Teacher helping a young student with her homework in the library after school. Two females are reading a book together in the bookstore. They are doing research for a project

In case you didn’t know—we are in the midst of a “new” reading war. Triggered by Emily Hanford’s podcast, Hard Words (American Public Media, 2018), the new reading war focuses on the science of teaching reading instead of balanced literacy instruction. The balanced literacy approach has no predefined structure and can sometimes leave out critical phonics and other evidence-based instruction whereas the science of reading follows a systematic structure based on mastering specific reading skills.

As a result of this change, higher education is taking hits on how teacher candidates are preparing to teach reading. Mark Seidenberg’s (2017) Reading at the Speed of Light is particularly critical of how schools of education prepare teacher candidates to teach literacy.

Preparing our teachers

CUW’s School of Education is committed to preparing our teacher candidates to meet the changes in how reading is being instructed. Lexia Learning states that “literacy is one of the cornerstones of educational equity, and is crucial for lifelong success.” Here are some of the ways CUW’s teacher candidates are being prepared to teach reading and literacy through the integration of the science of teaching reading:

  • Explicit and systematic phonics instruction is key to reading success for some children, and it certainly will not hurt any child to learn phonics.
  • Teacher candidates need exposure to high-quality phonics curriculums because creating phonics lessons that are not part of an effective scope and sequence has limited impact.
  • Ensure teacher candidates learn the Simple View of the Reading model introduced by Gough and Tumner (1986). This scientific model demonstrates how reading comprehension is the product of decoding and language comprehension.
  • Ehri’s (1995) work on the phases of reading development and orthographic mapping is also essential for teacher candidates learning how to teach reading.

Teachers need quality literacy resources and professional learning opportunities. Then followed by instructional coaching focused on high-quality instruction to increase reading achievement. For instance, Concordia University Wisconsin’s annual Literacy Institute on June 12th features nationally known speaker Wiley Blevins, who understands the importance of developing high-quality instructors.

One text I have found particularly helpful in ensuring I am preparing my students to teach reading effectively is Shifting the Balance: 6 Ways to Bring the Science of Reading into the Balanced Literacy Classroom by Jan Burkins and Kari Yates. I have blended these shifts into the two reading courses that teacher candidates take as part of their major. We’ve worked hard on our literacy curriculum and welcome you to take a look at it here.

Finding middle ground: A comprehensive approach

The debate over how to teach reading has been ongoing for decades, pitting advocates of phonics against proponents of a balanced reading approach. Phonics focuses on teaching letter-sound relationships and decoding skills. On the other hand, balanced literacy emphasizes the importance of comprehension, meaning-making, and all five pillars of reading. These five pillars are skills that include phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. This divide has been dubbed the “reading wars.”

In recent years, the science of reading (SOR) has gained attention as an evidence-based approach to effective reading instruction. The SOR places phonics instruction first, recognizing its crucial role in helping children recognize and decode words, leading to improved reading comprehension. Whole language instruction, on the other hand, emphasizes reading for meaning and context, which is essential for building vocabulary and comprehension skills.

However, current research (Shanahan, 2023) indicates that to directly improve reading achievement, we need to focus on three things: the amount of instruction, the content or curriculum, and the quality of instruction. Rather than viewing phonics and balanced literacy as opposing approaches, a more effective approach is to view them as complementary models.

What’s next?

If you’re interested in teaching reading in Wisconsin, read more about our reading specialist program.


Ehri, L. (1995). Phases of reading development in learning to read words by sight. Journal of Research in Reading, 18 (2), 116-125.
Gough, P. B., & Tunmer, W. E. (1986). Decoding, reading, and reading disability. Remedial and Special Education, 7(1), 6–10.
Hanford, E. (Producer) (2018). Hard words. American Public Media. https://www.apmreports.org/episode/2018/09/10/hard-words-why-american-kids-arent-being-taught-to-read
Siedenberg, M. (2017). Language at the speed of sight: How we read, why so many can’t, and what can be done about it. Basic Books.