A Centrist Perspective on The Teaching of Reading: Highlights & Analysis from my presentation at the Millersville University’s Summer Institute by Dr. Sam Bommarito
First, I’d like to thank Dr. Aileen Hower and the Department of Early and Exceptional Education for the opportunity to speak at their Summer Institute. Dr. Hower is the Masters in Language and Literacy Program Coordinator at Millersville. She is an Assistant Professor of Literacy at Millersville University. Millersville is a state university located in Millersville, Pennsylvania LINK. During the two-hour Keynote session, I discussed “Strategies to teach to enhance fluency and comprehension.” I also did interactive activities with the graduate students attending this session. The session was done on Zoom. I want to talk about what we did in that session and give some session highlights. I’d also like to provide additional information about questions raised by participants during and after the session.
Question one: Dr. Sam, what is a centrist perspective, and why do you advocate for it?
Those who follow this blog know that for the past four years, I have explored the issues surrounding the so-called reading wars LINK, LINK, LINK. One of my followers, Judy Boksner, described a centrist this way:
(Be sure to visit Judy’s YouTube Channel LINK)
This slide gives the key to why I am a centrist:
The only way to stop moving from one extreme to another is to finally stop in the middle and use the best research-based ideas from all sides.That idea is best summarized in what I call the “Reading Evolution.” LINK.
Question two: There was no time in the session to explore your ideas about the best way to teach decoding. Would you briefly explain your views on that question?
Teaching decoding should include the direct, explicit teaching of synthetic phonics. Where I think some SOR proponents have gone off the tracks is that they use synthetic phonics exclusively. They ignore other forms of phonics, including analytic phonics. They have no answer about what to do if selected students fail to learn using synthetic phonics. Such children exist, as demonstrated by this recent article about teaching reading in Australia LINK. Look under the heading The Context is The KEY in that article.
Accordingly, I believe in giving in-service to teachers around ALL the ways to teach phonics. My recommended sources for such information are books by Heidi Mesmer. Her books do a good job of discussing what is needed at the very earliest stages of the reading process and what is needed later on. Here is a link to a blog where I interviewed Dr. Mesmer LINK. Links to her book and other materials can be found in the blog entry.
Question three: What are your views around comprehension, and why do you advocate the direct, explicit teaching of comprehension strategies?
The answer to why I advocate for the direct, explicit teaching of comprehension strategies is pretty straightforward. There are decades of research by Duke, Pressley, Pearson and others indicating that teaching comprehension strategies using a gradual release model significantly improves reading scores. Some SOR folks have gone off the tracks because they ignore that research and its implications. The work of Willingham influences them. Listen to what Dr. Tim Shanahan says about Willingham and his work LINK.
“Willingham is trying to reduce the amount of comprehension strategy instruction so that kids will like school better. I doubt that he spends much time in schools. He hasn’t been a teacher of principal or even a teacher educator and his own research hasn’t focused on practical educational applications. I’ve been conducting an observational study of nearly 1000 classrooms for the past few years, and we aren’t seeing much strategy instruction at all. There definitely can be too much strategy teaching, but in most places any dosage, not overdosage, is the problem.”
I would add that the sample that Willingham used in his original research fails to adequately reflect the extensive work of Duke, Pressley, Pearson and others. Here is a blog that I wrote about why it takes more than just background knowledge to teach comprehension LINK.
For an overall model of reading, I use Duke’s Active View of Reading Model LINK. Duke is first and foremost a researcher. Based on a personal conversation with her, she goes where the research leads. She does not take sides and doesn’t like to be labeled. I think she does what a good researcher should do. She takes the current state of things and then makes additions that will advance the field further. In this case, she took the rope and added ideas that would bring comprehension more to the forefront. Here are two slides about Duke and her work.
This first slide shows her This Not That Series LINK and Kelly Cartwright’s book about Word Callers LINK. Duke was the editor. Overall, these books provide many useful resources for classroom teachers and reading specialists. More information about Duke’s work can be found on her website LINK.
The second slide shows important excerpts from her article Reading by Third Grade: How
Policymakers Can Foster Early Literacy. LINK.
When I talked to the participants at the Summer Institute, I stressed how important Duke’s ideas around comprehension are. It takes more than simply reading a list of words to establish comprehension. In my opinion, too often, the tests used by some SOR advocates to demonstrate their miracle growth in reading do nothing more than that. They are mainly a test of decoding. Reading tests must directly measure all the things found in Duke’s Box 1. Her box one explains the “range of knowledge and skills and dispositions one needs to perform well on state tests.” If one teaches strategies using the gradual release model, the student learns to internalize and use that strategy. I demonstrated to them how they could assess that using one comprehension strategy. That was a hands-on activity. I argued that teaching key strategies is a viable and useful path to improving all students’ reading.
Question 4: What are your views about fluency, and what activities do you recommend to promote fluency?
In my opinion, the single best person to look to about how to improve fluency is Dr. Tim Rasinski. I’ve written about him several times LINK, LINK, LINK. Here is a link to his website, where you will find many resources to help you improve your students’ reading fluency LINK. I also pointed out to participants that if they follow Tim on Twitter (@TimRasinski1), he gives away free resources every MWF. These include Word Ladders, vocabulary activities, activities around teaching prefixes and suffixes and many other things. I’ve noticed that Tim attracts followers from both the SOR camp and the balanced literacy camp.
The key to Tim’s approach to teaching fluency is using repeated readings in order to practice to perform. He has an excellent book called Fluency Through Practice and Performance. Here is a link to the book LINK.
I provided the Summer Institute’s participants with examples of how I do that with students. It only takes 5-7 minutes a day of practice reads (repeated readings), and I do my performance event once every two weeks. Another great source for ideas and resources to implement this kind of program is The Megabook of Fluency. Tim and Melissa Cheesman Smith wrote it. Here is a LINK.
I pointed out that this book contains potential read-aloud passages for both younger and older readers. I highly recommend the reading to perform activities for students of all ages to promote fluency and comprehension. Because research shows that the direct teaching of phonics often fails to provide dividends for older readers, I also presented using this kind of activity for older readers with decoding problems. Some participants were concerned that doing this might not be enough.
In researching this further, I found this recent blog entry from Timothy Shanahan about decoding in the middle school LINK. He ended that blog by saying, “The simple answer is that fluency practice can be beneficial for your students. It will help those who have fluency problems. But what’s going to be done with the kids with other reading needs?”.
I think the answer to that question can be found in his earlier analysis of the overall situation. It seems that most of the struggling readers he talked about would benefit from the fluency work but that a small number of the students with exceptionally weak decoding skills would probably require explicit decoding instruction. Further testing would be needed to determine who they were. Thanks to the post-seminar discussion that is a topic that I will be looking into further.
In Conclusion: I hope the blog readers will find some new takeaways about the best ways to teach reading. One of the things I like best about teaching (especially about teaching teachers) is that usually, you learn as much from your students as they do from you. I want to thank the session participants for their attention and thoughtful insights into this topic. Next week I will resume with interviews. Until then- Happy Reading and Writing.
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 author’s view and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization.
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Thanks, Dr. Sam! A nice synthesis for those of us working with teachers working with learners!
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Excellent summary! I’m pleased to see the mention of analytic phonics. It seems in most phonics discussions, synthetic phonics is the only method discussed. While synthetic phonics is important in beginning reading instruction, moving to analytic phonics offers readers more efficient decoding. The recognition of rime patterns honors the brains’s preference for pattern recognition. It’s puzzling to me that so many SOR advocates who are obsessed with fluency fail to see the efficiency of analytic phonics.