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In Memoriam: Linda Dorn: Her life, her legacy- on the 2nd anniversary of her passing by Dr. Sam Bommarito

It has been two years since the world of literacy lost Linda Dorn. However, her legacy endures. I am devoting this blog entry to Linda. I include three things- A link to the Missouri Reader’s issue dedicated to Linda, a link to her final book, and a reposting of the blog entry I made at the time of her passing, with contributions from William Kerns and Glenda Nugent. Know that Linda’s legacy is important and that it is up to all of us to keep it alive.

Special Edition of the Missouri Reader (a peer-reviewed state journal of the Missouri Literacy Association an ILA affiliate)

Her final book- co-authored with Adrian Klein and Carlo Soffos

(Reposting of the original blog entry)

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, aka the centrist who uses ideas from all sides to inform his teaching

Copyright 2021 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. Thanks again to William Kerns and Glenda Nugent for their contributions to the original blog post.

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P.P.S. I’ve already arranged the first of several interviews of various literacy leaders. The first of these will be published next week.

It’s Not Settled Science or Rocket Science, and It’s Not Your Science, It’s Our Science: A Centrist’s Perspective on the Reading Wars. By Dr. Sam Bommarito

It’s Not Settled Science

Many well-credentialed researchers have indicated “we are not there yet” in developing the one true, everyone-agrees-on-it science of reading.

For instance, the researchers writing in the recent special editions of the Reading Research Quarterly have said it’s not settled science

Researchers of the National Education Policy Center have said it’s not settled science

David Reinking, Victoria J. Risko and George G. Hruby have said it’s not settled science.  See their interview in the Washington Post, where they give considerable research to back up that point of view. All three of them are researchers with excellent credentials and long histories in the field of research.

Dr. George Hruby from the Collaborative Center for Literacy Development also created a brief U Tube Video indicating that it is not settled science. (The video is a headline service- also see Dr. Hruby’s considerable work on this issue for the details)

There are simply too many well-credentialed researchers questioning the conclusions of the so-called Science of Reading group for that group to claim that the issues around the teaching of reading are settled.  This excerpt from the Washington Post article cited earlier sums that position up the best:

“Phonics is the prime example. Few legitimate experts on teaching reading oppose teaching children phonics. Despite a timeworn narrative, there is no sharply drawn battle line dividing experts who completely support or completely oppose phonics.

Instead, reasonable differences exist along a continuum.  (Emphasis is mine) On one end are those who see phonics as the foundation of learning to read for all students. To them, phonics — lots of it — is the essential ingredient that ensures success for all students learning to read, and it must be mastered before other dimensions of reading are taught.

On the other end are those who see phonics as only one among many dimensions of learning to read — one that gains potency when integrated with meaningfully engaged reading and writing, with vocabulary and language development, with instruction aimed at increasing comprehension and fluency, and so forth. (For an extended discussion, click on this.)

Underlying that continuum is the question of whether a deficiency in phonics is at the root of virtually all reading difficulties, or whether, like many medical conditions (e.g., heart disease), those difficulties have multiple etiologies, including external factors, such as impoverished school resources to support students.

There are also reasonable professional differences about what phonics instruction should look like, how much of it is necessary, for whom, under what circumstances, and how it connects with other aspects of reading. But there is no justification for characterizing these differences as a “reading war” between those who believe in phonics and those who don’t.”

It’s not just your Science (rocket science)

Most prominent in the attempt to lay exclusive claim to the term “Science of Reading” are the followers of Dr. Louise Moats. She restated her position on the teaching of reading in a report entitled Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science, 2020 .  This document is an update of a title by the same name published over 20 years ago. Here is a link to a pdf of that report LINK.

This is a key takeaway from that report:

Widely Used Programs Are Uninformative or Misleading Inadequately prepared novice teachers often find themselves dependent on the information given in the teachers’ manuals that accompany virtually all commercially available reading programs to learn about spoken and written language concepts and to generate strategies for teaching students to read. Many of the most widely used classroom teaching manuals and materials in language arts omit systematic teaching about speech sounds, the spelling system, or how to read words by sounding them out. The most popular programs being used today are relatively strong on literature, illustrations, cross-disciplinary thematic units, and motivational strategies for children, but very weak or simply wrong when it comes to the structure of the English language and how children actually learn to read the words on the page.26 Ideally, students should be asked to apply code-based skills during reading, spelling, and writing, and there should be sufficient time prescribed for instruction in all essential components.

