Author Archives: doctorsam7

About doctorsam7

Working with Dr. Kerns from Harris Stowe on several writing and action research projects. Love workshop teaching and teaching about workshop teaching. I have a blog, all about Keys to Growing Proficient Lifelong Readers. I am President of the STLILA and Vice President of the MoILA.

Promoting fluency for beginning readers using activities inspired by the work of Tim Rasinski and Mellissa Cheesman Smith

Promoting fluency for beginning readers using activities inspired by the work of Tim Rasinski and Mellissa Cheesman Smith

The Megabook of Fluency

Last year, Tim Rasinski came to our local IRA and did a presentation around the science and art of reading. To see everything he had to say (and he had a lot to say!) go to this blog entry:

This blog post will center on an activity he described in the book Megabook of Fluency. Mellissa Cheesman Smith was his co-author. The book truly is a Megabook of Great Ideas and Activities that teachers of all grades can use to help their students develop fluency. It is organized around his prosody factors (EARS). E is for Expression, and A is for Automatic Word Recognition, R is for Rhythm and Phrasing, and S is for smoothness, fixing mistakes. Rubrics based on these factors are available in the book and are written on a variety of levels including one for grades 6-8.  So readers, this book isn’t just for the primary grades; its content and suggestions include ideas and activities for all grade levels PP-8.  For a list of all the strategies in the book organized by EARS skills the reader can go to:

This link is for people who own the book. You can use information from the book to get the password for this link.

In his presentation, Rasinski told the following story.  It was the story of a new primary teacher who used the strategy of having children practice reading poetry for four days of the week in preparation for performing those poems on Friday. The reading time wasn’t that long, 5-10 minutes daily.  Despite push back about “wasting” instructional time, she continued to do this activity all year. By the end of the year, her first grade was performing significantly higher on reading tests. She replicated those results the next year and became the teacher of the year for her state. My assessment is that it is a lot of bang for the buck since the instructional time used is less than 10 minutes a day.

My regular readers are well aware that I am a retired reading specialist. I volunteer for one full day a week at my grandchildren’s elementary school. I push into two third grades where I am helping teachers to get started in writing workshop (a topic for a future blog) and also push into two 1st grades and two-second grades where I am implementing a program inspired by Rasinski’s report on the repeated readings. I tried this method out in one of the second grades last year at the end of the year. The teacher liked it so much she talked her partner in second grade and the other two 1st grade teachers into trying it out this year. We just started this week.

My “lesson” on how to be a reading storyteller was actually a song I wrote. It is sung to the tune of “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Here it is (go to the Links to Selected Materials page of this blog to download a copy- free for classroom use. It is copyrighted so required permission for commercial use):

I sang the song first. Here is an audio


I then invited the class to sing along. We then had a little discussion about things storytellers do (your voice goes up, your voice goes down, makes storytelling sounds, etc.). The students then paired up and read the story together. Just before doing that I taught the class the following two chants:

“Make it match, don’t make it up, that is what to do. Make it match don’t make it up; you’ll read your story true”


If you see three, say three, if you see five say five.

I told them that as they read, each partner would take turns being the “pointer.” They would point as they read and make sure they were matching. I told them that making up our own stories from pictures etc. is something we do as writers. As readers, we should read exactly what’s there. We don’t try to memorize the whole book (or in this case the whole song). Instead, we are careful to notice which word is which when we read.

That was this week’s lesson. During the week, they will practice reading the song daily. 5-7 minutes. This will get them ready for next week when they will start doing poems and practice them on a two-week cycle. In this case, their basal series has poems for each unit. We’ll be doing those for a while. Later on, I have lots of books with collections of easy poems, and so do the teachers. There are also lots of poems in the Megabook of Fluency.  Each child will get a chance to pick which poem they want to work on. Unlike Rasinski’s teacher, who worked on a 1-week cycle, for now we will work on a two-week cycle. At the end of the cycle the children know they will be making a recording of their poem.

In the future, I will blog out again and let my readers know how its going.  I would mention that last summer when I did an in-service for first-grade teachers, the song and the related activities were one of the favorite activities for those teachers.

I’ll end by saying that this activity is just one of many you can find in the Megabook of Fluency. When I listened to Rasinski’s presentation last year, part of the time, I felt that I was in a seminar on writing workshop. Why?  That is because Rasinski talked about how students used some of the poems and primary source pieces as a source of inspiration for writing their own works. He showed examples of student writing. Hmm. Students writing their own poetry, scaffolded by reading poems from this book or other sources.  What a great idea for poetry month!

Rasinski also says that repeated reading is more effective when done for authentic purposes.  His book gives you many pieces of authentic reading materials and many authentic reasons for rereading (e.g., rereading to prepare for a performance). These include pieces that are appropriate for older grades (Think Dr. Marin Luther Kings I Have Dream Speech, or President Kennedy’s Ask Not What Your Country Can Do for You speech). There are lots of other fluency activities, as well.

For more information about Tim and his various resources, visit his website  BTW- the blog on his website includes free versions of some of his famous Word Ladders and earlier versions of his fluency rubric, which are available for free downloading.

Happy Reading and Writing!

Copyright 2019 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.

P.S. If you found the blog through Facebook or Twitter, please consider following the blog to make sure you won’t miss it.  Use the “follow” entry on the sidebar of the blog.












Using Tech to Boost Reading Community and Engagement By Stephanie Affinito


This week I welcome Dr. Stephanie Affinito, who is sharing some important ideas about literacy. Over the next several weeks I hope to have a number of guests talking about important literacy issues. ENJOY!


Using Tech to Boost Reading Community and Engagement

By Stephanie Affinito

Digital tools and technology has transformed the way the world works, including the ways readers read, connect together and share their thinking. Today’s students have grown up in a time where digital tools and technology are the norm and expect to use them in their everyday lives, both at home and at school. If we want our classroom reading community to reflect the kind of readerly life we ultimately want our students to have, then we must harness the power of technology to cultivate authentic reading connections in our classrooms and boost engagement for reading. Here are three powerful practices that use technology to harness student’s authentic reading lives:

Increase Access to Text

Technology can increase access to almost anything: to people, to information, to places and locations and yes, to books. A simple connection to the Internet connects students with infinite possibilities for texts: online articles, ebooks, digital texts and even read alouds and interactive media. In addition to heading to the classroom library, students can head to online websites to access books, texts and other media they would not otherwise have access to. Here are a few of my favorite sites:

Wonderopolis: A site that ignites students curiosity and imagination through daily wonders that promote exploration and discovery.

Get Epic: A digital library of over 35,000 digital books free for teachers and their students.

Unite for Literacy: Digital books focused on social studies and science content for our youngest readers.

CommonLit: Free reading passages and instructional materials for grades 3 – 12.

Beyond simply providing access to books and other reading materials, technology can provide access to content, topics and genres that students might have otherwise overlooked to broaden their reading lives as well. Sites like Bookopolis and Biblionasium provide safe spaces for students to share their own book recommendations and explore new titles read by their peers. Sites like A Mighty Girl offers a diverse selection of texts for courageous readers, DOGO Books offers books reviews for kids by kids and the Spaghetti Book Club offers readers reviews not only written by students, but illustrated too!

Social media can also broaden teachers’ selection of books for inclusion in our classroom libraries. By following hashtags dedicated to promoting current and diverse literature for our classrooms, we can boost our book knowledge to then share with their students. Here are a few hashtags to explore:







Share Our Reading Lives

Reading texts may make us readers, but sharing our reading with others is what builds a reading community. Digital tools can not only build those connections within the classroom, they can connect our students with others beyond the school walls as well. Traditionally, students share the books they are reading on reading logs that only the teacher sees or in impersonal book summaries or book reports posted on the classroom wall. But digital tools and technology can help readers share their reading lives in ways that matter. Padlet and Flipgrid are two such tools that you could easily try tomorrow.

Padlet can invite students to share the books they are reading in multiple ways: by adding the title and author to a tile, by linking to the cover of a book, by audio or video recording short booktalks or even creating a short screencast. Teachers can even create personalized reading walls to showcase titles read by students throughout the year.

Flipgrid offers students a safe space to talk about the books they are reading and recommend them to others. Students can view the book talks and respond accordingly. Teachers can even share their book talk grids with other classrooms so students can see what others are reading around the world. Take a look at this example where authors book-talk their own books as added inspiration for your students.

Regardless of the method you choose, celebrating reading, rather than documenting it, can change culture for reading in our classroom communities and technology can help us do just that.

