Monthly Archives: January 2020

Fluency part one: Using wide reading and analogical phonics to help beginning readers by Dr. Sam Bommarito

Readers: Last week, we had some family issues because of the heavy rains and flooding basements. Those are now resolved.  I am resuming the regular blog entries this week. For a variety of reasons, my “usual” day to post will now be Saturday.  Thanks for your patience!  Dr. Sam

Fluency part one: Using wide reading and analogical phonics to help beginning readers by Dr. Sam Bommarito

Those of you who are regular readers of this blog know that I devote one day a week to going to a K-8 elementary school. I push into grades 1-2 with a fluency plus program, I work with 3rd grade in implementing a writing workshop, and I tutor some students individually. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be talking about the things I am doing and why I am doing them. Let’s begin with the students I work with individually. They are in grades K-2 and are the students who have the greatest need.

What I do:

My goal is to get my very beginning readers started in the process of figuring out words for themselves and developing the skills need to make meaning from simple text. This, of course, involves beginning the process of developing the kind of sight word vocabulary these readers need. The single most effective way of developing a student’s sight word vocabulary is for the student to do wide reading. Yet, when readers are at the very beginning stages, they can’t do wide reading, because they can’t read at all. What can be done about this conundrum? Is there a way for the very beginning readers to do wide reading? I think I have found one. The rest of this blog is devoted to telling you how I accomplish that.

The Beginning:

Frequently I am asked to work with K-1 students who do not know any of their letters or letter sounds.  They are well behind their peers on the development of this important aspect of reading. In addition, they often had no concept of word. Given these circumstances, what often happens is that when presented with the little books, RR Level 1-2, they simply memorize the whole book.  Teachers mistake their ability to recite a memorized book as a form of reading. It is not. What are some teaching moves to try in this situation?

I begin by applying some things I often used in roaming around the known in Reading Recovery. For children in this situation, the first word I try to teach them is their own name. Let me tell you about Susan (Susan is real, the name is a pseudonym). I began by teaching Susan to sing a song about her name (sung to the tune of BINGO). Her song went like this:

“There was a girl with a lovely name and Susan was her name:

S   U SAN      S U SAN  SU SAN and SUSAN was her name.

After she learned to sing the song, we began using magnetic letters. We used an upper case for the S and then lower case for the rest. We sang the song, at first pointing to the letters. Then we began making and breaking the name using the letters.  We had both an alphabet sheet with all the letters on it, with pictures for each of the letter. We also had a dictionary, using the very same pictures as the alphabet sheet.  Soon she was able to make and break her own name and could tell me both the name, sound, and picture for all the letters in her name.  Susan had just learned her first word! That word, of course, was Susan.

Now I began writing simple phrases for her, both on paper and a small whiteboard.  Susan sees a ball. Susan sees a bat. (she like baseball by the way). I knew that in the past, she had been doing a pseudo reading (reciting a whole book at a time).  I was about to take advantage of that ability to memorize a whole book. First, I tried to convince her that memorizing a whole book was not really a good idea. I showed her a Harry Potter book. I asked her if she thought anyone could memorize that whole book at once. Of course not!!!!! I told her that memorize whole books was not what to do.  We learned a little chant:

“Make it match, don’t make it up, that is what to do.

Make it match don’t make it up; you’ll read your story true.”

Making it match means that as you read, you read each word that is there, no more, no less. If you see five words, say five words. If you see three words, say three words. I began asking her to point to the start of each word in the written phases as she read. Whenever the words in the phrase had letters that were not in her name, we learned the name/picture/sound of the new letters. I used the alphabet sheet and word dictionary to help keep track of these new letters.

After she read a phrase, e.g., “Susan sees a ball,” I asked her to show me “Susan,” show me “ball,” show me “a.”  I also began having her make and break each of those words, using magnetic letters and a small board. I formed those words on the board; I pointed out to her the importance of leaving a finger space between each word. This further developed the idea of each word a distinct group of letters. Eventually, she was able to make and break the whole phrase at once, properly spacing between the words.

Sometimes, we sounded out the words as we put them together.  Then we read the word a whole unit. By the way, Susan would take home both the papers with the phrases and she had her on magnetic board at home. Her parents helped her practice what she was learning in each session. I asked them to keep that short and playful.  She even learned to put down the magnetic letters as she sang the song about her name.


