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 https://readingrecovery.org/reading-recovery/teaching-children/early-literacy-learning/

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.  https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/eie.12125

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.  https://www.literacyworldwide.org/docs/default-source/where-we-stand/ila-explaining-phonics-instruction-an-educators-guide.pdf 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.

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

  1. Melissa Fox

    Thank you Sam! I read your blog every week. I am in the St. Louis area as well and am a previously trained RR teacher. I however do agree, we have to believe in the development of each individual child, believe in the child, and recognize that not one approach works with every child!

    I would love to know more about the groups you attend and align my professnal development with some of your resources. Do you have a way I can find out more? Thanks!

  2. Julie A Hines-Lyman

    Thanks so much for you blog! I am a trained RR and going to be trained as a teacher leader next year. I tutor students as well, and am OG trained. I have a 7th grader with severe speech and language issues. I am teaching him painstakingly slow with OG (I trained to be able to help him). He was a RR student as well. In both programs he made very slow progress. We still begin and end every session with text. Keeping him engaged and motivated though his progress is so slow is paramount! So I guess I’m in the middle with you!

    I do have a question: is there a place/article that talks about which programs teach analytic phonics?I know loads that teach synthetic! I have used a program called Rime Magic and love Patricia Cunningham. Would you say that RR teaches analytic during working with words (esp. breaking) and writing? Thinking a lot about this lately!

    1. doctorsam7 Post author

      Try looking at Word Their Way. Think it may come close to a program that teaches analytic phonics. I’d say what RR teachers do fits analytic more than synthetic. HOWEVER, RR teachers are adaptable and some do synthetic when needed.

      1. Julie Lyman

        Certainly I go back and forth as needed. You might be interested in checking out Rime Magic by Zinke as a nice example as well!

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  6. Kate Gladstone

    Regarding Finland — Their language has a much more phonetic spelling than ours. It’s literally possible and finish, I am told, do you know exactly how a word is spelled (simply from hearing it), and to know exactly how it is pronounced (simply from seeing it). Could this have anything to do with their far greater success in teaching literacy?

    1. doctorsam7 Post author

      I agree that Finland’s language is more phonetic. However, that is not the only evidence supporting the thought we are starting kids too soon. Check out Bond & Dystra’s classic text- used for several decades as the go to book for teaching diagnostic reading. They cite research showing that any gains made because of early starts in reading, disappear by third grade. Many early childhood experts are criticizing the push to put 1st-grade work into Kg. Remember that the origin of the word Kg is “garden of children”. It is a time for children to play and gain the background they need, e.g. print carries the message et. al. Pushing them into direct instruction too soon creates the illusion of children being behind when they really aren’t. We should be taking a very very careful look at the early childhood data and the early childhood research.


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