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.


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

  1. doctorsam7

    Thanks for joining in- more to come. Also follow @ERobbPrincipal. He has similar discussions going on and the Rasinski remark I referenced this time was a guest post on Robb’s blog. Lots of great discussions going on!

  2. merufkahr

    What amazing insights by Dr. Sam Bommarito! I am pleased to be part of his literary circle!

    1. doctorsam7

      Thanks so much for the kind words. Next week we will begin looking at the efficacy of wide reading and how to promote wide reading. In St Louis (as in many many places) we believe in getting books into the hands of kids. We’ll talk about some specific projects we are involved in and Dr. Kerns will take an careful look at the research surrounding wide reading. Thanks for being part of the group!

  3. writerjoney


    Thanks for commenting on my recent post. I appreciate knowing when I move readers—or fail to do so. Your message this time reminded me that I’ve been wanting to let you know that I saw some things in your recent blog that I didn’t understand. It may be that I am out of touch with the present world of teaching reading, or that practices in your part of the country are different from those in mine. Whatever the problem is, I thought I should point it out for you to consider.

    In your most recent post you referred to “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 sociiogenic view” and I haven’t the slightest idea what all that means. No doubt I am an old retired teacher of reading, but I suspect that I am not the only reader who was in the same position as I was: totally mystified.

    Although it is true that later on you make clearer what you are in favor of, you may have sent away many readers before you got there. Anyway, I send you the same advice that friends and colleagues gave me when I first started to write for an unknown public audience: “Keep it simple, Stupid”.

    Sincerely, Joanne

    P.S. Don’t bother mentioning the experts either. Your readers care only about what you think.

    > >

    1. doctorsam7

      Thanks so much for joining in this conversation and especially for your many many many contributions to the field of reading which include you being a member of the NRP. I think you’ve pointed out a need to clarify. It will take more than just a brief comment- so consider this comment a beginning thought that I will build on in future posts. Each of the things you mention involve ways to approach teaching or teaching literacy. We can treat each as a dichotomy (do it this way OR do it that way) or as a continuum (find the place or places along the continuum that best fits the current needs of you and your children). I am arguing for treating each as a continuum. Take analytic vs synthetic phonics- the source of the great reading wars. 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. You’re 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. It’s time for everyone to talk. Talk about what the experts are saying. Talk about how we’ve been down this road before. Talk about how we might avoid the mistakes of the past. Talk about what those beginning teachers need if they are to be successful in their upcoming careers. Talk about what a reading evolution might look like. I want this blog to become a place where we can come and talk about those issues. By we I mean ALL the educators from ALL sides of those various continuums. That is what readers will find when the come here. Each reader has to decide for themselves whether or not it is worth coming each week. But, as I said, we do need to talk. The only thing I can guarantee is that the conversations will always be lively. Happy Reading and Writing. Sam (AKA Dr. B., AKA DoctorSam7).

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