Move Fast, Intervene Early

In the reading wars of 30 years ago, phonics vs. whole language, educators were forced to consider taking sides. This happens a lot in America. Have you noticed? Although we have a country that is comfortable with 40 different kinds of BBQ sauce, if we only have two choices such as liberal and conservative, we go bananas. With the reading wars going on now for 30 years, it begs the question, why don’t we have common agreement on how to teach reading? This is an important question especially when we know that no matter how you learn to read, the same place in the brain, often referred to as the letterbox, is what we use to recognize words (Dehaene, 2009, p. 70).

Binary Choice

Education in general and the reading wars in specific suffer from the binary choice problem. How can we balance the two binary choices and blend their recommendation? How can we balance literacy when each of the brains arriving in our classrooms are not solely binary! Those brains may simplify conversations into binary arguments, but as they learn, they progress differently, they learn in multi-modality ways, e.g., visual, auditory, tactile, etc., and they reflect upon that learning in unique ways. Brains work to listen, read, produce words and associate words. That means that binary choice may be a great place to start, but it leads to non-standardized learning outcomes and assessment of student learning should honor and reflect those outcomes.

Performance Assessment

Performance assessment is a more valid way to capture evidence of student learning especially in reading. Where standardized multiple choice tests are very reliable across students, for types of questions that have right and wrong answers, performance assessments such as observation of student work, projects, science experiments, short answer, essays and exhibitions of student work all provide a deeper assessment based on more accurate feedback of student performance of what is being learned. With reading, performance assessment can be found in the role of a Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA). The DRA offers educators an assessment tool to observe and document student reading levels through one-on-one interviews of students as they read and talk about their reading and this helps assess deeper learning and inform instructional practice. Other types of assessments, called cornerstone assessments, can be embedded in curriculum:

Cornerstone Assessments

Cornerstone assessment tasks are curriculum-embedded assessment tasks that are intended to engage students in applying their knowledge and skills in an authentic context. These tasks are described by their originator Jay McTighe as:

• curriculum embedded (as opposed to externally imposed);

• recurring across the grades, becoming increasingly sophisticated over time;

• establishing authentic contexts for performance;

• calling for understanding and transfer via genuine performance;

• used as rich learning activities or assessments;

• integrating 21st century skills (e.g., critical thinking, technology use, teamwork) with subject area content;
• evaluating performance with established rubrics;

• engaging students in meaningful learning while encouraging the best teaching;

• providing content for student portfolios so that students graduate with a resume of demonstrated accomplishments rather than simply a transcript of courses taken.

Glossary of Assessment Terms

Intervene Now

As one Harvard Professor (Snow et al. 1998, p. 326) used to put it, “Move fast, intervene early.” Reading is so foundational to learning that we need to intervene now with all readers. And by now I mean in the home, in K, 1, 2, and third grade. With only 33% of students attaining reading proficiency in third grade in this country, intervention, with curriculum-embedded performance assessments, would be very helpful. Rather than fighting the reading wars we should adopt a balanced literacy approach, using some phonics and some whole language as needed. But more than anything such as a binary choice between and among two competing ideas, a helpful school reform idea would be a regular curriculum-embedded performance assessment such as the DRA to consistently assess what needs to be taught next for each unique student. Deeper assessment leads to deeper learning.


  • Dehaene, S. (2009). Reading and the brain. New York: Penquin Books.
  • Snow, C. Burns, S. & Griffen, P., eds. (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. Washington, DC: National Research Council / National Academy Press, p. 326.
Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

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