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 (https://doctorsam7.blog/2018/07/27/the-reading-wars-circa-2018-why-is-the-pendulum-still-swinging-and-how-can-we-stop-it-by-dr-sam-bommarito-with-commentary-by-dr-william-kerns/.) 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.