Pushing back on the SOR Legislation Currently Sweeping the Nation: Looking at Things from a Centrist Perspective by Dr. Sam Bommarito
• If you overdo phonics (code emphasis) & underdo comprehension (meaning emphasis), you will get word callers
• If you overdo comprehension (meaning emphasis) & underdo phonics (code emphasis), you will get word guessers.
• If you balance your phonics and comprehension instruction, you will get readers.
The above heading summarizes the heart of what I have come to call the centrist position around literacy LINK, LINK. For decades, the issue of how to teach reading has turned into a swinging pendulum. We’ve gone through eras of meaning emphasis vs. code emphasis and even brief periods of phonics vs. no phonics. The net result has been what Frank Smith once called the endless debate in reading. There have been many attempts to settle things once and for all. Often, those attempts have resulted in major shifts that end up helping some children but not others. Many of those shifts have resulted in spending millions of dollars with very little in the way of improvement in reading. Take the case of the Reading First program, a program that is clearly a code-emphasis approach. The following is taken from the Executive Summary of Reading First LINK:
“The findings presented in this report are generally consistent with findings presented in the study’s Interim Report, which found statistically significant impacts on instructional time spent on the five essential components of reading instruction promoted by the program (phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension) in grades one and two, and which found no statistically significant impact on reading comprehension as measured by the SAT 10.” (The bolding is mine)
My conclusion: Code emphasis approaches tend to show gains in decoding abilities but not comprehension.
Meaning emphasis approaches also have had problems. They tend to show gains in comprehension and critical thinking, But the charge is often made that some students using them are not learning their decoding skills. LINK. The proposed solution to this problem is to teach the students phonics, specifically synthetic phonics LINK. Despite claims that this solution uses all five of the pillars of instruction, as you will see in the upcoming analysis, code emphasis approaches like those being mandated under some of the new state laws have had problems demonstrating real gains in comprehension. In addition, the proposed solutions fail to deal with the fact phonics needs to be taught in the context of a total reading/language arts program LINK. Another issue is that there is more than one kind of phonics LINK. Limiting teacher training to only learning about one kind, synthetic phonics, is a key weakness of this approach.
My conclusion: Both extremes, code emphasis and meaning emphasis, don’t do very well in scaffolding children into becoming readers, i.e., students who can decode and make meaning out of what they decode. Why do the two extremes fail? There is a simple reason:
What works with one child doesn’t always work with another. Different children need different kinds of instruction. Taking one-size-fits-all approaches guarantees that there will always be some children who won’t be helped.
The problem with scaffolding children in decoding is that we sometimes fail to match the child with the kind of phonics instruction they need. That happened to Dyslexic children when the programs of the day using meaning emphasis failed to give them access to the synthetic phonics methods they needed. Mismatches in the kind of instruction needed are still happening now to many children who can decode but can’t remember or make meaning of what they decoded. Word Callers are the neglected children of the current debate about reading methods LINK. For anyone thinking that is not a significant problem, please look at this screen capture for P.D. Pearson’s video on the topic, where he cites a study by Koon Foorman and Galloway showing that 1/3 of the students who did not pass the third-grade state test could decode. LINK:
Today, we are in danger of taking part in yet another swing of the pendulum. Some folks have claimed they finally have the one and only answer that will fit all children. They are again championing a point of view that fits the definition of a code-emphasis approach. They claim to have found methods that work with every child. The claims extend to the point that their point of view about teaching reading has risen to the level of “settled science.” The problem is that this is not the first time such claims have been made. Please listen to this short video from Dr. George Hruby for an entertaining yet informative post that makes this point emphatically. The name of the video is What the Phonics is the Science of Reading. You’ll see that much of what is being offered up today is, in reality, old wine in new bottles. We’ve been down this path already, and that path leads to a very expensive dead end.
Proposed Legislation Exploring Some Myths and Realities:
Let’s examine some myths and realities around the claims made by Science of Reading proponents of the current round of SOR legislation.
MYTH– Training teachers in LTRS (or similar programs) will solve a significant number of the reading problems of our children.
