Artfully Teaching the Science of Reading by Chase Young, David Paige and Timothy V. Rasinski: An interview conducted by Dr. Sam Bommarito
This week I had an amazing moment in my professional career. I was able to interview three giants from the literacy world. Each is a well-credentialed, well-known researcher in the field of literacy. All of them have served in multiple important positions. It was an honor to be talking to such a distinguished group. Here is a brief biography of each author taken from the back of their newest book.
The interview was about the new book they have just published. The title of the book is Artfully Teaching the Science of Reading. Here is a link to the bookLINK.
The book has been well received in the literacy world. Several of my friends and colleagues have reported that they have already adopted this book as the primary resource for the reading courses they teach. That is not surprising. Not only is it thorough in its scope and sequence, but it also cuts through the complexity of the literacy world and presents that world in understandable terms. As I said during the interview, as a teacher, I find the book has many “ideas teachers can use on Monday.” That fact is especially important to the many teachers who follow this blog.
I think you will find the interview lively and far-reaching. A time-stamped chart of talking points from the interview can be found below. A link to the video interview then follows.
As I mentioned last week, I had a long and productive conversation with Eric Litwin. He is an amazing author of children’s books (think Pete the Cat) and an expert in literacy for the youngest child. He is also the author of the book The Power of Joyful Reading. I hope to talk to him soon about his upcoming appearance at The Conference on the Young Years (CYY). The conference will be celebrating its 50th anniversary. It is sponsored by DESE (Missouri Department of Education). The conference will be held March 9 – 11, 2023, at the Tan-Tar-A Conference Center in Osage Beach, Missouri. Osage Beach is centrally located and easily assessable to folks from around the country. Here is a link to information about the conference LINK.
Also- I am the past president and a current board member of the Missouri Literacy Association. MLA is sponsoring a FREE online professional development event on 9/29/22 featuring Molly Ness. Her topic is Building Comprehension Through Think-Alouds. Here is a link to the MLA website where you can register for the event. LINK. So- until next week,
Happy Reading and Writing!
Dr. Sam Bommarito, aka the centrist who, uses ideas from all sides to inform his teaching
Interview copyright 2022 by Dr. Sam Bommarito. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the author’s views and do not necessarily reflect any other person or organization’s views.
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Shanahan’s latest blog & the NEPC policy statement: Trying to find common ground in the latest discussions about reading by Dr. Sam Bommarito
It’s been quite a week in the literacy world. Doctor Timothy Shanahan wrote a blog criticizing Phonics First/Phonics Only approaches. Doctor Paul Thomas published a NEPC policy statement about the reading wars. Both these things gave me greater hope for finding common ground in this current iteration of the reading wars. Know that I have spent the last 4 years calling for a centrist position in the current iteration of the reading wars LINK. I have been critical of SOME Science of Reading Advocates (mainly the Phonics First/Phonics Only Crew) and have written about that extensively LINK, LINK, LINK. I have also advocated for reasoned discussions around the issues, discussions that avoid the use of strawman tactics by either side LINK. I’ve also called for seeking common ground LINK. This current blog will look at this week’s events through the common ground lens.
Let’s begin with Dr. Shanahan’s recent blog. LINK. There are many things in that blog entry that really lend themselves to finding common ground. While Dr. Shanahan may or may not accept a centrist label for himself, there is no doubt that a lot of what he said in this recent blog does support a centrist stand.
This blog post garnered support and accolades from folks who are usually at odds with many of Dr. Shanahan’s positions. There are many examples of that in both Twitter feeds and Facebook posts this week. What they liked the most was Dr. Shanahan’s boat analogy. He used an example of an actual incident in the Great Lakes. The boat was in trouble, listing to one side. The passengers and crew rushed quickly to the other side. That shift caused the boat to list to the other side and sink. The lesson to be learned from this event?
THE NEED FOR BALANCE!
Here is a screen capture of a key part of the blog that captures the essence of what the blog had to say:
My take on what Shanahan had to say is this- the Phonics First/Phonics Only crew is promoting practices that are way out of balance. His post also gives a large body of ideas from research we should be considering. This included an admonishment of those who waste children’s time by teaching phonics to kids who already could decode satisfactorily (“it couldn’t hurt”) and an extensive list of research we all should be looking at as we make decisions about how to teach reading. I’d highly recommend reading and rereading that part of his blog (items 1-8). Looking these over and acting on them would be a good first step in trying to bring some balance to the current discussions about the best ways to teach reading.
