Teaching students to talk big about little books and to read like storytellers: Tales from a successful after school 1st & 2nd-grade program. By Doctor Sam Bommarito



Teaching students to talk big about little books and to read like storytellers:

Tales from a successful after school 1st & 2nd-grade program.

By Doctor Sam Bommarito


It’s been just a little over a year since Dr. Tim Rasinski came to speak to our local ILA. His newest book co-authored with Mellissa Cheesman Smith had just come out. He was talking to us about the issues of fluency, prosody and a fresh look at the science of reading. Tim told the compelling tale of a first-grade teacher who used repeated readings to help her students become better readers. Her plan was simple, have them rehearse short passages such as poems and practice them daily and perform them at the end of the week. Tim reported that at first, this teacher was getting a lot of pushback from administrators who saw what she was doing as a waste of instructional time. However, they did allow her to continue. It’s fortunate that they did. It seems that at the end of the year her first-grade students outperformed all the other first grade classes in the school. The story had a more than happy ending. The teacher became the teacher of the year for her state. Readers can read more about all this in Tim’s Megabook of Fluency.

The story had a very direct effect on my own teaching practices. Though I am “retired” from full-time teaching, I’m still active in many different literacy projects, one of which is to spend one day a week at a school doing push-ins during the day and helping with the afterschool program. The afterschool program is voluntary. We have around 20 first and second graders who come once a week. They stay for about an hour, and I thought long and hard about what we can do in their relatively brief time that would really have an impact on their reading.

I’ve been a fan of the Raz Kids program for quite a long time. As part of my work at this building, I encouraged them to consider using the program. It is now in use in 1st through fourth grade. I like the depth and breadth of the program. It Includes well-written on-line books some of which are predictable, some of which are decodable and some of which are essentially trade books. It includes both fiction and nonfiction books. There is a very well-developed set of questions for each book. The quizzes are scored automatically and detailed information about types of questions missed et al. are provided to the teacher. My key use of the Raz Kids program for the afterschool group is to provide all of them one self-selected book to read each week. It also gives me the ability to talk to them during the week. I give them feedback and encouragement using the comment feature available through Raz Kids. This feature allows the teacher to both write and record their messages which students can access anywhere there is an internet connection, home or school.

Also, some of the students record the stories as they read them. I’m able to listen to the recordings. Listening to stories the students have recorded is another feature available on the Raz Kids program.  In a couple of cases, I could hear parents in the background helping children along. I was able to give some parents ideas on how to use prompting near the point of error to improve their child’s reading. For the first couple of years of afterschool, this use of Raz Kids became the cornerstone of my part of the after-school program.

However, after hearing Rasinski speak last year, I decided to supplement the after-school program with a couple of additional activities. These activities involved doing lessons around reading like a storyteller and providing the students with books to read from at the start of each after-school session. Regular readers of the blog know that one of my favorite authors to use for this kind of reading is Eric Litwin. My kids learned about Pete the Cat & Groovy Joe among others. Now each session begins with the kids in pairs picking books to read aloud. Each partner gets to choose one of the two books they read together. The partners choral read both books together. Each week I added one or two new books. I read parts of them to the student before adding them to the pile of books to pick from. I did think alouds around what I was doing to sound like a storyteller.

After several weeks of this, there was a wide variety of books. The students were rereading books, and they were happy to do so since they were getting to pick their favorite books to reread. I told them it was important that as they did their reading they try to sound like storytellers. Over time, they did. I love my white shoes, disco party bowwow, all these phrases from the books began reverberating through the room.  They loved to read them again and again.  Normally they read in pairs. The students read from each other’s book, always reading in chorus. I circulate the room along with my student helper. Our afterschool program has seventh and eighth graders who come to help us with the kids each week.  Over the course of the year, the students were really beginning to sound like storytellers. They were learning to read with prosody.

Another addition this year was the use of keep books. In addition to doing the reading of what came to be called the big books, the students were allowed to pick a Keep Book.  Keep Books are take-home books developed by Fountas and Pinnell. They are written around levels one through 16. See the link to keep books site.



These books are meant to be taken home to read. That’s exactly what my students did. Whatever Keep Book they chose for that week they got to take home and keep! Parents were asked to provide a shoebox or similar storage device.  I asked the students to try to read from their reading box at home. Over the course of the school year, they kept getting one keep book each week. Parents and students alike were pleased by the shoebox library. By the end of the year, each child had a very large collection of keep books. I would classified keep books as predictable and very heavy in the use of sight words. I let the parents know that sending home Keep Books and having the kids read from them was my way of teaching sight words. Over the years I found this way usually out produces the typical flash card way of teaching sight words

As you can see, the first 15 to 20 minutes of afterschool was spent in doing the paired reading read alouds of both the trade books  and the keep books. In addition to the read alouds, there was one more step. That was for them to talk about their books with each other. The phrase they learned was “you may have said it, but you haven’t read it until you tell me the characters, the problem, the solution.” By the end of the year all of them were able to have conversations around the narrative books. Once those conversations were going well, I also asked them to have conversations around their Non-Fiction Raz Kids books. The phrase for that was “if it’s true tell us what’s new.” They knew that what I was after was something new they learned from the non-fiction book. In case there was nothing new that they learned from the book they were told instead talk about the most interesting thing they found in the book, even if it was something they already knew.  Again, by the end of the year my students were talking big about their little books. I continue to use Raz Kids at the end of each session giving them just about enough time to finish one book each time they come.

I will say that at first the conversations were stilted, the reading was word by word, and they were somewhat unsure of themselves. Now at the end of the year, I thoroughly enjoy listening to the way all of them the blossomed into true storytellers.   Pete the Cat, Groovy Joe and many other such characters are very much alive for my after-school children.  The bow-wows in “Disco Party Bow Wow”, were a turning point for many of the children. They said it with gusto, and soon such reading carried over to other books they read. The tentative conversations from the start of the year have turned into more genuine book talks. I like to call it “Talking Big about Little Books.”

Remember, that this afterschool program is meant to be a supplement to what is a very good mainstream program done in the building. I found that adding the elements of repeated reading to what I’d already been doing with the Raz Kids program made for a much better year this year. Given the limitations of a once a week program designed to get extra help to the participants, adding the big talk, repeated readings, and the goal of becoming a good storyteller maximized the impact of this voluntary program. There was almost always time at the end of the teaching session to do at least 1 Raz Kids book. I have continued to use talking to them through the Raz Kids program as a way to reach them outside the after-school time.

Next week I want to continue to explore the ideas that I learned from Tim Rasinski. Especially those around reading being both a science and an art. I would encourage all teachers to consider the importance of teaching beginning reading in a way that encourages prosody rather than speed and robot reading. I’ll have much more to say on that point next week.

Until then happy reading and writing


Dr. Sam Bommarito (aka, the book guy)

Copyright 2019 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.

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.

Striving for a Caring Approach to Literacy by Dr. Williams Kerns


NOTE FROM DR SAM- This week my blogging partner asked to do a guest blog. It is a powerful piece with a powerful message. Hope you enjoy it. See you next week!

Striving for a Caring Approach to Literacy by Dr. Williams Kerns



The reading wars that we often wage in the literacy field will continue. Arguments over methods of instruction, theories of how to teach key skills, and how to foster comprehension will go on with urgency and the stakes are indeed high. But if the reader will indulge me in this blog, I wish to take a brief break from the battles. In this guest blog, I focus on an underlying need by the student to know that a teacher genuinely cares, and to feel fully valued as an individual.

On Thursday of this week (April 11) I had the pleasure of listening to a talk by children’s book author Angela Cervantes during the annual banquet of the St. Louis Regional Literacy Association. During her talk, Cervantes described an experience that I believe holds important lessons for us as educators.

When Cervantes was 16, she worked as a hostess in a Red Lobster restaurant. One night, she was among the few who braved a winter storm to report to work. As she cleaned a table, she overheard a couple making negative remarks about her that were based on stereotypes too commonly held about Mexican and Latinx people.   The couple remarked that Cervantes must not speak English, that she must be a high school dropout. They knew nothing about how hard Cervantes worked in school and her passion for literature. Eventually, Cervantes did offer to serve the couple, while speaking to them in English to the embarrassment of the couple.

In the story told by Cervantes, I believe there are important lessons. We need to ensure that we avoid making negative assumptions and stereotypes about students. Additionally, we need to take strides to ensure that students feel welcome, respected, and fully accepted within a community of learners. To do less than that is, I believe, an act of immorality against the human dignity of the student. I believe that efforts to establish a moral and caring purposefulness in educational practices should be sensitive to the interests and needs of students. Dare I say it – we ought to act with love toward students. I view love within educational practice as both an emotion and a moral decision. We can feel love, but we can also make the choice to act with love toward or to not act with love (Bransen, 2006).

