Monthly Archives: December 2020

Happy Holidays- a holiday message & a link to my most read blog post of the year by Dr. Sam Bommarito

Taking a break this week to share the holidays with my family. This year that included getting together with the whole family at once. Of course, it was on Zoom.  But just as in the famous Dr. Seuss story- Christmas came just the same.    

I’m sharing one link.  I thought you might find this link interesting. It is to my most read post this year. The post had over 1,600 views. It summarizes my centrist views about the reading wars.

Next week I will share the latest issue of the Missouri Reader (I am the co-editor). It will include a special section about using Distance Learning in literacy. After the new year begins I will be resuming my interviews of literacy leaders including two teachers from Australia.

In the meantime, I want to wish all my readers the best over this holiday season. Stay safe and be well!  

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.

Implementing Distance Learning: Some Advice Given to St. Louis Area Beginning Teachers by Dr. Sam Bommarito

Implementing Distance Learning: Some Advice Given to St. Louis Area Beginning Teachers


Dr. Sam Bommarito

As many of my readers know, I am a long-time member of the ILA. I am currently Chairman (used to be called President) of the state chapter. I am proud to say that our membership is quite active in providing folks in our state needed literacy services. One example of this is last week’s BTAP (Beginning Teachers Assistance Program) for St. Louis Area beginning teachers.  This program has been held twice a year for a number of years. Dr. Betty Porter Walls a long time ILA member, and an MLA board member has overseen carrying out BTAP for St. Louis Public Schools. Many of the presenters at this event are also ILA members who donate their services and expertise. This is just one of many examples of the Missouri Literacy Association’s literacy work around our state. See our website for details

This past weekend I did a one-hour BTAP session about distance learning. Here is some of the advice I gave to the beginning teachers:

1. If possible, get a doc camera and learn how to use it.  One low-cost option is to get software that turns your smartphone into a doc camera. I use EpcoCamPro. (in January I was made aware of another app that does that )

These are two of several software programs that can turn a smartphone into a webcam.  You can then use a stand such as the one below to hold your phone:

BTW- I found one teacher on-line reporting she created a stack of textbooks and sandwiched her I-phone in near the top of the stack. That meant her smartphone doc cam holder was completely free. One can also buy and use a regular doc cam. I’ve blogged about this before LINK.

2. A second piece of advice I gave to them was to learn about all the different forms of phonics and to include phonics instruction as part of their daily routines in the early grades. They should also remember to include other forms of word work in the later grades. I gave them a link to download this ILA Literacy Leadership Brief which explains the various approaches to phonics:

I talked to the teachers about how I use my distance learning tools. I push into 2nd and 3rd grade classrooms using Zoom. The school that I volunteer in for two full days a week has a blended program. Most students come face to face. A few of the school’s students get all of their classes through virtual learning. I help with both.  

One of the things I do is to push into a full class using Zoom.  I make extensive use of my doc camera when doing this. For instance, the school’s spelling program teaches students to put together words using letter sounds, basically using synthetic phonics.  I can review that with them live.  I can also show making and breaking activities where students learn to create words using onset rhyme. That is a form of analytic phonics.

Notice how my finger appears in the live shot as I move the magnetic letter. I can also write things on the white board in real time.

At my school I use many of Dr. Tim Rasinski’s materials, such as word ladders and activities around prefixes, suffixes, and roots. All this fits into the category of using orthographic information as part of their word work. Here are two sheets from Dr. Rasinski from veteran’s day. I let the teachers attending my session know that if they follow Dr. Rasinski on twitter (@timrasinski), he gives away samples of his activity sheets three times a week. That is where I got these Veteran’s Day activities.

3.  I recommended to them was to include more student talk and less teacher talk in all their distance learning lessons. Recommending this practice is based both on the ideas of Burkins and Yaris and is also a recurring theme in many current resource books about distance learning.

I let them know that all these resource books are readily available through any of the many services that sell books online. In my own work I have found Ziemke’s book exceptionally useful and I plan to let parents of my students know about the new distance learning playbook for parents.