Her followers have attacked balanced literacy practices, including but not limited to attacks on Reading Recovery, Reading and Writing Workshop, and Guided Reading. Lately, the attacks have become more and more vitriolic. Practitioners using balanced literacy practices are vilified if they try to defend those practices on social media. The practices are referred to as “failed practices.” Anyone defending them is viewed as a liar or worse. Defenders are subjected to ridicule, sarcasm, and name-calling. This myth of failed practices has been repeated so often on social media and other places that it has become widely believed. BTW this is a variation on the public relations tactic known as the big lie. Instead of the big lie- it is the big half-truth. More on that in a minute. Let’s sum up the situation this way:

So, a shiny new rocket will replace all the current dismal practices, and all will be well. The circle representing current practices is grey, denoting the array of practices being used in districts today and the fact that they are all failing by and large. Sounds plausible. There are several huge problems about this view that we  will now discuss. First, like all its predecessors before, the shiny new rocket works for SOME, not for ALL students. The statistics “proving” the SOR works have been subject to many challenges, including those made by my new friend and future co-presenter, Dr. P.L. Thomas LINK.

Given that, students for whom the shiny new rocket doesn’t work will eventually begin viewing it as the dismal grey rocket. That will eventually lead to a new pretender coming to do battle with the proponents of the shiny new rocket. And the pendulum of instruction will swing yet again. My very first blog about the reading wars is on exactly that point LINK. Here’s an alternate way of looking at this conundrum.

It’s Our Science, the Sciences of Reading- btw the “s” is there on purpose

The term Science of Reading belongs to ALL of us following science, and there are many different credible views of what constitutes science. What follows is my centrist’s perspective on the Reading Wars.

The shiny new rocket won’t work for all. It has no room on board for the Word Callers.  It is only powered by half of the available engines. It has synthetic phonics but effectively rejects analytic phonics. Yet research indicates that when done systematically, both forms of phonics work LINK. It uses quantitative research and effectively rejects all qualitative research viewing that as a weaker form of research. In point of fact, qualitative research is actually a different form of research, a form of research that seems perfectly suited to the incredibly complex phenomena we study in education and the even more complex environment in which these phenomena play out. As a centrist, I look at ALL the research, both quantitative and qualitative. Looking at  just quantitative research gives a limited and limiting view of the phenomena being studied. We need the information provided by both kinds of research in order to try to make some sense of what goes on as we go about the complex business of educating children.

And by the way, there is plenty of evidence that the so-called “failed practices,” in fact, can and do work for many many children. Consider the example of Reading Recovery. I’ve written about that many times LINK, LINK, LINK. Be warned that the charge that its learning doesn’t stick fails to account for what happens when the students return to the main program of a district LINK.  Also, look at the recent results from Calkin’s workshop projects. LINK. That just doesn’t look like failed practices to me. And there’s lots more where that came from. Perhaps teachers from districts where things are going well (and there are many such districts) might want to share some of what is happening in their district. That invitation is to teachers in districts using practices inspired by SOR and teachers in districts using practices inspired by BL. Most especially, it is made to teachers in districts using combinations of the two.

In my 50 plus years in education, I’ve had a lot of direct experience with programs using practices suggested by balanced literacy. Overall that experience has shown that BL practices can and do work when carried out with fidelity and adjusted for local circumstances. In the mid-1980s, three different Title 1 reading programs I worked in were found to be exceptionally effective by the Secretary of Education. They were given the Secretary’s Award- placing them in the top 1/10 of 1 percent of the programs of the time. At the turn of the current century, circa the year 2000, one of those programs was replaced with a basal known for its structured approach to phonics. Over the next few years, reading scores for the district plummeted. Moving into more recent times, when awards went out to top districts for exceptional programs in education in my state of Missouri- several of the districts named were known for their use of Balanced Literacy programs. I’ve done in-service work for districts using F&P, and the reading scores were more than satisfactory.

BTW some advocates of the so-called SOR tried to explain the phenomena of districts with successful BL practices by saying that some students learn regardless of the methods used (TRUE). They then say that the success of BL practices can be explained by it being created by students who would have learned anyway (FALSE). Why do I say false? How plausible is it that ALL of the gains/success in the districts I’ve just talked about were from students that would have learned anyway? Hmmm, top 1/10 of 1 percent of all districts nationally and three different times, I was lucky enough to be working in districts that were comprised of kids who would have learned anyway in our district during those years. Really? 

I talked to some people in a Twitter thread I’ve been involved in in the past couple of weeks about their attempt to spread this half-truth about the success of BL being built solely on scores from kids who would have done well anyway. I asked them for an actual study to prove that contention. I got many excuses about why such a study isn’t possible, but no links to a properly implemented study. In addition, they were also unable to provide studies based on a sample of districts using BL practices with fidelity showing that BL doesn’t work. BTW- without such a study, they have no right to call BL a failure. I’ll be talking more about what such a study might look like in the next section. So, let me now suggest a slightly different way of analyzing today’s situation. I’m using the same grey circle of current practices but adding something missing from the first model. I’ll be using my model to explain why I think there is hope for finding some common ground and common practices.

