An alternate explanation as to why reading achievement isn’t where we want it to be
by Dr. Sam Bommarito
The following is from one of my handouts for the LitCon 2022 conference. It asserts that some SOR advocates’ claims that balanced literacy has failed are ill-founded. They fail to follow the basics of scientific study- that any conclusions about balanced literacy/constructivist practices need to be drawn using a proper sample of districts using those practices with fidelity.
On the one hand, everyone agrees that the current state of reading instruction is not acceptable. SOR advocates claim Balanced Literacy is the root cause of the problems in reading. They view Balanced Literacy as lacking instruction in phonics and the use of orthographic information. Let’s use the two diagrams above to understand why their conclusions are ill-founded and incorrect.
Diagram one shows “the rocket.” The rocket represents districts actively employing the constellation of instructional practices known as the science of reading. I’ve placed several rockets diagram 2, which represent those districts using SOR with some success. The stars in that same district represent those districts using balanced reading with some success.
Wait a minute, Dr. Sam. Are you saying there are places where Balanced Literacy (or similar constructivist-based practices) are working? I have blogged extensively on the point that such districts do exist. Today’s constructivist-based balanced literacy programs include phonics instruction and developing students’ ability to use orthographic information. In addition, the extensive data showing the efficacy of these programs relies on more than simply demonstrating improved decoding skills. It also includes demonstrating improved comprehension with direct measurements of comprehension. Too often, some SOR advocates’ exaggerated claims of success are rooted in data that only demonstrates improved decoding skills. Improved decoding skills do not automatically lead to improved comprehension. We’ve known that at least since the NPR report. More details will be provided during the presentation.
So what we have is a situation where some districts are using Balanced Literacy or SOR with some success. HOWEVER, there are many other districts whose programs are not successful. It could be these districts are not doing the programs with fidelity. It could be that they really don’t have coherent programs. The bottom line is that those districts are doing things that just aren’t working. That is the main source of the current literacy problem.
Let’s look at this issue another way. I can safely say that despite the fact many districts have adopted SOR, things have still not improved satisfactorily. If I said things like that– SOR advocates would immediately say that to get a true picture of what is going on, I have to look at just those districts doing SOR with fidelity. I absolutely agree. HOWEVER, if I do that for SOR, I must also do that for all the districts carrying out some form of balanced literacy practices with fidelity. THOSE DISTRICTS ARE ALSO SUCCESSFUL. Currently, critics of Balanced Literacy are not doing that. Instead of drawing a scientific sample of districts using Balanced Literacy/Constructivists practices with fidelity and then talking about the efficacy of Balanced Reading, they instead include all districts everywhere when they talk about problems in literacy. While this makes for sensational public relations, it makes for very bad science. I think it’s time to call for the SOR folks to use scientific samples of districts using programs with fidelity when talking about the situation in today’s literacy world. Let’s have less PR and more science, please!!!
Remember that I’m advocating for a centrist position that says we need to look at ALL sides and draw from all sides. My doctoral work, done during the last round of the reading wars, found that when looking at whole language-based teachers vs. phonics emphasis teachers, the two groups of teachers had more practices in common than those that set them apart. Instead of treating this as a winner take all dichotomy, we need all sides to examine all the research. We need to work to find common ground. We need to use common sense to do so.
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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