A repost of the Jill Speering interview about her newest book-Rubies in the Rubble, An Educator’s Transformation from Pain to Prominence, From Abuse to Absolution, conducted by Dr. Sam Bommarito

The past two months have been eventful ones for the blog. There have been over 40,000 views in that time frame. I think the interest is rising because I am making the case that constructivist methods get results with BOTH decoding and comprehension. Unlike some SOR folks who “prove” their methods are better using tests that only require reading word lists to measure comprehension  LINK (see box 1), constructivists use reading tests that ask students to read meaningful passages and then answer comprehension questions about those passages. In my opinion, comprehension is really the  Achilles heel of the folks taking a narrow view of the science reading. I’m not saying they don’t “teach” comprehension. I am saying that they “teach and assess” comprehension very badly using methods/strategies the rest of the reading world abandoned after Durkin’s research AND after several decades of work demonstrating that teaching comprehension strategies using gradual release REALLY raises reading achievement test scores. For more details about this, see these blogs LINK, LINK, LINK, LINK  

This week I am returning to doing interviews. Recently Jill Speering has been on the road spreading the good word about her new book. I thought I would help that effort by reposting this interview. Here it is:

A report of the Jill Speering interview about her newest book-Rubies in the Rubble, An Educator’s Transformation from Pain to Prominence, From Abuse to Absolution, conducted by Dr. Sam Bommarito

As an educator who has a long-standing interest in the best ways to teach beginning reading, I was very happy when I heard that Jill Speering had written her first book. Jill has many years of experience as a teacher and a teacher of teachers. Also, as you can see from her biography, Jill is a longtime advocate and supporter of Reading Recovery. She believes in creating programs that fit the child rather than forcing the children into one size fits all programs. Her book is an autobiography, and that autobiography goes well beyond the issues surrounding the best ways to teach beginning reading. It is the story of her whole life, a story of how she overcomes adversity. Here is what one reviewer had to say about this wonderful book (taken from the back cover of the book):

I have to concur. Jill’s story does show hope and promise for us all. It is a story that provides a rigorous defense of Reading Recovery. Before it does that, it also provides us with her story, which gives the reader a roadmap of how to overcome adversity. As Jill points out, overcoming adversity is something that many of the students we serve also must do if they are ever to become readers and writers. Here is a screen capture of the book’s cover and a link to the book:

LINK

Here is a link to the interview:

Here are the questions we covered. They are timestamped.

  1. Tell us a little bit about yourself. 01:19
  2. Why did you write this book? 02:35
  3. Talk to us as an author. Tell us how your background in learning about writing helped you as you wrote this book. 4:28
  4. Is the book more of a memoir or a biography? 09:33
  5. What do you feel is the most important takeaway for readers of this book? 15:06
  6. In just a few weeks, I will be presenting at LitCon, talking about why RR is a viable approach and why children deserve access to RR (that is a strong position my friend Paul Thomas has taken). Any thoughts about that? Do you agree with Paul and I on the need for children to have access to RR when needed? 15:06 (5 & 6 were covered jointly)

By the way, Jill was the keynote speaker at the Delta Kappa Gamma Educational sorority on June 2, 2022, at the University of the South at Sewanee to discuss her book (LINK). As you can tell, the book is becoming quite popular, and I again encourage you to get your copy to find out why.

FUTURE BLOGS BY DR SAM: I’m in the process of setting up more interviews of authors who are publishing new books about the teaching of reading. In the coming weeks expect more interviews about the newest books on the topic of teaching reading.

In the meantime- Happy Reading and Writing!

Copyright 2022 by Dr. Sam Bommarito. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the view of this author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization.

PS If you found the blog through Facebook or Twitter, please consider following the blog to make sure you won’t miss it.  Use the “follow” entry on the sidebar of the blog.

A Centrist Perspective on The Teaching of Reading: Highlights & Analysis from my presentation at the Millersville University’s Summer Institute by Dr. Sam Bommarito

A Centrist Perspective on The Teaching of Reading: Highlights & Analysis from my presentation at the Millersville University’s Summer Institute by Dr. Sam Bommarito

First, I’d like to thank Dr. Aileen Hower and the Department of Early and Exceptional Education for the opportunity to speak at their Summer Institute. Dr. Hower is the Masters in Language and Literacy Program Coordinator at Millersville. She is an Assistant Professor of Literacy at Millersville University. Millersville is a state university located in Millersville, Pennsylvania LINK. During the two-hour Keynote session, I discussed “Strategies to teach to enhance fluency and comprehension.” I also did interactive activities with the graduate students attending this session. The session was done on Zoom. I want to talk about what we did in that session and give some session highlights. I’d also like to provide additional information about questions raised by participants during and after the session.

Question one: Dr. Sam, what is a centrist perspective, and why do you advocate for it?

Those who follow this blog know that for the past four years, I have explored the issues surrounding the so-called reading wars LINK, LINK, LINK. One of my followers, Judy Boksner,  described a centrist this way:

(Be sure to visit Judy’s YouTube Channel LINK)

This slide gives the key to why I am a centrist:

The only way to stop moving from one extreme to another is to finally stop in the middle and use the best research-based ideas from all sides.That idea is best summarized in what I call the “Reading Evolution.” LINK.

Question two: There was no time in the session to explore your ideas about the best way to teach decoding. Would you briefly explain your views on that question?

Teaching decoding should include the direct, explicit teaching of synthetic phonics. Where I think some SOR proponents have gone off the tracks is that they use synthetic phonics exclusively. They ignore other forms of phonics, including analytic phonics. They have no answer about what to do if selected students fail to learn using synthetic phonics. Such children exist, as demonstrated by this recent article about teaching reading in Australia LINK. Look under the heading The Context is The KEY in that article.

Accordingly, I believe in giving in-service to teachers around ALL the ways to teach phonics. My recommended sources for such information are books by Heidi Mesmer. Her books do a good job of discussing what is needed at the very earliest stages of the reading process and what is needed later on. Here is a link to a blog where I interviewed Dr.  Mesmer LINK. Links to her book and other materials can be found in the blog entry.

Question three: What are your views around comprehension, and why do you advocate the direct, explicit teaching of comprehension strategies?

The answer to why I advocate for the direct, explicit teaching of comprehension strategies is pretty straightforward. There are decades of research by Duke, Pressley, Pearson and others indicating that teaching comprehension strategies using a gradual release model significantly improves reading scores. Some SOR folks have gone off the tracks because they ignore that research and its implications. The work of Willingham influences them. Listen to what Dr. Tim Shanahan says about Willingham and his work LINK.

“Willingham is trying to reduce the amount of comprehension strategy instruction so that kids will like school better. I doubt that he spends much time in schools. He hasn’t been a teacher of principal or even a teacher educator and his own research hasn’t focused on practical educational applications. I’ve been conducting an observational study of nearly 1000 classrooms for the past few years, and we aren’t seeing much strategy instruction at all. There definitely can be too much strategy teaching, but in most places any dosage, not overdosage, is the problem.”

I would add that the sample that Willingham used in his original research fails to adequately reflect the extensive work of Duke, Pressley, Pearson and others. Here is a blog that I wrote about why it takes more than just background knowledge to teach comprehension LINK.

For an overall model of reading, I use Duke’s Active View of Reading Model LINK. Duke is first and foremost a researcher. Based on a personal conversation with her, she goes where the research leads. She does not take sides and doesn’t like to be labeled. I think she does what a good researcher should do. She takes the current state of things and then makes additions that will advance the field further. In this case, she took the rope and added ideas that would bring comprehension more to the forefront. Here are two slides about Duke and her work.

This first slide shows her This Not That Series  LINK and Kelly Cartwright’s book about Word Callers LINK. Duke was the editor. Overall, these books provide many useful resources for classroom teachers and reading specialists. More information about Duke’s work can be found on her website LINK.

The second slide shows important excerpts from her article Reading by Third Grade: How

Policymakers Can Foster Early Literacy. LINK.

