Deconstructing the “My Way or The Highway” Branch of the Science of Reading- A Centrist’s Perspective by Dr. Sam Bommarito

Deconstructing the “My Way or The Highway” Branch of the Science of Reading- A Centrist’s Perspective by Dr. Sam Bommarito

A little background about this post: Lately, I’ve been engaged in a spirited exchange with some folks I consider as “my way or the highway” advocates of the Science of Reading. I’ll be crystal clear from the outset that not all SOR folks take that position. As a centrist, I’ll also be clear that I draw on and use things many folks would call practices supported by the Science of Reading, though I prefer the term Sciences of Reading. That said- let’s talk about my concerns about what this particular group of Science of Reading advocates are saying and doing. I’ll also give my advice on how I think folks should proceed. Understand that the concerns in this post are about the “my way or the highway group,” so it is about what SOME, not ALL SOR advocates, are saying and doing. For this essay, please treat SOR as the “my way or the highway” SOR group.  

CONCERN ONE– Some folks treat things as a winner takes all dichotomy. SOR vs. Balanced Literacy/Whole Language. Things are a lot more complex than that.

Recent issues of Reading Research Quarterly have warned against treating approaches to teaching literacy as a dichotomy. I subscribe to Cambourne’s view that a Reading Quilt metaphor should replace the Reading Wars metaphor, LINK p6.  I am now going to trace to the two sides WAY back.

Inquiry instruction is the underpinning of constructivist learning approaches. It is also a key feature of analytic phonics. It has its origins in the philosophical teachings of Socrates.

Direct instruction is the underpinning of the behaviorist approaches to learning. It is the key feature of synthetic phonics. It has its origins in the philosophical teaching of Aristotle.

The two ways of teaching, constructivist vs. behaviorist, have co-existed for over two millennia without one replacing the other. I see no reason for wanting or expecting one approach to replace the other. Unfortunately, members of the SOR (MWOH) group view inquiry instruction as weak and seem to want virtually all instruction to be direct. They also embrace quantitative research exclusively and omit qualitative research entirely. Given the complex nature of what goes on in school districts, that is a problematical way to proceed. It leads them to underestimate the effect and importance of constructivist methods. I’ll have much more to say about that point in future blogs.

What makes the most sense to me is encouraging both instructional approaches and using the Art of Teaching to decide when best to use one or the other. In this era of a Global Economy, it seems that the kind of open-ended problem-solving thinking encouraged by inquiry instruction is exactly what we need to compete successfully. There is a place, a very important place, for inquiry instruction in our educational instructional practices today.

In my opinion, Balanced Literacy’s defining feature is the use of constructivist-based practices. Here are multiple examples of districts using constructivist-based practices with great success  LINK, LINK, LINK. Yet the SOR folks claim BL has failed. They do this by employing the public relations tactic of discount and discredit. Once data supporting constructivist practices is posted, they then do analyses to show the research behind them is flawed. By the way, their practices could be subjected to the same kind of discount and discredit analysis.

When considering whether to adopt SOR-inspired educational practices or BL-inspired practices, it’s not just a matter of counting studies and positions. It is a matter of looking at what the most widely used peer-review journals have concluded. Currently, journals like the Reading Research Quarterly have concluded that the SOR advocates lack a widely accepted definition of the term Dyslexia and, therefore, cannot properly screen for the condition. Currently, their screens misidentify large numbers of students. You’d never guess that listening to them as they call for the widespread adoption of their brand of SOR.   

There is another problem with the SOR claim. A simple summary of my position is as follows: before making any claim that BL has failed, the naysayers have to draw a scientific sample of districts using selected constructivist practices with fidelity. I say that the studies should focus on selected constructivist practices because the term Balanced Literacy is an umbrella term for which there is no widely accepted definition, accordingly, it would be best to look at districts using a list of selected constructivist practices, with the results of each practice reported separately.

