Monthly Archives: August 2019

A view from the Radical Middle: Teachers can (and should) use and learn from and use ideas from what is sometimes viewed as “the other side” by Dr. Sam Bommarito


A view from the Radical Middle: Teachers can (and should) use and learn from and use ideas from what is sometimes viewed as “the other side” by Dr. Sam Bommarito

The current school year has begun with a call to abandon the bad balanced literacy practices we’ve been using and to adopt an intense systematic synthetic phonics approach as the “new” and improved way to teach reading.  I’ve been in the education world since 1970 and seen similar calls from time to time Is it really time to stop using all those balanced literacy/constructivist-based practices and move on to other things? There are some advocates of the Science of Reading approach who think it is. They have been widespread posts to that effect.  Based on the evidence, I must respectively disagree with taking such a course of action.

Understand first of all that I am writing from the perspective of the Radical Middle. That is a term first used by P.D. Pearson. Here is a link to what he said.  In the pdf he says “A second reason for living in the radical middle is the research base supporting it. I read the research implicating authentic reading and writing and find it compelling. I read the research supporting explicit skill instruction and find it equally as compelling. What occurs to me, then, is that there must be a higher order level of analysis in which both of these lines of inquiry can be reconciled.”

My take on this as follows. There are also real benefits to several of the various approaches to beginning reading.  There are also real limitations to every approach. SOME of (not all of) the SoR advocates are acting as if they have found the one way to teach beginning reading and that all other methods are inferior. A close examination of the evidence indicates they have not found the “one size fits all” solution to beginning reading. Let’s consider what is being said on both sides. We’ll start with the balanced reading side (what I am calling the constructivist side)


Leveled Readers USE QUOTE


Reading ROckets Ltr taken from Mary Howad


POINT ONE- SoR folks HAVE NOT established that Balanced Literacy has failed to work.

SoL advocates claim that balance reading has failed. They say the hard-empirical facts do not support the use of balanced literacy/constructivist approaches. What is their evidence? Their logic goes like this.  What we are doing now is not working well (no argument there). Balanced reading is the most used way of doing things, therefore BL has failed us. Sounds plausible but there is a problem. When we look at what is going on now it includes ALL districts.  Some aren’t using BL, some are using it but not doing it well, some are actually already using SoL approaches – you get the idea.  As soon as I point out that SoR sites are included on the current scene SoR folks say, but you must consider what just those sites are doing when evaluating SoR. Fair enough. However, that very same courtesy needs to be extended to the balanced literacy/constructivist sites. Especially since they are the SoR folks the SoR advocates should understand that they need to draw a scientific sample of sites before attempt to make generalizations about the efficacy of any given approach.  In this case, the sample needs to include districts doing BL with fidelity and using best practices in BL/Constructivism.  That hasn’t happened. No such study exists (and may I point out the onus is on the SOL folks to produce such a study) So the flagship of the fleet- the claim that balanced literacy/constructivist practices have failed remains unproven.  As a matter of fact, there is substantial evidence to a contrary point of view.

There is abundant evidence that there are districts using balance literacy and getting good results. Just did an in-service for one such district a couple of weeks ago.  Some SoL try to explain away the existence of such districts as part of the phenomena that some kids succeed no matter what methods are used. REALLY? I must have gotten personally lucky because in the mid-1980s I took part in three different Title 1 programs using BL that won national award for the gains they made. Two of the three were in areas with over 90% free lunch. Today, there are literally hundreds of such programs nationally. This leads me to conclude that the “sometimes anything works explanation” used by some SoL advocates is bogus.”  Also makes me want to double down on my call for that scientific sample of districts using strong constructivist practices before making statements about the “failure” of balanced literacy.  Until and unless studies using such a sample prove BL has failed are presented, we cannot draw the conclusion BL has failed.

POINT TWO- SoR folks have not demonstrated that intense systematic synthetic phonics programs outperform systematic analytic phonics instruction.

What about the claim that ALL children (most children) would be best off using an intense systematic synthetic phonics program?  I’ll begin by saying for the record that when the children we are talking about are children with an actual diagnosis of Dyslexia, this kind of treatment is preferred over treatments using analytic phonics. Using analytic phonics with a dyslexic child is counterproductive. But what about all the other children? In this scenario Analytic phonics is characterized as inferior, an afterthought thrown in by constructivist who finally realized they should include some kind of phonics.  That is essentially the historical narrative proposed by some SoR advocates. Readers are invited to examine chapter 2 in Mary Jo Fresch’s book An Essential History of Current Reading Practices. No mention of using analytic phonics as a weak sister band-aid in that chapter. That chapter was written by folks who are well-credentialed experts in reading, something that is not true of the historical narrative proposed by some SoR advocates.

