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

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

I have written many times about the group I have dubbed the “my way or the highway” advocates of the science of reading. First and foremost, this group claims that the issues around the teaching of reading are settled, and they have the one and only true science of reading. PL Thomas has written criticisms of this point of view LINK. So have I: LINK, LINK, LINK.   Even well-known science of reading advocates like Mark Seidenberg (author of the book Language at the Speed of Sight) finds major problems with some claims made in the name of SOR LINK. Especially look at what he has to say from paragraph 10 on. That paragraph begins with “I do know something about reading research…”. I’ll have more to say about Seidenberg’s views later in the blog.

Many well-credentialed researchers say “we aren’t there yet” in terms of creating an agreed-upon Science of Reading.           

One thing I have noticed most about the “my way or the highway” group is that one can accept their conclusions about reading if and only if you are willing to accept their very narrow view of the reading process, their rather unique way of verifying their research LINK (they often use circular self-references) and their limited review of the research that they use to “prove” their position. Many of us find their defacto approach to science which is that science is about proving final answers, is the antithesis of what most folks view as science. Science isn’t about proving the one and only final answer. Science is about discovering new things by building on what we already know to create new knowledge and understanding. That is why I find the approach taken by folks like Duke and Cartwright much more scientific. In their RRQ paper, The Science of Reading Progresses Communicating Advances Beyond the Simple View of Reading, they propose building on the old (Scarborough’s Rope) to create the new (The Interactive View of Reading). Their approach involves looking at what has come before and building on it. I am not claiming that their approach is the only approach. Neither are they. I am claiming that their approach is much more scientific than the approach being used by the “my way or the highway” Science of Reading crew. In my opinion, Duke & Cartwright’s approach does a much better job of explaining the role that comprehension plays in the whole reading process. 

Here are some examples of important research that the “my way or the highway” SOR folks have ignored or discounted:

  • Research by Nell Duke, P.D. Pearson and Michael Pressley demonstrates that teaching comprehension strategies positively impact reading scores. Duke’s studies focused on teaching those strategies using a gradual release model. See my blog about the issues surrounding this LINK.
  • Research around early childhood indicates the current push to move direct reading instruction into Kg and preschool is developmentally inappropriate.  Early childhood experts and others see play as more important than direct instruction in these early settings. LINK LINK LINK. This doesn’t mean I am against direct instruction; it means I am for using direct instruction in an age-appropriate manner. We are in danger of robbing a whole generation of younger children of their childhood.
  • Research around the long-term negative impact of retention, especially on children of color. See PL Thomas on this topic LINK, LINK and also Valerie Straus LINK. Despite such findings, SOR advocates continue to laude the benefits of the Florida model. In a bizarre twist, they also provide data that the “reading” gains of the Florida model are not a result of the retentions. If that is the case- why do they continue to support retaining students as part of the intervention models used in that state?
  • Research around best practices in teaching phonics. My dissertation, written in 2005, studied the last iteration of the reading wars. When I did that work, some folks said we really don’t need phonics, or they pushed for analytic phonics over synthetic phonics. The days of substantial numbers of educators saying “no phonics” are over. Today, most educators do see the need for phonics. The issues are now what kinds or how much. The ILA position paper on phonics indicates that research supports the use of more than one kind of phonics LINK. The “my way or the highway” folks ignore or discount that substantial body of research and promote the nearly exclusive use of synthetic phonics. Systematic instruction in synthetic phonics is far from a cure-all. Recent data from Australia indicates some children fail to progress even after several years of such instruction LINK. As Helen Amass reports, “Another concern is around the children for whom SSP simply doesn’t work. This is something that Al-Jayoosi finds particularly troubling, given that current government guidance for children who do not make good early progress in phonics is for them to receive more tuition in phonics – what she calls the “absolutely demoralizing approach of repeating phonics with them until they get it.” This is a huge red flag for adopting policies that call for the exclusive use of synthetic phonics.
  • Research continued. When advising districts, I suggest that they consider making systematic synthetic phonics an important part of their literacy program. I even have my recommended resources for PD, I would use materials from Mesmer and Duke LINK. I make it clear that there are also other potential resources. This is in stark contrast to the “my way or the highway” group operates. They sometimes pass laws mandating their materials and only their materials be used. They go so far as to name specific products. In some states, teachers are pushing back against the situations this creates. LINK.
  • Research continued, I spent three-plus decades working in Title 1 schools, both rural and urban, helping the kids for whom the mainstream program didn’t work. Those kids need something more, something different. Those kids need teachers who have a toolbox full of things to help them. Their teachers need training in more than just synthetic phonics. In addition to PD, they also need to have the freedom to carry out instruction that follows the child. That,  of course, should be done within the boundaries of district policies. For now, I’ll just say that there are many RR teachers who are taking training like OG training, and I’ve heard from many many teachers who are trained in a variety of ways to teach phonics. They are using that training to good effect and they don’t use one thing exclusively. I’ll have much more to say about this in future blogs.
  • Research demonstrates that there are districts using balanced literacy (I prefer the term constructivist practices) that do have success. Districts making such claims are met with a barrage of criticism that I call “discount and discredit.” Folks like Hanford and Vaites are making their living convincing parents that balanced literacy is a total and complete failure and calling for the replacement of any program that isn’t their brand of SOR. They often discount and discredit the successes of programs like RR. Those successes are listed elsewhere in this post.  I’ve offered an alternate explanation of why things aren’t as we want them to be. It maintains that some districts are using SOR with success, and some districts are using other practices with success. But there are many districts that are not implementing any program with success or have no real program at all or fail to implement the program they are using with fidelity. These are the districts that are causing the current lack of success. See the details of this argument in this blog post LINK.
  • Research around word callers shows that the word caller problem is not what SOR folks say. SOR advocates pretend that there are only a small number of word callers and that this is essentially a pre-existing condition. Nell Duke found that word callers account for a significant percentage of the students scoring low on state tests. Also, please have a look at this book:  Word Callers Small-Group and One-to-One Interventions for Children Who “Read” but Don’t Comprehend by Kelly B Cartwright, Edited by Nell K Duke LINK. I think you will conclude that there’s more to the issues around word callers than SOR folks are telling us. You’ll also find some great interventions to use with word callers.

