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. http://twrctank.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/Pearson-Radical-Middle.2001.pdf  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. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/eie.12125

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. https://doctorsam7.blog/2019/08/23/musings-of-a-workshop-teacher-advice-i-just-gave-to-some-1st-grade-teachers-in-houston-by-dr-sam-bommarito/

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.

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2 thoughts on “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

  1. Lee

    Thank you for this Dr. Sam. I join you in the “radical middle”. After 37 years of Reading Recovery work and Grade 1 teaching, I know one approach does not meet the needs of all beginning readers. I don’t want to complicate the matter further but the value of early writing to reading and how oral language development impacts reading seems to be neglected in the discussion. The links between letters and sounds can be taught effectively through writing and consideration of oral language as the basis for vocabulary and “how a book talks” is important in beginning reading. I’m sure it has been said before but no pre-packaged program can make up for teacher knowledge of reading/writing and the creative use of best practices to meet the needs of individuals. Maybe we need to look at teacher training? In Canada…..for sure!

    1. doctorsam7 Post author

      You said it all when you said: “no pre-packaged program can make up for teacher knowledge of reading/writing and the creative use of best practices to meet the needs of individuals.” Thanks for you comment!


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