Also, consider this study on analytic vs synthetic phonics.

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’. This study is one of several all indicating the same thing, systematic analytic phonics is just as effective as systematic synthetic phonics.  BOTTOM LINE research does not support the notion that synthetic phonics should be used EXCLUSIVELY.


POINT THREE- Literacy Leaders Like T. Shanahan advocate that there should be a balance in how time is allotted among the 4 major instructional goals of early reading instruction. This balance should be present from day 1 in 1st-grade literacy instruction.  Not all SoL advocates follow this practice.

Shanahan bases this, in part, on the things gleaned from the NRP report.  Not everyone today is doing it this way. For instance, SOME advocates of the SoR approach to beginning reading seem to want to put more emphasis on word knowledge and much less emphasis on the other three components. I’ve found that such proponents, when pressed will never ever say phonics only. However, their suggestion to delay comprehension instruction until decoding skills are in place is taken a face value, it is difficult to understand how they could maintain the equal time allotment suggested by Shanahan. As a matter of fact, when pressed about the details of that they are evasive in saying exactly how they would spend their time.  The real danger here is that if the overemphasize decoding and underemphasize the other three they are in danger of creating word callers. Just the mention of the term word callers causes them to bristle.  NO SUCH THING. Really? Readers are invited to review the evidence, including detailed information on studies around the topic found in the book Word Callers, and see if they agree. I think a review of the evidence with from this book will lead most readers to conclude that the threat of creating Work Callers is very real if the allotment of time gets out of balance.



POINT FOUR In part because they have little or no training or experience in teaching using constructivist methods SoL advocates often misrepresent what constructivist practices look like and end up presenting incorrect or “straw man” points of view around constructivist practices.

One example of this can be found in my recent presentation to some 500 first grade teachers on how to teach guided reading. Here is the blog entry around that presentation.

The key takeaway from this presentation is that if guided reading is done IAW the principles laid down in Burkins and Yaris’s book Who’s Doing the Work then there is much more to Guided Reading than just the small group using leveled texts. MOST of the time in a complete program of Guided Reading is spent in LARGE GROUP INSTRUCTION using texts AT OR ABOVE GRADE LEVEL. I have to wonder aloud what the finding would be if one took a scientific sample of districts carrying out Guided Reading in this manner. My prediction would be that the results would support the use of constructivist practices outlined in the presentation

I’ll end this with a link to my original post, made over a year ago calling for a Reading Evolution #readingevolution1. Instead of being at loggerheads perhaps what is needed is for BOTH sides to admit their favorite methods have limits and limitations and maybe, just maybe, ideas from the other side might be employed to overcome those limits. Dare to dream!!!!

So, this is Dr. B, speaking from the radical middle, wondering aloud if a Reading Evolution just might be possible.

Dr. Sam Bommarito aka Don Quixote daring to dream the impossible dream

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.






Musings of a workshop teacher, Advice I just gave to some 1st-grade teachers in Houston By Dr. Sam Bommarito

Musings of a workshop teacher, Advice I just gave to some 1st-grade teachers in Houston

By Dr. Sam Bommarito



(First posted in Aug. 2019) I’m coming off of what are two of the best days of my professional career. That is saying a lot since my professional career in education began almost 50 years ago, in 1970.

What happened was I was asked to provide PD for some 500 1st grade teachers from a very large district in the Houston Texas area. The teachers were divided into more or less even-sized groups. I gave each group of 60 (approx.)  the same 90 minutes of professional development ideas.  The ideas were designed to enhance their implementation of Guided Reading and Reading/Writing workshop.