REALITY– The research around such programs shows otherwise:
Training teachers in letter-sound relations improve teacher’s letter-sound knowledge and use of structured teaching. IT DOES NOT IMPROVE STUDENT TEST SCORES. So, says LTRS’s own research (and we can expect similar results from other programs as well; none of them have demonstrated improved student test scores in comprehension). Consider what Racheal Gabrial had to say on this subject.
Link to the LTRS research: LINK. The results of the research cited by Gabriel align completely with the findings of other research studies showing that LTRS training does not improve student reading scores and that other more promising ways of teacher sound-symbol relations have emerged LINK.
Myth: Proponents of SOR legislation claim that the failure of balanced literacy caused a reading crisis. They also claim the methods they champion greatly improve reading scores, alluding to things like the “Mississippi Miracle” to show they have found a much better way.
The Realities: There are definite problems in the reading world. Reading scores have remained relatively flat over an extended period of time. Read my interview with Tom Loveless for the details LINK. Here are the points he makes in that interview.
Loveless points out the alarmist language used by SOR proponents. Their claims that 2/3 of the students in the nation are not proficient readers might lead some to believe that 2/3 of the students are reading below grade level. In fact, when using NAEP basic scores (which more closely reflect the idea of reading at or near grade level), the number changes to approximately 1/3 of the students reading below basic. On the one hand, that is far from acceptable. On the other hand, it is half what is usually reported, hence my charge that the social media reporting is purposefully exaggerating the problem. I would add that researchers like Dr. Paul Thomas have published papers indicating that the claims about the Mississippi Miracle do not hold up under close scrutiny LINK.
I don’t want anything I’ve said to be interpreted as saying that improving teacher knowledge in sound-symbol relations isn’t an important goal. It is. Rather, I am saying that mandating ineffective programs to benefit one set of publishers over all others is not the best way to improve teacher knowledge of the application of phonics. There are less expensive, more effective alternatives to training teachers in sound-symbol relations in a way that helps them teach students about those relations and helps students actually apply that sound-symbol knowledge when they are reading. Consider the work of Tim Rasinski LINK, Heidi Mesmer LINK , or Nora Chahbazi LINK. All these folks are working on alternatives to the programs being mandated by many states. Mandating particular programs is effectively giving some publishers a monopoly. States should not be in the business of providing monopolies. State laws granting these monopolies should be changed immediately. Providing select publishers with monopolies is an ill-advised way to proceed.
There are many other problems with the SOR legislation:
SOR legislation does not adequately address comprehension problems. Many SOR advocates say comprehension comes automatically after decoding. IT DOES NOT. So says the NRP and all of Nell Duke’s work in comprehension. Comprehension strategies must be taught explicitly and learned using gradual release. Duke and others have several decades of research indicating that this is the case LINK. Even Shanahan has criticized what I’ve come to call the “background only” approach to teaching comprehension in this cleverly named blog post: The Spirit is Willingham, but the Flesh is Weak.
SOR legislation does not address the fact that research shows that teaching phonics to older children does not improve comprehension. Older children need other things. One promising intervention is including Rasinski’s use of fluency instruction. That improves both fluency and comprehension. See the results that teachers in England are getting using Rasinski’s idea LINK.
SOR legislation does not address the issue of Word Callers. Some SOR advocates claim that Word Callers do not exist or do not exist in large enough numbers to be a concern. P.D. Pearson and others have reported otherwise, as demonstrated earlier in this blog, citing the work of Coon, Foorman and Gallaway (2020) LINK.
SOR advocates discount the results that call into question the long-term benefits of programs emphasizing synthetic phonics over all else. Consider the work of Jeffery Bowers LINK. Is this discounting really justified when all the data is considered, or is this just a case of applying the “discount and discredit” tactic used by many SOR folks to call into question research that challenges their basic assumptions and findings? Careful consideration should be given to that question before making decisions around literacy issues.
The so-called SOR movement (what I call the social media version of SOR) is being promoted by social media pundits who have a vested interest in keeping the movement alive. They make their living in public relations campaigns promoting this version of SOR. The term structured literacy was created as a public relations marketing term LINK. These public relations folks are often called upon to testify before state legislators. That testimony should be treated the same way as any testimony from experts provided by lobbyists. It should not be a substitute for expert testimony from researchers in the literacy field.
