Are we to become a nation of word callers or a nation of thinkers and problem solvers? One teacher’s perspective on the Reading Wars. By Dr. Sam Bommarito

Are we to become a nation of word callers or a nation of thinkers and problem solvers? One teacher’s perspective on the Reading Wars. By Dr. Sam Bommarito

Last week’s blog essentially went viral. It had over seventeen thousand views in just one week. This is a strong indication that many educators see the centrist point of view I am promoting as a strong and viable option for those wondering about what to do in this current iteration of the Reading Wars. This week’s entry provides a quick summary of my criticisms of how some are interpreting the Science of Reading. It also gives my list of suggestions about things we can do if we adopt a centrist view about literacy. Thank you in advance for considering these remarks.

At my age and stage, I find myself pondering life’s many lessons. One of those lessons has been the idea of moderation. Too much of a good thing is never really a good thing. That concept has direct application in the current exchange in the literacy world that is often called the Reading Wars. I’ve written about this topic extensively. LINK LINK LINK LINK I’ve made the case that one group of SOR proponents that  I have dubbed my way or the highway group has created a successful public relations campaign that is convincing folks this particular SOR group has all the answers and knows the one and only true path to teaching reading. The problem is that they don’t. I want to clarify from the outset that not all SOR folks fit into this branch of SOR. Here is an abridged set of bullet points demonstrating that the “my way or the highway” crew really doesn’t have the one true path. For a more complete list, see last week’s blog LINK

  • Despite claims by some SOR advocates that it’s all settled science, many well-credentialed  researchers feel that the whole issue of how to teach beginning reading is actually not settled  LINK
  • As indicated in last week’s blog, recent research findings have demonstrated that OG, the flagship of the SOR fleet, is not the cure-all that some make it out to be. These research findings suggest that “Orton-Gillingham reading interventions do not statistically significantly improve foundational skill outcomes” LINK. My take on this is not that OG is necessarily a bad thing. Rather it is the point that OG alone cannot produce good results in comprehension. In addition, I have also interviewed several folks who have developed alternate ways of teaching phonics that are actually quite effective LINK, LINK, LINK, LINK, LINK.  
  • The views about comprehension promoted by the “my way or the highway” group are limited and limiting. As I’ve reported before, they fail to properly consider the extensive research by Nell Duke, P.D. Pearson, and others about how to improve comprehension. LINK
  • In one form or another, the “my way or the highway” folks assume that teachers should take care of phonics first. Comprehension will then take care of itself through listening comprehension. That position was discredited many years ago by the National Read Panel, the very folks from whom the SOR folks get their five pillars. Many top literacy folks from both sides do not subscribe to this particular model of the relationship between decoding and comprehension. LINK
  • The “my way or the highway” crew has no plan of what to do for students for whom two or three years of intensive phonics shows no results. Such children exist LINK. We need a plan to help them too.  
  • Too often, SOR extremists attack and teacher bash whenever a teacher has the audacity to post information that runs counter to their very narrow beliefs. I suffered such an attack just last week. I have friends who have simply stopped posting because of being swarmed by these folks. There is some of this kind of unprofessional behavior from all sides, but my screen capture collection has many more SOR folks being mean, spiteful, and rude than any other group. Teacher bashing by anyone is completely unacceptable and unprofessional.
  • Too often research is being treated as something to be weaponized by the “my way or the highway” advocates rather than as an ongoing search for new insights building on the foundations of what we already know. LINK They are using the research to convince folks to use their products and no other. The laws that effectively ban certain publishers and promote others are good examples of this. I find the naming of certain products to be used exclusively is particularly onerous and ill-advised.

Talking about my criticisms is not enough This week, I want to tell you more about what I am for. So here is a short bullet point list of my key recommendations for the future.

  • First, change the behavior of social media interchange so teachers can talk, not argue LINK.   As I just said, let’s everyone stop the teacher bashing. The experts interviewed in the Washington Post said there is room for reasonable differences on this issue:


“There are also reasonable professional differences about what phonics instruction should look like, how much of it is necessary, for whom, under what circumstances, and how it connects with other aspects of reading. But there is no justification for characterizing these differences as a “reading war” between those who believe in phonics and those who don’t.”

