Does Educational Research Really Support Promoting Independent Wide Reading as an Educational Practice? by Dr. Sam Bommarito

Does Educational Research Really Support Promoting Independent Wide Reading as an Educational Practice?

by Dr. Sam Bommarito


(screen capture taken from Dr. Molly Brown’s Website)

Author’s note: this is part of a series of blog postings about the issue of wide reading.

I’ll start by answering the question posed in the title. My answer is as follows:


That answer is different from some you will find in various books, articles, blogs. These contrary opinions are held by individuals who are well credentialed and who have substantial experience both in the practice of reading and in doing research about the field of reading. So why do I insist on taking the position that there is a substantial research base supporting independent wide reading as a preferred educational practice?

The answer lies in my take on what constitutes usable research. Many individuals who write about the science behind literacy practices, warn that one cannot take the concept of being guided by science at face value. The question must be asked, whose science? What are the limits and limitations of each view of science?

Let’s first consider the position taken by some critics of independent reading. They indicate that that isn’t possible to provide sound estimates of the impact of Independent Wide Reading from existing experimental studies. They maintain we only have correlational data about independent reading, and these studies are not very thorough. The problem with requiring that all research guiding practice be mainly done with experimental studies is that the methods and techniques developed for such studies were born in fields often referred to as the “hard sciences”. Randomly assigning treatments and availability of widely accepted ways to measure the phenomena being studied are usual characteristics of this approach. We could call this a “pure empirical approach”. This approach when transferred directly to educational research can sometimes raise some red flags on the issue of face validity. Almost every Doctoral candidate in the field of reading becomes aware of these issues.  By the time one includes random assignment, acceptable instrumentation for a completely empirical study, et. al., the danger is that one narrowed the scope of the research to such an extent that the results could potentially lack face validity and consequently lack any educational significance.

On the other hand, when considering a qualitative research approach, one is often relying on correlational measures.   Correlational measures can result in finding spurious relationships. One example that stands out from my statistics course work is one where a researcher found a significant correlation between the birthrate in Puerto Rico and the subway schedules in New York. The example was meant to bring home the point that correlation does not establish causality. It was a strong enough example for me to remember it some three decades later!   Let me tell you how I reconcile the limits and limitations of each approach to science.

Before I was a reading teacher I was a history teacher. I learned an important lesson in decision making. It involved General Eisenhower and the issue of selecting a date for the Normandy invasion.  There were two competing schools of thought on how to predict the weather. Why did Ike did pick June 6th?  June 6th was the date on which the two competing schools of thought on how to predict weather agreed.  The strategy worked. Its implementation contributed to an important turning point in world history.

In the same way, I look at both qualitative and quantitative research to see what I can learn from each. I remain skeptical of those who advocate using evidence from only (or mainly) from one or the other. When considering each kind of research, I check for both face validity (is what is being measured really reading) and for spurious correlations (could the finding really be a result of random chance). Overall, I’ve found enough evidence to support the concept of promoting independent reading. Most of this is evidence we have already talked about in the last few posts in this blog. I will review it now.


I’ll begin with an excerpt from Bill Kerns post on this blog last week:

The Battle Over Wide Reading

The ability to provide students with opportunities for wide reading in school is under attack. Given pressures of high stakes tests, schools commonly reduce wide reading opportunities while narrowing the curriculum and focusing on test taking skills (Moon, Brighton, & Callahan, 2003). This contributes to lack of opportunities for students to engage in reading for pleasure and simple enjoyment within classrooms (Lareau, 2003).

Fluency, involving an ability to read with accuracy and expressiveness with little effort (Kuhn & Stahl, 2003), is a strong predictor of comprehension skill. There appears to be a strong relationship between reading fluency and reading comprehension according to numerous studies with children from the primary grades through middle school (Hosp & Fuchs, 2005).  Children trained in the acquisition of reading fluency also demonstrate growth in comprehension (Rasinski et al., 2009). Students with reading disabilities often lack fluency as readers (Torgesen et al., 2001). Wide and repeated readings improve both fluency and comprehension skills among students with reading disabilities (Allington & Gabriel, 2012; Chard, Vaughn, & Tyler, 2002; Therrien, 2004; Vaughn et al., 2006).

Vocabulary knowledge also is significantly linked to comprehension skills (Baumann, Kamenui, & Ash, 2003). Reading an hour per day greatly increases vocabulary (Mason, Stahl, Au, and Herman, 2003).   Progress in vocabulary and reading comprehension skills and achievement is strongly related to increased time spent reading (Taylor et al., 2000; Krashen, 2004; Wasik & Iannone-Campbell, 2012).

I don’t just argue for wide reading but also deep reading. Giving students a say in what they read promotes motivation to read (Cambourne 1995, 2000). This can be a challenge on a tight budget. When I taught high school English I would sometimes have 40 or more students in a class. So, I recommend reaching out for partnerships with organizations such as the local affiliate of the International Literacy Association for help in building up a classroom library without breaking the bank account. Choice isn’t enough, motivation to read is also fostered when the books are of personal and cultural relevance to students (Gambrell, 2011; Pintrich & Schunk, 2002) and with sustained engagement in the texts (Guthrie & Wigfield, 2000).”


