A look at the science of reading movement through the eyes of the radical middle (a term coined by PD. Pearson) by Dr. Sam Bommarito


A look at the science of reading movement through the eyes of the radical middle (a term coined by PD. Pearson) by Dr. Sam Bommarito


For readers unfamiliar with the term radical middle it was created by P David Pearson, who is best known as the creator of the idea of the gradual release of responsibility. To see exactly what Dr. Pearson has to say about the radical middle use this link http://twrctank.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/Pearson-Radical-Middle.2001.pdf.  Part of what he has to say is this “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.”  This idea dovetails nicely with an analysis I did of why the reading wars persist, see my blog from a year ago on the call for a reading evolution. So, in spite of proclamations that they could/should be over they clearly are not.

I want to speak directly to points currently being made by some advocates of the Science of Reading (SoR) claiming that since balanced reading his failed, and since the science of reading techniques have been proven so effective that it is time for advocates of balanced literacy to acknowledge that their day has passed, that their methods are ineffective, and they need to move on to a new and better way of teaching reading. There is a fundamental problem to that assertation. The logic goes like this. Current practices are not successful. Since balanced literacy is the most prevalent form of those practices, it follows that balanced literacy has not succeeded. For the purposes of this blog entry, I am taking the point of view that since balanced literacy is based on constructivist practices, and since there is no real consensus on what constitutes a well-done program of balanced literacy, that I will instead focus on effective constructivist practices.

There is considerable evidence that there are successful programs that use constructivist practices. SoR advocates say that because some children can and do learn regardless of what method is used that the success of constructivist practices (including balanced literacy programs) can be explained using this phenomenon. Nonsense. There are too many instances in which constructivist practices work for this to be the actual explanation.  Some constructivists may be lucky, but not that lucky! The actual explanation lies in the fact that the science of learning advocates failed to follow one of the time-honored practices of scientific research. That is, when evaluating a practice, one must draw a scientific sample of programs using practices with fidelity and then seeing what the results from that sample demonstrate. Otherwise what you’re looking at is a sample of programs not using constructivist practices at all, or using them poorly, or even some programs that are using SoR techniques. Normally when I make that last point, I get immediate response for SoR advocates saying that you have to look at the success of those SoR programs, you have to draw a sample. Exactly. Until and unless you do that same thing for constructivist practices from programs using constructivist practices with fidelity, the claim that constructivist practices have failed is unsubstantiated. I can begin by adding three different Title I programs I was involved in in the mid-1980s won national awards because the reading achievement improvement in each of those three was better than 99.8% of all program gains for Title 1 programs nationally. I call the results from programs like this the bumblebee effect.  According to some theories, the bumblebee cannot possibly fly. Yet it does. Likewise, the three programs I just cited should not have yielded exceptionally positive results. Yet they did. This really calls into question the degree to which the postings around how wrong these constructivist based practices are, really has any merit.

There has been an attempt to rewrite the history of reading. The scenario goes like this- constructivists were not doing enough phonics. When faced with that fact they gradually added analytic phonics to their programs, and this was too little too late. Interesting that when one looks at the history of literacy instruction written by individuals with strong credentials in reading no such event is recorded. See An Essential History of Current Reading Practices by Mary Jo Fresch.

In the SoR scenario Analytic phonics, which is often favored by constructivists, is touted as a weaker ineffective form of phonics instruction. The problem is a meta-analysis of the two methods show them to be equally effective. There are also attempts to prove that strong code-based approaches produce almost miraculous gains in reading achievement. The problem is the studies making those claims do not use a measure of reading comprehension. Instead, they use a test of decoding called the Dibels. Indeed, many of the studies do show a significant gain in decoding skills. Advocates act as if such gains automatically result in comprehension gains. Yet beginning with the National Reading Panel results, there is clear evidence indicating that gains in decoding ability do not automatically translate into gains in comprehension. It is a buyer beware situation. District decision-makers are cautioned to demand evidence of comprehension gains using instruments designed to specifically check for comprehension before adopting programs whether they be SoR or constructivist.

Where does that leave us? Here are some points to ponder.