My readers are familiar with the fact that in the 1980s I participated in several highly successful Title 1 programs. Those programs won awards from the Secretary of Education.   Receiving that award meant the reading achievement gains for those programs were in the top 1/10 of 1 percent of all Title 1 programs nationally. The programs included the use of the three cueing systems and small group instruction. You can see why I am then skeptical of the claims that research fails to support the use of such methods. How can those results from long ago be so different? I very much suspect it is because of the way the programs were implemented.  As I looked at the Houston program, I saw many things being done that are NOT typical of the way small group guided reading/reading writing workshop is currently viewed and carried out.  My PD for Houston teachers was designed to enhance some of their already good practices. Looking at what I said in Houston might help in the creation of a new exemplar program for constructivist-based practices, an enhanced model for balanced literacy. My belief is that doing studies around the efficacy of constructivist based balanced literacy programs including those characteristics would yield very different results than those being reported about constructivist practices. Simply put- the critics are not looking at the best of the best when studying the efficacy of the constructivist programs. Let’s look at a couple of the takeaways from my recent PD work.

Characteristic Number One: The programs included a balance among the 4 major instructional goals of early reading instruction and does so from the outset.


On a number of occasions, Shanahan has advocated having equal time for the 4 instructional goals with each goal getting equal time from the very outset of the reading instruction in first grade. He bases this, in part, on the things gleaned from the NRP report.  Not everyone today is doing it this way. For instance, SOME advocates of the SoR approach to beginning reading seem to want to put more emphasis on word knowledge and much less emphasis on the other three components. I’ve found that such proponents, when pressed will never ever say phonics only. HOWEVER, they are reluctant to commit to the equal time idea and evasive about how they actually spend their instructional time.  That is actually a topic for a whole other blog.

For this blog, suffice it to say when talking to the Houston folks on this point I was “preaching to the choir”.  My main message to them on this point was to keep doing as they are already doing it. Decoding and meaning-making/fluency/writing should be taught CONCURRENTLY from day one of 1st grade.  Doing it that way can and does improve overall reading achievement.

Characteristic Number Two- Implementation of a COMPLETE program of Guided reading, not just the small group component some programs concentrate on.

As part of the implementation of the successful Title 1 programs I took part in a 4-year program of training in reading/writing workshop given by cadre from the Teacher’s College. My district trained all their Title 1 staff so that they, in turn, could train the classroom teachers. Here is the single most important takeaway I got from those 4 years of training:


P.D. Pearson developed the idea of the gradual release of responsibility.  Nowhere does that idea work better than when teachers do PLANNED AND CONSCIOUS scaffolding as part of the lesson plans they are creating.  It turned out that Burkins and Yaris have written a book, based on a very similar premise. I recommended to the Houston staff that they take a very careful look at that book and what it had to say. Essentially the book details how to make better use of instructional time within an overall program of Guided Reading. As you can see from the slide above, I was able to share with the book’s authors the fact that they were building on advice that workshop trainers had been giving for years. I am so fortunate to be in St. Louis where our local ILA group is active in bringing speakers in that talk about the latest in literacy practices.  The slide below details the very good advice I hoped the Houston teachers would glean from the Burkins and Yaris book.



The next two slides deal with the very important issue that Guided Reading is more than the “at the instructional level small group” that is most often associated with the term Guided Reading:



I tried to emphatically make the point that Guided Reading includes ALL the activities listed on the inside cover of the F&P book on the topic. This group was already aware of that book and using it well. Bringing in the Burkis Yaris added to their already strong base of knowledge around this topic.

It is important for the reader to note that many of these activities are done in WHOLE-GROUP, using grade level or higher texts. Critics who say guided reading doesn’t provide challenging texts are basing that criticism on one small part of the overall Guided Reading Program.  Back in the day when I did my PD for our classroom teachers, I emphasized the point that MOST OF THE READING DONE IN GUIDED READING SHOULD NOT BE IN LEVELED READERS. Most of the reading comes in the Read Alouds, Think Alouds et al.  Burkins and Yaris make the important point that if we use that time in the whole group setting to lay the groundwork for teaching strategies (e.g. strategies for handling complex text) so that when the time comes for small group we won’t have to load all that work into the small group setting.  The small group can become what it is meant to be- the place where we take an important step in scaffolding readers into learning to use the various strategies independently. After that, the readers try the strategies out on their own, supported in the endeavor with periodic conferencing.  This way of doing things has been a part of what F & P have been saying since at least 1996. Folks familiar with GR know this. In my view, you can’t say GR is being carried out with fidelity unless these elements are included. Readers are also urged to use the excellent charts and discussion of gradual release in GR 2nd ed.