When I talked to the participants at the Summer Institute, I stressed how important Duke’s ideas around comprehension are. It takes more than simply reading a list of words to establish comprehension. In my opinion, too often, the tests used by some SOR advocates to demonstrate their miracle growth in reading do nothing more than that. They are mainly a test of decoding. Reading tests must directly measure all the things found in Duke’s Box 1. Her box one explains the “range of knowledge and skills and dispositions one needs to perform well on state tests.” If one teaches strategies using the gradual release model, the student learns to internalize and use that strategy. I demonstrated to them how they could assess that using one comprehension strategy. That was a hands-on activity. I argued that teaching key strategies is a viable and useful path to improving all students’ reading.

Question 4: What are your views about fluency, and what activities do you recommend to promote fluency?  

In my opinion, the single best person to look to about how to improve fluency is Dr. Tim Rasinski. I’ve written about him several times LINK, LINK, LINK. Here is a link to his website, where you will find many resources to help you improve your students’ reading fluency LINK. I also pointed out to participants that if they follow Tim on Twitter (@TimRasinski1), he gives away free resources every MWF. These include Word Ladders, vocabulary activities, activities around teaching prefixes and suffixes and many other things. I’ve noticed that Tim attracts followers from both the SOR camp and the balanced literacy camp.

The key to Tim’s approach to teaching fluency is using repeated readings in order to practice to perform. He has an excellent book called Fluency Through Practice and Performance. Here is a link to the book LINK.

I provided the Summer Institute’s participants with examples of how I do that with students. It only takes 5-7 minutes a day of practice reads (repeated readings), and I do my performance event once every two weeks. Another great source for ideas and resources to implement this kind of program is The Megabook of Fluency. Tim and Melissa Cheesman Smith wrote it. Here is a LINK.

I pointed out that this book contains potential read-aloud passages for both younger and older readers. I highly recommend the reading to perform activities for students of all ages to promote fluency and comprehension. Because research shows that the direct teaching of phonics often fails to provide dividends for older readers, I also presented using this kind of activity for older readers with decoding problems. Some participants were concerned that doing this might not be enough.

In researching this further, I found this recent blog entry from Timothy Shanahan about decoding in the middle school LINK. He ended that blog by saying, “The simple answer is that fluency practice can be beneficial for your students. It will help those who have fluency problems. But what’s going to be done with the kids with other reading needs?”.

I think the answer to that question can be found in his earlier analysis of the overall situation. It seems that most of the struggling readers he talked about would benefit from the fluency work but that a small number of the students with exceptionally weak decoding skills would probably require explicit decoding instruction. Further testing would be needed to determine who they were. Thanks to the post-seminar discussion that is a topic that I will be looking into further.

In Conclusion: I hope the blog readers will find some new takeaways about the best ways to teach reading. One of the things I like best about teaching (especially about teaching teachers) is that usually, you learn as much from your students as they do from you. I want to thank the session participants for their attention and thoughtful insights into this topic. Next week I will resume with interviews. Until then- Happy Reading and Writing.

Dr. Sam Bommarito, aka the centrist who, uses ideas from all sides to inform his teaching

Copyright 2022 by Dr. Sam Bommarito. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the author’s view and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization.

P.S. If you found the blog through Facebook or Twitter, please consider following the blog to make sure you won’t miss it.  Use the “follow” entry on the sidebar of the blog.

An interview with Rita Wirtz: Rita gives fresh ideas on the best ways of teaching reading. Interview conducted by Dr. Sam Bommarito

An interview with Rita Wirtz: Rita gives fresh ideas on the best ways of teaching reading. Interview conducted by Dr. Sam Bommarito

As many of you know, for the past few weeks, I’ve taken a break from doing interviews. I’ve been writing blogs defending Balanced Literacy (I still prefer the term Constructivist Practices), and those blogs have had over 35,000 views in the past month. In case you missed them, here are the links LINK, LINK, LINK

This week I am resuming my interviews. The first I’m posting is from Rita Wirtz. It was done several weeks ago. I want to thank her for her patience and understanding about the delays. Now let’s talk about Rita and her wonderful ideas. Here is an excerpt about Rita taken from her website LINK:

As you can see, Rita has an extensive background in teaching. Her teaching career spans over forty years. A visit to her website will show she has put those forty years to good use LINK.

Now let’s see what Rita had to say during her interview:

Here are the topics we covered (they are time-stamped):

Rita Introduces Herself01:00
Revisit NRP (National Reading Panel) for relevance.Brief History of “Reading Wars,” back to Adams, Chall, Goodman, Veatch (Rita’s mentor, ASU Reading Clinic, Whole Language guru) “Reading the Great Debate.” Finding Common Ground. SOR/Balanced Literacy. NAEP  03:44
Retaining kids is not a recommended practice06:00
Redefine five areas of reading instruction and why they matter. (phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, comprehension). (Writing, Speaking, listening).  07:09
Balanced Literacy11:05
Cueing, Sight words, Why all the fuss?, Leveled readers, Readability, Fluency testing (yuk),.
Hot topics.  
12:50
Final Thoughts20:19

Here are some additional links and resources from Rita. Note her two guest articles. One of those articles is scheduled to be reprinted in the summer issue of The Missouri Reader.

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ReadingChamps/

Instagram: @ritamwirtz

Twitter: @RitaWirtz

Books: Reading Champions! Teaching Reading Made EasyStories From a Teacher’s

HeartReading Champs

Recent podcasts:

Rethinking Learning with Barbara BrayThe Transformed Teacher, with Meredith Newlin

“Let’s Get Real” Bam Podcast

EdChat: Teachers Know Best

EdChat: Our Commitment To Teaching History Accurately

EdChat Radio on Learning Loss

EdChat Radio on Learning Recovery

Forest of the Rain interview 

Tackling Tech Podcast

Lesson Impossible Podcast

The Literacy Advocate with Timmy Bauer and Shalonda Archibald

Videocast:

The Transformed Teacher, with Meredith Newlin

Helping Students Read Better and Faster!

Everyone Academy (Vocabulary)

Everyone Academy (Comprehension) 

Unlock The Middle with Principals Dean and Chris

Interviews:

Centre for Optimism

Recent Guest Articles:
Protocol Education

The Robb Review, March ’22

Rita would like to thank BAM Internet Radio for supporting her writing.

She would also like to thank editor Tyler Trostrud.

Next week I will be continuing my interviews and guest blogs. Sometime over the summer, I will also share some of the nuts and bolts of my own teaching and my plans for teaching next year. Hoping everyone is having a great summer. I am looking forward to sharing literacy ideas with everyone this summer!

Happy Reading and Writing!

Dr. Sam Bommarito, aka the centrist who uses ideas from all sides to inform his teaching

Copyright 2022 by Dr. Sam Bommarito. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the author’s view and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization.

P.S. If you found the blog through Facebook or Twitter, please consider following the blog to make sure you won’t miss it. Use the “follow” entry on the sidebar of the blog.

Learning the ins and outs of defending a centrist approach by Dr. Sam Bommarito

Learning the ins and outs of defending a centrist approach by Dr. Sam Bommarito

This has been an amazing four weeks for the blog. It has had over 35,000 views in that time period. The basic message of the blog posts was that balanced literacy (I prefer the term constructivist practices) has worked and can work. The myth that Balanced Literacy has failed has been perpetrated by a slick but misleading public relations campaign. Part of that campaign is to discount or discredit the considerable evidence showing that balanced literacy has worked. My last two blogs, LINK, LINK, and other blogs before LINK LINK LINK LINK, present a case for my position that is supported with a considerable amount of what I hope is useful information.

Please don’t take my support for balanced literacy as saying it is the only possible approach. That would be as untenable a position as the one taken by the “my way or the highway” crew. Rather, my basic position is that of a centrist. Inspired by the thinking of a giant of the literacy world, P.D. Pearson, I take my stand in what he called the “Radical Middle” LINK. Let’s abandon the failed practice of constantly moving from one extreme to another. Let’s try something that has not been tried in the entire history of reading. Let’s try the middle ground. Let’s find practices from all sides and allow local districts to put together the sets of those practices that best fit their population. I say let’s Talk More and Argue Less LINK. I say let us have a Reading Evolution LINK. How does one go about defending such a position in the current situation on social media? This blog entry aims to give you ideas on how to proceed toward that end.

