Shanahan’s latest blog & the NEPC policy statement: Trying to find common ground in the latest discussions about reading by Dr. Sam Bommarito

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.

Shanahan’s Blog

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?


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.




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.


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:

  1. Things are not where we want them in the teaching of reading- change is needed.
  2. Phonics and decoding instruction are important and improving the quality of decoding instruction is important.
  3. Comprehension is equally important. We should be looking at models of instruction that promote both comprehension and decoding.
  4. 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.


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!


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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