California’s Reading Wars

California’s Reading Wars: A Short History Lesson

A short history lesson is in order here. Remember the Reading Wars here in California back in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s? Remember Marion Joseph and Bill Honig? Remember the claims that reading achievement test scores were evidence that California students weren’t getting enough phonics instruction and that explained their low test scores? And remember how the only identifiable variable that was statistically correlated with low reading test scores was students’ classification as English language learners? IOW, there was no statistical analysis to suggest that methods of reading instruction had a possible causal relationship with California’s students’ standardized reading achievement test scores other than English language proficiency. But who/what did Honig and Joseph blame for low test scores? Whole Language. See Lemann (1997).

Of course, Marion Joseph, much like Emily Hanford and the SoR Movement, blamed teacher educators for low reading achievement as well. That’s why we got the Reading Instruction Competency Assessment (RICA). Marion Joseph really believed that she was going to embarrass the CSU’s literacy faculty with the first round of test scores from RICA because, she predicted that most of our teacher candidates would fail the exam. Her low opinion of literacy professors would be vindicated. Therefore, she would be able to prohibit the teaching of the Whole Language approach in our Multiple Subjects Credential Programs, while simultaneously shutting down our UC and CSU bilingual credential programs with passage of Proposition 227. So Whole Language and Bilingual Education together were the boogie man of the English-only Movement.

Because of this history that we share as bilingual educators, we need to talk about the attack on Whole Language and its research base because a renewed attack on WL is at the core of the “disproven theory” straw man argument. History lesson is over. The SoR Movement needs a boogie man. Since it appeared to work before, the theoretical/research base of WL has taken on that role as a straw man/boogie man for their propaganda campaign. Later I’ll give an overview of why we bilingual educators understand and utilize the research base of what became known as Whole Language.

SoR advocates frame the problem in terms of reading achievement test scores. NAEP, PISA, state level achievement tests, etc. This is problematic because test scores measure comprehension at a particular grade level. Test scores don’t/can’t isolate a variable of poor or ineffective phonics instruction or lack of phonics instruction. Most of the studies’ methodology that SoR relies on are experimental studies of programs or instruction like in the National Reading Panel Report. Oftentimes, perhaps usually, these studies set up a Straw Man description of the characteristics of the “opposing” instructional approach.

Professor P. David Pearson (2004) predicted the challenges to the whole-language movement because of its focus on empowering teachers as decision makers over curriculum and instruction:

Politically, I predicted that its commitment to grassroots decision making—a commitment requiring that everything must be done to preserve as much power and prerogative for individual teachers (who must, in turn, offer genuine choices to individual students)—would doom it as a policy initiative. In an atmosphere in which accountability systems driven by externally mandated high-stakes tests lay just over the horizon, I wondered whether policy makers, or parents for that matter, would be willing to cede that level or prerogative to a profession that in terms of its capacity to deliver achievement, seemed to be asleep at the wheel. My overarching question was whether whole language could withstand the pressure of curricular leadership, with implicit responsibility for whatever trends in achievement ensued. My suspicion was that it was better situated as a guerilla-like movement that made occasional sorties into the policy world to snipe at those in curricular power.

Reading achievement test score data reporting data may not disaggregate the test population by student characteristics associated with lower levels of reading achievement on the basis of known risks of lower achievement for rational causal relationships that are non-instructional variables, like English language learners.


Lemann, N. (1997). The reading wars. The Atlantic Monthly, (November), 128-134.

Pearson, P. D. (2004). The Reading Wars. Educational Policy, 18(1), 216-252.