Point to ponder one– I need to acknowledge that some of the things the SoR advocates are saying are actually quite accurate. For instance, the state of training preservice teachers in the teaching of decoding skills is not anywhere near where we want it. It does need to be improved and I blogged around this point before. Word of caution, I’m advocating including knowledge and providing materials around all ways of decoding, including both synthetic and analytic phonics.

Point to ponder two- a point made by Timothy Shanahan is that we are not doing enough teaching of decoding skills. This is a charge that needs to be taken quite seriously. In the past year, there’ve been some important developments in some of the constructivist-based approaches. Both Calkins and Fountas and Pinnell have added a phonics program to their programs. I had a chance to look over the Fountas and Pinnell program when I did in-servicing in Houston. It is a robust program and includes a strong orthographic component

Point to ponder three– The needs of students with a diagnosis of dyslexia are not being properly addressed. I have acknowledged any number of times that analytic phonics, which is often favored by constructivists, is not only ineffective for dyslexic children but has actually been shown to be harmful. A lesser-known fact is that the same thing can be said for some children when it comes to the use of the intense synthetic phonics programs. The social media abounds with anecdotal evidence to this effect. Since a single observation is enough to call a theory into question, this anecdotal evidence is sufficient for the moment to call into question the practice of using systematic synthetic phonics with every single child. My blogging partner, Dr. Kerns is currently researching the literature around this point.

Point to ponder four is that it is hard to understand how some of the current claims around the nature and prevalence of Dyslexia can be made.  This is from Shanahan’s blog

“But NRP found no statistically significant difference between synthetic phonics (teaching each orthographic/phonemic element and how to blend these together) and analytic phonics (teaching larger spelling units including syllables and rimes, or word analogies). Proponents of each get pretty heated, despite the fact that there is no evidence that their way is the only way or the best way to help kids to become readers.

The PBS report showed some video of kids being taught phonics by a multisensory approach (involving tactile-kinesthetic responses). Again, such approaches have fervent proponents, but not research evidence that has shown them to be better than any other approaches (nor any worse, I might add).

The best statement about quality phonics instruction that I’ve found is from the International Dyslexia Association. They don’t endorse any particular phonics product, but their instructional principles concerning structured phonics instruction are impeccable and sensible and, until we gain more empirical evidence, I think they should be the standard:


A look at that document yields the following statements:

  • Different kinds of reading and writing difficulties require different approaches to instruction. One program or approach will not meet the needs of all students.


  • Researchers are finding that those individuals with a reading specialist and special education licenses often know no more about research‐based, effective practices than those individuals with a general education teaching license. The majority of practitioners at all levels have not been prepared in sufficient depth to recognize the early signs of risk, to prevent reading problems, or to teach students with dyslexia and related learning difficulties successfully.

In addition, the problem around a proper screen for dyslexia is a large one.

In his Feb. 15th blog Shanahan has this to say:

“Meanwhile, if I were a kindergarten teacher I’d screen my students early in the year to see what they knew about reading…particularly examining their knowledge of letter names and sounds, their phonological awareness, and awareness of print features (the kinds of skills that Kilpatrick describes). My focus would be on knowledge of literacy rather than on underlying causes or correlates. Although Ozernov-Palchik and Gabrieli and Catts and Petscher’s insights are exciting and hopeful, they are not yet user-ready.”

My take on this- current screens for Dyslexia are “not yet ready for prime time”. It is hard to understand how pronouncements about the prevalence of Dyslexia can be taken seriously until a widely accepted screening device is developed.


A final look at things from the “Radical Middle”

Let’s revisit Dr. Pearson’s statement about the radical middle. “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.”

I’ve made the point on multiple occasions that when asked to provide the “near 100%” study (a study demonstrating that science of learning approaches work with nearly 100% of all children) the SoR advocates have never been able to provide such a study. Several of them have admitted that it doesn’t work with everyone. In fairness, the very same point can be made for constructivist-based instruction. This brings us to the root of the quandary. It is a very simple proposition. Not all children learn the same. What works with one does not necessarily work with another. Even the statement from the Dyslexia organization agrees with that.

