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.

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3 thoughts on “The Reading Wars: Let’s talk not bicker. By Dr. Sam Bommarito

  1. DeGee Brown

    I am ready for the reading evolution!!
    I am also ready for everyone to work together and tell all those legislators, publishers and test-pushers to buzz off.

  2. Pingback: Deconstructing the “My Way or The Highway” Branch of the Science of Reading- A Centrist’s Perspective by Dr. Sam Bommarito | doctorsam7

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