Monthly Archives: August 2021

Reading Recovery is a viable, balanced approach to literacy: Thoughts about my upcoming session at LitCon by Dr. Sam Bommarito

In the three-plus years since I began this blog, I’ve written about Reading Recovery several times. I’ve said there is a lot we can learn from reading recovery LINK. I said that Reading Recovery works. I talked about how studies from What Works Clearinghouse found it was the only early intervention program that positively impacted decoding skills and comprehension LINK. When WWC reported on a randomized trial of 6,888 students, they found RR met WWC standards without reservation LINK. Some critics claim the effects of RR don’t stick. However, when I interviewed Susan Vincent, who currently teaches at Miami University and who has a long-time affiliation with RR,  LINK, she reported that when her former district looked at the long-term effects of RR, they found that the RR teaching stuck. I wondered why the results in Susan’s district were so different from those reported by the critics.  Susan explained that RR is a short-term intervention designed to catch students up. Reading Recovery sets students up to make normal progress when they return to their district’s mainstream program. In the case of Susan’s district, students in the mainstream program make good progress every year.  However, if RR students return to districts where most students are making little or no progress, one would expect their progress to match that of those students, i.e., little or no progress. Critics who don’t consider that in their studies are reporting incomplete and misleading results. Be sure to consider that when reading studies that claim RR teaching doesn’t stick.

I was trained in RR many years ago. I mark that training as a major milestone in my teaching career. To this day, I continue to use what I learned from RR. I am not alone in the feeling that recovery training helps to make teachers better. When I shared that feeling on social media- the response from other recovery teachers was overwhelmingly positive LINK. They learned so much.  For instance, Susan Vincent reported that when she did her OG training, she already knew what they were teaching her about phonemes et al. She had learned it all during her RR training.

Now let’s look at highlights from my LitCon presentation that will be coming up this January:

The message that I will be giving is clear. RR works. It is based on “gold standard research.”  I won’t claim that it works for everyone or that it is a one size fits all program. But I will echo the thoughts of Paul Thomas, who will also be presenting at LitCon. Dr. Thomas says the dialogue about literacy should change from what all students must do to what all students deserve. I’ll be making the case that students deserve RR as one option to help them.  

I will now give a link to a short promo about my presentation and after that, a link to register for the conference. I hope to see you there!

Link to my 2-minute promo:

Link to the conference registration: LINK

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.

Paul Thomas & SOR- It’s not settled, and it’s not simple: An interview conducted by Dr. Sam Bommarito

Paul Thomas & SOR- It’s not settled, and it’s not simple: An interview conducted by Dr. Sam Bommarito

I was excited when I found out that Paul Thomas and I would be speaking at the LitCon conference next January and even more excited when Paul agreed this week to do an interview about his book and what he will be saying at LitCon. Here’s a little bit of background about Paul taken from his website:

Now it is time to have a look at the interview. Here are the topics we discussed. They are time stamped.

1. Tell us a little bit about yourself. (01:30)

2. Recent issues of RRQ and P.D. Pearson’s new book have led many to believe that it is “not settled science”.  What is your take on that? (02:50)

3. Does it make any sense to effectively ban selected practices found in balanced approaches to reading, e.g., reading recovery, workshop teaching or guided reading? (6:45)

4. What is your take on some SOR programs, including retention in 3rd grade as a part of the program to raise test scores? (10:47)

5. Cambourne and Crouch recently said we should stop using the Reading Wars metaphor and replace it with the metaphor of the Reading Quilt- with different “sides” adding different pieces to the quilt. Do you see any hope for that point of view? Do you see hope for an end to the divisive discourse?  Do you see hope for ending the reading wars? (13:20)

6. Final thoughts (24:00)

Here is the YouTube interview:

Here is a link to Paul’s Book:

Follow Paul on Twitter: @plthomasEdD 

Here is a link to Paul’s blog:

Here is a link to more information about Lou Labrant:

Here is a link to the Missouri Reader special issue, which contains the explanation of Cambourne and Crouch’s quilt metaphor and explains why it is a better way of looking at things instead of the Reading Wars metaphor:

Here is a link to the LitCon conference next January. In addition to Paul and me, my very good friend Mary Howard will also be presenting. See the registration site for details and to discover the many other literacy leaders who will be conducting sessions at the conference:

Next week, I will be talking about my LitCon presentation. I originally planned to do that this week but wanted to get this interview out as soon as possible.