In the spirit of “practicing what I preach”, I used the parts of my presentation dealing with comprehension to model how to teach comprehension strategies through a gradual release model. There is a considerable amount of research indicating that teaching comprehension this way can and does raise reading scores. Duke, Pressley, and Pearson all have found this to be the case.

One thing I had the teachers do is to write a “show don’t tell” paragraph. Here is the slide I used for that.

This activity develops the ability of the student to draw inferences. An important nuance in all this is that when done the way I am about to describe, most of the teaching time is spent letting students TALK about how THEY USED the strategy.  In this case, they did that by sharing their “show don’t tell” paragraphs. One of the crucial things teachers can do in their distance learning lessons is to learn how to use the breakout rooms in Zoom. The break out rooms give students a place to go to and explain how they used the particular strategy that helped them understand their particular reading. I also talked to the beginning teachers about criticism Patrick Shanahan leveled at the way teachers teach strategies. Too often they model a strategy and then tell the student to use it whether they need to use it or not.  They also continue to teach and model the strategy even after it is apparent that the students know how to use it and use it as needed. I explained how I react to this criticism. Some weeks I model a new strategy as I did in this lesson. However, in many other weeks I do not model new strategies. Instead, in those weeks, I provide time where I ask students to explain what strategies, if any, they used to understand that week’s reading. In order to have such discussions in distance learning it is critical that teachers learn how to use the breakout room feature in Zoom. Included in that is learning how to visit different groups to help promote discussions and scaffold students into independent thinking about the various strategies. Here is the slide I used to give teachers a place where they could go and learn about features like breakout rooms. The link sends them to the Zoom help link. There they can search for information about how to use all the various features in Zoom, including the breakout room feature.

So, I have given you some of the highlights I gave to the beginning teachers last week. I also let them know that over the Christmas break I plan to add a page to my blog with overviews of what can be found on websites of various literacy leaders and links to those websites. I hope to include Burkins, Shanahan, Rasinski and others. Next week is Christmas. I will have a special Christmas present for all of you. We are trying to have the newest edition of our state’s literacy journal, The Missouri Reader, ready for you then.  After the New Year I am lining up video interviews of many literacy leaders to tell you about their approaches to literacy. I’m including folks from the United States and I’ve even arranged to interview two different educators from Australia who have some very interesting things to report.

So, until next time- Happy Reading and Writing!

Dr. Sam Bommarito (aka the guy tries to have less teacher talk and more student talk is his distance learning lessons).

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.

It’s time to start looking at ALL the ways to teach beginning reading: There is no one size fits all solution. Blog entry by Doctor Sam Bommarito

It’s time to start looking at ALL the ways to teach beginning reading: There is no one size fits all solution.  Blog entry by Doctor Sam Bommarito

This is a reposting of a blog from last October. It calls for taking a centrist position and maintains that while NO ONE SIDE IN THE READING WARS HAS ALL THE ANSWERS, every side has ideas that would help many (not all) children.  I am reposting  this on the eve of presenting an inservice to teachers in the St. Louis Area that gives advice on how to create effective distance learning lessons. More next week on what I had to say to them. After that I will resume interviewing literacy leaders/practitioners from all sides of the so called “reading wars”.

I’ll begin by calling attention to a recent blog by Tim Shanahan

Note the three forms of text named in the title.  Here are some highlights from that entry:

“The role of text in reading instruction has always been a big instructional question for parents and teachers—but it has not drawn the same kind of research interest as many other issues.

Nevertheless, the research does provide clues and it suggests that kids are likely to be best off in classrooms that provide them with a mix of these text types rather than a steady diet of any one of them—nor do I see the progression through these as developmental, with kids graduating from one kind of simplified text to another.

He goes on to say:

Personally—based on my own experiences as a primary grade teacher—I would use all of these kinds of text. My thinking then, and my thinking now, is that the way to prevent someone from being hurt by over dependence on a crutch is to employ a variety of crutches; deriving the benefits of each, while trying to minimize potential damages.

It is very reasonable to employ decodable texts. It gives kids a chance to practice their phonics in a favorable text environment—an environment in which there aren’t likely to be many words that can’t be figured out easily.