First, let me acknowledge that taking part in the social media surrounding the issue of teaching reading is not for the faint of heart. In one video purporting to disprove the accuracy of the data showing that BL works, a major SOR figure chose to use the words “punch you in the nose” as part of his message. Spurred on by such leadership, many SOR advocates have taken to mean-spirited sarcasm as the primary means of rebutting anyone who dares to question their message. This includes teacher-bashing or making things up to suit their position LINK. Things are so bad that many of my friends in the balanced literacy world have simply stopped posting. Attempts to find common ground/middle ground are sometimes summarily dismissed by many of the “my way or the highway” folks LINK. That is unfortunate.

The good news is that some folks in the SOR camp still recognize that such extremism is unwarranted and unproductive. That is best summarized by a quote I’ve used before. Here is that quote. It comes from Mark Seidenberg, a strong SOR advocate and author of the book At The Speed Of Sight LINK 

“This narrowing of focus is prompted by a valid concern: teachers (and other educators) have to be able to understand the research to make use of it. Since most educators don’t have much background knowledge in the area, the message has to be kept simple. That is the rationale for focusing on what I called “classic rock” studies.

I think this approach is giving up too much too soon. It underutilizes the science, underestimates the teachers, and diverts attention from the need to improve professional training. The science of reading movement hasn’t even gotten to the good stuff yet. I think teachers can absorb the important findings if they are presented the right way. Good PD is clearly an important component. Improving pre-service training would have the biggest impact, but that it is not happening as yet on a broad scale.”

For those of you willing to join the fray and get involved in what should be a discussion about the issues, the first thing you should do is arm yourself with all the facts. I hope all the blogs I’ve done will help you with this. For me, the single best source for such information I’ve found is P.L. Thomas. Here is the LINK to his fact-checking guidelines and one of his many blog posts around the “Great Debate” in reading LINK. I think both are “must-reads” for anyone attempting to mount a defense of balanced literacy on social media.  

Let me also share with you how I handled a recent encounter with a SOR advocate. She was not resorting to extremes; she was talking about the issues. I believe she was a parent who had completely bought into the slick public relations campaign and whose main source for ideas was that campaign. Here is a screen capture of that encounter.

Please read over my comments and see how I countered her arguments. First and foremost, NO SNARKY REMARKS OR RANCOR as I made my counters to her post. My advice- if someone says something that REALLY makes you mad, wait 24 hours before responding. In this case, that was not necessary. I was careful not to allow the conversation to shift away from the main point. The main point is that she never countered any of the many points I made in the blog she was talking about. I provided a restatement of several of those points. Take care not to allow the person to whom you’re talking to “take you down the rabbit hole.” Keep your remarks to the main point- and bring closure to that main point before embarking on anything new.

I tried to also appeal to her as a parent, pointing out that many children with reading problems do not have the problems that her child has. I may have gotten her to see at least some of my points. Her child was older and could not sound out words. I had done a blog around that point, and she acknowledged that. That means she had gone back to look at things I said. Baby steps!

A final point is this. I never counter their strawman statements with strawman statements of my own. SOR does not mean phonics only. They do also talk about comprehension. However, the key point is that too often, they overdo the time they spend on phonics and underdo or omit the time they spend on comprehension (think teaching comprehension strategies explicitly using gradual release).

I’ll end with a “dare to dream” observation. Let’s not let the extremists on any side keep those of us in the middle from talking to one another. If you find SOR folks willing to talk, for goodness sakes, talk to them. Be ready to admit that some of “your ways” have limitations. Theirs do too. My dissertation, done a couple of decades ago, was about the reading wars of that era. I found that the two sides of that time had more in common than the things that separated them. I suspect that a similar situation exists today. The only way for a common ground to be found is to talk with one another. As the opportunity presents itself, please do that. Let us find common ground. Let us empower districts to use that common ground to empower their teachers. That concludes the blogs around this topic.

Next week I will resume posting some of my interviews. I apologize to Laura Robb and Rita Wirtz for the long delay getting your ideas up. I am lining up other interviews for the summer. I may also do some posts around the nuts and bolts of what my brand of balanced literacy looks like. I hope it will be an interesting and informative summer. I’d also like to thank everyone for the well wishes about my battle with COVID. Things are much better, and I’m obviously able to resume my work on the blog. So, until next week:

HAPPY READING AND WRITING.

Dr. Sam Bommarito, aka the centrist trying to get all sides to talk with each other and find common ground.

Copyright 2022 by Dr. Sam Bommarito. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the author’s view and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization.

PS If you found the blog through Facebook or Twitter, please consider following the blog to make sure you won’t miss it.  Use the “follow” entry on the sidebar of the blog.

Are we to become a nation of word callers or a nation of thinkers and problem solvers? One teacher’s perspective on the Reading Wars. By Dr. Sam Bommarito

Are we to become a nation of word callers or a nation of thinkers and problem solvers? One teacher’s perspective on the Reading Wars. By Dr. Sam Bommarito

Last week’s blog essentially went viral. It had over seventeen thousand views in just one week. This is a strong indication that many educators see the centrist point of view I am promoting as a strong and viable option for those wondering about what to do in this current iteration of the Reading Wars. This week’s entry provides a quick summary of my criticisms of how some are interpreting the Science of Reading. It also gives my list of suggestions about things we can do if we adopt a centrist view about literacy. Thank you in advance for considering these remarks.

At my age and stage, I find myself pondering life’s many lessons. One of those lessons has been the idea of moderation. Too much of a good thing is never really a good thing. That concept has direct application in the current exchange in the literacy world that is often called the Reading Wars. I’ve written about this topic extensively. LINK LINK LINK LINK I’ve made the case that one group of SOR proponents that  I have dubbed my way or the highway group has created a successful public relations campaign that is convincing folks this particular SOR group has all the answers and knows the one and only true path to teaching reading. The problem is that they don’t. I want to clarify from the outset that not all SOR folks fit into this branch of SOR. Here is an abridged set of bullet points demonstrating that the “my way or the highway” crew really doesn’t have the one true path. For a more complete list, see last week’s blog LINK

  • Despite claims by some SOR advocates that it’s all settled science, many well-credentialed  researchers feel that the whole issue of how to teach beginning reading is actually not settled  LINK
  • As indicated in last week’s blog, recent research findings have demonstrated that OG, the flagship of the SOR fleet, is not the cure-all that some make it out to be. These research findings suggest that “Orton-Gillingham reading interventions do not statistically significantly improve foundational skill outcomes” LINK. My take on this is not that OG is necessarily a bad thing. Rather it is the point that OG alone cannot produce good results in comprehension. In addition, I have also interviewed several folks who have developed alternate ways of teaching phonics that are actually quite effective LINK, LINK, LINK, LINK, LINK.  
  • The views about comprehension promoted by the “my way or the highway” group are limited and limiting. As I’ve reported before, they fail to properly consider the extensive research by Nell Duke, P.D. Pearson, and others about how to improve comprehension. LINK
  • In one form or another, the “my way or the highway” folks assume that teachers should take care of phonics first. Comprehension will then take care of itself through listening comprehension. That position was discredited many years ago by the National Read Panel, the very folks from whom the SOR folks get their five pillars. Many top literacy folks from both sides do not subscribe to this particular model of the relationship between decoding and comprehension. LINK
  • The “my way or the highway” crew has no plan of what to do for students for whom two or three years of intensive phonics shows no results. Such children exist LINK. We need a plan to help them too.  
  • Too often, SOR extremists attack and teacher bash whenever a teacher has the audacity to post information that runs counter to their very narrow beliefs. I suffered such an attack just last week. I have friends who have simply stopped posting because of being swarmed by these folks. There is some of this kind of unprofessional behavior from all sides, but my screen capture collection has many more SOR folks being mean, spiteful, and rude than any other group. Teacher bashing by anyone is completely unacceptable and unprofessional.
  • Too often research is being treated as something to be weaponized by the “my way or the highway” advocates rather than as an ongoing search for new insights building on the foundations of what we already know. LINK They are using the research to convince folks to use their products and no other. The laws that effectively ban certain publishers and promote others are good examples of this. I find the naming of certain products to be used exclusively is particularly onerous and ill-advised.