Authentic Response to Reading

So, what do you do when you are finished with a book? Chances are you do not write a summary, take a quiz or answer comprehension questions. Instead, we might talk about the book with others, recommend it to a friend, journal our private thinking or simply be still with our own thoughts. As adults, we have the privilege of authentically responding to texts based on our reaction to it….or not even responding at all. Digital tools can help bring that same authenticity to our students. Although they don’t respond to specific comprehension questions, students clearly demonstrate their understanding of the book in more authentic ways that personalize the experience to the reader and their interaction with the text. Here are two of my favorites:

Affinito GRAPHIC.png

Create an emoticon chart! If we want students to be engaged and motivated readers, we need to give them opportunities to connect with their feelings as they read and how they change. What better way to do that than with an emoticon chart? Build on students’ love of emojis and encourage them to chart their thinking and feelings as they read. They can draw their own emojis on a chart in their reader’s notebook or insert digital images into an online document. Take a look at the example below:

Compile a playlist! What better way to capture the main ideas, themes, and lessons from a book than connecting to the main ideas, themes, and lessons in popular songs? After students finish a book, challenge them to think of songs that best capture the ideas presented and the ways they responded to the book. is a huge collection of song lyrics that can help them not only think of songs, but also read and analyze them to see how they connect to the book, adding even more critical-thinking skills to the experience. Students can compile their songs into a playlist or simply list them with an explanation of why they fit the ideas in the book. Take a look at the playlist Ruth Behar compiled for her book Lucky Broken Girl as a model for your students.

So, which idea will you try in your classroom? Here’s a bit of advice to guide your thinking: Choose one of the ideas and try it in your own reading first. For example, you might start by reading books online or finding book reviews for your students. Or, you might create a reading wall for yourself and add tiles showcasing the texts you are reading to ultimately present as a model for your students. If you are ready for a little more creativity, create a digital emoticon chart or playlist using your class read aloud to show students some new possibilities for reading response. Regardless of what you choose, your willingness to explore technology and try new ways of connecting and engaging your readers is sure to inspire your students.


A special thank you to Dr. Affinito for this post. This post will also appear in the upcoming edition of the Missouri Reader, a peer-reviewed professional journal that comes out three times a year. To find out more about Dr. Affinito’s ideas go to her website and have a look at her new book.


Copyright 2019 by Dr. Sam Bommarito. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the view of myself and the guest blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization.

P.S. If you found the blog through Facebook or Twitter, please consider following the blog to make sure you won’t miss it.  Use the “follow” entry on the sidebar

In Memoriam: Linda Dorn: Her life, her legacy


In Memoriam: Linda Dorn: Her life, her legacy

The literacy world has lost a giant. Linda Dorn passed away this week. She was a great educator, teacher, and person. Two of my literacy friends have very close ties to Linda.  Glenda Nugent is my fellow co-editor for the Missouri Reader. Glenda was the Program Manager for Reading at the Arkansas Department of Education at the same time Linda Dorn developed many of her projects.  In the course of that, Glenda got to know Linda and her work very well.  She and Linda became close friends over the years.  Dr. William Kerns, my blogging partner recently joined the faculty of the School of Education of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in Linda’s Department. In the dedication that follows, he tells of how Linda reached out to him after he joined the faculty this year.  In light of the very close ties my two colleagues have with Linda Dorn I feel it is appropriate to turn the rest of this blog entry over to them. I know Linda Dorn will be sorely missed. But her legacy will live on because of the lives she touched and the people she inspired. Let’s now hear from two of those people.


In Memory of Linda Dorn

Glenda Nugent

There are many things I could say about my friend and colleague, Linda Dorn, but in Linda’s and Carla Soffos’  book, Shaping Literate Minds, this quote is one of my favorites: “Teachers must hold a flexible theory-one that can be reshaped and refined according to what children are showing us as they engage in the process of learning.” Linda was masterful at using research and her knowledge of children and how they learn to refine and reshape teacher practice to find what works best for each child. She will be deeply missed.



In Memory of Linda Dorn

William Kerns

Linda Dorn’s legacy is one of passion and dedication. Kindness. Compassion. A commitment to excellence in education.

It is difficult for me to find the words in this tribute. I never had the honor of meeting Linda. I joined the faculty of the School of Education of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock this fall semester. Linda did reach out to me. She helped me to feel welcome. I am of the belief that a person’s life isn’t to be found so much on a list of accomplishments that can be listed on a CV (and Linda does have quite the list of accomplishments), but in the goodness and kindness of that person. Everything that I have learned of Linda is the story of a truly kind, and good, person, self-sacrificing and dedicated to making the lives of others better. She made a difference.

Learning never stops. This is true for students but also for each of us. As we honor Linda’s legacy, I believe that a commitment to continue learning together is a good place to start. “Learning is meaningful, purposeful, self-directed, and generative, for it leads to new discoveries and new knowledge” (Dorn & Soffos, 2001, p. 17).

All one must do is listen to the stories that can be told by her colleagues and friends. Her former students. When I spend time at the School of Education of her beloved UA-Little Rock, I see colleagues who are striving to honor her legacy by continuing the work of delivering excellent teacher education, yet it is a struggle to contain emotions any time there is a reminder of Linda. Be it a reminder of joy, commitment, hard work, or grief at her loss. One thing is obvious, Linda was the heart of the School of Education at UA-Little Rock.

Yet another point is also clear. Linda’s legacy will live on in the commitment that she inspired. It is a commitment to carefully planned, thoughtful and caring instruction. She was a champion of a well-balanced literacy instruction with carefully structured, varying activities, differentiated according to the needs and interests of the student. “A balanced literacy curriculum consists of five interrelated components: (1) reading books to children, (2) independent reading, (3) shared reading, (4) writing about reading, and (5) guided reading” (Dorn & Jones, 2012, p. 29). Linda was also a champion of ensuring that teachers have the training, the skill, and the ongoing support structure to successfully implement a balanced literacy curriculum. “A balanced reading program includes a range of literacy activities, carefully selected materials for each activity, and a responsive teacher who knows how to structure literacy interactions that move children to higher levels of understanding” (Dorn & Jones, 2012, p. 34).

Too often, social-constructivist approaches are misunderstood as promoting a free for all, in which the teacher lets children guess and fumble with no guidance or support or even an understanding of purpose. That is far from the truth of the matter. Teachers are, in fact, actively monitoring and guiding students through careful use of assessment that informs the learning activities. “When teachers coach children to apply flexible strategies during their reading and writing activities, children learn problem-solving processes with generative value for working out new problems” (Dorn & Soffos, 2001, p. 5).

The risk of making mistakes should not curtail learning. Guidance through acts of problem-solving will enable a student to develop deeper levels of skill and understanding of concepts. “Higher-level development occurs as a result of the problem-solving attempts. Neural growth happens because of the process, not the solution” (Dorn & Jones, 2012, p. 27).

Literacy instruction as advocated by Dorn is varied, active, even fun, but also intellectually rigorous. “In a well-balanced literacy program, teachers create flexible and varied opportunities for children to work at both assisted and independent levels. In whole group assisted events, teachers will have to make compromises in their instruction, that is, teach to the instructional needs of the class majority. During small group reading and writing events, teachers can provide students with focused instruction that is aimed at the strengths and needs of a similar population. During reading and writing conferences, teachers are able to provide intensive support that is personalized for the individual student. Through these diverse instructional settings, children receive varying degrees of teacher assistance on related types of tasks.” (Dorn & Soffos, 2001, p. 9).

This is a time to grieve but also a time to celebrate. The legacy of Linda lives in all those reading this blog. It lives in her former students. It lives in teachers and in colleagues inspired by her work. It lives in her friends whose lives she so deeply touched. The torch has been passed. The rest is up to each of us.

Works Cited

Dorn, L.J. & Soffos, C. (2001). Shaping literate minds: Developing self-regulated learners. Portland, Maine: Stenhouse.

Dorn, L.J. & Jones, T. (2012). Apprenticeship in literacy: Transitions across reading and writing, K-4 (Second Edition). Portland, Maine: Stenhouse.


Dr. Sam Bommarito – Thanks to the two guest bloggers for their insights and words of inspiration.

Copyright 2019 by Dr. Sam Bommarito and the guest bloggers. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the view of this author and the guest bloggers and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization.

P.S. If you found the blog through Facebook or Twitter, please consider following the blog to make sure you won’t miss it.  Use the “follow” entry on the sidebar of the blog.

P.S. for regular readers of this blog starting next week I will be doing interviews of authors who have written about various literacy topics.







