Monthly Archives: November 2019

Have a look at the Missouri Reader: You’ll be happy you did! by Dr. Sam Bommarito

Have a look at the Missouri Reader: You’ll be happy you did!

by Dr. Sam Bommarito

Today I’m going to talk to you about The Missouri Reader and some of the wonderful free literacy resources you will find in it. As you know, I am the Co-Editor along with Glenda Nugent. We’ve been around for over 40 years. It started out as a “paper journal,” now we publish digitally. We have three issues each year. We are peer-reviewed, and our editorial board has many highly qualified people (see the sidebar on the Table of Contents). We publish many well-known experts in the reading field.  But we also encourage teachers to publish, especially action research, book reviews, and app reviews. The last page of each issue explains how to submit an article for review. We are an official publication of the Missouri Literacy Association. Missouri Literacy Association is an ILA affiliate.

I want to call attention to two issues for you to explore. The first is the poetry issue. It is our most-read issue of all time. It contains TONS of innovative ideas on how to use poetry. It was the brainchild of David Harrison, a famous author/poet in Missouri. He approached Glenda Nugent (my Co-Editor)  and me about the idea of a special issue dedicated especially to poetry. We’re so glad he did. Here is the link to that issue. Feel free to share it with other interested educators.

Poetry Issue


The other issue I’d like for you to read is our current issue. It is dedicated to Dr. Linda Dorn. There are several touching tributes to her work in literacy, in the In Memoriam article.  As always there are also articles on a variety of literacy topics.  I’ve already had the elementary professional development director for one large district write to tell me she was planning to share a couple of articles with her staff because she thought they would help to improve their already great program. The issue hasn’t even been out for 24 hours.  I think the issue is worth a look. Here is the link.


Next week Dr. Sam is taking a break for Thanksgiving. The week after, I hope to start talking about some fluency work I’m doing with 1st and 2nd graders with the help of a group of exceptionally talented teachers. Dr. Tim Rasinski came to see us last week because we are doing work based on his ideas on fluency. Tune in after Thanksgiving to hear all about it. Until then:

Happy Reading and Writing

Dr. Sam Bommarito (Co-Editor of an authentic teacher’s journal)

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.

The Reading Wars: Let’s talk not bicker. By Dr. Sam Bommarito

The Reading Wars: Let’s talk not bicker.

By Dr. Sam Bommarito

Recently an attempt was made to challenge my credibility. Here is a screen capture, so there is no question about what was said:


Here some facts:

From my Word Press Account:


I currently have 2,329 followers on Twitter. )(March 2022 update- approaching almost 4,000 twitter followers now).2023 update I now have over 6000 followers. Still No retraction or apology for the mistated information was ever made. On WordPress when I compare 2018 when I started blogging to 2019 (which isn’t complete yet), my number of views and number of visitors has more than tripled. Over 40,000 views this year so far. Sorry, I think most folks would characterize this as a large and growing following, I certainly do. Yet she said “his following is neither large or growing”.  2023 update- last year the blog saw 100,000 views. Guess that demonstrates very clearly that Karen and I tend to look at data very differently.  We’ll let readers decide who is more accurate in their interpretation of the preceding data. Let’s now explore the views Karen and I have.

She is firm in her position. I have been flexible in mine, modifying as I learn new things from “the other side.” Shanahan has had a major influence on my views. I told him that I don’t always agree with him, but I always learn from him.  On the question of whether or not I understand Karen’s views-  I don’t think disagreeing with her views is the same thing as not understanding them. I do agree with Karen that she really doesn’t understand what I have been saying.

Throughout the rest of the piece, I will be referring to “the video”. Here is what I am referring to:


The session was led by two of the top experts in the literacy field today, Nell Duke and P.D. Pearson. I strongly feel that what they and the panel had to say provide important information for all to consider before making major decisions about the future course literacy should take.

Below is a link to register. Registration is free to all. Once you register you can stream the video any time.


Let’s do now look at a sample of some of her points and some of my counterpoints for you to consider.

