It’s time to start looking at ALL the ways to teach beginning reading: There is no one size fits all solution by Dr. Sam Bommarito


It’s time to start looking at ALL the ways to teach beginning reading: There is no one size fits all solution by Doctor Sam Bommarito

I’ll begin by calling attention to a recent blog by Tim Shanahan

Note the three forms of text named in the title.  Here are some highlights from that entry:

“The role of text in reading instruction has always been a big instructional question for parents and teachers—but it has not drawn the same kind of research interest as many other issues.

Nevertheless, the research does provide clues and it suggests that kids are likely to be best off in classrooms that provide them with a mix of these text types rather than a steady diet of any one of them—nor do I see the progression through these as developmental, with kids graduating from one kind of simplified text to another.

He goes on to say:

Personally—based on my own experiences as a primary grade teacher—I would use all of these kinds of text. My thinking then, and my thinking now, is that the way to prevent someone from being hurt by over dependence on a crutch is to employ a variety of crutches; deriving the benefits of each, while trying to minimize potential damages.

It is very reasonable to employ decodable texts. It gives kids a chance to practice their phonics in a favorable text environment—an environment in which there aren’t likely to be many words that can’t be figured out easily.

But those “experts” who claim that kids should only read such texts for some length of time (e.g., 2-3 years) are just making that stuff up (bolding is mine). Research is not particularly supportive of such an artificial text regime (Adams, 2009; Jenkins, et al., 2004; Levin, Baum & Bostwick, 1963; Levin & Watson, 1963; Price-Mohr & Price, 2018). “Teaching children to expect one-to-one consistent mapping of letters to sounds is not an effective way to promote transfer to decoding at later stages in learning to read” (Gibson & Levin, 1975, p. 7).”


So that is what Shanahan had to say on the topic. Overall, he makes it clear that all the forms have limits and limitations, including those based on the views of some proponents of the Science of Reading.

What follows are MY reactions to and reflections on what he said.  The “radical middle” point of view I used in earlier blogs has relevance here. I’ve talked about this before. P.D. Pearson, who is credited with creating the gradual release model, coined the term. Here is what he says:

“Even though I find both debates interesting and professionally useful, I fear the ultimate outcome of both, if they continue unbridled by saner heads, will be a victory for one side or another.  That, in my view, would be a disastrous outcome, either for reading pedagogy or educational research. A more flattering way to express this same position is to say that I have always aspired to the Greek ideal of moderation in all things or to the oriental notion that every idea entails its opposite. Neither statement would be untrue, but either would fail to capture the enchantment I experience in embracing contradiction.

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. (bolding is mine)


My take is that since no one approach has all the answers since no one approach works with every kid every time, you must draw from and learn from each of the approaches. For instance, you should use all three kinds of books in your lessons. You should get people from each approach to talk with one another, learn from one another. That is the essence of my idea of a reading evolution #readingevolution1.


There is a problem in that SOME advocates of Science of Reading are acting as if they have a method that works with every kid every time. They post information touting the power of systematic synthetic phonics.  They criticize anyone not using this method. An exemplary example of such a post is the famous Tsunami of Change post. It indicates what we currently do is ineffective and must go and be replaced. No one would argue with the thought that what is currently happening is ineffective. However, I must respectfully point out that SoL advocates taking this point of view have ignored one of the key tenets of scientific methodology. Simply put, if you are going to attempt to demonstrate a particular method doesn’t work, then you must take a scientific sample of folks using the method WITH FIDELITY.  Then report the results. Have they done that?  NO. They base their argument for change on everything going on currently. That includes districts that say they are using balanced literacy but actually don’t ( I prefer to talk about constructivist literacy practices, more easily defined and measured). It also includes districts using no effective methods at all. It even includes districts using SoL methods. When I make this last point, SoL advocates are quick to point out that to properly evaluate SoL, one must look at a sample of districts using SoL with fidelity. No argument there. BUT- that means we must do the same for balanced literacy (because BL is an umbrella term, hard to define, I recommend looking at selected constructivist-based methods). Until and unless that is done the current argument to get rid of everything is simply not justified.


Is there evidence that there are things out there, other than intense systematic synthetic phonics that are working? I always point out I had three different Title 1 projects I participated in in the mid-80s that won awards for being in the top 1/10 of one percent in achievement gains for projects of that era. Also, there is abundant research that demonstrates analytic phonics is the equal of synthetic phonics. Have the intense synthetic projects folks given us data that demonstrates their way works with almost every kid every time?  I issued a challenge about that.


No one has sent a link to research demonstrating that intense synthetic phonics works with almost every kid almost every time. Some SoL folks said I was being unreasonable because everyone knows such research doesn’t exist. My point exactly.

Am I saying there isn’t a place for intense systematic phonics? No, quite the contrary. I recommend trying synthetic phonics first (my blogging partner disagrees).  What I am saying is exactly what folks in the radical middle have been saying for a couple of decades. No one method works for every kid every time. That is most definitely a research-based statement.

For my thinking about what to do about this, please see the blog entry listed below. Be sure to check out all the blog entries cited at the end of this entry. They include my counter to the Tsunami of Change post

In the meantime, what should district-level decision-makers do? First and foremost, ask that any program being considered demonstrates reading comprehension gains (note I did not say decoding gains). If you’re spending thousands (millions) on materials make sure the test they evaluate them with match the content of the tests being used in most state tests. Nell Duke had an excellent post about what that content includes. Ask that the program demonstrates those gains over several years. It’s a buyer beware situation when looking at programs that can only demonstrate decoding gains. Beginning with the NRP, we’ve known that the jump from decoding gains to comprehension gains is not automatic.


One of the more unique hats I’ve worn over the years is that of alderman in a small town. The mayor of that town was a colorful character, and he had a folksy down to earth way of saying things. One of the things he used to say is “If it aint’ broke, don’t fix it”.  Let’s not throw out methods that work and trade them for methods that work for some and not all. Let’s do learn from all the methods. It really is time for the #readingevolution1.


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


P.S. for regular readers of this blog starting next week I will be doing interviews of authors who have written about various literacy topics. This entry closes out my entries around the reading wars, at least for a while.

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.

3 thoughts on “It’s time to start looking at ALL the ways to teach beginning reading: There is no one size fits all solution by Dr. Sam Bommarito

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