It’s time to start looking at ALL the ways to teach beginning reading: There is no one size fits all solution by Dr. Sam Bommarito


It’s time to start looking at ALL the ways to teach beginning reading: There is no one size fits all solution by Doctor Sam Bommarito

I’ll begin by calling attention to a recent blog by Tim Shanahan

Note the three forms of text named in the title.  Here are some highlights from that entry:

“The role of text in reading instruction has always been a big instructional question for parents and teachers—but it has not drawn the same kind of research interest as many other issues.

Nevertheless, the research does provide clues and it suggests that kids are likely to be best off in classrooms that provide them with a mix of these text types rather than a steady diet of any one of them—nor do I see the progression through these as developmental, with kids graduating from one kind of simplified text to another.

He goes on to say:

Personally—based on my own experiences as a primary grade teacher—I would use all of these kinds of text. My thinking then, and my thinking now, is that the way to prevent someone from being hurt by over dependence on a crutch is to employ a variety of crutches; deriving the benefits of each, while trying to minimize potential damages.

It is very reasonable to employ decodable texts. It gives kids a chance to practice their phonics in a favorable text environment—an environment in which there aren’t likely to be many words that can’t be figured out easily.

But those “experts” who claim that kids should only read such texts for some length of time (e.g., 2-3 years) are just making that stuff up (bolding is mine). Research is not particularly supportive of such an artificial text regime (Adams, 2009; Jenkins, et al., 2004; Levin, Baum & Bostwick, 1963; Levin & Watson, 1963; Price-Mohr & Price, 2018). “Teaching children to expect one-to-one consistent mapping of letters to sounds is not an effective way to promote transfer to decoding at later stages in learning to read” (Gibson & Levin, 1975, p. 7).”


So that is what Shanahan had to say on the topic. Overall, he makes it clear that all the forms have limits and limitations, including those based on the views of some proponents of the Science of Reading.

What follows are MY reactions to and reflections on what he said.  The “radical middle” point of view I used in earlier blogs has relevance here. I’ve talked about this before. P.D. Pearson, who is credited with creating the gradual release model, coined the term. Here is what he says:

“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 a victory for one side or another.  That, in my view, would be a disastrous outcome, either for reading pedagogy or educational research. 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. Neither statement would be untrue, but either would fail to capture the enchantment I experience in embracing contradiction.

A second reason for living in the radical middle is the research base supporting it. I read the research implicating authentic reading and writing and find it compelling.  I read the research supporting explicit skill instruction and find it equally as compelling.  What occurs to me, then, is that there must be a higher order level of analysis in which both of these lines of inquiry can be reconciled. (bolding is mine)


My take is that since no one approach has all the answers since no one approach works with every kid every time, you must draw from and learn from each of the approaches. For instance, you should use all three kinds of books in your lessons. You should get people from each approach to talk with one another, learn from one another. That is the essence of my idea of a reading evolution #readingevolution1.


There is a problem in that SOME advocates of Science of Reading are acting as if they have a method that works with every kid every time. They post information touting the power of systematic synthetic phonics.  They criticize anyone not using this method. An exemplary example of such a post is the famous Tsunami of Change post. It indicates what we currently do is ineffective and must go and be replaced. No one would argue with the thought that what is currently happening is ineffective. However, I must respectfully point out that SoL advocates taking this point of view have ignored one of the key tenets of scientific methodology. Simply put, if you are going to attempt to demonstrate a particular method doesn’t work, then you must take a scientific sample of folks using the method WITH FIDELITY.  Then report the results. Have they done that?  NO. They base their argument for change on everything going on currently. That includes districts that say they are using balanced literacy but actually don’t ( I prefer to talk about constructivist literacy practices, more easily defined and measured). It also includes districts using no effective methods at all. It even includes districts using SoL methods. When I make this last point, SoL advocates are quick to point out that to properly evaluate SoL, one must look at a sample of districts using SoL with fidelity. No argument there. BUT- that means we must do the same for balanced literacy (because BL is an umbrella term, hard to define, I recommend looking at selected constructivist-based methods). Until and unless that is done the current argument to get rid of everything is simply not justified.


Is there evidence that there are things out there, other than intense systematic synthetic phonics that are working? I always point out I had three different Title 1 projects I participated in in the mid-80s that won awards for being in the top 1/10 of one percent in achievement gains for projects of that era. Also, there is abundant research that demonstrates analytic phonics is the equal of synthetic phonics. Have the intense synthetic projects folks given us data that demonstrates their way works with almost every kid every time?  I issued a challenge about that.


No one has sent a link to research demonstrating that intense synthetic phonics works with almost every kid almost every time. Some SoL folks said I was being unreasonable because everyone knows such research doesn’t exist. My point exactly.

Am I saying there isn’t a place for intense systematic phonics? No, quite the contrary. I recommend trying synthetic phonics first (my blogging partner disagrees).  What I am saying is exactly what folks in the radical middle have been saying for a couple of decades. No one method works for every kid every time. That is most definitely a research-based statement.

For my thinking about what to do about this, please see the blog entry listed below. Be sure to check out all the blog entries cited at the end of this entry. They include my counter to the Tsunami of Change post

In the meantime, what should district-level decision-makers do? First and foremost, ask that any program being considered demonstrates reading comprehension gains (note I did not say decoding gains). If you’re spending thousands (millions) on materials make sure the test they evaluate them with match the content of the tests being used in most state tests. Nell Duke had an excellent post about what that content includes. Ask that the program demonstrates those gains over several years. It’s a buyer beware situation when looking at programs that can only demonstrate decoding gains. Beginning with the NRP, we’ve known that the jump from decoding gains to comprehension gains is not automatic.


One of the more unique hats I’ve worn over the years is that of alderman in a small town. The mayor of that town was a colorful character, and he had a folksy down to earth way of saying things. One of the things he used to say is “If it aint’ broke, don’t fix it”.  Let’s not throw out methods that work and trade them for methods that work for some and not all. Let’s do learn from all the methods. It really is time for the #readingevolution1.


Dr. Sam Bommarito (aka, the guy in the middle still taking flak from all sides)


P.S. for regular readers of this blog starting next week I will be doing interviews of authors who have written about various literacy topics. This entry closes out my entries around the reading wars, at least for a while.

Copyright 2019 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.

P.S. If you found the blog through Facebook or Twitter, please consider following the blog to make sure you won’t miss it.  Use the “follow” entry on the sidebar of the blog.

A look at the science of reading movement through the eyes of the radical middle (a term coined by PD. Pearson) by Dr. Sam Bommarito


A look at the science of reading movement through the eyes of the radical middle (a term coined by PD. Pearson) by Dr. Sam Bommarito


For readers unfamiliar with the term radical middle it was created by P David Pearson, who is best known as the creator of the idea of the gradual release of responsibility. To see exactly what Dr. Pearson has to say about the radical middle use this link  Part of what he has to say is this “I read the research implicating authentic reading and writing and find it compelling.  I read the research supporting explicit skill instruction and find it equally as compelling.  What occurs to me, then, is that there must be a higher order level of analysis in which both of these lines of inquiry can be reconciled.”  This idea dovetails nicely with an analysis I did of why the reading wars persist, see my blog from a year ago on the call for a reading evolution. So, in spite of proclamations that they could/should be over they clearly are not.

I want to speak directly to points currently being made by some advocates of the Science of Reading (SoR) claiming that since balanced reading his failed, and since the science of reading techniques have been proven so effective that it is time for advocates of balanced literacy to acknowledge that their day has passed, that their methods are ineffective, and they need to move on to a new and better way of teaching reading. There is a fundamental problem to that assertation. The logic goes like this. Current practices are not successful. Since balanced literacy is the most prevalent form of those practices, it follows that balanced literacy has not succeeded. For the purposes of this blog entry, I am taking the point of view that since balanced literacy is based on constructivist practices, and since there is no real consensus on what constitutes a well-done program of balanced literacy, that I will instead focus on effective constructivist practices.

There is considerable evidence that there are successful programs that use constructivist practices. SoR advocates say that because some children can and do learn regardless of what method is used that the success of constructivist practices (including balanced literacy programs) can be explained using this phenomenon. Nonsense. There are too many instances in which constructivist practices work for this to be the actual explanation.  Some constructivists may be lucky, but not that lucky! The actual explanation lies in the fact that the science of learning advocates failed to follow one of the time-honored practices of scientific research. That is, when evaluating a practice, one must draw a scientific sample of programs using practices with fidelity and then seeing what the results from that sample demonstrate. Otherwise what you’re looking at is a sample of programs not using constructivist practices at all, or using them poorly, or even some programs that are using SoR techniques. Normally when I make that last point, I get immediate response for SoR advocates saying that you have to look at the success of those SoR programs, you have to draw a sample. Exactly. Until and unless you do that same thing for constructivist practices from programs using constructivist practices with fidelity, the claim that constructivist practices have failed is unsubstantiated. I can begin by adding three different Title I programs I was involved in in the mid-1980s won national awards because the reading achievement improvement in each of those three was better than 99.8% of all program gains for Title 1 programs nationally. I call the results from programs like this the bumblebee effect.  According to some theories, the bumblebee cannot possibly fly. Yet it does. Likewise, the three programs I just cited should not have yielded exceptionally positive results. Yet they did. This really calls into question the degree to which the postings around how wrong these constructivist based practices are, really has any merit.

