The Reading Glitch: How the Culture Wars Have Hijacked Reading Instruction And What We Can Do About It

reviewed by Aparna Mishra Tarc - March 05, 2007

coverTitle: The Reading Glitch: How the Culture Wars Have Hijacked Reading Instruction And What We Can Do About It
Author(s): Lee Sherman & Betsy Ramsey
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham
ISBN: 1578864011 , Pages: 256, Year: 2006
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In The Reading Glitch, Lee Sherman and Betsy Ramsey attempt to sort through the messy and complicated conflict between advocates of phonics and whole language. This debate has come to characterize the fraught terrain of reading instruction in education. Neither Sherman nor Ramsey is an educationalist in the conventional sense. Instead, their interest in reading instruction is motivated by personal and professional experience. As each indicates in the introduction to the book, both have spent time engaging with formalized reading instruction in school through the painful and compelling experiences of (their) children. Particularly moving is Ramsey’s recounting of her son Jon’s painful encounters with reading as a child with dyslexia. These experiences are used to support many of the claims about reading instruction made in the book.

I looked forward to reading this book because I have also been frustrated with the “reading wars” that have come to dominate contemporary discourses of literacy. As a former teacher of elementary-aged children, I too found stark and limiting the line drawn between phonics and whole language. But upon reading the first two chapters of the book, it became clear that the book really is not about moving beyond the somewhat artificial binary between phonics and whole language. Rather than bring some relief to this tired debate, the authors, deliberately or inadvertently, further entrench and solidify the existing divides between phonics and whole language. At the heart of the book is Sherman and Ramsey’s desire to revitalize phonics-based language instruction as a corrective to the whole language approaches deemed responsible for the growing illiteracy in the United States.

Written in sensationalist journalistic prose, the authors juxtapose clips of research findings, children’s experiences, and “theory sound-bites” to make their case for phonics. And the book is, for the lay reader, convincing. It is convincing, not because the authors provide solid evidence that whole language is the wrong way to approach reading instruction, but because many parents are familiar enough, even with a child considered average or advanced, with the trouble that schooling can cause for their child. As well, in a context of increased accountability—with the logics represented by a “Nation at Risk” to “No Child Left Behind”—poor reading instruction, rather than overcrowded classrooms and understaffed schools, increasingly becomes the focal point for blame.

Contrary to their depictions of teachers as helplessly caught in the determinism of reading policies of school boards or the debates on reading taking place in the “ivory tower,” most teacher efforts are concentrated, for better and worse, on the many and diverse needs of their students in the classroom whilst navigating the multiple and sometimes conflicting agendas of schooling. For example, the increasing demands of preparing students for standardized testing are hardly conducive to an extreme whole language approach. Long gone are the days of experimental teaching to which Ramsey’s child, now in adulthood, was subjected. Now, instrumental approaches to reading, approaches ripped of complexity and whittled down to successful and marketable recipes, abound. Further, phonics is hardly dead as the authors seem to claim judging by the vast array of educational and popular resources, ranging from “Jolly Phonics” to “Leap Frog.” Instead, phonics and other approaches promoting “fast and easy” literacy are regularly used and embraced in early childhood classrooms and homes.

Where Ramsey and Sherman fail in their attempt to further literacy research and more complex conceptualizations of literacy, they succeed in portraying the anguish of children who struggle with learning how to read. The latter is, perhaps, the important contribution that this book makes. The authors give researchers and teachers a very intimate view of the painful nature of learning and not learning. They also show the depth of despair to which both parents and children can succumb by failing at learning to read. The suffering that these children and parents endure as they struggle with formal literacy learning must be acknowledged by teachers who are sometimes desensitized to the significance of the negative effects of a child’s (continual) failure in school.

Despite the ardent and confident claims of researchers, teachers and parents advocating for their particular interest for reading instruction, there is still much about the dynamics of learning to read that we do not know. As Ramsey’s son Jon poignantly points out in an interview, he cannot pinpoint exactly how it is that he finally learned to read; he states: “I wish I could put my finger on the one thing the helped me appreciate myself and allowed me to be successful, but I can't. It was a combination of many factors” (Ramsey, 2006). Given this admission by Ramsey’s son, it seems ironic that the authors unwittingly hold-up phonics-based language instruction as the most scientific or best way to become print literate.

If literacy researchers and educators really want to put an end to the “reading wars” that continue to act as a barrier to innovative research, we might accept that each child relates to language differently. Even if some “tried and true” methods can be shown to work with most students when learning to decode print, dependencies on such methods can limit and constrain students’ future (academic) learning. The goal for literacy is not only to get children functionally reading. We want children to develop healthy relations with language to foster a love of others, self, and learning. Even painful struggles with learning should be regarded by educators as critical to fostering a healthy relationship with language—not in need of “correction” but in need of intense support and scrutiny to help each child develop ways of coping with his or her unique way of relating to and using language. Our relationship with language is life-long, so print literacy is much more than being able to decode sentences to gain access to the next level of school or job. Learning to read and write in a healthy manner is critical to our emotional, physical and spiritual well-being.

Ultimately Sherman and Ramsey’s book hastily stumbles into the usual and clichéd debates which continue to plague dominant approaches to literacy research and practice. We are living in a time in which our children are perpetually bombarded with print propaganda circulating in the popular media and internet. In a world where information has become “knowledge,” reading takes on a whole new significance. Unfortunately, the tabloid-journalistic language employed in this book is geared towards a popular, entertainment-consumed audience. It offers little to educators and academics wanting to engage in serious, critical debate about reading instruction towards new insights and pedagogical possibilities. While the depictions of children struggling with literacy in the book are moving and eye-opening, in the end they are exploited by Sherman and Ramsey to rehash an old debate from which many educators seek departure. Instead of leading educators out of the “reading wars” this book attempts to drag us back in. Let us move elsewhere.


Ramsey, B. (2006). From personal advocacy to public advocacy. Northwest Education Magazine, 8(3)., last accessed February 2, 2007

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 05, 2007 ID Number: 13724, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 3:25:48 AM

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