Monthly Archives: February 2020

Another call for a Reading Evolution (and as indicated before- it’s not a typo, I really mean an evolution!) By Dr. Sam Bommarito

Another call for a Reading Evolution (and as indicated before- it’s not a typo, I really mean an evolution!)

By Dr. Sam Bommarito

This coming week will be busy and exciting. I will be presenting about the reading wars at the Write to Learn Conference in Missouri. Today I want to fill you in about the conference and then give a brief preview of the things I’ll be saying. Next week I’m doing my blog early. It will appear Wednesday, the day before the conference. That blog will be about key points I will be making at the conference about the reading wars and how to end them. More on that in just a minute. Let me tell you quickly about some of the things that will be happening this week at the Write to Learn conference in Missouri.

I’ll start by saying the conference is co-sponsored by the Missouri literacy Association, an ILA affiliate. I am currently president of that Association. Although the conference is a state-level conference it often features speakers that you usually see at national conferences. This year it takes place from February 27th to 29th. It will be held at the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri. That location is almost dead center in the state. Our state is almost dead center in the nation.  That means it’s close to everyone! Traditionally, registration is kept open, and walk-ins are welcome. Here is a link to the registration site:

From the webpage:

“National-level Keynote Speakers, Full-Day Workshops, and 70 Breakout Sessions on a Variety of Topics of Interest to K-12 Language Arts Teachers–the Write to Learn Conference has it All!”

I’m very excited about who will be there this year. Let’s have a look at what the conference organizer, Willy Wood, had to say:


I’m going to attend this pre-conference full-day session:

 “How Critical Consciousness Informs Reading and Writing Instruction”

Penny Kittle, Author and Educational Consultant
Julia Torres, Teacher/Librarian, Denver Public Schools and Educational Consultant
rades 5-College


My session will be on Friday. It is about the Reading Wars. To give you a little taste of what I’ll be talking about here is my answer to Steve Dykstra about a question he raised about one of my recent blog entries:

Show me the beef!

You can expect a spirited defense of balanced literacy along with a call to look at ALL the research surrounding the teaching of reading. There will also be a discussion of how we might begin a dialogue about all the best practices in the teaching of reading. Two years ago, I called for a reading evolution #readingevolution1. What’s that all about?

I hold that the reason the pendulum has been swinging back and forth between various methods of how to teach reading is really quite simple. It is because when it becomes apparent that what we are doing isn’t working well, there comes a call to try something new. The problem is that almost every time the call demands that all the current practices be removed and replaced with the newest soup de jour. When the new way fails to help everyone, it, in turn, becomes the target of calls for replacement. The pendulum always ends up at one extreme or the other, never in the middle. During my session, I will explain why I think it is likely the current “Science of Reading” movement will meet the same fate as all its predecessors. I argue that an alternate course of action might be prudent.

I suggest that what we’ve needed all along is not a revolution, i.e., jumping on the latest bandwagon and forsaking all previous things, but an evolution, i.e., tweaking things until they work.  That would require all sides admitting their methods have limits and limitations. That would also require all sides to be willing to look at other points of view to help them with the things that don’t quite work doing things “their way.” It would require a reading evolution, where we would at long last find out what happens when you let the pendulum settle in the middle, something that has never happened in the entire 50 plus years I’ve been involved in education. Interested? I’ll have a lot more to say in my blog entry on Wednesday and the presentation at WTL. Hope you read the entry and even better- hope you come to Write to Learn if you can. Until then!

Dr. Sam Bommarito (aka, the one in the middle who is willing and able to take flak from all sides if that will help to end what Frank Smith once called the Endless Debate)

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.

The Fluency Project: Final Entry By Dr. Sam Bommarito

The Fluency Project: Final Entry

By Dr. Sam Bommarito

This week I want to wrap up the topic of what we are currently doing with the fluency project and make the transition to what I’ll be saying about the Reading Wars when I present at the Write to Learn conference in two weeks. Remember that what we are doing in the fluency project is supplementing the main program at the school. We’re using the ideas of Tim Rasinski to help improve our students’ reading.

