Traditional Academic Feuds in Literacy Studies Part 4: The Reading Wars Cont.

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

In my last three posts, I discussed the classification of Literacy Studies as a horizontal knowledge structure (proposed by Bernstein) and provided evidence of the same with samples from the McKenna et al. and Edelsky discourse during the Reading Wars. I argue that the Reading Wars are a traditional academic feud in a horizontal knowledge structure, and an analysis of the Reading Wars from a Bernsteinian perspective can reveal how and why the feud occurred. In this post, I will analyze Features 2-3 that I outlined in my first post.

In the table in my second post, I provided 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. 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 in the M-E discourse are not linked. They can be found at McKenna et al., 1990a; Edelsky, and McKenna et al, 1990b.

4. “‘Each language [has] its own criteria for legitimate texts, what counts as evidence and what counts as legitimate questions or a legitimate problematic'” (Bernstein 1999, p. 163)

This feature of horizontal knowledge structures contains multiple parts, all of them specifying differing criteria between languages for determining various aspects of knowledge production and maintenance, such as texts, evidence, questions, and problems. While the criteria of each of these aspects of knowledge production and maintenance could be delineated for each language, Whole Language and Skills-Based Literacy, I will elect for a cursory statement of each of these from the M-E discourse.

In terms of texts, Whole Language seems to value the novel and ethnography Edelsky, p.10); Skills-Based Literacy favors the experimental report (McKenna et al., 1990a, p. 5). Perhaps alternative genres are accepted as research in each of these languages, but they are not as highly valued as those I’ve delineated here.

In terms of evidence, the divide is primarily between qualitative–valued by Whole Language–and quantitative–valued by Skills-Based Literacy (McKenna et al., 1990a, p. 4-5). Skills-Based Literacy seems possibly open to accepting qualitative data, but likely favors quantitative over qualitative. Whole Language mounts strong critiques of quantitative data (McKenna et al., 1990a, p.4-5); this form of data seems disfavored more than qualitative is disfavored by Skills-Based Literacy.

In terms of questions and problems (which I am conflating in the absence of significant distinction for the purposes of this analysis), Skills-Based Literacy values the comparative effectiveness question; Whole Language favors questions regarding purpose and power relations. Edelsky summarizes this effectively: “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?” (p. 9). Edelsky thus shows that Whole Language favors addressing problems of power–“Whose interest does it serve?”–over the comparative question that McKenna et al. (1990a) so strongly advocate (p. 5).

The criteria for texts, evidence, and problems in both Whole Language and Skills-Based Literacy have thus been shown to contribute to the horizontal structure of knowledge in Literacy Studies. Because the criteria diverge in many respects, this feature certainly contributed to the Reading Wars. Whole Language’s disvaluing of quantitative research contributed to the feud on their end. However, as qualitative research has gained more acceptance, the distance between the two languages on the criteria of evidence has narrowed. Perhaps one early sign of such narrowing was the fact that McKenna et al. (1990a) proposed a research agenda with qualitative research designs as a major component, albeit one couched in skepticism (p. 5). If qualitative research gained more acceptance in Skills-Based research, the associated text genres and problems such evidence can answer would likely also transfer, leading possibly to Integration.



  1. I love this:

    “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?”

    I suppose, as you pointed out in an earlier post, that this is post-positivism 101, but it’s so clearly stated. Useful for qualitative ed researchers to remember now, in the age of “accountability.”

  2. I agree–Edelsky is quite on point here. And I think your point in regards to “accountability” are also spot on–the rush to draw conclusions about which students/schools/teachers are passing/failing might be tempered by asking “Why are we doing it this way? Why are these tests supposedly effective? And what purpose do the tests serve? Who do they serve?” But I do not like what seems to me a dodging of the question by Edelsky. I don’t think we can postpone asking the “Which works better?” question forever; it IS an important question, it just needs to be answered in the context of the Why and Who questions.

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