Three Important Things the “Reading Wars” (Tend to) Ignore

Three Important Things the “Reading Wars” (Tend to) Ignore

post by Shawna Coppola, 2019-2020 The Educator Collaborative Fellow

Three Important Things the “Reading Wars” (Tend to) Ignore

The “reading wars,” much like the manufactured narratives around the so-called “reading crisis,” have been going on for centuries (remember Horace Mann?) in one iteration or another. No wonder I feel an ever-deepening sense of fatigue each time I see the dreaded phrase being invoked in the media, including on social:

From The Washington Post: “Read all about it: The ‘reading wars’ are back in America’s education salons” (1/31/20). 

From Education Week: “What the New Reading Wars Get Wrong” (9/11/19). 

From Stanford’s Graduate School of Education: “The Reading Wars, Explained” (5/13/19).

I’ll spare you (and me) the burden of rehashing them here, in this post; in the unlikely event that you don’t know what I’m referring to by the phrase “reading wars,” go ahead and take a few minutes to peruse any of the texts mentioned above and I’ll catch you on the flip side. ENJOY.


[elevator music plays]




I am in no way denying that:

1) an assessment “gap” persists between children who are deemed “proficient” readers and those who are not–although how this gap is identified and/or named is dependent on a wide variety of factors;

2) teacher preparation programs, on the whole, do not do enough to teach educators the varied ways that children of varying cultures** learn to read; and

3) we (collectively) must find ways to sustainably support teachers as we continue to develop our own literacy around this topic.


However, there is so much more to the conversation that, despite many folx’ efforts, is being ignored out of–well, I don’t exactly know. Disinterest? Self-Interest? Ignorance? Ethnocentrism? Regardless of the reason(s), the following are aspects of the conversation on reading, literacy, and “science” that I desperately wish we ignored less. Perhaps this post will spark a more nuanced and honest conversation–if we open ourselves to it. I’ll refrain from holding my breath.


Standardized assessments of literacy–specifically those that deem some individuals “proficient” or “literate” and others “deficient” or “illiterate”–are situated within a complicated history of literacy assessment that has traditionally worked to disenfranchise particular groups of individuals (specifically, Black, brown, and Indigenous folx).

Remember the voter literacy tests of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana (among others)? What about those that were implemented as part of the Immigration Act of 1917? While most people would look at me sideways if I were to draw a direct line between those literacy tests and the ones that we impose on hundreds of thousands of U.S. schoolchildren each year, we cannot in good conscience separate the history of literacy assessments–and what they were used for–from the so-called “objective” literacy assessments of today that continue to perpetuate gaps–or what Gloria Ladson-Billings more accurately calls the education debt–between the reading “achievement” of white children and that of Indigenous, Black, and brown children. To do so would be disingenuous at best–and downright malicious at worst. 

Notions of what it means to be “literate” in the United States are steeped in white supremacist ideologies.

At the last school in which I worked for seven years as a literacy specialist, my colleagues and I posed a question that became one of the six broad literacy competencies we committed to helping our K-6 students master (or at least explore): What are the many ways in which we [collectively] define ‘literacy’ or what it means to be ‘literate’? Several years later, I find myself indebted to Dr. Ladson-Billings, Dr. Asao B. Inoue, and Dr. Catherine Prendergast, among others, for their work in helping me articulate the ways in which most notions of what it means to be “literate” in the United States–including what it means to “read” or to be a “reader”–are (despite declarations of “settled science” regarding how to teach individuals to read) based on what Dr. Inoue calls “White language supremacy.” In his book Labor-Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom (2019), he argues that “if [we] use a single standard to grade students’ language performances, [we] are directly contributing to the racist status quo in schools and society” (9). While Dr. Inoue was specifically referring to dominant classroom-based grading practices of student writing, what do assessments like the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) do–which are most often cited in “reading war” conversations as proof that America’s children “can’t read”–but base a reader’s “proficiency” on a single set of standards? (HOMEWORK ASSIGNMENT: check out the diagram below that illustrates how the NAEP achievement levels are determined, then spend some time researching the folx who have historically served on the governing board. What do you notice?)

Ensuring that all individuals learn to read is not a panacea for society’s ills & inequities.

Many well-intentioned folx have pointed out the alarming number of those who are incarcerated in the United States who struggle to read or who fit the profile of dyslexia. So, too, has the co-opted discourse around the school-to-prison pipeline been invoked when reading wars conversations fire up. (Here is an excellent resource from Teaching Tolerance that explains what is really meant by the school-to-prison pipeline.) And while of course it is imperative that educators put forth great effort in helping to ensure that all children are successful and engaged readers (the definition of which is culturally determined, of course), dramatic proclamations like this miss the broader issue: 

What if I told you we have it in our power to do the one thing that would put prisons out of business, stop kids from falling into a life of crime, and dramatically reduce the number of people on welfare? Teach kids to read. ALL kids.

–from “Can’t Read? Go Directly to Jail. Do Not Pass Go” by Judy Shantilli Peckham

Not only is this statement, and many others like it, blatantly misleading; it ignores the comprehensive approach that we, as a society, must take when working toward a safer, more inclusive, more equitable world for all–which includes, but is not limited to, ensuring everyone a living wage; ensuring access to affordable, quality health care, housing, and child care; funding access to clean water; etc. While I don’t blame those who have a financial or social stake in the reading wars for focusing narrowly on literacy, I…never mind. I do blame them (or rather, us, as I was complicit in this up until a few years ago). We cannot continue to equate “everyone learning to read” with an equitable school system or an equitable society. We just can’t.

So, please. For the sake of my sanity and the hope that we might someday put our collective heads together, stop bickering in the name of self-interest, and focus on what we can do to make reading and literacy education in general more culturally sustaining, more dynamic, and more student-responsive, do not ever, ever let a conversation around the “reading wars” continue without attending to–or at the very least acknowledging–these three very important points. 

Thanks in advance.

**What do I mean by this? Well…there seems to be a scientific consensus around how the human brain learns to read. However, learning to read involves a neural “convergence” of speech and orthographic processing systems. Because language acquisition varies among cultures, it stands to reason that culture also plays a role in what “effective instructional practice” around teaching individuals to read might look like.