About Literacy Instruction- A Letter to the  New York Times by Dr. Sam Bommarito

About Literacy Instruction- A Letter to the  New York Times.

Note: A shortened version of this letter has been submitted to the Times. It was shortened in order to meet the word count criteria.

To whom it may concern,

I have been in education for over five decades and have taught every grade from Kindergarten to Graduate school. I currently work as an education consultant and write a weekly blog about literacy. One important thing I have learned all this time is that what works with one child doesn’t always work with another. One size fits all solutions have never faired well. Yet recent articles and podcasts by the Times seem to support the notion that the social media version of Science of Reading has found such a solution and that folks like Lucy Calkins have done more harm than good. That makes for great public relations, especially for companies selling the alleged silver bullets. However, it is based on very bad science. It is bad science because it is incomplete science. It is bad science because it fails to consider all the research.

 First, many top researchers have challenged the notion that it’s all settled science and that a silver bullet is ready for use. These researchers include P.D. Pearson, George G. Hruby, Rachel Gabriel, P.L. Thomas and Amanda Goodwin. Goodwin is the current co-editor of the prestigious Reading Research Quarterly. In a recent interview, she said

“But their RRQ article, Donna Scanlon, and Kimberly Anderson review 25 years of rigorous experimental studies in which kids were given systematic phonics instruction and also taught to use context cues to help them when they struggle to sound out words. And they found that kids tend to become more successful readers when they get both kinds of instruction, compared to those who get phonics alone. In short, they found that more resources are better. It’s self-defeating to insist on an either-or choice between phonics and context cueing, as though these practices were at war with each other. It’s much more helpful to treat them as complementary.”  

By the way, one of the cornerstones of the social media version of SOR is to ban the use of context clues. That is part of their proposed ban on MSV. Please note that Goodwin is not saying to abandon systematic phonics. She is saying that kids need both systematic phonics and the problem-solving approach Scanlon and Anderson use.

Second is SOR’s notion that everything that has come before in literacy instruction has failed to work and must be replaced. Balanced literacy doesn’t work. Folks like Lucy Calkins are vilified. Some SOR advocates claim she and others like her are hurting kids. But look at all the research before buying into that. Tim Pressley just published the 5th edition of the book explaining and defending balanced literacy. That book contains much research-based evidence showing that Balanced Literacy can work and that it includes systematic phonics. Lucy has been incorrectly identified as the inventor of Balanced Literacy. The claim is made that Balanced Literacy teachers don’t teach phonics. It was actually the late Michael Pressley who invented the term Balanced Literacy. His son, Tim Pressley, just published the 5th edition of the book about Balanced Literacy. There is plenty of evidence in that book that claims of failure are simply not true. The SOR folks are taking on a strawman version of Balanced Literacy rather than trying to deal with the real thing.   In addition, regarding successful teaching using workshop, the ink isn’t dry on research showing that workshop works before the attacks on the data start. The attacks discount and discredit studies using criteria for success that are much more stringent than those being used to judge the research supporting their stance.

Third, the research supporting their stance is equivocal. LTRS training is not even close to a cure-all, yet the research demonstrating that is ignored. For years, England has used synthetic phonics- the SOR fleet’s flagship-. Yet a recent landmark study found it is not working. P.D. Pearson, one of the top literacy researchers of all time, has said all the SOR folks have really demonstrated is the ability to improve performance on word list tests. When it comes to improving comprehension, they have simply been unable to demonstrate that. Comprehension is the Achilles heel of the social media SOR movement.

Fourth- the claims of success made by these SOR advocates in places like Florida and Mississippi have also been challenged. In a recent blog post-Diane, Ravitch explained how the NAEP scores are arbitrarily manipulated to uphold failure claims. Both she and P.L. Thomas have carried out work that shows the “miracle gains” in 3rd-grade reading scores disappear in later grades. These gains are partly due to the retention of 3rd graders, which temporarily boosts scores by removing them from the testing pool and giving them a second chance to take the test. Doing so actually hurts those students. The research shows they are more likely to drop out of high school. It also shows that kids who are not retained do just as well as the ones who are. Add to that the facts that it costs extra money to keep those kids in the system for one more year and that children of color are more likely to be retained. Given problems with the practice of using retention to raise scores, one must conclude it is a practice that should be ended. One more thing- Ravitch also points out that other improvements made in Mississippi, e.g., more funding, and smaller class sizes, may have played a significant role in raising the scores. Current reporting is silent on that point, giving credit only to using SOR.

In conclusion, why are we letting public relations spin doctors shape literacy policy while ignoring what major researchers have to say? For several years now, I have championed taking a centrist position. That means using the best of ALL sides. My position is rooted in P.D. Pearson’s idea of the “Radical Middle,” a position which he continues to develop. This is not a call to keep the old ways. It is, instead, a call to do something we’ve never done in the history of reading. Instead of listening to the folks on the extremes (phonics vs. no phonics), let’s adopt a middle-ground approach. Let’s use ALL the research, not just the research that sells particular phonics programs. Perhaps we can learn a lesson from recent events where taking a centrist position avoided a national calamity in the financial world. I’m calling on the Times and other media to report the whole story, not just the story the social media spin doctors want told. Let’s hear from folks like Pearson, Ravitch, Gabriel, P.L. Thomas, and others. Let’s take what they have to say more seriously. Perhaps then we can finally use ideas from all sides to stop pendulum swings in literacy discussions. Perhaps we can learn from one another. Dare to Dream.

Dr. Sam Bommarito

Reading Teacher

National Reading Consultant

The guy in the middle taking flak from all sides.