There are several things I hope my readers take away from this series. First and foremost, there is more than one way to approach the teaching of phonics, and it pays to supplement one approach with others. On the one hand, I make sure my students are given direct instruction in synthetic phonics. That is provided by the basal they are using. I view that as the start point, not the end.  In the fluency work we have them do; they also get analogic phonics activities as part of the 5-7 minutes daily practice reading a poem. They know, in advance, they that will be expected to perform that poem at the end of two weeks. When Rasinski visited our site, he made special note of the follow-up word-work the teachers were doing around the specific sounds in words from the poems.

Our view of fluency goes beyond simple measures of reading rate. Concentrating on rate alone can lead to other important factors of reading aloud being ignored. When that happens, young readers learn to read like robots rather than read with expression. That point is made in the entertaining  U Tube videos  Don’t Read Like a Robot – Blazer Fresh- GoNoodle.

We use the rubric found in Rasinski and Cheesman-Smith’s Megabook of Fluency.  That rubric is organized around Rasinski’s prosody factors (EARS). E is for Expression, A is for Automatic Word Recognition, R is for Rhythm and Phrasing, and S is for smoothness. Robotic reading is replaced by reading like a storyteller.  Readers are invited to look at my original blogpost about Rasinski’s research around the efficacy of repeated readings.

Last week I talked about one unexpected but welcome shift in the project. The classroom teachers decided that they were able to carry out the daily reads without my help.  They decided my time with them would better be spent by using the Raz Kids program, as I described last week. It became another part of their independent reading time. Each student is assigned to an instructional level in Raz Kids.  They are asked to complete at least two books a week and take the quiz for those books. While I do the Raz Kid’s work, the teachers work with a group of students solving one of Rasinski’s word ladders. Again, these activities are used as a once a week supplement to the main work of the basal series.

Lets’ take another look at what the students see when they come into the Raz Kids program:


When they first come in, each student checks to see if there are new messages. These come from me. This is how I accomplish cyber-conferencing with each student. Because the program is the kind that the teacher controls, rather one that controls the teacher, I was able to repurpose it for use as a test practice program. Inside that program, I give feedback on how to handle test questions. I described the extensive feedback the program gives on test results last week. After students complete two books in the Level Up area, an area that allows them to choose books at their instructional level, they are then encouraged to do additional reading in the Reading Room area. The program allows me to set the range of levels of the books they choose from.  I usually set that range to be at least one level below and two or three levels above their current instructional level. Students read these books for fun; no quiz required.  The groups are of mixed ability. The groups are formed so I can conference with each student from the group. They contain 4 to 6 students. I do two groups each week. There are four groups in total. Remember that these are not guided reading groups. Rather, these are groups formed so I can give each student specific feedback and strategies for handling the various types of test questions they do.  As indicated already, once they do two on level books, they are allowed to read more challenging books if they wish.

Significantly, students are allowed choice in most of the books they read.  In some cases, especially with those students I tutor individually outside class time, I can assign a specific book to that particular student. When I do that, the ASSIGNMENT icon you see on the student screen appears. This activity is not their only independent reading. However, it does allow me to build in a once a week independent reading time for all students while I work on the specific skills and strategies, they need to be successful in handling the various types of multiple-choice questions.

The final and most important point I want to make about this overall project is this. Teachers feel they are in charge and in control. After all, they are the ones that suggested my switching roles in the project.  This doesn’t mean the school has no control over what they do. They are implementing the basal program. But, they are also allowed time and latitude to do the work they feel would help the students. This fact reminds me of how Reading and Writing Workshop works. There are lessons to be carried out within the unit; there are scripts et. al.  But units of study are designed so teachers have time to do additional things if they wish. This final point is a natural Segway into next week’s topic.

Next week’s topic is that teachers need to be empowered. I think empowering teachers is the key to finally ending the reading wars. I hope that got your attention. You’ll be hearing much more about what I mean by that in next week’s blog. In the meantime, happy reading and writing!