It was not an act of love for the couple in a Red Lobster restaurant to engage in the negative stereotyping of a teenage Cervantes when she was working hard at performing her job. But how often might teachers also engage in negative stereotyping that can follow a student around for years in the educational journey? Far too often. Negative stereotyping can be difficult to shake because a tendency toward confirmation bias contributes to rigidity of concepts within social groups. This means that when a group of teachers may hold negative views about a student based on negative stereotyping, confirmation bias contributes to that negative view becoming difficult to change in the minds of teachers. A literacy teacher might engage in teaching strategies tied to such terms as systematic phonics, whole language, or balanced literacy, but if care – and love – is missing then the educational practice is, I believe, immoral.

Presence (Rodgers & Raider-Roth, 2006) by teachers provides a way to encourage the consideration of considering the affective and academic needs of students. The concept of presence emphasizes reflectiveness and inquiry as well as compassion in responses during the context of teaching. The teacher who develops presence would be alert to the needs of students and have a heightened sense of self-awareness. Dialogue that is open to an exchange of ideas based on mutual respect is an important aspect of presence. Presence can take place while a teacher is grounded in critical reflection. This approach would mean that teachers examine and respond to the diverse ways that children are impacted by life-conditions that often include the denial of equitable opportunities in education. A discussion of explicit or implicit bias provides an example of how the critical examination of educational practices can help teachers to explore their underlying moral beliefs that shape their educational practices.

Students will graduate from school with positive stories about teachers who genuinely cared about their needs and interests while remaining committed to expertise in the executional of teaching practices. I hope that each of us who are educators from Kindergarten through graduate schools will strive to be the caring teacher who is remembered with a sense of gratitude by students. Meanwhile, I also hope that we as educators will strive to be among those who have a positive influence on the lives of our students. Making such a difference includes a strong grounding in the content and pedagogical practices that are encouraged within a professional area. However, there is more to teaching than merely gaining certification that qualifies a person to teach. Ultimately, those teachers wishing to become excellent in their craft would do well to examine the needs and interests of students while also making lesson plans and curriculum design.

Don’t be “that teacher” who is remembered in an embarrassing manner. Be “that teacher” who makes a positive direction in the career and life-path of a student.



Bransen, J. (2015). Self-knowledge and self- love. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 18, 309-321.

Rodgers, C., & Raider-Roth, M. (2006). Presence in teaching. Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice, 12, 265-287.





Copyright 2019 by Dr. Sam Bommarito. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the view of this author or guest blogger 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.


What happens when you empower teachers and scaffold them into improving their teaching craft?: MAGIC!!!! By Dr. Sam Bommarito

reading creatuve commons

What happens when you empower teachers and scaffold them into improving their teaching craft?: MAGIC!!!! By Dr. Sam Bommarito


I decided to take a break from talking about the reading wars this week. Instead, I’ll talk a little bit about some success stories in the school where I spend one day a week doing some push-ins. I also help to implement an afterschool program. The school’s mainstream program is a basal, one that includes the use of decodable texts, predictable texts and trade books. For a variety of reasons, I find that a sensible approach since each kind of text lends itself to lessons around different strategies that can help scaffold students into reading. I’m going to first talk about a fourth-grade classroom where I have been helping the classroom teacher to implement some workshop teaching as a supplement to what she is already doing with the basal program.

This week that teacher taught me a lesson. Kind of made me think she was learning more than I was teaching. I had carried on some discussions with her around one of my favorite quotes. It’s a paraphrase of something Mark Twain said. “Those who can read but don’t are no better off than those that can’t read at all.”  So, it is important for teachers to encourage students to want to read. Take a look at a couple recent ILA position papers on that.  Special thanks to Fran McVeigh, principle author of  https://www.literacyworldwide.org/docs/default-source/where-we-stand/ila-creating-passionate-readers-through-independent-reading.pdf and Molly Ness principle author of  https://www.literacyworldwide.org/docs/default-source/where-we-stand/ila-power-promise-read-alouds-independent-reading.pdf for bringing those kinds of ideas to the forefront of current literacy instruction.  This classroom teacher had a rather innovative way of getting students to talk about their books with each other and share ideas. Some of it involved the dreaded cyber books. Her overall goal was to try to reignite her kids’ interests in reading. Let me tell you about what she did.

There is a widely used software platform that has extensive collections of leveled books. Includes a balance of fiction and nonfiction books. It even includes quizzes for the books. It also gives a great deal of diagnostic information about the quizzes. What sets it apart from many of the programs like this is that it allows a great deal of teacher control. This particular classroom teacher has used the program for a number of years and treats it as a tool rather than a prescribed lockstep program.

She noticed that one of the reports that are given each week talks about what books each child read. She got the idea of having the students talk about their favorites among those books. We modeled to the class how to do a simple summary. For fiction books talk about the character, the problem/goal, and the solution. As you talk about how the goal/solution is reached you end up giving the events of the story.  In the case of nonfiction books, we used the phrase “if it’s true, find out what’s new.” Translation of this is that readers should report on what new information was in the story about the topic that they didn’t know before. The students are given the fallback that if all the information was all about things they already knew, they could instead talk about the information they found most interesting.

A few student volunteers broke the ice by talking about their books using these simple retell devices. They did this in front of the whole group. The teacher had pictures of the books they had most recently read up on the whiteboard as they talked. After that, we shifted from whole group to small group. Students who had not had a chance to talk to the large group were given that chance in small group. We opened the scope of what books to talk about to include books other than the cyber books. Everyone got a chance to talk about at least one book and depending on the group some even got to talk about more than one. Each included some “what I liked most about this book” statements.

What I especially liked about this overall class activity was that something that is often held in disdain, cyber books with quizzes, was used in a way that got students interested in reading. That’s the kind of thing that can happen when one empowers teachers. Another thing is that in the process of learning some very basic retell techniques, students got the chance to get other students excited about the books they were reading. The goal of reigniting interest was more than reached.

Next time I’m going to talk about some of the first-graders in my after-school program and how they can and do talk big around little books. I’m certain that some of my direct instruction only colleagues will be all over what I said here this week. What a total waste of time they might say. Really? That is why next week I’ll also be telling you the story of a first-grade teacher who was at first accused of doing things that were a total waste of time. She was so successful with some of her constructivist activities that she became the teacher of the year for her state. Her students outperformed students doing things in a more traditional fashion. All this is based on what my good friend Tim Rasinski had to say last year around the whole issue of prosody and reading like a storyteller. More about that next week. In the meantime, Happy Reading and Writing.

Dr. Sam Bommarito (aka, the reading coach)


Copyright 2019 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.

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.

A tale of two readers: A close up look at two actual victims of the reading wars by Dr. Sam Bommarito

reading creatuve commons

A tale of two readers: A close up look at two actual victims of the reading wars

I’ve made a lifelong habit of listening to all points of view about various subjects and trying to consider all that is said before drawing conclusions. There is no place that this is more important than in the current iteration of the reading wars. Let’s talk about two actual casualties from that war.

I begin first with the child whose story convinced me that dyslexia is VERY real and that SOME students need a very different program when it comes to beginning reading. My local ILA group brings in speakers from many points of view and has for years. Last year,  a speaker who runs an excellent Dyslexia clinic here in St. Louis gave a talk. After the meeting,  I had a chance to hear one child’s story.  I struck up a conversation with a parent of a child for whom Reading Recovery hadn’t worked. I am an ardent defender of RR and have research to back up that support.  BUT I recognize that at the time this transpired reading recovery didn’t work for this child. She enrolled the child in a Dyslexia program. That helped in so many different ways including better reading and self-esteem. For my constructivist friends out there who believe that only “as needed analytic phonics” should be used I say, there are some children for whom that approach doesn’t work. Adjust your instruction for those children accordingly. I would add that more recently my friends in reading recovery are finding ways to adapt to children who need that more structured phonics program. Here is a good link summarizing Clay’s views about the younger child https://readingrecovery.org/reading-recovery/teaching-children/early-literacy-learning/

I’m not finished.

Recently one of my followers published a post on Facebook about her child’s experience. Her child was in an intensive phonics program. They were only allowed to figure out words this way. Memorize these rules. Memorize these sounds. Eventually, the child actually began having nightmares about the instruction and started to hate reading.  The child was moved into a program with a more constructivist approach. Nightmares disappeared. Reading happened. The child is now an ardent lifelong reader. The mother was so inspired she decided to become a reading specialist.  To my colleagues from the “simple point of view,”  I say this: At the end of the day what you do also works for SOME children, but not all. In implementing the program for this particular child, the teachers zigged when they should have zagged. The bottom line is that there are some children for whom your approach doesn’t work. That doesn’t mean we abandon it. It does mean we recognize that LIKE ALL METHODS OF TEACHING LITERACY, it has limits and limitations.

