The Reading Evolution:
Finding a Path to End the Reading Wars
By Dr. Sam Bommarito
It’s been almost two years since I first wrote about the reading evolution. This post gives links to the many blogs I’ve written about the reading evolution/the reading wars over the past two years. It provides a summary of those things, and lets you know where I stand right now. In my very first post about this topic, I suggested that the pendulum continues to eternally swing between two (or more) positions on the question of how to best teach children to read. The swinging pendulum has become the defining feature about what has become known as the reading wars. The problem is that after each and every swing, the folks who call for replacing the old way of doing things are quite confident, they have finally found THE WAY to solve things. They insist that all old practices be dropped and replaced by the newest soup de jour. Invariably what happens is that the new way helps many, but not all. Eventually, this new way becomes the old way and is replaced yet again. The pendulum continues to swing. My proposed solution to this conundrum is simple. Instead of insisting on throwing away everything that’s come before and starting over, we should instead tweak what we have. This would require both sides (all sides) to admit that their particular way of doing things is not THE SOLUTION. It also means that their particular way has limits and limitations. It would follow that all sides might have things to learn from what folks in different positions are saying. Effectively it means trying something that we’ve never before tried in the history of teaching reading. That is leaving the pendulum in the middle, talking to one another, learning from one another, and putting together a system that helps as many children as possible by using the best ideas of all the approaches. P.D. Pearson expressed this kind of sentiment in the last round of the reading wars. Have a look: Life in the Radical Middle: A Personal Apology for a Balanced View of Reading.
Why do I predict that the current rush to judgment supporting the so-called science of reading is eventually doomed to the same fate as all its predecessors and that it is simply a matter of time before the pendulum swings back to something else? Let’s explore my reasons for saying this.
- Science of reading advocates have never shown their methods to help all or almost all children. Instead, they have shown their methods help some children some of the time, especially those that fit the definition of Dyslexic.
Some of the science of reading advocates seem to have created an incredibly successful public relations campaign that is convincing a lot of folks that they truly have found THE WAY. However, several important indicators show otherwise. Over the last couple of years, I’ve asked the science of reading advocates for evidence that their proposed methods will work with nearly every child nearly all the time. Advocates are unable to produce such data and say that such data is impossible, Jun 2019 (Show Me the Beef); March 2019; March 2019 (Summary of 3 posts about limits of SoR position). I have to agree with them on that point. Their conceding that point means there are some children for whom these methods are not working and are likely not to work. What do we do for them? What do we do for them, especially when the zealots of the movement want to end access to some of the techniques that can help some of these children? Techniques including things like using analytic or analogical phonics in addition to the synthetic phonics that seems the staple of many of the zealots’ programs. Their contention that analytic phonics is a weaker form that was only begrudgingly used by advocates of balanced literacy is simply not supported by a look at the research. I have blogged on this point many times Aug 2019 cutting-through-the-gordian-knot-of-phonics-instruction; April 2019 cutting-through-the-gordian-knot-of-beginning-phonics-instruction-my-advice-to-beginning-teacher; July 2019 phonics-the-endless-debate-another-case-of-please-fit-the-program-to-the-child-not-the-other-way-round
- Some science of reading advocates are attempting to skip an important part of the verification process normally used by researchers. That part comes when the promising new theories are put to the test in large-scale studies under actual working conditions. What would be needed are districtwide adoptions of the science reading program, testing using the state test, and analysis of the results. These results should span several years. The upshot- they don’t have anything close to that. They are jumping from promising initial results to mandated statewide adoptions without doing the necessary large-scale district-wide tests of their methods. I have blogged multiple times about how they have jumped far ahead of what the research actually demonstrates. Jun 2019 (Show Me the Beef); March 2019; March 2019 (Summary of 3 posts about limits of SoR position).
By and large, what is happening is that the studies they use to call for the adoption of their methods do not use the kind of statewide tests of reading described by Duke and others. Instead, they use tests like Dibels. Why is that a problem? Let’s look briefly at Duke’s work around this issue:
When Duke talks about reading being measured as reading from a list of words and testing whether students can decode words, she is accurately describing what tests like the Dibels do. Is that enough? NO!