By the way, Dr. Shanahan has given permission to our state’s reading journal to use this blog entry in our upcoming special issue about the current state of the reading wars. Glenda Nugent and I are the co-editors of that journal. On behalf of The Missouri Reader and the Missouri State Literacy Association, I would like to publicly thank Dr. Shanahan for giving that permission. Readers of the blog- you will hear more about that special edition in the very near future.
The NEPC Policy Statement
The other event this week was the publication of the NEPC policy statement authored by Doctor P.L. Thomas. It also includes ideas we should all be considered as we discuss the so-called reading wars. These are offered in the spirit of considering all sides. Many of the items in the paper deal with pushback about some of the misdirection and misinformation that has been given by folks like those in the Phonics First/Phonics Only crew. Let’s look at some highlights from the current document, LINK and the earlier NEPC document that came out in March of 2020, LINK. We’ll start with a screen capture from that earlier document. I think this quote sets the stage for what the current document has to say:
“Exemplary teachers appear to find an easier path to balance than either scholars or policy pundits.”, Please keep those words in mind. They were written by P.D. Pearson during the last iteration of the reading wars. They are just as true today as they were when Pearson first wrote them. They capture nicely the fundamental question that should be considered. Is the path to best practices a path formed by state-mandated programs or a path created by informed and empowered teachers working within the best curriculum their districts can create for their children? Those who read this blog regularly know that my take is that the path created by informed, empowered teachers is the path that can finally cut through the gordian knot that has been the reading wars. Let’s now look at some of the key ideas from the current NEPC policy statement, which was written by Dr. Paul Thomas.
OVERVIEW OF POLICY GUIDELINES
OTHER STATE AND LOCAL LEVEL ACTIONS THAT ARE NEEDED
PUSH BACK ABOUT MEDIA PORTRAYALS OF READING SCIENCE
There is clearly a lot of information to unpack and consider in this policy statement. Key among that information is the fact “many literacy scholars and researchers have challenged the media-based movement for exaggerating and oversimplifying claims about reading…”. In addition to crafting this policy statement, P.L. Thomas has written extensively about these issues. Readers are invited to visit his blog site for additional information, LINK.
FINDING COMMON GROUND AND COMMON SENSE IN CONSIDERING THESE TWO DOCUMENTS
What follows now is my take on the “Great Debate” and how to proceed, especially given the content of these two recent documents. Let me start by saying it would be very easy to list all the things on which Dr. Shanahan and Dr. Thomas disagree. It would likely be a pretty long list. However, in the spirit of promoting centrist thinking, let’s go at it differently. Let’s look at the area of agreement. Here are some that I would propose:
Things are not where we want them in the teaching of reading- change is needed.
Phonics and decoding instruction are important and improving the quality of decoding instruction is important.
Comprehension is equally important. We should be looking at models of instruction that promote both comprehension and decoding.
Some of the ideas being promoted on social media are simply wrong and out of balance. That fact must be addressed.
There are other things we could/should add to the list. I would encourage my readers to talk about the points listed above on social media. Use the hashtag #common ground. As you do talk about these topics, please avoid the use of strawmen from either side. Please be civil, I’ve written about how to do that LINK. Please remember that the two key ways of approaching phonics (synthetic and analytic phonics) seem to both work for most kids. However, there are some kids for whom one works and the other doesn’t LINK, LINK (see Context is Key heading). Working out instruction at the district level, so the needs of both groups of children are met in a way that is doable is critical. Ideas about that would be especially valuable. Finally, let’s address the issues around fluency, prosody, and comprehension. A very long time ago, at a conference honoring exceptionally successful Title One programs, the director of Title One said, “We know better than we do”. Isn’t it time to finally change that? Isn’t it time that we stop the binary thinking that is currently dividing the K-12 LINK? Thanks to all for considering these remarks.
COMING UP IN DR. SAM’S NEXT FEW BLOGS
I’ve arranged to talk to Dr. Tim Rasinski about the new book he has co-authored. The title of that book is Artfully Teaching the Science of Reading. I just had a long and productive conversation with Eric Litwin. Not only is he an amazing author of children’s books (think Pete the Cat), he is also an expert in literacy for the youngest child. He is the author of the book The Power of Joyful Reading. I hope to talk to him soon about his upcoming appearance at The Conference on the Young Years (CYY). The conference will be celebrating its 50th anniversary. It is sponsored by DESE (Missouri Department of Education). The conference will be held March 9 – 11, 2023, at the Tan-Tar-A Conference Center in Osage Beach, Missouri. Osage Beach is centrally location and easily assessable to folks from around the country. Here is a link to the conference LINK. Finally, I’m still working on that interview of the parent of the “word guesser” I’ve been helping for the past year. She is a speech and language teacher. There will be lots of ideas to unpack from that interview.