What next?

Before moving on, let’s get some quick background on sight words vs. high-frequency words and learn how they are the same and how they are different.  First, know that mature readers read mainly by sight. They know the words they read instantly, no need to sound them out.  By 6th grade, most readers have a sight word vocabulary that numbers in the thousands. However, not all those sight words are high-frequency words.  The two best known high-frequency Word Lists are the Dolch and the Fry.  Dolch developed his list in the 1930s and ’40s. The Fry list was developed in the 1950s. What both lists have in common is this- the words on them make up at least 70% or more of all the words kids ever need to read. Educators quickly saw the value of having the very beginning readers learn these words early on.

A whole movement developed- known as the sight say movement. Teach the Dolch words by heart. That way the students would know most of the words they need to read. Great idea. But it didn’t work, as the First Grade Studies and other research has documented. Why not? Simply put, the only word strategy the student learned was to memorize the words they need. It worked well on the very short and simple beginning reading texts of the day. However, as soon as the readers got into other longer, more complex text, with more variety in words in the text, they had no effective strategies for working out the thousands of new words they would meet each year. There was no possibility they could memorize thousands of new words each year. It became apparent to most educators that beginning readers needed strategies beyond simply memorizing as part of their beginning reading instruction.  Phonemic awareness and phonics are part of what they need. BTW- There is more than one way to teach phonics. I’ll have much more to say about that over the next few weeks.

Susan writes her very first book

The next step I used with Susan may come as a bit of a surprise. I began sending home Keep Books with her. These are leveled readers produced by Fountas and Pinnell. They are sold in bulk. They are very low cost (as low as .25 cents a book when bought in quantity). They are available from Ohio State University I started her with some RR Level 1 and 2 books. Next week I will have a lot more to say about this teaching move.  After reading a couple of these books, with my help, Susan began publishing books (with my help). Here is what her latest one looks like:

Wide Reading for the Very Beginning Reader

Susan Sees One

Susan Sees TWO

Susan Sees THREE

This brings us to the most important point of this blog entry. It is possible for even the youngest readers to do wide reading. By giving them a beginning level (RR 1 & 2) to take home and read and by helping them write their own books students like Ned and Susan quickly develop a large library of books. The books are rich in high-frequency words. The books they write themselves have many words from their listening vocabulary.  Last semester I worked with Ned (pseudonym). I took him through this very same sequence. Ned went from non-reader to reading on level this semester. His shoebox library (that’s where we keep all these books) now has over 50 titles. Ned and I have conversations around his favorite books in that library. In the course of that, I let Ned know that good readers often develop favorite books and favorite authors. I told him one of my very favorite authors is Eric Litwin.  Over the holidays, he asked his parents to buy him a book by Eric. In our last session, Ned read that entire book to me on his own. That’s quite an accomplishment for one semester’s work.


 By now, I hope I have your attention. Next week I’ll be continuing this saga of using wide reading with very beginning readers. I’ll talk about where phonics and other decoding strategies fit in. I’ll also answer any questions you may have about what I’ve said so far. Feel free to ask such questions in the comments section of the blog. Until then- this is Dr. Sam signing off.

Dr. Sam Bommarito aka publisher of books by Susan and Ned


Copyright 2020 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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Another Call for a Reading Evolution: The Case for Tweaking Instead of Replacing By Dr. Sam Bommarito


Another Call for a Reading Evolution: The Case for Tweaking Instead of Replacing

By Dr. Sam Bommarito

It’s been almost two years since I first suggested we need to consider a Reading Evolution (and no that’s not a typo- I really do mean evolution). Why evolution? Because an evolution has the best chance of stopping the eternally swinging pendulum of reading practices.   I’ve been teaching since 1970. I’ve watched that pendulum swing many times. Phonics vs. No Phonics, Analytic Phonics vs. Synthetic phonics and most recently Science of Reading vs. Balanced Literacy (I actually prefer the use of the term constructivist practices). I predict that in the end, Science of Reading, at least as it has been proposed by many, will fall victim to the same fate as all its predecessors. It will work for some, not for all.  Eventually, as the realization sinks in that it won’t work for all, folks will call for it to be abandoned in favor of some other new way of doing things and the pendulum will have to swing yet again.  My solution is really quite simple. Instead of doing a complete and wholesale change of things ala the Tsunami of Change point of view, why not try tweaking what we have? Use ideas from all sides. Why not try letting the pendulum come to a stop in the middle?

