Book Ban Battles and Reading Wars: Public Libraries and the Science of Reading

When politics come for literacy, how do libraries ensure it’s the kids who win? Public libraries have a critical role to play.

When politics come for literacy, how do libraries ensure it’s the kids who win?

There may be no more crucial issue that bridges librarianship and education than literacy. According to the National Literacy Institute, 40 percent of students across the nation cannot read at a basic level, a statistic that becomes more dire when factoring in class: 70 percent of low-income fourth graders cannot read at a basic level.

For years, educators have debated the most effective way to teach children to read—the so-called “reading wars”—in a debate that plays out in schoolhouses and statehouses. Public libraries, longtime partners in advancing children’s literacy, play a pivotal role in promoting literacy strategies and the habits that help kids become lifelong readers. Yet in this moment when libraries face politically charged attacks on the freedom to read and challenges over material in youth collections, how can librarians best navigate a battle over reading instruction?

Library Journal spoke with several education professors whose work spans children’s literature, critical librarianship, education, and policy to explain current research on the reading wars, sift through state policies, and offer advice on the role libraries can play in reading instruction and children’s literacy.



Sarah Woulfin, associate professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Texas at Austin, started her career as a kindergarten teacher and reading coach. She sees the reading wars as a pendulum shifting between changing forces and ideas about the best approaches to teaching reading. “The reading wars,” she says, “are different groups of people pulling on different types of evidence to make claims and advance competing approaches to reading instruction in an attempt to then shape what teachers actually do within classrooms and, at least on paper, in an attempt to improve outcomes for students in schools.”

Two positions historically frame the reading debate: phonics and whole language. Phonics supporters advocate for readers to learn decoding (the process of reading individual letters and knowing their sounds) before unpacking the meaning of a text. Whole language advocates believe learning to read is a more natural process, like learning to speak, and therefore emphasize word recognition and the use of context clues in literacy-rich environments.

Tess Prendergast, a former children’s librarian who teaches librarianship and children’s literature at the University of British Columbia School of Information and blogs for the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), acknowledges the allure of whole language for educators and librarians: who wouldn’t want to embrace the idea that exciting content from beautifully written books delivered in a meaningful context drives literacy? Phonics instruction, by contrast, is more standardized and focused on learning the parts and sounds that make up words.

Yet reducing reading instruction to a battle between binaries—phonemic awareness and phonics versus joy of reading and comprehension—is ineffective because the process of teaching a child to read is complex, explains Amanda Goodwin, education professor at Vanderbilt University. She proposes reframing the issue from a “war” to a “quest.”

Enter the science of reading.



The “science of reading” is a growing body of research from a variety of fields, including neuroscience and cognitive psychology, examining how children best learn to read.

In recent years, the science of reading has become the buzziest topic in literacy education. Phonics advocates align with the science of reading because of its emphasis on teaching kids to sound out words—but it is not, as some advocates and legislators characterize it, a single method for teaching children to read.

The research demonstrates that skilled reading includes both word recognition development and language comprehension, notes Rachael Gabriel, professor of literacy education at the University of Connecticut. Effective literacy instruction therefore supports children understanding the connection between the sounds of spoken language and written language as well as immersive experiences with quality texts.



As nonpartisan institutions that support reading and literacy, libraries often stay out of the political fray. Yet reading instruction has a history of partisanship, and phonics instruction is a cause typically associated with the political right.

What’s different about the science of reading is its relatively bipartisan appeal, as evidenced by both red and blue states passing new laws and policies mandating the adoption of science of reading in education curricula.

Mississippi stands out as a model for the science of reading approach improving student reading. In 2013, Mississippi implemented new science of reading laws, changing student standards and investing funds in professional development for teachers—and they saw significant performance improvements: the state’s fourth graders leaped from 49th in the country for reading proficiency in 2013 to 29th in 2019.

In 2023, at least five more states passed legislation mandating reading instruction aligned with evidence-based research, joining some 30 other states in the nation. Ohio passed its 2023 budget bill, advanced by Republican governor Mike DeWine, with requirements for all schools to implement science of reading by the 2024–25 school year and banning the use of “three-cueing”—or using a series of guesses informed by context to read words—that research has found to be an ineffective strategy for successful readers. Additionally, at the start of the 2023–24 school year, New York City schools launched their transition to science of reading.

However, any political détente afforded to the science of reading risks coming undone as conservative groups, such as Moms for Liberty, use the research to advance potentially extremist educational goals. The group has pitted the science of reading’s position on explicit phonics instruction against other topics it opposes—social-emotional learning, LGBTQIA+ rights, and anti-racist pedagogy—to create a false dichotomy: that the inclusion of diverse books and curricula takes necessary focus away from important basic literacy skills.