Talking about my criticisms is not enough This week, I want to tell you more about what I am for. So here is a short bullet point list of my key recommendations for the future.

  • First, change the behavior of social media interchange so teachers can talk, not argue LINK.   As I just said, let’s everyone stop the teacher bashing. The experts interviewed in the Washington Post said there is room for reasonable differences on this issue:

LINK

“There are also reasonable professional differences about what phonics instruction should look like, how much of it is necessary, for whom, under what circumstances, and how it connects with other aspects of reading. But there is no justification for characterizing these differences as a “reading war” between those who believe in phonics and those who don’t.”

  • Look at all the research, including both quantitative and qualitative research. Here is one of my favorite blog entries from my early blog posts. Its main focus is on reading comprehension. However, the action research the author carried out also demonstrates the value of including both qualitative and quantitative methods in research. This was a guest blog by one of my former university professors, LINK. In a later conversation with this same professor/mentor, he told me about a review he did of Juel and Minden-Cupp ( 2000). That study provided descriptive research in four first-grade classrooms. He said it was still a classic in his mind. They found that the two teachers who were most successful in improving students’ word analysis and comprehension skills were those teachers who provided the most differentiated instruction throughout the first grade. This conversation led me to wonder what would happen if districts did more of their own action research around what was working best in their particular local setting. I hope to do at least one blog post in the future talking about the things qualitative research can do to help school districts in their decisions about creating a curriculum that really fits the needs of the populations they serve.
  • Let’s also look at all the brain research. This interview gives a fresh perspective on some of that research LINK. I am also currently looking into brain researchers who draw a different conclusion than the researcher the SOR folks are quoting. More about that in future posts.
  • In addition to giving teachers the respect they deserve, let’s also give them ALL the tools they need and the freedom to use those tools. Their PD needs to include synthetic phonics, no question. But it also needs to include the other research-based forms of phonics that they might need to use to meet the needs of students when synthetic phonics doesn’t work. There are times when it doesn’t LINK. It also needs to include making them aware of the many decades of research showing that teaching comprehension through gradual release positively affects reading scores. Naming strategies is not enough. Internalizing strategies is the actual goal. They also need the freedom to use all the available approaches as they carry out their district’s curriculum. See this ILA brief on research-based practice in the teaching of decoding. LINK
  • Districts need to stop looking for magic pills. Adopting a program (even programs that you or I might like better than others) should not be the first step. The first step should be developing a curriculum based on the needs of the district’s population. After that is done, THEN search for programs and materials. But the boss of things needs to remain the district curriculum. The program(s) need to be adapted to the district, not the other way around. I prefer programs that build collaboration among teachers, parents, and administrators as an important part of how the program is implemented.
  • Let’s undo some of the laws that preempt the local district’s right to develop curriculum. One size fits all solutions mandated at the state or national levels ignore the fact that it is the district, not the state or the nation, that is the level that knows the kids the best. It is the level that is duly elected to do the job of deciding what fits their particular population the best. Most especially, we must rewrite the laws that hurt children through the incredibly ineffective policy of retaining them. As PL Thomas and others have documented, the research around the harm of using retention has been around for decades LINK. Yet this new legislation ignores that research.
  • Let’s consider the needs of all the children, not just the ones with problems in decoding. For instance, Nell Duke reported that word callers constitute a significant number of children doing poorly on state reading tests. There are many other sources of causes for problems in literacy. Look at what P.L. Thomas had to say in Diane Ravitch’s blog to get a quick overview of the reading war’s history LINK. Let’s remember that research demonstrates there are multiple causes for reading problems LINK. Let’s acknowledge that as we create district curriculum. Lack of decoding skills is just one of the causes of reading difficulty, not the sole or the main cause.
  • Let’s measure reading progress with tests that include a full check of comprehension modeled after state reading tests (see Duke’s reference chart in this blog) LINK. We really do need truth in testing. With truth in testing, most of the claims of miracle growth would evaporate.

Before I was a reading teacher, I was a history teacher for five years. Folks in that field often warn that those who study the past are condemned to relive it. Let’s not ignore decades of research around comprehension or decades of research showing the efficacy of using multiple approaches for teaching decoding.

Another important insight I gained as a history teacher is that social systems tend to say in stasis. It takes a lot to create a shift in ideas. Unfortunately, many of those shifts come only when one goes from one extreme to the other. Moves to middle ground seldom happen. The middle ground lacks the sizzle of the extremes.

Let’s take the middle ground more seriously. I urge all of you to revisit the works of P.D. Pearson. He has been a giant in the field of literacy for many decades. He created the widely used gradual release model. He has consistently been a centrist, saying to draw ideas from all sides. An important work of his to consider is Life in the Radical Middle LINK. It was written during the last iteration of the reading wars. Here is an excerpt from that document:

A second reason for living in the radical middle is the research base supporting it. I read the research implicating authentic reading and writing and find it compelling. I read the research supporting explicit skill instruction and find it equally as compelling. What occurs to me, then, is that there must be a higher order level of analysis in which both of these lines of inquiry can be reconciled. That would be a level in which authentic activity and ambitious instruction were viewed as complements rather than alternatives to one another. The radical middle, with its (or rather my) fascination with apparent contradiction, allows me to work comfortably at that level.”

I wish we had found that higher-order level of analysis in which both these lines of inquiry could be reconciled during the last round of the reading wars. We didn’t. In my 50-plus years in education, I’ve noticed that during each new round of the reading wars, it eventually becomes apparent that because different kids learn differently, we need research-based ideas from BOTH sides (all sides) in order to help all the children. One of the things that most teachers learn when they start teaching real kids in real classrooms is that what works with one child does not always work with another. What I am suggesting during this round of the reading wars is that folks from all sides finally realize that sometimes we must admit our ways aren’t working for all children. That means we must consider ideas from those sides that we don’t necessarily agree with.

In sum, let’s abandon the current rush to push for “one size fits” all approaches. Let’s demand that any test that calls itself a reading test must include a substantial comprehension component modeled after how state tests measure comprehension. Let’s restore the rights of districts to create curricula. Let’s embrace the methods and programs that encourage problem-solving, thinking and collaboration. Let’s invite teachers back to the table of curriculum creation and curriculum implementation. The insights they bring would be invaluable. Finally, and most importantly, let’s give teachers ALL the tools and training they need to carry out their district’s curriculum in an effective manner. That means training in ALL the ways to teach phonics and in ALL the ways to teach comprehension. Let us give each and every child what they need. Let’s have a READING EVOLUTION LINK.

Dr. Sam Bommarito, aka the centrist who uses ideas from all sides to inform his teaching

Copyright 2022 by Dr. Sam Bommarito. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the view of this author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization.

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About that NY Times Article: Consider ALL the facts before making up your mind about Lucy Calkins by Dr. Sam Bommarito

About that NY Times Article: Consider ALL the facts before making up your mind about Lucy Calkins by Dr. Sam Bommarito

The author of the recent NY Times article seems to have bought into the narrative being created by the group of  Science of Reading (SOR) advocates I have dubbed the “my way or the highway” group. By using an exceptionally well-done PR campaign based on a limited view of the reading process LINK and supported by using cherry-picked, often questionable research LINK, LINK, this group has convinced many folks that they have the one and only path to solving reading problems. I’ve written about this group and the limitations of their view many times. The dichotomy suggested by the NY Times article is a part of the narrative being pushed by the “my way or the highway” folks.  

This excerpt, taken from a Washington Post Article LINK,  gives what I think is a more accurate picture of the current situation in the teaching of literacy. The people speaking are top experts in the field of reading research. Here is the excerpt:

“Underlying that continuum is the question of whether a deficiency in phonics is at the root of virtually all reading difficulties or whether, like many medical conditions (e.g., heart disease), those difficulties have multiple etiologies, including external factors, such as impoverished school resources to support students.

