Research demonstrating the effectiveness of differentiated instruction: One size does not fit all and never has- Part One (alternate title: Show Me the Beef!) by Dr. Sam Bommarito

Research demonstrating the effectiveness of differentiated instruction: One size does not fit all and never has- Part One (alternate title: Show Me the Beef!) by Dr. Sam Bommarito



Quite a while back, there was a set of TV commercials based on the slogan “show me the beef.”  We are long past the point where the proponents of “the science of reading” need to do exactly that.  They are making claims that what they do works with most every child most every time (though the road might be bumpy they say). If they have actually found THE METHOD that works with every child every time here’s what we need from them to prove such claims are true for large populations:

What they need: Studies that show “science of reading” (SOR) has a near 100% success rate with all kids.

What they have: In England, which has mandated synthetic phonics for several years now, an improvement over previous test scores QUALIFIED YES. Near 100% success rate NO!!!!!!

What they need: Studies showing long term gains in COMPREHENSION using tests of COMPREHENSION. Studies demonstrating the gains stick over time.

What they have: Studies using the Dibels (mainly a measure of decoding) and vocabulary tests (vocabulary is only one component of comprehension). That kind of testing might do for pilot studies, but since they’re trying to encourage districts to spend large sums on their methods and hoping to change the landscape of reading instruction they need much stronger testing instruments than the ones they are currently using.

Some SOR proponents are already claiming victory (move over bub, they say) based on one or two years’ worth of results. Guess they haven’t heard of the Hawthorne effect or looked at the research showing that test gains based solely on a synthetic phonics approach often evaporate after a year or two.

So, I’ll try this one last time. Show me the studies demonstrating near 100% success. If you can’t, that means there are KIDS FOR WHOM YOUR METHODS DON’T WORK. You have an ethical obligation to address the needs of those children.  Show me the studies demonstrating long term gains in COMPREHENSION using actual tests of COMPREHENSION. In sum, show me the beef!!! Either that or admit your methods have limits and limitations. If you would do that, we could actually start a conversation around what methods work for which child and how to tweak each method so that we could find something that helps almost each and every child.   It could be the start of a reading evolution #readingevolution1 #showmethebeef/lit

There’s more.

SOR folks note that what districts around the nation are doing now in literacy instruction is ineffective. Literacy scores are low.  They claim the blame lies mainly with balanced literacy et. al. No question at all that literacy scores are low. Let’s remind the SOR folks they are part of what is going on now. So, in a sense, they are very much a part of this ineffective scene.  I’d anticipate they’d say, but you have to look at what individual schools/districts are doing and see which districts/schools are doing SOR practices well and getting good results.  Fair enough. Let’s do that. But then let’s ALSO do that for the districts currently doing what can be described as balanced literacy and doing it well. No strawmen please. Make this a 2019 version of constructivism not the 1967 beginnings of constructivism.  I’ve already found some really interesting things around the question of is there such a thing as a successful BL program.

Just this week the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) named this year’s Missouri Gold Star Schools. That program recognizes schools that perform at high academic levels or that perform at high levels while serving a significant proportion of disadvantaged students. One of the schools was from the Clayton district and two of them from the Francis Howell District. Both districts have programs that would fit the criteria for balanced literacy. I can easily name many other St. Louis area districts where reading scores are high and some form of balanced literacy is used. For good measure, I’m going to ask my constructivist friends out there to name districts from their area that meet the balanced literacy criteria and currently have high reading achievement scores. Please use the hashtags #readingevolution1 #showmethebeef/lit in order to make them easy to find. The point is that it is abundantly clear that there is such a thing as a successful balanced literacy program

Now I have one more “show me” to ask of the SOR folks. Show me a study (or studies) of districts using a representative random sample of Balanced Literacy programs, programs that would meet the criteria set by proponents of Balanced Literacy.  Then show me those results. Until you can do that please take a little more care about your pronouncements around the topic of Balanced Literacy.  What you’re saying now is incomplete and inaccurate.

