For retrospective miscue.com

In the previous blog post on this site Alan Flurkey describes the pedagogical confusion he’s encountered in his career as a reading educator. He argues that much of this confusion would disappear if more stakeholders in children’s reading education knew and understood miscue analysis. In this blog I intend to examine in more detail the nature of this pedagogical confusion by addressing the question in the title, i.e.

Why Is Reading Education So Pedagogically Confused?

I began teaching in 1956. When I entered the profession Reading Education had a culture of on-going ‘turf battles’ and/or ‘paradigm wars.’ These battles have continued to rage within the profession for at least the last sixty years. Not only have they become increasingly destructive and counter productive for the field, they have attained the status of “Reading Wars.” As such they have generated a confusing array of contradictory interpretations of so-called ‘effective reading,’ ‘effective learning,’ effective assessment, and ‘effective pedagogy’. One consequence of these  “Reading Wars” is that we now have a professionally insular culture in which competing groups of reading researchers and theory builders stay rigidly within their own theoretical and research ‘silos,’ rarely crossing theoretical or paradigm borders, talking to and writing only for each other, rejecting ideas that do not support the conceptual frameworks they value. Attempts by policy makers to invoke ‘science’ and ‘evidence-based research’ as a way to reduce this theoretical confusion haven’t helped. Instead a new round of argument and debate about ‘whose science” and ‘whose evidence’ has erupted.

Such a state of affairs begs the question posed in the title.

Here are some ‘dot-point’ thoughts which explore, expand, and (hopefully) offer a possible explanation for this state of affairs.

  • The ‘Reading Wars’ are really about what a ‘scientifically valid pedagogy’ of reading instruction should ‘look like’.
  • Because a ‘ scientifically valid theory of pedagogy’ can only be derived from, (and based on) a ‘scientifically valid theory of learning,’ then the ‘reading wars’ should more accurately be described as ‘learning wars.’
  • After a hundred or so years of research and theory building, psychology as a domain of scientific endeavour hasn’t been  able to develop some sort of consensual agreement on what human learning ‘is’ and how it ‘works.’
  • Instead an abundance of extant (often conflicting) learning theories are continually emerging from experimental psychology. (http://www.hyperkommunikation.ch/seminare/gruppenprozesse/tip/theories.html)
  • In other (historically older) theoretical domains such as physics, biology, astronomy, evolution etc.,  after a century of research and theory building , broad “umbrella” theories which lack either internal and/or external validity  are eliminated from serious consideration. New data and research which converge toward a single set of derivative, explanatory principles begin to emerge.
  • When it comes to one of its key theoretical concepts (learning), after more than a century of experimental research and theory building, psychology has not yet reached this degree of theoretical maturity. Psychologists are still squabbling about the nature of learning.

Until the profession converges towards a single, tested, derivative theory of human learning which accounts for the complex abstract knowledge humans continually construct and apply in the world the Reading Wars will continue to be fought, and we will continue to be perceived as an internally dysfunctional, epistemologically immature, and scientifically naïve rabble. Little wonder politicians want to take control of the field away from those who call themselves ‘Reading Educators.’

Brian Cambourne for retrospectivemiscue.com



  1. We have a massive system of education, not only in the United States, but also around the world. This vast system’s responsibility to prepare the world’s citizens, young and old, for life; however, this system lacks a solid theory upon which to base all of its work. The vacuum this has created has left educators incredibly vulnerable to attacks by competing theorists, publishing companies seeking profits and politicians who want to make sure everyone is “held accountable”. These attacks are representative of the “reading wars” that are going on, which are really wars about how people learn. Those of us who call ourselves “reading teachers” find ourselves lost at sea. We have no tried, tested and proven theory backed by the majority of researchers. And sadly, we don’t trust ourselves.

    I have come to my own understanding after thirteen years of teaching and forty-three years of learning. People can, and do learn in a variety of ways. But I have come to the conclusion, based upon my own experiences as a learner, a mother and a teacher: people learn best when learning experiences are of interest to us, authentic and collaborative in nature. When we have an interest in something, thinking about it and wanting to know more comes naturally. Any time we must learn something for a real purpose, when there is a true need to learn it, we have a much better chance to learn it. Finally, humans are social beings, in varying degrees. Learning is a process that is enhanced by others. Working side by side, having conversations, and even heated arguments all contribute to the shaping of new information in our minds.

    When a child is struggling in school, I know I am missing the boat with him or her in one of three key areas: interest, authenticity or collaboration. No child would ever choose to struggle.

    When the field of education can recognize that this is how people learn, we will begin a process of truly unraveling human potential. All people want to learn.


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