Monthly Archives: February 2019

The Reading Evolution: Part Two (and it’s still not a typo, I mean evolution) By Dr. Sam Bommarito.

reading creatuve commonsThe Reading Evolution: Part Two (and it’s still not a typo, I mean evolution)

By Dr. Sam Bommarito.

A while back I wrote a post entitled The Reading Evolution. I want to come back to that topic and expand on it. A lot has happened since that first post and I want to share some of it with you

First, the premise of the original post is really very basic and simple. We need to stop debating with each other. We need to start talking to each other.  

We must do this with the caveat that we admit up front that our particular way of doing things has limits and limitations. Instead of getting mad at the folks who point goes out our weaknesses, the better path is learn from their criticisms and to tweak our favorite approach. As much as we can, try to fix whatever limitations are pointed out. That is the basic ground rule of having a reading evolution.

Why do I think we need a reading evolution? I think because this because in the last five decades since I first began teaching there have been regular pendulum swings between those who feel phonics cures all to those who feel really better off without phonics. There are also other things involved. My take on what has been happening is whenever we get to either of those extreme positions there are a significant number of children do not progress using those extreme methods. Usually enough time has passed between the swings for most folks to have forgotten that that approach didn’t work last time.  Let’s start by looking at the phonics cures all extreme point of view. I call it extreme in the sense that on a continuum of no phonics to all phonics it is at the very far edge of the right side of the continuum.

Does phonics cure all- NO! Is phonics necessary but not sufficient for progress in reading- YES. 

Over 50 years ago The First Grade Studies looked at the best approaches of that time. The overall conclusion was no one approach works best for all children. Every approach worked better with a phonics supplement. Years later, Allington came to similar conclusions about no one approach working with every child. There’s more. A new found friend on twitter provided these links:

Part of what I think the information in these links shows is that no one approach to phonics works so well that it should replace all the others. Phonics by itself does not get the job done. Phonics instruction must be supplemented with direction instruction in comprehension.  My overall take on this is simple. Find the approach to teaching phonics that works with the child you are helping and use it. Do it concurrently with comprehension instructions. I want to be crystal clear that I’m fully aware that there are some children that need an intense synthetic direct instruction phonics program. That needs to be provided to those children. However, providing it to all children results in precious instructional time being used up. That is why I propose that such intense instruction be provided in a tier 2 or tier 3 setting. Otherwise you run the very real risk of having the first year and a half or two year of instructional time failing to provide adequate work in comprehension. Some phonics cures all proponents have even suggested we focus mainly on phonics and wait for working in comprehension around  until around 2nd or third grade. We’ve travelled that road before. It doesn’t work. Review the work of Pressley and Durkin to see why I say that.

Are balancing literacy and reading recovery and workshop and guided reading the main causes of children not learning to read? NO!

Some advocates on the very extreme of the phonics continuum are using a technique I learned about when I taught history and political science at the very beginning of my teaching career. The technique is called strawman. Look at your opponent, think of their weakest points. Present those as their only points. Net result, a strawman that you can use to convince the public they are all wrong. What happens if you don’t just look at the strawman but look at the full program? Let’s just take one of the examples of the methods of teaching reading that is under intense attack. Reading Recovery. According to the opponents it hurts kids, it’s ineffective and it needs to be gotten rid of as soon as possible. Usually a host of studies are cited showing all kinds of weaknesses and flaws in the program.

Readers, I can take any approach you care to name and fill a couple of pages with studies showing the weaknesses of those approaches. One of my basic premises is that all approaches have weaknesses. The question becomes do they also have offsetting strengths. In the case of recovery there are many. Early research in RR demonstrated that those who fully completed the program rarely needed services again. Not a word about that from the opponents. I have posted a link to the What Works Clearing House a number of times.  Research the site. You’ll find it reports that recovery outperforms all other methods of beginning reading intervention. Recovery gets results in both decoding and comprehension. The other approaches only get results in decoding. These findings have been replicated a number of times over the years.  Just look at previous postings of the National Clearing House to verify that. When faced with this information one of the opponents said the National Clearing House methodology was questionable.  I suppose readers who agree with that can discount this information. I suspect most readers realize that the clearinghouse provides a solid look at what we can learn from research. It is a widely used website. It plays by the actual rules of scientific research.  The main point here is simple. In and of itself a strong synthetic phonics program does not automatically produce better readers/long-term improvement in both comprehension and reading achievement. By contrast, RR has consistently produced good results in BOTH decoding and comprehension over a period of a number of years.