What do the two victims of the reading wars have in common? Each was placed in a program that didn’t work for them. Each thrived when placed in a program that did work for them. There is a lesson to be learned here. That lesson is that folks who feel their way and only their way works are bound to hurt some children. There are alternate ways that might help children that you are unintentionally hurting. You need to start paying a lot more attention to what the “other side” is doing. I’m saying that the road runs both ways.

But Dr. Sam. What about all that xyz research that supports MY side?

One can get bogged down in a “my research” vs. “your research” battle. That is a never-ending battle. For anyone who would care to, I can wage a tit-for-tat endless war with you around that point. This is especially true when I draw on the knowledge of my blogging partner,  Dr. William Kerns. Such exchanges can result in blogs and twitter pages turning into very (very very) long conversations. This will go on until eventually, everyone stops reading.  OR we can fast forward to the end and look at the end results of the two approaches.  For the ardent supporters of the simple view of reading, please visit England. They’ve mandated synthetic phonics for quite a number of years. Somehow the magical “everyone is cured” outcome has simply not materialized. By contrast, visit Finland. They have one of the highest literacy rates in the world. They listen to their teachers.  They empower their teachers and give them respect. They start reading instruction at a much later age than we do.  Yet their kids outperform ours and those of most other countries around the world. In light of recent efforts to try to push direct reading instruction down into preschool to our very youngest readers, I think it is important to know that there are places in the world doing it differently who are having better success than we’ve ever had. Please do read all about it.





Teach Like Finland: 33 Simple Strategies for Joyful Classrooms

Apr 18, 2017


I grew up in the sixties. Snippets of songs from the era still play in my head sometimes.  “Singing songs and carrying signs, mostly say hooray for our side”.  It’s way past time to stop thinking completely about our particular point of view/philosophy of reading and start thinking about the kids instead. No more causalities. Only success stories.  You do that by fitting the program to the child, not the other way round. You do that by empowering teachers and giving them training and access to a variety of methods for teaching reading, not just one. Here is one more piece of evidence that BOTH analytic and synthetic phonics have a place in phonics instruction. The key is that they be done SYSTEMATICALLY.  https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/eie.12125

My final thoughts are addressed to the folks caught between these two warring camps and trying to make sense of things. Several pieces of advice. Upgrade the beginning teacher programs so that teachers come away with a working knowledge of sound-symbol relations. Curriculum for that teacher training can be based on the basics of what speech pathologist are taught about sounds. Teach teachers about ALL the possible ways to teach phonics not just one. Here is a link to an ILA position paper explaining the various approaches.  https://www.literacyworldwide.org/docs/default-source/where-we-stand/ila-explaining-phonics-instruction-an-educators-guide.pdf TRAIN THEM AND EMPOWER THEM to use all the methods. Train them to use what works best for each child.

Let the local school boards decide what to adopt. I predict many of them will conclude that a good synthetic based program will get the job done for their children. Some of them may adopt a more analytic based program. But, with whatever alternative is chosen, things can/should be waiting in the wings for kids for whom the “mainstream” approach does not work.  For both sides- STOP using strawmen. Stop pointing out ONLY the mistakes or shortcomings of the other sides’ point of view. Stop using the 1967 version of what constructivists said and start looking at the 2019 version. Look at ALL the research, not just the research that proves you are right and they are wrong.  For folks adopting new programs, ask for studies indicating LONG TERM SUSTAINED GAINS IN READING COMPREHENSION/ACHIEVEMENT. Consumer warning: Some folks will try to pass off vocabulary tests or testing information based correlational data instead of direct measures of comprehension, as sufficient proof for demonstrating comprehension. That kind of proof is ok for preliminary, exploratory studies. But when you’re getting ready to spend tens of thousands (hundreds of thousands) of dollars on something, demand studies that DIRECTLY use widely accepted comprehension tests. Teaching decoding exclusively sometimes results in a bump in reading scores (they learned to decode) followed by long plateaus of no progress. The plateaus occur because needed comprehension strategies are under-taught or not taught at all. Be sure to ask for ongoing results from several years, not just one.  If they can’t produce such studies hold up the adoption until they can.

In previous blogs, I have called for a reading evolution. That means both sides (all sides) should stop debating for a while and start talking to each other. Let me be candid.  I’ve said before, that at the end of the day your boss is not a district or a particular organization or movement. The kids are your boss. They don’t care who “wins” the reading wars. They only care if you can do something to help THEM. Time to start talking to each other and start listening to the boss. It’s time to stop the swinging pendulum in the middle for a while and see if we can learn things from each other that will help us help them. It’s time for a Reading Evolution.

Please tweet to # ReadingEvolution or #RdingEvolution with an E“  . Please share ideas from all sides.. As indicated earlier,  It really is time to stop the swinging pendulum in the middle for a while and see if we can learn things from each other that will help us help the kids  It’s time for the Reading Evolution.


Dr. Sam Bommarito  (aka- the person in the middle happily taking flak from both sides)

Copyright 2019 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.

P.S.  a very special thank you to the 5735 who visited my blog and the 6000 plus reads of the post this week. It’s good to know there is that much interest in the message. Really serious about wanting to talk about all sides. Please use the #’s to do so.

Reading and the Dyslexic Child: About that Tsunami of Change Predicted by the Advocates of the Scientific Method of Reading By Dr. Sam Bommarito

reading creatuve commons

Reading and the Dyslexic Child: About that Tsunami of Change Predicted by the Advocates of the Scientific Method of Reading

By Dr. Sam Bommarito

According to some (not all) of the advocates of the scientific method of reading, there is a Tsunami of Literacy change coming. Bad practices in the teaching of reading are going to be replaced by good ones. The reading crisis is going to be solved. The problems caused by the evils of whole language and balanced literacy will be overcome by an unbalanced approach, an approach that uses most (all) of the literacy instructional time in the early grades (k-2) to teach using scientific-based reading practices (translation- TONS of direct systematic synthetic phonics instruction). Comprehension can wait. Comprehension will follow naturally once the decoding problems are solved.

I’ll begin by reminding my readers that a Tsunami is a form of a natural disaster. It usually results in great pain and suffering. It can take months, sometimes years to recover from a Tsunami. Perhaps it would be wise to show some caution before welcoming a Literacy Tsunami as a solution to our perceived problems in the teaching of literacy.

Let me now address the very real problem that was the impetus of the current movement to change literacy practices. That is the failure to provide adequate instruction for the Dyslexic child. I’ll skip right to the end on this one. Dyslexic children do not thrive on a program based on analytic phonics. They truly need a program that is direct, synthetic based and systematic. There is no question they should be provided  such programs. My belief is that currently, the best place to do that is in a tier three program. For that to work it would require that Dyslexic children be a “minority” in the sense that most children with reading problems do not have Dyslexia. That would require taking the point of view that reading difficulties have their origins in multiple (complex) factors. The rest of this entry will present some evidence that this is the case. I will present evidence to demonstrate that we may not want to abandon practices that, in point of fact do help a significant number of children, children with very real reading difficulties but who do not fit the criteria for being Dyslexic.  Let’s see why I say this based on challenging some of the myths propagated by some of the advocates of the “scientific method” of teaching reading.

Myth one: Programs like Reading Recovery, programs that often use things like the three cueing systems and other unproven educational practices, should be ended and replaced with strong systematic synthetic phonics-based programs. There is a major problem with this point of view. It fails to explain why RR has consistently been found to be the most effective reading program in beginning reading. It is the only beginning reading program to show significant improvement in BOTH comprehension and decoding. Its synthetic-based rivals show gains in only decoding.  We’ll dive into that fact a little more deeply later in this analysis. See the following link for the newest information on this point: https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/EvidenceSnapshot/420.

I was always taught that all it takes to call a scientific hypothesis into question is one contrary observation. The What Works Clearinghouse conclusions clearly show that, in spite of its critic’s complaints that it does not follow their vision of “scientific teaching”, Reading Recovery actually works better for many children than the programs advocated by the “science of reading” point of view.

In previous blogs, I’ve pointed out that SOME of the advocates of the scientific method employ the “strawman” tactic in order to make the case against Reading Recovery, along with other constructivist-based tactics. They create a “strawman”. They do this by reporting only studies critical of a method and ignoring studies (like the WWC analysis) that demonstrate that they work. These kinds of tactics may work in heated political campaigns. But if one is pursuing science, one must weigh in with all the data before drawing final conclusions. Ignoring critical data that supports “the other side” is not my idea of science.