There are also reasonable professional differences about what phonics instruction should look like, how much of it is necessary, for whom, under what circumstances, and how it connects with other aspects of reading. But there is no justification for characterizing these differences as a “reading war” between those who believe in phonics and those who don’t.”

It is evident that the Washington Post article takes a very different view from the New York times article.

Despite what the NY Times article seems to imply, Lucy does believe in phonics. Her most recent statement on this topic makes it clear that she is not a johnny come lately to this position. I worked extensively with a major school district three years ago whose leaders reported that the balanced literacy programs they have been using had included phonics for years. They were puzzled by the claims to the contrary. It would seem that the “my way or the highway folks” will accept nothing but their particular phonics programs as “phonics.” I view this as a marketing ploy, not a research-based application of best practices. They might not like Lucy’s version of phonics, but claiming that she does not support phonics is a total misrepresentation of the facts. It also ignores the fact that Orton-Gillingham the kind of phonics promoted by these same SOR folks has been the subject of major criticism due to some recent research results showing it does not impact the key skills readers need- see the next section for details.

For anyone considering buying into this “my way or the highway” point of view, please consider some of the following.

  1. The flagship of the SOR fleet was the subject of a meta-analysis that found Orton-Gillingham reading interventions do not statistically significantly improve foundational skill outcomes  LINK. That study cited others with similar conclusions.
  2. Folks in Australia report that even after several years of intense phonics instruction, some students are still not progressing in reading LINK. Bottom line- some students need something other than an intensive synthetics phonics program to address their needs in reading. You’d never guess that from reading the Times’ article.
  3. Folks in England are questioning the results of over a decade of a nationally mandated intense synthetic phonics program. Reading scores seem to have gone up. Yet a large number of students are still not progressing despite the government program. Recently, critics have charged the government with purposely delaying the release of research reports that demonstrate this disturbing overall lack of progress. LINK
  4. Well-known researchers have concluded that “we are not there yet” in terms of having a complete science of reading. A new term, “the sciences of reading,” is becoming popular. I first saw that term in the Washington Post article I alluded to at the beginning of this post LINK. It asked if there really was one science of reading. The conclusion of the researchers interviewed for the article was that there isn’t. The article argued that we need to look at research from all the sciences. That thought has become one of my mantras. In addition, Mark Seidenberg, a strong SOR advocate and author of the book At The Speed Of Sight, has recently been quite critical of the road taken by some SOR advocates. Here is a LINK and a quote that gives what I think is the heart of his criticism:

“This narrowing of focus is prompted by a valid concern: teachers (and other educators) have to be able to understand the research to make use of it. Since most educators don’t have much background knowledge in the area, the message has to be kept simple. That is the rationale for focusing on what I called “classic rock” studies.

I think this approach is giving up too much too soon. It underutilizes the science, underestimates the teachers, and diverts attention from the need to improve professional training. The science of reading movement hasn’t even gotten to the good stuff yet. I think teachers can absorb the important findings if they are presented the right way. Good PD is clearly an important component. Improving pre-service training would have the biggest impact, but that it is not happening as yet on a broad scale.”

In addition to the points I’ve already made there are a number of other things to consider:

  • Legislation in both Florida and Louisiana mandate retention as part of their overall attempt to solve reading problems. SOR advocates have used these programs as examples of how their brand of SOR works. The impact this mandate has had on children of color is a national scandal. P.L. Thomas, a well-known critic of SOR, has summarized the way these programs have seriously impacted children of color LINK. However, Thomas isn’t the only critic. The Florida Association of School Psychologists also has come out against this legislation LINK.  A Washington Post article was also highly critical of this practice LINK.
  • Many early childhood advocates are critical of the push made by some SOR advocates to use direct instruction of reading to help our younger children at the earliest stages of reading. There is research that indicates that intense direct literacy instruction at the earliest stages is counterproductive, LINK LINK LINK.
  • Another offshoot of the “my way or the highway” approach is the recent rash of new state laws mandating select approaches to phonics. Unfortunately, some of those laws mandated the exclusive use of one publisher’s program over all others. Some publishers are already beginning to back off from supporting that approach. At the very least, these laws need to be rewritten so that any publisher whose materials meet the goals is allowed. The goals need to be set using all the research, not cherry-picked selections of the research. Otherwise, for the first time in the history of reading, laws are being passed that effectively promote one publisher and ban others. Proceeding that way takes away the rights of school districts to evaluate and decide what’s best. I find this a particularly chilling situation that needs to be addressed immediately.
  • Another problem with the NY Times article is the misrepresentation of Balanced Literacy. The article’s characterization of what Balanced Literacy folks promote is deeply flawed. First and foremost, balanced literacy is not anti-phonics. The phonics vs. no phonics dichotomy is a spurious public relations ploy, not an accurate description of what balanced literacy is all about. As indicated earlier, my dissertation was done on the last iteration of the reading wars. I studied that era quite extensively. The term balanced literacy emerged because leaders of the time wanted to end the Meaning vs. Phonics debate by concluding that we need both. The term “balanced” in Balanced Literacy specifically refers to including BOTH meaning and phonics.   Pressley was one leader who advocated for this approach. So was P.D. Pearson. Pearson is the creator of the “gradual release” model, the cornerstone of many of today’s educational practices. Pearson takes the position that there are merits to both sides (all sides?) of the Great Debate LINK. I’ve written about centrist ideas inspired by his thinking LINK.
  • This is a late addition to the list. It is a point I’ve made in many of my previous blogs. Some Science of Reading folks claim huge gains in reading scores- when they really have are gains in decoding scores. Many of the testing instruments used to prove the efficacy of their programs involve reading word lists, not answering actual comprehension questions. The bottom line is that when measuring READING gains, let us make sure the instruments used are the best we have. Let’s make sure they include a properly done measure of comprehension. This point was added on June 1st, 2022

Programs promoting Balanced Literacy have worked and are working. However, reading current pronouncements found on social media, and in some of the press, one would conclude Balanced Literacy is a complete failure. When the “my way or the highway folks” encounter research showing that some balanced literacy practices are working, they employ the “discount and discredit” tactic. They point out perceived flaws in the research, claiming that it is completely wrong, bogus or that it is suspect because of who sponsored the study, etc, etc. . P.L. Thomas created a really useful guide to help teachers navigate the tricky waters created by the misdirections of some SOR advocates LINK.

Readers, please do consider how some of these SOR folks conduct their own research, They make claims of huge gains in reading scores- when in point of fact what they have are gains in decoding scores. Many of the testing instruments used to prove the efficacy of their programs involve reading word lists, not answering actual comprehension questions. Have a careful look at the information from Nell Duke about what it actually takes to measure comprehension LINK.

Some SOR advocates also make use of what I call the “circular reference ploy”. They use it to “prove” the efficacy of their methods, Read this article from Rachael Gabriel carefully and you’ll see what I mean by circular references LINK, Overall, I view the ploy of dismissing and discrediting research that shows the efficacy of competing methods as disingenuous and questionable.

Also, consider that the NY Times article failed to take into account the importance of the AIR’s research That research looked at an elaborate control group of something like 160 control groups. It matched schools and clearly demonstrated the efficacy of Calkin’s methods. Some SOR folks attempt to dismiss those studies because of who funded the studies. But if those are to be dismissed should we not also be dismissing most of the research from SOR because of how it is funded? We seem to be applying double standards here. Let me make it clear that I am not talking about all SOR researchers. I am talking about the “my way or the highway” crew. Mark Seidenberg’s remarks, cited earlier, make it clear that there are those in the SOR community that are critical about how some of their members are proceeding in terms of how they talk about the research. Rachael Gabriel has said that in some cases they actually weaponize the research.

.