I’m sure most readers are familiar with claims that some synthetic phonics proponents make. They report it produces an almost magical increase in reading achievement. The devil is in the details. The tests used to demonstrate this actually measure decoding. A careful look at the tests will show at best some use of vocabulary and some correlational comprehension data. Nothing to really write home about. If it sounds as if I’m quite skeptical of the overall claims. I am. If I’m to be convinced of the efficacy of an approach, the data supporting, it should include information from FULL comprehension testing not just decoding.

So it seems that when the “strawman” version of Reading Recovery is looked at carefully, its actually a tin man (IRON MAN?). Why on earth would we want to drop it?  Similar information for other “failures” of reading approaches are available. These approaches do have limits and limitations, but none so severe as to cause us to drop them completely. All have a myriad of strengths making them worth keeping.

How can we- should we- proceed in the current round of the great debate?

First and foremost, let’s keep the gold standard of what good literacy program to include that fact that it should be able to demonstrate a long-term gains in reading achievement/comprehension. Any test used to demonstrate that must include a significant comprehension component. In my day we use the Gates Macginitie reading test which had vocabulary section and the comprehension section. I’ll point out that results from just the vocabulary section were not always the same as the overall results. That’s my way of saying vocabulary alone is not a sufficient measure of comprehension. Correlational studies using modified cloze procedures are equally weak. If the proponents really want to demonstrate comprehension gains, they should begin using instruments that are fully up to the task.

My main premise remains the same as it did when I first proposed the evolution.  That is let’s stop throwing everything out and starting over every couple of years. Let’s stop ripping materials that are working for the kids and teachers out of the teacher’s hands in order to replace them with a one size fits all set of materials which is likely to not work for at least some of the kids.  That’s demoralizing to say the least. Instead let’s take a hard look at what we’re doing and by hard look I need a look that includes admitting the limitations of our favorite ways. Then let’s tweak things. I’m going to be presenting to teachers at the Missouri Write to Learn Conference about guided reading. Let me tell you what I’m going to tell them about how to tweak guided reading. First look at the Fountas and Pinnell chart showing all the instructional contexts that should be present in Guided Reading (see the chart on the inside back page of their book Teaching for Comprehending and Fluency). Make sure that you are doing everything on the chart not just the small group guided reading group things. Second most of the reading your kids do should not be in their leveled text. That doesn’t mean that you don’t include leveled text. It just means you’re also include additional texts in other parts of the Guided Reading program, using the kind of deep complex text, the at/or above grade level text that is sometimes missing from some folks as they do guided reading.  I’m also going to ask them to do a careful read of Burkins & Yaris’s book, Who’s Doing the Work?  Burkins and Yaris suggest that we tend to over scaffold during the small group part of guided reading. They say that we try to pack far too much work that in the leveled reading section, work that rightly belongs in other parts of the overall guided reading program. That’s just one example of how listening to criticism of a program (such as guided reading does not use enough on grade level, complex text) and adapting it to try to fix some of the concerns

Who should be making these decisions about what to adopt?

At the end of the day I believe that decision is best made by local school boards. That is because local school boards know the kids best. Every attempt should be made by the boards to adopt a main program that has at least 95% success rate. If that is done, then the tier system can work for the other kids. What I say next is preaching to the choir. The teachers of tier kids know that these particular kids learn differently from the way the main program uses. Not better, not worse, just differently. But they can learn and thrive. I am personally LD with some signs of mild ADD. I have my doctorate. Nuf said? The Internet is full of stories of students who learn differently who succeed widely and that includes students with dyslexia.

