The Sciences of Reading Part 3- The Reading Research Quarterly Executive Summary/Thoughts About Comments Concerning Last Week’s Post by Dr. Sam Bommarito

The Sciences of Reading Part 3- The Reading Research Quarterly Executive Summary/Thoughts About Comments Concerning Last Week’s Post

This week I’m wrapping up the topic of the Sciences of Reading and dealing with a couple of issues raised by critics of my first two posts. By the way, collectively, those posts have gotten almost 10,000 views, and their response has been overwhelmingly positive.

First, Let’s see what The Reading Research Quarterly Executive Summary has to say about the Science of Reading.   Here is the link.

These are taken directly from the summary:

“As coeditors of RRQ, a leading global journal that provides the latest research and scholarship on literacy, we saw an opportunity to put together a special issue of the journal focused on what’s at the heart of this debate: science. Our goal for this project was never to decide which is the “right” side of the debate but to help us be better consumers and creators of information. The compilation of articles in this special issue, as well as those that will appear in the second special issue in spring 2021, examine SOR through a broader, more inclusive lens. Together, these pieces bring a supportive and critical perspective to the conversations, and identify next steps for the field.”

It goes on to say:

“We started to solicit opinions on SOR and what the term meant to people both in and outside of the field. It quickly became clear that, not only was there no single definition, there was also no consensus as to what has been cited to inform theory, research, policy, and practice in the name of SORBOLDING MINE

It also indicates:

“What is important here is that the authors almost universally emphasized that narrow interpretations of SOR (often taken up by the media to make its way into practice, policies, and schools) are problematicBOLDING MINE Taken together, the articles in this special issue suggest that SOR is both a body of knowledge (defined broadly by researchers and scholars) and an interpretation of that body of knowledge (often defined narrowly by audiences outside the academy). The authors in this special issue push back on the idea that SOR be characterized by support for or opposition to phonics instruction.”


The appendix of this document contains 26 key points to consider. Overall, my takeaway from these points supports the notion that the narrow interpretations of SOR that have found their way into the media are incomplete, sometimes inaccurate and counterproductive. Some things that caught my attention in the RRQ paper include:

” results from six experimental studies to suggest the ‘value of teaching students to use both alphabetic and contextual information in word solving in interactive and confirmatory ways.’ Unlike the position advocated by SOR groups who criticize use of the three-cueing system, Scanlon and Anderson emphasize that “the thrust of our argument is that the use of context can be a valuable assist for word solving both when a student’s knowledge of the code is still developing and when inconsistencies in English orthography result in only an approximate pronunciation of a word.” From section one.

“that the lack of clarity in terminology weakens our understanding of dyslexia. Elliot writes, “Despite the vast proliferation of scientific research, our understanding of dyslexia is marked by serious weaknesses of conceptualization, definition, and operationalization that are not only unscientific, but also result in impoverished practice in schools, social inequity in both understanding and provision for many struggling readers, and ultimately, reduced life chances for millions of students worldwide.” From Section 4.

“Overall, the authors push on the narrow conceptualization of SOR and also suggest that multicomponent language interventions may be helpful, as they “have tended to be more effective in improving reading and listening comprehension than single-component interventions have (e.g., Connor et al., 2018).” From Section 12.

“emphasizes that reading is complex and multifaceted. The authors explore “a confluence of complexity across: (a) theoretical models of reading based on empirical research, (b) emerging information related to the brain and reading, and (c) research findings based on close observations of young learners.” This embracing of the complexity of reading “challenges instructional approaches (e.g., structured literacy) that deny or ignore the multidimensional and networked nature of young learners’ reading processes and/or unique literacy learning trajectories.” From Section 14

“If our goal is to determine how best to teach reading, then we must rely on data that evaluate the effectiveness of teaching, rather than depending solely or even mainly on studies of reading processes or of other non-instructional phenomena, which are then applied to teaching through analogy or logical deduction or from premature conclusions drawn from empirical investigations that do no more than describe or correlate. The role of basic research in shaping instruction quite appropriately lies either in identifying pedagogical innovations that can be evaluated through studies of instruction or in providing evidence that further buttresses or explains the results of such experimental pedagogical study.” From Section 17

