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.

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