  • Look at all the research, including both quantitative and qualitative research. Here is one of my favorite blog entries from my early blog posts. Its main focus is on reading comprehension. However, the action research the author carried out also demonstrates the value of including both qualitative and quantitative methods in research. This was a guest blog by one of my former university professors, LINK. In a later conversation with this same professor/mentor, he told me about a review he did of Juel and Minden-Cupp ( 2000). That study provided descriptive research in four first-grade classrooms. He said it was still a classic in his mind. They found that the two teachers who were most successful in improving students’ word analysis and comprehension skills were those teachers who provided the most differentiated instruction throughout the first grade. This conversation led me to wonder what would happen if districts did more of their own action research around what was working best in their particular local setting. I hope to do at least one blog post in the future talking about the things qualitative research can do to help school districts in their decisions about creating a curriculum that really fits the needs of the populations they serve.
  • Let’s also look at all the brain research. This interview gives a fresh perspective on some of that research LINK. I am also currently looking into brain researchers who draw a different conclusion than the researcher the SOR folks are quoting. More about that in future posts.
  • In addition to giving teachers the respect they deserve, let’s also give them ALL the tools they need and the freedom to use those tools. Their PD needs to include synthetic phonics, no question. But it also needs to include the other research-based forms of phonics that they might need to use to meet the needs of students when synthetic phonics doesn’t work. There are times when it doesn’t LINK. It also needs to include making them aware of the many decades of research showing that teaching comprehension through gradual release positively affects reading scores. Naming strategies is not enough. Internalizing strategies is the actual goal. They also need the freedom to use all the available approaches as they carry out their district’s curriculum. See this ILA brief on research-based practice in the teaching of decoding. LINK
  • Districts need to stop looking for magic pills. Adopting a program (even programs that you or I might like better than others) should not be the first step. The first step should be developing a curriculum based on the needs of the district’s population. After that is done, THEN search for programs and materials. But the boss of things needs to remain the district curriculum. The program(s) need to be adapted to the district, not the other way around. I prefer programs that build collaboration among teachers, parents, and administrators as an important part of how the program is implemented.
  • Let’s undo some of the laws that preempt the local district’s right to develop curriculum. One size fits all solutions mandated at the state or national levels ignore the fact that it is the district, not the state or the nation, that is the level that knows the kids the best. It is the level that is duly elected to do the job of deciding what fits their particular population the best. Most especially, we must rewrite the laws that hurt children through the incredibly ineffective policy of retaining them. As PL Thomas and others have documented, the research around the harm of using retention has been around for decades LINK. Yet this new legislation ignores that research.
  • Let’s consider the needs of all the children, not just the ones with problems in decoding. For instance, Nell Duke reported that word callers constitute a significant number of children doing poorly on state reading tests. There are many other sources of causes for problems in literacy. Look at what P.L. Thomas had to say in Diane Ravitch’s blog to get a quick overview of the reading war’s history LINK. Let’s remember that research demonstrates there are multiple causes for reading problems LINK. Let’s acknowledge that as we create district curriculum. Lack of decoding skills is just one of the causes of reading difficulty, not the sole or the main cause.
  • Let’s measure reading progress with tests that include a full check of comprehension modeled after state reading tests (see Duke’s reference chart in this blog) LINK. We really do need truth in testing. With truth in testing, most of the claims of miracle growth would evaporate.

Before I was a reading teacher, I was a history teacher for five years. Folks in that field often warn that those who study the past are condemned to relive it. Let’s not ignore decades of research around comprehension or decades of research showing the efficacy of using multiple approaches for teaching decoding.

Another important insight I gained as a history teacher is that social systems tend to say in stasis. It takes a lot to create a shift in ideas. Unfortunately, many of those shifts come only when one goes from one extreme to the other. Moves to middle ground seldom happen. The middle ground lacks the sizzle of the extremes.

Let’s take the middle ground more seriously. I urge all of you to revisit the works of P.D. Pearson. He has been a giant in the field of literacy for many decades. He created the widely used gradual release model. He has consistently been a centrist, saying to draw ideas from all sides. An important work of his to consider is Life in the Radical Middle LINK. It was written during the last iteration of the reading wars. Here is an excerpt from that document:

A second reason for living in the radical middle is the research base supporting it. I read the research implicating authentic reading and writing and find it compelling. I read the research supporting explicit skill instruction and find it equally as compelling. What occurs to me, then, is that there must be a higher order level of analysis in which both of these lines of inquiry can be reconciled. That would be a level in which authentic activity and ambitious instruction were viewed as complements rather than alternatives to one another. The radical middle, with its (or rather my) fascination with apparent contradiction, allows me to work comfortably at that level.”

I wish we had found that higher-order level of analysis in which both these lines of inquiry could be reconciled during the last round of the reading wars. We didn’t. In my 50-plus years in education, I’ve noticed that during each new round of the reading wars, it eventually becomes apparent that because different kids learn differently, we need research-based ideas from BOTH sides (all sides) in order to help all the children. One of the things that most teachers learn when they start teaching real kids in real classrooms is that what works with one child does not always work with another. What I am suggesting during this round of the reading wars is that folks from all sides finally realize that sometimes we must admit our ways aren’t working for all children. That means we must consider ideas from those sides that we don’t necessarily agree with.

In sum, let’s abandon the current rush to push for “one size fits” all approaches. Let’s demand that any test that calls itself a reading test must include a substantial comprehension component modeled after how state tests measure comprehension. Let’s restore the rights of districts to create curricula. Let’s embrace the methods and programs that encourage problem-solving, thinking and collaboration. Let’s invite teachers back to the table of curriculum creation and curriculum implementation. The insights they bring would be invaluable. Finally, and most importantly, let’s give teachers ALL the tools and training they need to carry out their district’s curriculum in an effective manner. That means training in ALL the ways to teach phonics and in ALL the ways to teach comprehension. Let us give each and every child what they need. Let’s have a READING EVOLUTION LINK.

Dr. Sam Bommarito, aka the centrist who uses 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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5 thoughts on “Are we to become a nation of word callers or a nation of thinkers and problem solvers? One teacher’s perspective on the Reading Wars. By Dr. Sam Bommarito

    1. doctorsam7 Post author

      Thanks for those kind words. Hoping we can actually find common ground in all this.

  1. Gini

    Centrist in reading is the basis for balanced reading. A balance of phonics, reading sight words, and comprehension or making meaning -all happening concurrently.

    1. doctorsam7 Post author

      That’s actually very close to what Pressley and others were shooting for when they invented the term. It really was meant as a way of saying to include both. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Eric Litwin

    Sam, thank you for sharing your insights and championing humility, pragmatism, and a truly research based approach. I think in the end, just like the nature vs nurture and mind vs body debates, research will show that explicit instruction and authentic reading/writing work together. Eric


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