Today I am adding two more things to the list of problems with the position that “my way or the highway” SOR folks take. One is that they base their claims on research with fundamentally flawed designs. The other is that too often; they use research based on weak instrumentation. Their instrumentation does not provide adequate measurements of comprehension.

I’ve written many times about the issues surrounding how many of their studies measure “reading.” They give students lists of words to read, then make inferences about comprehension using correlation statistics. Or they use the Dibels, a test of decoding, not comprehension. While this may be a sufficient design for preliminary research, when it comes time to spend millions (billions?) of dollars on materials, they need much stronger proof than they usually provide. See my blog entitled “Show me the Beef” LINK. Here link to a PDF by Nell Duke. Check out Box one on page seven for a look of all the things state reading tests include LINK. Compare that to the information one gets from the tests used in much of SOR research, and you’ll see that SOR instrumentation is often woefully inadequate. In fairness, there are a few (very few) SOR projects that use tests of comprehension as opposed to tests of decoding or word list tests. I’ll be interviewing the head of one of those projects very soon. By the way, the head of that project does not take a “my way or the highway stance.”

The other development is a phenomenon that Rachel Gabriel has called the “weaponization” of research. This is the worst possible way to use research. My take on this is that it presents research in a way designed to “PROVE” a particular way of doing things and force folks into taking what the proponents claim as the ONE AND ONLY path to literacy.

I view the recent pronouncements by Hanford and Peak as a case study in weaponizing research LINK. They cite research that claims Reading Recovery eventually has a negative impact on children. The clear goal is to get rid of Reading Recovery once and for all because, in their view, it doesn’t work. There is tons of research showing RR works in the short term, but Hanfork and Peak failed to mention that. They also ignore the fact of just how weak the statistics are “proving” this long-term negative effect. Rachel Gabriel will be talking about that in a future interview. RR is meant to bring students up to a level where they can benefit from the district program, and RR does a very good job of that. P.L. Thomas wrote an excellent post around the topic of how the media reports on the whole issue of beginning literacy. LINK

For instance, Bowers immediately replied to their attack on Reading Recovery. He said:

 “There is an obvious flaw in the study for assessing long-term effects. I hope critics of RR don’t ignore this. Can’t rule out a Mathew Effect. And can you point your readers to a long-term positive effect for phonics?”.

In my most recent blog about the positive effects of Reading Recovery, I point to the fact that the issue of the nature of the programs to which the students return has an important impact on student performance. When they return to classrooms where students are making progress overall, they match or exceed that progress. When they return to classes where students make little or no progress, they match that lack of progress. LINK Studies that fail to factor that in are fundamentally flawed.

