Monthly Archives: March 2019

A tale of two readers: A close up look at two actual victims of the reading wars by Dr. Sam Bommarito

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A tale of two readers: A close up look at two actual victims of the reading wars

I’ve made a lifelong habit of listening to all points of view about various subjects and trying to consider all that is said before drawing conclusions. There is no place that this is more important than in the current iteration of the reading wars. Let’s talk about two actual casualties from that war.

I begin first with the child whose story convinced me that dyslexia is VERY real and that SOME students need a very different program when it comes to beginning reading. My local ILA group brings in speakers from many points of view and has for years. Last year,  a speaker who runs an excellent Dyslexia clinic here in St. Louis gave a talk. After the meeting,  I had a chance to hear one child’s story.  I struck up a conversation with a parent of a child for whom Reading Recovery hadn’t worked. I am an ardent defender of RR and have research to back up that support.  BUT I recognize that at the time this transpired reading recovery didn’t work for this child. She enrolled the child in a Dyslexia program. That helped in so many different ways including better reading and self-esteem. For my constructivist friends out there who believe that only “as needed analytic phonics” should be used I say, there are some children for whom that approach doesn’t work. Adjust your instruction for those children accordingly. I would add that more recently my friends in reading recovery are finding ways to adapt to children who need that more structured phonics program. Here is a good link summarizing Clay’s views about the younger child

I’m not finished.

Recently one of my followers published a post on Facebook about her child’s experience. Her child was in an intensive phonics program. They were only allowed to figure out words this way. Memorize these rules. Memorize these sounds. Eventually, the child actually began having nightmares about the instruction and started to hate reading.  The child was moved into a program with a more constructivist approach. Nightmares disappeared. Reading happened. The child is now an ardent lifelong reader. The mother was so inspired she decided to become a reading specialist.  To my colleagues from the “simple point of view,”  I say this: At the end of the day what you do also works for SOME children, but not all. In implementing the program for this particular child, the teachers zigged when they should have zagged. The bottom line is that there are some children for whom your approach doesn’t work. That doesn’t mean we abandon it. It does mean we recognize that LIKE ALL METHODS OF TEACHING LITERACY, it has limits and limitations.

What do the two victims of the reading wars have in common? Each was placed in a program that didn’t work for them. Each thrived when placed in a program that did work for them. There is a lesson to be learned here. That lesson is that folks who feel their way and only their way works are bound to hurt some children. There are alternate ways that might help children that you are unintentionally hurting. You need to start paying a lot more attention to what the “other side” is doing. I’m saying that the road runs both ways.

But Dr. Sam. What about all that xyz research that supports MY side?

One can get bogged down in a “my research” vs. “your research” battle. That is a never-ending battle. For anyone who would care to, I can wage a tit-for-tat endless war with you around that point. This is especially true when I draw on the knowledge of my blogging partner,  Dr. William Kerns. Such exchanges can result in blogs and twitter pages turning into very (very very) long conversations. This will go on until eventually, everyone stops reading.  OR we can fast forward to the end and look at the end results of the two approaches.  For the ardent supporters of the simple view of reading, please visit England. They’ve mandated synthetic phonics for quite a number of years. Somehow the magical “everyone is cured” outcome has simply not materialized. By contrast, visit Finland. They have one of the highest literacy rates in the world. They listen to their teachers.  They empower their teachers and give them respect. They start reading instruction at a much later age than we do.  Yet their kids outperform ours and those of most other countries around the world. In light of recent efforts to try to push direct reading instruction down into preschool to our very youngest readers, I think it is important to know that there are places in the world doing it differently who are having better success than we’ve ever had. Please do read all about it.



Teach Like Finland: 33 Simple Strategies for Joyful Classrooms

Apr 18, 2017


I grew up in the sixties. Snippets of songs from the era still play in my head sometimes.  “Singing songs and carrying signs, mostly say hooray for our side”.  It’s way past time to stop thinking completely about our particular point of view/philosophy of reading and start thinking about the kids instead. No more causalities. Only success stories.  You do that by fitting the program to the child, not the other way round. You do that by empowering teachers and giving them training and access to a variety of methods for teaching reading, not just one. Here is one more piece of evidence that BOTH analytic and synthetic phonics have a place in phonics instruction. The key is that they be done SYSTEMATICALLY.

My final thoughts are addressed to the folks caught between these two warring camps and trying to make sense of things. Several pieces of advice. Upgrade the beginning teacher programs so that teachers come away with a working knowledge of sound-symbol relations. Curriculum for that teacher training can be based on the basics of what speech pathologist are taught about sounds. Teach teachers about ALL the possible ways to teach phonics not just one. Here is a link to an ILA position paper explaining the various approaches. TRAIN THEM AND EMPOWER THEM to use all the methods. Train them to use what works best for each child.