So- until next week,
Happy Reading and Writing!
END BLURB FOR THE BLOG
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.
P.S. If you found the blog through Facebook or Twitter, please consider following the blog to make sure you won’t miss it. Use the “follow” entry on the sidebar of the blog.
Seeking Common Ground and Common Practices: Let’s Promote Dialogue, Not Discord in the Discussions Around Teaching Reading Dr. Sam Bommarito
This is a repost of a blog on the topic of common ground. The centrist view that I have been promoting holds that there is no one size fits all solution. In the coming weeks, PL Thomas will have two important documents forthcoming on the issue of whether claims to the contrary have validity. This coming week, on Sept 13, a NEPC policy brief about the Science of Reading will be released. That brief will contain a detailed analysis of the key issues around the science of reading. In addition, Paul also has a white paper in the works on the topic of grade retention. The release date is TBA. Taken together, these documents will provide major pushback to some of the claims of some of the proponents of Science of Reading.
As we consider the important points made by these upcoming papers, we should also be aware that there are very real problems in teaching literacy. My centrist view holds that no one side has all the answers, but all sides do have something to contribute. The key entry of this repost of my blog is this quote:
“…the centrist message I am giving is appealing to many folks. They are tired of the bullying and the fighting. They are tired of zealots from any side who demonize ‘the other side(s).’ They want to seek out common ground and common practices. Good things can come of SOR/BL….”
My dissertation, written in 2004 LINK, found that the two sides in the reading wars at that time had more common practices than those on which they disagreed. Instead of treating this current situation as a my side/your side/winner take all situation, let’s have the calmer voices from all sides listen to what each is saying. Let’s see what ideas/practices we all might have in common. The blog I wrote about this idea now follows.
I have friends on both sides (all sides) of the reading debate who post regularly on social media. Lately, they report that they avoid terms like “balanced reading” or “science of reading”. That is because using them can result in bullying and what some call the “uncivilized discourse” that often characterizes discussions around such literacy issues. This week I had an “aha moment” around that problem. It came when I was writing a response to a SOR proponent I talked to on one of the larger Facebook groups for reading teachers. This person reported having a bad experience using balanced literacy and the various practices surrounding it. They were convinced BL didn’t work. When I pointed out that various issues of Reading Research Quarterly reported more than 25 years of research demonstrating the efficacy of using context (a kingpin for BL/MSV) LINK, they retorted that the International Reading Association had “skin in the game”. That was a red flag for me. I will now share what I said in response to that remark. I will then talk about the implications of what I said. Here is a verbatim screen capture of my remarks.
The heart of my message was this:
“…the centrist message I am giving is appealing to a lot of folks. They are tired of the bullying and the fighting. They are tired of zealots from any side who demonize ‘the other side(s).’ They want to seek out common ground and common practices. Good things can come of SOR/BL….”
A central fact surrounding this discourse is that we are not there yet in terms of having a science of reading (I know some disagree). Research reported in RRQ and other places make that clear LINK. However, that does not mean that there isn’t much BL folks can learn from SOR. Burkins & Yates wrote a book about that LINK. The mistaken beliefs each side has about the other must be challenged. For instance, using SOR doesn’t mean comprehension is automatically ignored any more than using BL means that phonics is automatically ignored.
When I did my first posts around the most recent iteration of the reading wars LINK (that was almost four years ago!), I used the following logic:
What works for one child doesn’t always work for another.
Every approach has limitations. No approach works for every child.
Therefore, the pendulum of instructional practices has kept swinging because when one side “wins,” they invariably call for discarding all things from the other side. BUT, since there are kids for whom the new soup de jour doesn’t work, eventually, the new way gets challenged and replaced. The process repeats itself. It has done so for all the 50 plus years I’ve spent in education.
Isn’t it way past time for us to face the fact that we need to draw on things from all sides? We need to listen carefully to Cambourne and Crouch, who so eloquently explained why we need to replace the reading wars concept with the reading quilt concept, LINK.
But Dr. Sam, haven’t the SOR folks shown their way works and works well? Shouldn’t we just adopt it all and be done with it? The answer is most of the evidence presented by the current SOR is not even close to the level of gold standard research. Gold standard research requires implementation at the district level over many years using valid tests, i.e., tests of reading, not decoding. This past week I spent several days asking an ardent SOR supporter to provide gold-standard evidence. She cited one study and had no idea whether the testing instruments used in that study really measured reading rather than decoding. In the past, when I’ve asked for gold-standard research, what I usually get back are mainly studies that don’t even come close to meeting such standards. Frequently they are studies that use instruments like the DIBELS. DIBELS measures mainly decoding and fails to directly measure comprehension.