Myth two: Whole Language and Balanced Literacy are the cause of all the current problems in literacy.  Let’s examine one case where that claim was made. California mandated that whole language be used. Shortly afterward reading achievement went down. That’s a slam dunk, right? Whole language caused a major loss in reading achievement scores. As is often the case in scientific research, the devil is in the details.

Enter on the scene Stephen Krashen. He took a closer look at the data. He asked a simple question. Were most teachers in California actually using whole language?  He found the answer was an emphatic no. Most were not. Yet the scores went down. How can that be? He reported that the actual causes of those lower scores were “a large influx of non-native speakers of English and significant decreases in educational funding (larger classes specifically negatively impacting achievement).” See this link for details.


Myth two: The source of most (all) reading problems is Dyslexia.  Having taught the analysis and correction of reading course multiple times at both the graduate and undergraduate level I’m familiar with textbooks that were used/are being used in that course. Harris and Sipay was a mainstay textbook for quite a number of years. The earliest versions of that text came out before the current round of the Great Debate. Their conclusion- there are multiple causes for reading problems. John’s is another text often used. His conclusion- multiple causes.  Readers are invited to examine other textbooks currently in use. I think they will find- multiple causes is the current conclusion of virtually all the experts in area analysis and correction. If this is true, then solving the overall problem of low achievement in literacy requires much more than solving the literacy problems of the Dyslexic child. IN NO WAY am I suggesting that working toward meeting the needs of the Dyslexic child is unimportant. It is VERY important. But meeting their needs only solves a small part of the overall literacy instruction problem. It does not address the problems of the children whose literacy problems stem from other sources. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that one of those sources is the failure to provide systematic and explicit instruction in comprehension. I predict that those who think that decoding instruction in the first few years should supplant comprehension instruction are going to be sorely disappointed.  Solving decoding problems is NECESSARY for a good literacy program. However, solving those problems IS NOT SUFFICIENT.

Myth three: SES Doesn’t Matter

It is sometimes implied by SOME advocates of the scientific method that because Dyslexic children can (and do) come from families who are what we would call high SES (Social Economic Status) that SES doesn’t matter much. On the one hand, it is absolutely true that some Dyslexic children come from high SES families. So, it is true that SES is not always a factor in reading difficulties. Does that mean that SES never a factor reading achievement? Hardly. There is a TON of data demonstrating SES is a factor. By and large areas with low SES have consistently had scores about 1 standard deviation below the expected reading achievement scores. That has been a widely accepted fact of life since I began my teaching career in 1970 right through to today.  Many of us in the reading world view that solving the poverty crisis and mitigating the effects of poverty is crucial to solving the literacy problems of many children.  I’ve mentioned before that back in the day I worked in three different Title one programs that won awards for the achievement gains in reading. By definition Title 1 programs are in low SES areas. One can find many examples of programs in low SES areas doing that. I think a careful examination of those programs will demonstrate that they accomplished their gains by doing much more than simply solving the decoding problems of their students. I’ll leave it to my friend Dr. William Kerns to provide more research around that point in future blogs.

Myth four: Applying the Methods of the “Scientific Approach to Reading” results in tremendous gains in reading achievement.

Careful examination of the data some proponents of the scientific method of reading provide does demonstrate major gains in DECODING ability, not reading achievement. Please examine the instruments used in their studies. Most of the variance measured by those instruments come from Decoding, not comprehension. Too often their comprehension data, if it is present at all, relies on vocabulary only or data based on correlations with comprehension tests instead of directly measuring comprehension. Correlational data may be satisfactory for exploratory studies, but for studies used to justify large expenditures by districts, direct measures are needed.

My next remarks are addressed to district level decision makers “shopping” for literacy programs. If you are looking to make long term investments in a program, I think it is prudent that you demand something more than the current level of proof provided by some advocates of the scientific method.  My advice is to ask for data indicating 1. Long term sustained gains (critics of the “Scientific Approach” often point out the gains they claim happen disappear once data is looked at over extended periods). 2. Studies that use actual direct measures of comprehension. In my day we used the Gates-Macginitie. It has a Vocabulary Section and a Comprehension section resulting in an overall reading score. Once again, as is often the case, the devil is in the details. It is a buyer beware kind of situation. Before you buy into a particular set of methods, please ask your local experts in testing to search programs you are considering for evidence of long-term READING ACHIEVEMENT gains based on widely accepted tests of COMPREHENSION. I’d recommend against adoption if such proof cannot be provided.

An important footnote. I’m sure you’ll hear answers like- if you take care of decoding problems then the comprehension problems will be solved as well.  The problem is, reading is not a natural process (one point on which the science of reading folks and I agree). Since it is a LEARNED process, it follows that in addition to learning the decoding strategies readers must be explicitly and systematically taught comprehension strategies (or the single comprehension strategy if some analysts are correct) as well.  Do you really want to wait until the second or third grade to do that? That is what many advocates of the scientific method are asking you to do in order to make time for all that extra decoding instruction they recommend. If you follow that advice you run the risk that the “hidden curriculum” (only decoding matters) will cause many of your readers to pay little or no attention to the ideas of the things they read.  Does that sound like the kind of learner that can survive in the 21st-century work environment? Does that sound like a learner that will provide your district with long term gains in reading achievement?  As I said, buyer beware.  Until and unless they provide comprehension instruction from the outset, I would not consider buying into implementing their programs.

Myth number Five- All districts are using balanced literacy/whole language and that is why the current reading scores are so low.

I will begin with the obvious.  Some advocates of the scientific theory seem to assume that all (almost all) of the district programs currently in place are “whole language” or “balanced literacy”. They treat the two terms as synonymous. They are not. They attribute things to the programs that are simply not accurate or true. For instance, they often say whole language means no phonics. Sorry, I was at the 1995 ILA convention in Anaheim and heard Ken Goodman speak at the Reading Hall of Fame session. During that session, he directly stated that there is a place for phonics in a whole language program. In addition, there is the same issue raised by the whole California fiasco.  What is it that different district programs are ACTUALLY doing? Are there some programs that are more successful than others? If the science of reading folks were to try to present their findings to a doctoral committee, they would quickly find themselves being told to nail down which programs are failing and the characteristics of those programs. They would be required to provide evidence of where those programs are being done or not being done.  They might even be required to see if differences in implementation results in differences in achievement results. For instance, how do Guided Reading programs that follow the advice of Burkins and Yaris on time allotment fair compared to programs that don’t? They are currently painting with far too broad a brush to meet anyone’s definition of scientific research.  If they are going to claim the title of the scientific method, then they need to tighten up their research methods considerably, especially when making such broad statements about what districts are currently doing.

I’ve said before that my analysis of the Great Debate and why the pendulum continues to swing is based on something I learned from one of my mentors, the late Dr. Richard Burnett, professor emeritus from the University of Missouri St. Louis. A very long time ago he told me “Sam- the great debate has never been about phonics vs. no phonics. It has always been about my phonics vs your phonics.” My take on this is that the debate is really about analytic phonics (preferred by those of a constructivist bent) vs. synthetic phonics (preferred by those of an empiricist bent). My next statement will please almost no one but does have the potential to help everyone. There are SOME children who thrive on analytic phonics, SOME children who thrive on synthetic phonics, some children who can thrive on either and SOME children who can get by with almost not phonics at all.

Evidence supporting the above position is as follows: “According to Torgerson et al., ‘There is currently no strong randomized controlled trial evidence that any one form of systematic phonics is more effective than any other’ (2006: 49). Research evidence which is available is insufficient to allow for reliable judgments to be made about the efficiency of different approaches to systematic phonics instruction (Stuart, 2006). “

Go to this link for details



I’ve attributed the ever-swinging pendulum to the fact that when people at the two extremes (in the sense they take the positions of ONLY synthetic or ONLY analytic) start saying only their way works and only their way will be allowed things start to go badly.  When that happens, we find ourselves in a situation where it is guaranteed some children will not thrive.  What happens next is a call for “out with the old, in with the new”. Usually, enough time has passed so that most folks have forgotten that the “new” didn’t work the last time around. As a result, the cycle has become never-ending. My suggestion has already been made. Let’s for once try stopping in the middle. Let’s talk to each other about what works for PARTICULAR kids. Let’s stop debating and start dialoguing. Let’s learn from the ideas of all sides and ask the question of what works best for THIS PARTICULAR CHILD. In the course of that, we can start a reading evolution.


Dr. Sam Bommarito (aka the Mythbuster)

Copyright 2019 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.

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.