But those “experts” who claim that kids should only read such texts for some length of time (e.g., 2-3 years) are just making that stuff up (bolding is mine). Research is not particularly supportive of such an artificial text regime (Adams, 2009; Jenkins, et al., 2004; Levin, Baum & Bostwick, 1963; Levin & Watson, 1963; Price-Mohr & Price, 2018). “Teaching children to expect one-to-one consistent mapping of letters to sounds is not an effective way to promote transfer to decoding at later stages in learning to read” (Gibson & Levin, 1975, p. 7).”


So that is what Shanahan had to say on the topic. Overall, he makes it clear that all the forms have limits and limitations, including those based on the views of some proponents of the Science of Reading.

What follows are MY reactions to and reflections on what he said.  The “radical middle” point of view I used in earlier blogs has relevance here. I’ve talked about this before. P.D. Pearson, who is credited with creating the gradual release model, coined the term. Here is what he says:

“Even though I find both debates interesting and professionally useful, I fear the ultimate outcome of both, if they continue unbridled by saner heads, will be a victory for one side or another.  That, in my view, would be a disastrous outcome, either for reading pedagogy or educational research. A more flattering way to express this same position is to say that I have always aspired to the Greek ideal of moderation in all things or to the oriental notion that every idea entails its opposite. Neither statement would be untrue, but either would fail to capture the enchantment I experience in embracing contradiction.

A second reason for living in the radical middle is the research base supporting it. I read the research implicating authentic reading and writing and find it compelling.  I read the research supporting explicit skill instruction and find it equally as compelling.  What occurs to me, then, is that there must be a higher order level of analysis in which both of these lines of inquiry can be reconciled. (bolding is mine). 

My take is that since no one approach has all the answers since no one approach works with every kid every time, you must draw from and learn from each of the approaches. For instance, you should use all three kinds of books in your lessons. You should get people from each approach to talk with one another, learn from one another. That is the essence of my idea of a reading evolution #readingevolution1.

There is a problem in that SOME advocates of Science of Reading are acting as if they have a method that works with every kid every time. They post information touting the power of systematic synthetic phonics.  They criticize anyone not using this method. An exemplary example of such a post is the famous Tsunami of Change post. It indicates what we currently do is ineffective and must go and be replaced. No one would argue with the thought that what is currently happening is ineffective. However, I must respectfully point out that SoL advocates taking this point of view have ignored one of the key tenets of scientific methodology. Simply put, if you are going to attempt to demonstrate a particular method doesn’t work, then you must take a scientific sample of folks using the method WITH FIDELITY.  Then report the results. Have they done that?  NO. They base their argument for change on everything going on currently. That includes districts that say they are using balanced literacy but actually don’t ( I prefer to talk about constructivist literacy practices, more easily defined and measured). It also includes districts using no effective methods at all. It even includes districts using SoL methods. When I make this last point, SoL advocates are quick to point out that to properly evaluate SoL, one must look at a sample of districts using SoL with fidelity. No argument there. BUT- that means we must do the same for balanced literacy (because BL is an umbrella term, hard to define, I recommend looking at selected constructivist-based methods). Until and unless that is done the current argument to get rid of everything is simply not justified. 

Is there evidence that there are things out there, other than intense systematic synthetic phonics that are working? I always point out I had three different Title 1 projects I participated in in the mid-80s that won awards for being in the top 1/10 of one percent in achievement gains for projects of that era. Also, there is abundant research that demonstrates analytic phonics is the equal of synthetic phonics. Have the intense synthetic projects folks given us data that demonstrates their way works with almost every kid every time?  I issued a challenge about that. 

No one has sent a link to research demonstrating that intense synthetic phonics works with almost every kid almost every time. Some SoL folks said I was being unreasonable because everyone knows such research doesn’t exist. My point exactly.

Am I saying there isn’t a place for intense systematic phonics? No, quite the contrary. I recommend trying synthetic phonics first (my blogging partner disagrees).  What I am saying is exactly what folks in the radical middle have been saying for a couple of decades. No one method works for every kid every time. That is most definitely a research-based statement.

