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A Is for Apple, B Is for Brawl

Why New York’s Reading Wars are so contentious.


Every morning, about twenty minutes or so before lunch, the eighteen children in Lauren Kolbeck’s second-grade classroom at P.S. 29 in Cobble Hill are left to read quietly to themselves. Asking a bunch of 7-year-olds to do anything quietly for this long might seem about as sensible as asking them to ignore cupcakes. But these kids are managing. To keep them interested, Kolbeck has stocked the room with a few hundred books sorted into multicolored baskets and segregated by reading level; Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume share space with the Arthur and Amelia Bedelia franchises.

In a far corner of the room, a girl named Enami sits cross-legged on a moss-green rug, a floppy paperback in her hands. Her selection is from the Henry and Mudge series, about a boy and his dog. Tall and shy—she just turned 8—Enami says she picked this book because, well, she likes dogs. With Kolbeck peering over her shoulder, Enami opens the book and bobs her head, the bright blue beads in her cornrows jostling as she starts reading aloud.

“On a sun day . . . ”

It says sunny day in the book. But Enami’s a little tentative. She hasn’t read this one before.

“A man with a collar . . . ”

The teacher has a suggestion. “Sometimes we look at the picture and figure out if it makes sense.”

Enami eyes the drawing of a man walking a dog. She agrees collar doesn’t seem right. After some discussion, it’s decided that collie works better.

“A dog!” says Enami, satisfied.

She continues—and a page later she trips up on the word disappeared. She takes her best guess: “Stepped.”

“Let’s see if that makes sense,” says Kolbeck.

Again, Enami checks the drawing: a man at the end of a street, turning a corner. Her eyes flash—“Disappeared!” And on she goes.

If throwing Enami into the deep end of the pool like this seems a little intense, that’s pretty much the point. What’s unusual about this lesson—and to its critics, flat wrong about it—is what’s not happening. Enami and her seventeen classmates are not sitting in a row, repeating letter and pronunciation drills. They almost never are. There’s not a textbook in sight, or, for that matter, in the whole school. Instead, they’re learning by immersion, reading books of their own choosing, and when they mess up, which is often, they’re told to keep going.

Kolbeck and the other teachers at P.S. 29 are following the dictates of what’s called Balanced Literacy, an equal parts celebrated and maligned teaching technique ordered into the city schools three years ago by Michael Bloomberg and his schools chancellor, Joel Klein. Balanced Literacy is more of a catchall concept than an actual curriculum, interpreted slightly differently in every school system that uses it, but it is invariably rooted in an education philosophy known as whole language. Unlike traditional so-called phonics-based programs, in which kids repeat and memorize basic spelling and pronunciation rules before tackling an actual book, whole language operates on the presumption that breaking down words distracts kids, even discourages them, from growing up to become devoted readers. Instead, students in a Balanced Literacy program get their pick of books almost right away—real books, not Dick and Jane readers, with narratives that are meant to speak to what kids relate to, whether it’s dogs or baseball or friendship or baby sisters. Over time, the theory goes, kids learn the technical aspects of reading—like contractions, or tricky letter combinations painlessly—almost by osmosis. The joy of reading is meant to be the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine of spelling and grammar go down.

Smitten with this approach, Klein, who mandated Balanced Literacy at nearly all of the city’s 743 elementary schools in 2003, after just a few months on the job, delights in visiting classrooms like Enami’s that are now stocked with “real” books and not textbooks. It’s long been a centerpiece of his speeches that the only reason he did well in school, and went on to become a successful federal prosecutor, was because a teacher handed him a book about baseball, a book he actually enjoyed and read.

Hundreds of thousands of New York children are now learning to read this way, and it’s Klein’s belief that Balanced Literacy is the main reason the city’s all-important fourth-grade literacy scores have gone up 7 percentage points since 2002, according to the latest national survey.

The catch is that in the past five years, research has emerged suggesting that phonics, not whole language, is the superior teaching method. Phonics advocates point to the new research as evidence that the Klein reading revolution is badly misguided. What’s needed, they say, is a phonics counterrevolution.


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