The call for a reading evolution part two: And yes, I still mean evolution not revolution By Doctor Sam Bommarito

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The call for a reading evolution part two: And yes, I still mean evolution not revolution

By Doctor Sam Bommarito

After almost 50 years in the field of education, and almost 40 years focusing on literacy education I am quite tired of the ever-swinging pendulum.  Among the top items on my bucket list is to do what I can to help bring the pendulum to rest in the middle, where I think it should have been on along. Big task, not a lot of time left. One of the things that must happen for this dream to come true is the Great Debate in reading needs to become the Great Dialogue in reading. The two sides need to stop arguing and start problem solving.

I’ve given my view of who the two sides are before. However, many of my new readers may not have seen it. On the one hand are the “phonics cures all folks”. They are strong advocates of synthetic phonics. Philosophically they are empiricists and favor direct instruction for all, all of the time.  On the other hand, there are the discovery learning folks. Philosophically they are constructivists. They favor teaching as needed analytic phonics. They favor inquiry learning. I often find myself being a kindred spirit with them.  I feel these two points of view have been around for quite some time. Think Aristotle and Socrates. I expect both points of view will be here long after all of us are gone.  I’d love to see some great thinker unify the two points of view into one consolidated theory of learning. I don’t see that happening any time soon, certainly not in time to fulfill my bucket list wish. Based on research- which side should prevail?

Let’s look at one of the most contentious of the issues the two sides deal with that of phonics- when and how phonics should be taught.  My view is that research demonstrates both sides are correct. It also demonstrates both sides are incorrect.  How can that be? This is explained in detail in the blog post Bill Kerns and I did (  The upshot of it is this: Synthetic phonics helps most but not all readers.  Many readers for whom synthetic phonics fails to do the job can be helped with analytic phonics or other forms of phonics instruction.  I think we are perfectly capable of designing educational programs that take all this into account. I’ve talked about what they might look like in previous blogs.

Here is the heart of the matter. We need to have a reading evolution. When something fails to work for every child stop jumping on to something brand new to replace the “failed practice”. In point of fact, the “failed practice” is often working for most, just not for all. Instead we need to learn to tweak things. My notion is this.  The best level for program adoptions in not at the national one size fits all level. The best level is with local school districts who know their kids best. They need to adopt as good a balanced literacy program as they can find. Good means it fits their kids.  Good means that it succeeds for most kids (90-95%).  Then include RTI for the kids for whom the main program isn’t working (read Mary Howards stuff, she has some great ideas around this).  If some aspects of the program aren’t working, then tweak them. A specific for instance- recent research is indicating that using small group instruction hasn’t worked the way we wanted- especially in the poorest school. Burkins and Yaris recently published ideas on how we can change how we use our time in guided reading. They talk about how we can teach in a way that leaves more work for the kids leading to more growth for the kids. Their book provides a pretty good blueprint on how to tweak guided reading/reading workshop. Don’t replace things, fix things. Do it at a local level. What works in one district might not work in others.

Most important in all this is call a “truce” in the reading wars. Each side needs to admit their practices have limits and limitations.  Synthetic phonics has been adopted nationwide in England. Yet there are some children that fail to thrive. I strongly suspect those many of those children would thrive if teachers were taught alternative methods of teaching phonics, including analytic phonics, and allowed to use that knowledge with selected children. Advocates of analytic phonics need to address the fact that adopting such a program for all children often results in many children having large gaps in the knowledge about phonics. Phonics programs really do need to be systematic.

Some children really do learn to read no matter what methods we use.  Others need aspects of one approach or the other to succeed. Both sides have got to agree to stop insisting that all teaching be done with their methods and only their methods. Both sides need to agree when their favorite methods aren’t working for all kids, that teachers should be allowed (and encouraged!) to use methods from the other sides.  Specifically, teachers need to be taught about all the ways to teach phonics. Districts need to adopt programs that seem to fit their population the best. Whichever emphasis the final adoption might take, practices from “the other side” should be allowed and encouraged for the selected students who need them.

In the next few weeks I’ll be exploring what a reading evolution might look like.  I’ll be inviting reader comments. I’m asking that advocates of each side be respectful of the points of view of the other.  Let’s give this a try. Let’s tweak things instead of replacing them. Let’s start the Great Reading Dialogue.  Let’s have a Reading Evolution!