At the moment, I think we tend to greatly over identify Dyslexic students.   Dr. Shanahan just discussed on his blog. He reports that we don’t yet have a satisfactory instrument for identification of dyslexia.  You can read the last paragraph of this blog post to see how he would identify the Dyslexic students  There are students who truly do need that kind of intense direct phonics instruction advocated by the synthetic phonics folks. I was talking to a friend who knows quite a lot about this and found that Reading Recovery is more than aware of the need and is making adaptations. Maybe sometime I can talk her into talking about that in detail on this blog. We’ll see

Is it time for a Reading Evolution? – YES

Okay so there you have it. Time to admit “our way” has flaws. Time to learn about its weaknesses. Time to adapt to make “our way” as strong as we can. And most of all, time to develop ways to serve the folks we’re meant to serve. Let me remind you of who that is. You may work for a school district or a publisher or a clinic or whatever. But your real boss is the students you serve. They don’t care which reading theory you believe in or what your favorite practices are. They only care that you will find a way to scaffold them into becoming a better reader. So please let’s stop debating. Let’s start discussing. Let’s start learning from “the other side”. That is what my reading recovery friend has done. She’s taken their training courses. Most advocates of synthetic phonics are not going to extreme views. Let’s talk to them as my reading recovery friend has done. Then let’s start acting on those discussions. Let’s get started on the Reading Evolution.


READERS- If you are in the Midwestern Region please come see Glenda (my Co-Editor for the Missouri Reader)  and I. We will present highlights of the special poetry issue of the Missouri Reader next Friday.  On Sat, I will do a solo presentation on Guided Reading including all of the points I discussed in this blog.

Here is the conference link.


Happy Reading and Writing

Dr. Sam Bommarito (aka, professional tweaker, I just love to fix things!)



P.S. The study that came to be known as “The First Grade Studies” was done by Bond and Dykstra in 1967.  It appeared in RRQ (see screen capture below).  It has been the subject of a great deal of analysis and commentary including a special edition of RRQ in 1997 that marked the 30-year anniversary of the publication of the study.

Screen Capture 1st grade studies


Allenton’s work is widely known. Here is a link to the PDF I drew on to talk about his views:


Introducing the special edition of the Missouri Reader- Poetry- a Path to Literacy by  Dr. Sam Bommarito, Co-Editor of the Missouri Reader


Introducing the special edition of the Missouri Reader- Poetry- a Path to Literacy by

Dr. Sam Bommarito, Co-Editor of the Missouri Reader

You may know that one of the hats I wear is that of Co—Editor of the Missouri ReaderMissouri Reader has been publishing for over 40 years now.  We publish between two and three issues a year. We are peer edited and have a highly qualified review board.  We do publish some very well-known literary leaders. But we also give teachers a chance to publish right alongside them Most often those teachers are graduate students at one of our state’s universities, though we do accept articles from all over the United States (and Beyond!). Details on how to submit are always found on the last page of each issue of the journal.  This latest issue is something very special. As you both read about it and then actually read the journal itself, you’ll see what I mean. For me personally the timing of this issue couldn’t be better. It’s my birthday today (don’t ask!). It’s also the first anniversary of this blog. Over 10,000 people have read it since beginning it last year.  In a way, things have come full circle. That first blog entry was written at Tan Tar Ra (Lake of the Ozarks, Mo.) at last year’s Write to Learn Conference. Next week Glenda (my Co-Editor) and I will be at this year’s conference making a presentation on Friday, March 1st..  It will be about this issue of journal (it’s that special). If you’re in the Midwest region come see us, links to all the registration information can be found in our journal. We are part of the Missouri State Literacy association which is a co-sponsor of the Write to Learn Conference.

