It’s Not Settled Science or Rocket Science, and It’s Not Your Science, It’s Our Science: A Centrist’s Perspective on the Reading Wars. By Dr. Sam Bommarito

It’s Not Settled Science

Many well-credentialed researchers have indicated “we are not there yet” in developing the one true, everyone-agrees-on-it science of reading.

For instance, the researchers writing in the recent special editions of the Reading Research Quarterly have said it’s not settled science

Researchers of the National Education Policy Center have said it’s not settled science

David Reinking, Victoria J. Risko and George G. Hruby have said it’s not settled science.  See their interview in the Washington Post, where they give considerable research to back up that point of view. All three of them are researchers with excellent credentials and long histories in the field of research.

Dr. George Hruby from the Collaborative Center for Literacy Development also created a brief U Tube Video indicating that it is not settled science. (The video is a headline service- also see Dr. Hruby’s considerable work on this issue for the details)

There are simply too many well-credentialed researchers questioning the conclusions of the so-called Science of Reading group for that group to claim that the issues around the teaching of reading are settled.  This excerpt from the Washington Post article cited earlier sums that position up the best:

“Phonics is the prime example. Few legitimate experts on teaching reading oppose teaching children phonics. Despite a timeworn narrative, there is no sharply drawn battle line dividing experts who completely support or completely oppose phonics.

Instead, reasonable differences exist along a continuum.  (Emphasis is mine) 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.)

Underlying that continuum is the question of whether a deficiency in phonics is at the root of virtually all reading difficulties, or whether, like many medical conditions (e.g., heart disease), those difficulties have multiple etiologies, including external factors, such as impoverished school resources to support students.

There are also reasonable professional differences about what phonics instruction should look like, how much of it is necessary, for whom, under what circumstances, and how it connects with other aspects of reading. But there is no justification for characterizing these differences as a “reading war” between those who believe in phonics and those who don’t.”

It’s not just your Science (rocket science)

Most prominent in the attempt to lay exclusive claim to the term “Science of Reading” are the followers of Dr. Louise Moats. She restated her position on the teaching of reading in a report entitled Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science, 2020 .  This document is an update of a title by the same name published over 20 years ago. Here is a link to a pdf of that report LINK.

This is a key takeaway from that report:

Widely Used Programs Are Uninformative or Misleading Inadequately prepared novice teachers often find themselves dependent on the information given in the teachers’ manuals that accompany virtually all commercially available reading programs to learn about spoken and written language concepts and to generate strategies for teaching students to read. Many of the most widely used classroom teaching manuals and materials in language arts omit systematic teaching about speech sounds, the spelling system, or how to read words by sounding them out. The most popular programs being used today are relatively strong on literature, illustrations, cross-disciplinary thematic units, and motivational strategies for children, but very weak or simply wrong when it comes to the structure of the English language and how children actually learn to read the words on the page.26 Ideally, students should be asked to apply code-based skills during reading, spelling, and writing, and there should be sufficient time prescribed for instruction in all essential components.

Her followers have attacked balanced literacy practices, including but not limited to attacks on Reading Recovery, Reading and Writing Workshop, and Guided Reading. Lately, the attacks have become more and more vitriolic. Practitioners using balanced literacy practices are vilified if they try to defend those practices on social media. The practices are referred to as “failed practices.” Anyone defending them is viewed as a liar or worse. Defenders are subjected to ridicule, sarcasm, and name-calling. This myth of failed practices has been repeated so often on social media and other places that it has become widely believed. BTW this is a variation on the public relations tactic known as the big lie. Instead of the big lie- it is the big half-truth. More on that in a minute. Let’s sum up the situation this way:

So, a shiny new rocket will replace all the current dismal practices, and all will be well. The circle representing current practices is grey, denoting the array of practices being used in districts today and the fact that they are all failing by and large. Sounds plausible. There are several huge problems about this view that we  will now discuss. First, like all its predecessors before, the shiny new rocket works for SOME, not for ALL students. The statistics “proving” the SOR works have been subject to many challenges, including those made by my new friend and future co-presenter, Dr. P.L. Thomas LINK.

Given that, students for whom the shiny new rocket doesn’t work will eventually begin viewing it as the dismal grey rocket. That will eventually lead to a new pretender coming to do battle with the proponents of the shiny new rocket. And the pendulum of instruction will swing yet again. My very first blog about the reading wars is on exactly that point LINK. Here’s an alternate way of looking at this conundrum.

It’s Our Science, the Sciences of Reading- btw the “s” is there on purpose

The term Science of Reading belongs to ALL of us following science, and there are many different credible views of what constitutes science. What follows is my centrist’s perspective on the Reading Wars.