  1. She maintains constructivist practices (she calls it balanced literacy) don’t work. She bases that on the current scene in the teaching of reading. I’ve pointed out numerous times that the current literacy scene includes districts doing almost nothing, districts carrying out constructivist practices poorly (without fidelity), districts carrying them out with fidelity, districts using Science of Reading (hereafter SOR) poorly, Districts carrying out SOR with fidelity, etc.. You can’t make broad pronouncements about things from that kind of general sample. The only way to tell what’s working is to:


Multiple times, I’ve asked for such a sample giving DISTRICT level data, using full comprehension tests to demonstrate constructivist practices aren’t working. She’s provided lots and lots of data, none of which meet those criteria. I want to focus on the issue of how various programs play out when DISTRICTS actually implement them.  Not sure how to be any clearer than that on what I’m asking. It’s based on one of the fundamental tenets of scientific research.  Base your conclusions on scientific samples of places using what you are studying WITH FIDELITY.  I’m simply asking to include some science in the Science of Reading.

  1. She called for eliminating reading instruction and replacing it with content-area instruction. My counterproposal is to include substantial content area material in the reading instruction time. You can then teach students to apply the reading strategies needed to unpack the information from those texts. BTW I think it will take more than ten strategy lessons to do that (see my remarks below on Willingham’s work).
  2. She was critical of the amount of time being spent on teaching reading strategies. On this, we have a partial agreement. Many teachers spend most/all of their strategy instruction on teaching what the strategy is and not enough on applying the strategy. I agree with the position of Nell Duke (see the video). She indicates that there is a large body of research in favor of carrying out strategy instruction using gradual release, i.e. gives the student lots of opportunities to apply the strategy. I suggest you stop the instruction when you see the student can apply the strategy independently.  Overall Duke’s position is that a substantial amount of time is needed in strategy instruction using the gradual release model. For a more complete view of her work and P.D. Pearson’s look at this book chapter Based on Willingham’s work the other side calls for a substantially smaller amount of time for strategy instruction.
  3. Let’s explore the issue of Willingham’s research indicating the importance of building vocabulary knowledge and background. I have no argument with including substantial time on vocabulary and background. Vocabulary and background are important. That’s been a foundational point in all the reading courses I’ve taught over the years.

Some of the folks from the other side seem to be under the impression that Willingham’s work means after you spend a small number of sessions on strategies (10 or so), you’re done with strategies, and then you can spend the bulk of instructional time with building comprehension and vocabulary. That is counter to Duke’s findings. Among other things it does not include gradual release. I find stopping when the strategy is mastered a more precise cut off than the cut off of 10.  A careful examination of what Willingham actually demonstrated indicates “10 and out” is not what his research shows either. He actually calls for several cycles of strategy instruction. So it’s ten, then ten again later, etc. Also, take a careful look at the late Grant Wiggin’s criticisms of Willingham’s work before taking his work at face value.

I’m not saying to forget about building background and vocabulary. Building background and vocabulary is critical. I’m just saying doing so does not eliminate the need for a SUBSTANTIAL direct instruction on comprehension strategies using the gradual release model.

  1. Finally, there is the issue of whether or not implementing the cluster of practices the other side advocates (I’ll let their leadership tell you what those are) really helps. Specifically, will it help every student (almost every student) every time? When I’ve asked folks for evidence to that effect, they usually say there is not a program that helps almost every single child almost every single time. I agree.  My next point is based on that. It is critical:

If it doesn’t work for every kid every time, then what are you doing for the kids for whom it doesn’t work?