Let the local school boards decide what to adopt. I predict many of them will conclude that a good synthetic based program will get the job done for their children. Some of them may adopt a more analytic based program. But, with whatever alternative is chosen, things can/should be waiting in the wings for kids for whom the “mainstream” approach does not work.  For both sides- STOP using strawmen. Stop pointing out ONLY the mistakes or shortcomings of the other sides’ point of view. Stop using the 1967 version of what constructivists said and start looking at the 2019 version. Look at ALL the research, not just the research that proves you are right and they are wrong.  For folks adopting new programs, ask for studies indicating LONG TERM SUSTAINED GAINS IN READING COMPREHENSION/ACHIEVEMENT. Consumer warning: Some folks will try to pass off vocabulary tests or testing information based correlational data instead of direct measures of comprehension, as sufficient proof for demonstrating comprehension. That kind of proof is ok for preliminary, exploratory studies. But when you’re getting ready to spend tens of thousands (hundreds of thousands) of dollars on something, demand studies that DIRECTLY use widely accepted comprehension tests. Teaching decoding exclusively sometimes results in a bump in reading scores (they learned to decode) followed by long plateaus of no progress. The plateaus occur because needed comprehension strategies are under-taught or not taught at all. Be sure to ask for ongoing results from several years, not just one.  If they can’t produce such studies hold up the adoption until they can.

In previous blogs, I have called for a reading evolution. That means both sides (all sides) should stop debating for a while and start talking to each other. Let me be candid.  I’ve said before, that at the end of the day your boss is not a district or a particular organization or movement. The kids are your boss. They don’t care who “wins” the reading wars. They only care if you can do something to help THEM. Time to start talking to each other and start listening to the boss. It’s time to stop the swinging pendulum in the middle for a while and see if we can learn things from each other that will help us help them. It’s time for a Reading Evolution.

Please tweet to # ReadingEvolution1 (with an E)“  . Please share ideas from all sides.. As indicated earlier,  It really is time to stop the swinging pendulum in the middle for a while and see if we can learn things from each other that will help us help the kids  It’s time for the Reading Evolution.


Dr. Sam Bommarito  (aka- the person in the middle happily taking flak from both sides)

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.

P.S.  a very special thank you to the 5735 who visited my blog and the 6000 plus reads of the post this week. It’s good to know there is that much interest in the message. Really serious about wanting to talk about all sides. Please use the #’s to do so.

Reading and the Dyslexic Child: About that Tsunami of Change Predicted by the Advocates of the Scientific Method of Reading By Dr. Sam Bommarito

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Reading and the Dyslexic Child: About that Tsunami of Change Predicted by the Advocates of the Scientific Method of Reading

By Dr. Sam Bommarito

According to some (not all) of the advocates of the scientific method of reading, there is a Tsunami of Literacy change coming. Bad practices in the teaching of reading are going to be replaced by good ones. The reading crisis is going to be solved. The problems caused by the evils of whole language and balanced literacy will be overcome by an unbalanced approach, an approach that uses most (all) of the literacy instructional time in the early grades (k-2) to teach using scientific-based reading practices (translation- TONS of direct systematic synthetic phonics instruction). Comprehension can wait. Comprehension will follow naturally once the decoding problems are solved.

I’ll begin by reminding my readers that a Tsunami is a form of a natural disaster. It usually results in great pain and suffering. It can take months, sometimes years to recover from a Tsunami. Perhaps it would be wise to show some caution before welcoming a Literacy Tsunami as a solution to our perceived problems in the teaching of literacy.

Let me now address the very real problem that was the impetus of the current movement to change literacy practices. That is the failure to provide adequate instruction for the Dyslexic child. I’ll skip right to the end on this one. Dyslexic children do not thrive on a program based on analytic phonics. They truly need a program that is direct, synthetic based and systematic. There is no question they should be provided  such programs. My belief is that currently, the best place to do that is in a tier three program. For that to work it would require that Dyslexic children be a “minority” in the sense that most children with reading problems do not have Dyslexia. That would require taking the point of view that reading difficulties have their origins in multiple (complex) factors. The rest of this entry will present some evidence that this is the case. I will present evidence to demonstrate that we may not want to abandon practices that, in point of fact do help a significant number of children, children with very real reading difficulties but who do not fit the criteria for being Dyslexic.  Let’s see why I say this based on challenging some of the myths propagated by some of the advocates of the “scientific method” of teaching reading.

Myth one: Programs like Reading Recovery, programs that often use things like the three cueing systems and other unproven educational practices, should be ended and replaced with strong systematic synthetic phonics-based programs. There is a major problem with this point of view. It fails to explain why RR has consistently been found to be the most effective reading program in beginning reading. It is the only beginning reading program to show significant improvement in BOTH comprehension and decoding. Its synthetic-based rivals show gains in only decoding.  We’ll dive into that fact a little more deeply later in this analysis. See the following link for the newest information on this point:

I was always taught that all it takes to call a scientific hypothesis into question is one contrary observation. The What Works Clearinghouse conclusions clearly show that, in spite of its critic’s complaints that it does not follow their vision of “scientific teaching”, Reading Recovery actually works better for many children than the programs advocated by the “science of reading” point of view. (Update Sept 2021- since some of the naysayers cite studies showing RR gains don’t stick coniser this. Susan Vincent reports that in her district they did for multiple years. In her district the main population makes good progress every year and the RR students more than kept up. What would happen if the RR student returns to a district where the overall population makes low or no progress? Check to see if the naysayers studies took that question into account.)