In addition readers are invited to view Dr. Molly Browns March 7th 2018 blog  entry, which a lively defense of independent reading and gives classic research examples to back it up, . Kylene Beers has a blog that supports the idea of wide reading ( A teacher quote from that blog reads “I teach novels not because the CCSS says students need to learn to read texts closely or learn to find details or learn something about the author’s craft.  I teach novels because I teach kids and I want kids to love to read.  And if they are going to love to read, they need to read novels.  They need to read some they’ve chosen; some I’ve chosen; some that are hard; some that are easy; some that make them laugh; some that make them cry.”  Beers’ book, Disrupting Thinking contains a widely used graphic listing research that shows the benefits of wide reading. When the book came out she shared the graphic on twitter. It can easily be found using a web search and it is used by many teachers to send home to parents in order to sell parents on the importance of wide reading.

Some ideas that I hope readers will take away are the following. First, great books must be made available and these should include both expository and narrative books. Student book choice is not absolute.  As the teacher for Beer’s blog said: “some they’ve chosen; some I’ve chosen”.  As Kern’s indicates the talk around the book must include deep thinking, and the book themselves must be socially and culturally relevant.  Parents can and should be part of the process of promoting wide reading. And finally, there’s the quote from Atwell (my favorite Atwell quote of all times!). It reminds us that the only way anyone becomes a reader is to sit and read in a quiet room. That is how readers can enter The Reading Zone. That is both a place and a title of one of the best known of Atwell’s publications.

So- those are my views about how (and why) to proceed with a program of independent reading. Please feel free to comment. Push-back and praise are both welcome.  I am delaying the finish of the talk this topic because I want to do one more share with you about some of the splendid work educators are doing in getting quality books into the hands of ALL children.  Then I will take on the topic of workshop teaching and how it can be used to promote the development of lifelong readers.


Happy Reading and Writing



Dr. Sam Bommarito (A.K.A informed consumer of educational research both quantitative & qualitative)

Addressing the Wide Reading Needs of English Language Learners

Addressing the Wide Reading Needs of English Language Learners

by Dr. William Kerns

The promotion of wide reading at the K-12 levels of education is imperative. In this blog post, I focus on reasons why wide reading opportunities are too often denied to English Language Learners (ELLs). The Response to Intervention (RTI) model often is touted as a way to address the needs of English Language Learners, but I’m concerned that too many students are denied wide reading opportunities in their first and second language, only to instead spend hours in pull-out intervention sessions.

I was a high school English and Reading teacher in Central Florida prior to entering higher education. Many of my students were English Language Learners, with Spanish tending to be their primary language. My students didn’t want rote, boring instruction. They wanted to be engaged in learning as a social process through curriculum that is driven by inquiry and investigation into topics of high interest (Moses, Busetti-Frevert, & Pritchard, 2015). They wanted dialogue. Digital storytelling. Writing workshops, reading workshops, and learning workshops geared toward guidance through increasingly challenging activities (Larson, 2014). Bring in art, music, drama, and the students are increasingly engaged. Bring in opportunities for playfulness and creativity. They also wanted opportunities for wide reading of material that is meaningful to them.  My former students provided inspiration for me as I wrote this post.

The topics discussed in this post became increasingly poignant to me after my marriage in February 2017. My wife, “Deanna” Deng Pan, was born and raised in China. To be more specific, she lived in Szengzhou, capital of Henan Province in North-Central China, until attending college in Beijing. Although my wife studied English in China, she felt ill-prepared to speak English fluently when she moved to the United States for graduate study. We frequently talk of her difficulties living in the United States related being an English Language Learner. The sense of social isolation. The way that quietness caused by uncertainty in what to say or how to say it can contribute to many Americans mistaking Chinese women for demure and shy, when in reality the Chinese women may, like my wife, actually be lively and potentially outspoken. But there can be differences in observable personality traits when speaking English compared with speaking Mandarin.

Little fears creep in on a daily basis, such as whether a misspoken word to a clerk might result in a condescending look or remark from the clerk. She is presently an advanced Ph.D. student at University of Missouri-St. Louis in Supply Chain Management and Analytics, so she speaks English fluently enough to get by as a professional. Yet, on nearly a daily basis I am reminded of important lessons related to instruction for English Language Learners from my wife. When my wife uses Internet search engine tools for assistance in understanding a word or a phrase in English, it’s a reminder to me that students need access to a variety of tools for their own assistance in the classroom. She values seeing the word in English and Mandarin, along with frequently a visual image and a vocal recording to help her learn the pronunciation. She might even use her hands to make a gesture that helps her understand a concept. So, I think of the importance of learning in various modes (e.g. visual, kinesthetic, aural, verbal). If she watches a movie such at Batman: The Dark Night she also likes to investigate cultural, social, and linguistic connections before, during and after the movie. In other words, she is building her schema in order to help her to understand themes in the movie. She’s also engaged in wide reading that is personally and socially meaningful to her.


The Battle Over Wide Reading

The ability to provide students with opportunities for wide reading in school is under attack. Given pressures of high stakes tests, schools commonly reduce wide reading opportunities while narrowing the curriculum and focusing on test taking skills (Moon, Brighton, & Callahan, 2003). This contributes to lack of opportunities for students to engage in reading for pleasure and simple enjoyment within classrooms (Lareau, 2003).

Fluency, involving an ability to read with accuracy and expressiveness with little effort (Kuhn & Stahl, 2003), is a strong predictor of comprehension skill. There appears to be a strong relationship between reading fluency and reading comprehension according to numerous studies with children from the primary grades through middle school (Hosp & Fuchs, 2005).  Children trained in the acquisition of reading fluency also demonstrate growth in comprehension (Rasinski et al., 2009). Students with reading disabilities often lack fluency as readers (Torgesen et al., 2001). Wide and repeated readings improve both fluency and comprehension skills among students with reading disabilities (Allington & Gabriel, 2012; Chard, Vaughn, & Tyler, 2002; Therrien, 2004; Vaughn et al., 2006).