There has been an attempt to rewrite the history of reading. The scenario goes like this- constructivists were not doing enough phonics. When faced with that fact they gradually added analytic phonics to their programs, and this was too little too late. Interesting that when one looks at the history of literacy instruction written by individuals with strong credentials in reading no such event is recorded. See An Essential History of Current Reading Practices by Mary Jo Fresch.

In the SoR scenario Analytic phonics, which is often favored by constructivists, is touted as a weaker ineffective form of phonics instruction. The problem is a meta-analysis of the two methods show them to be equally effective. There are also attempts to prove that strong code-based approaches produce almost miraculous gains in reading achievement. The problem is the studies making those claims do not use a measure of reading comprehension. Instead, they use a test of decoding called the Dibels. Indeed, many of the studies do show a significant gain in decoding skills. Advocates act as if such gains automatically result in comprehension gains. Yet beginning with the National Reading Panel results, there is clear evidence indicating that gains in decoding ability do not automatically translate into gains in comprehension. It is a buyer beware situation. District decision-makers are cautioned to demand evidence of comprehension gains using instruments designed to specifically check for comprehension before adopting programs whether they be SoR or constructivist.

Where does that leave us? Here are some points to ponder.

Point to ponder one– I need to acknowledge that some of the things the SoR advocates are saying are actually quite accurate. For instance, the state of training preservice teachers in the teaching of decoding skills is not anywhere near where we want it. It does need to be improved and I blogged around this point before. Word of caution, I’m advocating including knowledge and providing materials around all ways of decoding, including both synthetic and analytic phonics.

Point to ponder two- a point made by Timothy Shanahan is that we are not doing enough teaching of decoding skills. This is a charge that needs to be taken quite seriously. In the past year, there’ve been some important developments in some of the constructivist-based approaches. Both Calkins and Fountas and Pinnell have added a phonics program to their programs. I had a chance to look over the Fountas and Pinnell program when I did in-servicing in Houston. It is a robust program and includes a strong orthographic component

Point to ponder three– The needs of students with a diagnosis of dyslexia are not being properly addressed. I have acknowledged any number of times that analytic phonics, which is often favored by constructivists, is not only ineffective for dyslexic children but has actually been shown to be harmful. A lesser-known fact is that the same thing can be said for some children when it comes to the use of the intense synthetic phonics programs. The social media abounds with anecdotal evidence to this effect. Since a single observation is enough to call a theory into question, this anecdotal evidence is sufficient for the moment to call into question the practice of using systematic synthetic phonics with every single child. My blogging partner, Dr. Kerns is currently researching the literature around this point.

Point to ponder four is that it is hard to understand how some of the current claims around the nature and prevalence of Dyslexia can be made.  This is from Shanahan’s blog

“But NRP found no statistically significant difference between synthetic phonics (teaching each orthographic/phonemic element and how to blend these together) and analytic phonics (teaching larger spelling units including syllables and rimes, or word analogies). Proponents of each get pretty heated, despite the fact that there is no evidence that their way is the only way or the best way to help kids to become readers.

The PBS report showed some video of kids being taught phonics by a multisensory approach (involving tactile-kinesthetic responses). Again, such approaches have fervent proponents, but not research evidence that has shown them to be better than any other approaches (nor any worse, I might add).

The best statement about quality phonics instruction that I’ve found is from the International Dyslexia Association. They don’t endorse any particular phonics product, but their instructional principles concerning structured phonics instruction are impeccable and sensible and, until we gain more empirical evidence, I think they should be the standard:

A look at that document yields the following statements:

  • Different kinds of reading and writing difficulties require different approaches to instruction. One program or approach will not meet the needs of all students.


  • Researchers are finding that those individuals with a reading specialist and special education licenses often know no more about research‐based, effective practices than those individuals with a general education teaching license. The majority of practitioners at all levels have not been prepared in sufficient depth to recognize the early signs of risk, to prevent reading problems, or to teach students with dyslexia and related learning difficulties successfully.

In addition, the problem around a proper screen for dyslexia is a large one.

In his Feb. 15th blog Shanahan has this to say:

“Meanwhile, if I were a kindergarten teacher I’d screen my students early in the year to see what they knew about reading…particularly examining their knowledge of letter names and sounds, their phonological awareness, and awareness of print features (the kinds of skills that Kilpatrick describes). My focus would be on knowledge of literacy rather than on underlying causes or correlates. Although Ozernov-Palchik and Gabrieli and Catts and Petscher’s insights are exciting and hopeful, they are not yet user-ready.”

My take on this- current screens for Dyslexia are “not yet ready for prime time”. It is hard to understand how pronouncements about the prevalence of Dyslexia can be taken seriously until a widely accepted screening device is developed.


A final look at things from the “Radical Middle”

Let’s revisit Dr. Pearson’s statement about the radical middle. “I read the research implicating authentic reading and writing and find it compelling.  I read the research supporting explicit skill instruction and find it equally as compelling.  What occurs to me, then, is that there must be a higher order level of analysis in which both of these lines of inquiry can be reconciled.”

I’ve made the point on multiple occasions that when asked to provide the “near 100%” study (a study demonstrating that science of learning approaches work with nearly 100% of all children) the SoR advocates have never been able to provide such a study. Several of them have admitted that it doesn’t work with everyone. In fairness, the very same point can be made for constructivist-based instruction. This brings us to the root of the quandary. It is a very simple proposition. Not all children learn the same. What works with one does not necessarily work with another. Even the statement from the Dyslexia organization agrees with that.

What I suggested in my reading evolution post was that we look into each of the approaches to learn what works when. At the end of the day armed with this information, it might very well be possible to put together a program at the district level that meets the needs of almost all the children. In the meantime, it makes no sense to abandon constructivist processes that are working. It does make sense to include intensive systematic synthetic phonics as A solution, not THE solution.

Part of my reason for getting involved in this current iteration of the great debate was because at a prominent social media site where very large numbers of practicing teachers gather, some of them were complaining that they were forced to actually throw away materials that worked for them and take on a boxed intense phonics program which they were not sure would actually raise reading comprehension scores. That is wrong on so many levels.

A final thought: Finding the ultimate roots of the great debate

Some folks writing around this topic have traced the roots of the great debate back several centuries. I want to submit that the roots go back even further than that. The roots are- Direct instruction (Science of Reading) vs Inquiry-based methods (Constructivism).  Ultimately it goes back to Aristotle (direct instruction) vs Socrates (inquiry).  I’ll add to this a firm reminder that in the current global economy we need students who can thrive using inquiry-based approaches. I seriously question whether that can be provided in a teaching environment that is exclusively direct instruction.

These two approaches have been around for a couple of millenniums. Neither has ever been supplanted by the other. Like Dr. Pearson, I speculate that there must be a higher order level of analysis in which both of these points of views can be reconciled. Until and unless that reconciliation occurs, we are effectively stuck in the middle. We need to pay attention to what all sides are saying and learn from what all sides are doing. It is time for a reading evolution. #readingevolution1

Let’s stop debating and let’s start dialoguing.


Dr. Sam Bommarito (aka, the guy in the middle still taking flak from all sides)

My blogs around the reading wars:

Also see Mary Howard:


Copyright 2019 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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A view from the Radical Middle: Teachers can (and should) use and learn from and use ideas from what is sometimes viewed as “the other side” by Dr. Sam Bommarito


A view from the Radical Middle: Teachers can (and should) use and learn from and use ideas from what is sometimes viewed as “the other side” by Dr. Sam Bommarito

The current school year has begun with a call to abandon the bad balanced literacy practices we’ve been using and to adopt an intense systematic synthetic phonics approach as the “new” and improved way to teach reading.  I’ve been in the education world since 1970 and seen similar calls from time to time Is it really time to stop using all those balanced literacy/constructivist-based practices and move on to other things? There are some advocates of the Science of Reading approach who think it is. They have been widespread posts to that effect.  Based on the evidence, I must respectively disagree with taking such a course of action.