For instance, what are you doing for word callers (see Cartwright’s book)?  Why aren’t you using analytic phonics?  Shanahan, the NRP, and numerous studies indicate that both systematic analytic phonics and synthetic phonics work. When I raise that point, I normally get tons of questions indicating some SoR proponents don’t believe systematic phonics exist. If that’s the case where did the NRP studies that Shanahan cites come from? Sorry, systematic analytic phonics exists. Check out the studies to see what it looks like.  Finally, how long is long enough for decodable books? Shanahan reports some SoR folks calling for two years or more. He finds that call ridiculous. I concur.  Just today he had this to say about decodables “…—This is fascinating. You are correct that each time a youngster guesses a word from context instead of looking at the combination of letters in the word, he/she is missing an opportunity to learn the statistical properties of the orthographic system. However, it makes no sense to try to solve that problem by altering the statistical properties of the language (which, of course, is what we do when we try to limit children’s access to text to “decodable” text). If we want kids to learn from the statistical properties of English, it makes little sense to expose them to a form of English that has little correspondence to the statistical properties of English. I think that is why no one has found a clear learning advantage from text decodability alone.”  My question- what is a good range for how long to use decodables and should they be used exclusively in that initial Instruction?

Another issue is what is a reasonable amount of time to spend on phonics instruction.  In the video, P.D. Pearson makes the point that the time being used for phonics instruction exceeds the time research indicates is needed. He also notes that the research finding that phonics instruction does not help older readers has been ignored.

I don’t want to come off as saying there aren’t already points of agreement. I agree with Shanahan and folks from the other side that MUCH more phonics instruction time is needed (some teachers are saying they do it and then don’t).  Preservice teacher education courses need to include a strong phonics component.  Practicing teachers need more PD, especially those who earned their degrees when teaching phonics was viewed as unnecessary.  However, given the research around analytic and synthetic phonics (and other forms of phonics), training teachers in just one form of phonics is unacceptable. The contention being made by some SoR proponents, that analytic phonics is a weak sister form of phonics, is simply not supported by the research.

Perhaps I really am at an impasse with some folks on the other side. My perception is they are not taking the challenges to their position seriously.  They seem to be taking a “my way or the highway stand”, forcing their position on everyone, even those who have reasonable questions about implementing what they propose, questions that haven’t been answered yet.  Before making the decision that they are completely right, please do view the live stream of the ILA session. Lots of relevant information there.  Then go to the library of a university with a reading program and look up the current copy of the Handbook of Reading. Read what it says about phonics and comprehension.

In sum, before deciding, look at ALL the research first.

In the meantime, I have found several folks from the SoR side who are willing to dialogue and not bicker. For the moment that is where I will focus my attention. It is my sincere hope that the dialogue will eventually eliminate the need for the term “the other side”.

In the long run, I really do hope to spark a #readingevolution.

For that to happen both sides have first to admit their positions have limitations.

Once all sides are willing to do that, bickering can be replaced with dialogue. It’s been almost two years since I made this post. Please do read it one last time and see whether or not you’d like to be a part of a reading evolution #readingevolution1. Perhaps there actually will come a day when there aren’t sides anymore.  Dare to dream.


Thanks for listening. Lot’s to unpack here!

Dr. Sam Bommarito

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.

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

This final installment advocates for the direct, explicit, systematic teaching of comprehension strategies

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

For the past few weeks, I’ve talked about what Pearson, Duke, and the rest of the panel had to say in the historic session on reading research that was conducted at the ILA convention in New Orleans last month. We will now turn to what was said about comprehension. Once again, no slides to fall back on, but I still highly recommend that you review the thorough summary of the whole program found on the ILA website.

In the description that follows, I’ll be using these highlights, my personal notes from the session (I watched it as it was streamed live), and my review of the session from also watching the archive feed that was available for a time on the ILA website.

The ILA recap reports the following:

Tackling Reading Comprehension

There is a large body of research supporting the explicit teaching of comprehension strategies using a gradual release of responsibility model, said Duke. There’s no doubt about its importance.

“It’s as though because we think content knowledge building is so important, we’re just going to ignore three decades of research on comprehensive strategy instruction,” said Duke. “This isn’t a zero-sum game saying, ‘if you can’t attend to content, then you can’t teach comprehension strategies’ or ‘if you teach comprehension strategies, you must not be paying enough attention to vocabulary or morphology.’”

There is also concern that the literacy field is usurping content instruction in school districts. Meaning, literacy is dominating the day with some programs having curricula addressing social studies and science standards. This leaves districts feeling as if teaching both subjects are optional. This is deeply problematic, said Duke. Literacy practitioners should be advocating for science and social studies instruction.