Dr. Sam Bommarito (a.k.a, person with a bucket list and a dream)

ABOUT THE BLOG- The response to the blogs around Reading Recovery have been amazing- over 4000 readers in the past few weeks. It will be a while before I publish a blog that deals directly with RR so I would encourage readers who found their way to this post through the RR Facebook page to please follow the blog.  I think you will enjoy the future discussions of what I hope will become a reading evolution.


Copyright 2018 by Sam Bommarito who is solely responsible for its content.








10 thoughts on “The call for a reading evolution part two: And yes, I still mean evolution not revolution By Doctor Sam Bommarito

  1. Genevieve Arcovio

    I love this message. It’s not about programs, it’s about pedagogy. Teachers don’t need training in programs, they need to know the research, know how children develop as readers, and then they need the freedom to make instructional decisions based on the students in front of them, regardless of program. The freedom seems to be a big sticking point these days.

  2. Eric Litwin

    Wonderful article! A call to rational dialogue and flexible instruction based on the needs of the students!

      1. Sterling Simmons

        Thanks for this post. Former teacher, current instructional Aide in kindergarten. When I began teaching I had no idea what it means to teach phonics. I simply felt my school was severely lacking in phonics instruction. Honestly, I was probably right, but ignorant about what it truly meant to look at the nuances and substantiated conclusions about how to best teach foundational reading skills.

        After I stopped teaching and moved into my current position, I decided to read Heidi Mesner’s book called Letter Lessons and First Words. I also began reading up as much as I could about current ideas about the best approaches to reading instruction. This was all during the wider media scrutiny of balanced literacy approaches. Proponents of direct instruction most of the time for all kids lambasted Calkins, Fountas and Linnell, and Units of Study programs. While I felt like a piece of me was being torn off and trampled, I kept reading and listening. And when Calkins released her response to critics entitled “A Defense of Balanced Literacy”, I was extremely encouraged by her insistence that neither she nor her team had all the right answers and wanted to learn and improve as needed. I’m still a Balanced Literacy boy.

        I really think there is a lack of phonics instruction support for some of our schools that are underperforming and using balanced literacy. I still work at the same school I was a teacher in, and in that time we’ve been determined to be a focus school. It’s been almost 5 years now, and we are only just now receiving a coherent, district approved and curriculum to draw from. And even so, that is not full range of support we’ve needed. We needed the opportunity to sit and plan units with coaches, have instructional coaching cycles, received series of model lessons within units we were teaching. The work of literacy instruction is too complex to take on alone, and I really hope we can have the continued support from experts like you. Thanks for what you do!

  3. diggingdeeperrti

    I really thought that the Balanced Literacy comeback was supposed to solve this problem…this is really problematic for teachers at all ends of the spectrum, as we lack continuity of prescribing what works for the child. If we send our children to the doctor, we would hope we would receive a solution or a prescription for something that will work for that individual child, NOT a simple, “Oh here, just take this penicillin. It will fix everyone’s problems.” What if that child’s immune system is resistant to penicillin, or is allergic? We would hope the doctor would prescribe something different. Why do we not take the same approach to the education of our children? I’m so tired of hearing how beneficial it is to “treat the lowest of the masses” and it will just carry over into the rest of the student population.

  4. Adrienne Dahlstrom

    I think one of the biggest roadblocks in teaching little ones how to read is…class size. In K-2 classrooms, in our school district, a single teacher has 22-24 children; with aide support for only 40 minutes each day (not, necessarily during reading or writitng). It forces us to get as much bang for our buck when it comes to implementing a reading program. We’re forced to do what’s best for US, not for KIDS. We’re not flexible and we’re unable to explore what meets the needs of each individual child; whether it’s a phonics (guided reading) or inquiry-based approach. We’re also placing increased demands on our AIS team because fewer students are learning to their potential. The politics of funding for smaller class sizes and increased support has really put us in a tight spot.

    1. doctorsam7

      I have nothing but admiration for teachers. When I was teaching Title One, I found there were cycles of feast and famine in terms of funding. Always tried to stock up with things in the good years so they would be there in the lean years. Thank for being a teach, and especially thanks for all the good work you do with the kids!


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