24 thoughts on “About Literacy Instruction- A Letter to the  New York Times by Dr. Sam Bommarito

  1. Linda Filipp

    Spot on Dr. Bommarito!!! Being a centrist in a district where so many have drunk the SOR Koolaid can be challenging. I keep wondering what the ramifications will be for students as they continue through school with only one tool in their toolbox which is phonics. Thank you for bringing more light to this subject! Love your blogs!!

    1. doctorsam7 Post author

      Thanks. Thanks for listening and be sure to join those of us who are trying to be part of the solution!

    1. Paula R Pleasant

      Great article and SO true. We should have tools to use as teachers. We should not be forced to only use the latest new curriculum. You are correct that class sizes are the major problem, it is hard to serve every student sufficiently when there are so many kids.

      1. doctorsam7 Post author

        An class size is only one of many problems. I advocate for allowing local districts to choose the things that best fit their students. Outlawing program that work is simply wrong. Yet that is what is happening. I find that very sad.

    1. doctorsam7 Post author

      Thanks! I am trying to get the WHOLE story out, glad to hear my friends saying I’m on the right track!

  2. Karen Duren

    The SOR platform is based on MRI imaging of children who are reading words in isolation. That is NOT reading. Reading is gaining meaning from an authentic text within a socio-cultural context. It is much more complex than isolated word identification, which is why one size solutions inevitably fail.

    1. doctorsam7 Post author

      NIcely put. Tracks exactly with P.D. Pearson’s remarkes that what SOR has demonstrated is to improve children’s ability to read word lists. Comprehension is the achilles heel of SOR.

  3. Andrea Carroll

    Thank you! I’ve tried to engage in discussion with SOR people on Twitter, but they just attack and tell me how much I’m harming children. I truly appreciate your work!

    1. doctorsam7 Post author

      I know that the attacks can be viscious and unrelenting. Don’t let them bully you or trick you into getting mad and saying stupid things. Best way to handle those kind of folks is to simply block them. We’re starting to get a fairly large group of folk on Twitter who are talking not bickering and a few of them are SOR folks. So- stay the course, block the trolls and talk. Thanks for your comment

    1. Sydney

      Susan- that is untrue. Emily Hanford did a wonderful job exposing the harm Lucy Calkins and others have done to young children. Emily never said that teachers were “getting it all wrong.” She explicitly said that teachers were doing what they were told to do by their districts. If you listen to her journalism, you will find she is very supportive of teachers. – sincerely, a public school teacher in the midwest

      1. doctorsam7 Post author

        Exposiing the harm? Really? Please read the evidence Pressley gives in his book and then reread what I said in the letter to the editor. Hanford and others are supporting the creation of laws that force teachers to stop using things even when their working. That is simply not right. That isn’t supporting teachers, that’s tying their hands. Sydney, you seem to have fallen for a public relations campaign whose net effect is to elimnate the competition and replace it with so called SOR products. Problem is they don’t work as advertised. Again read the full letter to the editor. In the meantime. I would mention the PR campaign uses the device of fighting a strawman instead of looking at what the competition actually does. So I respectfully agree to disagre with your position.

      2. Susan Koehler

        Sydney, the October 2018 Hanford piece to which I was responding was titled “Why Are We Still Teaching Reading the Wrong Way?” The word “wrong” was derived from the article, and it had very little to do with Lucy Calkins. Believe me, I have deep empathy for teachers who are forced to teach in a way that is not to the benefit of their students. I’ve been one of them. I have been required to isolate literacy instruction from other disciplines. I have been required to repeatedly assess, monitor, and time students’ reading and decoding practice. I have been required to force students to contend with reading material that is deemed “where they should be” rather than where they actually are as readers. All of these requirements were made by people in power whose contact and experience with students was limited at best. I hope you read my blog post in its entirety. My position is rooted in experience and supported by evidence. If someone were to tell me to teach reading without phonics, I would speak to the necessity of its inclusion. My position is made clear in this analogy: “Abandoning phonics in primary education would be a mistake. That’s because phonics is part of the reading process in the same way that flour is part of a piecrust. However, no one would put cherry filling on a plate of flour and call it a pie.” We must never lose sight of the fact that reading is a multi-faceted process, and that the children placed in our care possess complex systems of cognition and emotion.

      3. doctorsam7 Post author

        Susan, I have read your full posting and I agree with all you said. Sydney would do well to look at what you had to say about reading first. My own take on all this is quite simple. Since the First Grade Studies were published and all through the work of Allington a clear fact has emerged. In terms of impacting scores on reading tests, teachers have more impact than programs. Yet instead of encouraging good teachers to teach (within each districts curriculum) we instead are now mandating silver bullets based on synthentic phonics. Research has already demonstrated that course of action is not going to work. Let’s let teachers teach (withing each districts curriculum). Thanks for listening to this rant. And special thanks for your well done blog entry. Please contact me if you can.

    2. doctorsam7 Post author

      Thanks- would like to talk to you about this further. I’ve sent you a direct message.

  4. Pingback: About Literacy Instruction – A Letter to the New York Times – Foundation for Learning and Literacy

  5. Cathy McGeehan

    Thank you for speaking up!! Those of us who know the actual research need to speak up and make our voices be heard as the SOR folks have done! We owe this to the children learning to read!!

    1. doctorsam7 Post author

      Happy to do it! I’ll be posting an interview with Dr. Tom Lawless next week with even more detailed information about the research. Be on the lookout for it! BTW please share this post widely, we really do need to get the whole story out there!


Let's talk! What do you think?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.