Monthly Archives: April 2019

Cutting Through the Gordian Knot of Beginning Phonics Instruction: My Advice to Beginning Teachers by Dr. Sam Bommarito

Reading Header for the Blog

Cutting Through the Gordian Knot of Beginning Phonics Instruction: My Advice to Beginning Teachers by Dr. Sam Bommarito


For the past several years I’ve taught in the BTAP program. BTAP (Beginning Teachers Assistance Program) is carried out once or twice a year by Harris Stowe University for beginning teachers in the St Louis Public Schools.  Here is some of what I had to say to them last week about teaching beginning reading.

There has been a concern from the ILA that the issue of teaching phonics has been politicized.


Take away one: There is more than one approach to teaching phonics.

Educators Guide To Phonics


Approaches Include English Orthography, Analytic phonics and Synthetic phonics. The latter two are the current most used approaches. Teachers need to be aware of and trained in all of the approaches to teaching phonics.

Take away two: In spite of claims to the contrary there is not a one size fits all solution to teaching beginning reading:

Some simple view proponents claim synthetic phonics is the one size fits all solution for teaching beginning reading.

The Facts:

  • England has mandated synthetic phonics for several years. Scores have improved. However, there are still significant numbers of students who do not thrive using synthetic phonics. The promised 100% or near 100% success rates have never been realized.
  • Studies claiming enormous gains in “reading” by using synthetic phonics approaches are often based on testing instruments like the Dibels. Dibels is a test of decoding, not a test of reading. On multiple occasions I have called for decisions about program adoptions be based on studies using widely accepted tests of reading comprehension (not decoding) and that those studies demonstrate gains in comprehension scores over more than one year.
  • Research has not demonstrated synthetic phonics is superior to analytic phonics. Jonathan Glazzard reports the following:


“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). “


Taken from:



Take away number three: Teachers need to learn about how to teach using both analytic and synthetic phonics

On several occasions, I have proposed an explanation for why over the past five decades the pendulum of how to teach beginning reading swings between the two most used forms of phonics instruction analytic phonics and synthetic phonics.  It is because what works for different children varies. Some children seem to need no phonics instruction at all (this a VERY SMALL part of the overall student population). Some seem to thrive on either of the two methods. Some thrive on programs using only synthetic phonics (I suspect this may be the largest number of students). Some thrive on programs using only analytic phonics (see my blog entry on the tale of two children:

My analysis of what has been happening over the years is that problems occur when proponents of either method (synthetic or analytic) insist that ONLY their method be used. Whichever is chosen, there will be some children for whom the method does not work. Once that becomes apparent, it results in calls to “throw out the old and bring in the new.” Usually, enough time passes that folks have forgotten the “new” didn’t work for everyone either.  The common sense approach here is to allow both approaches and to train teachers, in both.  We should allow teachers to use both approaches within the confines of whatever literacy program a district may adopt.

Take away number four: Whether they are teaching analytic or synthetic phonics, teachers still need to know about sound-symbol relations.

One excellent source for this is Dorothy Strickland’s book Teaching Phonics Today: A Primer for Educators. It even includes a self-test over basic knowledge about phonics. It is also available in a newer edition that includes more recent research around the topic. Both editions are readily available on book sites like Amazon.

Strickland Phonics

Take away number five: The decision on which form of phonics instruction to use is best made at the district level. Whichever phonics approach is chosen it must be done systematically.

Regular readers of the blog are aware that my blogging partner, Dr. Kerns, prefers analytic phonics as the mainstream program. I prefer synthetic.  Whichever program is chosen it is crucial that provisions be made for the students who do not thrive using the chosen approach.  This can be accomplished by differentiating classroom instruction and by use of a tiered system of providing instruction.   I strongly recommend that in the instance where a district might choose the analytic approach that Tier Two and Tier three options be made available for Dyslexic students. The warning is also given that analytic phonics programs, which are often taught in an “as needed” way, still need to include a system for assuring that throughout the beginning reading instruction all the key phonics elements are covered. In this way, the analytic phonics can still be systematic.