Wait a minute, Dr. Sam, are you saying the RR is not a cure-all. That’s exactly what I’m saying. I’m saying it is an intense short-term intervention designed to move students up to a level where they can benefit from the mainstream program in their building. For most students, it does that beautifully. I’ve written several blogs outlining the research demonstrating the efficacy of Reading Recovery LINK, LINK, LINK. RR improves comprehension and decoding for those beginning readers, so says the research found on ERIC. That is something its competition has never been able to do. By the way, The Reading Recovery Community provided well-reasoned, well-research documentation that counters the claims made by Hanford’s review of the research LINK. Also, have a look at what Rachel Gabriel says next week about just how weak the statistics were “proving” this point.

Let’s be clear that when I’m talking about this “my way or the highway crowd,” I am not talking about all SOR advocates. I’ve interviewed many SOR folks over time and found that they are open to dialogue about the issues. Instead, I’m talking about that group that includes folks like Karen Vaites. Karen has strong ties to parent groups and gets important parts of her income from work they do that involves lobbying for/lobbying to these groups. She and others like her have been quite successful in getting many parents to buy into their narrow, restrictive point. They use some rather sophisticated, effective public relations tactics to do so. She fails to fact check, I’ve fallen victim to some of her pronouncements and so have some of my friends LINK. She makes no attempt to correct her mistakes and she has a tendency to just make things up to suit her arguments. One of my friends from England likened this “my way or the highway” group to the mockingbird. When a mockingbird’s egg is left in another nest, and the hatchling comes out, the hatchling proceeds to kill all the other birds in the nest. These folks are out to end all that has come before and replace it with their brand of science.

The most telling criticism of what I’ve dubbed this “my way or the highway approach” is one I cited earlier. It comes from a long-time advocate of SOR, Mark Seidenberg. Here is the LINK and a quote that gives what I think is the heart of his criticism:

“This narrowing of focus is prompted by a valid concern: teachers (and other educators) have to be able to understand the research in order to make use of it. Since most educators don’t have much background knowledge in the area, the message has to be kept simple. That is the rationale for focusing on what I called “classic rock” studies.

I think this approach is giving up too much too soon. It underutilizes the science, underestimates the teachers, and diverts attention from the need to improve professional training. The science of reading movement hasn’t even gotten to the good stuff yet. I think teachers can absorb the important findings if they are presented the right way. Good PD is clearly an important component. Improving pre-service training would have the biggest impact, but that it is not happening as yet on a broad scale.”

(bolding and underlining are mine)

In my dissertation about the reading wars that I did all those years ago, I found that teachers from the two sides had more common practices than those that separated them. That raised my hope that we might be able to find common ground at some point. I still think that is possible. It will require all sides to admit that their preferred practices have limits and limitations. Nothing works with every child. Instead of weaponizing research to prove points and promote narrow agendas, we should be looking at ALL the research and be ready to use things from all points of view, even if they aren’t the ones we think should always work. It’s time for evolution, not revolution. LINK. There is nothing that always works for every kid. Maybe it is time we should argue less, talk more LINK and make that talk about common ground and effective practices. Then we could figure out how to use that common ground to help the kids LINK LINK. Dare to dream!

May 4th addition: Please see “Making Sense of Reading’s Forever Wars” by Leah Duran & Michiko Hikida. Thanks to @RacheGabriel & Mary Howard for calling this article to our attention. This one is now on my “must-read” list.

In the meantime- Happy Reading and Happy Writing.

Dr. Sam Bommarito, aka the centrist using ideas from all sides to inform his teaching

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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16 thoughts on “The Weaponization of Research and its Implications for Reports on the Efficacy of Reading Recovery & other Constructivist-based programs- by Dr. Sam Bommarito

  1. Helen Proulx

    Another well reasoned and referenced post! Thank you Dr. Sam. I will be sharing and adding the research links to my file.

    One point I don’t understand why more folks don’t delve into the science behind Literacy Processing theory and Reading Recovery. I wonder why this is? Clay was well before her time in talking about the complexity of the reading and writing processes. While the Scarborough rope model is a step in the right direction, her theory is grounded in the study of children learning to read & write. Seems to be what teachers need to consider- how do children learn to process texts?

    Clay’s “Becoming Literate: The Construction of Inner Control” is a must read for those working with emergent literacy learners. All of Marie’s books are worth reading for those who study the Sciences of Reading.