In previous blogs, I’ve pointed out that SOME of the advocates of the scientific method employ the “strawman” tactic in order to make the case against Reading Recovery, along with other constructivist-based tactics. They create a “strawman”. They do this by reporting only studies critical of a method and ignoring studies (like the WWC analysis) that demonstrate that they work. These kinds of tactics may work in heated political campaigns. But if one is pursuing science, one must weigh in with all the data before drawing final conclusions. Ignoring critical data that supports “the other side” is not my idea of science.

Myth two: Whole Language and Balanced Literacy are the cause of all the current problems in literacy.  Let’s examine one case where that claim was made. California mandated that whole language be used. Shortly afterward reading achievement went down. That’s a slam dunk, right? Whole language caused a major loss in reading achievement scores. As is often the case in scientific research, the devil is in the details.

Enter on the scene Stephen Krashen. He took a closer look at the data. He asked a simple question. Were most teachers in California actually using whole language?  He found the answer was an emphatic no. Most were not. Yet the scores went down. How can that be? He reported that the actual causes of those lower scores were “a large influx of non-native speakers of English and significant decreases in educational funding (larger classes specifically negatively impacting achievement).” See this link for details.

Myth two: The source of most (all) reading problems is Dyslexia.  Having taught the analysis and correction of reading course multiple times at both the graduate and undergraduate level I’m familiar with textbooks that were used/are being used in that course. Harris and Sipay was a mainstay textbook for quite a number of years. The earliest versions of that text came out before the current round of the Great Debate. Their conclusion- there are multiple causes for reading problems. John’s is another text often used. His conclusion- multiple causes.  Readers are invited to examine other textbooks currently in use. I think they will find- multiple causes is the current conclusion of virtually all the experts in area analysis and correction. If this is true, then solving the overall problem of low achievement in literacy requires much more than solving the literacy problems of the Dyslexic child. IN NO WAY am I suggesting that working toward meeting the needs of the Dyslexic child is unimportant. It is VERY important. But meeting their needs only solves a small part of the overall literacy instruction problem. It does not address the problems of the children whose literacy problems stem from other sources. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that one of those sources is the failure to provide systematic and explicit instruction in comprehension. I predict that those who think that decoding instruction in the first few years should supplant comprehension instruction are going to be sorely disappointed.  Solving decoding problems is NECESSARY for a good literacy program. However, solving those problems IS NOT SUFFICIENT.

Myth three: SES Doesn’t Matter

It is sometimes implied by SOME advocates of the scientific method that because Dyslexic children can (and do) come from families who are what we would call high SES (Social Economic Status) that SES doesn’t matter much. On the one hand, it is absolutely true that some Dyslexic children come from high SES families. So, it is true that SES is not always a factor in reading difficulties. Does that mean that SES never a factor reading achievement? Hardly. There is a TON of data demonstrating SES is a factor. By and large areas with low SES have consistently had scores about 1 standard deviation below the expected reading achievement scores. That has been a widely accepted fact of life since I began my teaching career in 1970 right through to today.  Many of us in the reading world view that solving the poverty crisis and mitigating the effects of poverty is crucial to solving the literacy problems of many children.  I’ve mentioned before that back in the day I worked in three different Title one programs that won awards for the achievement gains in reading. By definition Title 1 programs are in low SES areas. One can find many examples of programs in low SES areas doing that. I think a careful examination of those programs will demonstrate that they accomplished their gains by doing much more than simply solving the decoding problems of their students. I’ll leave it to my friend Dr. William Kerns to provide more research around that point in future blogs.

Myth four: Applying the Methods of the “Scientific Approach to Reading” results in tremendous gains in reading achievement.

Careful examination of the data some proponents of the scientific method of reading provide does demonstrate major gains in DECODING ability, not reading achievement. Please examine the instruments used in their studies. Most of the variance measured by those instruments come from Decoding, not comprehension. Too often their comprehension data, if it is present at all, relies on vocabulary only or data based on correlations with comprehension tests instead of directly measuring comprehension. Correlational data may be satisfactory for exploratory studies, but for studies used to justify large expenditures by districts, direct measures are needed. That includes actual comprehension questions like those found in the Gates, not some indirect measure(s).

My next remarks are addressed to district level decision makers “shopping” for literacy programs. If you are looking to make long term investments in a program, I think it is prudent that you demand something more than the current level of proof provided by some advocates of the scientific method.  My advice is to ask for data indicating 1. Long term sustained gains (critics of the “Scientific Approach” often point out the gains they claim happen disappear once data is looked at over extended periods). 2. Studies that use actual direct measures of comprehension. In my day we used the Gates-Macginitie. It has a Vocabulary Section and a Comprehension section resulting in an overall reading score. Once again, as is often the case, the devil is in the details. It is a buyer beware kind of situation. Before you buy into a particular set of methods, please ask your local experts in testing to search programs you are considering for evidence of long-term READING ACHIEVEMENT gains based on widely-accepted tests of COMPREHENSION. I’d recommend against adoption if such proof cannot be provided.

