Common Sense and Common Practices: The Case for Taking a more Centrist Position in the Ongoing Dialogue About the Teaching of Reading by Dr. Sam Bommarito

This blog entry previews the content of the upcoming special issue of The Missouri Reader. The Missouri Reader is a peer-reviewed professional journal.  It has been published for over four decades.  In the way of full disclosure, I am the Co-Editor of The Missouri Reader.

I began my teaching career in 1970. Over the years I have taught every grade from Kindergarten to Graduate School. I retired from full time teaching in 2015 and have since become a national reading consultant. I also push into selected primary grade classes to help students with reading and writing.  A little over three years ago I began a weekly blog about literacy issues. In this blog entry I would like to summarize what I have been saying over the past three years. In a nutshell the position I have taken is this: There are no one size fits all solutions. What works with one student/group of students does not always work with another. Accordingly, the most sensible course of action in choosing literacy programs is a centrist approach. Foundational to that centrist approach is that programs should be adopted based on how well they fit the needs of the particular student(s) being served. My mantra has been “Fit the program to the child, not the other way around”.

But wait! What about the recent assertions of folks claiming to represent THE Science of Reading? That group seems to think they have the answer(s), they have the solution(s) that work for all. They further stipulate that these solutions should be adopted by all districts nationally. I’ve looked in depth at the implications of the claims of this group, LINK1, LINK2, LINK3. What I’ve found is that not everyone agrees that they do represent THE science of reading, nor does everyone agree that they have presented sufficient evidence to prove what they do works for almost every child, almost every time. They have shown things that work with some children some of the time. They in fact represent one of many points of view that have lately been dubbed the sciences of reading.  LINK4.

In a soon to be published article in The Missouri Reader, Dr. William Kerns examined the recent issues of the Reading Research Quarterly and made the following observations:

“Alexander (2020) pointed out that a focus on debates between phonics-centric approaches and approaches that emphasize whole word recognition run the risk of belying the complexity of the reading process. Instead, Alexander proposes that research and teaching in the field needs to carefully consider the lifelong process of developing literacy skills, and the influenced by social and cultural factors in addition to the importance of building skill in reading digital texts.”

Kerns goes on to say that the importance of factors beyond decoding debates was echoed by multiple articles in recent issues of the Reading Research Quarterly. These articles included calls for discourse on literacy to include reading of digital texts, the connection between reading and writing and the importance of drawing on context in the reading process. Kerns maintains that the debates over the science of reading can be critiqued on the ground of being too narrowly focused on traditional forms of reading skills, while ignoring constructs such as the role of social justice and critical literacy in the curriculum and the differing needs of bilingual or multilingual readers compared with students whose only language is English.

There have been a number of articles in the national press indicating that the narrow view that some supporters of the Science of Reading have taken has not produced a consensus on the part of reading experts on what the best way(s) to teach reading is. Here is an excerpt from one of those articles. It was written by Valerie Strauss, a reporter for the Washington Post  and features the views of  David Reinking, professor emeritus at Clemson University and a former president of the Literacy Research Association; Victoria J. Risko, professor emerita at Vanderbilt University and a former president of the International Literacy Association; and George G. Hruby, an associate research professor of literacy and executive director of the Collaborative Center for Literacy Development at the University of Kentucky.  LINK5

  • More worrisome, a majority of states have enacted, or are considering, new laws mandating how reading must be taught and setting narrow criteria for labeling students as reading disabled.
  • These themes make for a compelling journalistic narrative and they can benefit for-profit interests outside mainstream education, particularly during a pandemic when many parents are seeking help teaching reading at home. But, they also obscure established evidence that teaching reading is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor (underlining is mine). Overlooked is the common ground shared by those who draw different conclusions on the finer points of available research.
  • Instead, reasonable differences exist along a continuum. On one end are those who see phonics as the foundation of learning to read for all students. To them, phonics — lots of it — is the essential ingredient that ensures success for all students learning to read, and it must be mastered before other dimensions of reading are taught.
  • On the other end are those who see phonics as only one among many dimensions of learning to read — one that gains potency when integrated with meaningfully engaged reading and writing, with vocabulary and language development, with instruction aimed at increasing comprehension and fluency, and so forth.
  • One example is a critical review of several meta-analyses (comprehensive statistical analyses of effects across hundreds of studies), which was published recently in a highly regarded, peer-reviewed journal. It found no clear advantage for programs with a strong emphasis on phonics compared to those foregrounding other approaches (click on this).

It is time for all teachers and educators to stop insisting that all educators use methods that support their particular theory about how reading should be taught regardless of whether those particular practices work for a particular child and regardless of whether most experts in the reading field think those practices work at all.  Instead, educators should consider using practices from all the various approaches to reading- using the practices that work best for the student(s) they serve.  

