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)