An important footnote. I’m sure you’ll hear answers like- if you take care of decoding problems then the comprehension problems will be solved as well.  The problem is, reading is not a natural process (one point on which the science of reading folks and I agree). Since it is a LEARNED process, it follows that in addition to learning the decoding strategies readers must be explicitly and systematically taught comprehension strategies (or the single comprehension strategy if some analysts are correct) as well.  Do you really want to wait until the second or third grade to do that? That is what many advocates of the scientific method are asking you to do in order to make time for all that extra decoding instruction they recommend. If you follow that advice you run the risk that the “hidden curriculum” (only decoding matters) will cause many of your readers to pay little or no attention to the ideas of the things they read.  Does that sound like the kind of learner that can survive in the 21st-century work environment? Does that sound like a learner that will provide your district with long term gains in reading achievement?  As I said, buyer beware.  Until and unless they provide comprehension instruction from the outset, I would not consider buying into implementing their programs.

Update made July 11th, 2019. Here is another study reinforcing the fact decoding gains do not automatically result in comprehension gains:

‘The conclusions of one study on phonics and similar word-level training represents … Benefits for “reading comprehension were not significant” (Reading the Naked Truth, 92). A recent analysis by literacy researcher Jeff McQuillin drew similar conclusions from a large-scale study in England.’

Myth number Five- All districts are using balanced literacy/whole language and that is why the current reading scores are so low.

I will begin with the obvious.  Some advocates of the scientific theory seem to assume that all (almost all) of the district programs currently in place are “whole language” or “balanced literacy”. They treat the two terms as synonymous. They are not. They attribute things to the programs that are simply not accurate or true. For instance, they often say whole language means no phonics. Sorry, I was at the 1995 ILA convention in Anaheim and heard Ken Goodman speak at the Reading Hall of Fame session. During that session, he directly stated that there is a place for phonics in a whole language program. In addition, there is the same issue raised by the whole California fiasco.  What is it that different district programs are ACTUALLY doing? Are there some programs that are more successful than others? If the science of reading folks were to try to present their findings to a doctoral committee, they would quickly find themselves being told to nail down which programs are failing and the characteristics of those programs. They would be required to provide evidence of where those programs are being done or not being done.  They might even be required to see if differences in implementation results in differences in achievement results. For instance, how do Guided Reading programs that follow the advice of Burkins and Yaris on time allotment fair compared to programs that don’t? They are currently painting with far too broad a brush to meet anyone’s definition of scientific research.  If they are going to claim the title of the scientific method, then they need to tighten up their research methods considerably, especially when making such broad statements about what districts are currently doing.

I’ve said before that my analysis of the Great Debate and why the pendulum continues to swing is based on something I learned from one of my mentors, the late Dr. Richard Burnett, professor emeritus from the University of Missouri St. Louis. A very long time ago he told me “Sam- the great debate has never been about phonics vs. no phonics. It has always been about my phonics vs your phonics.” My take on this is that the debate is really about analytic phonics (preferred by those of a constructivist bent) vs. synthetic phonics (preferred by those of an empiricist bent). My next statement will please almost no one but does have the potential to help everyone. There are SOME children who thrive on analytic phonics, SOME children who thrive on synthetic phonics, some children who can thrive on either and SOME children who can get by with almost not phonics at all.

Evidence supporting the above position is as follows: “According to Torgerson et al., ‘There is currently no strong randomized controlled trial evidence that any one form of systematic phonics is more effective than any other’ (2006: 49). Research evidence which is available is insufficient to allow for reliable judgments to be made about the efficiency of different approaches to systematic phonics instruction (Stuart, 2006). “

Go to this link for details


I’ve attributed the ever-swinging pendulum to the fact that when people at the two extremes (in the sense they take the positions of ONLY synthetic or ONLY analytic) start saying only their way works and only their way will be allowed things start to go badly.  When that happens, we find ourselves in a situation where it is guaranteed some children will not thrive.  What happens next is a call for “out with the old, in with the new”. Usually, enough time has passed so that most folks have forgotten that the “new” didn’t work the last time around. As a result, the cycle has become never-ending. My suggestion has already been made. Let’s for once try stopping in the middle. Let’s talk to each other about what works for PARTICULAR kids. Let’s stop debating and start dialoguing. Let’s learn from the ideas of all sides and ask the question of what works best for THIS PARTICULAR CHILD. In the course of that, we can start a reading evolution.

Dr. Sam Bommarito (aka the Mythbuster)

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.

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Cutting through the Gordian Knot of Phonics Instruction Circa 2019: My advice on how to build word work (decoding) into your Guided Reading Classroom by Dr. Sam Bommarito

reading creatuve commonsLast week my blog focused on tweaking how we implement guided reading. In the past week, it had over 1200 readers in over 30 different countries. Today’s title is as follows:

“Cutting through the Gordian Knot of Phonics Instruction Circa 2019: My advice for how to build word work (decoding) into your Guided Reading Classroom”

In this entry I am attempting to give a “Cliff’s Notes” version of my recommendations around phonics, decoding and guided reading/reading workshop. I do have research-based evidence to back up what I say. Most of it has appeared in previous blogs. I am currently working with some of my colleagues to produce a book-length version of these ideas. It will include all these ideas and a more systematic look at all that aforementioned research.

