. A leading article deems it necessary to publish extracts from the American National Reading Panel’s report on the teaching of reading in schools in the USA which point up the shortcomings of phonics-only approaches, as apparently presently being pushed by ‘… the 'phonics good, whole language bad crowd’ …’ ( ibid. p.10) (Prompting an educational advisor to California State to say of the International Reading Association ‘Why don’t they go someplace else?’ Coles 2000 p. xiv.). They quote the scientifically prestigious National Reading Panel as saying that
‘Phonemic awareness training does not constitute a complete reading programme … there is a need to be cautious in giving a blanket endorsement to all kinds of phonic instruction … there may be a tendency … to allow phonics to become dominant, not only in the time devoted to it but also in the significance attached.’ (ibid. p. 10)
Newspaper editorials across the US thunder with forthright and absolute assertions such as ‘…phonics and phonemic awareness are the only key elements in early reading instruction – the cure-all to all reading problems.’ (The Indianapolis Star was the organ quoted in this instance, a fierce editorial written during the annual conference of the International Reading Association held in that city in 2000.) As in Britain, governmental decree has been invoked to enforce particular approaches, with heavy emphasis on phonics as core methodology. Sometimes teaching is prescribed in very considerable detail, even to the extent of enforcing centrally scripted lessons and assessment regimes (for example under NCLB and its sequelae including DIBELS). In some schools, management monitors in soft shoes drift creepily among the corridors applying their ears to classroom doors to enforce precisely exact adherence to lesson scripts by the appalled teachers within (personal communications throughout 2006 & 2007).
Let us look at this debate, or war, dispassionately: