Traditional Academic Feuds in Literacy Studies Part 2: The Reading Wars

Note: This is the second part of a multi-part series which (eventually) will become a term paper for a class seminar on literacy.

In my last post, I argued that the Reading Wars illustrate the horizontal knowledge structure of Literacy Studies. In the tradition of Christie & Macken-Horarik (2007), I will now explain the conceptual basis for classifying Literacy Studies as a horizontal knowledge structure by analyzing the McKenna et al. and Edelsky (M-E) discourse.

In the table below, I provide representative examples from the M-E discourse that illustrate the features of a horizontal knowledge structure. I have numbered each feature for ease of explanation later. For the sake of clarity, I refer to McKenna’s first article as “McKenna et al., 1990a” and their rejoinder “McKenna et al., 1990b.” Citations from quotes are not linked. They can be found at McKenna et al., 1990a; Edelsky, and McKenna et al, 1990b.

1. Multiple Languages 2. Theory Reoccurance 3. Opposing Assumptions
“[McKenna et al.] use incorrect discourse for whole language” (Edelsky, p. 7)

“If comparative effectiveness is not the ideal question, we would suggest that for the vast majority of present-day practitioners it is the question” (McKenna et al., 1990b, p. 13).
“The authorities cited for opining that whole language is not well defined are two skills-based researchers who, in a recent meta-analysis, could not distinguish whole language from language experience approaches from activity approaches of the 1950s (Edelsky, p. 8) “A view of how one comes to know is crucial to the credibility accorded evidence, and Edelsky is partially correct in pointing to paradigmatic differences as a source of problems” (McKenna et al., 1990b, p. 12)




4. Criteria for Texts 5. Integration 6. Weak Grammar
“Which works better? is a question emanating from the instrumental rationality of the dominant paradigm. It foregrounds method and efficiency rather than purpose-How to do it? rather than Why do it? or Whose interests does it serve?” (Edelsky, p. 9) “Harste expressed the optimistic view that researchers from a variety of perspectives are moving toward a single model of literacy. He cautioned that we are not yet there and that it would be premature to describe such a model. He harbored healthy, scientific doubts, as do we. In contrast, a divisive, unscientific certitude has been widely observed among whole language proponents” (McKenna et al., 1990b, p. 13) “Whole language is not well defined (Stahl & Miller, 1989). Rich (1985) described it as “an attitude, not methods” (p. 718), and Clarke (1987) described it as “[a] philosophy rather than a methodology” (p. 386). Goodman (1986) suggested that many methods are possible within a whole language classroom and that varieties of whole language are acceptable. Newman (1985) acknowledged, “I find myself in the uncomfortable position of being unable to tell you succinctly what ‘whole language’ is” (p. 1). Watson (1989) suggested that “most whole-language advocates reject a dictionary-type definition that can be looked up and memorized” (p. 131) because a given teacher’s definition be personal and unique” (McKenna et al., 1990a, p. 4).


“Their call for conceptual rigor in a definition of whole language and for procedural rigor in research design is no more than a thinly disguised demand that whole language be translated into terms that a skills model of reading and a positivist model of research. Ironically, what has been threatening to traditionalists about qualitative research in whole language may seem welcome by comparison with some of the new directions whole language research is taking” (Edelsky, p. 10).


“Just as a skills viewpoint does not require a belief in skills hierarchies but rather simply a belief in separable, acontextualized components, so too does a whole language viewpoint not preclude an attention to form”(Edelsky, p. 9).




7. No Empirical Recourse 8. Different Empirical Referents 9. Knower Code
“One of the anonymous reviewers of our article offered this observation: ‘In essence, it is no longer
a scientific issue since the whole language people share a system of beliefs and they claim they have evidence to support their beliefs. But, when you look up what they cite as evidence, it is often just someone else’s published beliefs'” (McKenna et al., 1990b, p. 12)
“Traditionalists have in fact maintained that whole language proponents (and their antecedents) have tended to confuse the process of fluent reading with the process of learning to read (Carroll, 1976; Chall, 1933; Stott, 1981)” (McKenna et. al, 1990a, p. 8)

“[Whole language] takes seriously a distinction between using language and doing language exercises, between doing science or history and doing exercises in science or history” (Edelsky, p. 8
Whose Agenda Is This Anyway? (Edelsky, p. 7, emphasis mine)