Let me begin by giving a summary of what I am about to say in this post. Fit the instruction to the child, not the other way round. Train teachers in ALL the approaches to teaching phonics. Empower teachers to use the approach that best fits their kid(s). A strong reminder is given that what works with one kid might not work with another. Make sure that whatever scheme is adopted for teaching decoding leaves sufficient time to also include teaching comprehension. This should be done even at the earliest levels of literacy instruction.

In my opinion, the key to cutting through the Gordian knot of phonics instruction is to empower teachers (allow teachers!) to fit the decoding instruction to the child. In that way, every child gets what they really need. The “point” person in all this is the classroom teacher. At the end of the day, they know the children best. Since the publication of the 1st Grade Studies over 50 years ago and through subsequent work by Dick Allington and others there is a strong research base indicating that teachers make more difference in reading achievement scores than any particular method or approach. It is time our educational policies reflect this. It is time to start treating teachers like the valuable resource they are and untie their hands so they can do their work. It is work they have demonstrated a remarkable ability to carry out even in the current circumstances, which are far less than ideal for best results.

  1. Teaching Teachers to Teach Phonics (Decoding)

The current state of affairs in teaching preservice teachers about phonics is unacceptable. Many teachers are coming through their pre-service work without learning the basics of how words work, what the sound symbol relations are et. al. Think diphthongs and digraphs and voiceless consonants and all the nuances of letter sounds. Look to the programs for speech pathologists. They’ve had a great curriculum in place for decades. The program for classroom teachers need not be as involved as that curriculum. but a basic program for all teachers should be put in place, informed by the speech pathologist’s current curriculum. I will acknowledge that many teachers, left to fend for themselves, have managed to gain such knowledge anyway. Care should be taken that this gaping hole in the typical curriculum for pre-service teachers is filled as soon as possible and that appropriate coursework for practicing teachers be provided.

There are several ways to teach phonics. The two used the most often are analytic and synthetic phonics. See the following ILA position paper which explains the various approaches:

There is research evidence to indicate that each of these approaches can help some children. In fact, there is even evidence that some children (a VERY small number of children) need no phonics instruction at all. My preference is for district-level literacy programs that start with synthetic phonics. My recommendation is that decisions on which of the approaches to use as the base program in a district be made at the district level. Any overall literacy program/well-rounded literacy program must also include well-informed systematic teaching of comprehension strategies (or if some analysts are correct a program based on teaching the overall problem-solving strategy common to all the so-called separate reading strategies).  Local school boards know their children the best. Informed by the teachers’ experiences with the children, local school boards can make the best decision for their district.

  1. Teach all the Approaches to Teaching Phonics For a basic explanation of the two most widely used approaches to teaching phonics see the following ILA paper:
  • Analytic- This is often done on an as a needed basis. When using this approach teachers should be aware that the greatest danger is that large holes can be left in the students’ knowledge around phonics and how words work. This can be rectified by having district-wide goals, K-1 (K-2?) with teachers directed to track what goals they have completed and adding instruction as needed to make sure the overall experience gets the students all the things they need. Done this way, I think analytic approaches can meet the criteria of “systematic”. Systematic phonics instruction (that reads systematic not synthetic) phonics instruction seems well supported by the research.
  • Synthetic- This approach is more direct and is inherently done in a systematic way. When using this approach care should be taken that instruction given to Tier-one children be efficient and leave time for concurrent work on comprehension strategies. A “leave comprehension for second grade or later” approach is not recommended. Children needing more time for additional explicit decoding instruction should be served in Tier two or Tier three programs.

Just as you do with comprehension work, use the small group setting within Guided Reading or Reading Workshop as the final scaffold into using the decoding strategies. Especially be aware of what work you are leaving for the students and why.

3. For analytic phonics lessons use predictable text at or near the most difficult part of the student’s instructional level (barely above their “challenge” or “frustration” level). Pick text that will give multiple opportunities to use the decoding skills being taught (e.g. say the first sound and think of the clues).

4. For synthetic phonics lessons use decodable text at or near the most difficult part of their instructional level (barely above their “challenge” or “frustration” level). Pick text that will give multiple opportunities to use the decoding strategies being taught (e.g. letter by letter sounding)

5. Word work for the older child: From late second grade forward try to expand the student’s knowledge of both consonant and vowel digraphs. Include instruction on the r-controlled sounds as well. Work in learning about prefixes, suffixes, and roots can also be beneficial. This is especially true in content area reading. Think science and all that one can learn about the meaning of words by noticing the prefixes, affixes, and roots of those words. Tim Rasinski’s website has a number of resources that can be used toward teaching about this part of word work.