So, until next week,

Happy Reading and Writing!

Dr. Sam Bommarito (aka, the guy in the middle still 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

If you found the blog through Facebook or Twitter, please consider following the blog to make sure you will not miss it.  Use the “follow” entry on the sidebar of the blog.

Seeking Common Ground and Common Practices: Let’s Promote Dialogue Not Discord in the Discussions Around Teaching Reading Dr. Sam Bommarito

Seeking Common Ground and Common Practices: Let’s Promote Dialogue Not Discord in the Discussions Around Teaching Reading Dr. Sam Bommarito

I have friends on both sides (all sides) of the reading debate who post regularly on social media. Lately, they report that they avoid terms like “balanced reading” or “science of reading”. That is because using them can result in bullying and what some call the “uncivilized discourse” that often characterizes discussions around such literacy issues. This week I had an “aha moment” around that problem. It came when I was writing a response to a SOR proponent I talked to on one of the larger Facebook groups for reading teachers. This person reported having a bad experience using balanced literacy and the various practices surrounding it. They were convinced BL didn’t work. When I pointed out that various issues of Reading Research Quarterly reported more than 25 years of research demonstrating the efficacy of using context (a kingpin for BL/MSV) LINK, they retorted that the International Reading Association had “skin in the game”.  That was a red flag for me. I will now share what I said in response to that remark. I will then talk about the implications of what I said. Here is a verbatim screen capture of my remarks.

The heart of my message was this:

“…the centrist message I am giving is appealing to a lot of folks. They are tired of the bullying and the fighting. They are tired of zealots from any side who demonize ‘the other side(s).’ They want to seek out common ground and common practices. Good things can come of SOR/BL….”

A central fact surrounding this discourse is that we are not there yet in terms of having a science of reading (I know some disagree). Research reported in RRQ, and other places make that clear LINK. However, that does not mean that there isn’t much BL folks can learn from SOR. Burkins & Yates wrote a book about that LINK. The mistaken beliefs each side has about the other must be challenged. For instance, using SOR doesn’t mean comprehension is automatically ignored any more than using BL means that phonics is automatically ignored.   

When I did my first posts around the most recent iteration of the reading wars LINK (that was almost four years ago!), I used the following logic:

  • What works for one child doesn’t always work for another.
  • Every approach has limitations. No approach works for every child.
  • Therefore, the pendulum of instructional practices has kept swinging because when one side “wins,” they invariably call for discarding all things from the other side. BUT, since there are kids for whom the new soup de jour doesn’t work, eventually, the new way gets challenged and replaced. The process repeats itself. It has done so for all the 50 plus years I’ve spent in education.

Isn’t it way past time for us to face the fact that we need to draw on things from all sides? We need to listen carefully to Cambourne and Crouch, who so eloquently explained why we need to replace the reading wars concept with the reading quilt concept, LINK.

But Dr. Sam, haven’t the SOR folks shown their way works and works well? Shouldn’t we just adopt it all and be done with it?  The answer is most of the evidence presented by the current SOR is not even close to the level of gold standard research. Gold standard research requires implementation at the district level over many years using valid tests, i.e., tests of reading, not decoding. This past week I spent several days asking an ardent SOR supporter to provide gold-standard evidence. She cited one study and had no idea whether the testing instruments used in that study really measured reading rather than decoding. In the past, when I’ve asked for gold-standard research, what I usually get back are mainly studies that don’t even come close to meeting such standards. Frequently they are studies that use instruments like the DIBELS. DIBELS measures mainly decoding and fails to directly measure comprehension.