Finding common ground and practices: Is it a lost cause, or is there hope?

When I interviewed my newfound friend and colleague P.L. Thomas,  LINK, as part of my preparation for the upcoming LitCon Conference,  he indicated that he was less hopeful than I seemed to be about finding common ground. On the one hand, if finding common ground relies on a dialogue between the two sides at the far ends of the continuum mention by David Reinking et al., there is almost no hope. Both sides are so entrenched in their beliefs, and both are so convinced the other side is totally and utterly wrong that there is no room for any real dialogue. Let’s look over my current situation model and see if some hope can be found by looking at things from the middle.

Being a teacher, I added gold stars, gold circles and gold rockets to the grey circles of districts carrying out practices that aren’t working. Teachers always seem to like gold stars! There’s a bit more to it than that. Within that sea of districts doing things poorly or doing things not at all, there are districts doing things well and doing them with fidelity. Some of them use practice inspired by BL (gold stars) and others by SOR (gold rockets).  Maybe some of them do things inspired by other views about the learning process (gold circles). Let’s also remember that some of them are being inspired to carry out practices based on more than one point of view, e.g., the rocket & star inside the same black circle.  P.D. Pearson had something important to say about that final group. This quote is from the National Education Policy Center document referenced earlier in this blog entry LINK:

“This back and forth, however, was never helpful for children or meaningful in terms of classroom instruction. As David Pearson wrote in 2004:

‘Interestingly, the debate, accompanied by its warlike metaphors, appears to have more life in the public and professional press than it does in our schools. Reporters and scholars revel in keeping the debate alive and well, portraying clearly divided sides and detailing a host of differences of a philosophical, political, and pedagogical nature. Teachers, by contrast, often talk about, and more important enact, more balanced approaches. For example, several scholars, in documenting the practices of highly effective, highly regarded teachers, found that these exemplary teachers employed a wide array of practices, some of which appear decidedly whole language in character (e.g., process writing, literature groups, and contextualized skills practice) and some of which appear remarkably skills-oriented (explicit phonics lessons, sight word practice, and comprehension strategy instruction). Exemplary teachers appear to find an easier path to balance than either scholars or policy pundits.’ “

Research demonstrates that exemplary teachers use both. What a concept!

I use diagram two to explain my call for research demonstrating the efficacy (or lack of it) when evaluating BL.  To do a proper study of BL, one must draw a sample of districts using BL practices with fidelity. The practices must be ones that current proponents of BL advocate (not strawmen practices circa the 1960s). The measurements used must include a direct measure of reading comprehension. If you want to make it a comparative study, you must also draw a like sample of districts using practices advocated by whatever branch of the SOR you wish to study. So, after three-plus years of asking for such a study, I’ve gotten everything but. Mainly what I’ve gotten are studies I classify as “wind tunnel test studies.” You see, when airplanes are certified for flight, one of the preliminary kinds of test done is a wind tunnel test. The final part of airplane certification involves actual flying tests, using the actual plane, in real circumstances, e.g., flying between two cities. Some folks from the so-called SOR movement seem to want to make huge policy changes based on what are clearly preliminary/tentative results. They want to skip important middle steps in the normal process of applying research to educational practices. IMO, before suggesting major changes, they need to provide studies fitting the final gold standard of applying research to educational practices. That gold standard would be studies done evaluating the implementation of selected practices in actual district settings over several years, using reading tests that measure both decoding and comprehension. The comprehension measurement needs to be direct and resemble the testing used in many state-wide tests of reading. Duke has described such standards. You’ll find that in the chart in my blog entry referencing her ideas about reading being much more than just decoding words LINK.

Speaking of Nell Duke, for me, her newest proposed model for studying reading holds the most hope for finding common ground and common practices. Remember Duke is first and foremost a researcher. She doesn’t take sides or fit on a side. What she does do is what researchers are supposed to do. Researchers are supposed to find the cutting edge of our current knowledge and then push our knowledge into areas where it has never been before. Like all good researchers, she is not out to prove anything. She is out to discover something- new knowledge and new understanding. Her new model of reading takes “The Rope” and augments it with her considerable knowledge of the literacy process. You can read all about it in the special edition of The Missouri Reader. The Missouri Reader is a state journal of reading. In the way of full disclosure, I am the Co-Editor of that journal. I think that her model is one example of the kind of research that could discover common ground upon which we all could agree. Here is the link to the issue containing her article LINK.