Cutting through the Gordian Knot of Phonics Instruction Circa 2019: My advice on how to build word work (decoding) into your Guided Reading Classroom by Dr. Sam Bommarito

reading creatuve commonsLast week my blog focused on tweaking how we implement guided reading. In the past week, it had over 1200 readers in over 30 different countries. Today’s title is as follows:

“Cutting through the Gordian Knot of Phonics Instruction Circa 2019: My advice for how to build word work (decoding) into your Guided Reading Classroom”

In this entry I am attempting to give a “Cliff’s Notes” version of my recommendations around phonics, decoding and guided reading/reading workshop. I do have research-based evidence to back up what I say. Most of it has appeared in previous blogs. I am currently working with some of my colleagues to produce a book-length version of these ideas. It will include all these ideas and a more systematic look at all that aforementioned research.

Let me begin by giving a summary of what I am about to say in this post. Fit the instruction to the child, not the other way round. Train teachers in ALL the approaches to teaching phonics. Empower teachers to use the approach that best fits their kid(s). A strong reminder is given that what works with one kid might not work with another. Make sure that whatever scheme is adopted for teaching decoding leaves sufficient time to also include teaching comprehension. This should be done even at the earliest levels of literacy instruction.

In my opinion, the key to cutting through the Gordian knot of phonics instruction is to empower teachers (allow teachers!) to fit the decoding instruction to the child. In that way, every child gets what they really need. The “point” person in all this is the classroom teacher. At the end of the day, they know the children best. Since the publication of the 1st Grade Studies over 50 years ago and through subsequent work by Dick Allington and others there is a strong research base indicating that teachers make more difference in reading achievement scores than any particular method or approach. It is time our educational policies reflect this. It is time to start treating teachers like the valuable resource they are and untie their hands so they can do their work. It is work they have demonstrated a remarkable ability to carry out even in the current circumstances, which are far less than ideal for best results.

  1. Teaching Teachers to Teach Phonics (Decoding)

The current state of affairs in teaching preservice teachers about phonics is unacceptable. Many teachers are coming through their pre-service work without learning the basics of how words work, what the sound symbol relations are et. al. Think diphthongs and digraphs and voiceless consonants and all the nuances of letter sounds. Look to the programs for speech pathologists. They’ve had a great curriculum in place for decades. The program for classroom teachers need not be as involved as that curriculum. but a basic program for all teachers should be put in place, informed by the speech pathologist’s current curriculum. I will acknowledge that many teachers, left to fend for themselves, have managed to gain such knowledge anyway. Care should be taken that this gaping hole in the typical curriculum for pre-service teachers is filled as soon as possible and that appropriate coursework for practicing teachers be provided.

There are several ways to teach phonics. The two used the most often are analytic and synthetic phonics. See the following ILA position paper which explains the various approaches: https://www.literacyworldwide.org/docs/default-source/where-we-stand/ila-explaining-phonics-instruction-an-educators-guide.pdf

There is research evidence to indicate that each of these approaches can help some children. In fact, there is even evidence that some children (a VERY small number of children) need no phonics instruction at all. My preference is for district-level literacy programs that start with synthetic phonics. My recommendation is that decisions on which of the approaches to use as the base program in a district be made at the district level. Any overall literacy program/well-rounded literacy program must also include well-informed systematic teaching of comprehension strategies (or if some analysts are correct a program based on teaching the overall problem-solving strategy common to all the so-called separate reading strategies).  Local school boards know their children the best. Informed by the teachers’ experiences with the children, local school boards can make the best decision for their district.

  1. Teach all the Approaches to Teaching Phonics For a basic explanation of the two most widely used approaches to teaching phonics see the following ILA paper: https://www.literacyworldwide.org/docs/default-source/where-we-stand/ila-explaining-phonics-instruction-an-educators-guide.pdf
  • Analytic- This is often done on an as a needed basis. When using this approach teachers should be aware that the greatest danger is that large holes can be left in the students’ knowledge around phonics and how words work. This can be rectified by having district-wide goals, K-1 (K-2?) with teachers directed to track what goals they have completed and adding instruction as needed to make sure the overall experience gets the students all the things they need. Done this way, I think analytic approaches can meet the criteria of “systematic”. Systematic phonics instruction (that reads systematic not synthetic) phonics instruction seems well supported by the research.
  • Synthetic- This approach is more direct and is inherently done in a systematic way. When using this approach care should be taken that instruction given to Tier-one children be efficient and leave time for concurrent work on comprehension strategies. A “leave comprehension for second grade or later” approach is not recommended. Children needing more time for additional explicit decoding instruction should be served in Tier two or Tier three programs.

Just as you do with comprehension work, use the small group setting within Guided Reading or Reading Workshop as the final scaffold into using the decoding strategies. Especially be aware of what work you are leaving for the students and why.

3. For analytic phonics lessons use predictable text at or near the most difficult part of the student’s instructional level (barely above their “challenge” or “frustration” level). Pick text that will give multiple opportunities to use the decoding skills being taught (e.g. say the first sound and think of the clues).

4. For synthetic phonics lessons use decodable text at or near the most difficult part of their instructional level (barely above their “challenge” or “frustration” level). Pick text that will give multiple opportunities to use the decoding strategies being taught (e.g. letter by letter sounding)

5. Word work for the older child: From late second grade forward try to expand the student’s knowledge of both consonant and vowel digraphs. Include instruction on the r-controlled sounds as well. Work in learning about prefixes, suffixes, and roots can also be beneficial. This is especially true in content area reading. Think science and all that one can learn about the meaning of words by noticing the prefixes, affixes, and roots of those words. Tim Rasinski’s website has a number of resources that can be used toward teaching about this part of word work. http://www.timrasinski.com/

6. The importance of teaching prosody Too often, fluency is treated as an issue mainly dealing with reading speed. This position is rebuked by the following ILA position paper: https://www.literacyworldwide.org/docs/default-source/where-we-stand/ila-reading-fluently-does-not-mean-reading-fast.pdf. Do we want a nation of reading robots or reading storytellers? Given the promising work Rasinski and others have done in demonstrating improving prosody also improves comprehension I choose the latter. Rasinski’s work includes a reliable rubric for prosody which is contained in the book The Megabook of Fluency. He co-authored that book with Melissa Cheeseman Smith.

7.  The importance of including wide reading and giving children access to culturally relevant books is a theme I’ve written about many times. Research demonstrates the importance of building background knowledge in order to improve the ability to read with real comprehension.  The following ILA papers give compelling reasons to support wide reading as part of any literacy program https://www.literacyworldwide.org/docs/default-source/where-we-stand/ila-creating-passionate-readers-through-independent-reading.pdf,  https://www.literacyworldwide.org/docs/default-source/where-we-stand/ila-power-promise-read-alouds-independent-reading.pdf

8. The importance of including concurrent comprehension work from the very outset of reading instruction. In the 1980s, Presley, Durkin, and others began advocating the direct teaching of comprehension. Because I believe that reading is NOT a natural act (i.e. it is a learned behavior, not an inborn behavior) I believe the need for direct and explicit teaching of comprehension skills exists. Some educators believe that rather than a constellation of strategies, there is really just one overall strategy for comprehension, a generalized problem-solving strategy. Whichever way teachers approach it, as a constellation or a single factor strategy, the fact remains the direct instruction in comprehension is imperative. I believe the advice of some current advocates of the simple view of reading is that the majority of the time in early literacy instruction be spent on decoding, with time for comprehension instruction being left for later grades, perhaps as late as the beginning of third grade. I do not recommend or support that approach.

9. The Dyslexic child

 This topic is important enough and complex enough to merit its own separate section. It will be the topic of next week’s blog. My preview statement to that entry is that there is no question that the Dyslexic student exists. Dyslexic students require the kind of complete/intense approach to phonics that is found in programs like Orton Gillingham.  A friend who does a great deal of work with Dyslexic students reports there are several programs that are OG influenced This means they are multisensory, explicit, systematic, sequential, and cumulative. These include programs like Barton Reading & Spelling System, The Wilson Reading System and Take Flight and Spire. How all this might fit into an overall literacy program will be discussed at length in the next blog entry.

Conclusion- I’ll end where I began. Improve teacher education so that teachers know about sound-symbol relations. Teachers should be educated in and then empowered to use a variety of approaches to teaching phonics.  Comprehension and decoding should be taught concurrently from the very beginning of literacy instruction.