Why should we be worried about having gold standard research? Would you be willing to be a passenger in an aircraft that passed its wind tunnels tests but had never been tested in actual flights between cities? I wouldn’t. In the same way, before mandating programs to the exclusion of all others (a practice I have criticized LINK), we must at least look at the results of implementing those at a district level. Doing that is the educational equivalent of using actual flight tests instead of wind tunnel tests to inform the decision about the viability of an aircraft.

I also want to point out that when folks evaluate “the other side,” they must test with the best plane the other side has to offer. It must have been built to meet the company’s standards, i.e. they must demonstrate the other sides practices were carried out with fidelity. When the critics of BL are asked to produce studies where the BL best practices were done with fidelity, they can’t.  They include all districts instead of drawing a sample of districts doing BL with fidelity. They can’t draw such a sample because they have no working definition of BL.  Doing it the way they do is like testing a rival company’s product by using a badly built plane from 50 years ago instead of studying their latest best-built jet.

I’ll finish by saying that life in the center is not easy. Eyebrows get raised from all sides when I report that I use decodables AND predictables AND trade books. I measure fluency using more than just speed. I use both synthetic and analytic phonics. I use a lot of materials from Dr. Tim Rasinski to build my students’ orthographic knowledge. I teach fluency using Rasinski’s method of reading for performance. The research around repeated readings strongly supports the use of such practices. I do comprehension checks, even with students working at the very beginning levels of reading.

I agree with Tim Rasinski that teaching is both art and science. Accordingly, I use direct teaching some of the time. The philosophical underpinnings of that method come from Aristotle. It tends to be the method most preferred by the SOR folks. I also use the inquiry methods. Its philosophical roots trace back to Socrates.  Inquiry learning is a favorite of BL groups.  BTW I’ve noticed that both those methods are still around, even after a couple of millenniums, with little chance that one will be replaced by the other. The two methods do not constitute a mutually exclusive dichotomy. They do require an application of the teaching both the art and science of reading in order to decide which method is best suited to which situation. The most important conclusion I’ve drawn from all the research around the issue of what practices to use in the teaching of reading is that “It Depends!”

I’ll end by asking folks from all sides to be willing to try ideas from “the other side” when ideas from your favorite approach aren’t working for a kid. I’ll also ask that we all do more talking and less bickering. I  wrote an article about that LINK, p 20. I think if we could start doing that, there would be some definite winners. The winners would be the kids we’re all supposed to be helping.

Dr. Sam Bommarito (still the guy in the middle, still 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.

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.

Dispelling the myths that MSV is not research supported and that balanced literacy has failed by Dr. Sam Bommarito

Dispelling the myths that MSV is not research supported and that balanced literacy has failed

Dr. Sam Bommarito

Over the past few years, there has been a steady criticism of MSV (using the three systems of information- Meaning, Syntax and Visual).  There have also been criticisms of programs using the constellation of educational practices known as balanced literacy. The criticisms have turned vitriolic. The claim is made that such practices can actually hurt children. One zealot actually suggested that I should be charged with educational malpractice based on the practices I use. Yet the parents of children I tutor are more than happy with the results I’m getting and the children are thriving. They are in the process of becoming lifelong readers and writers. What are we to make of all this? Perhaps the naysayers have missed the mark.

MSV has a place in literacy instruction.

Let’s begin with MSV (the three systems of information).  According to the naysayers, it doesn’t describe how readers actually read. They claim that only poor readers use the three cueing systems. Really? I wonder if they realize that when Marie Clay and others did the groundbreaking research on MSV they looked at what all readers do, not just what poor readers do. As a matter of fact, I think many of the readers of this blog use MSV some of the time when they do their own reading. Let me give you an example. Consider the following:.

“I   b-t    y- -u  c-n   r- -d   th-s”

Back when I was teaching the Analysis and Correction of Reading course, I’d use examples like this to demonstrate that consonants carry more information than vowels. That is important to know. It is especially important to know if you are working with very young readers who sometimes lack the auditory discrimination to hear vowel sounds, especially short vowel sounds. Such children exist. Such children can still be taught to read. But not using teaching schemes that allow only letter by letter sounding.