Let me explain why drawing a sample of districts using constructivist practices is important. Naysayers say that things are not where we want them in literacy instruction. I can’t agree more. However, they then imply that the situation is completely the fault of BL. I then remind them that SOR is also part of the current literacy scene, so it has to take on some of the responsibility for the current failures. They then say that you have to look at the districts using SOR-inspired practices to judge SOR. I AGREE! But that also means you have to look at a properly drawn sample of districts using BL (selected constructivist practices) with fidelity. THEY’VE NEVER DONE THAT! Given the results about BL reported elsewhere in this blog entry, they would likely find that at least some of the constructivist practices used in BL do work. Perhaps that’s why they’ve never drawn the sample. Until they do, the claims “failed practices” and “BL is a failure” – are examples of half-truths and misdirection. It’s time we started looking at the whole truth in our discussions around instructional practices. For a further explanation of this point, go to this LINK

CONCERN TWO– Some folks use very limited views of the reading process and very limited inquiries into the research. The result is they champion some misleading and inaccurate positions. They claim that it is all settled science. IT ISN’T. Here is an excerpt from a NY Times article written by three top researchers in the field. It clearly shows there is no consensus. Here is a link to that article LINK, along with a screen capture of highlights from the article. Please read them carefully, especially the point about SOR’s tendency to overlook the common ground shared by those who draw different conclusions on the finer points of the available research.

Last year, I wrote a blog about the article entitled The Sciences of Reading LINK. There were over 10,000 views of that piece, and the two follow-up pieces LINK LINK. In addition, I interviewed P.L. Thomas about his view that Its Not Simple and Its Not Settled LINK. Based on what multiple well-credentialed researchers are saying, the bottom line is that it is not settled science. SOR folks saying otherwise employ the public relation tactics of using half-truths and misdirection. As the article says- teaching reading is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. I say- let’s stop pretending that it is!

CONCERN THREE– Some folks are fostering ideas about teaching comprehension that are simply not supported by ALL the research. These folks look at the evidence supporting the importance of readers’ background knowledge and then jump to the CONFUSION that teaching background knowledge is all that is needed to teach comprehension. That is simply not the case.

On the one hand, virtually everyone in the literacy community knows (and has known for decades) that background knowledge is important to understanding. However, there is considerable evidence that it takes more than just background knowledge for readers to construct meaning.

Review the work of Pressley, Pearson and more recently Duke. They found that teaching reading strategies USING A GRADUAL RELEASE MODEL can and does have a significant positive impact on reading scores. There are several decades of research supporting that statement. My take is that the charge that teachers sometimes “spend too much time teaching comprehension” is best aimed at what Shanahan has called teaching comprehension skills. I can’t agree more that endless practice teaching students how to answer various comprehension questions is not particularly useful. But teaching strategies using gradual release (Shanahan’s other category about teaching comprehension) is a different story. What follows is my interpretation, not Shanahans.

Willingham talks about teaching strategies as something that can be quickly and easily done in just a few lessons. I don’t think that that analysis fits well if one is teaching strategies using gradual release. So, I agree with Willingham in that some teachers overdo the teaching of comprehension skills. I’m afraid I must disagree with his analysis that it doesn’t take much time to teach comprehension strategies.  When it comes to teaching comprehension strategies using gradual release, it takes time and lots of it. The bottom line is this- Building background knowledge is necessary but not sufficient for reading comprehension to occur. Teaching selected reading strategies using gradual release is justified, pays off handsomely, and needs to be done.

Yet when I ask SOR (MYOH) folks how they spend their time, specifically do they spend any time at all TEACHING comprehension strategies, the answers I get are evasive. They lead me to believe that most of the instructional time is being spent teaching decoding, not comprehension. I view what they seem to be doing as a huge mistake. Decoding is necessary but not sufficient for comprehension to take place. Better decoding does not automatically lead to better comprehension. We’ve known that since at least the NRP. SOR folks need to take a gradual release model’s direct systematic teaching of comprehension strategies more seriously. At the end of the day, how you spend your instructional time is a great predictor of your results. The “my way or the highway” SOR folks are really shortchanging the time they spend TEACHING comprehension. They would do well to review the seminal work of Delores Durkin in this area LINK. Perhaps we need some new studies informed by Durkin’s model to ascertain exactly how the “my way or the highway” crowd actually spends its time. Such studies also should be done to check on folks using more constructivist-based approaches as well. Given some of the things Shanahan has reported in his blog I suspect some constructivists are shortchanging students on the time given to decoding. I have to wonder aloud if there isn’t a scenario where doing systematic comprehension and decoding instruction would produce improved reading scores (and more importantly better readers!).