Readers. I now want to editorialize a bit.  Please indulge me. It relates to the theme of our special issue, Poetry- a Path to Literacy.   Lately I’ve been wondering aloud why we have so many people writing about the need to return to joy in the reading and writing field (lots of titles about that lately). Why do we have a famous video called Don’t Read Like a Robot.  Why are some so determined to turn reading into a race?  Do we really need a nation of Robot Readers and Auctioneers? Or do we need a nation of students who know how to read like Storytellers? Storytellers around those long-ago campfires were the beginnings of what we now call civilization.  The historian in me thinks they were at the heart of the movement that separated human kind from the rest of the living creatures on our planet. To read a story like a story teller you’ve got to understand the characters, know what they act like, what they should sound like. I think that is why Rasinski calls prosody the gateway to comprehension. To read like a story teller is to return to the most basic of basics.  All the authors contributing to this very special issue of our journal hope that our readers find the ideas and resources in this issue that will help them get back to the real basics. Learning to read poetry well is one of the key things that make up what I call the real basics. I also hope the readers of this issue will find much of what they need to help create a nation of readers who know how to read like story-tellers. Perhaps then we would not have to worry about how to bring joy back to all aspects of literacy. The answer is so very simple. Read (and write) because you want to. Let your children do the same.

Pardon me, it’s nighttime and I suddenly feel the urge to build a very nice campfire. Then I think I’ll get out a copy of the new journal. I hear there are some wonderful things to read in it, poems and such. I hear that there’s a whole world of joy to find if you’re just willing to look. Please do have a look. You deserve some joy and so do your children.


Here is the link to the newest Missouri Reader:

Happy Reading and Writing!

Dr Sam Bommarito (aka, the storyteller/poet/singer songwriter)

Copyright 2018 by Dr. Sam Bommarito. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the view of this author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization.

Five things that can lead to success in K-2 Literacy: A look at the old and the new (and they are both the same) By Doctor Sam Bommarito

OLD AND NEW creative commons

Five things that can lead to success in K-2 Literacy: A look at the old and the new (and they are both the same)

By Doctor Sam Bommarito

Regular readers may recall my Jan 11th blog post where I talked about the Shanahan/Berger podcast. It was done through Amplify. Folks who signed up for that podcast got a whitepaper from Amplify entitled Five leadership practices that drive success in K-2 literacy. It was written by Krista Curran, SVP and General Manager for Assessment and Invention. It reports on the results of interventions done in 11 schools where “mCLASS data showed exceptional growth in student literacy”. Details of all this can be found in the Amplify document, which was distributed by their website. What caught my eye was their overall conclusions about what “school leaders, teachers and other staff” did to contribute to that success. Here are the 5 things they listed:

Five Leadership Characteristics

While recognizing the limits and limitations of a single study done with a relatively small N, I find the above conclusions intriguing. They reminded me of another project I was involved in a very long time ago. Back in the late 1980’s and throughout the 1990’s and into the early 2000’s I was part of a Title 1 program in a “next to urban” district in St. Louis. As a matter of fact that district bordered on Ferguson. My building was Title 1, sometimes Chapter 1, depended on the year. We were twice given the Secretaries’ Award. That award went to Title 1 programs showing exceptional gains by their students. Winning the award meant the buildings in the district were in the top 1/10 of 1 percent of all Title 1 programs in the nation in terms of improving student’s achievement scores and other factors considered in giving the award. My building always had 90% plus free lunch, the yardstick used by Title 1 to determine what buildings would qualify for Title 1 services. The year I did my dissertation work, the first graders in my building had Gates-MacGinitie reading scores that were one full standard deviation above what one would expect in a building with that free lunch rate. In point of fact, their median score was at or near the 50 %’ile. What we were doing was working and working very well. I would point out that the measure of comprehension we were using measured vocabulary knowledge (about ½ the items) AND comprehension (the other ½), unlike some measures today that measure mainly decoding with some attention given to vocabulary and little or no attention given to directly measuring reading comprehension.