Dr. Sam Bommarito (aka- the team leader who empowers his teachers)

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.



FLUENCY PART FOUR: How I use technology with the students in the fluency program By Dr. Sam Bommarito

FLUENCY PART FOUR: How I use technology with the students in the fluency program

By Dr. Sam Bommarito

Last week I talked about Seymour Papert’s idea that the best use of computers is to use them as tools of the mind. Over the many years that have passed since I talked about that at the 1985 International Reading Association (now International Literacy Association) convention that idea has been foundational in guiding my use of technology. Let’s get into the nuts and bolts of how our team is using technology in our current fluency project.

There are two key programs we’re using in the project. One is SeeSaw, and we’ll talk about that in a later post. The other is Raz Kids, one of the many products of the learning A-to-Z company. I’ve already done a full disclosure about work I’ve done for learning A-to-Z which includes being a co-presenter for them at the St. Louis ILA convention and having them come to speak at one of this year’s St. Louis Regional Literacy Association’s meetings. That said, let’s talk about using Raz Kids.

In a nutshell, Raz Kids is a program that provides the teacher with an extensive library of leveled cyber books. It includes generous portions of both expository and narrative text. Quizzes are provided for each book and the quizzes are scored automatically by the program. Students get immediate feedback and scaffolding after each quiz. Quiz results are tracked by student with extensive reports. This reporting system is one of the best I’ve ever seen. It gives extensive feedback on the quiz results. These reports can be generated by student or by class. Teachers can click in and see the actual questions and responses on items the student might have missed. There are a variety of reports available, including those that analyze results by question type and by common core/state standards. There is also a report that summarizes where the class is and how they are performing. Here is a sample screenshot:

Screen Shots


It’s been said that information is power. Properly interpreted and properly used the information this program provides can prove invaluable for helping students. Let’s first begin by remembering that when the program gives the student’s performance on factual questions or inference questions, or sequence questions et. al. the program is actually testing the student’s ability to answer those kinds of multiple-choice questions. That is one step away from measuring each of the aforementioned skills.

I try to make use of aggregate data for the class. Based on the summary screen capture, it would seem that this particular class is having the most issues with answering questions about the setting. Before recommending to the teacher that they work on that skill I would first check to see how large an N is involved. Sometimes the report is based on only one or two instances, and sometimes it is based on many occurrences. Only if the skill report indicates many occurrences do I act on teaching that skill.

When I talk to teachers about using this data, I talk about the chasing your tail phenomena. On the one hand, the program gives the same kind of detailed information on each and every student. One could potentially go and try to teach each, and every student based on that. In the real world that becomes an impossible task. It simply takes too much time.  I tell them not to do it this way because that really is like the dog chasing its tail,  going nowhere.  On the other hand, by looking at the aggregate data the teacher can tell what the particular skill focus should be for a particular class at a particular time. The only time I make use of the individual data is on those selected students whose current performance is well below what we want. They are usually the students who are receiving individual tutoring.

Let’s get into what the student sees and does using Raz Kids. Here is a screenshot of what the student sees when he or she gets into the program:


The message feature is the one I like the very most about this program. The teacher can send individual students or the whole class messages. This is done within the safety of the program. I use this feature extensively to cyber-conference with students. This includes each and every student in the class with more extensive conferencing done with the individual students I’m doing extra work with. Next week I will talk about the nuts and bolts of how I do that. My Stats allow the student to get feedback on how they’re doing, and the Star Zone is a place where they can spend the stars they earn for different tasks.  They can spend their stars on various fun activities which include building their own avatar and other similar things.