Making this presentation last weekend has allowed me to synthesize in one place all the things I’ve been saying over the past few months about what beginning reading instruction should look like. It is a common sense approach.  Fit the program to the child, not the other way round.  Don’t force selected children to use methods that don’t work for them. Don’t “jump to extremes” in selecting methods.  Follow the path of what I have come to call the Reading Evolution. Instead of throwing everything out and starting over, tweak things until they work for you and your district. To talk about the Reading Evolution on Twitter or Facebook, please use the following hashtag #ReadingEvolution.  I’ll be looking forward to reading some of your comments.


Dr. Sam Bommarito (aka the middle of the road 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.












Teaching students to talk big about little books and to read like storytellers: Tales from a successful after school 1st & 2nd-grade program. By Doctor Sam Bommarito



Teaching students to talk big about little books and to read like storytellers:

Tales from a successful after school 1st & 2nd-grade program.

By Doctor Sam Bommarito


It’s been just a little over a year since Dr. Tim Rasinski came to speak to our local ILA. His newest book co-authored with Mellissa Cheesman Smith had just come out. He was talking to us about the issues of fluency, prosody and a fresh look at the science of reading. Tim told the compelling tale of a first-grade teacher who used repeated readings to help her students become better readers. Her plan was simple, have them rehearse short passages such as poems and practice them daily and perform them at the end of the week. Tim reported that at first, this teacher was getting a lot of pushback from administrators who saw what she was doing as a waste of instructional time. However, they did allow her to continue. It’s fortunate that they did. It seems that at the end of the year her first-grade students outperformed all the other first grade classes in the school. The story had a more than happy ending. The teacher became the teacher of the year for her state. Readers can read more about all this in Tim’s Megabook of Fluency.

The story had a very direct effect on my own teaching practices. Though I am “retired” from full-time teaching, I’m still active in many different literacy projects, one of which is to spend one day a week at a school doing push-ins during the day and helping with the afterschool program. The afterschool program is voluntary. We have around 20 first and second graders who come once a week. They stay for about an hour, and I thought long and hard about what we can do in their relatively brief time that would really have an impact on their reading.

I’ve been a fan of the Raz Kids program for quite a long time. As part of my work at this building, I encouraged them to consider using the program. It is now in use in 1st through fourth grade. I like the depth and breadth of the program. It Includes well-written on-line books some of which are predictable, some of which are decodable and some of which are essentially trade books. It includes both fiction and nonfiction books. There is a very well-developed set of questions for each book. The quizzes are scored automatically and detailed information about types of questions missed et al. are provided to the teacher. My key use of the Raz Kids program for the afterschool group is to provide all of them one self-selected book to read each week. It also gives me the ability to talk to them during the week. I give them feedback and encouragement using the comment feature available through Raz Kids. This feature allows the teacher to both write and record their messages which students can access anywhere there is an internet connection, home or school.

Also, some of the students record the stories as they read them. I’m able to listen to the recordings. Listening to stories the students have recorded is another feature available on the Raz Kids program.  In a couple of cases, I could hear parents in the background helping children along. I was able to give some parents ideas on how to use prompting near the point of error to improve their child’s reading. For the first couple of years of afterschool, this use of Raz Kids became the cornerstone of my part of the after-school program.

However, after hearing Rasinski speak last year, I decided to supplement the after-school program with a couple of additional activities. These activities involved doing lessons around reading like a storyteller and providing the students with books to read from at the start of each after-school session. Regular readers of the blog know that one of my favorite authors to use for this kind of reading is Eric Litwin. My kids learned about Pete the Cat & Groovy Joe among others. Now each session begins with the kids in pairs picking books to read aloud. Each partner gets to choose one of the two books they read together. The partners choral read both books together. Each week I added one or two new books. I read parts of them to the student before adding them to the pile of books to pick from. I did think alouds around what I was doing to sound like a storyteller.