So- there was more,  but those are a couple of important highlights.  I have to wonder aloud if one studied “enhanced” guided reading/reading workshop programs, enhanced by the suggestions made in books like Burkins and Yaris, if we would still find including small group instruction, conferencing, following the child and other such constructivists practices were ineffective?  I think before the total abandonment of constructivist practices being called for by some today is carried out, that constructivists at least deserve some studies to see if there is such a thing as effective balanced literacy. Such studies need to be conducted around the best of the best in constructivist practices.  I’ll be picking up on that theme in my next blog entry.

In the meantime, Happy Reading and Writing

Doctor Sam Bommarito (aka the “enhance workshop not replace it”  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.



Nerd Camp:  Summer Camp for Book Lovers by Sarah Johnson, Reading Specialist, Trautwein Elementary School

I’m just back from Houston Texas, where I did professional development this week for some 500 first grade teachers. I’ll be blogging about that next week. Knowing I would be out of town, I asked St. Louis Regional ILA board member Sara Johnson to prepare a blog entry about a very special event she attended this summer, The Nerd Camp: Summer Camp for Book Lovers. Read all about it. She’s even included tips on how to get registered for next year’s event.



Nerd Camp:  Summer Camp for Book Lovers

by Sarah Johnson, Reading Specialist, Trautwein Elementary School


I first heard about Nerd Camp several years ago from Donalyn Miller. I promised myself that one summer I would go. This year I decided 2019 would be the year. At 4 a.m. on February 1st, I woke up, logged on and reserved one of the tickets before they were gone.

Fast forward to July 7 and I made the 8-hour drive to Michigan. As much as I had read about what to expect, nothing really prepared me for how inspiring my first Nerd Camp would be. I arrived an hour early on Monday morning and discovered around 800 people already lined up to get in the door. Luckily, the weather was beautiful and the crowd was friendly.

A little background for those who haven’t heard about this event. nErDcampMI (Nerdy + EdCamp, Michigan chapter) grew out of the online Nerdy Book Club. If you’re not familiar with the Nerdy Book Club, I recommend you go online and start following this wonderful site. At nErDcampMI, educators join with award winning authors and illustrators for two days to celebrate the power of reading. Nerd Camp is free and run entirely by a team of volunteers led by the husband and wife team of Colby and Alaina Sharp. The Nerd Camp experience is unlike any other conference I have attended — the level of excitement over books and their creators was inspiring.

Day One has a pretty traditional conference set up. After the volunteers checked in around 1,800 people at 9 a.m., there was plenty of time to snag a good seat in the gym for the opening ceremony. The day’s events began with an author panel discussing the topic Feminism for All: A Discussion of Feminism in Schools, KidLit, and the World. This was followed by the opening ceremony which included Nerd Talks by Laurie Halse Anderson, Cece Bell, Minh Le, and Donalyn Miller.

Participants had the opportunity to attend 3 sessions in the afternoon. There were numerous options and after a lot of deliberation I attended Think Big With Think Alouds presented by Dr. Molly Ness; Peace, Joy and Books: Read-Aloud Experiences to Nurture the Heart and Mind presented by Dr. Maria Walther; and Now What? Helping Students Become and Remain Passionate Readers presented by Pernille Ripp. These are three authors I have read and followed for several years so having the opportunity to hear them speak on the same day was pretty thrilling for me.

During breaks, there was plenty of time to browse the books available from Bookbug, an independent book store in Kalamazoo. They had an incredible array of books created by the authors and illustrators attending Nerd Camp. On Tuesday, they restocked so there were plenty of copies for anyone who missed out on Monday.

Monday closed with an extremely talented high school student named Evan Struck who “speed painted” a custom portrait of author Jason Reynolds. Jason then closed the first day with a short talk and took a few questions from the audience. At 5 p.m., the author signings began.



Day Two is an edcamp or (un)conference experience. Until you arrive on Tuesday, you don’t know what types of sessions will be offered. Anyone can propose a session. Educators and authors line up on the gym floor and pitch a session topic to the assembled crowd. The only rule is that whoever pitches an idea facilitates the discussion. Once all of the sessions have been proposed, you decide which you want to attend. There is time to attend two sessions in the morning. After lunch, the process is repeated again for the two afternoon sessions. As with other edcamps, “vote with your feet” is the rule of the day. If you end up in a session that doesn’t meet your needs, you simply get up and find another session — no hurt feelings. After a quick closing session the day ended around 4 p.m. After the educators leave, volunteers set up for the Nerd Camp Jr. event that is held Tuesday evening. This year, 1,500 students from grades 1-12 had the opportunity to engage with authors and illustrators. Nerd Camp Jr. is funded entirely by donations.