    “Boundless Horizons: Marie Clay’s Search for the Possible in Children’s Literacy” shares the original research on which Reading Recovery is based. “Stirring the Waters: The Influence of Marie Clay” is also excellent for those who want to know more about how her work has influenced and shaped contemporary constructivist practices in literacy teaching.

    Looking forward to your next post!

    Helen Proylx

  2. Penny

    This is helpful because you include the links to further reading by authors on both sides. I agree with your centrist position.

    1. doctorsam7 Post author

      THANKS! And I’m glad you noticed that I do talk to and talk about folks from all sides. I really am looking for Common Ground and Common Sense.

  3. Ellen A Thompson

    Way to go, Dr. Sam.
    I have to admit that this week I have been feeling weary and beaten down by some folks who are holding their flags up very high in my face. It is so difficult to find the words that will not inflame the discussions further. I find it hard to remain composed when folks actually laugh in your face when you express an idea or a practice as valuable. When did being rude become okay? I appreciate your willingness to stay in the discussion. I have printed out Kappan article and look forward to reading it soon!
    Thanks for the inspiration! I keep reminding myself, it really is about the kids…about the kids becoming real readers who make sense out of their reading and writing so they can help reset this crazy world! No small task!

    1. doctorsam7 Post author

      Hoping to give folks lots of materials with which to defend themselves. It’s so sad that the “my way or the highway” mentality has infected so many. The spin doctors have done their work well- we just need to keep pointing out the fundamental flaws in what they are saying and doing. No one ever said it was going to be easy! Hang tough- the kids are worth it!

    2. doctorsam7 Post author

      Glad to help. BTW RR teachers are by their nature glass half full kinds of people. We teach to the strengths. We create lifelong readers and writers and THINKERS. Perhaps that is what scares the zealots so much. Anyway- thanks for all you do!!

  4. rbbeckley10

    I never used Reading Recovery. But it seems to me that commercial programs are taking the place of professional development. This reflects a lack of confidence in teachers’ abilities, overconfidence in standardization, and the overweening influence of product makers on education decisions.

    1. doctorsam7 Post author

      We are on the same page on that one. Ultimately helping teachers to become knowledgable in a variety of ways to teach and giving them the freedom to follow the child as needed (done within the boundaries of the district policies) is the way to go. Review the 1st-grade studies- good teachers get good results. Recovery training is very informative and does include both decoding and comprehension. So it can become part of a district’s PD. It should not be the only PD. There was a post going around the internet- asking teachers to use a boxed curriculum is like asking a master chef to use a hamburger helper. Nuff said.

    2. Judy Wallis

      I think what happens all too often with any resource is what is called professional development is actually implementation and procedures. An example might be where to find certain information or how to set up a reader’s/writer’s notebook rather than what role it plays, the research behind the practice, and pedagogical use. Unfortunately, too many leaders hear pd, failing to differentiate.

  5. George LILLEY

    thanks Sam, a really useful overview. What do you think is the motivation of the SOR folks? Where I sit they look to be mostly academics or people with a financial conflict of interest in their consulting business. My circle of teachers mostly would agree with you, reading is complex & a variety of approaches are needed.

    1. doctorsam7 Post author

      Remember that the SOR is an umbrella term. So there are folks in the SOR movement who are willing to talk and who have real concerns about the teaching of decoding. As for the “my way or the highway branch you’ve hit the nail right on the head. By and large, they are folks with no experience in the field, prone to making rookie mistakes when it comes to working with kids and most of all they are in it to sell their particular products AND ONLY their products. They are effectively taking away districts’ rights to choose programs. They also have a very strong PR program, partly because for several of them they are PR folks and spin doctors, not real researchers. They have been quite successful in selling their point of view to parents. As Seidenberg said “I think this approach is giving up too much too soon. It underutilizes the science, underestimates the teachers, and diverts attention from the need to improve professional training.” And btw he is a strong SOR advocate.

  6. Pingback: An interview with Rachel Gabriel: Her views on key literacy issues, including the efficacy of Reading Recovery: Interview conducted by Dr. Sam Bommarito | doctorsam7

  7. Troy F

    I always try to remember that there is scientific research out there dealing with reading instruction, focused on more than just a phonics-based approach. You have to be willing to look for it and have an open mind. I mentioned one such article in a blog post of mine.

    Sam I love how you provide so many resources for readers to dive into and make their own conclusions after perusing them.

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