The Sciences of Reading Part Two: Looking Further into the Conundrum of How to Best Provide Reading Instruction to Our Students
by Dr. Sam Bommarito
“In terms of the broad piece there is no one science that matters, it’s not just experimental research, not just qualitative research, it’s not just quantitative research we are using all and every methodology to figure out this multifaceted thing called reading….” LINK
Amanda P. Goodwin, Co-Editor of the Reading Research Quarterly
Quote taken from 2020 U Tube interview called Unpacking the Science of Reading: A Conversation with Editors of Reading Research Quarterly, 1:18 on the video
I am using this quote from my post last week about the Sciences of Reading (that post has had 4000 views so far- THANKS) LINK. It provides a nice segue into the key points in this post. Reading is a multifaceted phenomenon. To get a complete view of reading requires examining it using all the tools of research- experimental, qualitative, and quantitative. As indicated in last week’s post the so called “Science of Reading” advocates have taken a limited and limiting view of the research process. They often using testing instruments that test decoding rather than reading. They routinely ignore research that runs counter to their views. For instance:
- Research by Nell Duke, P.D. Pearson and Michael Pressley demonstrating that teaching comprehension strategies has a positive impact on reading scores. Duke’s studies focused on teaching those strategies using a gradual release model.
- Research around early childhood indicating that the current push to move direct reading instruction into Kg and preschool is developmentally inappropriate. Early childhood experts see play as more important than direct instruction in these early settings.
- Research around the long-term negative impact of retention. In spite of such research, SoR advocates made retention a key part of their Florida model. In a bizarre twist they also provide data that the “reading” gains of the Florida model are not a result of the retentions. If that is the case- why do they continue to retain students as part of their model?
This same group also criticizes Whole Language and Balanced Literacy. They sometimes use the two terms interchangeably and often misrepresent what advocates of these positions say. Most importantly, they claim balanced literacy has failed. On many occasions, I’ve pointed out that this claim is based on what is currently going on in all the different districts in the United States. However, some of those districts are doing balanced literacy with fidelity, some are doing it poorly, some are not doing it at all, and some are using Science of Reading. Could that mean Science of Reading is part of the current problem? The quick retort to that is that to judge how well Science of Reading is doing, you need to look at a sample of districts doing SoR with fidelity. I agree! That also means you must afford balanced literacy the same consideration. In a post I entitled Show Me the Beef, I asked SOR critics to produce a study based on a scientific sample of districts using balanced literacy with fidelity that shows such districts are doing poorly. LINK They have never been able to produce such a study. BTW I have visited many sites throughout the country where districts are using the balanced literacy model quite successfully.
Another problem with the SoR criticisms of Balanced Literacy is that they often treat Balanced Literacy as a strawman. Have a look at this Washington Post story about the current situation. The author is Rachael Gabriel. It appeared in Valerie Strauss’s column. She is the same reporter who did last week’s article from the post.
Here is a key excerpt from the article:
“No matter whose voices are loudest in any given decade, scientific research has consistently shown that:
- All children’s minds meet the task of learning to read a little bit differently. For example, some scientists estimate up to four different subtypes of dyslexia, rather than one as once assumed. Conclusion: One philosophical orientation toward reading instruction is never going to work in all U.S. public schools no matter whose idea it was. Students learn differently and the sources of potential difficulty are varied. BOLDING IS MINE.
- There are differences in experiences and outcomes related to reading and writing based on gender, race, language history, disability status and socioeconomic factors. These often appear before formal instruction has begun, and widen after. Conclusion: The question of how literacy is taught has everything to do with race, class, culture and identity, and any reporting or reform that ignores this is missing or misrepresenting reality.
- Ultimately, our failure to teach all students to read is a failure of our ability to improve instruction that starts with well-researched ideas, and is molded by professional educators into individualized pathways to a common outcome: powerful literacies. Conclusion: We should be more focused on improving instruction than disproving philosophy.
Contrasting approaches are rarely explored with genuine curiosity as starting points for rigorous improvement based on practice-generated evidence of effectiveness (e.g., in classrooms rather than in lab settings). They are religions unto themselves, complete with leaders, deities, catchphrases, measures of fidelity, branded tote bags and pledges of allegiance that blind people to the pitfalls and possibilities each one carries. The leaders of one routinely dismiss the ideas of the other, and their followers follow suit, often without a full understanding of that which they dismiss. This won’t go away with the next pendulum swing.
So, before we take the usual “ready, fire, aim” approach and swing back toward phonics-focused instruction, let’s not assume any one approach has the monopoly on authoritative research. Let’s not just sound the alarm when we notice students struggling, but actually build in some improvements when whatever path we’re on leaves some students behind.
The question we should be asking in investigative reports, board meetings and individual classrooms is not, “Have we gone the wrong way?” The questions should be: “What is working here, when and for whom, and what can we improve?” Or at the very least: “As we go this way, who becomes vulnerable, and how do we support them?” BOLDING IS MINE.
Shaming and blaming public schools for how they have attempted to manage the complex and sacred task of teaching reading will make the swing back toward phonics so rigid, narrow and self-righteous that it will certainly fail and come bounding back toward more holistic approaches with all their pitfalls and possibilities in a decade.
Instead of raising an alarm about current practices and running in the opposite direction, we should follow educators and neuroscientists who are genuinely curious about the complexity of literacy and of individuals:
- Leaders who are thoughtfully experimenting with the possibilities of matching individual readers with individualized supports, regardless of who came up with them
- Leaders who understand the structures, pressures and realities of classrooms in different settings
- Leaders who are more invested in starting with sound scientific ideas, and improving rapidly and nimbly than being right and proving everyone else wrong
- Leaders who learn from the failures and excesses of the past and work to change the very thinking and tools that failed in the first place.
It is time to change the thinking from rigid “either-or choices” in literacy instruction to responsive “yes-ands” that engage children’s unique pathways to literacy.”
First I will acknowledge that this article calls all sides to task about the current dialogue (or lack of it). Second I would like to suggest a path that we might follow. Instead of mandating statewide or nationwide content, content based on one side or the other, we should leave it up to the local districts to make the final decisions. Local districts know their children the best. Local districts can look at all the positions and adopt and develop curriculum/teaching methods that best fit those kids. Local districts can demand that programs/curricula considered for adoption be based on reading tests, implemented on a district-wide basis and done successfully over several years. Overall, I think Gabriel’s article dovetails nicely with my ideas that it is time for ALL sides to talk to one another rather than bicker LINK (see part two of the post). Overall I think it makes a great case for improving reading instruction using the SCIENCES of Reading.
Dr. Sam Bommarito (aka, the guy in the middle taking flak from all sides)
Copyright 2021 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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