“[McKenna et al.] are ignorant that their presumptuousness in speaking for ‘the other side’ is one example of the kind of silencing within the academy that anthropologists (Clifford & Marcuss, 1986), sociologists (Denzín, 1990), critical educators (Brodkey, 1986; Gitlin, Siegel, & Boru, 1989), and others are now critiquing outside it. Just who gets to speak for whom?” (Edelsky, p. 8)



The M-E discourse shows all the features of a traditional academic feud in a horizontal knowledge structure. Some features are better illustrated than others, and my analysis will acknowledge areas where either Bernstein’s model does not adequately reflect the reality of the structure or it is unclear how to interpret the data. In the tradition of the qualitative paradigm, I will acknowledge my own approach to this research as being post-positivist, making me possibly more sympathetic to McKenna et al.’s perspective. I believe that Bernstein’s model can explain real social phenomena, such as the Reading Wars. I strive to maintain objectivity in applying this model, while acknowledging that Bernstein’s research was not exclusively post-positivist.

I will now provide an analysis of each of the different horizontal knowledge structure features evident in the M-E discourse with the aim to find how they contributed to the development of the Reading Wars.

1. “Knowledge develops through the addition of new languages.”
Perhaps the most explicit statement regarding the divergent discourses being written in these three articles is Edelsky’s: “[McKenna et al.] use incorrect discourse for whole language” (Edelsky, p. 7). Edelsky, at the very least, implies that there is a correct discourse for whole language–that is, Whole Language as a theory has a discourse strategy or strategies it employs to maintain and develop knowledge. Edelsky claims that McKenna et al. do not use this discourse, instead utilizing the discourse of Traditional Literacy, or Skills-Based Literacy. McKenna et al. do not dismiss the possibility of their Whole Language discourse being incorrect (p. 12), but they do challenge Edelsky’s claim about what kinds of questions are appropriate for education. This seems to imply some kind of metadiscourse into which both Whole Language and Traditional Literacy fit. It is, however, arguable whether McKenna et al.’s claim that relative effectiveness is on the minds of most teachers could be substantiated; at least in literacy educational research, comparative effectiveness of whole approaches fell under scrutiny after Bond & Dykstra’s (1967) first-grade studies, a massive comparative effort that yielded few results that could be generalized across all the programs that participated. Still, the two statements show that both sides seem to agree that they are disagreeing about certain constructions in the discourse, suggesting that they have different discourse strategies.

But are these multiple languages developing knowledge in the field? To consider this question, I examine the origin claims of these theories to determine how they emerged in the Literacy Studies field, thus demonstrating what they are adding to the conversation. Edelsky cites Goodman’s (1969) psycholinguistic work as the origin of Whole Language; this seems a legitimately novel development in Literacy Studies, as psycholinguistics itself was a relatively new field of study in the 20th century. However, Edelsky’s comment regarding Stahl & Miller’s (1989) relative inability to distinguish Whole Language from Language Experience (p. 12) may suggest that this discourse is an iteration of a previous discourse, namely Language Experience. McKenna et al. cite Samuels and Laberg (1974) in developing the Skills-Based theory of reading. Because of its structuralist nature, it seems less likely that Skills-Based theory is entirely novel. Whether these origins suggest novel development of knowledge is arguable; it is possible, even probable, that the theories are iterations of previously dominant theories. But both theories have productive research programs, as evident in their various duelling research citations. This suggests that Feature #5 is in play, because knowledge builds vertically within each theory, but they do not integrate findings across theories. The simultaneous theory building of divergent theories does challenge the pendulum metaphor so often invoked in education; the “vogue” theory does not necessarily mean that other theories are not being developed; McKenna et al., citing Stanovich (1990), argue similarly.

In short, it appears both Whole Language and Skills-Based Literacy approaches constitute two distinct specialized languages for developing knowledge in Literacy Studies. A more in-depth linguistic analysis of the discourse strategies would be necessary to fully establish this criteria solidly, as Christie & Macken-Horarik demonstrate(2007). The next few posts, however, will show how certain elements of the M-E discourse illustrate certain features of the horizontal knowledge structure academic feud, which should incidentally also include linguistic evidence for the distinctiveness of each discourse.

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