The Level Up room is where students go to work on books at their own instructional level. Within this level I allow them to pick whatever books they want. Remember that I’m using this program as a supplement not the main program in reading. BTW- this means that potentially every single student can be working on a completely different book. That may seem impossible at first but as I will get into next week it is not only possible, but it is something that I’m routinely doing with great success because of the unique way in which I apply the use of this program. The My Assignment feature allows me to assign a particular book to a particular student or a particular group of students. I usually only do that with the students I’m working with individually. They know to do this assignment when they first come into the program. The program allows the student to listen to the book first, then read the book on their own, then take the quiz. I usually only have students working below level 8 do the listening activity.  The program also allows students to record themselves reading. They don’t have to, but they can. Again, with those individual students, I do assign them to record the story. I have access to those recordings and can listen to them as I’m looking at the actual book they were reading from. This is another outstanding feature of the program. It is especially helpful when working with those students that need individual help.

The reading room is essentially a cyber library. It has a variety of texts at a variety of levels. I can and do set an upper and lower limit to what part of the library they can look at but overall this is a place they can go to look at and read stories at all levels including levels above their current instructional reading level. All students are told they must do at least two books from the Level Up room before going to the Reading Room each week. I do not require them to take quizzes in the reading room. Essentially the Reading Room becomes a form of independent reading. When working with books above their level to decode students can use the listen to the book feature if they want.

Now would be a good time to take up the topic of cyber books versus paper books. In a nutshell, my take on how they should be used is this: students can and should have access to both kinds of books and read them. My readers are familiar with the fact that I am a strong supporter of projects like Molly Ness’s Book Desert project, Julius Anthony’s St. Louis Black Authors project and Elise Tierney’s Ready to Learn organization. All these projects get paper books into the hands of kids in the book deserts. Book deserts are zip codes where most children have no books at home at all. Folks like Molly, Julius, and Elise are making real inroads in that regard. Links to their project can be found at the end of this post.

Having spent most of my career in Title I buildings I’m always looking for ways to get books into the hands of kids. Because Raz Kids has arranged for its program to work on smartphones and tablets, it provides an ideal way to get children in the book deserts access to more books. For you see, even within the book deserts many parents have smartphones or tablets even though they don’t have a home computer access. I want to make crystal clear that I’m not talking about these books instead of paper books but in addition to paper books. By the way, in my Title 1 work with parents I found all parents eager and willing to let their children access these books. When working with parents I always stress that the kids should have access to all kinds of print, including cyber books.

Next week I will continue this topic and talk about some more of the unique ways in which I am using this program to help all the first and second-grade children in the fluency project. In the meantime, if you want to look at the Raz Kids program there is a link to their site at the end of this blog.  They even provide free trials where you can try out the program for a limited time to see all of its different features.  Again, this is not the only cyber book program out there, but it is the one that I have used the most. As you can readily see it is one that allows the teacher to take control if they want to. For me, that is the most critical feature of this program. So, till next time happy reading and writing.

Dr. Sam Bommarito (aka- the cyberman- a good one!)

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.


Ready to Learn: @readytolearnstl (go to this Facebook address)

Book Deserts Podcasts: (This week it features Nic Stone)

The Believe Project:

Raz Kids:




Fluency Part Three: The fluency project, the teachers are taking over, and that’s a good thing by Dr. Sam Bommarito

Fluency Part Three: The fluency project, the teachers are taking over, and that’s a good thing by Dr. Sam Bommarito

 This is a kind of special time for me. The Write to Learn conference in Missouri is coming up this month. I’ll be making a presentation there about the reading wars. I am the president of the Missouri Literacy Association and we are one of the co-sponsors of the conference. We have an amazing line of speakers including Pernille Ripp, Penny Kittle, Michael Bonner, Sylvia Vardell and my blogging partner William Kern. There will be four keynotes in over 70 breakout sessions.  Here is the link

Two years ago, I wrote my very first blog. I wrote the blog while I was at that conference. I wrote it from the hotel room at the conference- cool stuff! That first year my blog had over 11,000 views.  Last year that jumped to over 43,000 views, and we’re on the pace to easily break that record this year. I really want to thank all the readers for their interest in the blog. I think that, for many of you, the interest comes because you are the kind of folks that believe the real key to improving education lies with the teachers. So, when I report that our team of first and second-grade teachers who are carrying out this fluency project have essentially taken the project over, I make the report with a very happy heart. Here’s what happened.

