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.

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

    1. doctorsam7 Post author

      Thanks for following! BTW besides talking about the reading wars in the next month or two I’ll also be doing interviews of literacy leaders. Lots of great ideas out there. Happy Reading and Wring.

      1. Jeanenne Milne

        Thanks, I am looking forward to your review. I am still Writing up my notes from the 10th International Reading Recovery Institute (conference) in Auckland. We are all excited to be invited to the next one in few years. Jeanenne

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