The shiny new rocket won’t work for all. It has no room on board for the Word Callers.  It is only powered by half of the available engines. It has synthetic phonics but effectively rejects analytic phonics. Yet research indicates that when done systematically, both forms of phonics work LINK. It uses quantitative research and effectively rejects all qualitative research viewing that as a weaker form of research. In point of fact, qualitative research is actually a different form of research, a form of research that seems perfectly suited to the incredibly complex phenomena we study in education and the even more complex environment in which these phenomena play out. As a centrist, I look at ALL the research, both quantitative and qualitative. Looking at  just quantitative research gives a limited and limiting view of the phenomena being studied. We need the information provided by both kinds of research in order to try to make some sense of what goes on as we go about the complex business of educating children.

And by the way, there is plenty of evidence that the so-called “failed practices,” in fact, can and do work for many many children. Consider the example of Reading Recovery. I’ve written about that many times LINK, LINK, LINK. Be warned that the charge that its learning doesn’t stick fails to account for what happens when the students return to the main program of a district LINK.  Also, look at the recent results from Calkin’s workshop projects. LINK. That just doesn’t look like failed practices to me. And there’s lots more where that came from. Perhaps teachers from districts where things are going well (and there are many such districts) might want to share some of what is happening in their district. That invitation is to teachers in districts using practices inspired by SOR and teachers in districts using practices inspired by BL. Most especially, it is made to teachers in districts using combinations of the two.

In my 50 plus years in education, I’ve had a lot of direct experience with programs using practices suggested by balanced literacy. Overall that experience has shown that BL practices can and do work when carried out with fidelity and adjusted for local circumstances. In the mid-1980s, three different Title 1 reading programs I worked in were found to be exceptionally effective by the Secretary of Education. They were given the Secretary’s Award- placing them in the top 1/10 of 1 percent of the programs of the time. At the turn of the current century, circa the year 2000, one of those programs was replaced with a basal known for its structured approach to phonics. Over the next few years, reading scores for the district plummeted. Moving into more recent times, when awards went out to top districts for exceptional programs in education in my state of Missouri- several of the districts named were known for their use of Balanced Literacy programs. I’ve done in-service work for districts using F&P, and the reading scores were more than satisfactory.

BTW some advocates of the so-called SOR tried to explain the phenomena of districts with successful BL practices by saying that some students learn regardless of the methods used (TRUE). They then say that the success of BL practices can be explained by it being created by students who would have learned anyway (FALSE). Why do I say false? How plausible is it that ALL of the gains/success in the districts I’ve just talked about were from students that would have learned anyway? Hmmm, top 1/10 of 1 percent of all districts nationally and three different times, I was lucky enough to be working in districts that were comprised of kids who would have learned anyway in our district during those years. Really? 

I talked to some people in a Twitter thread I’ve been involved in in the past couple of weeks about their attempt to spread this half-truth about the success of BL being built solely on scores from kids who would have done well anyway. I asked them for an actual study to prove that contention. I got many excuses about why such a study isn’t possible, but no links to a properly implemented study. In addition, they were also unable to provide studies based on a sample of districts using BL practices with fidelity showing that BL doesn’t work. BTW- without such a study, they have no right to call BL a failure. I’ll be talking more about what such a study might look like in the next section. So, let me now suggest a slightly different way of analyzing today’s situation. I’m using the same grey circle of current practices but adding something missing from the first model. I’ll be using my model to explain why I think there is hope for finding some common ground and common practices.

Finding common ground and practices: Is it a lost cause, or is there hope?

When I interviewed my newfound friend and colleague P.L. Thomas,  LINK, as part of my preparation for the upcoming LitCon Conference,  he indicated that he was less hopeful than I seemed to be about finding common ground. On the one hand, if finding common ground relies on a dialogue between the two sides at the far ends of the continuum mention by David Reinking et al., there is almost no hope. Both sides are so entrenched in their beliefs, and both are so convinced the other side is totally and utterly wrong that there is no room for any real dialogue. Let’s look over my current situation model and see if some hope can be found by looking at things from the middle.

Being a teacher, I added gold stars, gold circles and gold rockets to the grey circles of districts carrying out practices that aren’t working. Teachers always seem to like gold stars! There’s a bit more to it than that. Within that sea of districts doing things poorly or doing things not at all, there are districts doing things well and doing them with fidelity. Some of them use practice inspired by BL (gold stars) and others by SOR (gold rockets).  Maybe some of them do things inspired by other views about the learning process (gold circles). Let’s also remember that some of them are being inspired to carry out practices based on more than one point of view, e.g., the rocket & star inside the same black circle.  P.D. Pearson had something important to say about that final group. This quote is from the National Education Policy Center document referenced earlier in this blog entry LINK:

“This back and forth, however, was never helpful for children or meaningful in terms of classroom instruction. As David Pearson wrote in 2004:

‘Interestingly, the debate, accompanied by its warlike metaphors, appears to have more life in the public and professional press than it does in our schools. Reporters and scholars revel in keeping the debate alive and well, portraying clearly divided sides and detailing a host of differences of a philosophical, political, and pedagogical nature. Teachers, by contrast, often talk about, and more important enact, more balanced approaches. For example, several scholars, in documenting the practices of highly effective, highly regarded teachers, found that these exemplary teachers employed a wide array of practices, some of which appear decidedly whole language in character (e.g., process writing, literature groups, and contextualized skills practice) and some of which appear remarkably skills-oriented (explicit phonics lessons, sight word practice, and comprehension strategy instruction). Exemplary teachers appear to find an easier path to balance than either scholars or policy pundits.’ “

Research demonstrates that exemplary teachers use both. What a concept!