Understand first of all that I am writing from the perspective of the Radical Middle. That is a term first used by P.D. Pearson. Here is a link to what he said.  In the pdf he says “A second reason for living in the radical middle is the research base supporting it. I read the research implicating authentic reading and writing and find it compelling. I read the research supporting explicit skill instruction and find it equally as compelling. What occurs to me, then, is that there must be a higher order level of analysis in which both of these lines of inquiry can be reconciled.”

My take on this as follows. There are also real benefits to several of the various approaches to beginning reading.  There are also real limitations to every approach. SOME of (not all of) the SoR advocates are acting as if they have found the one way to teach beginning reading and that all other methods are inferior. A close examination of the evidence indicates they have not found the “one size fits all” solution to beginning reading. Let’s consider what is being said on both sides. We’ll start with the balanced reading side (what I am calling the constructivist side)


Leveled Readers USE QUOTE


Reading ROckets Ltr taken from Mary Howad


POINT ONE- SoR folks HAVE NOT established that Balanced Literacy has failed to work.

SoL advocates claim that balance reading has failed. They say the hard-empirical facts do not support the use of balanced literacy/constructivist approaches. What is their evidence? Their logic goes like this.  What we are doing now is not working well (no argument there). Balanced reading is the most used way of doing things, therefore BL has failed us. Sounds plausible but there is a problem. When we look at what is going on now it includes ALL districts.  Some aren’t using BL, some are using it but not doing it well, some are actually already using SoL approaches – you get the idea.  As soon as I point out that SoR sites are included on the current scene SoR folks say, but you must consider what just those sites are doing when evaluating SoR. Fair enough. However, that very same courtesy needs to be extended to the balanced literacy/constructivist sites. Especially since they are the SoR folks the SoR advocates should understand that they need to draw a scientific sample of sites before attempt to make generalizations about the efficacy of any given approach.  In this case, the sample needs to include districts doing BL with fidelity and using best practices in BL/Constructivism.  That hasn’t happened. No such study exists (and may I point out the onus is on the SOL folks to produce such a study) So the flagship of the fleet- the claim that balanced literacy/constructivist practices have failed remains unproven.  As a matter of fact, there is substantial evidence to a contrary point of view.

There is abundant evidence that there are districts using balance literacy and getting good results. Just did an in-service for one such district a couple of weeks ago.  Some SoL try to explain away the existence of such districts as part of the phenomena that some kids succeed no matter what methods are used. REALLY? I must have gotten personally lucky because in the mid-1980s I took part in three different Title 1 programs using BL that won national award for the gains they made. Two of the three were in areas with over 90% free lunch. Today, there are literally hundreds of such programs nationally. This leads me to conclude that the “sometimes anything works explanation” used by some SoL advocates is bogus.”  Also makes me want to double down on my call for that scientific sample of districts using strong constructivist practices before making statements about the “failure” of balanced literacy.  Until and unless studies using such a sample prove BL has failed are presented, we cannot draw the conclusion BL has failed.

POINT TWO- SoR folks have not demonstrated that intense systematic synthetic phonics programs outperform systematic analytic phonics instruction.

What about the claim that ALL children (most children) would be best off using an intense systematic synthetic phonics program?  I’ll begin by saying for the record that when the children we are talking about are children with an actual diagnosis of Dyslexia, this kind of treatment is preferred over treatments using analytic phonics. Using analytic phonics with a dyslexic child is counterproductive. But what about all the other children? In this scenario Analytic phonics is characterized as inferior, an afterthought thrown in by constructivist who finally realized they should include some kind of phonics.  That is essentially the historical narrative proposed by some SoR advocates. Readers are invited to examine chapter 2 in Mary Jo Fresch’s book An Essential History of Current Reading Practices. No mention of using analytic phonics as a weak sister band-aid in that chapter. That chapter was written by folks who are well-credentialed experts in reading, something that is not true of the historical narrative proposed by some SoR advocates.

Also, consider this study on analytic vs synthetic phonics.

According to Torgerson et al., ‘There is currently no strong randomized controlled trial evidence that any one form of systematic phonics is more effective than any other’. This study is one of several all indicating the same thing, systematic analytic phonics is just as effective as systematic synthetic phonics.  BOTTOM LINE research does not support the notion that synthetic phonics should be used EXCLUSIVELY.


POINT THREE- Literacy Leaders Like T. Shanahan advocate that there should be a balance in how time is allotted among the 4 major instructional goals of early reading instruction. This balance should be present from day 1 in 1st-grade literacy instruction.  Not all SoL advocates follow this practice.

Shanahan bases this, in part, on the things gleaned from the NRP report.  Not everyone today is doing it this way. For instance, SOME advocates of the SoR approach to beginning reading seem to want to put more emphasis on word knowledge and much less emphasis on the other three components. I’ve found that such proponents, when pressed will never ever say phonics only. However, their suggestion to delay comprehension instruction until decoding skills are in place is taken a face value, it is difficult to understand how they could maintain the equal time allotment suggested by Shanahan. As a matter of fact, when pressed about the details of that they are evasive in saying exactly how they would spend their time.  The real danger here is that if the overemphasize decoding and underemphasize the other three they are in danger of creating word callers. Just the mention of the term word callers causes them to bristle.  NO SUCH THING. Really? Readers are invited to review the evidence, including detailed information on studies around the topic found in the book Word Callers, and see if they agree. I think a review of the evidence with from this book will lead most readers to conclude that the threat of creating Work Callers is very real if the allotment of time gets out of balance.



POINT FOUR In part because they have little or no training or experience in teaching using constructivist methods SoL advocates often misrepresent what constructivist practices look like and end up presenting incorrect or “straw man” points of view around constructivist practices.

One example of this can be found in my recent presentation to some 500 first grade teachers on how to teach guided reading. Here is the blog entry around that presentation.

The key takeaway from this presentation is that if guided reading is done IAW the principles laid down in Burkins and Yaris’s book Who’s Doing the Work then there is much more to Guided Reading than just the small group using leveled texts. MOST of the time in a complete program of Guided Reading is spent in LARGE GROUP INSTRUCTION using texts AT OR ABOVE GRADE LEVEL. I have to wonder aloud what the finding would be if one took a scientific sample of districts carrying out Guided Reading in this manner. My prediction would be that the results would support the use of constructivist practices outlined in the presentation

I’ll end this with a link to my original post, made over a year ago calling for a Reading Evolution #readingevolution1. Instead of being at loggerheads perhaps what is needed is for BOTH sides to admit their favorite methods have limits and limitations and maybe, just maybe, ideas from the other side might be employed to overcome those limits. Dare to dream!!!!

So, this is Dr. B, speaking from the radical middle, wondering aloud if a Reading Evolution just might be possible.

Dr. Sam Bommarito aka Don Quixote daring to dream the impossible dream

Copyright 2019 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.

P.S. If you found the blog through Facebook or Twitter, please consider following the blog to make sure you won’t miss it.  Use the “follow” entry on the sidebar of the blog.






Musings of a workshop teacher, Advice I just gave to some 1st-grade teachers in Houston By Dr. Sam Bommarito

Musings of a workshop teacher, Advice I just gave to some 1st-grade teachers in Houston

By Dr. Sam Bommarito



I’m coming off of what are two of the best days of my professional career. That is saying a lot since my professional career in education began almost 50 years ago, in 1970.

What happened was I was asked to provide PD for some 500 1st grade teachers from a very large district in the Houston Texas area. The teachers were divided into more or less even-sized groups. I gave each group of 60 (approx.)  the same 90 minutes of professional development ideas.  The ideas were designed to enhance their implementation of Guided Reading and Reading/Writing workshop.

My readers are familiar with the fact that in the 1980s I participated in several highly successful Title 1 programs. Those programs won awards from the Secretary of Education.   Receiving that award meant the reading achievement gains for those programs were in the top 1/10 of 1 percent of all Title 1 programs nationally. The programs included the use of the three cueing systems and small group instruction. You can see why I am then skeptical of the claims that research fails to support the use of such methods. How can those results from long ago be so different? I very much suspect it is because of the way the programs were implemented.  As I looked at the Houston program, I saw many things being done that are NOT typical of the way small group guided reading/reading writing workshop is currently viewed and carried out.  My PD for Houston teachers was designed to enhance some of their already good practices. Looking at what I said in Houston might help in the creation of a new exemplar program for constructivist-based practices, an enhanced model for balanced literacy. My belief is that doing studies around the efficacy of constructivist based balanced literacy programs including those characteristics would yield very different results than those being reported about constructivist practices. Simply put- the critics are not looking at the best of the best when studying the efficacy of the constructivist programs. Let’s look at a couple of the takeaways from my recent PD work.