“in contrast to the SOR’s instruction of skills in isolation, adaptive teaching emphasizes an approach to pedagogy that focuses on teaching within authentic opportunities for learning, valuing the individuality of students, and connecting their cultural and linguistic strengths (Duffy, 2005; Fairbanks et al., 2010; Gambrell, Hughes, Calvert, Malloy, & Igo, 2011; Purcell-Gates, Duke, & Martineau, 2007; Purcell-Gates, Duke, & Stouffer, 2016). Adaptive teachers are flexible and skilled at teaching reading, using knowledge of reading acquisition and embedding instruction within students’ instructional needs and their rich literacies, cultures, and backgrounds.” Bolding is mine Section 22

My Conclusions:

All these takeaways from this document lead me to the conclusion that I stated earlier. The pronouncements of SOME, not all, of the SOR folks who indicate they have found the one true path that we all must follow are at best premature and are, at worst.  completely misleading and counterproductive. On the one hand it is entirely true that we need to do a much better job of providing all teachers the basic knowledge they need about teaching decoding and especially develop in them a more complete understanding of orthography.  On the other hand, however, we can’t discount the decades of work around the reading process/meaning-making part. We must teach students how to use both alphabetic and contextual information in the process of word solving. We must also teach our teachers how to scaffold children into using comprehension strategies- using instructional models based on gradual release. There is no one size fits all solution. LINK

Most of all, we need to learn to listen to one another and learn from each other’s craft.  I had one comment about last week’s blog postings & tweets indicating that balanced literacy advocates encourage readers to memorize whole words. She maintained that Kindergarteners taking part in a model video of choral reading were not reading at all.  They were simply regurgitating the text entirely from memory. A careful study of the program being used would reveal that the children from that video take part in word work on a daily basis and are using a systematic phonics program. They are not just reading from memory.  By the way, they are also encouraged to talk about what they have learned about what they’ve read.

Taking such narrow, inaccurate views about what “the other side” is doing is not limited to SOR folks. I’ve heard some balanced literacy folks intimate that using a systematic phonics approach precludes children from ever doing meaning-making. I visited an EBLI site, which has a strong SOR focus. It uses a form of systematic phonics. I promise you there is more on their minds than simply decoding. Their children do talk about their stories, and EBLI uses a full reading test for their program evaluation. I’ve said before, let’s argue less and talk more.  It’s time for ALL sides to do that.

At the end of the day, I believe that the solution to the problem of how to best teach reading doesn’t lie in adopting this program or that one.  I believe it lies in creating the kind of teachers that can make effective use of many programs. These teachers should be allowed to adapt what they do to best fit the child. Districts should have a variety of programs to choose from. The final decision of what program to use should be made by the district. They are the ones that know their children best. Mandating one size fits all programs at a state or national level guarantees that some districts will find that there is no program available that fits their children.

I am a firm believer in fitting the program to the child, not the other way around.  One of my critics last week indicated that I was guilty of pie in the sky thinking. She intimated that there are too many young, inexperienced teachers and that they would not be able to learn such things. I must respectfully disagree. Districts can and do use mentor teachers to help beginning teachers in that kind of situation. It is time to create the kind of teachers described in section 22. These teachers are  “Adaptive teachers (who) are flexible and skilled at teaching reading, using knowledge of reading acquisition and embedding instruction within students’ instructional needs and their rich literacies, cultures, and backgrounds.” It’s time to task those teachers with the job of implementing the programs. It’s time for teachers, not programs, to be the key to improving reading instruction. I think everyone would do well to read and reread The First Grade Studies (Guy Bond & Robert Dykstra, 1967/1997). LINK I’ve talked about them before. It’s been over 50 years since this pioneering comprehensive study first concluded that teachers make more difference than programs. Isn’t it well past time for us to act on that finding?

