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. https://readingrecovery.org/active-problem-solving-in-reading-is-not-a-guessing-game/?fbclid=IwAR1uA4WTNLdJUyYY9Dn-zVpoXQ2I3K4C3yml7_Rr35vwdqekwQZ-2a2CmLo
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. https://doctorsam7.blog/2019/08/23/musings-of-a-workshop-teacher-advice-i-just-gave-to-some-1st-grade-teachers-in-houston-by-dr-sam-bommarito/
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: http://twrctank.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/Pearson-Radical-Middle.2001.pdf
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
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