What do Phonics, Whole Language, Balanced Literacy and the Science of Reading “movement” (“movement” as seen in the press’ debate or through discourse on social media and not the SOR as formally defined or its advocates) have in common? The most obvious commonality of the terms is that they are all related to literacy and its instruction. They also have been, or currently are, key players in the “Reading Wars”. 

The less obvious commonality, which is often forgotten during dialogue, is that they are all labels. Labels that are used to represent pedagogical views and that provide some information about their methodologies and approaches. 

Why is this important to highlight? It is important because labels have the capacity to inflame rather than tame the reading debate and, in my opinion, actually draw attention away from what the focus should be. 

First, let’s revisit the dichotomous meanings of the word “label” in order to better understand how this might be the case. Doing so, may impact how you think about shifts in the context of literacy and move forward. 

The Oxford Dictionary  defines label as:


  1. a small piece of paper, fabric, plastic, or similar material attached to an object and giving information about it.
  2.  a classifying phrase or name applied to a person or thing, especially one that is inaccurate or restrictive

Verb: attach a label to (something).

  1. attach a label to (something).
  2. assign to a category, especially inaccurately or restrictively.

While we label things in order to give information about them and this serves a function that makes sense, we also use labels to categorize (wrong vs right, good vs bad, effective vs. ineffective) and sometimes do so inaccurately. In some cases, this categorization also promotes the idea of membership, something which can divide rather than unite. 

We now find ourselves, once again in the education world, talking predominantly in the language of “labels” (Phonics, Whole Language, Balanced Literacy, the Science of Reading movement) and labels, as we know, have an inflammatory quality, so it is no surprise that the dialogue can become contentious and that we can lose sight. 

Putting the labels aside, on the shelf, what should our focus be? What are the current shifts really about? 

My answer: knowledge and instructional tools. 

The Right to Read Project had a wonderful blog post recently titled “Seeing the Good in Balanced Literacy and Moving On” and it inspired me to not only write this blog entry but also to dig more deeply into the dynamics at play.

When we talk about making changes or shifting, it is about evolving and transforming as educators – to the great benefit of our kids. Ours is a profession in which development and growth is not an option but a necessity. (I say this 16 years in and as I’m still learning everyday).

We are “practitioners” and, like those in the medical field, as we come to understand even more about literacy, our learners’ reading brains and instruction (or in the example of doctors, the human body and related conditions), it is essential that we equip ourselves with the knowledge and tools that not only propel us forward but that also create a healthy equilibrium.

We know that science and information change over time, in fact that’s the beauty of science, and so change shouldn’t be seen as a threat or negative! We have seen how what once might have been thought to have been the best approach changes or morphs into something even better. As a personal side note related to this, I remember a doctor once saying to a relative “Gosh, no! We don’t do that anymore, we’ve come a long way in our understanding of the condition and its treatment.” Why, as schools and educators, wouldn’t we want to be saying the same thing? We’ve made and continue to make advances and we’re all better for it.

What I appreciated most about the blog from The Right to Read Project was how the author sought to highlight and acknowledge some of the good that came from Balanced Literacy (ie mini-lessons, read-alouds, self-identification as a reader and a writer) along with findings from her journey in making changes because moving forward isn’t about “throwing everything out”. Instead, it’s about coming to those revised or new understandings and deepening our “toolbox” of knowledge and practice. In order to do that and truly be successful, we also need to be really honest and take a good inventory of what’s in there.

What are the ideas or tools that we keep because they are actually evidence based and effective? What are those that we sharpen by integrating knowledge? What are those that we need to replace because they’re no longer relevant, effective or they’ve become obsolete?

With the use of labels, it can leave teachers and others feeling like “Wow! So you’re telling me everything I’m doing is wrong?” This analogy, hopefully, helps you to see how filling your toolbox with those “tools” that are the most impactful and transformative is what it’s all about – for you and most importantly, your students.

Let me help you move beyond the labels to find meaningful ways to bring new or revised information and knowledge into practice and in ways that meet your needs and setting.