CONCERN FOUR- Some folks are trying to ban all programs except their own.

One of my friends from England likened some SOR folks to being like the mockingbird. When a mockingbird egg is left in another bird’s nest after the egg hatches, the mockingbird hatchling kills all the other chicks. MYOH SOR folks ignore what early childhood folks say about how to best teach younger children- ignore what researchers say about the downside of using retention to raise reading scores. They laude many of the programs that use retention as “miracles” that prove that SOR works. They fail to call for these programs to drop this incredibly harmful practice. The tests they use to prove their “miracles” are usually tests of decoding, not comprehension. In my blog post entitled Show Me the Beef, I called on them to provide multiple examples of district-wide studies using full comprehension tests, not decoding tests LINK. So far, they’ve not done this. They are getting laws passed that allow their model AND ONLY THEIR MODEL to be used. This strips away the rights of school districts to be the best judge of what will work with their kids. See other parts of this post to review my criticisms of the efficacy of the research they use to justify these criticisms. Exposing the half-truths and misdirection some SOR folks are using to get such legislation passed is critical. Learning how to speak to and counter such criticisms is also critical. PL Thomas has put together some great materials to that end LINK.

CONCERN FIVE- SOR “my way or the highway” folks are discussing things on social media in a way that effectively eliminates any real dialogue around the issue.

I have many friends in the Balanced Literacy community who have been swarmed multiple times by “my way or the highway” SOR folks. Many of my friends have simply stopped posting, in part for their own mental health. The dialogue from the “My way or the highway group” is often mean, vitriolic, and ill-informed. They often “shoot from the hip” without fact-checking first. I have been at the receiving end of such folks “shooting from the hip” and spreading misinformation about me and my blog LINK. A major figure in their leadership takes a “punch you in the nose” stance, leading to followers who too often “take the low road.” Here is what one of them had to say about me just this past week.

“@DoctorSam7, & ILA & BL publishers/authors refuse culpability. By putting their profits over children worldwide, they cause more injury. 2 be satisfied w/32% when 95 can be had is their own branded arrogance”

Several points about this attack. First ILA is a non-profit. Most of my own literacy work is pro-bono. So this is yet another example of a SOR advocate failing to fact check.  The “cause injury” charge flies in the face of evidence that the practices we use work as presented elsewhere in this entry, evidence that SOR folks try to discount and discredit. The fallacies of the 32% success rate (lack of success rate?) are explored elsewhere in the blog. All in all, this very personal attack is mild compared to others that have been made on me and my constructivist colleagues. I’ve been told I should be ashamed of what I’ve done in my 50 plus years teaching and helping kids. I’m not. I know I’ve helped the kids; the parents know I’ve helped the kids and the learning for the kids has stuck over time. Teacher bashing like this, discrediting teachers at every turn seems to be a public relations tactic of this brand of SOR. Sadly, it is starting to drive many good teachers out of the field.

There are lots more examples of such brazen attacks to be found. I’m trying to give a measured response to these kinds of attacks. I’ve pointed out the need to Talk More and Argue Less in my Literacy Today article LINK p20. I’m trying to push back hard against the half-truths and misdirection while still talking to (and interviewing!)  SOR folks who have not taken these extreme, indefensible positions.

CONCLUSION. These aren’t all my concerns, just the top 5 concerns. So, is there any hope for the future? Is there any hope for using common sense to find common ground? I think there is. In one of my first posts on this topic four years ago, I said that even if the SOR folks pushing their very narrow agenda win, they will lose in the long run LINK. That is because they don’t have a method that works for most kids most of the time. Once the parents of Word Callers and very young children see that the SOR isn’t working for them, I predict they will start pushing for another swing of the instructional pendulum. As a centrist, I am trying to push back against the misdirection and trying to use common sense to find common ground. I am already using many of the practices recommended by the moderate SOR folks. So are many of my constructivist colleagues. A dialogue on all this is possible. The buy-in for the dialogue is for everyone to admit that their position has limits and limitations. Those willing to do that can start the construction of Cambourne’s quilt of instructional practices. Thanks for considering these ideas. Hoping many of you will join me in what P.D. Pearson once called “The Radical Middle” LINK

Dr. Sam Bommarito (aka the guy in the center who is happy to take flak from all sides because he is a teacher trying hard to do what’s best for the kids)

9 thoughts on “Deconstructing the “My Way or The Highway” Branch of the Science of Reading- A Centrist’s Perspective by Dr. Sam Bommarito

  1. Troy F

    Thanks for this post Sam. I am currently gapping through LETRS’s training which has been very good. But I do disagree with some of what it encourages. I am more of a centrist like yourself.