Why should we be worried about having gold standard research? Would you be willing to be a passenger in an aircraft that passed its wind tunnel tests but had never been tested in actual flights between cities? I wouldn’t. In the same way, before mandating programs to the exclusion of all others (a practice I have criticized LINK), we must at least look at the results of implementing those at a district level. Doing that is the educational equivalent of using actual flight tests instead of wind tunnel tests to inform the decision about the viability of an aircraft.
I also want to point out that when folks evaluate “the other side,” they must test with the best plane the other side has to offer. It must have been built to meet the company’s standards, i.e. they must demonstrate the other side’s practices were carried out with fidelity. When the critics of BL are asked to produce studies where the BL best practices were done with fidelity, they can’t. They include all districts instead of drawing a sample of districts doing BL with fidelity. They can’t draw such a sample because they have no working definition of BL. Doing it the way they do is like testing a rival company’s product by using a badly built plane from 50 years ago instead of studying their latest best-built jet.
I’ll finish by saying that life in the center is not easy. Eyebrows get raised from all sides when I report that I use decodables AND predictables AND trade books. I measure fluency using more than just speed. I use both synthetic and analytic phonics. I use a lot of materials from Dr. Tim Rasinski to build my students’ orthographic knowledge. I teach fluency using Rasinski’s method of reading for performance. The research around repeated readings strongly supports the use of such practices. I do comprehension checks, even with students working at the very beginning levels of reading.
I agree with Tim Rasinski that teaching is both art and science. Accordingly, I use direct teaching some of the time. The philosophical underpinnings of that method come from Aristotle. It tends to be the method most preferred by the SOR folks. I also use the inquiry methods. Its philosophical roots trace back to Socrates. Inquiry learning is a favorite of BL groups. BTW I’ve noticed that both those methods are still around, even after a couple of millenniums, with little chance that one will be replaced by the other. The two methods do not constitute a mutually exclusive dichotomy. They do require an application of the teaching both the art and science of reading in order to decide which method is best suited to which situation. The most important conclusion I’ve drawn from all the research around the issue of what practices to use in the teaching of reading is that “It Depends!”
I’ll end by asking folks from all sides to be willing to try ideas from “the other side” when ideas from your favorite approach aren’t working for a kid. I’ll also ask that we all do more talking and less bickering. I wrote an article about that LINK, p 20. I think if we could start doing that, there would be some definite winners. The winners would be the kids we’re all supposed to be helping.
Dr. Sam Bommarito (still the guy in the middle, still taking flak from all sides)
Copyright 2021, 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.
P.S. If you found the blog through Facebook or Twitter, please consider following the blog to make sure you won’t miss it. Use the “follow” entry on the sidebar of the blog.
Things Policy Makers Should Consider When Making Decisions About Literacy by Dr. Sam Bommarito
For the past five decades, the so-called “Great Debate” in reading has centered around the issue of the best ways to teach reading, especially beginning reading. Many educators have come to believe that this debate has resulted in a swinging pendulum, moving from one extreme to another. I’ve taken the position that instead of jumping between extremes, we should consider using the best, most effective practices from all points of view about reading. I call this taking a centrist approach. LINK This approach maintains there are alternate explanations about why things aren’t where we want them to be in the teaching of reading. LINK
Some points to consider when discussing the current iteration of “The Great Debate” in reading.
Some (not all!) Science of Reading (SOR) advocates take a very narrow view of the reading process and don’t consider all the research. LINK
Some SOR advocates also ignore years of research on promoting comprehension by claiming that giving students background knowledge is mainly what is needed to solve comprehension problems. Accordingly, they call for the time spent teaching comprehension strategies to be brief. LINK. There is more to teaching comprehension than simply providing background knowledge. One must also take the time to teach reading strategies using gradual release explicitly. LINK. I argue that it takes much more time than many SOR advocates claim, especially since the maximum impact of such instruction comes from using a gradual release model. That requires several class sessions spread over several weeks or more LINK. I am not alone in criticizing these practices and the premises behind them. LINK
Many SOR advocates call for years of using decodable text and years of phonics instruction using mainly synthetic phonics. One of the top experts in the reading field has criticized their position around decodables, LINK. There are viable alternatives to that position. For instance, consider the work of Nora Chahbazi LINK, which can improve decoding skills in months, not years. Also, consider the ideas of Heidi Mesmer LINK and Julia B. Lindsey LINK, both of whom have viable training programs that help teachers learn the ins and outs of decoding. Also, consider our friends’ work in Australia and their success at the Thrass Institute LINK, LINK.