There are several important models to consider. Here are some of the most prominent models.

Cambourne’s Model of Learning

Scarborough’s Rope (The Simple View of Reading)

The Active View of Reading- This figure is taken from the article by Nell K. Duke University of Michigan & Kelly B. Cartwright Christopher Newport The Science of Reading Progresses: Communicating Advances Beyond the Simple View of Reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 0(0) pp. 1–20 | doi:10.1002/rrq.411 © 2021 Reading Research Quarterly published by Wiley Periodicals LLC on behalf of International Literacy Association. A link to the article as well as an article overview with additional tables from the article will appear in the June issue of The Missouri Reader.

Readers should know my dissertation, done in 2004, was about the reading wars of that era. My conclusions may surprise some. I found that the teachers using whole language vs teachers using traditional approaches, the polar opposites of those days, had more reading practices in common than practices that separated them. That makes me hopeful there is more common ground and more room for common practices than one might assume based on some of the bitter and divisive dialogue that surrounds this topic today.  Instead of building our conversations around false dichotomies and questions that divide us, perhaps it is time to drop the use of the term “reading wars” and move on to a different way to frame the dialogue around reading instruction.  In the upcoming issue of The Missouri Reader, Cambourne and Crouch have a proposal that does exactly that. Here are some excerpts/observations about their idea:

“Another widely accepted conceptual metaphor is that of a ‘reading war.’ The metaphor of the ‘reading wars’ has positioned classroom instruction as a battlefield and teachers as the soldiers who must choose sides. The war, presented as competing pedagogies, resurfaces within the professional bodies representing reading education regularly, many times fueled by the media’s tendency to polarize the debate.”

After detailing the origins of the “reading wars” metaphor, Cambourne and Crouch explain how the adoption of that metaphor has had negative effects on the whole issue of how we deal with and talk about literacy issues. They suggest adopting a new metaphor:

“We suggest a metaphor of quilting might more aptly describe the realities of most learning experiences. Quilting invokes a purposeful process of selecting and creatively reshaping existing pieces of fabric in new and interesting ways, reflecting the definition of creativity offered by Jacob Getzel and Philip Jackson (1962). We believe this way of thinking more accurately describes the reality of most classrooms. Whatever metaphor is held and used, it is crucial for educators to become consciously aware of how these metaphors influence their instructional language and behaviors. Educators need to ask themselves this question: Are the embedded metaphors in the language I use and my behaviors aligned with my values and beliefs about learning and learners?”

My own take on all this is simple. Let’s accept that that no one methodology has shown itself to work with almost every child almost every time, in spite of claims to the contrary. Every approach has limits and limitations. There are important things to be learned from every approach (and yes I include SOR in that observation). There is much more to be said around these ideas. I invite readers to have a careful look at the upcoming issue of The Missouri Reader. It will deal with the topic of how we should teach reading.  It will deal with the topic of the “The Reading Wars” and will include the full article by Camborne and Couch about how to change the metaphor for the dialogue around the issue of how to teach reading.  We also hope to detail the ideas of Tim Rasinski with his proposition that the teaching of reading is both art and science, and the ideas of Eric Litwin about the importance of the joy of reading and the role that motivation plays in the reading process. In June, I will write a blog post about the special issue. That blog post will contain a link to the journal and include further thoughts around the issues raised in this current post.   

For now, I will say, perhaps it is possible to “talk more and bicker less”.  It is time to take a serious look at the common ground and common practices that exist in today dialogue around the process of how to teach reading. I think if we did that everyone would benefit, especially the children we serve. Thanks for considering these thoughts. I hope you will come back in June to have a look at our special edition.

Happy Reading and Writing

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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3 thoughts on “Common Sense and Common Practices: The Case for Taking a more Centrist Position in the Ongoing Dialogue About the Teaching of Reading by Dr. Sam Bommarito

    1. doctorsam7 Post author

      Thank you as well. Be on the lookout for when the special edition of the Missouri Reader comes out in June. There will be a number of great articles by a number of literacy leaders. When it does come out please share the link to it widely. Happy Reading and Writing. Dr. Sam

  1. williamkerns

    Love this. It’s my favorite blog of yours so far. I agree with the quilting approach and am attracted to interactive models of reading (Rumelhart; Stanovich) as well as the new literacies (Leu; Reinking) that drawing on both bottom-up and top-down approaches in an interactive way, so that readers can interchangeably use these strategies. At UALR the preservice teachers in my classes definitely learn things SOR advocates advocate as important; but I’m not disregarding comprehension strategies or the ZPD and scaffolding techniques either.


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