As much as possible I’ve tried to make this entry in the spirit of dialogue rather than debate. I hope I have at least been successful in part in doing that. My final thought is this. While most of us might think of ourselves as working for a particular district or organization or whatever, in point of fact none of those folks are the real boss. The kids are our real boss. They don’t care who wins the reading wars or even that the reading wars continue to rage. They do care that their teacher can help them. They need to know their teacher will do everything possible to help.  For teachers that might mean conceding that sometimes the “other side” just might have something that will help this particular child. If they do, then within the bounds of propriety, for goodness sakes use it! When I did my training to become a reading specialist (more years ago than I care to admit), my university instilled in all of us a belief that there is always something that can help this particular child. It’s our job to find it. Fellow teachers, I pass that job on to you. Administrators and policy makers, please give the teachers the training and the permission to use the best methods for THAT PARTICULAR CHILD. Don’t make them throw away things that are working. Do ask them to keep an open mind about new things that might also help. And most of all, find ways to listen to them. They know your kids best and can give you feedback about them. Take advantage of that knowledge as you develop your district-wide plans.  If we did all this, I believe this Gordian knot can be cut and we can finally get down to the business we’re all supposed to be about. That is the business of helping kids learn the joys and benefits that literacy in all its’ forms can bring into their lives.  When all that happens, then I think the literacy evolution will have happened.  I am so looking forward to that day!

Happy Reading and Writing


Dr. Sam Bommarito (aka, the glass half full kind of a guy)

Copyright 2019 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.

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.

Guided Reading: Where you spend your time is where you get your results. Be mindful of how you spend your time by Dr. Sam Bommarito

reading creatuve commons

Guided Reading: Where you spend your time is where you get your results. Be mindful of how you spend your time by Dr. Sam Bommarito

Regular readers of the blog know that over the past few months I’ve proposed a reading evolution. What this entails is instead of debating we should be discussing. We should be willing to admit weaknesses in our favorite practices and try to address them. We should be acknowledging that the practices we don’t necessarily favor do have some application some of the time. Overall, I suggest we stop the cycle of throwing everything out and starting over every few years. Instead we should learn to tweak things. Today I am going to tell you about the tweaks in practice I suggest teachers consider when using guided reading. I’m basing what I say in part on a presentation I just completed at this year’s Write to Learn Conference in Missouri

Back in the day we used to say where you put your time is where you get your results. This means making sure your time allocations are thought through carefully. At the Write to Learn Conference in Missouri, I noted that researchers like Tim Shanahan have found that research is not kind to guided reading and similar approaches in terms of showing those approaches affect reading achievement. I noted this did not fit my personal experiences. During my Title I days in the late 1990s and early 2000, projects I worked on won national awards for reading achievement gains. These awards known as the Secretaries’ award were given to exceptionally successful Title I programs of the time. Winning these awards placed the programs in the top 1/10 of 1% of all programs in terms of demonstrating gains in reading achievement. We were using guided reading and reading workshop to achieve these goals. Our results would seem to contradict the findings Shanahan cites. But not really. You see I believe what made a difference for our district was that we were fully implementing guided reading as suggested by Fountas and Pinnell. We were using our time in a way that not all programs calling themselves guided reading do. To see what I mean by that let’s look at a recent article by Fountas and Pinnell.

F & P Magazine

As you can see from the article there are five major contexts (components) within a guided reading program only one of which involves using leveled text. Our teachers were trained to make sure that most of the reading done by students was not reading leveled text.  We were making sure our students were exposed to a wide range of reading experiences. I’m positing that many of the programs studied by the research cited by Shanahan are in fact OVERDOING the small group leveled reading part of the guided reading program and UNDERDOING the other parts.

In retrospect, I believe what happened in our project was that the kind of “complex text” and “at or above grade level text” that Shanahan believes is necessary for achievement in reading was, in fact, being used by our staff. Such text easily fit into the read aloud and think aloud portions of guided reading.  Our staff was trained that in any lessons that were developed they should make sure they had a good answer to the question of what work they were leaving for the students and why they were leaving that work. This helped the scaffolding done by our staff to be well thought out and explicit.

Let’s now fast-forward to today and things being said by educators like Burkins and Yaris. I had the good fortune to hear them speak at one of our local ILA meetings and I found what they were saying remarkably in line with what we had been saying to our staff all those years ago. One thing Burkins and Yaris call for is to make sure you are leaving work for the children. Another thing Burkins and Yaris noted really caught my attention. They said we were putting too much of the work being done in guided reading into the small group setting. They maintained that a lot of this work belonged in one of the other five parts of the guided reading program.  By not doing it in the other parts of the guided reading we left ourselves in the dilemma of having to over scaffold in order to get through our small group work. The solution to this is really quite simple.  Do the work in the manner in which Fountas and Pinnell outlined. Allot more time to things like Read Alouds and Think Alouds. These are usually done in a whole group setting. This is exactly the kind of setting Shanahan favors. By doing that, teachers should find by the time they are doing small groups the students will almost be ready to own the strategies being taught. In that way, the small group setting becomes a place where the last part of the gradual release of responsibility occurs. I am proposing that if one studied places where Guided Reading is done in this manner (the manner in which F & P actually outlines) that small group instruction would be found to be an effective last step in the gradual release process. In sum, I’m suggesting we do more of what Shanahan suggested (whole group work using complex text) and less of what some of us are currently doing (small group work that includes work that properly belongs in other places). I asked the teachers at my session to make sure they were using all the parts of guided reading and they were including those complex text and on and above grade level text within those parts.

That’s all for this week’s suggestions for tweaking Guided Reading. Next week I’ll take on the issue of what leveled text to use within the small group component of guided reading. I will also review how to select those texts and the limits and limitations for some of the systems using leveling text. Until then this is Dr. Sam saying:

Happy Reading and Writing


Dr. Sam Bommarito (“tweaker” extraordinaire)

Copyright 2019 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.

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.

Looking at clouds from both sides- Opening dialogues in order to start a READING EVOLUTION

reading creatuve commons

By Dr. Sam Bommarito

It seems the Reading Evolution has begun.  For those who are not familiar with what this is all about, when I first started this blog about a year ago, one of my earliest blogs was about having a reading evolution (and that’s not a typo!).  I’ve been teaching since 1970 and over that time I’ve seen the pendulum about reading instruction swing back and forth.  Why does this happen? I hypothesized it was because as we swung from the phonics cures all position to the phonics isn’t needed position there were children that indeed fit each position. BUT THERE WERE ALSO SOME WHO DID NOT! This guaranteed, that whichever extreme we went to, once either was adopted, it would be a matter of time before some children weren’t succeeding therefore justifying the thought that it was time to rip it all up and start over. Usually enough time passes between swings for a generation of teachers to come along who hadn’t been around for the last set of failures. Hmmmm.

But what if the two sides were would be willing to admit there are limits and limitations to their preferred way of teaching reading (translation some children for whom the approach simply wouldn’t work). Then perhaps we could begin an evolution, that is instead of tearing everything down and starting over every few years, we could “tweak” what we were doing.  When it came to phonics instruction, we would fit the program to the child not the other way round. The key here is that folks had to be willing to use the methodology of “the other side” with at least some of the children some of the time.

History has not been kind to folks like me who suggest taking such middle ground.  It’s hard to get changes in educational practice. Oftentimes it takes adopting an extreme view just to get any movement at all. Would there be any hope for such a point of view- a willingness to look at clouds from both sides?

It seems like destiny that I find myself back at Write to Learn conference. This posting will be going out from my hotel room there.  Here’s what happened at Write to Learn a year ago. I met Eric Litwin and listened to his ideas about the “great debate”.  He predicted that knowledgeable teachers talking to each other on social media might have a shot at ending the reading wars. Eric and I have since become good friends and talk often about reading, reading instruction and of course, the reading wars. I think he had a brilliant idea there about the reading wars.

Is it possible that teachers from seemingly polar opposite points of view would talk to each other or even have something to talk about? Could they actually stop debating for a while and start talking to each other instead? If they did I think they would start learning from each other and as we all know learning can be a very powerful thing.

I see some evidence the Reading Evolution  has already begun. Here is an example  I want to thank Judy for allowing me to use this comment from a Facebook book posting she made.  I think demonstrates that the dialogue is not only possible but may in fact have already begun. Please take careful note of what she learned from “the other side”.

“Phonics and Reading Recovery are not  opposing teams. It’s one team”

Judy Boksner Damski

NO 1


Judy likes the idea of a reading evolution. She has gone beyond talking to the “other side”.  She’s actually using the methods of the other side. This phenomena actually  goes beyond that. When my “mystery guest” posts sometime soon, my readers will recognize her as a well known authority on Reading Recovery. She will be reporting that she has taken the kind of training usually given only to teacher of Dyslexic children.  She is responding to the fact that some of the kid watching teachers in recovery have noticed that the usually level and intensity of phonics instruction in recovery is not benefiting SOME children, specifically children identified as Dyslexic.  She is taking part in the Reading Evolution.