I’ll repeat my mantra. Look at ALL the research before drawing conclusions. I think you will find ample evidence that there are balanced literacy programs that work. How else do you explain PS 249 becoming a blue ribbon school this week? Remember that to be called balanced literacy the programs need to include elements of both phonics and meaning. So when evaluating balanced literacy programs, no strawmen examples, please!

Lest readers not familiar with my overall position think I’m saying not to use any SOR, let me assure you that I do advocate for using reading instruction based on scientific research, including that being done by SOR. For years I’ve been calling on folks to find common ground and common sense LINK. I’m saying to use what we have learned from SOR and what we have learned from other approaches. Experts in reading research have warned against treating things as a dichotomy, an “us/them” never-ending battle (see item 24 of the RRQ Executive Summary LINK). Unfortunately, that seems to be exactly what we’ve done for the five decades I’ve been in education. The net result of bouncing back and forth between extremes has been what some have called the “swinging pendulum.” At some points, it’s been mainly phonics-based. We seem headed back in that direction right now. At some point, it’s been mostly meaning-based. For instance, when I did my dissertation around the last iteration of the reading wars, many educators said we didn’t need phonics. I’ll point out that we’ve tried both these extremes (all phonics/no phonics) more than once over the years. And each time we get to the extreme, things go badly for some children. We then swing back to the other extreme. I’ve been advocating for the last four years that, for the first time in the history of reading, we try the middle, using the best ideas (research-informed ideas!) from ALL sides.

In my view, that is exactly what Lucy Calkins is doing right now. She is not retreating or capitulating in a phonics vs. no phonics war. Today, there isn’t a phonics vs. no phonics war. That war characterized the last iteration of the reading wars, not this one. Today one would be hard-pressed to find more than a handful of educators who say phonics isn’t necessary. Instead, what Lucy is doing is adapting the how and why of her current phonics approaches (and yes, she has been doing phonics for quite a while now) to be more in line with what best serves dyslexic children. I, for one, view this as a rather gutsy act. She is doing what I recommend all educators do when they find there are some children for whom their preferred approach isn’t getting all the desired results. What one does in such circumstances is to use ideas (research-based ideas!) from other approaches. I call this creating a Reading Evolution LINK.

Things are not yet where we want them in the world of reading instruction. That fact cannot be laid at the feet of Balanced Literacy. There are viable alternate explanations about what is wrong LINK. What is needed to fix things is for folks from all sides to be willing to learn from each other.

In conclusion, please consider all the research and all the history before drawing any conclusions about Lucy and the overall workshop approach. I have three decades of experience working in Title 1 programs, both urban and rural. Several of those programs won national awards for how they improved reading scores. My own experience with Calkin’s workshop has been positive and includes a 4-year success story in an urban district. I know first-hand that a properly implemented workshop program can and does include significant phonics instruction and can and does work in urban and rural settings. Thanks to all for considering these remarks.

(By the way, I’m not the only one criticizing the NY Times article. Please do have a look at what Paul Thomas said about it LINK.)

Dr. Sam Bommarito, aka the centrist using ideas from all sides to inform his teaching.

Copyright 2022 by Dr. Sam Bommarito. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the view of this author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization.

PS If you found the blog through Facebook or Twitter, please consider following the blog to make sure you won’t miss it.  Use the “follow” entry on the sidebar of the blog.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Because of the important issues raised by the NT Times article, I am delaying the publication of blogs around the work of Laura Robb and Rita Wirtz. I appreciate their patience in this. Those blogs will be posted soon.

An Interview of Nora Chahbazi, founder of EBLI: An evidenced-based reading program that uses linguistic phonics. – Interview conducted by Dr. Sam Bommarito

An Interview of Nora Chahbazi, founder of EBLI: An evidenced-based reading program that uses linguistic phonics. – Interview conducted by Dr. Sam Bommarito

In the past year, I have tried to examine a variety of perspectives on reading, especially beginning reading. I’ve interviewed many literacy leaders such as Tim Rasinski, Narelle Lynch and Rachael Gabriel LINK, LINK,  LINK. Check this blog’s sidebar under the interview category to find all the others I’ve interviewed. This week I’m talking to Nora Chahbazi, founder of Evidence Based Literacy Instruction. Hers is an amazing story. She began by working with her daughter, but she also wanted to help others. That desire led to the creation of EBLI. 

Here is Nora’s biography taken from the EBLI website:

Nora is a believer in the Science of Reading. She and I don’t agree on everything. But from the time I first visited with her, she has always been willing to talk and share ideas LINK. At the start of the interview, I alluded to the fact that of all the SOR sites I’ve looked at, hers is one of the very few that can demonstrate that their methods improve BOTH decoding and comprehension. She measures her results with tests of the full reading process rather than tests that measure mainly decoding. In addition, she gets phonics taught very quickly and very efficiently. To do that, she takes a road less traveled. She makes use of linguistic phonics instead of focusing on more traditional approaches e.g. OG. There is a link about linguistic phonics later in this blog.

Here is the interview:

Here are the questions we discussed in the interview. They are time-stamped, so you can easily find them on the YouTube Video: 

Set One What do you think the term Science of Reading means? How has the science or research on reading/literacy informed your teaching with EBLI? Tell me about your explicit instruction and how you gradually release students to independent reading and writing.  03:23
Set Two Is this instruction done in whole class, small group, or intervention?
Is it used for intervention/remediation? How much intervention is necessary for students to be able to read independently in trade books? To write and spell accurately and adequately?
 
05:00
Set Three How is it possible for the instruction to move so quickly? How is speech first decoding instruction different from traditional phonics?  07:00
Set Four The DocumentaryHow do you incorporate comprehension and higher-level thinking in your instruction? What recipe or ingredients do you think are critical to ensuring high-level literacy for all?  16:56
Final Thoughts  19:00

Here are links that go along with the topics covered in the interview:

  • Speech to Print vs. Print to Speech webinar: more effective, efficient decoding and encoding instruction LINK
  • Why Our Children Can’t Read and What We Can Do About It by Diane McGuinness LINK
  • Reading Reflex for parents to teach their children, what I used to teach my daughter in 1997 LINK
  • The Teacher Who Couldn’t Read by John Corcoran LINK
  • The Reading Gap by John Corcoran LINK
  • EBLI Webinars LINK
  • What is Linguistic Phonics? LINK

Here is a link to EBLI’s overall website. The website is worth exploring LINK. I think you will be pleasantly surprised by how large her project has grown and the wide range of resources she provides for educators, parents, and students. Notice she has just been interviewed by the author of Chicken Soup for the Soul. Her desire to help folks with literacy is being noticed in a very positive way.  

Dr. Sam’s thoughts about this interview & a peek at future topics. As I mentioned initially, I have been talking to or writing about folks from all across the reading spectrum during the past two years. I am a centrist. I am making the case that we need to listen to ideas and findings from all sides of the reading issue. The way Nora carries out and promotes her program at EBLI represents a way of proceeding with Science of Reading that holds hope for eventually finding common sense and common ground. She demonstrates that there are ways to teach phonics effectively that don’t fit the mold some are trying to force on us all. Nora is not trying to force her views on anyone. Everyone would benefit from learning more about the “flagship of her fleet,” linguistic phonics.

I’ll continue to explore what other literacy leaders have to say in the coming weeks. Next week someone else will do all the talking. I’ll be posting a guest blog from Laura Robb’s site (THANKS SO MUCH, LAURA). You’ll want to read that blog for sure! So- until next time, Happy Reading and Writing.

Dr. Sam Bommarito, aka the centrist who talks to folks from all sides in order to inform his teaching

Copyright 2022 by Dr. Sam Bommarito. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the view of this author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization.

PS If you found the blog through Facebook or Twitter, please consider following the blog to make sure you won’t miss it.  Use the “follow” entry on the sidebar of the blog.

