In the fifties (when I began teaching) these debates involved a choice between two pedagogies, one based on a "look-and-say" (or "whole word") visual- recognition-of-word-shapes principle , the other based on a transform-the-visual-signs-to-speech- sounds principle (“phonics"). After the publication of Jeanne Chall's classic volume, "Learning To Read: The Great Debate" in 1967 , the debate’s focus shifted a little to “code-based” versus “meaning-based”, again with conflicting pedagogies based on an either/or choice between two theoretical options. One option was based on transforming the visual display to sounds and blending these sounds together to make words (i.e. breaking the alphabetic code). The other was based on accessing meaning directly from the visual display without first accessing sound (i.e. meaning-based).
By the seventies and eighties this code-based vs meaning based debate had morphed into “whole language versus direct instruction”, which in turn generated a series of variant strains of the same dichotomy. For example in the seventies and eighties “literature-based versus skills-based” emerged, accompanied by others such as “implicit versus explicit teaching” , “holistic versus fragmented teaching”, and “objectivist versus constructivist pedagogy”. As a consequence today's teachers are heirs to a long tradition of (often acrimonious) debate about pedagogical methods which are presented either as bi-polar opposites, or positions along a bi-polar continuum of some kind. It's as if the field of reading has, for a long time, suffered from something analogous to serious bi-polar disorder.
From the late nineties to the present time these dichotomies seem to have coalesced into something more complex. They are no longer perceived as “debates”. Rather they seem to have assumed the stature of “wars”. Thus we now have the so-called “Reading (or Literacy) Wars”. Instead of debating the pros and cons of a simple bi-polar dichotomy, the profession seems to be engaged in an all-out “take-no-prisoners” war. One consequence of these “Reading Wars” is the demand that only pedagogies which are “evidence-based” or “scientifically derived” should be applied in the nation’s literacy classrooms.
However, invoking ‘science’ and ‘evidence-based research’ as a way to reduce the theoretical confusion surrounding literacy education doesn't seem to have helped much. There are quite distinct views of ‘good science’ and ‘good evidence’ held within the education research community, and all that seems to have happened is that new round of argument and debate about ‘whose science" and ‘whose evidence should be considered, has begun.. Such a state of affairs begs the following question:
‘Why is reading education so pedagogically confused’?