Let’s stop using strawmen in our analysis of reading methods and instead start looking for common ground and common practices. By Dr. Sam Bommarito

Let’s stop using strawmen in our analysis of reading methods and instead start looking for common ground. By Dr. Sam Bommarito

The great debate in Twitter land has heated up again this week. Some folks are back to the assertion that balanced literacy is the root of all evil, and we must get rid of all forms of balanced literacy. Really?

First, let’s explore the actual origins of the term balanced literacy. Here is what Shanahan had to say in his Oct 2014 blog  LINK:

“The term “balanced literacy” was coined by the late Michael Pressley. He even published a book on it, during the “reading wars.”  (my note- the book has gone through several editions. LINK)  Michael was a proponent of phonics (he was an author of the Open Court reading series at the time), but he wanted to heal the great divide between people like him and Whole Language advocates. He felt that we needed to balance the demands of the two groups.

He supported the explicit teaching of decoding but believed the Whole Language folks were right when it came to motivation. He took it that Whole Language was all about or mainly about getting kids interested in reading.

He didn’t see balanced literacy as simply a political compromise between two warring camps, but as an acknowledgment about what each group had right . ..”

So, Pressley developed the term Balanced Literacy to find common ground between the code emphasis and meaning emphasis groups doing battle with each other at the time. Pressley was not alone in these views. See what P.D. Person, creator of the literacy practice known as the gradual release of responsibility, had to say in a piece entitled Life in the Radical Middle LINK:

“…But reading theory and practice are not the only intellectual arenas in which I find myself attracted to embracing what others see as binary opposites. In educational research more generally, I find the debate about qualitative versus quantitative research about as compelling as the new phonics/whole language debate. I cannot imagine why any field of inquiry would want to limit itself to a single set of tools and practices. Even though I find both debates interesting and professionally useful, I fear the ultimate outcome of both, if they continue unbridled by saner heads, will be victory for one side or another. That, in my view, would be a disastrous outcome, either for reading pedagogy or educational research. (the bolding is mine). A more flattering way to express this same position is to say that I have always aspired to the Greek ideal of moderation in all things or to the oriental notion that every idea entails its opposite….”

In sum, back in this era, Pressley and Pearson, both legends in the literacy field, seem to be warning against viewing things as binary or jumping to conclusions by going to extreme positions in the binary. Fast forward to today, and you’ll find recent issues of the RRQ warning against that same kind of binary thinking. 

Recently SOME (not all) SOR advocates continue to view things as binary. The scenario they promote is balanced literacy vs. SOR. When pressed for their definitions of balanced literacy, they often avoid answers. Essentially their view is anything that is not SOR is Balanced Literacy. They blatantly ignore or discount places where the key practices that are the heart of Pressley’s vision of balanced literacy have been successful. When asked about showing studies comparing the two “sides,” they have been unable to produce such studies. They usually claim that there are no clear definitions of Balanced Literacy, so they can’t really draw a sample of districts using Balanced Literacy. Hmmm, huge red flag! Instead, in their comparisons, they take all districts not doing SOR and lump them into the category of Balanced Literacy. Defining balanced literacy that way turns it into the quintessential strawman. This is because instead of using districts doing something like Presley envisioned as Balanced Literacy ( LINK, LINK, LINK), they also include districts doing things badly, districts doing little or nothing, districts with no real plans- you get the idea. When comparing SOR to such a strawman, of course, SOR wins.

Here is a LINK to a recent analysis I did of the problem with looking at things that way. These graphics help to explain the key points I make in the blog containing the analysis.

The Rocket represents the SOR projects. The circle represents practices in all the districts around the U.S.

The second graphic shows the rockets (successful implementations of SOR) and the stars (successful implementation of Pressley style Balance Literacy), the yellow circles represent other successful programs, and the large grey areas (MOST OF THE GRAPHIC) represent districts not having a successful literacy program.  

This graphic clearly demonstrates that the real culprit in the lack of progress in reading instruction lies not with properly implemented SOR or Balanced Literacy. Rather it lies with districts who do neither or who do one or the other badly, or have no real program at all. Being a centrist and seeker of common ground, I see the real hope for the future as lying with districts that include elements of both in what they do (see the circle where the rocket ship and star appear together!).

I’m back to my mantra. “Let’s use common sense to find common ground”. Let’s recognize that what works with one child doesn’t always work with another. Let’s put a moratorium on talking about what’s wrong with “the other side(s) methods and instead ask- is there anything from the other side(s) ideas that I can use to help my kids when my preferred methods don’t work? In my original post about this four years ago, I called this creating a reading evolution LINK.

One clear example of how this might apply in real life is the recent events in Australia where children with several years of synthetic phonics are still making no progress LINK. As you explore the link, look under the heading Context. In this instance, SOR folks have something to learn from the Balanced Literacy folks. The SOR folks really do need to develop some answers to the question of what to do to help children for whom several years of synthetic phonics instruction have failed to work.  I think the answers to such questions lie with the successful implementation of some constructivist-based practices.

In the spirit of looking at things from both sides (all sides), let’s also recognize that many children seem to thrive on synthetic phonics and do badly if they aren’t introduced to that form of phonics first. Hmm. Sounds like the Balanced Literacy folks have things they can and should learn from SOR.

In sum, I am saying that both sides (all sides) have things they can and should learn from the other.

At the end of the day, let us remember who the real boss of this situation should be. It should be the kids. It should be the needs of the kids. It should be developing ways to deliver instruction that meet all their needs. I must agree with Pearson that “victory for one side or another… would be a disastrous outcome, either for reading pedagogy or educational research”. I’ll end by saying let’s try something that has never been tried in the whole history of reading. Let’s adopt a centrist position and use the best of both sides (all sides) to help the kids. Let’s stop the fighting. Instead, let’s start using some common sense and look for common ground. Let’s follow ALL the research and see where it leads. Dare to dream!


In the coming weeks and months, I’m scheduled to appear at several conferences. These include LitCon, Write to Learn and Missouri’s Early Childhood Conference. I’m arranging to do interviews with several of the key speakers at those conferences. So there should be some interesting blogs forthcoming. To start with next week I’ll be doing an interview with Yvonna Graham about her book DYSLEXIA TOOL KIT.

Until then,

Happy Reading and Happy 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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4 thoughts on “Let’s stop using strawmen in our analysis of reading methods and instead start looking for common ground and common practices. By Dr. Sam Bommarito

  1. Mary Jacobson

    Thank you – it’s been beyond sad to watch our profession go after each other. We all just need to continue to develop our toolkits so that regardless of the reader in front of us, we can offer them the best instruction possible. Again, thank you for your leadership and contribution to our profession.

  2. pimcarina

    We cannot agree more! I co-own Phonics in Motion, a SOR aligned program and instructional method that is super fun and engaging (with a unique motion for every phoneme). Our program is so much more than Phonics though, and our founder Dr. Kindervater, has been saying for so long that she just doesn’t understand how it has become “this OR that.” We are built on both, we appreciate both, we provide literacy routines that are based on ALL the research — both the art of teaching and engagement, and developing the skills readers need. Thank you for this blog!


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