Characteristic Number One: The programs included a balance among the 4 major instructional goals of early reading instruction and does so from the outset.


On a number of occasions, Shanahan has advocated having equal time for the 4 instructional goals with each goal getting equal time from the very outset of the reading instruction in first grade. He bases this, in part, on the things gleaned from the NRP report.  Not everyone today is doing it this way. For instance, SOME advocates of the SoR approach to beginning reading seem to want to put more emphasis on word knowledge and much less emphasis on the other three components. I’ve found that such proponents, when pressed will never ever say phonics only. HOWEVER, they are reluctant to commit to the equal time idea and evasive about how they actually spend their instructional time.  That is actually a topic for a whole other blog.

For this blog, suffice it to say when talking to the Houston folks on this point I was “preaching to the choir”.  My main message to them on this point was to keep doing as they are already doing it. Decoding and meaning-making/fluency/writing should be taught CONCURRENTLY from day one of 1st grade.  Doing it that way can and does improve overall reading achievement.

Characteristic Number Two- Implementation of a COMPLETE program of Guided reading, not just the small group component some programs concentrate on.

As part of the implementation of the successful Title 1 programs I took part in a 4-year program of training in reading/writing workshop given by cadre from the Teacher’s College. My district trained all their Title 1 staff so that they, in turn, could train the classroom teachers. Here is the single most important takeaway I got from those 4 years of training:


P.D. Pearson developed the idea of the gradual release of responsibility.  Nowhere does that idea work better than when teachers do PLANNED AND CONSCIOUS scaffolding as part of the lesson plans they are creating.  It turned out that Burkins and Yaris have written a book, based on a very similar premise. I recommended to the Houston staff that they take a very careful look at that book and what it had to say. Essentially the book details how to make better use of instructional time within an overall program of Guided Reading. As you can see from the slide above, I was able to share with the book’s authors the fact that they were building on advice that workshop trainers had been giving for years. I am so fortunate to be in St. Louis where our local ILA group is active in bringing speakers in that talk about the latest in literacy practices.  The slide below details the very good advice I hoped the Houston teachers would glean from the Burkins and Yaris book.



The next two slides deal with the very important issue that Guided Reading is more than the “at the instructional level small group” that is most often associated with the term Guided Reading:



I tried to emphatically make the point that Guided Reading includes ALL the activities listed on the inside cover of the F&P book on the topic. Many of these activities are done in WHOLE-GROUP, using grade level or higher texts. Critics who say guided reading doesn’t provide challenging texts are basing that criticism on one small part of the overall Guided Reading Program.  Back in the day when I did my PD for our classroom teachers, I emphasized the point that MOST OF THE READING DONE IN GUIDED READING SHOULD NOT BE IN LEVELED READERS. Most of the reading comes in the Read Alouds, Think Alouds et al.  Burkins and Yaris make the important point that if we use that time in the whole group setting to lay the groundwork for teaching strategies (e.g. strategies for handling complex text) so that when the time comes for small group we won’t have to load all that work into the small group setting.  Small group can become what it is meant to be- the place where we take the final step to scaffold readers into learning to use the various strategies independently.


So- there was more,  but those are a couple of important highlights.  I have to wonder aloud if one studied “enhanced” guided reading/reading workshop programs, enhanced by the suggestions made in books like Burkins and Yaris, if we would still find including small group instruction, conferencing, following the child and other such constructivists practices were ineffective?  I think before the total abandonment of constructivist practices being called for by some today is carried out, that constructivists at least deserve some studies to see if there is such a thing as effective balanced literacy. Such studies need to be conducted around the best of the best in constructivist practices.  I’ll be picking up on that theme in my next blog entry.

In the meantime, Happy Reading and Writing

Doctor Sam Bommarito (aka the “enhance workshop not replace it”  guy)

Copyright 2019 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.

P.S. If you found the blog through Facebook or Twitter, please consider following the blog to make sure you won’t miss it.  Use the “follow” entry on the sidebar of the blog.



Nerd Camp:  Summer Camp for Book Lovers by Sarah Johnson, Reading Specialist, Trautwein Elementary School

I’m just back from Houston Texas, where I did professional development this week for some 500 first grade teachers. I’ll be blogging about that next week. Knowing I would be out of town, I asked St. Louis Regional ILA board member Sara Johnson to prepare a blog entry about a very special event she attended this summer, The Nerd Camp: Summer Camp for Book Lovers. Read all about it. She’s even included tips on how to get registered for next year’s event.



Nerd Camp:  Summer Camp for Book Lovers

by Sarah Johnson, Reading Specialist, Trautwein Elementary School


I first heard about Nerd Camp several years ago from Donalyn Miller. I promised myself that one summer I would go. This year I decided 2019 would be the year. At 4 a.m. on February 1st, I woke up, logged on and reserved one of the tickets before they were gone.

Fast forward to July 7 and I made the 8-hour drive to Michigan. As much as I had read about what to expect, nothing really prepared me for how inspiring my first Nerd Camp would be. I arrived an hour early on Monday morning and discovered around 800 people already lined up to get in the door. Luckily, the weather was beautiful and the crowd was friendly.

A little background for those who haven’t heard about this event. nErDcampMI (Nerdy + EdCamp, Michigan chapter) grew out of the online Nerdy Book Club. If you’re not familiar with the Nerdy Book Club, I recommend you go online and start following this wonderful site. At nErDcampMI, educators join with award winning authors and illustrators for two days to celebrate the power of reading. Nerd Camp is free and run entirely by a team of volunteers led by the husband and wife team of Colby and Alaina Sharp. The Nerd Camp experience is unlike any other conference I have attended — the level of excitement over books and their creators was inspiring.

Day One has a pretty traditional conference set up. After the volunteers checked in around 1,800 people at 9 a.m., there was plenty of time to snag a good seat in the gym for the opening ceremony. The day’s events began with an author panel discussing the topic Feminism for All: A Discussion of Feminism in Schools, KidLit, and the World. This was followed by the opening ceremony which included Nerd Talks by Laurie Halse Anderson, Cece Bell, Minh Le, and Donalyn Miller.

Participants had the opportunity to attend 3 sessions in the afternoon. There were numerous options and after a lot of deliberation I attended Think Big With Think Alouds presented by Dr. Molly Ness; Peace, Joy and Books: Read-Aloud Experiences to Nurture the Heart and Mind presented by Dr. Maria Walther; and Now What? Helping Students Become and Remain Passionate Readers presented by Pernille Ripp. These are three authors I have read and followed for several years so having the opportunity to hear them speak on the same day was pretty thrilling for me.

During breaks, there was plenty of time to browse the books available from Bookbug, an independent book store in Kalamazoo. They had an incredible array of books created by the authors and illustrators attending Nerd Camp. On Tuesday, they restocked so there were plenty of copies for anyone who missed out on Monday.

Monday closed with an extremely talented high school student named Evan Struck who “speed painted” a custom portrait of author Jason Reynolds. Jason then closed the first day with a short talk and took a few questions from the audience. At 5 p.m., the author signings began.



Day Two is an edcamp or (un)conference experience. Until you arrive on Tuesday, you don’t know what types of sessions will be offered. Anyone can propose a session. Educators and authors line up on the gym floor and pitch a session topic to the assembled crowd. The only rule is that whoever pitches an idea facilitates the discussion. Once all of the sessions have been proposed, you decide which you want to attend. There is time to attend two sessions in the morning. After lunch, the process is repeated again for the two afternoon sessions. As with other edcamps, “vote with your feet” is the rule of the day. If you end up in a session that doesn’t meet your needs, you simply get up and find another session — no hurt feelings. After a quick closing session the day ended around 4 p.m. After the educators leave, volunteers set up for the Nerd Camp Jr. event that is held Tuesday evening. This year, 1,500 students from grades 1-12 had the opportunity to engage with authors and illustrators. Nerd Camp Jr. is funded entirely by donations.

Children’s authors and illustrators were available throughout both days and were incredibly generous with their time. They didn’t just sign books — they genuinely wanted to talk to teachers and librarians about their books and the children who read them.

Lasting Impressions:

If you want to engage in thoughtful conversations with people whose primary focus is improving literacy experiences for all kids, I highly recommend attending Nerd Camp. If you feel like you are sometimes on an island where you teach, Nerd Camp will connect you with other passionate book lovers. If you want to have your thinking about teaching and texts challenged, Nerd Camp is the place for you.