Look at what readers are actually required to do on statewide tests of reading: See her Box 1 above. You can find a full rendition of this information at Reading by Third Grade: How Policymakers Can Foster Early Literacy
This would be a good time to talk about comprehension strategies- the 16th item on her list in Box 1. Duke has cited decades of research showing that when students are taught comprehension strategies using a gradual release model, reading scores rise significantly. This research is being ignored or discounted by some science of reading advocates. Again, many of the zealots from the science of reading call for little or no teaching of reading strategies, focusing mainly on building background and vocabulary. I strongly suggest that before any district adopts any major district-wide program, they demand proof that the program has shown significant gains, over a significant period of time using tests that closely resemble the statewide reading tests described by Duke.
- Some science of reading advocates are jumping ahead of what research shows about the Dyslexic child. Tim Shanahan, a strong proponent of using science to guide reading instruction, has said screening instruments for dyslexia are not yet fully developed https://shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/early-identification-predicting-reading-disabilities-and-dyslexia. Yet some science of reading advocates insist on giving estimates of how many dyslexic children exist even though they are based on unproven instruments
- Some science of reading advocates attempt to discredit or disregard research that is contrary to their core beliefs.
The most blatant example of this is the research around Reading Recovery. Reading Recovery has years of “gold standard data” indicating it outperforms rival methods. I’ve blogged many times over this and the overwhelming evidence from the What Works Clearinghouse and others shows that recovery works. I also talk about the flaws around claims that the effects of Reading Recovery interventions are not maintained. August 10, 2018; August 16, 2018.; August 24, 2018
A more recent example is their scathing reviews of Lucy Calkins’s programs. What the reviewers fail to mention is that many of them work for publishers with competing programs. One of my colleagues expressed these concerns best by saying he loved reading Lucy Calkins’s response to the SAP critique of her Units of Study. “She is so right to point out that a study of the curriculum without talking/surveying teachers and visiting the classrooms of experienced TCRWP teachers is woefully inadequate. They did not even address the very positive data on the TCRWP website..” The lack of anything resembling peer review is a fatal flaw. It takes all credibility away from the critics’ position.
This list goes on to include ignoring research from the early childhood community on why the kind of direct instruction in reading that the SoR advocates call for is developmentally inappropriate. Dec 2018- Things-I’ve-learned-from-our-very-youngest-readers-thoughts-on-my-recent-talk-with-parent-educators- They then laud over the gains in reading scores made in many states but they fail to mention that many of these “gains” are made in part by retaining students so that their scores don’t count in the next year’s testing. P.L. Thomas Feb 2020. Such retention policies fly in the face of a large body of research indicating that retention in the early grades greatly increases the likelihood students will drop out during their high school year
- Some of the Science of Reading advocates seem to discount the importance of fostering a love of reading and creating lifelong readers. By contrast, balanced literacy proponents work actively to get books into the homes of children in the book deserts. As Molly Ness explains, book deserts are zip codes where most children have no books at home. Her Podcasts about Book Deserts contain interviews of people who are doing the very necessary work of getting books into the homes of the children who need them the most. Here is one example: Book Desert Podcast. This work is important because wide reading is one of the key ways students build their vocabulary and background knowledge. Balanced reading advocates are proactive in trying to help with this problem. May 2018 Getting-books-into-the-hands-of-children /; The Believe Project
- There are viable alternatives to the Science of Learning position. Tim Rasinski views the teaching of reading as both science and art. April 18, 2018, the-teaching-of-reading-as-both-science-and-art/ He is a proponent of teaching prosody, reading like a storyteller. I’ve found using his ideas helps readers of all ages. It pays to teach readers to read like storytellers. P.L. Thomas has written extensively about the reading wars and the limits and limitations of the Science of Reading position. P.L. Thomas selected blog entries. I found his analysis of the media’s current misreading of the reading crisis especially compelling. P.L. Thomas- Media Misreads the Reading Crisis . Eric Litwin has written about how to use songs to bring joy into the process of teaching reading and my kids love to read his books and sing his songs. Singing-our-way-into-fluency-exploring-the-work-of-eric-litwin-and-how-he-brings-together-the-art-and-science-of-reading/ P.D. Pearson had many insights as he talked about in the historic session on reading research done at last year’s ILA convention. I did a series of blogs giving highlights of the content of those sessions. Oct 18th 2019 ; Oct 25 2019; Nov 2019.
Finally, there are attempts to meld aspects of some of the current ideas about the science of reading together into a new set of practices designed to teaching decoding. See this article about the ideas of Jeffrey S. Bowers, a professor at the University of Bristol’s School of Psychological Science, and Peter N. Bowers, a semantic scholar at the WordWorks Literacy Center in Ontario. Although they have an incomplete view of whole language and ignore balanced literacy altogether, they do have an interesting point of view about how to put together some of the Science of Reading ideas into a more viable way of teaching decoding. https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2019/03/27/case-why-both-sides-reading-wars-debate-are-wrong-proposed-solution/
I do not want to leave the impression that there aren’t areas of agreement developing. There are.