“For too long, literacy has been a bully and pushed science and social studies off of the stage,” Pearson said in his final comments. “Literacy should be a buddy, not a bully, for science and social studies.”


MY REFLECTIONS: I want to address the issue of literacy pushing science and social studies off the stage.  From 1970 to 1977 I was a high school social studies teacher (minus the two years I spent in the Army- drafted, ended up a Sergeant E-5, but did not serve in a combat role). As a former social studies teacher, I am genuinely concerned that we spend enough time on the content areas. As a reading specialist/ reading staff developer I am equally concerned that we spend enough time in reading to assure, especially when students read in those content area readings, that they learn all the reading strategies needed to be successful. After my return from the service, I taught the Content Area Reading course for over a decade as an adjunct. The texts I used, various editions of Vacca and Vacca’s Content Area Reading, are a rich source of such strategies. There are others.

I think there is a have your cake and eat it too solution to the conundrum of having time enough for both reading strategies and work in the content area. I just did an in-service this summer for teachers in Houston, where I recommended that they implement a full guided reading program, not just the small group part of guided reading that many places call “guided reading.” Look at the chart in the F & P book and my post about that visit to see what I mean.

One of the things that should happen if one does a full guided reading program is that teachers always do read aloud/think alouds in advance of the small group work, laying the groundwork for having the students try out strategies. That idea was partly inspired by the thinking of Burkins & Yaris in their book, Who’s Doing the Work?  My addition to Burkins and Yaris’s idea is the thought that the read-alouds/think alouds should include a significant number of readings from the content areas. If we did it that way significant time would be spent concurrently on both things. Right now, my “go-to” person for think alouds is Molly Ness. She was mentioned by name as members of the panel talked about the worth of the sessions on think alouds she did at the convention. Overall, I think the path of including significant amounts of content-area readings as part of the reading program is much better than the advice being offered by some that we drop the reading strategies instruction and replace it with content-area instruction and vocabulary development.

Here are some highlights about Duke’s ideas around comprehension; these are taken from one of the resources she shared at the presentation.  It outlines what she feels is needed to get students reading by third grade



She then shares Box 1, which explains all the “range of knowledge, skills, and dispositions” a student needs to perform well on the state tests. Since the tests are designed to fully measure comprehension, it is also a list of the requirements for being a reader who can make meaning from what is read.


My reflections: There currently seems to be a movement afoot that holds comprehension concerns can be fully met by simply providing more background and vocabulary instruction/information to students. Please study Duke’s comments carefully. It takes much more than simply providing additional background and vocabulary instruction to give students what they need to perform well on state tests.  The tests are designed to assess whether or not students can read (not simply decode). Abandon teaching reading strategies, facilitating reading attitudes, comprehension monitoring, et al. at your own risk. I’ll reinforce this observation with an excerpt from another of Duke’s documents. During the presentation, Duke mentioned that significant numbers of students scoring low on state tests reading did so because of comprehension problems and said that their decoding was fine.


(Nell Duke is with the University of Michigan. The above screen capture is from the current online transcript of her video and it says Michigan State. See video for correct information)

There is a large body of evidence that spans a couple of decades demonstrating that the direct teaching of reading strategies is crucial. It is true that some teachers fail to heed the advice to “then give students lots of opportunities to practice specific reading strategies” and instead spend too much time teaching the strategy and not enough time on applying it.  That is an easily corrected problem and in no way justifies abandoning or ignoring the direct, explicit teaching of reading strategies. This is an element that is missing from many of the current approaches to comprehension being proposed by some proponents of the Science of Reading.

My advice to district administrators is to seek out programs that FULLY prepare students to do what they need to do to develop reading comprehension. Administrators should ask that before any program is adopted provides longitudinal data showing improvement in comprehension over more than one year. Improvement should be measured by FULL tests of comprehension, i.e. tests that include reading passages, questions, and writing performance. Lesser tests may do for pilots etc. But when the time comes to spend thousands (millions) on programs, I ask that administrators be sure that these programs use testing instruments that meet this gold standard. Programs that do not include the explicit systematic teaching of comprehension strategies are unlikely to provide students the array of abilities they need to comprehend what they read. At the end of the day, reading is and should be treated as a process of meaning-making.

