History in the Making Part One: Reflections about What Research Really Says About Teaching Reading- and Why That Still Matters by Dr. Bommarito

History in the Making Part One: Reflections about What Research Really Says About Reaching Reading- and Why That Still Matters by Dr. Bommarito


Last Saturday, at the ILA Convention in New Orleans, there was a historic session about research in the field of reading. Panel members included P.D. Pearson, who created the model of gradual release and literally changed the face of reading comprehension in reading; Nell Duke, a no-nonsense, let the chips fall where they may reading researcher; Sonia Cabel from the Florida Center of Reading Research, a place that provides materials and research that are used widely throughout the literacy world  and Gwendolyn Thompson whose research focuses on identifying effective ways to negotiate the cultural borders between various learning environments,  including urban classrooms and the African American Church, homes.

The first blog entry on this topic will focus on some of the things Dr. Pearson had to say about research in reading and my reflections on them. Here are screen captures of the first slide entries to consider:

P.D. Rule 1


Some slides related to these two slides:





MY REFLECTIONS: I’ve reported in this blog on numerous occasions that SOME science of learning advocates try to pass off gains on decoding measures as gains of comprehension.  Whether it be the word lists of pseudowords that Pearson references, or test results using measures like the Dibels, the NRP made it quite clear that gains in decoding do not automatically result in gains in comprehension. That is why I recommend that district leaders look for the ability to produce multi-year gains in comprehension, as measured by comprehension tests, before adopting any materials or programs. This is true whether they come from SoR advocates or advocates of constructivist practices.

Pearson cites the 18 hours of phonemic awareness instruction the NRP indicates needed, to what actually goes on in some kindergarten classes. In previous blogs, I’ve talked about Dr. Tim Shanahan’s assessment of the two years of exclusive work in decodable books called for by some Science of Reading advocates is excessive and not supported by the research. Remember that time is a finite thing in classroom instruction and using more time than needed on one kind of instruction results in other forms of instruction suffering.  I must point out that later in this presentation Nell Duke did say that use decodable books was the educational practice most supported by current research. The crux of my comment is, let’s not overdo the use of them.



Slides related to rules 3 & 4



MY REFLECTIONS: As indicated in the screen captures Pearson says, “Experiments and RCT yes, but in any scientific endeavor, RCTs are the last 5% of the research journey. Behind is a lot more.” I can’t tell you how many times in my various conversations in cyberspace after bringing up various research results. I’ve been told that’s not a Random Sample design, so I’m going to discount it. It seems many Science of Reading folks are trained to give that response. In their minds any qualitative data is useless. I would point out that many qualitative studies, by using non-parametric statistics, can and do produce results that can be shown to beat chance. Close and personal Ethnography also has a place according to Pearson. As he says, “When you invite the research family to the policy table, you invite them all, even the cousins you’d rather not talk to.” My opinion is that limiting research so that only RCT designs are allowed cuts our research journey short and can result in stagnation rather than progress in the pursuit of reading  research. I’ll be using the ideas Dr. Pearson gave in this part of the presentation to respond next time someone takes the RTC only stance in one of my cyberspace conversations (Thanks David!!!).

The final two rules:




MY REFLECTIONS: The best (worst?) example of cherry-picking I can think of is Dykstra’s “punch you in the nose” video that many Science of Reading advocates find so enthralling.  Aside from the lack of professionalism demonstrated by his taking the “punch you in the nose” stance, there is a complete misrepresentation of the facts surrounding how the history of reading went. His version goes like this.  Whole language folks weren’t doing phonics. After it became clear phonics were necessary, they finally relented and adopted some weak forms of phonics that still don’t get the job done. This, of course, fits nicely in promoting the thought that his preferred form of instruction, direct intense synthetics phonics, should be adopted. It makes for a great public relations campaign and seems to have been widely picked up by the media. The problem is when you look at histories of reading found in books where the history of reading is written by folks with actual credentials in reading (Dykstra freely admits he has none), that this sequence of events is nowhere to be found.

First, whole language advocates have long embraced analytic phonics. I was present at the ILA Hall of Fame presentation in 1995, where Ken Goodman said exactly that. Second, analytic phonics is not a “weak sister” form of phonics. The NRP concluded long ago that systematic phonics works best. Tim Shanahan is fond of pointing our that the NRP said systematic (not synthetic). Both synthetic and analytic phonics were found to work if done systematically.  The almost total reliance on directly taught synthetic phonics that seems to be the cornerstone of the Science of Reading movement simply isn’t justified by the facts. Research indicates that there is a place, an important place, for analytic phonics.  This fact seems to have been completely lost in the most recent media coverage of the whole issue of how to teach reading. Pearson also points out that the original research on phonics was done in a setting that included much more than simply synthetic phonics. Again the recent media coverage seems to ignore most of these other things.

I also make the point that Science of Reading folks claim that Whole Language/Balanced Literacy (they incorrectly treat them as the same) has completely failed. They say this is so because what we are doing now isn’t working. I have no argument with the thought that what we are doing now isn’t working. However, what we are doing now includes districts that are doing WL and/or BL without fidelity to best practices in those approaches. It includes districts that have no real approach at all. It also includes districts that are using the practices advocated by Science of Reading folks. When I make that last point, I’m instantly told that I should draw a sample of just those districts and see how they are doing. Point taken. However, that means that before Science of Reading folks claim that Whole Language or Balanced Literacy (or my preferred term, districts using constructivist practices) have completely failed, they need to base that on a scientifically drawn sample of districts using those practices with fidelity. Because both WL and BL are umbrella terms, meaning different things to different people, I advocate for looking at the specific constructivist practices involved rather than using the umbrella terms. In any event, SoR folks must produce studies of districts based on a scientific sample of districts using such practices with fidelity and failing before claiming that those practices are failing. Given the results of things like the recent preliminary study of workshop teaching in New York (small N, but a larger study is in the works) and other similar studies, it is highly unlikely they will be able to make that case. Also- if they are going to act like their methods work with everyone, then they also need to produce studies that show their systematic phonics approach works with almost every child almost every time. I’m often told when demanding such proof that nothing works with almost every child every time. Point taken.  So SoR folks need to admit there are children who need something other than systematic synthetic phonics instruction to succeed. The needs of such children need to be addressed.  In my almost 50 years of teaching, I’ve encountered many such children (and successfully provided the needed alternative instruction).

COMING UP:  So far, I’ve only reported and reflected on what P.D. Pearson said.  In my upcoming blog entries, I will be talking about the ramifications of what was said by the rest of the panel. I will also explore the notion that, given the right conditions, we might be able to start a dialogue rather than a debate around these literacy issues. This fits in with Pearson’s idea of bringing everyone to the table. For readers unfamiliar with my call for a Reading Evolution #readingevolution1, here is a link to the blog where I first proposed that idea: https://doctorsam7.blog/2018/03/16/a-call-for-a-reading-evolution-no-its-not-typo-i-mean-evolution-by-dr-sam-bommarito/


Until next week, Happy Reading and Writing


Dr. Sam Bommarito

P.S. I want to give a GIANT shout out to the ILA for making this session (and many others) available on a live feed. I’ve been an ILA member since 1985 (back then it was called the IRA). I’ve been to many of the conventions, even presented at some, but I was unable to attend this one. Live streaming made it possible for me and others like me to see this event first-hand. So, THANK YOU ILA. I hope this becomes a permanent feature of future conventions. I also want to remind readers that while I am a member and an officer in my state’s ILA, the views expressed in the blog are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of the ILA or any other group. See my disclaimer below.

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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