Vocabulary knowledge also is significantly linked to comprehension skills (Baumann, Kame ’ enui, & Ash, 2003). Reading an hour per day greatly increases vocabulary (Mason, Stahl, Au, and Herman, 2003).   Progress in vocabulary and reading comprehension skills and achievement is strongly related to increased time spent reading (Taylor et al., 2000; Krashen, 2004; Wasik & Iannone-Campbell, 2012).

I don’t just argue for wide reading but also deep reading. Giving students a say in what they read promotes motivation to read (Cambourne 1995, 2000). This can be a challenge on a tight budget. When I taught high school English I would sometimes have 40 or more students in a class. So, I recommend reaching out for partnerships with organizations such as the local affiliate of the International Literacy Association for help in building up a classroom library without breaking the bank account. Choice isn’t enough, motivation to read is also fostered when the books are of personal and cultural relevance to students (Gambrell, 2011; Pintrich & Schunk, 2002) and with sustained engagement in the texts (Guthrie & Wigfield, 2000).

The Denial of Wide Reading Opportunities to English Language Learners

English Language Learners (ELLs) too often lack opportunities to engage in wide reading in school due to a failure to accurately distinguish between language differences and disabilities. When an inaccurate diagnosis is made, the child can find himself or herself spending perhaps hours in pull-out intervention rather than engaging in wide reading. Disproportionate numbers of ELLs placed in special education may not have actually been learning disabled. Instead, these students may be struggling readers in English because of limited English proficiency or because of a lack of reading instruction in English as their second language (August & Shanahan, 2006; National Research Council, 2002).


Abedi (2009) identified focal characteristics of ELLs that pose problems in relation to identifying and educating ELLs with learning disabilities. The first challenge posed is the racial and ethnic diversity of the ELL population. Second, ELLs vary greatly in their exposure to academic learning. Finally, as a result of these first two factors, ELLs demonstrate widely varying rates of individual progress in learning English. Abedi contends that results on reading proficiency assessments and on high stakes academic assessments are significantly influenced by English proficiency levels.


Test bias is an important concern in assessments for second language learners. Test bias relates to assessment results that are not equally accurate in measuring ability or predictive in identifying learning difficulties. According to Snow and Van Hemel (2009), potential sources of bias for minority students include: (a) test content  that may measure different constructs depending on a student’s culture;  (b) minorities tend to be underrepresented in standardization and norm-setting norm-reference assessments; (c) test performance can be influenced by familiarity with testing situations; (d) differential representation of minorities; and (e) errors in predicting future performance of minority students. Williams and colleagues (2007) found that success in improving the academic achievement of ELLs is more likely when schools consistently use reliable and valid assessment data to improve instruction.


Response to Intervention (RTI) is often promoted as a solution to this problem. In an RTI approach, interventions of increasing intensity are implemented and evaluated a student until an effective intervention is identified. RTI is a multi-tiered approach that provides high quality instruction and intervention matched to student needs and uses data on students’ performance over time to inform instructional decisions. Progress monitoring through research-based and validated assessment allows for early identification of students who are struggling. Most models of RTI have three tiers, with each tier representing an increasingly intense level of intervention, although there can be any number of tiers in an RTI framework (Klingner et al., 2007). Primary instruction, typically tier 1, is the core curriculum involving universally applied research-based classroom interventions that are provided by general classroom teachers. Students who are identified through assessment as in need of supplementary intervention then move to the second level of intervention, typically known as tier 2. Students receive targeted interventions that are provided in small groups. Finally, individualized tier 3 intervention is provided to students who are not adequately responding to tier 2 intervention and is still more intensive.


Through universal screening teachers assess students on measures that are valid indicators of important outcomes (Ikeda, Neessen, & Witt, 2008). Universal screening measures are quick to administer and to score while providing data that leads to valid inferences about those outcomes (Hosp & Ardoin, 2008). A key part of universal screening and the overall tiered RTI model is the use of general outcomes measures (GOMs), known in the literature as curriculum-based measurements (CBMs), designed to provide information on the effectiveness of instruction.


Deno (2003) describes a GOM as a standardized method of assessment that determines progress through the use of repeated measurement of what a student has learned, or should have learned, within a particular skill domain, including of importance to this paper, basic reading skills. GOMs provide evidence for adequate or inadequate reading skills. However, there is debate over appropriate assessments for evaluating how well ELLs are responding to reading instruction.


Barrera and Liu (2010) challenge the ways in which GOMS are typically used within RTI models to address the needs of ELLs. The researchers point out that for a short reading passage, it is not possible to determine whether scores may be affected by reading and content experience, language, or by a possible disability. According to Barrera and Liu, factors such as experience with reading, experience with contexts presented in a text, and language differences may be de-emphasized because the use of GOMs as part of the RTI process places an emphasis on validation with standardized assessments such as state assessment scores. Barrera and Lui reviewed 22 studies on the use of GOMs with ELLs that were published since the mid-1990s in order to investigate how the characteristics of ELLs with learning disabilities are included in these studies. Only four of the 22 studies provided disaggregated data on ELL populations by language or ethnicity. Their literature review demonstrated the following common features of research on the use of GOMs related to ELLs: (a) the research literature is growing, but at this point, ELLs with disabilities tend to be absent in most of the studies; (b) there is a limited research base related to accounting for differences in students’ academic language proficiency; (c) research studies tend to focus on the degree of technical adequacy in the predictive features of GOMs in comparison to other assessments; (d) the majority of studies focus on reading for students at the primary grade levels; (e) studies tend to compare language proficiency of ELLs with native English speakers.