An interview with Rachel Gabriel: Her views on key literacy issues, including the efficacy of Reading Recovery: Interview conducted by Dr. Sam Bommarito

An interview with Rachel Gabriel: Her views on key literacy issues, including the efficacy of Reading Recovery: Interview conducted by Dr. Sam Bommarito

This week I had the privilege of interviewing Rachel Gabriel. Here is a screen capture of her biography:

In this interview, Rachael began by telling us a little about her background. She did her doctoral work as a student of Richard Allington. Rachael is well-published, including articles for the Reading Research Quarterly. After telling us about her background, she strongly endorsed the work done by Reading Recovery. Rachael indicated that she is on the board of Reading Recovery of North America. She said that Reading Recovery supports teachers. It doesn’t leave them alone when they are stuck. She also noted that children served by Reading Recovery benefit from how the community of Reading Recovery teachers supports teachers as they help the children. I especially liked her insight that because of the huge supporting network of Reading Recovery teachers, when you are a six- or seven-year-old sitting across from a Reading Recovery teacher, you are not just sitting across from that teacher. You are also sitting across from all the teachers in her network and all the teachers that came before them in all the previous networks.

After talking about the extensive support Reading Recovery teachers give to each other and their students, she turned her attention to the statistics around the strength of the one recent study claiming that the impact was not sustained over time. The study claimed that Reading Recovery had a negative impact. She pointed out that that conclusion was based on a .2 standard deviation difference. She indicated that that is not a meaningful difference. (My take- it is a statistically significant difference, but it is so small that it is not educationally significant). She also pointed out that many other studies indicate that RR does have sustained effects. She then explained her ideas about the weaponization of research. Those ideas were explored in detail in my blog last week LINK. Finally, she talked about teacher evaluation and how to do that in a way that supports and develops teachers. Links to books she has written around this topic are provided later in this blog.

Here is the YouTube Video:

Here are the time-stamped topics/questions covered in the interview:

Rachael’s Background01:30
Tell us about your opinion of the Reading Recovery program02:06
Talk about what you mean by the “Weaponization of Research”09:54
Talk about teacher evaluation and the best ways to carry out teacher evaluation.15:34
Final Thoughts20:49
  

Link to Rachael’s books: LINK

I think my readers will find Rachael’s ASCD article about The Sciences of Reading Instruction informative. Here is a LINK to the article and a highlight from the article.

Overall, in my quest to find common ground and common sense in all the issues around the question of how to teach literacy, I find reassurance and guidance from folks like Rachael. She is adept at explaining research so that all of us can understand it. Her ideas and insights can help us all become better teachers who can help the kids grow into the lifetime readers and writers we want them to be. I am so grateful that she took the time to talk to all of us about the whole issue of how to teach reading.

I have several interviews with other literacy leaders coming up in the next few weeks. They will include folks from all sides. So, until next week,

Happy Reading and Writing!

Dr. Sam Bommarito (aka, the guy in the middle taking flak from all sides)

Copyright 2022 by Dr. Sam Bommarito. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the view of this author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization

If you found the blog through Facebook or Twitter, please consider following the blog to make sure you will not miss it.  Use the “follow” entry on the sidebar of the blog.

The Weaponization of Research and its Implications for Reports on the Efficacy of Reading Recovery & other Constructivist-based programs- by Dr. Sam Bommarito

The Weaponization of Research and its Implications for Reports on the Efficacy of Reading Recovery & other Constructivist-based programs- by Dr. Sam Bommarito

I have written many times about the group I have dubbed the “my way or the highway” advocates of the science of reading. First and foremost, this group claims that the issues around the teaching of reading are settled, and they have the one and only true science of reading. PL Thomas has written criticisms of this point of view LINK. So have I: LINK, LINK, LINK.   Even well-known science of reading advocates like Mark Seidenberg (author of the book Language at the Speed of Sight) finds major problems with some claims made in the name of SOR LINK. Especially look at what he has to say from paragraph 10 on. That paragraph begins with “I do know something about reading research…”. I’ll have more to say about Seidenberg’s views later in the blog.

Many well-credentialed researchers say “we aren’t there yet” in terms of creating an agreed-upon Science of Reading.           

One thing I have noticed most about the “my way or the highway” group is that one can accept their conclusions about reading if and only if you are willing to accept their very narrow view of the reading process, their rather unique way of verifying their research LINK (they often use circular self-references) and their limited review of the research that they use to “prove” their position. Many of us find their defacto approach to science which is that science is about proving final answers, is the antithesis of what most folks view as science. Science isn’t about proving the one and only final answer. Science is about discovering new things by building on what we already know to create new knowledge and understanding. That is why I find the approach taken by folks like Duke and Cartwright much more scientific. In their RRQ paper, The Science of Reading Progresses Communicating Advances Beyond the Simple View of Reading, they propose building on the old (Scarborough’s Rope) to create the new (The Interactive View of Reading). Their approach involves looking at what has come before and building on it. I am not claiming that their approach is the only approach. Neither are they. I am claiming that their approach is much more scientific than the approach being used by the “my way or the highway” Science of Reading crew. In my opinion, Duke & Cartwright’s approach does a much better job of explaining the role that comprehension plays in the whole reading process. 

Here are some examples of important research that the “my way or the highway” SOR folks have ignored or discounted:

  • Research by Nell Duke, P.D. Pearson and Michael Pressley demonstrates that teaching comprehension strategies positively impact reading scores. Duke’s studies focused on teaching those strategies using a gradual release model. See my blog about the issues surrounding this LINK.
  • Research around early childhood indicates the current push to move direct reading instruction into Kg and preschool is developmentally inappropriate.  Early childhood experts and others see play as more important than direct instruction in these early settings. LINK LINK LINK. This doesn’t mean I am against direct instruction; it means I am for using direct instruction in an age-appropriate manner. We are in danger of robbing a whole generation of younger children of their childhood.
  • Research around the long-term negative impact of retention, especially on children of color. See PL Thomas on this topic LINK, LINK and also Valerie Straus LINK. Despite such findings, SOR advocates continue to laude the benefits of the Florida model. In a bizarre twist, they also provide data that the “reading” gains of the Florida model are not a result of the retentions. If that is the case- why do they continue to support retaining students as part of the intervention models used in that state?
  • Research around best practices in teaching phonics. My dissertation, written in 2005, studied the last iteration of the reading wars. When I did that work, some folks said we really don’t need phonics, or they pushed for analytic phonics over synthetic phonics. The days of substantial numbers of educators saying “no phonics” are over. Today, most educators do see the need for phonics. The issues are now what kinds or how much. The ILA position paper on phonics indicates that research supports the use of more than one kind of phonics LINK. The “my way or the highway” folks ignore or discount that substantial body of research and promote the nearly exclusive use of synthetic phonics. Systematic instruction in synthetic phonics is far from a cure-all. Recent data from Australia indicates some children fail to progress even after several years of such instruction LINK. As Helen Amass reports, “Another concern is around the children for whom SSP simply doesn’t work. This is something that Al-Jayoosi finds particularly troubling, given that current government guidance for children who do not make good early progress in phonics is for them to receive more tuition in phonics – what she calls the “absolutely demoralizing approach of repeating phonics with them until they get it.” This is a huge red flag for adopting policies that call for the exclusive use of synthetic phonics.
  • Research continued. When advising districts, I suggest that they consider making systematic synthetic phonics an important part of their literacy program. I even have my recommended resources for PD, I would use materials from Mesmer and Duke LINK. I make it clear that there are also other potential resources. This is in stark contrast to the “my way or the highway” group operates. They sometimes pass laws mandating their materials and only their materials be used. They go so far as to name specific products. In some states, teachers are pushing back against the situations this creates. LINK.
  • Research continued, I spent three-plus decades working in Title 1 schools, both rural and urban, helping the kids for whom the mainstream program didn’t work. Those kids need something more, something different. Those kids need teachers who have a toolbox full of things to help them. Their teachers need training in more than just synthetic phonics. In addition to PD, they also need to have the freedom to carry out instruction that follows the child. That,  of course, should be done within the boundaries of district policies. For now, I’ll just say that there are many RR teachers who are taking training like OG training, and I’ve heard from many many teachers who are trained in a variety of ways to teach phonics. They are using that training to good effect and they don’t use one thing exclusively. I’ll have much more to say about this in future blogs.
  • Research demonstrates that there are districts using balanced literacy (I prefer the term constructivist practices) that do have success. Districts making such claims are met with a barrage of criticism that I call “discount and discredit.” Folks like Hanford and Vaites are making their living convincing parents that balanced literacy is a total and complete failure and calling for the replacement of any program that isn’t their brand of SOR. They often discount and discredit the successes of programs like RR. Those successes are listed elsewhere in this post.  I’ve offered an alternate explanation of why things aren’t as we want them to be. It maintains that some districts are using SOR with success, and some districts are using other practices with success. But there are many districts that are not implementing any program with success or have no real program at all or fail to implement the program they are using with fidelity. These are the districts that are causing the current lack of success. See the details of this argument in this blog post LINK.
  • Research around word callers shows that the word caller problem is not what SOR folks say. SOR advocates pretend that there are only a small number of word callers and that this is essentially a pre-existing condition. Nell Duke found that word callers account for a significant percentage of the students scoring low on state tests. Also, please have a look at this book:  Word Callers Small-Group and One-to-One Interventions for Children Who “Read” but Don’t Comprehend by Kelly B Cartwright, Edited by Nell K Duke LINK. I think you will conclude that there’s more to the issues around word callers than SOR folks are telling us. You’ll also find some great interventions to use with word callers.

