It’s Not Settled Science: A look at Pearson and Tierney’s new book & my musing about best reading practices by Dr. Sam Bommarito

It’s Not Settled Science: A look at Pearson and Tierney’s new book & my musing about best reading practices by Dr. Sam Bommarito

I’ll begin by saying that this is not a review of Tierney and Pearson’s new book, A History of Literacy Education: Waves of Research and Practice. I am saving that for another time. Rather it is a discussion of the state of the dialogue around the best ways to teach reading.  Several things from the new book helped me expand and clarify my thinking around that issue. Despite numerous claims to the contrary, the key takeaway is this, the issue of how to teach reading is not a settled science.

I’ve written many times about the limits and limitations of the so-called Science of Reading movement, LINK1, LINK 2, LINK 3. I have talked about my position, which is essentially centrist. I advocate looking at the issue of how to teach reading using tools like Cambourne and Crouch’s quilt metaphor. Cambourne and Crouch argue that rather than looking at the issue of reading instructional practices as a dichotomy (the reading wars), it is more useful to view it as a quilt of varied instructional practices.  I think it makes sense to look at and use things from all the many resources on that quilt. This means rather than forcing a one size fits all solution on all children, we should instead find the part of the “quilt of instructional practices” that fits each particular child. Here are some key excerpts from Tierney and Pearson’s book that I believe reinforce taking that kind of centrist stance. 

On the question of, is there a Science of Reading?

“When the editors of the Reading Research Quarterly invited scholars to submit articles to address this topic, we had envisioned more debate and adamant views. We predicted poorly. The contributors were restrained in their general characterization of the state of reading instruction, the preparation of teachers, and the state of student achievement. Our reading of the separate articles suggested that there was a general consensus that we were ‘not there yet’ relative to science being able to offer guidance to teachers about teaching and learning for diverse classrooms and learners.”

The book goes on to quote Yaden, Reinking and Smagorinsky (in press), who argue that the narrow focus on reading is misguiding and misdirected…  they suggest that SOR:

     “Relies on a limited conception of science; ignores relevant environmental factors and …uncritically accepts experimentation as the only valid approach to social science inquiry in literacy … leading to the oversimplification of understanding the nature of the reading process, of teaching reading and of conducting research into effective reading pedagogies. The conception of science embedded in SOR research reduces reading to a technical exercise that eliminates critical variables that follow from how the vicissitudes of living in a complex physical and social world contribute to how people read, why they read and how they experience reading instruction.”

The book then turns to what Tim Shanahan had to say in his recent RRQ article.

“Yet no matter how good the ideas of basic research they must be tried out instructionally and shown to be beneficial in improving reading ability or its dispersion in some way before they should be recommended to educators and policymakers (Shanahan 2020, p. 241).”

My take on the preceding ideas: 

Most important is the fact that the claim that SOR is settled is debunked. A reading of the recent RRQ articles shows, as the book states, that “we are not there yet.” I talked about and gave links to the content of those articles in a recent blog post LINK. Readers are invited to review the summaries of those articles provided by that link to see if the assessment that “we are not there yet” is justified. I anticipate that most readers will concur with that view.  My mantra over the past few years has been to consider ALL the research.  This means including qualitative and quantitative research. Too often, in their public relations campaign to promote their particular methods, SOME (not all) SOR advocates treat qualitative research as weak. My research training taught me that in terms of quantitative vs. qualitative research, one form of research is not inherently better or worse than the other. They both have a place and a role to play in helping to inform our decisions. Purely quantitative approaches run the risk of leaving out critical factors. Some SOR advocates focus on a select few cherry-picked quantitative research papers while ignoring or debunking other quantitative and qualitative research findings that fail to support their preferred methods. So, one of the things I will continue to advocate for is to consider ALL the research when making decisions about what literacy practices to use.

