How to Avoid the Reading War (and engage in real dialogue about practice)


Since last week, we have been completing our reading program evaluation, an annual requirement of our Schoolwide Title I funding.

After organizing current assessment results and resources, the template we are using asks the following:

How do your current literacy practices compare to research and evidence-based practices?

“Evidence-based practices?” My initial response: It depends on who you ask. Education is in the midst of another heated reading discussion, primarily online. As I alluded to yesterday, some educators seem to be thriving on this discord. It appears to be happening on both “sides” of the debate.

Taking sides is not helpful when trying to develop a better understanding of what our students need now regarding reading instruction. It’s why I have come back to the resource Writing to Persuade by Trish Hall (Liveright, 2019).

Hall was the editor for The New York Times op-ed page. She offers wisdom for engaging in dialogue about complex issues, such as demonstrating we are listening to others while still making our point. The following are three strategies Hall offers that I find helpful when trying to discuss these issues online, in writing or in-person.

Know your audience.

This primarily involves active listening. “Initially you might see the need to listen as merely a tactic. But you will soon find that the more you listen, the more genuinely curious you will become” (p. 67). Hall goes on to explain that this may be why people spend so much time on social media: “They want to be heard”.

Active listening involves paraphrasing what the other person is saying or writing, posing questions to clarify what someone says, and pausing to allow time to think and process (three top skills that coaches use when working with clients). Allowing others to explain their positions creates a shared understanding among two or more people.

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

― Dr. Stephen Covey

As an example, tomorrow I take off for the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention. One of my teachers encouraged me to attend a specific session that attempts to address the phonics debate. If I do attend, I am sure I will interact with others who will find their beliefs aligned with the “science of reading” philosophy. Yet I can listen by summarizing their comments and asking thoughtful questions instead of trying to win a debate. I am there to learn, not argue.

Find common ground.

This does not mean coming to agreement on a key issue. Instead, finding common ground involves bringing someone with an opposing position to a shared third space on one topic in which we both see eye-to-eye. It’s a starting point for future dialogue.

As Hall notes, “it is worth imagining what the audience likely believes and considers true, so you can start on the same ground…Your beliefs tell me what group you belong to. If you belong to my group, I am more likely to listen to you” (p. 76). So if our intent is to listen and potentially persuade others to our position, it helps to first locate a relevant point of agreement.

One session I will not be attending is Tim Shanahan’s (I am presenting at the same time). His thinking does not often comport with mine. Yet if I did attend his talk and we had the opportunity to discuss reading instruction, I believe we share a common philosophy regarding guided reading. It would likely be there where we start a conversation that might lead to other topics.

Employ empathy.

Why are some educators and parents so concerned about phonics and dyslexia? In my experience, it is because they know or have a child who either needs or should have been provided support in this area (or, at the least, this is their perception).

Empathizing with their reality shows we care and that we are listening, which breaks down walls. Like the previous suggestion, a shared concern is created that is genuine and reasonable. We can then build off of this point to explain why our approach addresses the needs expressed in a more mutually agreeable way.

For instance, I’ve had parents ask why me we are not teaching a specific phonics program in our schools. My response has been, with varied levels of eloquence, that we also believe phonemic awareness is important for young learners and that we do include this element within literacy instruction at the primary level. In addition to acknowledging their concerns, I have also created a position that is hard to disagree with; that phonics is taught in our school. We can discuss the finer points, but were are no longer at odds about the larger issue.

To be frank, I do admit to my own rising feelings of tribalism when someone questions our work. Yet where would an argument end up? No one wins. I’d rather listen.

“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.”

― Ernest Hemingway

We could employ all of these strategies and more, and yet if someone is not willing to engage in real dialogue either online or in person, it doesn’t matter what we do. They are seeking to only debate, not discuss. I suggest spending your time elsewhere.

How do we know we have a person like this in our midst?

  • They rarely if ever concede someone else’s point.

  • They don’t respond to others; they react without really listening to anyone.

  • They are constantly rallying against a side.

  • They are unable to acknowledge any flaws in their own position.

For the rest of us, it’s important that we have these conversations about instruction. It’s where our thinking and writing and dialogue should be - around practice and building a better understanding of what it means to teach readers and reading.