Now wait a minute Doctor B., back up! I’ve heard reading recovery doesn’t work for anybody, that it should be discarded that it hurts children. Regular readers of this blog know that I have mounted strong defenses of recovery several times and pointed out research like that from the National Clearing House which for a number of years has reported Reading Recovery is the best of the early intervention strategies. How can that research be true and what the critics have to say be true. I think I have an explanation of what’s actually happening. It has to do with the fact that before I was a reading teacher I spent a number of years teaching political science and history. There is political move called “using a strawman”. When using a strawman, you only report the weaknesses of your opponent. You ignore the strengths. I feel that tactic is currently being used by some (NOT ALL) of the advocates of the phonics cures all position to discredit Reading Recovery. Here are some of my recently posted thoughts:

NO 2

When asked about the NCH data (and by the way my mystery guest blogger will be providing even more supporting data) the critic said the methods used by NCH were flawed. Interesting position but not one widely held.  In sum then, the usual attack on Recovery list a series of studies showing it doesn’t work. The ones showing that it does FOR MANY (NOT ALL)  CHILDREN are OMITTED. Classic straw man tactics. Another important point. Reading Recovery is the only beginning reading program to show gains in comprehension as well as decoding.  Many of the claims of huge gains in “reading” made by some advocates are actually huge gains in decoding. Not at all the same thing. The NRP report indicated that there is an initial bump in scores caused by phonics instruction, that further gains just don’t happen. This is a typical phenomenon in reading instruction.  For instance,  Shanahan says that past a certain point instruction in reading strategies lack further effect. My take- the kids got it, they’re using it. Now use your teaching time to teaching something else. Please note that nowhere did I say not to do it, rather I’m saying once the kids are using it move on. Could it be that one of the reasons RR is so successful is that their teachers are trained to be Kid watchers and do exactly that? Hmm.

What comes of all this is the thought that no one method is going to succeed with every child. But usually teachers can  find something that will work with every child, just not the same something! I’ll refer you to my blogs citing the First Grade Studies and the work of Allenton. At the end of the day, in terms of reading achievement scores, teachers make more difference than methods. My quarrel with SOME of the advocates of synthetic phonics is not over the fact it should be done (IT SHOULD!), but whether it should be done exclusively (IT SHOULDN’T).

What would happen if more teachers are willing to talk about the weaknesses of their methods as well as the strengths. What would happen if teachers started learning from “the other side”. I think what would happen is the Reading Evolution. There’s a lot of potential bumps in the road and sticky situations. But teachers are used to that. Teachers who are empowered by learning all the ways of teaching phonics, empowered by being allowed to use multiple methods,  who are listened to when their way works with a particular child, who are valued in the same way teachers are valued in places like Finland, those teachers have a real shot at finally ending the reading wars. They have a real shot learning from each other so they can help the kids. Eric- this is Sam talking to you from my room at the Write to Learn Conference in Mo. I’m so very glad that a year ago at this very conference you had the idea of using social media to start a dialogue around the great debate. It’s happening. Teachers use #GrtDb and #HelpEcOther (help each other) and continue the conversations. How have you learned from the other side? How can we best help our children. Eric and I would LOVE to chat with you about that! And Eric I think it is especially appropriate that I am writing and posting this particular blog at the very same conference where I first got the notion from you that maybe informed teachers, discussing (INSTEAD OF DEBATING) educational ideas in a way that might finally find a way to cut through the gordian knot that has been the Great Debate in Reading.  We’ll see where this goes. REMEMBER #GrtDb and #HelpEcOther. We’ll be looking for you on twitter.


Happy Reading and Writing


Dr. Sam Bommarito (aka cloud watcher extraordinaire & king of “let’s talk, shall we?”



Copyright 2019 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.










The Reading Evolution: Part Two (and it’s still not a typo, I mean evolution) By Dr. Sam Bommarito.

reading creatuve commonsThe Reading Evolution: Part Two (and it’s still not a typo, I mean evolution)

By Dr. Sam Bommarito.

A while back I wrote a post entitled The Reading Evolution. I want to come back to that topic and expand on it. A lot has happened since that first post and I want to share some of it with you

First, the premise of the original post is really very basic and simple. We need to stop debating with each other. We need to start talking to each other.  

We must do this with the caveat that we admit up front that our particular way of doing things has limits and limitations. Instead of getting mad at the folks who point goes out our weaknesses, the better path is learn from their criticisms and to tweak our favorite approach. As much as we can, try to fix whatever limitations are pointed out. That is the basic ground rule of having a reading evolution.

Why do I think we need a reading evolution? I think because this because in the last five decades since I first began teaching there have been regular pendulum swings between those who feel phonics cures all to those who feel really better off without phonics. There are also other things involved. My take on what has been happening is whenever we get to either of those extreme positions there are a significant number of children do not progress using those extreme methods. Usually enough time has passed between the swings for most folks to have forgotten that that approach didn’t work last time.  Let’s start by looking at the phonics cures all extreme point of view. I call it extreme in the sense that on a continuum of no phonics to all phonics it is at the very far edge of the right side of the continuum.

Does phonics cure all- NO! Is phonics necessary but not sufficient for progress in reading- YES. 

Over 50 years ago The First Grade Studies looked at the best approaches of that time. The overall conclusion was no one approach works best for all children. Every approach worked better with a phonics supplement. Years later, Allington came to similar conclusions about no one approach working with every child. There’s more. A new found friend on twitter provided these links:



Part of what I think the information in these links shows is that no one approach to phonics works so well that it should replace all the others. Phonics by itself does not get the job done. Phonics instruction must be supplemented with direction instruction in comprehension.  My overall take on this is simple. Find the approach to teaching phonics that works with the child you are helping and use it. Do it concurrently with comprehension instructions. I want to be crystal clear that I’m fully aware that there are some children that need an intense synthetic direct instruction phonics program. That needs to be provided to those children. However, providing it to all children results in precious instructional time being used up. That is why I propose that such intense instruction be provided in a tier 2 or tier 3 setting. Otherwise you run the very real risk of having the first year and a half or two year of instructional time failing to provide adequate work in comprehension. Some phonics cures all proponents have even suggested we focus mainly on phonics and wait for working in comprehension around  until around 2nd or third grade. We’ve travelled that road before. It doesn’t work. Review the work of Pressley and Durkin to see why I say that.

Are balancing literacy and reading recovery and workshop and guided reading the main causes of children not learning to read? NO!

Some advocates on the very extreme of the phonics continuum are using a technique I learned about when I taught history and political science at the very beginning of my teaching career. The technique is called strawman. Look at your opponent, think of their weakest points. Present those as their only points. Net result, a strawman that you can use to convince the public they are all wrong. What happens if you don’t just look at the strawman but look at the full program? Let’s just take one of the examples of the methods of teaching reading that is under intense attack. Reading Recovery. According to the opponents it hurts kids, it’s ineffective and it needs to be gotten rid of as soon as possible. Usually a host of studies are cited showing all kinds of weaknesses and flaws in the program.

Readers, I can take any approach you care to name and fill a couple of pages with studies showing the weaknesses of those approaches. One of my basic premises is that all approaches have weaknesses. The question becomes do they also have offsetting strengths. In the case of recovery there are many. Early research in RR demonstrated that those who fully completed the program rarely needed services again. Not a word about that from the opponents. I have posted a link to the What Works Clearing House a number of times.  Research the site. You’ll find it reports that recovery outperforms all other methods of beginning reading intervention. Recovery gets results in both decoding and comprehension. The other approaches only get results in decoding. These findings have been replicated a number of times over the years. https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/EvidenceSnapshot/420  Just look at previous postings of the National Clearing House to verify that. When faced with this information one of the opponents said the National Clearing House methodology was questionable.  I suppose readers who agree with that can discount this information. I suspect most readers realize that the clearinghouse provides a solid look at what we can learn from research. It is a widely used website. It plays by the actual rules of scientific research.  The main point here is simple. In and of itself a strong synthetic phonics program does not automatically produce better readers/long-term improvement in both comprehension and reading achievement. By contrast, RR has consistently produced good results in BOTH decoding and comprehension over a period of a number of years.

I’m sure most readers are familiar with claims that some synthetic phonics proponents make. They report it produces an almost magical increase in reading achievement. The devil is in the details. The tests used to demonstrate this actually measure decoding. A careful look at the tests will show at best some use of vocabulary and some correlational comprehension data. Nothing to really write home about. If it sounds as if I’m quite skeptical of the overall claims. I am. If I’m to be convinced of the efficacy of an approach, the data supporting, it should include information from FULL comprehension testing not just decoding.