Let’s get back to the main point. If you decoded the above sample  (and most of you did), you didn’t do it by using only the letter sounds. You used other information, including orthographic information and information from MSV. You likely crosschecked the data from the different systems of information in order to make sure that what your read made sense. BTW- you are good readers using MSV to decode the message. So much for the myth that only bad readers use MSV. Naysayers use quantitative studies to try to prove this point. Qualitative information and qualitative studies are left out. They most certainly should not be left out as the qualitative information provided here clearly shows. Talking about why using both qualitative and quantitative information is important is definitely a topic that will be the subject for future blogs.

There is an excellent review of research around the topic of using context to help reading. Here is a link to the Reading Research Quarterly PDF talking about that. I also include a brief excerpt from that PDF. Regular readers know I’ve talked about this PDF many times.

“….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 in consistencies in English orthography result in only an approximate pronunciation of a word. In either situation, successful word solving that includes a careful interroga-tion of the letters in the word supports the orthographic mapping required for skilled word learning. Additionally, the word-solving process itself becomes generative as it helps to familiarize the student with new letter–sound cor-respondences and orthographic patterns that can then be applied in decoding even more new words, thus expanding the power of the self-teaching mechanism (Share, 1995).This work, which includes studies of K–4 students, showed the effectiveness of the Interactive Strategies Approach, indicating “that using both phonics- and  context-based information facilitates the ability to build sight vocabulary, which in turn enables readers to turn their attention to the most important goal of literacy learning: meaning construction.”

Balanced literacy approaches such as reading/writing workshop and guided reading can and do work in many districts.

I’ve written many times about the manner in which the naysayers criticize the use of balanced literacy practices. Their logic seems to be as follows:

  • The number of children not learning to read is far too high (no argument there- even one kid not learning to read is one too many!)
  • Balanced reading is widely used (no argument there lots of places are using balanced reading in one form or another)
  • Therefore, balanced reading is the reason all those kids are not learning to read (WHOA! A great public relations ploy, but very bad analysis, see below)

Here’s the problem with the third point. It is based on what’s happening in ALL DISTRICTS. That would include districts doing balanced reading with fidelity, districts doing balanced reading but doing it poorly, districts using SOR, districts not really using any particular method, etc.  Based on the fact that SOR is included in what is currently happening,  should we then conclude both Balanced Reading and SOR practices don’t work? When asked this question, SOR advocates maintain that we must look at just the districts using SOR practices and see how well SOR performs.  Point taken. We should. BTW that also means we should look at districts using workshop or guided reading or other balanced literacy programs with fidelity. Then draw conclusions.

That is not at all what is being done currently. Too often the naysayers fail to look at how districts doing balanced literacy with fidelity are doing.  I’ve had them say they can’t do such studies because they can’t really define balanced literacy. Hmm. That can be a problem if you want to conduct research around its efficacy.  It would be especially important if you wanted to do a research study based on a sample of districts doing balanced literacy with fidelity. Definitions of balanced literacy are readily available- see the seminal work of Pressley LINK, or the description of balanced literacy given by Kerns in the most recent issue of The Missouri Reader, LINK (pg. 10)  Any claims that balanced literacy has failed should provide studies that use a carefully drawn scientific sample of districts doing balanced literacy with fidelity. Instead, most of the naysayers base their claims on all districts and the myriad of things one finds when looking at what all districts do.

A few critics who do focus their criticisms on one or more of the balanced literacy programs e.g. workshop or guided reading usually do so when data becomes available showing those programs are working well. When this happens the naysayers use the public relation’s tactic I call, discount and discredit. When positive data becomes available they find ways to “prove” the data is inaccurate or irrelevant.  It doesn’t stop there. In addition, they often provide data to “prove” the SOR practices are better than balanced literacy. These claims often rely on testing instruments like the DIBELS. Those instruments focus mainly on decoding, not comprehension. Overall I find that when I call for research studies to back up the various claims of the naysayers the studies they cite fail to achieve the level of  “gold standard” research.