Children’s authors and illustrators were available throughout both days and were incredibly generous with their time. They didn’t just sign books — they genuinely wanted to talk to teachers and librarians about their books and the children who read them.

Lasting Impressions:

If you want to engage in thoughtful conversations with people whose primary focus is improving literacy experiences for all kids, I highly recommend attending Nerd Camp. If you feel like you are sometimes on an island where you teach, Nerd Camp will connect you with other passionate book lovers. If you want to have your thinking about teaching and texts challenged, Nerd Camp is the place for you.

Donalyn Miller challenged educators to work on behalf of all children.  She reminded educators that we don’t just sign a contract with a school district. “Our contract is with society and ALL of its children.” I will keep her words in mind as I navigate the upcoming school year  and think about her two questions when presented with new directives or consider new teaching practices:  “Is this good for kids?” and “Can you share the research that is informing your decision?”

Practical Things to Know if You Want to Attend Nerd Camp:

First, start following Nerd Camp and Colby Sharp on Facebook and Twitter for updates. Nerd Camp is always held the Monday and Tuesday after July 4th. Next year’s dates are July 6-7, 2020. Tickets will be available on February 1 at 4 a.m. (CST). Tickets are usually gone within 2 hours so set your alarm!

Nerd Camp is held at Western High School, 1400 South Dearing Road, in Parma, Michigan. Parma is a very small town with no hotels or motels.  There is a gas station and a Subway sandwich shop.

Jackson, Michigan is about 10 miles east of Parma. There are numerous hotels, restaurants and some shopping venues in Jackson. There are also a couple of hotels in Albion about 10 miles west of Parma. Albion is much smaller than Jackson so dining and shopping options are very limited. Dorm rooms are also available at Albion College. These rooms are very affordable and might work for some people. I like air-conditioning and my own bathroom so I opted for the Comfort Inn & Suites in Jackson. It took me about 15 minutes to drive to Parma each morning.

If you prefer to fly, there are several airports that might work depending on your departure city. Most of the airports are 50 miles or more from the Parma area. A rental car would be necessary for those who chose to fly. After some research and discovering that flights were in the $300.00 plus range, I decided to drive. From the St. Louis area it took about 8 hours. It was an easy drive and I used the time to listen to several podcasts.

I went on my own and had a great time, but I realize not everyone may be comfortable doing that. Nerd Campers are friendly, and I didn’t have any shortage of people to talk to. Many people do attend in groups with their colleagues. If you don’t like traveling alone, recruit a friend or two and go to Nerd Camp. It is definitely worth the time and effort.

Reader from Nerdy Book Club


Copyright 2019 by Dr. Sam Bommarito. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the view of myself and the 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

Cutting Through the Gordian Knot of Phonics Instruction by Dr. Sam Bommarito


Cutting Through the Gordian Knot of Phonics Instruction by Dr. Sam Bommarito

Right now, I’m on the mend from a back injury from swimming. I’ve had better weeks!  The doc says there is no permanent damage, I just need to rest and complete some P.T. This is a repost of a previous blog with one important update on recommended books in phonics instruction and a list of the blog posts where I criticize positions taken by SOME advocates of the Science of Reading.    

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

Since writing this original post another book has come out that I think will become a go-to book for all teachers teaching beginning phonics. This book is readily available both at Heinemann and on Amazon.

Letter Lessons & First Word


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 commonsense 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.

Also, consider this series of posts that questions the positions taken by SOME, not all, of the proponents of the “Science of Reading”

This previous post best sums up what I see as the limits and limitations of the Science of Reading point of view expressed by some of the proponents of Science of reading.

See also

To talk about the Reading Evolution on Twitter or Facebook, please use the following hashtag #ReadingEvolution1.  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.













Reading Against the Text in a Supportive Classroom Community By Dr. William Kerns



As many of you know- I am a bit under the weather- a root canal is coming. UGH! But I am getting by with a little help from my friends (and co-blogger!). It is timely and well worth the read!!! Dr. Sam 

Reading Against the Text in a Supportive Classroom Community


William Kerns


In this blog I wish to stress the importance of teachers and students alike engaging in reflective thinking while learning to read the word and read the world, as advocated by Freire (1973; see also Freire & Macedo, 1987). This means building strong literacy skills but in the context of reading and communication that is socially and culturally meaningful. As part of this type of instruction, teaches should build positive communication with families and community members. The approach advocated in this blog is one in which dialogue with families enriches the curriculum, including the development of learning objectives and content, with both teachers and parents viewing each other as experts and resources in a relationship of mutual respect (Swap, 1993).