But Dr. Sam. What makes you think the current push for ideas of the Science of Reading won’t work for all? Let’s start with their idea that there is a great Tsunami of Change coming in the field of reading. Sounds powerful and exciting. Yet a tsunami is actually a natural disaster. It can take years to recover from the effects of a tsunami. Suddenly that idea seems like it wasn’t completely thought out. It is much less inviting than before.

But Dr. Sam, SoR, results in great gains in reading scores. Hmm. Really? Look at the tests often used by SoR proponents. They are tests of decoding not reading. And we know from the National Reading Panel that gains in decoding do not automatically turn into gains in reading.

But Dr. Sam kids need intense systematic phonics and lots of it. It’s true some kids do. Lucy Calkins, in her recent work around how to help children with dyslexia, found they need far more repetition than most students. But is the solution then to give all children all that extra time in systematic phonics? Classroom time is a zero-sum game. Extra time spent in instruction most children don’t need means those children won’t get instruction in other things. Is the best solution to help some children at the expense of others? Or does it make more sense to use a tiered system of instruction that allows all children to get the program that fits them the best?  I think you know where I stand on that one.

But Dr. Sam aren’t most children with reading difficulties Dyslexic? No. As a matter of fact, some experts in the field of reading like Tim Shanahan say we don’t yet have a good enough screen for Dyslexia, though he expects one to develop eventually. In the meantime, he suggests careful observation of students for one semester as the best way of determining who needs extra help. By the way, that means that many of the pronouncements of some SoR advocates around the prevalence of Dyslexia are suspect at best. They are using screens in a way that is getting well ahead of what actual science has to say about how to identify the children they want to serve.

But Dr. Sam, aren’t constructivist teaching children to guess about words? No! For details read this blog entry from the RR site and be sure to follow the other entries this entry cites.

But Dr. Sam, aren’t we using ideas around how to teach comprehension that have been proven to be obsolete? What about the work of Willingham? Shouldn’t we be spending most of our time building background knowledge and vocabulary and stop wasting time on teaching comprehension strategies? There’s a problem with that thought. Review the two decades of research demonstrating that teaching comprehension strategies using a gradual release model results in improved reading. This research is very much a part of the science of reading, yet we are being asked by some to ignore it. I’m not aware of anyone making a compelling argument that this research is flawed or wrong. So, while I would indeed make sure students obtain the needed background knowledge and vocabulary, I would go about making sure that happens in a very different way than some of the current SoR folks advocate. That brings us to the topic of tweaking what we have.

For instance, how could we tweak guided reading so it works in a way that can build vocabulary and background and promote comprehension? One way is to fully implement it as F&P have been describing it for years now. Too many teachers view guided reading as only the small group work and focus all their GR time on that component.  That is a mistake. Look at the chart found on the back cover of the 2nd edition of their book, and you’ll see there is much much more to guided reading than the small group work. Guided Reading should include whole group instruction using on-level texts. BTW- that’s where comprehension strategies can be introduced and modeled. To help build needed background teachers could include science and social studies texts as part of that work. For details, see my blog on this topic.

That brings me back to my original premise. Instead of doing another “throw it all out and replace it” round, why not try tweaking what we have? There are many possibilities for that and I would for sure recommend using some of the good points being made by SoR folks to help in that process. But use them in the context of everyone talking to everyone and everyone looking at how we can tweak current practices rather than throwing out everything we are currently doing and starting over. I strongly feel the latter approach (throwing out everything & starting over) will eventually guarantee another swing of the pendulum.

P.D. Pearson wrote a piece about the “radical middle” during the last round of the reading wars. It makes a compelling argument for trying out the center. Here is a link:

So. my thought for the new year is this- let’s have a reading evolution #readingevolution1. Let’s tweak instead of replace. Let’s discuss instead of bicker. The kids would be better off for it. So would we.


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

Copyright 2020 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.