The Readings Wars: To Teach or Not?

It’s a long held belief that children be taught to read in school. It’s an essential tool throughout life and to be left unequipped would be detrimental to an extreme degree. As you will know, there are thousands of books dedicated to teaching children; there also are games, computer programs; any number of new ways to teach them this understandably difficult skill. There is even a notion that in the future there will be individual instruction, a unique way of teaching an individual student based on an MRI of their brain creating a method perfectly suited to their unique characteristics and needs.

However the best way of teaching kids to read is a hotly-debated subject with a rather large underpinning of scientific studies and ongoing research. There are two main groups within this argument that have opposing views and are generally regarded as being in the ‘Reading wars.’ These are the ‘Phonics’ and the ‘Whole Language’ groups.


Let’s bring a little more clarity to this. The ‘Phonics’ believe the best way to teach children is with an emphasis on the alphabet: to teach each letter and the sound of each letter, then to move onto the sounds of two letters together, then three and so on until the students can form words and pronounce new words from their understanding of each letter used. On the opposite side of the equation we have ‘Whole Language,’ whose belief it is that the teaching process revolve around literature and text comprehension, using critical thinking strategies and context to “guess” words they don’t know.

This debate has swung in favor of the ‘Phonics’ in recent years due to a number of studies that show their form of learning as the more productive method, however there may be a new method entering the fray, one which most people would not have expected: to not teach children how to read at all.

So what of this “let’s not teach them a thing!” method of (not) teaching? At first it seems crazy, yes even I was skeptical, but there are people out there that adhere to the “unschooling” or “non-school” approach; the theory stands upon the notion that children can teach themselves and often do, that provided they live and grow up in a society that reads and promotes reading, they will eventually gain the skills themselves. This system allows the child to do things their way, to learn in their own style, and to their own schedule; also, we all know that trying to push something onto — not just children — but people of all ages, often results in a less than enthusiastic response.



There was a study conducted at Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts, US, in which students were allowed to learn to read by themselves. The results were mixed as there were some students that learnt very early, yet there were several others that took a lot longer. The study was talked about on the Psychology Today website by American psychologist Peter Gray. By using the results he came up with the “Seven Principles of Learning to Read Without Schooling.” They are:

For non-schooled children there is no critical period or best age for learning to read.

  1. Motivated children can go from apparent non-reading to fluent reading very quickly.
  2. Attempts to push reading can backfire.
  3. Children learn to read when reading becomes, to them, a means to some valued end or ends.
  4. Reading, like many other skills, is learned socially through shared participation.
  5. Some children become interested in writing before reading, and they learn to read as they learn to write.
  6. There is no predictable “course” through which children learn to read.

Well, I don’t know about you, but after all of that you can call me less skeptical. What are your thoughts? Do you stand behind teaching reading in schools? Or do you think there is some truth behind this non-school approach?