Readers engage in a transaction with text that is situational, shaped by activity, context, and sociocultural-historical factors (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Smagorinsky, 2001). Scholes (1985) differentiated between interpretations of text that involve reading within a text and interpretations that involve engaged reading against a text. Reading against a text enables an examination of the way that language use can serve to perpetuate patterns of discrimination and inequitable power distribution in schools. Teachers who promote reading against a text can share with students, families, and community members a common determination for meeting the challenges of using reflection and inquiry to continually learn and continually seek to improve the society in which we live.

The promotion of reading against a text includes the establishment of a supportive environment for reflection in which students learn to take control and responsibility for their own learning. Steps that I recommend taking to promote reflective thinking and reflective teaching include the following: establishing a supportive environment within the classroom for reflective thinking and for inquiry; guiding students to learn about the role of reflection in learning and development of concepts such as identity and moral decision making; guiding students through the conduct of systematic reflection and inquiry; and encouraging students in their development of dispositions involved in the conduct of reflection and inquiry.

Promotion of presence is an important part of the process of cultivating within students the ability to read against a text. Rodgers and Raider-Roth (2006) define presence as “a state of alert awareness, receptivity, and connectedness to the mental, emotional, and physical iterations of the individual and the group with the world and each other, and the ability to respond with a considered and compassionate best next step” (p. 266). A teacher with presence can observe students as they engage in activities, gathering information used as data, and make instructional choices based on an analysis of this data. Further, a teacher with presence builds a caring, trustworthy relationship through a wholehearted (Dewey, 1986) commitment to learning with and responding to students.

Teachers and students alike can cultivate presence within the supportive context of a caring classroom community. The concept of presence emphasizes reflectiveness and inquiry as well as compassion in responses during the context of activities that include teaching or dialogue. Teachers who develop presence are alert to the needs of students and have a heightened sense of self-awareness. Students with presents are alert to the needs of peers and have a heightened self-awareness. Presence is not limited to classroom contexts. Presence can be cultivated as a part of daily life and daily interactions. A teacher wishing to encourage presence among students needs to model presence. Dialogue that is open to an exchange of ideas based on mutual respect is an important aspect of presence.

Dispositions involved in inquiry should be promoted. To foster the development of reflective thinking as a habit among students, teachers should be open to new ideas and understandings. Over time, a teacher may experience a paradigm shift related to views on social justice, race, gender and gender roles, poverty, or other matters.  A teacher or a student who engages in reflective thinking as a habit develops the dispositions of open-mindedness, whole-heartedness, responsibility (Dewey, 1986) and directness (Dewey, 1980). Open-mindedness, as understood by Dewey, is a willingness to rethink ideas based on inquiry. Reading against a text requires a student (or a teacher!) to exhibit wholeheartedness, or an in-depth commitment of personal and emotional resources when inquiring into key social and cultural themes within a text. However, commitment is not enough without responsibility. A sense of responsibility entails taking seriously the moral choices faced by habitually evaluating how actions may bring about desired or undesired consequences. Dewey urged an attitude of directness, or faith that actions grounded in the conduct of inquiry and the process of reflective thinking are worth taking for the benefit of a just society.

It’s important to read against a text when encountering stereotypes that may previously be unexamined. Often, for example, a student may genuinely consider himself to be “not racist” while failing to challenge stereotypes within a text. For example, stereotypes about poverty intersect with stereotypes about race in a nasty web that can have a deeply detrimental impact on students when the deficit model influences instruction.

Race and poverty are addressed in this blog from a multiculturalist perspective in that I emphasize the value of cultivating cross-group and cross-race mutual understandings and shared interests (Hartmann & Gerties, 2005). Socially constructed racial identities can be sources of misunderstanding and tension, yet there are social interventions that can reduce the effects of prejudice (Allport, 1954). Race is viewed for the purpose of this blog as a socio-cultural construct rather than biological. There are widely varying ways of defining race in the literature (Markus, 2008).

Poverty is commonly defined based on income thresholds (Brady, 2003). These definitions are problematic given that thresholds fail to adequately account for different needs of families whose incomes are both below the thresholds or above the thresholds. The lived experience of people who are classified as living in various types of poverty, such as urban poverty, rural poverty, situational poverty, or generational poverty, can widely vary. Further complicating discussions on poverty, different people can view the same reality and yet their social constructions of this reality and representations of this reality might be very different (Leeuwen, 2016).