As I think back to the project I participated in and looked at the 5 points listed by this recent report it hit me that the teachers, staff and administration at my building (and the other elementary buildings in the district) were doing all the things mentioned by this recent report. Our tact may have been somewhat different in terms of interventions. We moved from a basal instruction, using a basal well known for it’s strong phonics program, to a guided reading/workshop model, a model that has some critics and doubters. However it REALLY worked for us and did so over a number of years. I always note (tongue in cheek) that the year after I left, my building’s reading scores went down dramatically. What changed was not the fact I left but rather the fact that new leadership came to central office and readopted the basal with the strong phonics program. Over the next few years reading scores went down dramatically. The district took years to recover from that change over. For readers of this blog- when I talk about “word callers” (and some folks take me to task for using the term) I’m talking about children who don’t comprehend because decoding was overstressed and comprehension was virtually ignored in early instruction. I worked with such children for years. I found those children thrived in the workshop environment. In this blog, I’ve often called reading recovery the bumble bee of the literacy world. According to some theories it should not fly at all. Yet it does. Shall I give a similar name to my old Title 1 project? By some theories it shouldn’t have worked at all. Yet in fact in worked better than most of the projects of it’s era.

Two thoughts here. One is that my district’s story serves as allegory for those who would ignore comprehension and focus entirely on decoding in the early grades. Based on my experience that is not a particularly good move for developing great readers (though it may develop great decoders). The other thought is that as folks design literacy programs might do well to look hard at the conclusions of the recently published white paper. I think it outlines ideas that all sides of the current reading debate could live with. As a matter of fact I would predict they would thrive if they used them. So I hope I’ve given my readers some food for thought here.

Next Week I hope do a blog entry on Missouri Reader’s upcoming issue. It on the theme “Poetry- the Game Changer”. The theme comes from an article David Harrison wrote as the anchor piece for the issue. Glenda (my co-editor for the Missouri Reader) and I are presenting the key ideas from this issue on March 1st, at The Missouri Write to Learn Conference held at the Tan Tar Ra resort, Lake of the Ozarks, Mo. Here is a link to the conference:

Next week also marks the 1st anniversary of this blog. The blog has had 10,000 readers since starting. WOW! Thanks to all of you who have come to visit over the past year. Please do keep coming!!!

Happy Reader and Writing


Dr. Sam Bommarito (aka, protector of bumble bees and other such amazing creatures)

Copyright 2019 by Dr. Sam Bommarito. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the view of this author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization.





Insights into the comprehension process: A reply from my former professor


I got a rather extensive reply to my last post from a colleague for whom I have the utmost respect. Dr. Rocchio was one of my instructors when I was doing my graduate work at UMSL (University of Missouri-St Louis) in the 1970’s. I took the Content Area Reading Course from him. Later, that was a course that became mine for almost a decade as I taught as an adjunct at UMSL. His teachings in that first course greatly influenced how I handled the teaching of that course and my whole view about literacy instruction in general and literacy instruction for the older reader in particular.

 Please consider carefully what he has to say, it brings some new and interesting insights. It also brings series of 4 questions that I want to address collectively next week.  I want to thank Dan (we’ve been on a first name basis for quite some time) for following the blog and for providing the insightful commentary that follows.

 Dr. Sam (aka, Sam a former student of Dr. Rocchio)


I really appreciate the thought-provoking article on reading comprehension.  I am glad you included the work of Shanahan, the recent IES summary of research, and the work by Miller and Moss (2013).    I would agree with your proposition “that learning to have authentic conversations around various kinds of text is one road that can lead to improving reading comprehension.” In addition, I would agree “that teachers must provide direct instruction, and they must also scaffold students in to learning how to handle various level texts and text structures.”


