It’s Time to Revive the Radical Middle & Finally End the Reading Wars by Dr. Sam Bommarito


It’s Time to Revive the Radical Middle & Finally End the Reading Wars by Dr. Sam Bommarito

The work of P.D. Pearson, a researcher is best known for developing the gradual release model, once again is coming to the forefront of literacy instruction. The most recent issue of the Reading Teacher contains an excellent article entitled Thirty- Five Years of the Gradual Release of Responsibility:  Scaffolding Toward Complex and Responsive Teaching by Sandra Webb, Dixie Massey, Melinda Goggans, & Kelly Flajole. The Reading Teacher Vol. 73 No. 1 pp. 75–83. I predict it will turn into a must-read for all literacy teachers. I bring up this article because I feel some of the current iterations of the Reading Wars are putting the work of centrists like Pearson and Pressley, in jeopardy. I see us as traveling away from views of reading as making meaning and comprehension as something to be TAUGHT not just practiced, back to views of reading as decoding. The logic goes if a reading is at a child’s reading level the child already has all the background they need to understand it. I just had that argument used on me by a proponent of the SoR. The problem is that flies in the face of decades of research indicating learning decoding does not AUTOMATICALLY lead to comprehension.  On one point the SoR (Science of Reading) folks and I agree, reading is not a natural process, it must be taught. It seems that at least some of the SoR folks think that mainly applies to decoding. I, along with tons of teachers from what I am about to call the Radical Middle, believe it applies also to the teaching (as opposed to practicing) of comprehension. Teaching comprehension requires teaching comprehension strategies. For a great example of that see @ReadingShanahan on teaching summarizing  I’ll concede in advance that some teachers can and do fail to see the forest for the trees, getting so lost in strategy instruction that they fail to take the lesson to its’ logical conclusion, applying the strategy and building background knowledge in the process. Shanahan makes no such mistake.  Properly done teaching comprehension strategies is a powerful tool. Back in the day (70’s & 80’s) Durkin found that teachers of the day spent almost all their time practicing comprehension (think answering comprehension questions). Durkin’s work was built upon by Pearson/Pressley and others. Thanks to them teaching comprehension now includes teaching comprehension strategies. I think we could do with a little replication of Durkin’s work today. Let’s find out exactly what the proponents of different approaches to teaching reading are actually doing with their instructional time, especially with their youngest readers.

Here is an example of what I think early readers should be doing:

Taken from a PBS for Parents  interview by Deborah Farmer Kris: “I recently spoke with Boushey, and she told me that reading isn’t just about sounding out words. It’s also about understanding the story and drawing connections between the story and your life or the world around you. Strong readers find meaning in the text.” Use the link to see full interview

For decades the reading wars raged around analytic phonics vs synthetic phonics (the view that most constructivists oppose phonics is not supported by an actual review of the history of the reading wars). My initial analysis of why the reading wars persist is that whichever side became the current soup de jour, folks at the extreme insisted ONLY their way be used. The result was that there were always kids for whom the soup de jour failed to work. Next step- out with the old in with the new. Usually, enough time passed for folks to forget that the soup de jour hadn’t worked for everyone last time around. Currently, things have gotten a bit more complex, another group, who I label the orthographic advocates have become a movement in their own right.  So now instead of swinging, the pendulum is circling just like a Foucault pendulum. The problem still remains. Until and unless each side is willing to admit its ways have limits and limitations the wars will continue.

Lately, on many occasions, I’ve asked all sides to produce studies showing their ways work for almost all kids. None has. “You’re being unfair and unrealistic Dr. Sam,” they say. But remember Dr. Sam is first and foremost a reading teacher/specialist/staff developer who for a couple of decades was charged with helping the kids for whom the main programs didn’t work. Pretty successful at it. Different programs at different times. Gives me the perspective that whichever of the big three a district might choose to adopt there will be children who need something else. I think we’re bright enough to handle that inside a 3-tier system handling most of the “other kids” needs in tiers two and three and with some clever differentiation in tier one.

So- I think it’s time to remember the Radical Middle.  It’s not my term, it belongs to P.D. Pearson. Here is a link to his article about it  I believe it first appeared in 2001. It’s worth the read. I don’t know about you but I’m quite ready to join the radical middle. I’m ready for all sides to stop debating and start talking. I’m ready for the upcoming Reading Evolution #ReadingEvolution1. Here’s a blog post summarizing what I’ve had to say about the Reading Evolution so far.

Revisiting three posts I’ve made about the reading wars: A synopsis of what I hope will become a reading evolution by Dr. Sam Bommarito

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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Please note: Dr. Sam is a bit under the weather- working on 2 root canals (UGH!). Getting by with a little help from my friends in the next two weeks.  Dr. Kerns is making a return appearance next week and the week after Sarah Valter will be telling all about this year’s Nerd camp. I will be resuming my posts after that. THANKS TO MY TWO FRIENDS FOR FILLING IN, I think you will enjoy what they have to say!















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