6. The importance of teaching prosody Too often, fluency is treated as an issue mainly dealing with reading speed. This position is rebuked by the following ILA position paper: Do we want a nation of reading robots or reading storytellers? Given the promising work Rasinski and others have done in demonstrating improving prosody also improves comprehension I choose the latter. Rasinski’s work includes a reliable rubric for prosody which is contained in the book The Megabook of Fluency. He co-authored that book with Melissa Cheeseman Smith.

7.  The importance of including wide reading and giving children access to culturally relevant books is a theme I’ve written about many times. Research demonstrates the importance of building background knowledge in order to improve the ability to read with real comprehension.  The following ILA papers give compelling reasons to support wide reading as part of any literacy program,

8. The importance of including concurrent comprehension work from the very outset of reading instruction. In the 1980s, Presley, Durkin, and others began advocating the direct teaching of comprehension. Because I believe that reading is NOT a natural act (i.e. it is a learned behavior, not an inborn behavior) I believe the need for direct and explicit teaching of comprehension skills exists. Some educators believe that rather than a constellation of strategies, there is really just one overall strategy for comprehension, a generalized problem-solving strategy. Whichever way teachers approach it, as a constellation or a single factor strategy, the fact remains the direct instruction in comprehension is imperative. I believe the advice of some current advocates of the simple view of reading is that the majority of the time in early literacy instruction be spent on decoding, with time for comprehension instruction being left for later grades, perhaps as late as the beginning of third grade. I do not recommend or support that approach.

9. The Dyslexic child

 This topic is important enough and complex enough to merit its own separate section. It will be the topic of next week’s blog. My preview statement to that entry is that there is no question that the Dyslexic student exists. Dyslexic students require the kind of complete/intense approach to phonics that is found in programs like Orton Gillingham.  A friend who does a great deal of work with Dyslexic students reports there are several programs that are OG influenced This means they are multisensory, explicit, systematic, sequential, and cumulative. These include programs like Barton Reading & Spelling System, The Wilson Reading System and Take Flight and Spire. How all this might fit into an overall literacy program will be discussed at length in the next blog entry.

Conclusion- I’ll end where I began. Improve teacher education so that teachers know about sound-symbol relations. Teachers should be educated in and then empowered to use a variety of approaches to teaching phonics.  Comprehension and decoding should be taught concurrently from the very beginning of literacy instruction.

As much as possible I’ve tried to make this entry in the spirit of dialogue rather than debate. I hope I have at least been successful in part in doing that. My final thought is this. While most of us might think of ourselves as working for a particular district or organization or whatever, in point of fact none of those folks are the real boss. The kids are our real boss. They don’t care who wins the reading wars or even that the reading wars continue to rage. They do care that their teacher can help them. They need to know their teacher will do everything possible to help.  For teachers that might mean conceding that sometimes the “other side” just might have something that will help this particular child. If they do, then within the bounds of propriety, for goodness sakes use it! When I did my training to become a reading specialist (more years ago than I care to admit), my university instilled in all of us a belief that there is always something that can help this particular child. It’s our job to find it. Fellow teachers, I pass that job on to you. Administrators and policy makers, please give the teachers the training and the permission to use the best methods for THAT PARTICULAR CHILD. Don’t make them throw away things that are working. Do ask them to keep an open mind about new things that might also help. And most of all, find ways to listen to them. They know your kids best and can give you feedback about them. Take advantage of that knowledge as you develop your district-wide plans.  If we did all this, I believe this Gordian knot can be cut and we can finally get down to the business we’re all supposed to be about. That is the business of helping kids learn the joys and benefits that literacy in all its’ forms can bring into their lives.  When all that happens, then I think the literacy evolution will have happened.  I am so looking forward to that day!

Happy Reading and Writing


Dr. Sam Bommarito (aka, the glass half full kind of a guy)

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.

P.S. If you found the blog through Facebook or Twitter, please consider following the blog to make sure you won’t miss it.  Use the “follow” entry on the sidebar of the blog.

Guided Reading: Where you spend your time is where you get your results. Be mindful of how you spend your time by Dr. Sam Bommarito

reading creatuve commons

Guided Reading: Where you spend your time is where you get your results. Be mindful of how you spend your time by Dr. Sam Bommarito

Regular readers of the blog know that over the past few months I’ve proposed a reading evolution. What this entails is instead of debating we should be discussing. We should be willing to admit weaknesses in our favorite practices and try to address them. We should be acknowledging that the practices we don’t necessarily favor do have some application some of the time. Overall, I suggest we stop the cycle of throwing everything out and starting over every few years. Instead we should learn to tweak things. Today I am going to tell you about the tweaks in practice I suggest teachers consider when using guided reading. I’m basing what I say in part on a presentation I just completed at this year’s Write to Learn Conference in Missouri

Back in the day we used to say where you put your time is where you get your results. This means making sure your time allocations are thought through carefully. At the Write to Learn Conference in Missouri, I noted that researchers like Tim Shanahan have found that research is not kind to guided reading and similar approaches in terms of showing those approaches affect reading achievement. I noted this did not fit my personal experiences. During my Title I days in the late 1990s and early 2000, projects I worked on won national awards for reading achievement gains. These awards known as the Secretaries’ award were given to exceptionally successful Title I programs of the time. Winning these awards placed the programs in the top 1/10 of 1% of all programs in terms of demonstrating gains in reading achievement. We were using guided reading and reading workshop to achieve these goals. Our results would seem to contradict the findings Shanahan cites. But not really. You see I believe what made a difference for our district was that we were fully implementing guided reading as suggested by Fountas and Pinnell. We were using our time in a way that not all programs calling themselves guided reading do. To see what I mean by that let’s look at a recent article by Fountas and Pinnell.

F & P Magazine

As you can see from the article there are five major contexts (components) within a guided reading program only one of which involves using leveled text. Our teachers were trained to make sure that most of the reading done by students was not reading leveled text.  We were making sure our students were exposed to a wide range of reading experiences. I’m positing that many of the programs studied by the research cited by Shanahan are in fact OVERDOING the small group leveled reading part of the guided reading program and UNDERDOING the other parts.

In retrospect, I believe what happened in our project was that the kind of “complex text” and “at or above grade level text” that Shanahan believes is necessary for achievement in reading was, in fact, being used by our staff. Such text easily fit into the read aloud and think aloud portions of guided reading.  Our staff was trained that in any lessons that were developed they should make sure they had a good answer to the question of what work they were leaving for the students and why they were leaving that work. This helped the scaffolding done by our staff to be well thought out and explicit.

Let’s now fast-forward to today and things being said by educators like Burkins and Yaris. I had the good fortune to hear them speak at one of our local ILA meetings and I found what they were saying remarkably in line with what we had been saying to our staff all those years ago. One thing Burkins and Yaris call for is to make sure you are leaving work for the children. Another thing Burkins and Yaris noted really caught my attention. They said we were putting too much of the work being done in guided reading into the small group setting. They maintained that a lot of this work belonged in one of the other five parts of the guided reading program.  By not doing it in the other parts of the guided reading we left ourselves in the dilemma of having to over scaffold in order to get through our small group work. The solution to this is really quite simple.  Do the work in the manner in which Fountas and Pinnell outlined. Allot more time to things like Read Alouds and Think Alouds. These are usually done in a whole group setting. This is exactly the kind of setting Shanahan favors. By doing that, teachers should find by the time they are doing small groups the students will almost be ready to own the strategies being taught. In that way, the small group setting becomes a place where the last part of the gradual release of responsibility occurs. I am proposing that if one studied places where Guided Reading is done in this manner (the manner in which F & P actually outlines) that small group instruction would be found to be an effective last step in the gradual release process. In sum, I’m suggesting we do more of what Shanahan suggested (whole group work using complex text) and less of what some of us are currently doing (small group work that includes work that properly belongs in other places). I asked the teachers at my session to make sure they were using all the parts of guided reading and they were including those complex text and on and above grade level text within those parts.

That’s all for this week’s suggestions for tweaking Guided Reading. Next week I’ll take on the issue of what leveled text to use within the small group component of guided reading. I will also review how to select those texts and the limits and limitations for some of the systems using leveling text. Until then this is Dr. Sam saying:

Happy Reading and Writing


Dr. Sam Bommarito (“tweaker” extraordinaire)

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.

P.S. If you found the blog through facebook or twitter, please consider following the blog to make sure you won’t miss it.  Use the “follow” entry on the sidebar of the blog.

Looking at clouds from both sides- Opening dialogues in order to start a READING EVOLUTION

reading creatuve commons

By Dr. Sam Bommarito

It seems the Reading Evolution has begun.  For those who are not familiar with what this is all about, when I first started this blog about a year ago, one of my earliest blogs was about having a reading evolution (and that’s not a typo!).  I’ve been teaching since 1970 and over that time I’ve seen the pendulum about reading instruction swing back and forth.  Why does this happen? I hypothesized it was because as we swung from the phonics cures all position to the phonics isn’t needed position there were children that indeed fit each position. BUT THERE WERE ALSO SOME WHO DID NOT! This guaranteed, that whichever extreme we went to, once either was adopted, it would be a matter of time before some children weren’t succeeding therefore justifying the thought that it was time to rip it all up and start over. Usually enough time passes between swings for a generation of teachers to come along who hadn’t been around for the last set of failures. Hmmmm.

But what if the two sides were would be willing to admit there are limits and limitations to their preferred way of teaching reading (translation some children for whom the approach simply wouldn’t work). Then perhaps we could begin an evolution, that is instead of tearing everything down and starting over every few years, we could “tweak” what we were doing.  When it came to phonics instruction, we would fit the program to the child not the other way round. The key here is that folks had to be willing to use the methodology of “the other side” with at least some of the children some of the time.

History has not been kind to folks like me who suggest taking such middle ground.  It’s hard to get changes in educational practice. Oftentimes it takes adopting an extreme view just to get any movement at all. Would there be any hope for such a point of view- a willingness to look at clouds from both sides?

It seems like destiny that I find myself back at Write to Learn conference. This posting will be going out from my hotel room there.  Here’s what happened at Write to Learn a year ago. I met Eric Litwin and listened to his ideas about the “great debate”.  He predicted that knowledgeable teachers talking to each other on social media might have a shot at ending the reading wars. Eric and I have since become good friends and talk often about reading, reading instruction and of course, the reading wars. I think he had a brilliant idea there about the reading wars.

Is it possible that teachers from seemingly polar opposite points of view would talk to each other or even have something to talk about? Could they actually stop debating for a while and start talking to each other instead? If they did I think they would start learning from each other and as we all know learning can be a very powerful thing.

I see some evidence the Reading Evolution  has already begun. Here is an example  I want to thank Judy for allowing me to use this comment from a Facebook book posting she made.  I think demonstrates that the dialogue is not only possible but may in fact have already begun. Please take careful note of what she learned from “the other side”.

“Phonics and Reading Recovery are not  opposing teams. It’s one team”

Judy Boksner Damski

NO 1


Judy likes the idea of a reading evolution. She has gone beyond talking to the “other side”.  She’s actually using the methods of the other side. This phenomena actually  goes beyond that. When my “mystery guest” posts sometime soon, my readers will recognize her as a well known authority on Reading Recovery. She will be reporting that she has taken the kind of training usually given only to teacher of Dyslexic children.  She is responding to the fact that some of the kid watching teachers in recovery have noticed that the usually level and intensity of phonics instruction in recovery is not benefiting SOME children, specifically children identified as Dyslexic.  She is taking part in the Reading Evolution.

Now wait a minute Doctor B., back up! I’ve heard reading recovery doesn’t work for anybody, that it should be discarded that it hurts children. Regular readers of this blog know that I have mounted strong defenses of recovery several times and pointed out research like that from the National Clearing House which for a number of years has reported Reading Recovery is the best of the early intervention strategies. How can that research be true and what the critics have to say be true. I think I have an explanation of what’s actually happening. It has to do with the fact that before I was a reading teacher I spent a number of years teaching political science and history. There is political move called “using a strawman”. When using a strawman, you only report the weaknesses of your opponent. You ignore the strengths. I feel that tactic is currently being used by some (NOT ALL) of the advocates of the phonics cures all position to discredit Reading Recovery. Here are some of my recently posted thoughts:

NO 2

When asked about the NCH data (and by the way my mystery guest blogger will be providing even more supporting data) the critic said the methods used by NCH were flawed. Interesting position but not one widely held.  In sum then, the usual attack on Recovery list a series of studies showing it doesn’t work. The ones showing that it does FOR MANY (NOT ALL)  CHILDREN are OMITTED. Classic straw man tactics. Another important point. Reading Recovery is the only beginning reading program to show gains in comprehension as well as decoding.  Many of the claims of huge gains in “reading” made by some advocates are actually huge gains in decoding. Not at all the same thing. The NRP report indicated that there is an initial bump in scores caused by phonics instruction, that further gains just don’t happen. This is a typical phenomenon in reading instruction.  For instance,  Shanahan says that past a certain point instruction in reading strategies lack further effect. My take- the kids got it, they’re using it. Now use your teaching time to teaching something else. Please note that nowhere did I say not to do it, rather I’m saying once the kids are using it move on. Could it be that one of the reasons RR is so successful is that their teachers are trained to be Kid watchers and do exactly that? Hmm.

What comes of all this is the thought that no one method is going to succeed with every child. But usually teachers can  find something that will work with every child, just not the same something! I’ll refer you to my blogs citing the First Grade Studies and the work of Allenton. At the end of the day, in terms of reading achievement scores, teachers make more difference than methods. My quarrel with SOME of the advocates of synthetic phonics is not over the fact it should be done (IT SHOULD!), but whether it should be done exclusively (IT SHOULDN’T).

What would happen if more teachers are willing to talk about the weaknesses of their methods as well as the strengths. What would happen if teachers started learning from “the other side”. I think what would happen is the Reading Evolution. There’s a lot of potential bumps in the road and sticky situations. But teachers are used to that. Teachers who are empowered by learning all the ways of teaching phonics, empowered by being allowed to use multiple methods,  who are listened to when their way works with a particular child, who are valued in the same way teachers are valued in places like Finland, those teachers have a real shot at finally ending the reading wars. They have a real shot learning from each other so they can help the kids. Eric- this is Sam talking to you from my room at the Write to Learn Conference in Mo. I’m so very glad that a year ago at this very conference you had the idea of using social media to start a dialogue around the great debate. It’s happening. Teachers use #GrtDb and #HelpEcOther (help each other) and continue the conversations. How have you learned from the other side? How can we best help our children. Eric and I would LOVE to chat with you about that! And Eric I think it is especially appropriate that I am writing and posting this particular blog at the very same conference where I first got the notion from you that maybe informed teachers, discussing (INSTEAD OF DEBATING) educational ideas in a way that might finally find a way to cut through the gordian knot that has been the Great Debate in Reading.  We’ll see where this goes. REMEMBER #GrtDb and #HelpEcOther. We’ll be looking for you on twitter.


Happy Reading and Writing


Dr. Sam Bommarito (aka cloud watcher extraordinaire & king of “let’s talk, shall we?”



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.