The Mode of Instruction for English Language Learners

I advocate the use of a student’s primary language as part of wide reading and dialogue in order to scaffold the learning of a second language. Dual language education is a type of bilingual education in which both native English speakers and English Language Learners are taught together and both languages are used for classroom instruction.  One goal of the dual language program is to teach students to read, write, and speak both languages while they acquire the same math, science, social studies, and language arts skills that other students their age are learning.  Commonly in dual language programs, one language such as Spanish or Chinese is used as the language of the classroom for a large part of the school day.


Support for dual language education draws on findings that strong literacy development in one’s native language facilitates academic achievement and proficiency in the second language and that academic and linguistic skills developed in the first language transfer to the second language (Cummins, 1979). In addition, students involved in dual language education learn the second language better than they would in a regular foreign language class (August & Hakuta, 1997). Rolstad, Mahoney, and Glass (2005) found a positive relationship between bilingual education programs and reading gains among second language learners compared to instruction in English only.


Admittedly, research related to dual language instruction as the primary medium of instruction is both limited and mixed. The Report of the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth (August & Shanahan, 2006) did not discuss ways that bilingualism or biliteracy may help or hinder the development of literacy in English as a second language. Instead, the use of a student’s first language in literacy instruction is discussed as optional within the report.  These findings agreed that when instructional programs include time and resources for developing literacy in the first language there are greater literacy gains in English as a second language in comparison to programs that are English only programs or programs that use English as the primary medium of instruction (Genesee, Lindholm-Leary, Saunders, & Christian, 2006; Slavin & Cheung, 2005).  Further, according to the report, although word level skills such as decoding of language-minority students are more likely to be at equal levels to monolingual English speakers than text level skills including reading comprehension (August & Shanahan, 2006).


Escamilla (2009) takes issue with the influential Report of the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth (August & Shanahan, 2006), arguing that learning to read in one’s native language in a manner that privileges bilingualism provides cognitive and linguistic advantages that promotes increased academic achievement in English as a second language (Carlo et. al., 2004; Genesee, Lindholm-Leary, Saunders, & Christian, 2006; Rolstad et al., 2005; Slavin et al., 2010). The sociocultural context of literacy development is one key point of contention that Escamilla raises regarding the findings within the Report of the National Literacy Panel. Authors of the report stated that they found little evidence of sociocultural interventions that were related to literacy development (August & Shanahan 2006). However, Escamilla points to findings that link student achievement to sociocultual factors (Ogbu, 1992) and links that have been found between education achievement in second generation immigrant students to the maintenance of their native languages and cultures (Portes & Rumbaut, 2001). Escamilla further contends that the Report of the National Literacy Panel should have considered the influence of policies that privilege English-only instruction, while August and Shanahan (2010) counter that it was beyond the charge of the panel to become involved in debates over federal and state policies.




The complexity and urgency of meeting the needs of ELLs demands attention.  A discussion of the concept of instruction for English Language Learners provides an example of how the examination of the need for teachers to explore their underlying beliefs that shape their educational practices.  This is why I chose to describe my relationship with my wife within the introduction to this blog. I wanted the reader to be able to picture her as a real person rather than simply picturing an abstract “English Language Learner” within this blog. The discourses about students who are English Language Learners provide a framework for further communication about aspects of the reality of lives, and the reality of teaching, assessment, and intervention services that we provide.  It is beyond the scope of one single blog to solve problems raised for discussion. That’s the hard part. But to address a problem first we need to name the problem.





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Getting Books into the Hands of Children: Part Two of Three by Dr. Sam Bommarito

Getting Books into the Hands of Children: Part Two of Three


Dr. Sam Bommarito

“In many low-income households, the priorities are feeding the children and heating the home. Buying books for children is a luxury that few can afford. In the average middle-income neighborhood there are thirteen books for every child. In the average low-income neighborhood there is one book for every 300 children.” taken from the Ready to Learn Website

Last week I left off with the question of how we were introduced to Ready To Learn.  Elise Tierney (Executive Director of RTL) and I met when Ready To Learn came to my elementary building while I was teaching in the St. Louis Public schools. After I retired from full time teaching I was reintroduced to Ready To Learn when my local ILA group rented space at the Color Art warehouse in St. Louis. Our ILA group and Ready To Learn were “neighbors” at that warehouse.  They gave us many tips that helped us with our Read and Feed project and later with our project centered on distributing “gently used” books. They gladly shared their expertise on how to doctor gently used books into a new life.  Here are some pictures highlighting the work of Ready to Learn.

Ready to Learn Pic one

Over the last 6 years Ready to Learn has distributed over 205,000 books to Title 1 qualified schools in the St. Louis area. The first time they came, they gave my building a large stuffed animal, based on the school mascot. That was displayed in the library. That was part of their book buddies program. In that program students from Pre-K through third grade are each given a book paired with a stuffed animal representing the main character of the book they received. The teachers in my building found that Book Buddies really helped to engage students who have had little or no reading experience.  They provided that important first step into the exciting world of books and reading.  Reading with their Book Buddies, helped to bring the story to life for our kids.

The Ready to Learn program did not end there. In our building Elise and her group came back giving children books to all students in my building as part of her Book Day program. She also provided the school with a bookshelf that she promised to keep stocked with books.  She did that.  Hundreds and hundreds of books were taken home by our students. Every student got at least 6 books during the course of the year. Those books became part of the home libraries for our students. They became the foundation of our work with parents to encourage them to read with and read to their children.

