Finding Common Ground and Common Sense: More Thoughts About the Current Dialogue Around the Teaching of Reading by Dr. Sam Bommarito

Finding Common Ground and Common Sense: More Thoughts About the Current Dialogue Around the Teaching of Reading by Dr. Sam Bommarito

I taught several courses in how to teach reading for a number of decades. I often began those courses by promising my teachers a list of all the methods that work with every single child every single time. I would then project a transparency (that was a really long time ago), or a power point (more recently) onto the screen.  The resulting picture was always blank.  The point was made. There is no one size fits all answer when it comes to teaching reading. What works with one child/group of children, does not always work with another. If all sides in the dialogue about how to best teach reading would be willing to admit that their favorite method(s) have limits and limitations and that they could sometimes use a little help from methods they usually don’t use, I think the current dialogue around how to teach reading could become more productive.. There are a number of things we can and should do to end the bickering (as opposed to dialogue) that has all too often dominated our conversations about reading.

1. The first thing to do is to change our view of what the dialogue is about. In a soon to be published article in the Missouri Reader Metaphors Matter: Changing the Metaphor Brian Cambourne and Debra Crouch suggest the following:

“Instead of a pendulum metaphor or a war metaphor, both of which imply sides, stances, and diametrically opposed viewpoints, the profession needs a metaphor which honors each learner’s construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction of meaning. This is true for the whole range of learners found in learning settings. Everyone—young children, classroom teachers, leaders of schools, parents, and beyond—is learning together.

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? The way we answer this question should ultimately determine how we approach professional discussions and go about teaching children to read and write. As cited in Rothman’s original piece on the ‘reading wars (1990),’ Steven Stahl, professor of education at the University of Illinois, suggested “the real hope for a consensus in reading is with teachers…[Teachers] are inherently reasonable…[They] get the best things out of whatever’s out there…[If] there is a synthesis, it’s going on in the classroom.”

2. The second is to include ALL the relevant research in the dialogue. That means including both qualitative and quantitative research. Let’s remember that both qualitative and quantitative research are both able to answer the crucial question- how likely is it that the results of the study are simply from chance? One of the most comprehensive looks at recent research can be found in the Reading Research Quarterly’s Executive Summary. I’ve written about this document before. Here is a link to the Summary:

Of special interest are these titles:

1. “Using Context as an Assist in Word Solving: The Contributions of 25 Years of Research on the Interactive Strategies Approach” by Donna M. Scanlon and Kimberly L. Anderson pp

4. “It’s Time to Be Scientific About Dyslexia” by Julian G. Elliott pp

12. “How the Reading for Understanding Initiative’s Research Complicates the Simple View of Reading Invoked in the Science of Reading” by Gina N. Cervetti, P. David Pearson, Annemarie S. Palincsar, Peter Afflerbach, Panayiota Kendeou, Gina Biancarosa, Jennifer Higgs, Miranda S. Fitzgerald, and Amy I. Berman pp

14. “A Confluence of Complexity: Intersections Among Reading Theory, Neuroscience, and Observations of Young Readers” by Catherine F. Compton-Lilly, Ayan Mitra, Mary Guay, and Lucy K. Spence e

17. “What Constitutes a Science of Reading Instruction?” by Timothy Shanahan

Overall, this document clearly demonstrates there is not yet a consensus among reading researchers on what constitutes the science of reading and best practices in reading. The views of researchers are best described as a continuum. This excerpt from a Washington Post Article written by Valerie Strauss, details the work of several prominent literacy figures: David Reinking, Victoria J. Risko and George G. Hruby. It sums up the position that the current state of the art can be best represented by a continuum not a consensus:

“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. (For an extended discussion, click on this.)”

The third thought is that all of us must be willing to adapt and change our ideas. In some cases this means considering ideas from the “other side”.  Jennifer Seravallo’s new chapter for her best selling book, Reading Strategies does exactly that. In my view she builds upon word recognition strategies from her original book, and then adds new strategies that use recent research on decoding. Assuming you already own the book, you can access the new chapter at the Heinemann website.  Use the directions you will find there. Here is a brief sample of some of the things she has to say in the new chapter:

Blevins (2016) warns, ‘If they are given texts in which they have to rely on [high-frequency] words, context, and picture clues to figure out or even guess words, that’s what they will think reading is. This might work for them for a while, especially through about mid-Grade 1 when texts are short and simple and there is a close picture-text match. However, as soon as these supports are taken away the students’ reading falls apart From Seravallo’s New Chapter Three.’

While some folks are making this out to be a major break from past thinking- a quick check of her original chapter includes things like to read left to right: Gl-a-d or asking “do I know any parts” e.g.  Sw – ing (see page 85). As you consider all this be sure to use Cambourne and Debra Crouch’s Quilting metaphor. What is happening here is not one side winning over another. What is happening is simply new pieces being added to the quilt. The only winners here are the kids that benefit from using a variety of methods.  

My fourth thought is there are a number of models about the reading process/thinking process that all educators should become familiar with. I recently wrote a blog post about that:

If you visit this post be sure to especially notice Nell Duke’s new model. I think discussion around her ideas would help to move the dialogue around the teaching of reading to a less contentious place, a place where more common ground could be found.

My final thought is that the current move to mandate selected practices and to outlaw others is counterproductive and is the antithesis of how a free society should operate.  In my opinion, decisions about program adoptions should be made at the district level, not mandated at a state or national level. As noted in section 2 of this blog entry, despite claims to the contrary, there is not yet a consensus among reading researchers on what constitutes the science of reading/best practices in reading. So, there is no body of research that clearly mandates one set of practices over another. As noted previously, “reasonable differences exist along a continuum”.   Districts should be allowed to choose from practices along that continuum. I cannot ever remember a time when the materials of some publishers are effectively banned, or when the materials of some publishers are mandated by law. Yet that is happening today.  Doing this effectively usurps the power of local districts.  In sum, I think educators should consider ALL the data and empower districts to act on that data based on what they know about the particular population they serve.

Last year, I wrote an article for Literacy Today entitled Argue less, talk more. I hope this blog entry and the upcoming issue of The Missouri Reader can provide the impetus to do just that. Let’s all get together and make that quilt. The kids need it!

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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1 thought on “Finding Common Ground and Common Sense: More Thoughts About the Current Dialogue Around the Teaching of Reading by Dr. Sam Bommarito

  1. Lynda

    Finally !! Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater ..balance the diet..not too much of one thing .Ever.


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