Today I am adding two more things to the list of problems with the position that “my way or the highway” SOR folks take. One is that they base their claims on research with fundamentally flawed designs. The other is that too often; they use research based on weak instrumentation. Their instrumentation does not provide adequate measurements of comprehension.

I’ve written many times about the issues surrounding how many of their studies measure “reading.” They give students lists of words to read, then make inferences about comprehension using correlation statistics. Or they use the Dibels, a test of decoding, not comprehension. While this may be a sufficient design for preliminary research, when it comes time to spend millions (billions?) of dollars on materials, they need much stronger proof than they usually provide. See my blog entitled “Show me the Beef” LINK. Here link to a PDF by Nell Duke. Check out Box one on page seven for a look of all the things state reading tests include LINK. Compare that to the information one gets from the tests used in much of SOR research, and you’ll see that SOR instrumentation is often woefully inadequate. In fairness, there are a few (very few) SOR projects that use tests of comprehension as opposed to tests of decoding or word list tests. I’ll be interviewing the head of one of those projects very soon. By the way, the head of that project does not take a “my way or the highway stance.”

The other development is a phenomenon that Rachel Gabriel has called the “weaponization” of research. This is the worst possible way to use research. My take on this is that it presents research in a way designed to “PROVE” a particular way of doing things and force folks into taking what the proponents claim as the ONE AND ONLY path to literacy.

I view the recent pronouncements by Hanford and Peak as a case study in weaponizing research LINK. They cite research that claims Reading Recovery eventually has a negative impact on children. The clear goal is to get rid of Reading Recovery once and for all because, in their view, it doesn’t work. There is tons of research showing RR works in the short term, but Hanfork and Peak failed to mention that. They also ignore the fact of just how weak the statistics are “proving” this long-term negative effect. Rachel Gabriel will be talking about that in a future interview. RR is meant to bring students up to a level where they can benefit from the district program, and RR does a very good job of that. P.L. Thomas wrote an excellent post around the topic of how the media reports on the whole issue of beginning literacy. LINK

For instance, Bowers immediately replied to their attack on Reading Recovery. He said:

 “There is an obvious flaw in the study for assessing long-term effects. I hope critics of RR don’t ignore this. Can’t rule out a Mathew Effect. And can you point your readers to a long-term positive effect for phonics?”.

In my most recent blog about the positive effects of Reading Recovery, I point to the fact that the issue of the nature of the programs to which the students return has an important impact on student performance. When they return to classrooms where students are making progress overall, they match or exceed that progress. When they return to classes where students make little or no progress, they match that lack of progress. LINK Studies that fail to factor that in are fundamentally flawed.

Wait a minute, Dr. Sam, are you saying the RR is not a cure-all. That’s exactly what I’m saying. I’m saying it is an intense short-term intervention designed to move students up to a level where they can benefit from the mainstream program in their building. For most students, it does that beautifully. I’ve written several blogs outlining the research demonstrating the efficacy of Reading Recovery LINK, LINK, LINK. RR improves comprehension and decoding for those beginning readers, so says the research found on ERIC. That is something its competition has never been able to do. By the way, The Reading Recovery Community provided well-reasoned, well-research documentation that counters the claims made by Hanford’s review of the research LINK. Also, have a look at what Rachel Gabriel says next week about just how weak the statistics were “proving” this point.

Let’s be clear that when I’m talking about this “my way or the highway crowd,” I am not talking about all SOR advocates. I’ve interviewed many SOR folks over time and found that they are open to dialogue about the issues. Instead, I’m talking about that group that includes folks like Karen Vaites. Karen has strong ties to parent groups and gets important parts of her income from work they do that involves lobbying for/lobbying to these groups. She and others like her have been quite successful in getting many parents to buy into their narrow, restrictive point. They use some rather sophisticated, effective public relations tactics to do so. She fails to fact check, I’ve fallen victim to some of her pronouncements and so have some of my friends LINK. She makes no attempt to correct her mistakes and she has a tendency to just make things up to suit her arguments. One of my friends from England likened this “my way or the highway” group to the mockingbird. When a mockingbird’s egg is left in another nest, and the hatchling comes out, the hatchling proceeds to kill all the other birds in the nest. These folks are out to end all that has come before and replace it with their brand of science.

The most telling criticism of what I’ve dubbed this “my way or the highway approach” is one I cited earlier. It comes from a long-time advocate of SOR, Mark Seidenberg. Here is the LINK and a quote that gives what I think is the heart of his criticism:

“This narrowing of focus is prompted by a valid concern: teachers (and other educators) have to be able to understand the research in order to make use of it. Since most educators don’t have much background knowledge in the area, the message has to be kept simple. That is the rationale for focusing on what I called “classic rock” studies.

I think this approach is giving up too much too soon. It underutilizes the science, underestimates the teachers, and diverts attention from the need to improve professional training. The science of reading movement hasn’t even gotten to the good stuff yet. I think teachers can absorb the important findings if they are presented the right way. Good PD is clearly an important component. Improving pre-service training would have the biggest impact, but that it is not happening as yet on a broad scale.”

(bolding and underlining are mine)

In my dissertation about the reading wars that I did all those years ago, I found that teachers from the two sides had more common practices than those that separated them. That raised my hope that we might be able to find common ground at some point. I still think that is possible. It will require all sides to admit that their preferred practices have limits and limitations. Nothing works with every child. Instead of weaponizing research to prove points and promote narrow agendas, we should be looking at ALL the research and be ready to use things from all points of view, even if they aren’t the ones we think should always work. It’s time for evolution, not revolution. LINK. There is nothing that always works for every kid. Maybe it is time we should argue less, talk more LINK and make that talk about common ground and effective practices. Then we could figure out how to use that common ground to help the kids LINK LINK. Dare to dream!

May 4th addition: Please see “Making Sense of Reading’s Forever Wars” by Leah Duran & Michiko Hikida. Thanks to @RacheGabriel & Mary Howard for calling this article to our attention. This one is now on my “must-read” list. https://kappanonline.org/readings-forever-wars-duran-hikida/

In the meantime- Happy Reading and Happy Writing.

Dr. Sam Bommarito, aka the centrist using ideas from all sides to inform his teaching

Copyright 2022 by Dr. Sam Bommarito. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the view of this author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization.

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Posting the blog “The Weaponization of Research and its Implications for Reports on the Efficacy of Reading Recovery” will be delayed until next Saturday

Posting the blog “The Weaponization of Research and its Implications for Reports on the Efficacy of Reading Recovery” will be delayed until next Saturday. In the meantime, please have another look at my video post about the Sciences of Reading (Science with an s!). https://doctorsam7.blog/2022/04/23/video-of-my-presentation-to-beginning-teachers-in-st-louis-about-the-sciences-of-reading-sciences-with-an-s-by-dr-sam-bommarito/