During the book distributions, she also made classroom teachers aware that she could accommodate student needs for students reading well above or well below their grade level placement.  Part of my job as the reading specialist in the building was to coordinate the communication between Elise’s group and the classroom teachers. Elise always had adult volunteers who help students as they “book shopped”.

Ready to Learn Pic TwoOverall this project is a reading teacher’s dream. If you want to “read more about it” here are links to the Facebook page and website of Ready To Learn.

Website =

Facebook = @readytolearnstl

There is the other St. Louis area organization I want to talk about is the St. Louis Black Authors of Children’s Literature. Julius B. Anthony is the president.  We first learned of this group through Dr. Betty Porter Walls, an associate professor of reading at Harris Stowe university. Betty is a long time ILA member and a member of both our state and local ILA boards.  Because of that contact, Julius and his group presented at one of our local ILA meetings. He also helped this spring at the semi-annual “read-in” held at Harris Stowe University’s preschool.

Harris Stowe

Being at the November ILA meeting was an amazing experience. Each of the authors talked about their books.  The most compelling story of the night was from Mikey Wren, an elementary student, who has sold over 1000 copies of his self-published book. He is slated to receive the Black-Tie Community Award this April for his work as a young entrepreneur.  You can read all about him and the work of the St. Louis Black Authors of Children’s Books Initiative. You’ll find all this and more at their website and Facebook page. I’m also giving you a link to an interview of Julius that appears in the latest issue of the Missouri Reader.

St Louis Black Authors of Children's Literature


Website =

Facebook = @STLBlackAuthors

Link to Julius B. Anthony’s interview in the Missouri Reader:

So…, a lot is happening in Missouri. I hope the example of what is going on in my city and state will give readers of this blog some ideas of things they might try in their own states.  Ideas about how to get books. Ideas about how to get them into the hands of the students, especially students in Title 1 buildings. Most importantly, I hope you get ideas on how to motivate students to read.  As I said at the outset, I also know there are things like this happening all around the country. I would love to hear from my readers about that. I would love to get comments about what’s going on (and push-back if merited!).

Next time this blog will tackle the issue of research supporting the use of wide reading as an instructional tool.

Until then-

Happy Reading and Writing


Dr. B (AKA, the book doctor)

Getting Books into the Hands of Our Children – A Most Worthwhile & Effective Reading Practice (Part 1 of 3)

Getting Books into the Hands of Our Children – A Most Worthwhile & Effective Reading Practice (Part 1 of 3)

Before talking about studies supporting the efficacy of wide reading (I’m saving that topic for the 3rd blog post), I want to remind readers that one of my strongly held beliefs is that one of the characteristics of an effective literacy program is that the program should help to create lifelong readers. In the real world, the reading scores of students do not matter as much as the habits of mind that those students bring to their various life endeavors.  Students who learn how think, how to evaluate ideas, can apply those life-skills/strategies in many ways. They can apply those skills/strategies to future jobs.  That includes jobs that haven’t been invented yet. In my opinion, one of the most important habits of mind we can help our students to develop is the habit of reading widely over a wide variety of reading material for a wide variety of purposes.  Most importantly, this is something we want them to want for themselves. I’m using a quote now that I’ve used several times before. The quote is from Missouri’s favorite son, Mark Twain. He said, “Those who won’t read, are no better off than those can’t read.”  Creating lifelong readers should be job one of every literacy teacher. It should be goal one of any literacy program. One way to create lifelong readers is to get books into the hands of our children.

Much of my teaching career was spent in Title I buildings. In those buildings, students often lacked access to books. I want to tell you about some very successful things that are being done in my state and in my local area to change that situation. Partly I do this as a sense of pride, pride in what various organizations are currently doing. Partly I do this out of hope, hope that reading these stories might encourage other people in other places to also take on the task of getting books into the hands of our children. And partly I do this as an invitation to those of you from other areas who are already doing similar things to share with the readers of this blog things that are happening in your region.

Let’s begin by talking about a local project formerly known as the Read and Feed project and currently known as the R.E.A.D. project. It began as a result of the 2016 International Literacy Association (formerly International Reading Association) holding their convention in St. Louis.  Large numbers of brand new trade-books left over at the convention were made available to the state/local ILA organizations for distribution.  This was done in accordance with the standing rules and procedures of ILA. These kinds of book distributions have become an ongoing feature of recent ILA conventions.  Our state and local ILA groups volunteered to take on the project. The project was to get the books distributed to students in Title 1 qualified schools.  An article from the Missouri Reader, Spring 2014 gives the details of the first year of that project.


LINK =  (Go to page 42)

As you read the article please notice the thank you from the Director of Elementary Education of the Ferguson-Florissant school district.  Books went to the summer Title 1 program in Ferguson-Florissant in the summers of 2016, and 2017. This was just one of several sites we helped. For instance, the Spanish books in this collection ended up at Confluence Academy, a charter school in St. Louis city with a very large population of Spanish speaking students.  They were given out at a parent/student breakfast. Our ILA volunteers and Confluence staff provided explanations to the students and parents of the benefits of wide reading. Thanks to the Confluence staff, this was done in Spanish as well as English.  This is a perfect example of getting books children really wanted to read into the hands of children whose access to such books was very limited. It also stresses the importance we place on including parents in that process.

During the second year of the project, we found a new source for getting books to distribute. We were able to get school library books from local districts. These were books that were slated for removal from school libraries.  Before these books were thrown away or recycled our volunteers culled through them finding appropriate “gently used” books. This enabled us to do additional book giveaways.  This project is scheduled to wrap up soon. In the end there will be over 20,000 books in the hands of students in “high needs” buildings. But were these used books worth giving away?