We must watch out for the insidious impact of deficit perspectives. Valencia (2014) defines a deficit perspective as a stance that: “the student who fails in school does so because of his/her internal deficits or deficiencies. Such deficits manifest, adherents allege, in limited intellectual abilities, linguistic shortcomings, lack of motivation to learn, and immoral behavior” (p. 6-7). A deficit perspective within a text which accentuates weakness of people who are characterized as “living in poverty: poisons teaching-and-learning interactions as well as teacher-parent interactions (Gorski, 2011). For example, classroom teachers tend to underestimate the cognitive ability of children who are growing up in poverty (Ready & Wright, 2011). Additionally, many teachers in high poverty urban schools view the families and home communities of their students as obstacles to their students’ success and so they distance themselves from families and community members (Hyland & Meacham, 2004).

A deficit perspective contributes to a pattern of seeking to “change the victim” and “blame the victim” (Ryan, 1971). Such a deficit perspective historically is a predominant one in US discourse on poverty (De Goede, 1996) which frequently is reflected in texts read by students. According to Katz, who investigated the deficit perspective related to discourse on welfare reform, “debate has focused on ameliorating the condition of disadvantaged people with income supports and social services and on eradicating the cultural traits that retard their economic progress” (1989, p. 208). When storylines about the poor highlight claimed moral or behavioral deficiencies the focus turns toward ways of reforming the poor rather than a focus on reforming the socio-economic and political structures (Katz, 1995).

When many teachers enter the profession, they are trained for working with families and students who live in poverty through Ruby Payne’s framework that makes use of stereotypes (Bohn, 2007; Gorski, 2007), a deficit model (Bomer et. al., 2008; Dudley-Marling, 2007; Gorski 2006, 2008; Kunjufu, 2007; McKnight, 2006; Ng & Rury, 2006; Osei-Kofei, 2005) and which contains inaccurate scholarship (Bomer et. al., 2008; Dudley-Marling, 2007; Montano, 2006).


Stereotypes include the image of parents who do not plan for the child’s education. I am struck by the following claim made by Payne (2008): Individuals in poverty usually have a strong belief in fate and destiny. Therefore, to expect changed behavior after a parent-teacher conference is, in most cases, a false hope” (pg. 23). If a teacher believes, as Payne claims, that an expectation of changed behavior after a parent-teacher conference represents a false hope then it may inhibit that teacher from communication with the family in a manner that expresses genuine hope for positive outcomes.

Instead of the deficit perspective, tap into the background knowledge – the schema – of students while building meaningful bridges between the families and what children experience at school (Gay, 2002; Howard, 2003). An important factor in overcoming deficit model approaches and instead, drawing on the strengths of a family and the community to be culturally responsive.

Cultural differences and language differences can cause teachers to form low perceptions of parental interest in school involvement (Halgunseth, 2009). Efforts to increase communication and family involvement should be shaped to the needs of the community (Auerbach, 2009). Teachers improve communication with students and parents by frequently reaching out in positive dialogue that builds comfort in the conversation. Parent involvement increases when teachers talk with families in order to provide instruction within the context of the family’s culture and knowledge base (St. Claire & Jackson, 2007).

Reading against a text is a valuable aspect of literacy which is socially and culturally meaningful to students. The fostering of ongoing reading against a text takes time. It is unrealistic to expect paradigm shifts for students in one class session. However, I do believe that the heightened awareness that is associated with reading against a text is a vital aspect of the educational journey.

Schools are cultural hubs where students can learn to see beyond socioeconomic and racial differences and to spot the flaws in deficit-oriented thinking. This can be done through careful means. But it starts with teachers understanding their roles as cultural role models (Banks, 2015). Teachers can overcome cultural obstacles by using dynamic, emergent, and interactional teaching to engage students and help bridge the gap between students. This will, in turn, allow students to become more engaged in the mentor/mentee partnership and instill positive relationship knowledge in the student.



Dr. William Kerns.
> Assistant Professor of Education
> College of Education and Health Professions
> University of Arkansas-Little Rock

Aug 2019


Copyright 2019 by Dr. Sam Bommarito/Dr. William Kerns. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the view of the author of this piece and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization.

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