Monthly Archives: March 2018

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 to make a good start at 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. Use #readingevolution1 to follow conversations around this topic.


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


A Posting from Dr. William Kerns

As promised, this Friday’s blog posting is done by Dr. Williams Kerns:


I look forward to the dialogue about literacy on this site. It is my hope that the conversation fosters a type of community of practice in which we each share a commitment to highly engaging and effective literacy education. As a guest bogger, I will discuss a diverse range of topics but in general my blog topics will coincide with issues raised by Sam. In my first blog I’ll start by simply start by introducing myself.

Sam and I met through our mutual passion for literacy including the promotion of programs such as Read and Feed initiatives, providing literacy education, books and food for children in Title I schools. We’ve become friends. Yet, I also believe that our differences of approaches will also prove fruitful for readers of this blog site.

You see, I tend to operate within a nexus of worlds that are known for sometimes clashing. I prefer my life this way. Life is far more interesting when in the tension of making sense of ideas that might clash, I learn new ways of viewing the world. For example, finding new understandings between cultures is a daily part of my marriage to a beautiful and brilliant woman who was born and raised in Northern China. She’s rightfully proud of her Chinese heritage. In many ways we have built a nexus that draws upon differing worlds as expressed in foods, traditions, daily habits, or conversations about education, music, holidays, politics and economics.  I’ve grown as a result.

A pattern can be seen in my life that informs – and is informed by – my teaching philosophy.  I want students to have the opportunity for discovery of new ideas and new ways of relating to one another with care, and to develop a lifelong habit of inquiry which contributes to joyful lives. Beyond this, I also hope that students will come to view education as a process of living in which they can contribute to the building of a more caring and just society. In turn, inquiry into the consequences of actions contributes to the development of what John Dewey called reflective morality. The demands of reflective morality include ongoing analysis into social conditions and the way one’s individual actions impact others. Reflective thinking is foundational to my approach to striving to build a more just society. Reflection provides a basis for actions of moral integrity, because of the dialogic way that knowledge and teaching practices are linked through reflection.

Drawing on Mohandas Gandhi’s understanding of satyagraha, I strive to become the change I wish to see in the world through my career as a teacher and as a researcher. After all it is futile to wish to see changes such as increased kindness and fairness if I do not commit myself to teaching and living in a manner that is consistent with truthfulness through a rigorous process of self-scrutiny through inquiry into my own actions. This means that as an educator and an individual living in society I’m “proud to be maladjusted until the good society is realized” to borrow a phrase from Martin Luther King. I have no wish to be well adjusted to injustices in the lives of students or in the wider world. Further, the concept of agape love also informs my approach to teaching. Teachers risk pain and rejection when they commit whole-heartedly to caring for the needs of students and a community, but teachers have a responsibility to care for students even if there is pain.

The valuing of students needs to be rooted in concrete experience rather than a mere philosophical determination to be caring. A fundamental aspect of my teaching philosophy is the commitment to draw on the knowledge and resources available in students and in a community to inform curriculum and to help make learning increasingly meaningful to students. I am committed to an approach to pedagogy that stresses engaging students in activities that are personally and culturally meaningful.  Development of the student’s capabilities is the primary aim of my teaching. I strive to establish learning environments that promote exploration through a curriculum that is responsive to the needs and interests of the student based on careful inquiry. The instruction I strive for is also tied to the hope that teachers and students alike will work together and dialogue together, with presence to one another, becoming lifelong participants in efforts to build a more caring and just society.

Hmm…. Notice something so far?

What about talk of synthetic vs. analytic phonics?

Yes, skill development matters. Drawing on Paolo Freire I believe that reading the world helps foster in students the ability to read the word.   But the careful reader might also notice another way in which I operate within a nexus of worlds that sometimes are better known for clashing. While living in Central Florida prior to entering higher education, I worked as a high school English teacher and a Reading teacher as well as a reading specialist. My Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from Clemson University focused on English Education, but I keep my feet in both the English Education and Literacy communities. Professors of English Language Arts and Literacy don’t always get along. There are those in English Language Arts who view the field as strongly grounded in the humanities and resist perceived efforts to ground English Language Arts in Literacy. Arguments drawing on the work of James Moffett and Peter Elbow maintain that English Language Arts should focus on holistic personal growth as students immerse themselves in literary worlds while engaged in rich reading, writing and dialogue. Concerns are sometimes voiced in English Education that Reading Education will emphasize decontextualized skills – even “skill and drill” – thus denying to students the potential joys of exploring literary worlds.

I’ve come to recognize that such a clash is not necessary, though it can also be a valid concern depending on approaches to instruction that are emphasized. The so-called simple view of reading defines reading comprehension as the product of decoding and listening comprehension, and instruction grounded in the simple view of reading clashes with approaches of those favoring the influence of Freire, Moffett or Elbow in English Language Arts. However, I find that reading instruction that also values social aspects of learning can be motivating and engaging for students. Literacy curricula need not deny to students the joys of exploration in the humanities and literature that English Language Arts teachers seek to support.