So it seems that when the “strawman” version of Reading Recovery is looked at carefully, its actually a tin man (IRON MAN?). Why on earth would we want to drop it?  Similar information for other “failures” of reading approaches are available. These approaches do have limits and limitations, but none so severe as to cause us to drop them completely. All have a myriad of strengths making them worth keeping.

How can we- should we- proceed in the current round of the great debate?

First and foremost, let’s keep the gold standard of what good literacy program to include that fact that it should be able to demonstrate a long-term gains in reading achievement/comprehension. Any test used to demonstrate that must include a significant comprehension component. In my day we use the Gates Macginitie reading test which had vocabulary section and the comprehension section. I’ll point out that results from just the vocabulary section were not always the same as the overall results. That’s my way of saying vocabulary alone is not a sufficient measure of comprehension. Correlational studies using modified cloze procedures are equally weak. If the proponents really want to demonstrate comprehension gains, they should begin using instruments that are fully up to the task.

My main premise remains the same as it did when I first proposed the evolution.  That is let’s stop throwing everything out and starting over every couple of years. Let’s stop ripping materials that are working for the kids and teachers out of the teacher’s hands in order to replace them with a one size fits all set of materials which is likely to not work for at least some of the kids.  That’s demoralizing to say the least. Instead let’s take a hard look at what we’re doing and by hard look I need a look that includes admitting the limitations of our favorite ways. Then let’s tweak things. I’m going to be presenting to teachers at the Missouri Write to Learn Conference about guided reading. Let me tell you what I’m going to tell them about how to tweak guided reading. First look at the Fountas and Pinnell chart showing all the instructional contexts that should be present in Guided Reading (see the chart on the inside back page of their book Teaching for Comprehending and Fluency). Make sure that you are doing everything on the chart not just the small group guided reading group things. Second most of the reading your kids do should not be in their leveled text. That doesn’t mean that you don’t include leveled text. It just means you’re also include additional texts in other parts of the Guided Reading program, using the kind of deep complex text, the at/or above grade level text that is sometimes missing from some folks as they do guided reading.  I’m also going to ask them to do a careful read of Burkins & Yaris’s book, Who’s Doing the Work?  Burkins and Yaris suggest that we tend to over scaffold during the small group part of guided reading. They say that we try to pack far too much work that in the leveled reading section, work that rightly belongs in other parts of the overall guided reading program. That’s just one example of how listening to criticism of a program (such as guided reading does not use enough on grade level, complex text) and adapting it to try to fix some of the concerns

Who should be making these decisions about what to adopt?

At the end of the day I believe that decision is best made by local school boards. That is because local school boards know the kids best. Every attempt should be made by the boards to adopt a main program that has at least 95% success rate. If that is done, then the tier system can work for the other kids. What I say next is preaching to the choir. The teachers of tier kids know that these particular kids learn differently from the way the main program uses. Not better, not worse, just differently. But they can learn and thrive. I am personally LD with some signs of mild ADD. I have my doctorate. Nuf said? The Internet is full of stories of students who learn differently who succeed widely and that includes students with dyslexia.

At the moment, I think we tend to greatly over identify Dyslexic students.   Dr. Shanahan just discussed on his blog. He reports that we don’t yet have a satisfactory instrument for identification of dyslexia.  You can read the last paragraph of this blog post to see how he would identify the Dyslexic students https://shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/early-identification-predicting-reading-disabilities-and-dyslexia.  There are students who truly do need that kind of intense direct phonics instruction advocated by the synthetic phonics folks. I was talking to a friend who knows quite a lot about this and found that Reading Recovery is more than aware of the need and is making adaptations. Maybe sometime I can talk her into talking about that in detail on this blog. We’ll see

Is it time for a Reading Evolution? – YES

Okay so there you have it. Time to admit “our way” has flaws. Time to learn about its weaknesses. Time to adapt to make “our way” as strong as we can. And most of all, time to develop ways to serve the folks we’re meant to serve. Let me remind you of who that is. You may work for a school district or a publisher or a clinic or whatever. But your real boss is the students you serve. They don’t care which reading theory you believe in or what your favorite practices are. They only care that you will find a way to scaffold them into becoming a better reader. So please let’s stop debating. Let’s start discussing. Let’s start learning from “the other side”. That is what my reading recovery friend has done. She’s taken their training courses. Most advocates of synthetic phonics are not going to extreme views. Let’s talk to them as my reading recovery friend has done. Then let’s start acting on those discussions. Let’s get started on the Reading Evolution.


READERS- If you are in the Midwestern Region please come see Glenda (my Co-Editor for the Missouri Reader)  and I. We will present highlights of the special poetry issue of the Missouri Reader next Friday.  On Sat, I will do a solo presentation on Guided Reading including all of the points I discussed in this blog.

Here is the conference link.  http://www.writetolearnconference.com/


Happy Reading and Writing

Dr. Sam Bommarito (aka, professional tweaker, I just love to fix things!)



P.S. The study that came to be known as “The First Grade Studies” was done by Bond and Dykstra in 1967.  It appeared in RRQ (see screen capture below).  It has been the subject of a great deal of analysis and commentary including a special edition of RRQ in 1997 that marked the 30-year anniversary of the publication of the study.

Screen Capture 1st grade studies


Allenton’s work is widely known. Here is a link to the PDF I drew on to talk about his views:



Introducing the special edition of the Missouri Reader- Poetry- a Path to Literacy by  Dr. Sam Bommarito, Co-Editor of the Missouri Reader


Introducing the special edition of the Missouri Reader- Poetry- a Path to Literacy by

Dr. Sam Bommarito, Co-Editor of the Missouri Reader

You may know that one of the hats I wear is that of Co—Editor of the Missouri ReaderMissouri Reader has been publishing for over 40 years now.  We publish between two and three issues a year. We are peer edited and have a highly qualified review board.  We do publish some very well-known literary leaders. But we also give teachers a chance to publish right alongside them Most often those teachers are graduate students at one of our state’s universities, though we do accept articles from all over the United States (and Beyond!). Details on how to submit are always found on the last page of each issue of the journal.  This latest issue is something very special. As you both read about it and then actually read the journal itself, you’ll see what I mean. For me personally the timing of this issue couldn’t be better. It’s my birthday today (don’t ask!). It’s also the first anniversary of this blog. Over 10,000 people have read it since beginning it last year.  In a way, things have come full circle. That first blog entry was written at Tan Tar Ra (Lake of the Ozarks, Mo.) at last year’s Write to Learn Conference. Next week Glenda (my Co-Editor) and I will be at this year’s conference making a presentation on Friday, March 1st..  It will be about this issue of journal (it’s that special). If you’re in the Midwest region come see us, links to all the registration information can be found in our journal. We are part of the Missouri State Literacy association which is a co-sponsor of the Write to Learn Conference.

Readers. I now want to editorialize a bit.  Please indulge me. It relates to the theme of our special issue, Poetry- a Path to Literacy.   Lately I’ve been wondering aloud why we have so many people writing about the need to return to joy in the reading and writing field (lots of titles about that lately). Why do we have a famous video called Don’t Read Like a Robot.  Why are some so determined to turn reading into a race?  Do we really need a nation of Robot Readers and Auctioneers? Or do we need a nation of students who know how to read like Storytellers? Storytellers around those long-ago campfires were the beginnings of what we now call civilization.  The historian in me thinks they were at the heart of the movement that separated human kind from the rest of the living creatures on our planet. To read a story like a story teller you’ve got to understand the characters, know what they act like, what they should sound like. I think that is why Rasinski calls prosody the gateway to comprehension. To read like a story teller is to return to the most basic of basics.  All the authors contributing to this very special issue of our journal hope that our readers find the ideas and resources in this issue that will help them get back to the real basics. Learning to read poetry well is one of the key things that make up what I call the real basics. I also hope the readers of this issue will find much of what they need to help create a nation of readers who know how to read like story-tellers. Perhaps then we would not have to worry about how to bring joy back to all aspects of literacy. The answer is so very simple. Read (and write) because you want to. Let your children do the same.

Pardon me, it’s nighttime and I suddenly feel the urge to build a very nice campfire. Then I think I’ll get out a copy of the new journal. I hear there are some wonderful things to read in it, poems and such. I hear that there’s a whole world of joy to find if you’re just willing to look. Please do have a look. You deserve some joy and so do your children.


Here is the link to the newest Missouri Reader:  https://joom.ag/o1ta

Happy Reading and Writing!

Dr Sam Bommarito (aka, the storyteller/poet/singer songwriter)

Copyright 2018 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.