Learning to Play with Three Strings: Why I Defend the use of both Balanced Literacy (Constructivist Practices) and Direct Teaching (Behaviorist Practices) in Our Literacy Programs Today by Dr. Sam Bommarito

What on earth do I mean by “playing with three strings”? Those of you who attended LitCon last week already know. The idea comes from a story told by Lucy Calkins as part of her inspiring Keynote speech. I apologize in advance because I cannot convey the story as masterfully as Lucy. In a nutshell, a famous violinist, who suffered the effects of being a polio victim, came out to play. He slowly and painfully made his way to his place at center stage, removed his leg braces, sat down, and prepared to play. As he did so, the sound of a string breaking echoed throughout the concert hall. A stilled hush followed. The audience waited, expecting the violinist would have to put back on his leg braces and painstakingly retrace his steps to get a new instrument. That’s not what happened. What happened was that he adjusted his playing. He taught himself to play with three strings. That meant abandoning his usual way of playing. He had to make many changes as he played. In the end, he persevered and triumphed. He received a standing ovation.  

My key takeaway from Lucy’s inspirational speech is that we must learn to adapt in the face of great adversity. We must learn to play with three strings. This requires that we be willing to change what we usually do and adapt as we go along. This leads me to the question: How can we possibly adapt and persevere given the current strife in the world of literacy? Here are some thoughts about that. I’ll start with some pushback about what is being said about constructivist ideas (balanced literacy) and end with a call to use both constructivist and behaviorist ideas as we create a combined approach to the teaching of reading.

  • We know that all children “do not learn on the same day in the same way.” One size does not fit all. What works for the child who has major problems with decoding does not always work for word-callers. I have called the word callers the forgotten children of the great debate. LINK   
  • We know that teachers of readers, especially beginning readers, need much more professional development in teaching phonics and scaffolding students into using orthographic information. Simply teaching teachers how to teach synthetic phonics is not enough. We need to teach them about all the ways to teach decoding. Review the ILA position paper to see the extensive research base behind that statement LINK
  • We know that balanced literacy (constructivist practices) has worked and can work despite the naysayers claiming these practices are a complete failure. Visit the works of Paul Thomas for the academic documentation of that LINK LINK. Also, look at the recent results posted by researchers about the constructivist-based approach known as Reading Recovery LINK.
  • We know that SOME (not all!) Science of Reading Advocates use half-truths and misdirection to promote a very limited and limiting way of teaching. I call what they say half-truth in part because the only way to arrive at their conclusions is to accept their very limited definitions of what reading is and limit our review of the research to a very narrow and limited body of knowledge. Many well-credentialed researchers have criticized the so-called Science of Reading advocates about this very point LINK
  • We know that it takes more than simply building background knowledge to develop the kind of comprehension skill readers need to function in the ever-changing, ever-challenging arena of the global economy. My last blog talked about that LINK.
  • We know that some SOR advocates use tactics like swarming, personal attacks, and misinformation to dissuade educators with views other than their own from speaking out. I call those advocates the “my way or the highway” crowd. I’ve personally experienced the tactic of misinformation LINK, and I’ve been swarmed many times. But not all advocates of direct instruction agree with the pronouncements of the “my way or the highway” crew. A well-known advocate of direct Instruction has accused some SOR folks of “making that stuff up” when it comes to their claims about the efficacy of the long-term use of decodables. LINK
  • It’s time to look at ALL the research, both qualitative and quantitative, before making important educational decisions. It’s also time to stop treating preliminary results as final results. Would you get on an airplane if all you knew was that it had passed its wind tunnel tests? I wouldn’t. I want to be on one that has been flight-tested many times.
  • It’s time to reverse the laws championed by the “my way or the highway” branch of SOR. These laws have clearly hurt many of our children LINK. These laws are opposed by groups that support other aspects of the SOR LINK. In my opinion, some of the other state laws are preempting the right of school boards to choose what is best for their children. 

Overall, I have found this article from the New York Times as a good summary of the current state of affairs in the world of literacy. This article is the product of reading experts David Reinking, Victoria J. Risko and George G. Hruby. Here is a link to the article LINK, and a link to the blog I wrote that talked about the article and its implications LINK. For me, the most important takeaway from the article is this:

“Instead, reasonable differences exist along a continuum. 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 insures 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.”

Given all this, is it possible to reach the centrist goals?

It may seem hard to see how we can reach the centrist goals I’ve advocated for in the past four years. It’s hard to see how we can find common ground and common sense. It may be hard but not impossible if ALL of us are willing to learn to play using three strings.

Inquiry learning (constructivist) and direct teaching (behaviorist) have been around for over two millennia. In all that time, neither has supplanted the other. So, does it make any sense to pick one over the other? Is that even possible? I think that 2000 plus years of history say that it is not. Let’s stop treating instructional approaches as a dichotomy where we must choose one or the other. Inquiry learning and direct Instruction have their philosophical roots in the thinking of Socrates and Aristotle:

Instead of replacing one with the other, let’s adjust our thinking and learn how to use both. To this end, I use the thinking of folks like Tim Rasinski, who views teaching as both art and science. In my opinion, part of the art of teaching is learning when to use direct teaching and when to use inquiry learning.

Recently, I’ve talked about Cambourne and his idea of changing the dialogue about reading instruction from a reading wars metaphor to the metaphor of a quilt LINK pg18. We can add (or subtract) from the quilt based on the new things we learn about teaching. We draw from both sides (all sides) as we create and modify the quilt. If we think about it, Cambourne’s model is teaching us to play with three strings.

Four years ago, when I started my current dialogue about the state of reading instruction, I suggested we replace the ongoing attempts to have reading revolutions with the idea of a reading evolution LINK. A reading evolution would draw ideas from all sides. It requires that all sides acknowledge they have some of the answers, but not all the answers. I’ve outlined ideas of where there is common ground LINK LINK. I didn’t know it at the time, but I think I was suggesting that we all learn how to play with three strings.

I recognize that the “my way or the highway” advocates may never alter their views. But as I explained four years ago, even if they win, they will lose. They call for replacing everything with their approach and only their approach. Like all the times this has been tried before, their approach works for many but not for all. They are once again trying to move the pendulum from one extreme to the other. Historically that has always resulted in the pendulum shifting yet again.

Let’s remember that not all SOR folks subscribe to the “my way or the highway view.” That is the fact that gives me the most hope. So, I’ll conclude by saying that it is time to stop the pendulum in the middle. It is time to learn from and use ideas from all sides. It is time for all sides to realize that their particular way has limits and limitations. I think it is time to make Cambourne’s quilt  LINK pg18, LINK. I think it’s time to join P.D. Pearson’s Radical Middle LINK. I think it is time that we all start learning to play with three strings. If we do, I think the winners will be the students we serve. I think that making them the winners is something on which we can ALL agree.

Dr. Sam Bommarito, aka the centrist who is learning how to play with three strings.

Next week I am posting an interview of Berit Gordon, one of the keynote speakers at the upcoming Write to Learn conference in Missouri. She is the author of the books The Joyful Teacher and More Fake Reading. Be sure to have a look at that upcoming blog. In the meantime, here is a link to the conference. LINK

Copyright 2022 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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