4 thoughts on “The Sciences of Reading Part 3- The Reading Research Quarterly Executive Summary/Thoughts About Comments Concerning Last Week’s Post by Dr. Sam Bommarito

  1. Rocket Scientist

    So you make it appear as though teachers with a strong base in the SOR are inflexible and can only teach skills in isolation. The programs that I’m trained in actually don’t teach skills in isolation, they just teach them systematically and explicitly so that students are given the information and allowed sufficient time to practice to mastery rather than asked to guess or rely on background knowledge as most “balanced” programs do. BUT my main point is that teachers who follow the SOR also know how to do your “balanced” programs. Literally anyone with a heartbeat (yes, our cold SOR hearts do beat) could teach a balanced literacy program and that’s part of the reason why they are so popular with such a high turnover rate in education and minimally prepared teachers entering the workforce. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for “balanced literacy” folks being able to teach SOR. Most of them will randomly work on phonics skills in no apparent order relying on things like mentor texts or the phonics rules that just so happen to apply to the names of students in the class (and even then, don’t explain the rule with the precision of SOR “the vowels in Eli’s name make the long sound! Vowels have 2 sounds! You have to try both! Flippy dolphin!” ETC. When really it’s because Eli’s name has 2 open syllables and the vowels in open syllables are long. And that’s just one example.)

    So my point is, my SOR pals and I can do read alouds and share our love of reading with our students just as much as Mother Goose herself, but we can also provide systematic, explicit instruction in phonics that enables even the most challenged readers and English language learners to thrive. Does the bubbliness of Balanced Literacy help when your former students are locked up in a jail cell where they are finally able to get screened for dyslexia and given the appropriate intervention? You guys act like dyslexics make up a small percentage, but anyone who has actually stepped foot in a classroom knows that’s not the case. This is especially true in lower socioeconomic areas where kids are not screened as regularly and parents can’t afford interventions.

    So it’s not that we are against all of balanced literacy (just the parts that aim to teach students to use compensatory strategies because you don’t know how to teach them phonics rules that will help them be excellent readers and spellers throughout their lives, or teaching phonics rules based on pinterest anchor charts or TPT as they come up, or not recognizing that kids can’t comprehend what they can’t decode, ok there’s a lot we’re against), but we just want teachers to be able to teach phonics systematically and explicitly. If you can do that, you can have teachers twirling around with their books in a magical Mary Poppins way the rest of the time and that would be A – OK with us. Shoot we would join you joyfully!

    The problem is if you encourage your teachers to learn how to teach phonics systematically and explicitly, they might find out how most of what you claim about SOR is largely inaccurate and how the 3-cueing system, predictive and repetitive texts, having students read or spell words with spellings they haven’t yet learned, and random mini-lessons without explicit practice are all ineffective teaching strategies in literacy. Oh and people with Masters and PhDs in the field might start feeling like they wasted their time and money, we wouldn’t want that.

    “But balanced literacy works for some kids!!” you say. Yes that’s true. But do you want to be in the camp that excludes learners??? It’s ok with you that it works for SOME kids? When SOR works for all?? And what do your teachers do when they encounter those kids who can’t learn this way?? Down the prison pipeline they go. How do you even sleep at night knowing that?

    1. doctorsam7 Post author

      Your reply makes me think of the Shanahan post where he accused some of the SOR advocates as “just making stuff up”. The claims that SOR works for all have no basis in real fact. Show that using testing of READING not tests of decoding. Also have a look at this link from What Works Clearinghouse. Shows that SOR is no where near showing that help every child every time. Your disdain for Balanced Reading and lack of knowledge about it are both painfully evident. I visited many sites successfully using balanced reading. How can this be if it doesn’t work? Your use of sarcasm makes it evident that your reply is much more a public relations piece than anything remotely resembling academic inquiry. BTW, please provide a study showing balanced reading is the failure you claim it is. That study must contain a scientific sample of districts doing balanced reading with fidelity. In addition, it needs to use measurements of reading not decoding. Then the study needs to compare that sample to a sample of districts doing SOR with fidelity. Name the study- then I will be happy to continue this discussion. Have a pleasant evening.

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