Many SOR advocates ignore the fact that some students do not succeed using their brand of synthetic phonics and have presented no viable alternatives to help such children. LINK(see section marked context is the key)
I take major issue with laws in various states that effectively ban everything except their particular materials and methods. This preempts the right of districts to decide what materials/methods would best serve the needs of their population. These laws should be revised so that they call for specific outcomes, leaving the districts to decide what particular materials & methods might best fit their children’s needs (see bullet point 3 in this document for some examples of alternate materials/methods). Also, see Bower’s position LINK and Briggs’s position on this topic LINK.
Decisions around best practices in reading should be based on complete tests of reading, not just tests of decoding. LINK. Regardless of the philosophy a program is based on; when adopting programs, districts should require evidence that the programs improve both decoding and comprehension. This evidence should span several years. The comprehension test should directly measure all the content typically covered in our state reading achievement test. See box 1 of this document by Nell Duke for the “The range of knowledge, skills, and dispositions entailed in state reading tests “LINK
Nell Duke’s ideas about a more complete view of Scarborough’s Rope should be considered. Doing so would vastly improve the odds that students will learn to comprehend as well as decode. LINK. Her ideas around improving phonics instruction are also worth considering LINK.
Recently I’ve had some discussions on social media from Science of Reading advocates claiming my position that some SOR folks do not TEACH comprehension is unfounded. I’ll begin by saying that many SOR advocates do attempt to assess comprehension and practice comprehension skills. The former is a good use of teaching time; the latter is not. I’ll go so far as to say reducing the amount of time on various activities to “practice” comprehension skills is a good idea. So, there is some common ground between my position and that taken by some SOR proponents. However, practicing comprehension skills without first teaching them is like having baseball batters practice their swings without coaching on how to adjust the swings. The issue then becomes what we do about teaching comprehension strategies. It is on that point that we sharply differ. I call for using the Science of Reading Comprehension LINK. They don’t.
Many SOR advocates have adopted the position posited by Willingham that improving background knowledge is most of what it takes to improve comprehension. They call for teachers to significantly reduce the amount of time teachers spend teaching reading strategies. I’ll begin by pointing out that some major figures in the SOR world have questioned Willingham’s position. LINK I’ve written my own opinion. That opinion says that Willingham does not factor in several decades of research showing that teaching reading strategies using gradual release does result in improved reading scores. LINK I’ve also questioned whether the amount of time he advocates allocating to reading strategy instruction is adequate for teachers to implement a gradual release teaching model.
My inquiries on how these SOR advocates teach comprehension (as opposed to assessing or practicing comprehension skills) have been deflected rather than answered. One key question for those advocates is whether they support the teaching comprehension model that calls for teaching strategies using gradual release. The follow-up question is this- what percentage of their teaching time is spent teaching comprehension? Perhaps we need replication of Durkin’s seminal work in the 1980s about how much time teachers spend teaching comprehension. LINK. She found that “classroom observation of reading and social studies instruction shows that teachers are mentioners, assignment-givers, and interrogators.” During the era of the early 1980s, teachers did not TEACH comprehension. It’s not in anyone’s best interest to return to those times. We should not write off the three decades of progress the reading world has made on the issue of how to TEACH reading comprehension.
In conclusion, I urge all policymakers, administrators, and teachers to consider all the research and best practices from all points of view as they decide how to help our children become lifelong readers and writers.
Dr. Sam Bommarito
Dr. Bommarito is retired from full-time teaching after a 51-year career in education. That career included teaching at almost every grade from K through graduate school. He taught reading courses to teachers at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. He’s made numerous presentations at ILA (formally IRA) conferences, including national conferences. In spring 2022, he was a featured speaker at the LitCon conference. More recently, he was a keynote for the University of Millersville, Pennsylvania’s summer institute and is scheduled to speak to Albany’s ILA group next January. Most of his career was spent working in Title 1 buildings as a reading specialist and staff developer. Those buildings were often highly successful, as demonstrated by national awards from the Secretary of Education. In addition, he twitters daily about his various literacy endeavors (@DoctorSam7). He writes a weekly blog about literacy https://doctorsam7.blog/. His dissertation, completed in 2004, dealt with key issues in the reading wars. Among the findings of that dissertation was that teachers from the two sides of the debate at that time had more common practices than those on which they differed. This sparked Dr. Bommarito to continue to search for common ground and common practices as we continue to examine the issue of how best to teach literacy, especially early literacy.