Donalyn Miller challenged educators to work on behalf of all children.  She reminded educators that we don’t just sign a contract with a school district. “Our contract is with society and ALL of its children.” I will keep her words in mind as I navigate the upcoming school year  and think about her two questions when presented with new directives or consider new teaching practices:  “Is this good for kids?” and “Can you share the research that is informing your decision?”

Practical Things to Know if You Want to Attend Nerd Camp:

First, start following Nerd Camp and Colby Sharp on Facebook and Twitter for updates. Nerd Camp is always held the Monday and Tuesday after July 4th. Next year’s dates are July 6-7, 2020. Tickets will be available on February 1 at 4 a.m. (CST). Tickets are usually gone within 2 hours so set your alarm!

Nerd Camp is held at Western High School, 1400 South Dearing Road, in Parma, Michigan. Parma is a very small town with no hotels or motels.  There is a gas station and a Subway sandwich shop.

Jackson, Michigan is about 10 miles east of Parma. There are numerous hotels, restaurants and some shopping venues in Jackson. There are also a couple of hotels in Albion about 10 miles west of Parma. Albion is much smaller than Jackson so dining and shopping options are very limited. Dorm rooms are also available at Albion College. These rooms are very affordable and might work for some people. I like air-conditioning and my own bathroom so I opted for the Comfort Inn & Suites in Jackson. It took me about 15 minutes to drive to Parma each morning.

If you prefer to fly, there are several airports that might work depending on your departure city. Most of the airports are 50 miles or more from the Parma area. A rental car would be necessary for those who chose to fly. After some research and discovering that flights were in the $300.00 plus range, I decided to drive. From the St. Louis area it took about 8 hours. It was an easy drive and I used the time to listen to several podcasts.

I went on my own and had a great time, but I realize not everyone may be comfortable doing that. Nerd Campers are friendly, and I didn’t have any shortage of people to talk to. Many people do attend in groups with their colleagues. If you don’t like traveling alone, recruit a friend or two and go to Nerd Camp. It is definitely worth the time and effort.

Reader from Nerdy Book Club


Copyright 2019 by Dr. Sam Bommarito. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the view of myself and the guest blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization.

P.S. If you found the blog through Facebook or Twitter, please consider following the blog to make sure you won’t miss it.  Use the “follow” entry on the sidebar

Cutting Through the Gordian Knot of Phonics Instruction by Dr. Sam Bommarito


Cutting Through the Gordian Knot of Phonics Instruction by Dr. Sam Bommarito

Right now, I’m on the mend from a back injury from swimming. I’ve had better weeks!  The doc says there is no permanent damage, I just need to rest and complete some P.T. This is a repost of a previous blog with one important update on recommended books in phonics instruction and a list of the blog posts where I criticize positions taken by SOME advocates of the Science of Reading.    

For the past several years I’ve taught in the BTAP program. BTAP (Beginning Teachers Assistance Program) is carried out once or twice a year by Harris Stowe University for beginning teachers in the St Louis Public Schools.  Here is some of what I had to say to them last week about teaching beginning reading.

There has been a concern from the ILA that the issue of teaching phonics has been politicized.


Take away one: There is more than one approach to teaching phonics.

Educators Guide To Phonics


Approaches Include English Orthography, Analytic phonics and Synthetic phonics. The latter two are the current most used approaches. Teachers need to be aware of and trained in all of the approaches to teaching phonics.

Take away two: In spite of claims to the contrary there is not a one size fits all solution to teaching beginning reading:

Some simple view proponents claim synthetic phonics is the one size fits all solution for teaching beginning reading.

The Facts:

  • England has mandated synthetic phonics for several years. Scores have improved. However, there are still significant numbers of students who do not thrive using synthetic phonics. The promised 100% or near 100% success rates have never been realized.
  • Studies claiming enormous gains in “reading” by using synthetic phonics approaches are often based on testing instruments like the Dibels. Dibels is a test of decoding, not a test of reading. On multiple occasions I have called for decisions about program adoptions be based on studies using widely accepted tests of reading comprehension (not decoding) and that those studies demonstrate gains in comprehension scores over more than one year.
  • Research has not demonstrated synthetic phonics is superior to analytic phonics. Jonathan Glazzard reports the following:


“According to Torgerson et al., ‘There is currently no strong randomized controlled trial evidence that any one form of systematic phonics is more effective than any other’ (2006: 49). Research evidence which is available is insufficient to allow for reliable judgments to be made about the efficiency of different approaches to systematic phonics instruction (Stuart, 2006). “

Taken from:

Take away number three: Teachers need to learn about how to teach using both analytic and synthetic phonics

On several occasions, I have proposed an explanation for why over the past five decades the pendulum of how to teach beginning reading swings between the two most used forms of phonics instruction analytic phonics and synthetic phonics.  It is because what works for different children varies. Some children seem to need no phonics instruction at all (this a VERY SMALL part of the overall student population). Some seem to thrive on either of the two methods. Some thrive on programs using only synthetic phonics (I suspect this may be the largest number of students). Some thrive on programs using only analytic phonics (see my blog entry on the tale of two children:

My analysis of what has been happening over the years is that problems occur when proponents of either method (synthetic or analytic) insist that ONLY their method be used. Whichever is chosen, there will be some children for whom the method does not work. Once that becomes apparent, it results in calls to “throw out the old and bring in the new.” Usually, enough time passes that folks have forgotten the “new” didn’t work for everyone either.  The common-sense approach here is to allow both approaches and to train teachers, in both.  We should allow teachers to use both approaches within the confines of whatever literacy program a district may adopt.

Take away number four: Whether they are teaching analytic or synthetic phonics, teachers still need to know about sound-symbol relations.

One excellent source for this is Dorothy Strickland’s book Teaching Phonics Today: A Primer for Educators. It even includes a self-test over basic knowledge about phonics. It is also available in a newer edition that includes more recent research around the topic. Both editions are readily available on book sites like Amazon.

Strickland Phonics

Since writing this original post another book has come out that I think will become a go-to book for all teachers teaching beginning phonics. This book is readily available both at Heinemann and on Amazon.

Letter Lessons & First Word


Take away number five: The decision on which form of phonics instruction to use is best made at the district level. Whichever phonics approach is chosen it must be done systematically.

Regular readers of the blog are aware that my blogging partner, Dr. Kerns, prefers analytic phonics as the mainstream program. I prefer synthetic.  Whichever program is chosen it is crucial that provisions be made for the students who do not thrive using the chosen approach.  This can be accomplished by differentiating classroom instruction and by use of a tiered system of providing instruction.   I strongly recommend that in the instance where a district might choose the analytic approach that Tier Two and Tier three options be made available for Dyslexic students. The warning is also given that analytic phonics programs, which are often taught in an “as needed” way, still need to include a system for assuring that throughout the beginning reading instruction all the key phonics elements are covered. In this way, the analytic phonics can still be systematic.


Making this presentation last weekend has allowed me to synthesize in one place all the things I’ve been saying over the past few months about what beginning reading instruction should look like. It is a commonsense approach.  Fit the program to the child, not the other way round.  Don’t force selected children to use methods that don’t work for them. Don’t “jump to extremes” in selecting methods.  Follow the path of what I have come to call the Reading Evolution. Instead of throwing everything out and starting over, tweak things until they work for you and your district.

Also, consider this series of posts that questions the positions taken by SOME, not all, of the proponents of the “Science of Reading”

This previous post best sums up what I see as the limits and limitations of the Science of Reading point of view expressed by some of the proponents of Science of reading.

See also

To talk about the Reading Evolution on Twitter or Facebook, please use the following hashtag #ReadingEvolution1.  I’ll be looking forward to reading some of your comments.


Dr. Sam Bommarito (aka the middle of the road guy)

Copyright 2019 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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Reading Against the Text in a Supportive Classroom Community By Dr. William Kerns



As many of you know- I am a bit under the weather- a root canal is coming. UGH! But I am getting by with a little help from my friends (and co-blogger!). It is timely and well worth the read!!! Dr. Sam 

Reading Against the Text in a Supportive Classroom Community


William Kerns


In this blog I wish to stress the importance of teachers and students alike engaging in reflective thinking while learning to read the word and read the world, as advocated by Freire (1973; see also Freire & Macedo, 1987). This means building strong literacy skills but in the context of reading and communication that is socially and culturally meaningful. As part of this type of instruction, teaches should build positive communication with families and community members. The approach advocated in this blog is one in which dialogue with families enriches the curriculum, including the development of learning objectives and content, with both teachers and parents viewing each other as experts and resources in a relationship of mutual respect (Swap, 1993).

