It’s time to fundamentally change the dialogue around the issue of how to teach beginning reading: The case for taking a centrist position by Dr. Sam Bommarito

This past Thursday night, I took part in a fascinating book club discussion around Eric Litwin’s book, The Power of Joyful Reading LINK. Eric was present for the book club, and he had many interesting things to say. What he had to say is very much pertinent to the upcoming special edition of The Missouri Reader that is scheduled to come out next weekend. That issue will focus on the question of where we are in the “great debate” on the issue of how to teach beginning reading best.  Basically, Eric said that too often, we focus on all the wrong things, e.g., analytic phonics vs. synthetic phonics and do not focus on the central question of how to best teach reading. That question is, “How can we take full advantage of the power of joyful reading?” For me, that means making sure the key goal of any reading program is to create lifelong readers (and writers). I feel that the answer to the question of how to cut through the gordian knot of best ways to teach reading can come from considering the following question:

“How can we fundamentally shift the dialogue from the current ‘us/them’ approach we seem to be taking in our current talks around the question of best approaches to teaching reading into a dialogue based on the quilt metaphor?”

The talking points I have developed for our upcoming special edition of The Missouri Reader issue will delve into the issues raised by the so-called reading wars. They are designed to shift the conversation from an adversarial one to a cooperative one.  Taken together, I hope that the following talking points make a powerful argument for taking a more cooperative, centrist approach to the issue of teaching reading. Here are the talking points:

1. Taking an us/them approach, treating the issue of teaching beginning reading as a dichotomy is counterproductive. It guarantees that the Great Debate will turn into what Frank Smith once called The Never-Ending Debate, LINK.

Using the “reading wars” metaphor guarantees that the debate around reading will endlessly swing between extreme positions about teaching reading. See the details about why I think that is the case in section three of this blog post. Because of the inadequacies of the reading wars metaphor,  I advocate for adopting the metaphor that Cambourne and Crouch are suggesting in the upcoming issue of The Missouri Reader LINK. It is the “quilt” metaphor.  There is a quilt of available reading practices. My take on this is that teachers should be allowed to take from the quilt those particular practices that are most likely to help the particular children they are working with. There is a caveat: Teachers must follow district guidelines/policies as they use these various practices.

2. Despite claims to the contrary, the issues around how to best teach beginning reading are not settled science.

I have talked about the Reading Research Quarterly Special Issue: Executive Summary Science of Reading- Supports, Critiques and Questions several times in the past few months. The summary gives us insights into what the top researchers in reading are thinking about this important topic, LINK.  Here is a brief excerpt from the summary of the document:

“In short, a key contribution of this special issue is to clarify that it is not enough to consider the collection of experimental studies conceptualized within SOR; instead, this special issue pushes a broader conceptualization.”

That push for a broader conceptualization of the SOR can be found in Pearson and Tierney’s new book A History of Literacy Education: Waves of Research and Practice.  I recently talked in detail about the content of this book in a recent blog LINK. Here is a key quote  from the book. I used this quote in the blog:

“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.”

In light of the above quote and reading the considerable research around the Science of Reading issue, I stand by my conclusion that it is not yet settled science.

3. The issues around what works have been clouded by misinformation, misrepresentation and misunderstanding about what methods work (or don’t work).  That kind of thing has been carried out by folks from both sides (all sides?).

For example, using the ideas and methods of the SOR approach does not necessarily automatically produce “word callers.”  Using ideas from the SOR approach does not automatically exclude developing readers who comprehend.  Some critics of the SOR methods seem to indicate that both things are true. They do this by drawing on what I consider “strawman tactics,” looking only at those advocates of SOR who take things to the extreme or who implement the tenets of SOR poorly. Don’t get me wrong. I am a critic of those SOR advocates who take the “my way or the highway” positions. LINK, LINK.  But I do try to dialogue with folks who believe in the SOR approach or who are sure that Dyslexia is a real phenomenon.  I find that many of them have ideas that are very much worth considering. LINK, LINK. I even wrote an article for Literacy Today entitle Argue Less, Talk More (pg. 20) LINK. This article outlines how all sides could and should have productive dialogues around this important topic.

One of my earliest blogs proposed the idea of a “reading Evolution” LINK.  

In this entry, I argue that so long as we continue to treat things as a dichotomy (the reading wars), as long as both sides (all sides) take a “my way or the highway” attitude that the pendulum of instruction will continue to swing between extremes.  There is a fact of life in education that most teachers become well aware of. What works with one kid does not necessarily work with another. No one method works with all kids all the time. Accordingly, when the pendulum swings to a particular way of doing things, if folks from that method insist that their method and only their method be used, it is guaranteed that there will be some children for whom that method doesn’t work. What happens next is a call to try something better. We swing to another extreme. For most of my 5-decade career in literacy, I’ve watched the pendulum swing time and again. Isn’t it time for something new? Here is what I suggested in that blog entry:

“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. P.D. Pearson expressed this kind of sentiment in the last round of the reading wars. Have a look: Life in the Radical Middle: A Personal Apology for a Balanced View of Reading.

That is what the “Reading Evolution” is all about. Having teachers who are willing and able to try to find the best methods for each individual child. My mantra has been “fit the program to the child, not the other way around.” No one side wins with the approach. But no one side loses either. The real winners of taking this approach are the students who finally get the instruction that is most likely to help them.