What about the politicization of reading and literacy that has occurred? On page 219, Tierney and Pearson have the following to say:

“The politicization of reading and literacy is particularly evident in the ways in which some educators marked ideas and suggestions for reform as ‘best practice’. For example, in Australia, Jennifer Buckingham has been hugely influential positioning her own reading program ( In the United States, Emily Hanford uses blogs and tweets to selectively represent her position on dyslexia as well as what she deems essential reading pedagogy (e.g., Hanford, 2018; Loewus, 2019). The politicization of their position is most apparent in their efforts to introduce legislation in several states mandating certain emphases to the exclusion of eclecticism and restrictions on the role of teacher decision making.”

They then elaborate on this chilling turn of events in the current dialogue around the best ways to teach reading on page 222. In what they call a compelling critique of the attacks on the quality of teachers and their preparation, they quote Hoffman et al.:

“The SOR is being used to silence the literacy teacher preparation community through its unfounded claims regarding what matters, what is known and what must be done. To question these claims or inquire into their scientific base (as many have done) is met with charges of ignorance, incompetence and/or ideological bias….”

My take on the preceding

I have, on several occasions, raised the question of whether the SOR advocates have met the “gold standard” of research. That would mean providing evidence that the practices being advocated were tried out over an extended period of time, IN ACTUAL SCHOOL DISTRICTS, and that the measures of success for those practices include using tests of reading that measure both decoding and comprehension.  Careful examination of the evidence they give to support their position has never produced anything close to meeting that requirement. Yet, they are insisting that their recommended practices be exclusively adopted at the state level.

The effect of this stance is that they take away the right of the local school districts to decide what is best. While it may be true that some districts make bad choices or fail to implement their good choices, it is equally true that there are many districts that do find things that work well for their children. It makes sense to me that such decisions properly belong at the district level. The districts are in a position to know the students they serve the best. A state-level or national-level decision runs the risk of making decisions that are a good fit for some but a really bad fit for others. As a practicing teacher for over 50 years, I have found that the fact is what works for one child doesn’t necessarily work for another. That fact helps to explain why the pendulum of reading instruction seems to swing from one extreme to the other. As I said in my original post entitled The Reading Evolution: Finding a Path to End the Reading Wars:

“The swinging pendulum has become the defining feature about what has become known as the reading wars. The problem is that after each and every swing, the folks who call for replacing the old way of doing things are quite confident, they have finally found THE WAY to solve things.  They insist that all old practices be dropped and replaced by the newest soup de jour. Invariably what happens is that the new way helps many, but not all. Eventually, this new way becomes the old way and is replaced yet again. The pendulum continues to swing. My proposed solution to this conundrum is simple.  Instead of insisting on throwing away everything that’s come before and starting over, we should instead tweak what we have. This would require both sides (all sides) to admit that their particular way of doing things is not THE SOLUTION. It also means that their particular way has limits and limitations. It would follow that all sides might have things to learn from what folks in different positions are saying. Effectively it means trying something that we’ve never before tried in the history of teaching reading. That is leaving the pendulum in the middle, talking to one another, learning from one another, and putting together a system that helps as many children as possible by using the best ideas of all the approaches.”

LINK to the blog

In conclusion

I think the information from Pearson and Tierney’s new book provides further support for taking a centrist view toward the issue of best practices in reading. At the end of the chapter entitled The Era of Reform Contestation and Debate, they cite the International Literacy Association views about “evidence-based” practices. They note that the IRA’s position paper states that “Time and again research has confirmed that regardless of the quality of a program resource or strategy it is the teacher and learning situation that make the difference (Bond & Dyskstra, 1967/1997).” In my view, the best path to good literacy practices lies in empowering teachers by helping them become adept in the teaching of many practices. That is the best way to ensure that each child will get the reading instruction that best suits them. Let districts decide what programs fit their particular children. Thanks to my readers for considering these remarks.

Dr. Sam Bommarito, aka the centrist who uses ideas from all sides to inform his teaching

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.

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.

Here is a link for ordering the Tierney & Pearson’s book:

(Coming soon- a special summer edition of the Missouri Reader, which deals with the issues surrounding the current dialogue around best practices in reading)

Let's talk! What do you think?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.