After several weeks of this, there was a wide variety of books. The students were rereading books, and they were happy to do so since they were getting to pick their favorite books to reread. I told them it was important that as they did their reading they try to sound like storytellers. Over time, they did. I love my white shoes, disco party bowwow, all these phrases from the books began reverberating through the room.  They loved to read them again and again.  Normally they read in pairs. The students read from each other’s book, always reading in chorus. I circulate the room along with my student helper. Our afterschool program has seventh and eighth graders who come to help us with the kids each week.  Over the course of the year, the students were really beginning to sound like storytellers. They were learning to read with prosody.

Another addition this year was the use of keep books. In addition to doing the reading of what came to be called the big books, the students were allowed to pick a Keep Book.  Keep Books are take-home books developed by Fountas and Pinnell. They are written around levels one through 16. See the link to keep books site.


These books are meant to be taken home to read. That’s exactly what my students did. Whatever Keep Book they chose for that week they got to take home and keep! Parents were asked to provide a shoebox or similar storage device.  I asked the students to try to read from their reading box at home. Over the course of the school year, they kept getting one keep book each week. Parents and students alike were pleased by the shoebox library. By the end of the year, each child had a very large collection of keep books. I would classified keep books as predictable and very heavy in the use of sight words. I let the parents know that sending home Keep Books and having the kids read from them was my way of teaching sight words. Over the years I found this way usually out produces the typical flash card way of teaching sight words

As you can see, the first 15 to 20 minutes of afterschool was spent in doing the paired reading read alouds of both the trade books  and the keep books. In addition to the read alouds, there was one more step. That was for them to talk about their books with each other. The phrase they learned was “you may have said it, but you haven’t read it until you tell me the characters, the problem, the solution.” By the end of the year all of them were able to have conversations around the narrative books. Once those conversations were going well, I also asked them to have conversations around their Non-Fiction Raz Kids books. The phrase for that was “if it’s true tell us what’s new.” They knew that what I was after was something new they learned from the non-fiction book. In case there was nothing new that they learned from the book they were told instead talk about the most interesting thing they found in the book, even if it was something they already knew.  Again, by the end of the year my students were talking big about their little books. I continue to use Raz Kids at the end of each session giving them just about enough time to finish one book each time they come.

I will say that at first the conversations were stilted, the reading was word by word, and they were somewhat unsure of themselves. Now at the end of the year, I thoroughly enjoy listening to the way all of them the blossomed into true storytellers.   Pete the Cat, Groovy Joe and many other such characters are very much alive for my after-school children.  The bow-wows in “Disco Party Bow Wow”, were a turning point for many of the children. They said it with gusto, and soon such reading carried over to other books they read. The tentative conversations from the start of the year have turned into more genuine book talks. I like to call it “Talking Big about Little Books.”

Remember, that this afterschool program is meant to be a supplement to what is a very good mainstream program done in the building. I found that adding the elements of repeated reading to what I’d already been doing with the Raz Kids program made for a much better year this year. Given the limitations of a once a week program designed to get extra help to the participants, adding the big talk, repeated readings, and the goal of becoming a good storyteller maximized the impact of this voluntary program. There was almost always time at the end of the teaching session to do at least 1 Raz Kids book. I have continued to use talking to them through the Raz Kids program as a way to reach them outside the after-school time.

Next week I want to continue to explore the ideas that I learned from Tim Rasinski. Especially those around reading being both a science and an art. I would encourage all teachers to consider the importance of teaching beginning reading in a way that encourages prosody rather than speed and robot reading. I’ll have much more to say on that point next week.

Until then happy reading and writing


Dr. Sam Bommarito (aka, the book 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.

Striving for a Caring Approach to Literacy by Dr. Williams Kerns


NOTE FROM DR SAM- This week my blogging partner asked to do a guest blog. It is a powerful piece with a powerful message. Hope you enjoy it. See you next week!