    1. doctorsam7 Post author

      I’ve found the ideas of Dr. Meismer the most useful. She has the most sensible approach to phonics I’ve seen. Would love to talk to you sometime about your take and takeaways on LTRS training.

  2. RCvb

    I think sometimes the difficulty is the dismissal/disrespect. As an educator, I questioned the lack of phonics and was professionally bullied. As a parent, I asked questions about my children’s difficulty with reading and was dismissed. Not until advocates of SoR started to get louder, did change start to happen including a renewed and more thoughtful approach to phonics. Perhaps it is the challenge of changed practice needs to happen when there is a stronger push and middle ground is typically a moving target. The issue for me though – student needs are first and as professionals we need to be flexible, question constantly, and accept that we need to change as new understandings emerge.

    1. doctorsam7 Post author

      I’m sorry you had that experience. MANY constructivists, myself included, are very much in favor of teaching phonics and have been for quite some time. That fact seems to be getting lost in all the rancor. It’s actually not true that the change about phonics happened only because of SOR. I was present in 1995 when the whole language guru, Ken Goodman, said that there was a place for phonics in the whole language. That predates SOR. I am against bullying from ALL sides. I am also for looking at ALL the evidence and helping ALL the children. BTW that includes Word Callers. They account for SIGNIFICANT numbers of the low scores on state reading tests. They are the new neglected children. I couldn’t agree more with your closing sentence. BTW that means, EVERYONE has to admit their position has limits and limitations. Have a great week. Dr. Sam

  3. Karen

    I thank you for your views and willingness to remain vocal. I’m in year 38. My career has been working with struggling young readers as classroom teacher, reading specialist, Reading Recovery teacher, Principal, and Title I Administrator . I do believe the pendulum will swing back when the pressure from these educators and parents realize that what they have been led to believe doesn’t work. I’ve been around long enough to see it a few times by now. What infuriates me are the politics(politicians) behind it all and the publishing companies(executives) in each other’s pockets. When there are billions of dollars flooding the market for schools to spend companies want as much of a piece of it as the can get. And they will all play dirty to get it. And it has nothing to do with science, best practice or doing right by kids for them. It’s about making money and maintaining power. Reading First folks have just rebranded themselves and taken on an nastier tone. It is such a waste of time and energy that could be spent on so many more important and more productive matters for people. Wise educators will keep their eyes on the prize-the kids. Use common sense and stay in the middle in this debate. Stay the course, be reflective in your practice and use the best of everything. It’s never one size fits all. Know your kids. Know your resources and your craft. Motivate and engage them. Teach them skills explicitly and model inquisitive and strategic thinking. Immerse them in lots of books and conversations. Meet them where they are. Build their confidence. And by all means block out the noise. This too shall pass.

    1. doctorsam7 Post author

      Well said! Great summary when you said “Stay the course, be reflective in your practice and use the best of everything. It’s never one size fits all. ” Glad to have you in Pearson’s “Radical Middle”. Thanks for all you do for the kids! Dr. Sam

  4. Eric Litwin

    Thank you Dr. Sam for such a thoughtful blog entry. It is tough to be a centrist and a peacemaker. You are leading and promoting a conversation that asks all participates to be respectful and openminded. I have always found value in both direct and inquiry instruction. Great teachers use both.

    1. doctorsam7 Post author

      Thanks for your kind words. Also thanks for your wonderful books. Many many many children have learned to read because of them. I’m honored by your comment.

  5. Allison Gentle

    I think the key issues instructionally are whether phonics is taught concurrently with other reading abilities or sequentially, and how much of the literacy block it is reasonable or necessary to devote to phonics. Delaying access to meaningful text until students have mastered a certain amount of letter knowledge makes no sense, either does using more than 15-30 minutes a day on phonics. The National Reading Panel specifically warned about giving excessive time or importance to phonics, but the most ardent SOR advocates use the NRP Report (2000) to support their approach!


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