- Both the science of reading and balanced literacy advocates agree that phonics is necessary. Although there are still a few educators who say phonic isn’t necessary- their numbers are small. Most of the current talk about phonics is not about whether rather it is about how much and what kind(s).
- Both science of reading and balanced literacy advocates agree that the system of teaching teachers about decoding needs repair. Balanced literacy folks insist we include all forms of phonics when we carry out this repair. We must assure that enough time is spent on phonics and that the time spent results in students actually learning how to use phonics.
- Both science of reading and balanced literacy advocates agree on the importance of background information and vocabulary. Even P.D. Pearson says that the balanced literacy folks took too much time away from the content areas in order to teach reading. The key issue here is that some are doing this in a way that ignores the importance of also teaching reading strategies. I wrote a blog about how we could tweak the implementation of guided reading to both teach the reading strategies and provide the needed work in the content areas. Aug 2018 Musings-of-a-workshop-teacher-advice-i-just-gave-to-some-1st-grade-teachers-in-houston/
- Both science of reading and balanced reading advocates see the importance of including decodable text in reading programs. In a recent personal conversation with Lucy Calkins, she indicated that she could see a role for some decodable books within a literacy program. Patrick Shanahan blogged, saying it was ok to use both decodable and predictable books, with reservations about the how and why this should be done. Overall, I think a consensus is developing that there is a place for decodable, predictable, and trade books in every literacy program. (update- in July of 2020 I posted a video showing how I use all three kinds of books in my tutoring work LINK.)
Can we talk? /Should we talk?
On the one hand, there are some science of reading folks that take a “my way or the highway stance.” I label them the zealots. They seem to think the best defense is an offense. This has led to many individuals in the balanced literacy movement feeling bullied or worse. I’ve been at the receiving end of spurious attacks of my credibility with claims that I wasn’t worth following or talking to since my number of followers was shrinking. In fact, at that point, they had more than doubled from the previous year, and they numbered in the thousands.
I don’t think that tactics of the zealots should result in folks from the various positions not talking. For instance, Tim Rasinski and I had some very productive conversations with the head of EBLI (Evidence Based Literacy Instruction), Nora Chahbazi https://eblireads.com/meet-the-founder/. She has some groundbreaking work going on in the area of getting phonics taught quickly and efficiently. There is also some interesting work being carried out by the Thrass Institute in Australia (https://www.thrass.com.au/). They are advocates for the Science of Reading who are willing to talk rather than bicker. My views around the point that eventually, a mutually acceptable position might be hammered out are colored by my research about the reading wars. In my doctoral thesis, done in 2004, I studied the practices of whole language teachers vs. other teachers. What I found was that there were more areas of agreement than disagreement in terms of the practices they used. The chasm separating the positions was not as large or permanent as it might seem at first glance. So long as all sides are willing to forgo “my way or the highway positions,” there is hope for a resolution.
So, I’m rather confident that if all sides would just admit they have SOME answers, not all the answers, the reading wars could finally be resolved. I think there is room for genuine dialogue. As I look to the ideas from “the other side” that have influenced my current teaching, what has been said and is being said about the use of orthographic information has proved very useful. My friends in Australia have convinced me that it is not quite as cut and dried as some of the American advocates of the science of reading make it out to be, but it’s certainly something worth learning even more about.
Let’s consider starting a reading evolution. Let’s recognize that while there might not be THE ANSWER, there are good ideas from each of the points of view about how to teach reading. We are supposed to help the students in their quest to become lifelong readers who know how to think and problem solve. I see the only hope for laying the pendulum to rest is to have serious discussions around what all sides might learn from each other, firmly in the middle, using information from all sides. I’m asking the people at my presentation this week to tweet out using #readingevolution1, #ideasfromtheotherside. Let’s dialogue, not bicker. Thanks to all for considering these remarks. Please consider joining the Reading Evolution, #readingevolution1. (Personal note: Posting this blog from my hotel room at the Write to Learn conference in Lake of the Ozarks Mo. That’s where I started writing this blog two years ago. There’s a nice symmetry to that!)
Dr. Sam Bommarito (the one in the middle who is ok with taking flak from both 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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