Striving for a Caring Approach to Literacy by Dr. Williams Kerns



The reading wars that we often wage in the literacy field will continue. Arguments over methods of instruction, theories of how to teach key skills, and how to foster comprehension will go on with urgency and the stakes are indeed high. But if the reader will indulge me in this blog, I wish to take a brief break from the battles. In this guest blog, I focus on an underlying need by the student to know that a teacher genuinely cares, and to feel fully valued as an individual.

On Thursday of this week (April 11) I had the pleasure of listening to a talk by children’s book author Angela Cervantes during the annual banquet of the St. Louis Regional Literacy Association. During her talk, Cervantes described an experience that I believe holds important lessons for us as educators.

When Cervantes was 16, she worked as a hostess in a Red Lobster restaurant. One night, she was among the few who braved a winter storm to report to work. As she cleaned a table, she overheard a couple making negative remarks about her that were based on stereotypes too commonly held about Mexican and Latinx people.   The couple remarked that Cervantes must not speak English, that she must be a high school dropout. They knew nothing about how hard Cervantes worked in school and her passion for literature. Eventually, Cervantes did offer to serve the couple, while speaking to them in English to the embarrassment of the couple.

In the story told by Cervantes, I believe there are important lessons. We need to ensure that we avoid making negative assumptions and stereotypes about students. Additionally, we need to take strides to ensure that students feel welcome, respected, and fully accepted within a community of learners. To do less than that is, I believe, an act of immorality against the human dignity of the student. I believe that efforts to establish a moral and caring purposefulness in educational practices should be sensitive to the interests and needs of students. Dare I say it – we ought to act with love toward students. I view love within educational practice as both an emotion and a moral decision. We can feel love, but we can also make the choice to act with love toward or to not act with love (Bransen, 2006).

It was not an act of love for the couple in a Red Lobster restaurant to engage in the negative stereotyping of a teenage Cervantes when she was working hard at performing her job. But how often might teachers also engage in negative stereotyping that can follow a student around for years in the educational journey? Far too often. Negative stereotyping can be difficult to shake because a tendency toward confirmation bias contributes to rigidity of concepts within social groups. This means that when a group of teachers may hold negative views about a student based on negative stereotyping, confirmation bias contributes to that negative view becoming difficult to change in the minds of teachers. A literacy teacher might engage in teaching strategies tied to such terms as systematic phonics, whole language, or balanced literacy, but if care – and love – is missing then the educational practice is, I believe, immoral.

Presence (Rodgers & Raider-Roth, 2006) by teachers provides a way to encourage the consideration of considering the affective and academic needs of students. The concept of presence emphasizes reflectiveness and inquiry as well as compassion in responses during the context of teaching. The teacher who develops presence would be alert to the needs of students and have a heightened sense of self-awareness. Dialogue that is open to an exchange of ideas based on mutual respect is an important aspect of presence. Presence can take place while a teacher is grounded in critical reflection. This approach would mean that teachers examine and respond to the diverse ways that children are impacted by life-conditions that often include the denial of equitable opportunities in education. A discussion of explicit or implicit bias provides an example of how the critical examination of educational practices can help teachers to explore their underlying moral beliefs that shape their educational practices.

Students will graduate from school with positive stories about teachers who genuinely cared about their needs and interests while remaining committed to expertise in the executional of teaching practices. I hope that each of us who are educators from Kindergarten through graduate schools will strive to be the caring teacher who is remembered with a sense of gratitude by students. Meanwhile, I also hope that we as educators will strive to be among those who have a positive influence on the lives of our students. Making such a difference includes a strong grounding in the content and pedagogical practices that are encouraged within a professional area. However, there is more to teaching than merely gaining certification that qualifies a person to teach. Ultimately, those teachers wishing to become excellent in their craft would do well to examine the needs and interests of students while also making lesson plans and curriculum design.

Don’t be “that teacher” who is remembered in an embarrassing manner. Be “that teacher” who makes a positive direction in the career and life-path of a student.



Bransen, J. (2015). Self-knowledge and self- love. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 18, 309-321.

Rodgers, C., & Raider-Roth, M. (2006). Presence in teaching. Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice, 12, 265-287.