What I suggested in my reading evolution post was that we look into each of the approaches to learn what works when. At the end of the day armed with this information, it might very well be possible to put together a program at the district level that meets the needs of almost all the children. In the meantime, it makes no sense to abandon constructivist processes that are working. It does make sense to include intensive systematic synthetic phonics as A solution, not THE solution.

Part of my reason for getting involved in this current iteration of the great debate was because at a prominent social media site where very large numbers of practicing teachers gather, some of them were complaining that they were forced to actually throw away materials that worked for them and take on a boxed intense phonics program which they were not sure would actually raise reading comprehension scores. That is wrong on so many levels.

A final thought: Finding the ultimate roots of the great debate

Some folks writing around this topic have traced the roots of the great debate back several centuries. I want to submit that the roots go back even further than that. The roots are- Direct instruction (Science of Reading) vs Inquiry-based methods (Constructivism).  Ultimately it goes back to Aristotle (direct instruction) vs Socrates (inquiry).  I’ll add to this a firm reminder that in the current global economy we need students who can thrive using inquiry-based approaches. I seriously question whether that can be provided in a teaching environment that is exclusively direct instruction.

These two approaches have been around for a couple of millenniums. Neither has ever been supplanted by the other. Like Dr. Pearson, I speculate that there must be a higher order level of analysis in which both of these points of views can be reconciled. Until and unless that reconciliation occurs, we are effectively stuck in the middle. We need to pay attention to what all sides are saying and learn from what all sides are doing. It is time for a reading evolution. https://doctorsam7.blog/2018/03/16/a-call-for-a-reading-evolution-no-its-not-typo-i-mean-evolution-by-dr-sam-bommarito/ #readingevolution1

Let’s stop debating and let’s start dialoguing.


Dr. Sam Bommarito (aka, the guy in the middle still taking flak from all sides)

My blogs around the reading wars:




Also see Mary Howard:



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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7 thoughts on “A look at the science of reading movement through the eyes of the radical middle (a term coined by PD. Pearson) by Dr. Sam Bommarito

  1. leadershipsoup

    Thank you for publishing this blog and adding to the discourse! Like you, I see value in a strong and systematic phonics program for children learning to read, but as a former special education teacher and a current school superintendent, I know it’s not the only answer. One size does not fit all.

    I also have personal experience and struggle to back up my stance. I was taught to read using an explicitly taught phonics approach. My mother was my first grade reading teacher and she sang the praises of explicit phonics instruction. I was a fabulous decoder and speller. I made it to the county spelling bee in eighth grade and placed third. But I couldn’t read a lick. That is, I was doing all the right things with text, sans understanding it.

    I was the student who got caught up in the patterns of letters and sounds (still sometimes do). I would become fascinated by the way certain words looked, or the way they rolled off the tongue. I also had an issue with words and letters dancing on the page, and my hyper-focus on their correct order and sequence left me struggling to read to learn. In 10th grade, I was reading at the 5th grade level on the ITBS. I knew something had to be done.

    It took 6 or so years of ‘unlearning’ old habits in order to really start reading text in a way that helped me succeed through grad school. I was lucky to get in with the undergrad experience I had.

    Point is, too much of one thing can be harmful. We have to do things that make sense for children. We must be compelled to look at them as individuals with unique needs and determine a plan that is best. We also must courageously adjust course as we see students begin to struggle and/or become complacent. The real job of the reading instructor is to know their students deeply, know reading methodology deeply, choose methods of reading instruction that work for each student, and help each student stay in the Goldilocks zone of learning.

    Empowering teachers with knowledge and information is key so they can be the professional decision-makers in the classroom we need them to be. Yes. Teach them the science of reading. And teach them also to be a skeptic.

    1. doctorsam7 Post author

      Very well said!!! Especially the parts about to much of one thing being harmful and empowering teachers

  2. DeGee Brown

    Well trained teachers who know their students’ needs are the real key. Add to that, letting them have access to various materials and on-going professional learning with support and all the students should be able to succeed.
    Let the evolution begin!!!

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