In Conclusion:

In sum, I think there is hope for finding common ground and common practices. I think the search for common ground is most likely to be carried out by centrists, open-minded folks willing to learn from all sides. Those that know my work know that I am willing to do just that. I’ve blogged before about how, based on advice from Shanahan, an empiricist with whom I do not always agree, I now use both predictable and decodable books with my beginning readers. I’ve done so and I’ve been pleased with the results LINK. So have my teachers, parents and administrators. Let’s do begin the journey of locating the common ground. Let’s call a truce on the talk about what divides us. Let’s talk for a time about the things on which all sides might agree.  I’m sure that one of those areas of agreement could be to do a better job teaching phonics (all forms of phonics).  So, this is Dr. Sam signing off. I’m still that guy in the middle happily taking flak from all sides. I do so because my kids are worth it.

This entry is the final one in my series of op-eds about the reading wars. While I may pick up this topic again sometime in the future, in the coming weeks, I’m trying to line up some literacy leaders who will be sharing their ideas on how we might better serve our students.

Dr. Sam

Copyright 2021 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.

PS 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.

In addition to doing our separate sessions at LitCon P.L. Thomas and I have now scheduled a joint session where we will review our key ideas and also open the floor to questions about what we’ve said.

Here is a link to the LitCon conference, which will be held this January in Columbus, Ohio LINK

As indicated earlier, both J.L. Thomas and I are doing individual sessions. We are also doing a joint session with emphasis on allowing time for people to ask questions about the literacy issues we raise.

9/11: In Memoriam by Dr Sam Bommarito

9/11: In Memoriam by Dr Sam Bommarito

In place of my usual Saturday morning literacy blog, I thought it would be appropriate to say something about the 20th anniversary of 9/11

In 2001, I was teaching a Title 1 class, when one of my fellow teachers came and asked- Sam- have you heard? Like many who were alive at the time of this tragic event, that moment is etched in my mind forever. The very next year I went to New York in order to study writer’s workshop. I was able to visit the World Trade Center site. It was not yet cleared. Beams from the site had been placed as makeshift memorials. Another moment etched in my memory.

I count several first responders among my friends. They, of course, were deeply moved by this tragedy.  I count some New Yorkers among my friends and relatives as well. Of course,  New York wasn’t the only place where people suffered. Today is a good day to talk about heroes: folks who run toward danger when others are running away, folks who are willing to give their own lives to save others. There were such folks back on that day. There are such folks right down to today. Today is a good day to honor those folks with your thoughts, prayers, or reflections. Today is a good day to remember the heroes of 9/11 and all the other heroes who have given us so much.

Dr. Sam Bommarito

Simple strategies to enhance reading fluency and comprehension for all grade levels by Dr. Sam Bommarito

Last week I noticed that several middle and high school folks reported that their students could not decode. They laid this entirely at the feet of balanced literacy, which they believe always does a bad job of teaching phonics in the early grades. Speaking to that is a whole different blog, but I will say that I use balanced literacy methods in my teaching, and the younger children I work with end up the year being able to decode, read with fluency and comprehend. Let me give one possible alternate explanation for why some children in middle school/high school cannot decode new words.  I was in Title 1 buildings for over 30 years, and I know that the turnover rate can be very high in buildings with high numbers of at-risk children. Some years, three-quarters of the kids I finished the year with were not the kids I started with. I mention this because to get a true picture of what is happening in the beginning reading program (say grades PreK, Kg and 1st) of such districts, you need to look at the kids who spent their entire time in the district’s program.  If those kids can’t decode, then it’s time to revamp the early grades’ program. If they can decode, then the problem is elsewhere. That doesn’t mean do nothing. It likely means the district needs to develop an effective program for transfer students.

Now that you’ve indulged me with my musings about last week, I’d like to share some things that I’ve found can really help older readers in both the areas of decoding and comprehension.  Remember that my program simply augments the main literacy program for the school’s K-4 classes. The school has K-8 classes. My program includes the use of trade books, predictable text and some decodable texts from the online program called Headsprout, LINK.  That program is produced by the same company that makes Raz Kids. I will now talk about some ideas that middle school and high school teachers might use to help their students who come into those grades unable to decode.