The real difference between the two comprehension models you described seems to lie in the basic framework of literacy instruction.  Shanahan suggests in his blog that most of the literacy instruction should be teacher directed and that literacy instruction should include the direct teaching of the following components for about 120 minutes/daily in grades 1-3:


  1. phonics or word analysis strategies (at the early grade levels)
  2. fluency
  3. general reading comprehension strategies focused mostly on the disciplinary structures of text and much of this with grade level text and above grade level text
  4. vocabulary or word knowledge with a focus on key conceptual knowledge
  5. writing instruction


I do agree with Shanahan that we must include the teaching of complex texts that challenge our readers beyond what has been traditionally labeled a reader’s instructional level.

My most recent experience in third grade classrooms supported the close reading of complex text..  I worked with three third-grade teachers and the reading coach in the Lindbergh school district to develop a six-week economics unit that included 110 minutes/day of reading and writing workshop, and twenty-five minutes/day of social studies instruction.  We included the following components:


  1. whole group close reading of above grade level texts related to running a business and making a sellable product or service
  2. close reading of complex texts in guided reading groups
  3. teacher modeling of how to gather key ideas from text related to a student’s business plan
  4. followed by student independent searching for appropriate texts
  5. students reading of fiction and non-fiction texts at a variety of reading levels
  6. students writing about their reading ( e.g., developed a business plan)
  7. key vocabulary words were taught directly as they came up during the unit.

All students were highly motivated to develop their business plan and their sellable good or service.  What we learned is that texts used beyond the instructional level of students were made accessible by a combination of teacher read-alouds, shared reading, partner reading along with teacher scaffolding.  Results indicated that students of all reading levels were able to successfully read and write about texts above their reading level.

Some of the perplexing questions that arose from the Lindbergh district action research and the model of reading instruction suggested by Shanahan are these (Sam’s note I will address these questions collectively in my next blog entry):


  1. under what conditions is it appropriate to use grade level and above grade level texts in the literacy day for primary, and intermediate level readers?
  2. under what conditions is it appropriate to use instructional level texts with primary and intermediate level readers?
  3. how does this instruction differ for average, above average and struggling readers?
  4. how do teachers scaffold the teaching of disciplinary reading and writing strategies with texts beyond a student’s traditional instructional level?

Pearson’s work ( Research Foundations of the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts( 2013) provides some guidance when he points out that “.integrated approaches have generally outperformed ‘encapsulated’ approaches on a variety of measures.” Pearson’s work on Seeds of Science/Roots of Reading (see this link suggests the value of applying key comprehension strategies within an integrated literacy/science framework.

Guthrie’s CORI model (see this link: provides some further guidance about how we might answer the questions above.  In fact, several of the recommendations from the 2010 IES practice guide are drawn from Guthrie’s work.  CORI’s literacy framework includes the following:

  1. an integrated content area/ literacy unit plan
  2. authentic texts at various reading levels
  3. the direct teaching of appropriate comprehension strategies
  4. fluency instruction
  5. writing instruction about the reading of authentic texts
  6. guided reading with various levels of students
  7. flexible supplementary instruction for struggling readers
  8. motivational supports such as student choice and hands-on activities

Allington’s 2015 (Reading Teacher article on Text complexity) notes the following: “…increasing the complexity of the texts used in elementary schools as the best strategy for enhancing reading achievement, as the CCSS authors recommend, lacks a base in the research evidence available.”  In addition, “we need better evidence of instructional scaffolding that might be best used to facilitate just how more complex texts can be used to enhance reading development.

I am an advocate of reading comprehension research that utilizes a comprehensive literacy framework like those developed by Pearson and Guthrie.  This type of research can help teachers understand how to best integrate all key literacy outcomes and content outcomes within a school day.  But the most useful research is that research performed in classrooms where the primary goal is to improve our students’ desire, self-efficacy, and ability to read to solve real world problems related to work, school, and the improvement of one’s community.

I would love to see additional research that follows the models suggested above. So, I hope others will share such work.


Thanks for listening.

Dan Rocchio, Ed. D.

Professor Emeritus

Maryville University

Response entry copyright 2019 by Dr. Dan Rocchio

Blog entry Copyright 2019 by Dr. Sam Bommarito. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the view of this author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization.