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
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:
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.