I use diagram two to explain my call for research demonstrating the efficacy (or lack of it) when evaluating BL.  To do a proper study of BL, one must draw a sample of districts using BL practices with fidelity. The practices must be ones that current proponents of BL advocate (not strawmen practices circa the 1960s). The measurements used must include a direct measure of reading comprehension. If you want to make it a comparative study, you must also draw a like sample of districts using practices advocated by whatever branch of the SOR you wish to study. So, after three-plus years of asking for such a study, I’ve gotten everything but. Mainly what I’ve gotten are studies I classify as “wind tunnel test studies.” You see, when airplanes are certified for flight, one of the preliminary kinds of test done is a wind tunnel test. The final part of airplane certification involves actual flying tests, using the actual plane, in real circumstances, e.g., flying between two cities. Some folks from the so-called SOR movement seem to want to make huge policy changes based on what are clearly preliminary/tentative results. They want to skip important middle steps in the normal process of applying research to educational practices. IMO, before suggesting major changes, they need to provide studies fitting the final gold standard of applying research to educational practices. That gold standard would be studies done evaluating the implementation of selected practices in actual district settings over several years, using reading tests that measure both decoding and comprehension. The comprehension measurement needs to be direct and resemble the testing used in many state-wide tests of reading. Duke has described such standards. You’ll find that in the chart in my blog entry referencing her ideas about reading being much more than just decoding words LINK.

Speaking of Nell Duke, for me, her newest proposed model for studying reading holds the most hope for finding common ground and common practices. Remember Duke is first and foremost a researcher. She doesn’t take sides or fit on a side. What she does do is what researchers are supposed to do. Researchers are supposed to find the cutting edge of our current knowledge and then push our knowledge into areas where it has never been before. Like all good researchers, she is not out to prove anything. She is out to discover something- new knowledge and new understanding. Her new model of reading takes “The Rope” and augments it with her considerable knowledge of the literacy process. You can read all about it in the special edition of The Missouri Reader. The Missouri Reader is a state journal of reading. In the way of full disclosure, I am the Co-Editor of that journal. I think that her model is one example of the kind of research that could discover common ground upon which we all could agree. Here is the link to the issue containing her article LINK.

In Conclusion:

In sum, I think there is hope for finding common ground and common practices. I think the search for common ground is most likely to be carried out by centrists, open-minded folks willing to learn from all sides. Those that know my work know that I am willing to do just that. I’ve blogged before about how, based on advice from Shanahan, an empiricist with whom I do not always agree, I now use both predictable and decodable books with my beginning readers. I’ve done so and I’ve been pleased with the results LINK. So have my teachers, parents and administrators. Let’s do begin the journey of locating the common ground. Let’s call a truce on the talk about what divides us. Let’s talk for a time about the things on which all sides might agree.  I’m sure that one of those areas of agreement could be to do a better job teaching phonics (all forms of phonics).  So, this is Dr. Sam signing off. I’m still that guy in the middle happily taking flak from all sides. I do so because my kids are worth it.

This entry is the final one in my series of op-eds about the reading wars. While I may pick up this topic again sometime in the future, in the coming weeks, I’m trying to line up some literacy leaders who will be sharing their ideas on how we might better serve our students.

Dr. Sam

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 Not Settled Science or Rocket Science, and It’s Not Your Science, It’s Our Science: A Centrist’s Perspective on the Reading Wars. By Dr. Sam Bommarito

  1. luqmanmichel

    Many well-credentialed researchers have indicated “we are not there yet” in developing the one true, everyone-agrees-on-it science of reading.

    And, why are we not there yet Dr. Sam?

    President Bush’s policy of ‘No child left behind’ was announce in 2001. After 20 years no scientist, educator or researcher has arrived there yet?

  2. Denyse Ritchie

    Great blog Sam! Balance in literacy teaching is just so important – and to bring back the real meaning of the word balance to LT making sure all the essential elements are given in the correct amount -so important.

    1. doctorsam7 Post author

      Thanks. I think the recent article in Reading Research Quarterly clearly demonstrates the importance and usefulness of using context as a part of the problem-solving readers use for their words. The article gives several good examples of doing this. It also supports doing this based on several decades of research.

  3. Pingback: It’s not settled science part two: My way of teaching, empowering teachers, and using the reading quilt by Dr. Sam Bommarito | doctorsam7

  4. Pingback: The Weaponization of Research and its Implications for Reports on the Efficacy of Reading Recovery & other Constructivist-based programs- by Dr. Sam Bommarito | doctorsam7

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