Readers engage in a transaction with text that is situational, shaped by activity, context, and sociocultural-historical factors (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Smagorinsky, 2001). Scholes (1985) differentiated between interpretations of text that involve reading within a text and interpretations that involve engaged reading against a text. Reading against a text enables an examination of the way that language use can serve to perpetuate patterns of discrimination and inequitable power distribution in schools. Teachers who promote reading against a text can share with students, families, and community members a common determination for meeting the challenges of using reflection and inquiry to continually learn and continually seek to improve the society in which we live.

The promotion of reading against a text includes the establishment of a supportive environment for reflection in which students learn to take control and responsibility for their own learning. Steps that I recommend taking to promote reflective thinking and reflective teaching include the following: establishing a supportive environment within the classroom for reflective thinking and for inquiry; guiding students to learn about the role of reflection in learning and development of concepts such as identity and moral decision making; guiding students through the conduct of systematic reflection and inquiry; and encouraging students in their development of dispositions involved in the conduct of reflection and inquiry.

Promotion of presence is an important part of the process of cultivating within students the ability to read against a text. Rodgers and Raider-Roth (2006) define presence as “a state of alert awareness, receptivity, and connectedness to the mental, emotional, and physical iterations of the individual and the group with the world and each other, and the ability to respond with a considered and compassionate best next step” (p. 266). A teacher with presence can observe students as they engage in activities, gathering information used as data, and make instructional choices based on an analysis of this data. Further, a teacher with presence builds a caring, trustworthy relationship through a wholehearted (Dewey, 1986) commitment to learning with and responding to students.

Teachers and students alike can cultivate presence within the supportive context of a caring classroom community. The concept of presence emphasizes reflectiveness and inquiry as well as compassion in responses during the context of activities that include teaching or dialogue. Teachers who develop presence are alert to the needs of students and have a heightened sense of self-awareness. Students with presents are alert to the needs of peers and have a heightened self-awareness. Presence is not limited to classroom contexts. Presence can be cultivated as a part of daily life and daily interactions. A teacher wishing to encourage presence among students needs to model presence. Dialogue that is open to an exchange of ideas based on mutual respect is an important aspect of presence.

Dispositions involved in inquiry should be promoted. To foster the development of reflective thinking as a habit among students, teachers should be open to new ideas and understandings. Over time, a teacher may experience a paradigm shift related to views on social justice, race, gender and gender roles, poverty, or other matters.  A teacher or a student who engages in reflective thinking as a habit develops the dispositions of open-mindedness, whole-heartedness, responsibility (Dewey, 1986) and directness (Dewey, 1980). Open-mindedness, as understood by Dewey, is a willingness to rethink ideas based on inquiry. Reading against a text requires a student (or a teacher!) to exhibit wholeheartedness, or an in-depth commitment of personal and emotional resources when inquiring into key social and cultural themes within a text. However, commitment is not enough without responsibility. A sense of responsibility entails taking seriously the moral choices faced by habitually evaluating how actions may bring about desired or undesired consequences. Dewey urged an attitude of directness, or faith that actions grounded in the conduct of inquiry and the process of reflective thinking are worth taking for the benefit of a just society.

It’s important to read against a text when encountering stereotypes that may previously be unexamined. Often, for example, a student may genuinely consider himself to be “not racist” while failing to challenge stereotypes within a text. For example, stereotypes about poverty intersect with stereotypes about race in a nasty web that can have a deeply detrimental impact on students when the deficit model influences instruction.

Race and poverty are addressed in this blog from a multiculturalist perspective in that I emphasize the value of cultivating cross-group and cross-race mutual understandings and shared interests (Hartmann & Gerties, 2005). Socially constructed racial identities can be sources of misunderstanding and tension, yet there are social interventions that can reduce the effects of prejudice (Allport, 1954). Race is viewed for the purpose of this blog as a socio-cultural construct rather than biological. There are widely varying ways of defining race in the literature (Markus, 2008).

Poverty is commonly defined based on income thresholds (Brady, 2003). These definitions are problematic given that thresholds fail to adequately account for different needs of families whose incomes are both below the thresholds or above the thresholds. The lived experience of people who are classified as living in various types of poverty, such as urban poverty, rural poverty, situational poverty, or generational poverty, can widely vary. Further complicating discussions on poverty, different people can view the same reality and yet their social constructions of this reality and representations of this reality might be very different (Leeuwen, 2016).

We must watch out for the insidious impact of deficit perspectives. Valencia (2014) defines a deficit perspective as a stance that: “the student who fails in school does so because of his/her internal deficits or deficiencies. Such deficits manifest, adherents allege, in limited intellectual abilities, linguistic shortcomings, lack of motivation to learn, and immoral behavior” (p. 6-7). A deficit perspective within a text which accentuates weakness of people who are characterized as “living in poverty: poisons teaching-and-learning interactions as well as teacher-parent interactions (Gorski, 2011). For example, classroom teachers tend to underestimate the cognitive ability of children who are growing up in poverty (Ready & Wright, 2011). Additionally, many teachers in high poverty urban schools view the families and home communities of their students as obstacles to their students’ success and so they distance themselves from families and community members (Hyland & Meacham, 2004).

A deficit perspective contributes to a pattern of seeking to “change the victim” and “blame the victim” (Ryan, 1971). Such a deficit perspective historically is a predominant one in US discourse on poverty (De Goede, 1996) which frequently is reflected in texts read by students. According to Katz, who investigated the deficit perspective related to discourse on welfare reform, “debate has focused on ameliorating the condition of disadvantaged people with income supports and social services and on eradicating the cultural traits that retard their economic progress” (1989, p. 208). When storylines about the poor highlight claimed moral or behavioral deficiencies the focus turns toward ways of reforming the poor rather than a focus on reforming the socio-economic and political structures (Katz, 1995).

When many teachers enter the profession, they are trained for working with families and students who live in poverty through Ruby Payne’s framework that makes use of stereotypes (Bohn, 2007; Gorski, 2007), a deficit model (Bomer et. al., 2008; Dudley-Marling, 2007; Gorski 2006, 2008; Kunjufu, 2007; McKnight, 2006; Ng & Rury, 2006; Osei-Kofei, 2005) and which contains inaccurate scholarship (Bomer et. al., 2008; Dudley-Marling, 2007; Montano, 2006).


Stereotypes include the image of parents who do not plan for the child’s education. I am struck by the following claim made by Payne (2008): Individuals in poverty usually have a strong belief in fate and destiny. Therefore, to expect changed behavior after a parent-teacher conference is, in most cases, a false hope” (pg. 23). If a teacher believes, as Payne claims, that an expectation of changed behavior after a parent-teacher conference represents a false hope then it may inhibit that teacher from communication with the family in a manner that expresses genuine hope for positive outcomes.

Instead of the deficit perspective, tap into the background knowledge – the schema – of students while building meaningful bridges between the families and what children experience at school (Gay, 2002; Howard, 2003). An important factor in overcoming deficit model approaches and instead, drawing on the strengths of a family and the community to be culturally responsive.

Cultural differences and language differences can cause teachers to form low perceptions of parental interest in school involvement (Halgunseth, 2009). Efforts to increase communication and family involvement should be shaped to the needs of the community (Auerbach, 2009). Teachers improve communication with students and parents by frequently reaching out in positive dialogue that builds comfort in the conversation. Parent involvement increases when teachers talk with families in order to provide instruction within the context of the family’s culture and knowledge base (St. Claire & Jackson, 2007).

Reading against a text is a valuable aspect of literacy which is socially and culturally meaningful to students. The fostering of ongoing reading against a text takes time. It is unrealistic to expect paradigm shifts for students in one class session. However, I do believe that the heightened awareness that is associated with reading against a text is a vital aspect of the educational journey.

Schools are cultural hubs where students can learn to see beyond socioeconomic and racial differences and to spot the flaws in deficit-oriented thinking. This can be done through careful means. But it starts with teachers understanding their roles as cultural role models (Banks, 2015). Teachers can overcome cultural obstacles by using dynamic, emergent, and interactional teaching to engage students and help bridge the gap between students. This will, in turn, allow students to become more engaged in the mentor/mentee partnership and instill positive relationship knowledge in the student.



Dr. William Kerns.
> Assistant Professor of Education
> College of Education and Health Professions
> University of Arkansas-Little Rock

Aug 2019


Copyright 2019 by Dr. Sam Bommarito/Dr. William Kerns. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the view of the author of this piece and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization.

P.S. If you found the blog through Facebook or Twitter, please consider following the blog to make sure you won’t miss it.  Use the “follow” entry on the sidebar of the blog.