One size still doesn’t fit all: Finding the middle ground in the reading wars by Dr. Sam Bommarito

Reading Header for the Blog

Of all the hats I’ve worn in almost five decades of teaching (see addendum at the end) the one that fits me best is that of reading teacher/reading specialist. During my Title I days, one of my jobs was to support/coach teachers in Tier one and to sometimes provide Tier two services as needed. The Tier one programs changed over time. What all had in common Is that none succeeded with 100% of the kids. There were always some kids for whom the Tier one program didn’t work. One of my jobs was to scaffold those students into learning to read. This experience definitely shaped my view of things.

Fast forward to today. We now have SOME (not all) proponents of the Science of Reading point of view claiming they do have the solution to all students reading problems. Just teach them using a strong systematic synthetic phonics and all is solved. Before I say another word, please note the word SOME. Let’s look at relevant evidence.

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’   Bottom line, research does not support the notion that synthetic phonics should be used EXCLUSIVELY.

‘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.’

Bottom line- Science of Reading approaches must be viewed with caution. Care needs to be taken that the approach doesn’t just produce better decoding.  The extreme proponents of Science of Reading have tried to pass off gains on decoding based tests as reading gains, claiming almost miraculous one-year growth.  Bad science. The problem remains- they are not demonstrating long term growth in comprehension. Decoding DOES NOT automatically lead to comprehension. Comprehension requires direct teaching around comprehension (a blog in itself).

The final problem is what I call the Near 100% Problem. On many occasions, I’ve asked proponents of all the current possible ways to teach reading to “show me the beef,” i.e. show me studies demonstrating their way gets almost 100% success. Unfair? Remember my background. I’m the one that got to work with and scaffold the students for whom the Tier one program didn’t work. So long as there are such kids, there is a need for alternative approaches to teaching those kids. There is also a need to allow reading specialists and classroom teachers some leeway in how they help those particular kids, and to give them some serious PD in those alternate ways. My mantra is, fit the program to the child, not the other way round.

Currently, there are any number of approaches being advocated. That is a whole different blog entry. What I say to every one of those advocates of alternate approaches, if you don’t have the near 100% study for your methods, then admit your methods have limitations. That is a very hard sell. But if folks TALKED TO, as opposed to debated with, folks with alternate methods,  kids would benefit. Districts can and should adopt the method they think best fits their population. See both Mary Howard’s and Linda Dorn’s books on RTI for guidance. It is critical that the Tier one program be strong enough that Tier two and three aren’t overwhelmed.  BTW if anyone really does have that magic near 100% method that nets comprehension gains over several years, please do let us all in on it. I’ll help organize the parade for you!!! Longitudinal data using actual comprehension tests, please.

I’ll end with a quote from Pressley who I view as the “take the middle ground” advocate of his day.  A good friend reminded me of this quote. Think about it. We’ve tried the extremes so many different times; maybe it is time to try finally try the middle and end this swinging pendulum once and for all.

“What is “balanced literacy instruction” from my perspective? It involves explicit, systematic and completely thorough teaching of the skills required to read and write in a classroom environment where there is much reading of authentic literature–including information books and much composing by students. Balanced literacy instruction is demanding in every way that literacy instruction can be demanding. Students are expected to learn the skills and learn them well enough to be able to transfer them to the reading and writing of texts. Yes, this is done in a strongly supportive environment, with the teacher providing a great deal of direct teaching, explanations, and re-explanations, and hinting to students about the appropriateness of applying skills they have learned previously to new texts and tasks. As children learn the skills and use them, the demands in balanced classrooms increase, with the goal of the balanced literacy teacher being to move students ahead, so that every day there is new learning; every day students are working at the edge of their competencies and growing as readers and writers” (Pressley, 2003).

Happy Reading and Writing

Dr. Sam Bommarito (aka the one in the middle of the road happily taking flak from all sides)


It’s been an interesting and productive week on twitter. I’ve been asked to clarify and synthesize my views on the reading wars and good literacy practices. Here goes. First, it will help readers to understand my positions on literacy instruction if they knew something of my background. Started teaching in 1970. Have taught every grade from K-graduate school. Have taught all the preservice reading courses both at the undergraduate and graduate level. Spent over two decades teaching in Title 1 buildings spanning the time from 1985 through the early 2000s. Three times,  projects I worked in received the Secretaries’ Award, placing the reading achievement gains made in those projects in the top 1/10 of 1 percent of all Title 1 projects nationally. Two of the three buildings involved had free lunch rates exceeding 90%.  I am currently retired (not really). During the school year, I spend one full day a week pushing in at an elementary school, I am active in the ILA, and Co-Editor of the professional reading journal for my state, The Missouri Reader. I am also involved in promoting local literacy projects, including the St. Louis Black Author’s Believe project and The Ready to Learn book distribution project (over a quarter of a million books given to Title 1 kids in the last four years). I’m starting to do some national consulting and Inservice work. I also write this weekly blog and am working with some friends on a book. As I said, not really retired.

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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1 thought on “One size still doesn’t fit all: Finding the middle ground in the reading wars by Dr. Sam Bommarito

  1. Pingback: Cutting Through the Gordian Knot of Phonics Instruction by Dr. Sam Bommarito | doctorsam7

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