Let’s talk about  “gold standard”  reading research. Here is a partial list of what one should look for in “gold standard” research.

  • The research reported should have been done over a period of years.
  • The research should involve district wide implementation of a program or select programs WITH FIDELITY. The study would include a careful, precise description of the program being studied. It would include verification that the program was fully and properly implemented (done with fidelity!).
  • It would use measures of reading that include both a decoding and comprehension component. Nell Duke has done work describing what is included in state-wide  reading tests. See my blog for details. LINK  The blog entry includes a chart Duke created describing the content of state wide reading tests (Box 1).
  • The research should be published in a recognized, peer reviewed journalof research. Reading Research Quarterly would be an excellent example of such a journal.
  • The research should be replicable. Ideally should have been replicated several times.
  • Both quantitative and qualitative research can rise to the level of gold standard research. Both can and should be included in the body of research supporting various claims.

Every time I ask the naysayers for proof for the efficacy of their programs or for the proof discrediting the programs they claim don’t work, I don’t get anything close to responses using gold-standard research. Instead, I get stock public relations answers. These answers do not use both qualitative and quantitative information. These answers are often made using limited & limiting views of what reading is and about how research in education should be conducted. These answers are based on research that uses testing instruments that don’t fully test reading.

Moving Toward a Centrist Perspective

My readers are reminded that lately,  researchers in prestigious journals such as the Reading Research Quarterly have concluded that “we are not there yet” in terms of having a science of reading  LINK. I’ve written several times saying that promoting one set of literacy practices and banning all others is a decidedly bad idea. It takes away the right of local districts to find the best fit for their students. It limits the power of teachers to adapt programs to the child. It effectively creates a situation where teachers are forced into teaching situations where they are trying to force square pegs into round holes.

Some have likened the stance taken by selected SOR advocates as more a marketing campaign than a real discussion of research LINK. In the end, the winners in such discussions are the for-profit companies pushing their wares and the losers are the teachers and the kids who eventually find out the hard way that one size really doesn’t fit all.  I’m not against using practices associated with SOR. Regular readers know my students read in decodables. They also are provided systematic instruction in synthetic phonics. But they also read in predictable text and high-interest trade books. They also learn about reading with prosody using materials and ideas provided by literacy leaders like Tim Rasinski LINK. That includes using Rasinski’s materials on prefixes/suffixes and roots and his famous word ladders. Overall,  I try to use programs and materials based on how well they fit the particular child I’m working with. I am not a fan of adopting one size fits all programs. Welcome to the world of the centrist. It is a world in which balanced literacy is carried out with fidelity using the latest and best information about balanced literacy practices. LINK

In Conclusion

Of all the many hats I’ve worn in my 50 plus years in education the one I am the proudest of is that of reading teacher.  I find it upsetting that we seem to be willing to listen to everyone on the planet about the issue of how to teach reading, but seem all too ready to ignore the teachers that are working with the kids directly in the field. It’s been over 50 years since the First Grade Studies concluded that teachers make more difference than any particular program, LINK.  Isn’t it time to stop talking about the combative and shortsighted view exemplified by centering the discussions around terms like “the reading wars” and look instead to anchoring those discussions in more cooperative models like Camborne’s reading quilt LINK (p 5)? Isn’t it time to join what P.D. Pearson once called “The Radical Middle” LINK?  Isn’t it time to stop bickering and to start talking? LINK Isn’t it time to let districts empower teachers by helping them learn a variety of methods so teachers can find and use the methods that best fit each child. Isn’t it time that we finally try out the center? It’s my belief that if we do,  the winners will be the kids. Those kids will become the thinkers and leaders that build that better world that we all continue to hope for.

Happy Reading and Writing

Dr. Sam   (aka the reading teacher in the middle still 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.

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.