I’m not saying there aren’t problems that need fixing. For instance, the years that many balance literacy advocates spent stressing analytic phonics over synthetic phonics worked for some children but not all. Too many universities included analytic phonics-based practices in their teacher education programs and downplayed or completely left out synthetic phonics. This has led to a situation where many educators today are not even aware that there are various ways to teach phonics. There is more than one way, as documented by this ILA position statement LINK. However, each of those ways can help some children. Teachers need to be versed in teaching all the forms of phonics. Training in phonics needs to be done in a way that allows teachers to scaffold children into actually using phonics as they read. District curriculum should be arranged so that every child gets the kind of phonics instruction they need. That especially means we must include synthetic phonics for children who need that form of instruction. However, that should be done in a manner that does not preclude children who thrive using other forms of phonics to have access to those forms. Care should be taken not to solve the problems of one set of children at the expense of another. The use of RTI LINK at the district level would be crucial to ensure that all children get what they need.
Mandating synthetic phonics over all else and ignoring many key pieces of research around comprehension will simply cause yet another pendulum swing. I made that point in my very first blog about this topic, a blog in which I called for a reading evolution (as opposed to a reading revolution). LINK.
As of this writing, the state Massachusetts Legislature is considering a bill inspired by the current spate of SOR legislation from around the country. As those legislators consider this bill, I hope they keep in mind that Massachusetts already has some of the best reading scores in the nation. Take care not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Instead, tweak the current system to ensure teachers learn about ALL the different ways to teach phonics. Since some dyslexic students need synthetic phonics over all other kinds, set up ways to ensure that that happens for them. But don’t do it in a way that strips students who flourish using other ways of teaching phonics of their access to those alternate ways. Take a long, hard look at England and what has happened when the emphasis on synthetic phonics is so large that comprehension concerns get pushed into the background LINK. Avoid the pitfalls present when student retention is used to raise reading scores LINK. Don’t let the social media pundits have control of these very important issues. Please let the “reading wars” play out fully in the research world. Let’s not move things from the research world into the everyday classroom without fully vetting them first. Above all, ensure the instruments used to test literacy fully and directly measure comprehension. Weak sister substitutes for comprehension tests should be avoided. Refer to the chart from Nell Duke’s article on advice to policymakers LINK to ensure the test being used measures everything it needs to measure.
In sum, let’s try using a centrist approach, using the best research from all sides.
Let’s try something that has never been tried in reading history. Let us try stopping the pendulum in the middle for a time, just as P.D. Pearson suggested we should LINK. Let’s follow the example set by Amanda Goodwin and the researchers involved in putting together the two special issues of the Reading Research Quarterly. These special issues provide one of the most complete collections of research on the question of how to teach reading. It includes relevant research from all sides LINK. I highly recommend that anyone who wants a good starter set of well-done research about how to teach reading begin by reviewing the collection from these two special issues.
Here is what the co-editor of RRQ, Amanda Goodwin, reported about what happened as the authors put together that collection LINK:
I’ll close with that thought. There is not one single “one best” way to teach reading. Legislation should reflect that. Legislation should allow districts to pick the research-based approaches that best serve their local population. After all, individual districts know their kids the best. State or national mandates of one-size-fits-all solutions cannot possibly fit the diverse needs of all districts. It’s time to move to the center and give districts the discretion they need to meet the needs of all their children.
Happy Reading and Writing.
Dr. Sam Bommarito (aka, the guy in the middle taking flak from all sides)
Copyright 2023 by Dr. Sam Bommarito. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely this author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization.
Some additional thoughts/resources:
When teaching about phonics, I’ve found this piece by Nell Duke and Heidie Mesmer particularly useful: LINK
One of the best pieces I’ve seen about advice to policymakers is this one by Nell Duke & Heidi Mesmer: LINK
When talking to legislators about what is needed, I’ve found the two handouts in my blog sharefolder particularly useful LINK.
Screen captures of the two documents are found below. To have working links, download them from the sharefolder.
Provided with permission of Crossland Literacy