“Sharon Hillestad and sons Matt and Hans. This image appeared in an article on homeschooling featuring the Hillestad family in the Glen Burnie, MD paper in 1980.”

The 100-Year War You Didn’t Know About —The Reading War

By Sharon Hillestad

I got into homeschooling because I wanted to ensure that my sons became literate and learned to love books. As a classroom teacher in the 60s, I knew that there were always children, usually boys, who struggled to learn to read and never learned to enjoy reading.

My two brilliant boys seemed like prime candidates for the low reading group.

It would seem logical since I was degreed, licensed, and certified to teach elementary students, that I should be able to teach my own boys how to read. But my degree did not make me any more able to teach reading than my neighbor who didn’t go to college at all.

I had a lot to learn, so I read books and I went to seminars and conferences.

I discovered that I was in the middle of a “war” as were other teachers, parents, and students. A silent, insidious and damaging war we didn’t even know existed. It even had a name—The Reading War.

There has been a debate about the best way to teach the beginner reader. On one side were the “phonics first” advocates which were originally composed of teachers. On the other side were the “whole word” folks originally composed of college professors hired by the curriculum companies.

The debate had been going on at the collegiate level since about 1920, but did not become public until 1955 when Rudolph Flesch wrote Why Johnny Can’t Read.

“Sharon’s well-worn copy of Why Johnny Can’t Read.”

There is a lot to know about this situation, but suffice it to say that the colleges of education never acknowledged that there was any objection to the way the curriculum companies dictated instructional methods. Teachers simply used the Whole Word method (Dick and Jane) and later the Whole Language method WITH ALL THE LEVELED READERS (many leveled readers are required in whole language programs, driving the cost of this curriculum way up).

Teachers just got used to the fact that not every child would learn how to read even with years of schooling and reading instruction.

Fast Forward to 2020 and there are millions of adults who have spent years in school who are classified as functional illiterates. These people cannot read well enough to fill out job applications or follow written directions or signs. They will confide in me since I am a reading instructor. However, you may know such people and be unaware that they struggle with reading. They are experts in covering it up.

Although a small percentage of these people may have some exotic reason for not being able to read, most of them simply were not taught how written English works. The method used to teach children to read in most schools is simply not the best method and does not teach all children.

The truth is, all children can learn how to read, even many with organic disabilities. It takes some know-how, the right curriculum, and a lot of patience.