Things Policy Makers Should Consider When Making Decisions About Literacy by Dr. Sam Bommarito

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

Final Thoughts

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 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.  

5 thoughts on “Things Policy Makers Should Consider When Making Decisions About Literacy by Dr. Sam Bommarito

  1. Danielle Murphy

    You briefly referenced the reading rope, so I know you are (at a minimum) aware of it. Why, then, do you claim that ‘sor advocates’ only care about background knowledge? Clearly there are many more factors, all of which are explicitly shown on the rope.

    In reference to ‘phonics’…if a student can’t read the words, then how can they comprehend them? So yes, word recognition is crucial to comprehension.


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