For libraries, this “back to basics” argument sounds familiar—it’s woven into messaging that would-be book banners use to undermine diverse collections. Libraries can defend against these attacks by demonstrating how their collections, programs, and services are consistent with science of reading research. For instance, practices aligned with the science of reading include reading aloud to children—a staple of library story times and early childhood programming—to grow vocabulary, develop comprehension skills, and create enjoyable reading experiences.



Robust library collections provide access and choice, enabling young readers to discover works that excite and interest them.

Goodwin points out that the science of reading pushes classrooms and teachers toward a more scripted curriculum; libraries exist outside of state policies and curricula and can provide students with more choice. Wide reading has always supported reading comprehension, and libraries should continue to make diverse, culturally responsive texts available. Despite the recent spate of book bans, libraries largely remain the sole places where kids can choose their own books and connect to the written word without the pressure of grades or test scores.

Woulfin notes that librarians are the right partners to support culturally responsive and culturally sustaining literacy initiatives: “[Public libraries] pay attention to the demographics within the community they serve, ensuring that they know the books that are displayed, the story hours, things that are representative of and engaging for the population that they’re serving.”

Tiffeni Fontno, education librarian and director of Peabody Library at Vanderbilt University, reinforces the importance of libraries providing diverse collections and literacy programs that speak to a broad range of audiences, “Reading is more than the science of reading, it’s also about the culture of reading. What does it take, especially for minoritized children, to learn through structured literacy and be culturally and linguistically responsive and inclusive in the reading process?”

Family engagement programming in libraries helps shape a community culture of reading, which gives children a strong foundation in literacy and fits within the science of reading research.



All experts that LJ spoke with champion libraries partnering directly with schools to provide expertise and materials. Woulfin, whose work advocates for coherence across the education system, urges that public librarians be added to the wider pool of teachers, reading coaches, administrators, and school librarians working to augment reading instruction.

Public library staff can work with local teachers and school districts to create displays that enhance the texts students are reading and to share new releases in children’s literature, award-winning books, and culturally responsive titles. They can help teachers create classroom sets that include texts explicitly for vocabulary building.

Many packaged reading curriculums often use excerpts from books rather than full texts, notes Woulfin, and libraries can be the places to expose students to the original works. Prendergast agrees, “Libraries are now one of the few places where students have full access to texts rather than a limited, curated diet of passages designed to teach skills,” she says. “This makes the library even more important as a democratizing element in society, and a source of information, entertainment, community, learning, and growth that might once have happened in school, but is increasingly less likely to happen—especially for marginalized youth whose identities, backgrounds, and experiences are less likely to be reflected or engaged by increasingly narrow and sanitized school experiences.”



Libraries serve an important role in supporting families and caregivers to help children navigate their individual reading journeys by providing trustworthy resources about reading development. Prendergast recommends that library staff be able to explain the concepts of letter and word recognition and language skills “in non-jargony ways.” What might a parent look for in assessing the reading level of their child? How can caregivers recognize red flags for reading development? What could reading practice look like at home?

In addition, libraries can define and provide resources for emergent readers. Goodwin suggests clear signage linking the texts students may find in their classrooms with the public library’s collection. Libraries are spaces where students can access titles that match their current reading levels, as well as those that could inspire and challenge them.

Beyond clear communication about the library’s resources, libraries can provide programming for caregivers and families on the science of reading to help them understand literacy development. Programs that offer support for coaching young readers on selecting a new book can build strong partnerships across schools, families, and public libraries.



As the corpus of research associated with the science of reading evolves, libraries will need to continue to advocate for their place at the table. New studies out of Michigan State University and California suggest that legislation mandating science of reading instruction improved standardized test scores. The research indicates that states with comprehensive policies—those that include funding, training, and support for instructional change—fared better than those with a less comprehensive approach. This could spell opportunity for libraries to partner with their local school districts or literacy-based organizations to advocate for funding for evidence-based interventions and broader community education around the science of reading.

“There is no other place that I can think of that a child—and their parents and caregivers—can access completely free, professionally guided, accessible, inclusive, and culturally sensitive guidance and facilitation toward their literate futures,” Prendergast emphasizes. “The public library IS that place.”

Laura Winnick is an English teacher turned librarian turned technologist at an independent school in Brooklyn. Her writing has appeared in Literary Hub, Publishers Weekly, Women’s Review of Books, and Teachers & Writers Magazine.

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