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

Those of you who read my blog regularly know I am a centrist. Life in the center is not always easy. However, nothing worthwhile ever is. At the heart of things, I believe in empowering teachers. It’s been over five decades since the First Grade Studies demonstrated that teachers made more difference than particular programs LINK. Simple takeaway- good teachers get good results. Does this mean good teachers can do whatever they please? Hardly. Teachers must operate within the boundaries of the curriculum their district chooses to adopt. Districts are in the best position to decide what that curriculum should be. That is why I am highly critical of recent attempts (some of them successful) to effectively ban certain practices by codifying those bans in state and national law. Doing it that way takes away the district’s right to choose. Doing it that way assumes the districts are incapable of making good choices themselves. But Dr. Sam, aren’t things really bad? Aren’t there too many children not learning to read? The simple answer is yes- but as in all things related to research, the devil is in the details. Have a look at these diagrams  taken from my blog It’s Not Settled Science LINK:

Diagram one shows The Rocket a takeoff on Moat’s latest work about SOR, and the other diagram represents all the practices in districts around the US. There is no question that overall, the “all the practices” model is not working.  Moats says we should get rid of all that and replace it exclusively with her practices. She promises great results if we do.

I’ve written extensively, talking about the limits and limitations of the so-called Science of Reading LINK, LINK, LINK, LINK. The upshot is that SOR’s “miracle results” are often based on testing instruments that mainly test decoding. This is not the only problem. In my opinion, the Florida and Louisiana models that include student retention should be discontinued. Retention is a harmful practice. NCTE cited studies that demonstrate that is so. My new friend Paul Thomas is the real expert on this issue. Please visit his blog and search for his writings about retention LINK.   

Let’s now talk a little more about the SOR blogs contained in the series of links I just gave. It is clear from the many citations in the various blogs that there is NOT a consensus among researchers on what to do about reading instruction. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pay close attention to what Moats and her followers have to say. As a matter of fact, many of the things I am recommending to teachers next week come from some of the things she and her followers have to say. However, at the end of the day, the current brand of SOR is over-dependent on what I call “wind tunnel test” data and sorely lacking in what I call “flight test data.” Translation- they are attempting to use preliminary testing, e.g., the testing in brain research that some researchers have labeled speculative. Moats and her followers treat that research as gospel and ready to implement and use. They want to skip the part where they do what I call the “flight test data,” which is data from actually flying the plane. In the case of education, the gold standard for such testing would be several years of district-wide use with results measured by tests of reading (not decoding). Those tests of reading should resemble the kind of testing used in many states- tests that include direct measurements of comprehension. Regardless of whose materials districts choose to adopt (assuming they are given any choices at all), they should ensure that the product will deliver in BOTH decoding and comprehension. That means they must use gold standard data to make the decisions. I’ll restate one more time for emphasis that such decisions properly belong at the district level. Districts know the particulars of their populations. But Dr. Sam- haven’t districts been making decidedly bad choices? Isn’t that the problem?

No, it’s not.

Here is my interpretation of the current situation:

The rockets represent districts adopting SOR successfully. The stars represent districts using balanced reading practices such as workshop or reading recovery successfully (I am presenting RR at LitCon in January with lots of data showing successful RR programs exist). The circles represent successful programs not using things that readily fall into the first two categories. There is even a “dare to dream” entry representing districts using elements of both. The gray represents the real problem- districts not employing any effective practices at all. That is the source of the lack of progress in reading. But wait, Dr. Sam, are you saying that there is such a thing as districts using Balanced Literacy successfully? Yes. Look at Lucy Calkin’s latest research results LINK. By the way, the ink doesn’t get dry on reporting such results before the naysayers swarm and find a thousand things wrong with how they were done. Balanced Literacy folks could return fire and do the same for successful SOR sites (and yes, there are a few reporting real comprehension results instead of the bogus decoding results). Going down the dichotomy path is guaranteed to produce a stalemate dead end. My point is this. It’s time to abandon the reading wars as an ill-advised metaphor and consider adopting what Camborne has called the Quilt Metaphor. Let’s stop asking what’s wrong with reading instruction for a while and instead turn our attention to what’s right. Let’s consider using Camborne’s quilt metaphor to guide our talk around best practices. Here is an excerpt from an article he wrote for a state reading journal (and yes, I am the journal’s co-editor). The full article can be accessed here LINK.

Simply put, there is a quilt of reading practices. There can be many additions to the quilt. To remain on the quilt, the practices must prove that they work consistently. Working means they help students decode and comprehend.  We must be open to the fact that some of our favorite practices may, in the end, not prove worthy. There was a time when I taught about learning styles. In light of things that Nell Duke and others have found I no longer promote teaching about learning styles. However, there are some practices that really do work but are falling victim to a public relations campaign designed to replace them with the so-called Science of Reading. Remember that some researchers have criticized SOR as having a narrow and limited view of the reading process. I predicted three years ago that if that that SOR campaign succeeded, the result would ultimately be another swing of the pendulum LINK. This is because, like all its predecessors, the “Rocket” (SOR) works for some but not for all. The “not for all” folks will sooner or later call for new changes. There have been many such swings in the past, some of them quite costly. If current SOR practices replace everything else, I predict that the swing will come again. Let’s get out of the dead-end dichotomy approach. Let’s instead look at what’s working. Let’s let districts have the choice to pick from what’s working. It’s time for us to use the reading quilt as our new metaphor and replace the great debate with the great reading dialogue.

Next week’s blog title is It’s not settled science part three: Empowering teachers, using the reading quilt, practices I suggested to beginning teachers. Included will be such things as using both decodables and predictables, how to avoid younger students just memorizing little books, good resources for teaching beginning reading, good resources for older students who did not get sufficient work in decoding, good resources for students who did not get sufficient work in comprehension, and writing our way into reading- how Language Experience works. After that blog entry, I will return to my interviews, and I am excited to announce that I will interview Tim Rasinski and Lori Ozkus about the books they have published together.

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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