Copyright 2019 by Dr. Sam Bommarito. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the view of this author or guest blogger 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.


What happens when you empower teachers and scaffold them into improving their teaching craft?: MAGIC!!!! By Dr. Sam Bommarito

reading creatuve commons

What happens when you empower teachers and scaffold them into improving their teaching craft?: MAGIC!!!! By Dr. Sam Bommarito


I decided to take a break from talking about the reading wars this week. Instead, I’ll talk a little bit about some success stories in the school where I spend one day a week doing some push-ins. I also help to implement an afterschool program. The school’s mainstream program is a basal, one that includes the use of decodable texts, predictable texts and trade books. For a variety of reasons, I find that a sensible approach since each kind of text lends itself to lessons around different strategies that can help scaffold students into reading. I’m going to first talk about a fourth-grade classroom where I have been helping the classroom teacher to implement some workshop teaching as a supplement to what she is already doing with the basal program.

This week that teacher taught me a lesson. Kind of made me think she was learning more than I was teaching. I had carried on some discussions with her around one of my favorite quotes. It’s a paraphrase of something Mark Twain said. “Those who can read but don’t are no better off than those that can’t read at all.”  So, it is important for teachers to encourage students to want to read. Take a look at a couple recent ILA position papers on that.  Special thanks to Fran McVeigh, principle author of and Molly Ness principle author of for bringing those kinds of ideas to the forefront of current literacy instruction.  This classroom teacher had a rather innovative way of getting students to talk about their books with each other and share ideas. Some of it involved the dreaded cyber books. Her overall goal was to try to reignite her kids’ interests in reading. Let me tell you about what she did.

There is a widely used software platform that has extensive collections of leveled books. Includes a balance of fiction and nonfiction books. It even includes quizzes for the books. It also gives a great deal of diagnostic information about the quizzes. What sets it apart from many of the programs like this is that it allows a great deal of teacher control. This particular classroom teacher has used the program for a number of years and treats it as a tool rather than a prescribed lockstep program.

She noticed that one of the reports that are given each week talks about what books each child read. She got the idea of having the students talk about their favorites among those books. We modeled to the class how to do a simple summary. For fiction books talk about the character, the problem/goal, and the solution. As you talk about how the goal/solution is reached you end up giving the events of the story.  In the case of nonfiction books, we used the phrase “if it’s true, find out what’s new.” Translation of this is that readers should report on what new information was in the story about the topic that they didn’t know before. The students are given the fallback that if all the information was all about things they already knew, they could instead talk about the information they found most interesting.

A few student volunteers broke the ice by talking about their books using these simple retell devices. They did this in front of the whole group. The teacher had pictures of the books they had most recently read up on the whiteboard as they talked. After that, we shifted from whole group to small group. Students who had not had a chance to talk to the large group were given that chance in small group. We opened the scope of what books to talk about to include books other than the cyber books. Everyone got a chance to talk about at least one book and depending on the group some even got to talk about more than one. Each included some “what I liked most about this book” statements.

What I especially liked about this overall class activity was that something that is often held in disdain, cyber books with quizzes, was used in a way that got students interested in reading. That’s the kind of thing that can happen when one empowers teachers. Another thing is that in the process of learning some very basic retell techniques, students got the chance to get other students excited about the books they were reading. The goal of reigniting interest was more than reached.

Next time I’m going to talk about some of the first-graders in my after-school program and how they can and do talk big around little books. I’m certain that some of my direct instruction only colleagues will be all over what I said here this week. What a total waste of time they might say. Really? That is why next week I’ll also be telling you the story of a first-grade teacher who was at first accused of doing things that were a total waste of time. She was so successful with some of her constructivist activities that she became the teacher of the year for her state. Her students outperformed students doing things in a more traditional fashion. All this is based on what my good friend Tim Rasinski had to say last year around the whole issue of prosody and reading like a storyteller. More about that next week. In the meantime, Happy Reading and Writing.

Dr. Sam Bommarito (aka, the reading coach)


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.