4. There is a real need to consider all research and all forms of research as we wrestle with the problem of how to teach reading, especially beginning reading.

I intend to take an in-depth look at the issue of qualitative vs. quantitative research in future blogs.  For now, I will say this- based on the coursework I’ve had in both approaches, I firmly believe that one is not “better” than the other. Many SOR advocates approach things as if quantitative research should be considered first and foremost, perhaps exclusively. They treat qualitative information as a weak sister at best. I respectfully disagree. We need both to inform our instruction. I say this because doing educational research is a messy business. There are literally hundreds (thousands?) of variables that can come into play. Random assignment can only do so much to overcome this. There are limits to what quantitative studies can tell us. Qualitative work gives us important additional information that can be hidden or lost by using only quantitative information. One of my favorite examples of action research involving both qualitative & quantitative measures can be found in the action research of one of my former professors. I wrote a blog about that LINK. That same professor told of one district that looked at which teachers had the best reading outcomes with students. They then invited those teachers to make suggestions about what practices the district might consider adopting. I thought that was an innovative qualitative-based way of doing things. Bottom line- we need to use both quantitative and qualitative information to inform our instruction.

5. There are hopeful signs that work from both sides (all sides) can lead to further research that can help inform our reading instruction.

For me, Nell Duke is the epitome of what a good researcher is all about. She follows the research where it leads, even when it leads to challenging folks’ long-cherished ideas about reading. Be sure to look at the repost and discussion of her most recent article, where she proposes an improved model of how to deal with teaching reading. It will appear in next week’s Missouri Reader. Here is a preview of that model:

6. The best hope for helping all children does not lie in adopting particular methods. Instead, I believe it lies in empowering teachers by teaching teachers about a variety of different teaching methods and allowing local districts (not state or national mandates) to determine what methods would work best with their particular population.

The International Reading Association has long advocated a policy of using a variety of methods LINK.  Here is a brief excerpt from that statement:

“There is a strong research base supporting this position. Several large-scale studies of reading methods have shown that no one method is better than any other method in all settings and situations (Adams, 1990; Bond & Dykstra, 1967; Foorman et al., 1998; Hoffman, 1994; Stallings, 1975). For every method studied, some children learned to read very well while others had great difficulty.

This is not a new finding. For example, in their report on the First-Grade Studies, Bond and Dykstra (1967) wrote the following: ‘Children learn to read by a variety of materials and methods. Pupils become successful readers in such vastly different programs as the Language Experience approach with its relative lack of structure and vocabulary control and the various Linguistic programs with their relatively high degree of structure and vocabulary control. Furthermore, pupils experienced difficulty in each of the programs utilized. No one approach is so distinctively better in all situations and respects than the others that it should be considered the best method and the one to be used exclusively. (p. 123)’ .”

Taken together, I think these six talking points make a case for adopting a centrist position around the issue of how to best teach reading. I do think it is time to replace the Reading Wars metaphor with the Quilt metaphor. It is valuable to look at the best of what each point of view has to offer rather than tear down points of view that don’t fit our favorite way of doing things. I’d very much be interested in finding out what you think. Would you please respond with comments to this blog or by tweeting out your ideas? Also- please do be on the lookout next week for The Missouri Reader, and please do visit the MLA website for information about upcoming book clubs, LINK.


Dr. Sam Bommarito began his teaching career in 1970. During his career, he has taught every grade Kg-graduate school. His educational roles have included being a Title One reading teacher, Title One staff developer, and University professor. He is currently a national reading consultant and has presented at numerous local, state and national reading conventions. He has done a considerable amount of professional development training for schools in the St. Louis region and is actively involved in a literacy initiative spearheaded by Turn The Page. This initiative is designed to improve instruction in the St. Louis region. He is also currently doing pro bono work at an elementary school, where he does individual tutoring and whole class push-ins using Zoom.  He tweets about educational issues daily (@doctorsam7) and does a weekly blog about reading (DoctorSam7, via WordPress). The blog includes informational pieces, op-eds, and video interviews of people working in the field of literacy. He advocates for a centrist approach to reading, which he defines as an approach that uses reading practices from a variety of sources.  Teachers should align those particular practices to the particular children who will benefit from them the most. He has served as a board member and officer on both state and national ILA boards, and he is currently the Co-Editor of the Missouri Reader. This journal is a peer-reviewed state reading journal. It has been publishing for over four decades.

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.

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5 thoughts on “It’s time to fundamentally change the dialogue around the issue of how to teach beginning reading: The case for taking a centrist position by Dr. Sam Bommarito

  1. Nancy Day

    As a Literacy Interventionist who has had year-long trainings in both Orion-Gillingham and Reading Recovery, I have often been frustrated with both for their “that’s the way we do it” mentality when I raise questions. I love being able to use elements of both when instructing my students. This article affirmed my feelings on the “best” way to teach young children to read. My most important goal is to have them love reading, not Level J (or whatever). If they love reading, they will continue to read, and will make progress.

  2. Pingback: Shanahan’s latest blog & the NEPC policy statement: Trying to find common ground in the latest discussions about reading by Dr. Sam Bommarito | doctorsam7

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