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:


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

  1. doctorsam7 Post author

    Looking forward to seeing you at Write to Learn next week. Hoping the blog will convince more people to come!

  2. Susan Hepler

    Whoa, Dr. Sam. You really need to proofread and punctuate this post for a better grammar and less redundancy. If I were to forward this to school board members, I’d want this article to put the best face forward for these ideas which make coherent and solid arguments. Your writing does not do that clearly and succinctly. Dr. Susan

    1. doctorsam7 Post author

      Point taken Susan. I’m still at Write to Learn. Upon return will polish this entry a little. You’ve pointed out a different need as well. The blog entries are meant to be informal, with the audience as fellow teachers. This one may indeed have been a bit too informal. However, to address the audience you just talked about I need to talk to Dr. Kerns (he’s on his way here) about updating our position statement. That would be meant to include a somewhat different audience e.g. school boards, researchers et. al. Look for it in a future blog. My plan would be to post it as an entry and then to give it it’s own permanent page in the headings of this blog. One step at a time. Thanks! Dr. Sam


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