The answer is yes. With some work and cleaning up they were more than ready for a second life. We learned to become “book doctors” through the tutelage of Elise Tierney who directs the Ready to Learn organization in St. Louis. We learned how to go through books, sorting trash from treasure. We learned to clean and remove old tags et. al. At the end we had books that were quite usable.

How did we meet Elise and her group? You’ll find out about her organization and their work next week. I’ll also be talking about the work of another St. Louis group, St. Louis Black Authors of Children’s Literature. I think you will find that their reading initiative is an amazing endeavor.

Want to get a preview of Elise’s group and what they do? Visit

Want to get a preview of the St. Louis Black Author’s group and their work? Visit

In the meantime,

Happy Reading and Writing

Dr. B.

The Reading Evolution Part Two: Clarifications and Thoughts for The Future

The Reading Evolution Part Two: Clarifications and Thoughts for The Future

First, I would like to thank the readers of this blog for their thoughtful comments both within the blog itself and in various tweets about the blog. Readership has climbed each week. The latest posting had the most reads yet.  For those of you that are coming to the blog by way of twitter, know that you are welcome to follow the blog to make sure you always get the weekly notice of the newest post.

A number of you seem to like the central idea of my latest posting. This comment from twitter was typical of the comments made: “I love this from Dr. Sam Bommarito: A Call for a Reading Evolution: (No, it’s not typo, I mean Evolution). Throwing out and starting over is so common in schools these days so I love the idea that we enhance rather than start over @DoctorSam7

Another said “Great post here. Glad I saw your tweet. So much of what is written here resonates from: learned helplessness to motivation to that swinging pendulum.”

Another wanted clarification of the various dichotomies I mentioned. I answered by using the analytic vs. synthetic phonics as an example of what I had in mind.  Recently I listened as a very learned man talked of how as a beginning teacher he was forced to use only analytic phonics. It didn’t work for him or his children. Readers of this blog are already familiar with the group of teachers being told to use only synthetic and to use it with a very time consuming scripted program. I don’t agree with what happened in either situation. Some children need one approach, some need the other. Some can get along with either. I just did an in-service for beginning teachers in St. Louis. They weren’t even aware that there were two possible ways to teach phonics.  Overall, I took the position that teachers should be trained to use both methods and allowed to use the method that works best for their particular child/children.

What I am afraid may happen is that we will have a repeat of what happened during the Great Debate in reading. I recognize that many of the current readers weren’t even born when the great reading wars took place.   On the surface it would seem that during the Great Debate in reading (Frank Smith once called it the endless debate) folks were shifting between positions that focused around the issue of phonics. It was often characterized as phonics vs no phonics, with advocates of what became known as the whole language movement being characterized as completely opposing phonics. I was doing my dissertation work at the height of this great debate and I became very interested in the question of whether there might be common ground between the advocates of whole language and the advocates of other forms of literacy instruction who seemed to favor more direct and systematic approaches to reading.  What I found was that on most literacy issues folks from both sides agreed on almost everything except the issue of phonics. I’ll be posting details about those findings in future blogs.

The idea I want to explore right now is one that was first presented to me by a member of my dissertation committee who supervised me as I ran the Reading Clinic at the University of Missouri- St. Louis as part of my doctoral coursework. We had many in-depth discussions around literacy topics. At this time whole language was in full bloom. What he said was this. “Sam, the great debate has never been about phonics vs. no phonics. It has always been about my phonics vs. your phonics.”

The more I thought about it, the more sense it made. While some characterized whole language teachers as rejecting phonics, I was present in Anaheim when at the Hall of Fame presentation at the ILA convention no less a figure than Ken Goodman stated there was room for phonics in a whole language classroom.  While it was true that there were some whole language teachers that categorically rejected the use of phonics, it is equally true that leaders like Dr. Goodman did see a place for it.  The problem was that very often the kinds of phonics they found acceptable was analytic phonics not synthetic phonics. I’ve already stated my position on this. Teachers need to be trained in both. I want them to be allowed to use whichever works with their particular child/children at their particular stage in the literacy process.


There’s more to it than just phonics vs. no phonics. In our article on differentiation (link is posted on this blog), our review of the research around phonics concluded that phonics is a necessary but not sufficient condition for successful literacy programs. 50 years of research clearly demonstrates that programs that rely exclusively on phonics have equivocal results. Best results come when programs include both a meaning and a phonics component.

The time is long overdue for a serious conversation around all these points. Is it possible for a literacy programs to evolve that includes both synthetic and analytic options for teachers and students? Is it possible for those programs to include a significant meaning component? Is it possible for those programs to be taught in a way that encourages lifelong readers and lifelong reading?

I think it is both possible and that in many ways it is already happening.  I believe that path to that happening lies not in throwing out what we’ve done so far. It’s time to talk with an aim toward reaching what I think is quite possibly a consensus on what a good literacy program should contain.  It is truly time for a reading evolution.I think we are closer to a consensus than we’ve ever been.

Readers what do you think?

Happy Reading and Writing

Dr. B. (aka, seeker of common ground and common sense in literacy)


A Call for a Reading Evolution: (No, it’s not typo, I mean Evolution) by Dr. Sam Bommarito

A Call for a Reading Evolution:

(No, it’s not typo, I mean Evolution)


Dr. Sam Bommarito


As a workshop teacher I was trained to notice. One of my noticings in the field of literacy what seems to be an eternal swing between two positions on the question of how to best teach children to read. Whether one uses terms like direct teaching versus indirect teaching or synthetic phonics versus phonics or a constructivist view versus an empiricist view or in Dr. Kerns terms of the simple view of reading vs. the sociogenic view, it seems that we are locked into a pattern all or nothing in our thinking about these various positions. At the end of the day, teachers are given the choice of all of one or all of the other. That can lead to some very sad situations.  Readers familiar with me know I’m out on the internet all the time looking at various literacy sites in order to get some sense of what’s going on. I recently found entries at a popular Facebook teachers site (30,000 strong!) where teachers were saying they were in the process of adopting a very strict and scripted synthetic phonics program and being told to put away (throw away), all previously used materials. Many of these were materials that had served them very well over the years.  The teachers sounded both discouraged and confused.  I don’t blame them.

What to do, what to do?

Perhaps what we’ve needed all along is not a revolution, i.e. jumping on the latest bandwagon and forsaking all previous things, but an evolution, i.e. tweaking things until they work.  Tweaking appeals to the workshop teacher in me, we do that all the time. Tweaking appeals to my foundational training as a reading specialist, back in that day (circa 1977), when reading specialists were trained to use a diagnostic-prescriptive model. Tweaking appeals to my natural way of doing things.  I don’t throw things out. If something breaks, I get out the duct tape and find a way to make it work for just a little while longer. That sometimes drives my very patient wife crazy. However, she knows that when I eventually buy new, I make sure that the new purchase does not have the faults that caused the problem in the old. Every day in every way make things just a little bit better. Tweaking is the lifeblood of kid watchers. So, let’s say rather than throw out all our current materials and start from scratch (yet again!), we try to find ways to improve what we’ve got. Let’s try having a reading and writing evolution.

A good first step in that direction would be to take a long hard look at phonics and how we should be teaching phonics.  I love Dr. Tim Rasinski’s recent blog post about that very topic. Dr. Rasinski is one of the foremost experts in the area of reading fluency.  His works could literally fill a room. The title of his blog post of March 10th was: “The Goal of Phonics Instruction is to Get Readers Not to Use Phonics When Reading. He is not saying to to teach phonics. He’s saying to teach phonics in a way so that it is no longer needed. Shades of gradual release! Regular readers of this blog can already guess what my addition to Rasinski’s idea might be.  Be prepared to teach phonics as synthetic or as analytic depending on what works with the particular child. When I talked to Bill Kerns about this, he was afraid I would scare off some of my constructionists friends with my suggestion of using synthetic phonics when needed.  Too much direct teaching. I countered with the idea that many of my constructivist friends use direct teaching all the time. After all, is there a better example of direct teaching than a well crafted mini-lesson?

My thinking is my workshop friends can and will get the job done when synthetic phonics is needed by a particular student. It’s just that they would get it done with much less teaching time than is typically used up in some of the highly scripted synthetic phonics programs. Following Rasinski’s advice, their goal would be to get through this stage, which is necessary for many students, and to get students to the stage of fluent reading, which is the goal for all students.

Another pair of thinkers who seem to know how to do some effective tweaking are Burkins and Yaris. I saw them when they presented for our local ILA last fall. They warn teachers that sometimes teachers are teaching in a way that can promote learned helplessness. Teachers are simply doing too much of the work for the kids. I found they had a whole plan about how to improve the way we implement Guided Reading. As I listened to them speak I was reminded of one of the foundational pieces of advice I got during my workshop training. That advice was to know what work you a leaving for the student and why. I was taught that if you can answer that question as a teacher it is far more likely your lesson will scaffold students into real learning. Over-scaffold and you will end up creating a state of learned helplessness. Hmmm. This again sounds like there are teachers doing some very effective thinking about how to tweak current literacy practices.

Let’s turn for a moment to the pesky problem of motivation.  I have no need to convince teachers of the importance of motivation. One of the followers of this blog said just last week “I just know making reluctant, below grade level readers learn to love reading takes personal relationships with each student. That was always my “secret weapon.”  (thanks to authorlaurablog).  It’s the creators of National Standards (National Curriculum) that seem prone to ignore this aspect of literacy. To me it self-evident that teaching in a way that promotes lifelong reading should be an explicit part of every literacy program. I’m fond of quoting Mark Twain on this. “Those who don’t read are no better off than those who can’t read.”  Overall, I think I said enough make a good start in the beginning of the evolution in reading. Look over the heading in this blog explaining our recommendations for a literacy program. That is my suggested starting place for a reading evolution.

Regular readers of this blog know the impact that the events at the Write to Learn conference held earlier this year had on me.  One of the things that happened is that I met Eric Litwin author of the original Pete the Cat Books. At the conference he was teaching teachers about how to use music to help students with literacy (and doing that quite well I might add).  He had a prediction about how this whole swinging pendulum business might finally be laid to rest. You see, he believes that all this talk among teachers on social media and that all this smart thinking of teachers on social media, is resulting in the creation of a community of well informed, concerned teachers. He looks to this community to be the spark that results in change. He thinks this change could finally end the wild back and forth swings that have characterized the world of reading instruction for the past 5 decades. Interesting concept.

So, think about it. Maybe it is time for the evolution.  Maybe it is time to tweak what we have, not replace what we have. Readers, you’ve heard some of my ideas about the coming evolution what form it might take.  What do you think?  Do you think it will ever be possible to find the center, to combine best practices from many perspectives and to finally be able to really help our students to enter the wonderful world that awaits those who pursue the goal of becoming lifelong readers and writers? I would love to hear your thoughts on this matter.


Dr. B.


Cutting Through the Gordian Knot of High Stakes Testing: Reflections on How to Teach as Well as Test

We need to start by acknowledging the 12,000-pound elephant in the room. The fact is that for a variety of reasons testing in some form is going to be with us for the foreseeable future.  Last fall at the NCET convention in St. Louis, I had the good fortune to be at the session where a number of top literacy experts talked about a variety of literacy issues. Lucy Calkins was among them.  I think Lucy’s comments around testing are especially useful for the current topic.  After acknowledging that testing is going to be with us for a good long while, she told how she and her colleagues in New York successfully lobbied to change the statewide testing to a form that had better face validity (my term not hers) than previous testing.

I think Lucy is on to something here.  My undergraduate degree was in political science/history.  I spent 2 years as a student body president at a university, 5 years teaching political science & history and 6 years as a small-town alderman.  Politics is often a 0-sum game. Everyone is looking for part of the scarce resources allocated by the political process.  However laudable the cause of education is; the fact is that we are competing with many equally deserving groups for a piece of the pie. We need something more than just our good word that the resources allotted for education are being put to used effectively. There are many ways to demonstrate that e.g. graduation rates, employment rates, independent reading rates, testing et al.  When testing is used, the trick is in making sure the reading test used meets face validity. In my opinion tests that measure mainly decoding skills do not. Tests that measure both meaning making and decoding skills do.  By the way, we can and should teach decoding skills in a way that leads to and enhances meaning making skills.  Here are some practical suggestions around the topic of testing and the literacy world.

You can begin by limiting the “test taking” instruction for students to the amount needed for those students to get used to the testing format employed in their state tests. I’ve seen situations where literacy instruction becomes one ongoing and eternal series of lessons in test practice instruction. Such an approach usually yields a bump in test scores as the students learn the nuances of the testing form. This is followed by an eternal plateau of test scores with little or no gains. This is because the time taken to teach test taking precludes time being taken to teach the meaning making that is the heart of the reading process.

One of my fellow bloggers, Lori Robb recently used a powerful quote from Margaret Mead. Mead said, “Children must be taught how to think, not what to think”.  We are in an era of knowledge explosion.  Gains in our knowledge base that used to take centuries now happen in the course of a single generation.  In such an age, focusing our teaching on how to think, how to learn new things, makes perfect sense. That kind of learning is best taught in teaching students to problem solve on their own. That includes learning how to problem solve their own words. They should also talk about and write about their ideas and, of course, read about new ideas from others. For that to happen we must “prime the pump”.  That means providing time and opportunities for students to discuss, interact, write about, think about what they discuss and finally, teaching them to make meaning out of the text.  In a workshop setting in a Title 1 building in an urban neighborhood where I worked for 18 years, I saw students as young as 1st grade “talk big about little books”.  These are the selfsame students who helped that district gain the distinction of being a Secretary’s Initiative Award winner placing their Title One program in the top tenth of 1 percent of Title One programs in that era.  That happened twice while I was there.

I think too often in the world of literacy instruction we suffer from what I have come to call the “skip to the end” phenomena.  For instance, back in the day many educators came to the realization that 220-300 words made up a majority of all the words a child needs and that most adults know most of those words by sight. Based on this, some educators moved to an implementation of the sight-say method where those students learned those words early and quickly, usually by rote. The First-Grade studies concluded that this Sight Say method was ineffective.  Why did that happen? After all, the children knew the most important words by sight, just like the grownups.

Here is what I think happened.

What happened was that unlike the grown ups who developed their collection of sight-words through wide reading, learning words as they went along by figuring out unknown words and then remembering them, the sight-say students often learned only one strategy for figuring out words. Repeat them many times and memorize them.  The resulting level of word knowledge worked in texts with highly restricted vocabulary. However, once students moved to more complex, less controlled text, they lacked any way to figure out their own words or think about what they read. Little or no time had been spent constructing meaning around the text or learning methods of problem solving their own words.  You see by “skipping to the end” the educators had inadvertently left out the most important parts of how the fluent readers became fluent.

So back to the current topic. Teaching students how to “handle” multiple choice questions about main idea or inference will do no good if the students haven’t first gone through the rich encounters of dialogue and thinking about text that skillful readers use to unpack the meaning of text and make meaning from text.

So…, teach more, test less. Don’t overdo test practice. When you teach your students, scaffold them into deeper thinking. Teach them how to problem solve their words though a variety of methods including both synthetic and analytic phonics.  Give them text that is relevant to them. Give them at least some choice in what they read and write about. Teach them how to think and problem solve on their own. Do all this and the better test scores will come. That leap of faith might seem a little scary, so I want to leave you with a little allegory to consider. It’s based on an old folk tune from the sixty’s, Desert Pete.

Desert Pete was close to dying of thirst. Needed water. Came to a pump in the desert. A very tempting bottle of water had been left near the pump. There was a note. Use the water to prime the pump.  What to do? What if the pump didn’t work? Why not just drink that water? That would get Pete at least one more day to survive.  Or should he prime the pump and get water enough for all his needs (plus enough to fill the bottle for the next traveler!). Here is a link to a YouTube version of that song:


So, it is really your choice. I personally choose to prime the pump, to teach students how to think.  I choose to give them at least some choice of what they read and write about. I choose to teach them about decoding using whichever method best works for them.  I choose to scrutinize state tests carefully to make sure they have face validity and like Lucy and her colleagues in New York, to lobby for change if they don’t. Most importantly I choose to become more skillful at scaffolding readers into their next level of thinking.  So, readers what’s you pleasure? Drink the bottle of water or prime the pump? Something to think about in the coming weeks as we near the time for annual testing.

Happy Reading and Writing

Dr. Sam Bommarito

Aka Desert Sam

Copyright 2018

Sam Bommarito