That concludes my report on what was said at the historic session and my take on what the information reported means. In the next few weeks, I will begin reporting on what some teachers are doing vis a vis phonics instruction and fluency and look for possible points of agreement among the current views on reading. I’ll also be reporting on some very promising work my team and I are doing in the area of developing fluency using practices inspired by Dr. Tim Rasinski, a well-known expert in the area of fluency. Tim came to visit our site this week. Everyone was VERY excited. You can expect to hear all about it in future posts.

Happy Reading and Writing.

Dr. Sam Bommarito

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.

Word Callers: The forgotten children of the great debate in reading by Dr. Sam Bommarito

Word Callers: The forgotten children of the great debate in reading by Dr. Sam Bommarito

Last week I talked about the early childhood aspects of the historic ILA session led by P.D. Pearson and Nell Duke. This week I had intended to wrap things up, focusing on the issues surrounding comprehension. I’m postponing that until next week because of some new information about word callers that I found.  It came from one of the informational pieces Nell Duke provided. I thought it was important enough to rate its own blog entry.

Regular readers of the blog know that I often try to call attention to the needs of all readers, not just those who need intense, direct, systematic phonics. You see, there are some readers for whom an intense, direct instruction synthetic phonics approach doesn’t work. They exist. I know they exist because just this morning, on a readings coach’s Facebook site, teachers were talking about such a student.  I know they exist because, over the years, I’ve had first-hand experience with some. I also know they exist because Simple View of Reading folks have never produced the “works with almost all the children almost all the time” study. (In fairness, neither have the constructivists!).

Today I want to turn my attention to another group of children whose needs are sometimes neglected and ignored. Word Callers. I know they exist. Back in the day, I worked with them in all my Title One programs.  However, when I blogged about them Science of Reading advocates were quick to discount what I had to say in those entries. They claimed I was raising a red herring, that Word Callers didn’t exist in large numbers (they only look at the ones resulting from Hyperlexia, so their count is very low), and that they couldn’t be created by programs that overemphasized decoding.

On the other hand, my own direct experience was giving me information contrary to what the Science of Reading folks were claiming. I am active in several different literacy organizations. I often talk to literacy leaders from different districts in my area. Some of them reported that they felt that, in their districts, word callers were the most significant issue. Far more of them than students who couldn’t break the code. That demonstrates that, in these places, progress is being made in teaching decoding. Frequently these were districts in which overall test scores were well above average. In the research process outlined by P.D. Pearson, when observations like that come up, it means it’s time to do some research and/or find some relevant research. Boy did I ever find some relevant research.

I found it in the article, Reading by Third Grade: How Policymakers Can Foster Early Literacy.



Here’s the highlight of what was said in Nell Duke’s handout that really caught my attention:


Not only do word callers exist, but they account for a significant (my emphasis) number of those who struggle on state tests of reading. This squares perfectly with what my literacy leader friends were finding in their districts. It is very difficult to see how the simple view of reading’s current practices on how to handle comprehension can possibly provide for what these children need. Much more on that point next week.


For the moment, let’s just say these children need direct intense work in comprehension. For readers who want to read more about some research-informed things that can be done to help these students see Word Callers by Kelly B. Cartwright. Nell Duke is the editor. It is informed by research. There are 16 pages of citations at the end, from peer-reviewed journals. In personal correspondence, the author, Kelly B. Cartwright offered to provide additional research as well. The book is readily available from any number of on-line sources. It has already become one of my go-to professional books. I now keep a copy on my desk.

Next week I will return to my series about the ILA presentation. In part 3, I will address what was said about comprehension. I will discuss why comprehension, especially comprehension at the level required by state tests in reading, is not something kids can learn “naturally.” There must be direct and systematic teaching of the things needed for that level of comprehension to occur. Until then,

Happy Reading and Writing

Dr. Sam Bommarito (trying to find ways to meet the needs of ALL students in literacy)

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.