I’ll start by giving a brief reminder of what the project involves. We are basing our project on the fluency work of Tim Rasinski. Students read poems and songs for 5 to 7 minutes a day. The teachers provided the poems/songs to pick from. By and large, the poems and songs they get to pick from support the scope and sequence of the basal phonics program used by the school. As Tim described it in a presentation he made in St. Louis two years ago, the teacher he talked about had the students do daily reads and weekly performances of their poems. Our team made a number of adaptations to the basic model. We set up our daily reads so that relatively weak readers and relatively strong readers were partners. This has resulted in both students helping each other. The basic goal was to read like storytellers. The teachers report that that is happening in a very noticeable way. We are doing a formal measure of that using Rasinski’s rubric from his Megabook of Fluency. We also added a second layer of daily reading practice. To be more precise, daily singing practice. Before starting with their partners, the whole class sings a song excerpt, again picked because it contains some of the elements stressed by the basal’s phonics program. Overall this brings the daily time spent to around 10 minutes.

After we’d been in the project for a couple of months, my role, which was to come in during this time and help to monitor the paired reading began feeling a bit like being the 5th wheel.  One of the teachers suggested that the project had essentially gone into autopilot.  The routine was established. The kids were singing and doing the paired reading and they were doing their performance on an every other week basis using SeeSaw. She suggested that when I came in instead of coming in for the fluency part, I could come in and do something with the Raz Kids program that I had used in previous years as part of an afterschool program. That is exactly what happened. The team is continuing to carry out the fluency work as described, but my role has changed at the request of the team. Now it’s time for some full disclosures and explanations.

I’ve long been a fan of the Raz Kids program. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the program, here’s a link to their site-  You can look over the program and even get a free trial.  I’ll say from the outset that there are other computer-based literacy programs out there. Actually,  there is a whole constellation of them. I’m sure everyone has their favorites, and I’m equally sure that some people would never consider using them. I’m talking about Raz-Kids now because that’s what we’re using. I found out about Raz-Kids while I was still teaching full-time. One of the teachers I was supporting told me about it. Her son was using it at his school. I did the trial and fell in love with the program because it is the kind of program that lets the teacher take charge rather than telling the teacher what to do.  It includes a huge level library of both fiction and nonfiction books, a way to talk to students individually via the program, and a way to let students record themselves reading. The teacher can access the recording along with the book they read from. It also has a great tracking system that tells teachers about how students do on questions they answer from the story. I’ll have a lot more to say about this next week.

Over time, I got in contact with folks from Raz Kids (a Learning A-Z product), including the regional director and even the president of the company. I did a presentation for them when the ILA was in St. Louis, and this year they came out and did a presentation for my ILA group in St. Louis.  That information is given to you as full disclosure of my relationship with the company. Let me get back to the point that this is the kind of software that the teacher controls rather than the other way around. This is important to me. My very first presentation at an ILA conference was in 1985 on the topic of using microcomputers in reading. The computers of that age had nothing like the power of today’s computers, but there were some powerful ideas about how to use this technology. In his book Mindstorms, Seymour Papert proposed an idea that computers should become tools of the mind and that is how they should be used. It was a principle I talked about back then and one that I think should continue to guide all uses of technology. Some folks use their technology almost as electronic flashcards. The scope and sequence is defined by the computer rather than the teacher. I guess that is one way to do it. I think Papert’s way is better. He was a pioneer in using the computer as a thinking tool. The teacher is in charge, not the computer. Mindstorms is still in print and can be found at any number of book sites.


Next week I will try to describe how I use the Raz Kids program as a tool of the mind. To allay the fears of some of my friends who are somewhat reluctant to do any kind of cyber books, I’ll stress that this is not the only reading the kids do and that I really do try to integrate all in a way that results in kids wanting to read everything- paper books as well as cyber books.  This also integrates quite well with what the team is doing in fluency instruction. So, this is Dr. Sam signing off until next week. Happy reading and writing.


Dr. Sam Bommarito (aka- maker of MindStorms and other such things)

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.