For my thinking about what to do about this, please see the blog entry listed below. Be sure to check out all the blog entries cited at the end of this entry. They include my counter to the Tsunami of Change post

In the meantime, what should district-level decision-makers do? First and foremost, ask that any program being considered demonstrates reading comprehension gains (note I did not say decoding gains). If you’re spending thousands (millions) on materials make sure the test they evaluate them with match the content of the tests being used in most state tests. Nell Duke had an excellent post about what that content includes. Ask that the program demonstrates those gains over several years. It’s a buyer beware situation when looking at programs that can only demonstrate decoding gains. Beginning with the NRP, we’ve known that the jump from decoding gains to comprehension gains is not automatic.

 One of the more unique hats I’ve worn over the years is that of alderman in a small town. The mayor of that town was a colorful character, and he had a folksy down to earth way of saying things. One of the things he used to say is “If it aint’ broke, don’t fix it”.  Let’s not throw out methods that work and trade them for methods that work for some and not all. Let’s do learn from all the methods.

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

P.S. for regular readers of this blog starting next week I will be doing interviews of authors who have written about various literacy topics. This entry closes out my entries around the reading wars, at least for a while.

Copyright 2019/2020 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.

Helping Parents Help Their Kids Become Passionate About Reading and Writing: A Video Interview with Linda Mitchell conducted by Dr. Sam Bommarito

Helping Parents Help Their Kids Become Passionate About Reading and Writing: A Video Interview with Linda Mitchell conducted by Dr. Sam Bommarito

This is another in my series of interviews with literacy leaders. This one is with Linda Mitchell. Linda is part of the literacy scene in the St. Louis Metro Region. I first met her several years ago. She told me the compelling story of her grandmother. Her grandmother could neither read nor write. Yet she raised children who were passionate about both. How could this be? I think as you listen to the story you will see that the path taken by Linda’s family is one that could benefit many families in our nation today.

Linda has several different literacy initiatives she is carrying out in the St. Louis region. Her work centers in East St. Louis, Illinois- which is just across the river from St. Louis. East Saint Louis has suffered an economic decline. It is an area with a high poverty rate and all the problems that come with that. But as Linda explains, there has been no decline in the spirit of the people in the region. You can tell that Linda really loves her city and is doing many things to help in its rejuvenation. Her spirit and will come through loud and clear in this interview. Her methods are groundbreaking. She is the epitomy of thinking outside the box. Though the research around her projects has been interrupted by the current Covid crisis, I have no doubt that once it resumes, it will clearly demonstrate the efficacy and value of the things she is doing. Please join me as I talk to this St. Louis area literacy leader about her pioneering work with kids and parents. Here is the link to the interview:

Interview highlights- fast forward to the time stamp indicated to listen to that part of the interview. The overall interview takes 22 minutes

Tell us about yourself and the Imitate Reading Initiative- start of the video

Tell us about your newly revised book:  3-minute mark

Tell us about your video casts and u-tube channel: 10-minute and 45- second mark

Tell us about East St Louis and how it fits into the St. Louis Metro Area- 14-minute and 30- second mark

Closing Remarks- 19 minutes 32 seconds

Linda Mitchell Books

There are some excellent interviews about social and emotional learning.

Metro East Literacy Project

Here’s where Linda explains a little bit about the Imitate Reading Initiative.

Literacy is Liberation! It Takes You Higher YouTube Channel

Here’s where Linda posts interviews about a person’s literacy journey and topics pertaining to my children’s book on emotions. I’ve interviewed a lawyer( my son), singer/musician (my daughter), Dr. Kelly Byrd, Julius B. Anthony, a police officer, a railroad worker, community organizer, TV personality, social worker, a blind retired judge and several more.

Penny Press Puzzle Lady

Here’s Linda’s website for her hobby–solving word puzzles. I give tutorials for puzzles in the Penny Dell Press Variety Puzzles magazine. I focus on the fact that doing puzzles helps our brains stay healthy.

In the coming weeks I’ll be talking to more literacy leaders, including some more of being carried out by the many literacy leaders the St. Louis Metro area. Until next time- Happy Reading and Writing!

Copyright 2020 by Dr. Sam Bommarito. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the views of this author and the people he interviews. They 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.