In sum, there is abundant evidence that balanced literacy has worked well and is working well in selected districts. So how is it that SOR folks are convincing folks that BL doesn’t work? They’re doing it by a rather clever intellectual slight of hand.  Their logic is as follows: The current scene is not working well (TRUE!). Most districts in the current scene are using properly implemented BL (UNPROVEN/FALSE). So, BL doesn’t work (UNPROVEN BY THIS CURRENT ANALYSIS). The breakdown in their logic occurs because they are assuming most districts today are using BL and doing BL in the manner advocates of BL have described (with fidelity!). Not the case. The facts are that many districts aren’t doing it all OR say they do it but really don’t OR say they do it but in practice the are doing it badly, etc.  You get the picture. The only way to get a proper sample is to just look at those districts doing BL in a form approved by BL advocates and with fidelity to the form. When we do things that way (dare I say when we base our results on a proper scientific sample) I predict that the results will be quite different from what they are claiming now.

Introduction to Research In Differentiation. (Remember that differentiation is a cornerstone of many  BL programs)


My friend and mentor Dr. Dan Rochcio sent me this information recently:

Regarding differentiated instruction, I reviewed the Juel and Minden-Cupp ( 2000) descriptive research in four first grade classrooms.  It is still a classic in my mind.  They found that the two teachers who were most successful in improving students’ word analysis and comprehension skills were those teachers who provided the most differentiated instruction throughout the first grade.  For example, Teacher 4 focused on teaching direct systematic phonics with the low reading group, who lacked phonemic awareness skills and the ability to identify initial and final consonant sounds.  This approach lasted until February when she modified her approach based on her students’ ability to apply consonant and vowels sounds to larger chunks such as onsets and rimes.  But her instruction with two other homogeneous groups who had learned phonic strategies early in the year, focused more class time on teaching vocabulary, comprehension, and the reading and writing of text.  In addition, they found that the teachers who used both sequential letter-sound decoding and the use of analogies ( i.e., onsets and rimes) to decode new words were the most successful in helping the lowest level readers.  Another conclusion of this study supported the four phases of phonics learning researched by Ehri 2005).  My experience in teaching beginning reading and a review of research indicates that Ehri’s phases are crucial to delivering the type of differentiated instruction explained in Juel and Minden-Cupp (2000).  All kindergarten, first, and second-grade teachers need to learn how to apply Ehri’s four phases if they wish to successfully differentiate phonics and other word solving strategies in grades K-2.




Connor CM, Morrison FJ, Schatschneider C, Toste J, Lundblom EG, Crowe E, Fishman B.

2011a. Effective classroom instruction: Implications of child characteristic by instruction interactions on first graders’ word reading achievement. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness. 4:173–207. [PubMed: 22229058]


Connor CM, Morrison FJ, Fishman B, Giuliani S, Luck M, Underwood PS, Schatschneider C.

2000b. Testing the impact of child characteristics × instruction interactions on third graders’ reading comprehension by differentiating literacy instruction. Reading Research Quarterly. 46:189–221.


Dorn, L., & Schubert, B. (2008).  A comprehensive intervention model for preventing reading

Failure: A response to intervention process. Journal of Reading Recovery. Spring.


Ehri. L. (2005). Learning to read words: Theories, findings, and issues.  Scientific Studies of

            Reading.  92(2), 167-188.


Juel, C., & Minden-Cupp, C. (2000). Learning to read words: Linguistic units and instructional

strategies. Reading Research Quarterly, 35, 498–492.

Thanks Dan! Useful stuff! I especially like your use of the term “word solving strategies”. Says it all! I think your remarks help lay the foundation for what a COMPREHENSIVE program in phonics instruction might look like. Comprehensive in the sense that it uses multiple ways to teach phonics and integrates this with a SIGNIFICANT AMOUNT OF TIME for comprehension work and writing.  I know I will be looking up more information around Ehri’s phases and sharing it with readers of the blog.  Readers, also know that I might try to pick Dan’s brain further about this topic. He really seems to be on to something here, doesn’t he?

All this sets the stage for Part 2 of this blog entry. Most likely, I will take that up week after next. Next week I hope to share the summer edition of the Missouri Reader with you – if all goes according to plan. Until then-


Happy  Reading and Writing

Dr. Sam Bommarito aka the “show me the beef” guy from the “show me” state of Missouri!


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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2 thoughts on “Research demonstrating the effectiveness of differentiated instruction: One size does not fit all and never has- Part One (alternate title: Show Me the Beef!) by Dr. Sam Bommarito

  1. David Zyngier

    Thank you Sam for this cogent argument. Just wish the SSP fundamentalists would read it!

    1. doctorsam7 Post author

      The audience is the court of public opinion. We need a simple powerful counter to the misinformation currently being spread. Trying to fine tune this so it can be used to present the other side. Suggestions welcome. Thanks for the kudus!


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