The first is to make use of the ideas of Dr. Tim Rasinski around fluency, word work and prefixes/suffixes/roots. He has materials about that, LINK, a video about that LINK, and if you follow him on Twitter (@TimRasinski1), he gives out free materials about prefixes, suffixes and roots every Monday. Here’s a sample:

Teaching about affixes can pay off handsomely for both meaning-making and decoding.  Knowing them helps students decode words and also helps them figure out the meaning of words. Examples of affixes include math- bi, tri, deci, science sarus, bio, macro, history, pre, post, trans, and the list goes on and on. Do have a look at Dr. Rasinski’s next morphology Monday on Twitter, and try out some of his resources. Also, look at one middle school teacher’s explanation of how he used vocabulary study based on Dr. Rasinski’s work with Greek and Latin roots,  LINK. NOTE: In Comments about this post readers have been talking about Pete Bower’s Structured Word Approach. That’s another source for this kind of teaching.

Dr. Rasinski is best known for his work around fluency. He and Melissa Cheesman Smith wrote The Megabook of Fluency LINK. It has a treasure trove of resources, including many for the upper grades. In his research on repeated reading, Rasinski found that reading and rereading the same short passage several times improved fluency and comprehension. His website includes many free resources and ideas on how to improve reading, LINK.

Again, from his website, one teacher describes a research project on an upper-grade fluency program she carried out LINK. The results of the program were impressive. In my own setting, each week, I choose a short passage for the class to practice (1 paragraph or less). It can be a poem, song, or excerpt from a book or short story. I use various sources for the sample, including the Megabook and Rasinski’s Phonics Poetry book. The Phonics Poetry book is copyrighted in 2001 and sometimes out of print, but used copies are readily available on Amazon and other sites.  The Megabook has great passages that are suitable for middle school and/or high school students.

For my students, I make a Zoom video of me reading the passage. I emphasize that I try to read like a storyteller as I do.  The students watch the video at home. I ask for them to watch at least three times a week and to read along with me as they do. They can see the full passage as they watch the video. At the end of the week (or two weeks), they create a video of themselves reading the passage with prosody (like a storyteller). That is the performance event in “reading to perform.” There are times when I also do a whole class zoom.  I sometimes pick a word from the passage and use analytic phonics (teaching the sounds from the word) to reinforce the words in their synthetic phonics program. Periodically I look at the videos of the students’ performance reading scoring them with Rasinski’s rubric from the Megabook. I consider Rasinski’s rubric far superior to some of the more commonly used fluency measures. His rubric includes Expression, Automatic Word Recognition, Rhyme and Phrasing, and Smoothness (EARS). There are norm tables for use in the Automatic Word Expression component. Rasinski’s measure avoids some of the problems associated with other measures where students, teachers, and administrators come to view fluency as simply how fast  you read. This problem is addressed in Rasinski’s blog entry entitled “Making Kids Read Fast is NOT the Goal of Fluency Instruction; Making Meaning IsLINK. I think the combination of work on prefixes, suffixes, roots and on reading to perform (repeated reading) could really help middle school and high school teachers help their students who have problems decoding.

Writing and reading: Writing and reading have a symbiotic relationship. There are many ways writing can enhance a reading program. Lucy Calkins recently talked about that on Heinemann’s Facebook page LINK.  Since the middle school/high school teacher’s concerns were mainly around decoding, I’d like to discuss a classic teaching method that helps both decoding and comprehension. The method is Language Experience, LINK. The link I just gave gives a look at language experience and how it fits into a program of personal narratives. Though it is most often used with younger readers, I have used it with readers of every age and have found it especially effective with older readers who are reading well below grade level (or not reading at all).

The process is very simple. Ask the student to tell a story or talk about a topic of interest. As they do, write down what they say.  For instance, I once used this with a 16-year-old who wanted to get a driver’s license. I read to him from the state license manual. I asked him about what he learned from the passage. I wrote down what he said. I kept a copy for later.  We came back to this copy and I asked him to read it..  This became a library of material for him to read from. Of course, with other students, I might just have them tell stories, or talk about something they liked, or ???

Back in the day, I used to take what the students said and write it down- usually in a notebook. Today I sometimes do that, and I sometimes use a word processor. For the youngest children, I also have them create their own books. I’ve blogged about how I used Zoom to do this LINK.   Here is a screen capture of one of the books a younger student dictated.

I first took “dictation” from the student- he wanted to talk about strange animals. He started because he had found a picture of a blobfish online. Yep, that funny-looking fish in the picture actually exists!  I wrote down what he said about the blobfish. Then we found pictures of other strange animals. I wrote down what he said about them. I wrote the language he used and avoided writing for him. It was his story to tell.  I then saved the book and printed it off for him. We read from that book for several more lessons.

Language experience stories can be produced in any form- handwritten, handwritten with hand-drawn pictures etc. This procedure works so well for older students because it is often hard to find books they can decode but are age-appropriate. The other advantage of this method is that every word in the book is already in their listening and speaking vocabulary. You can do analytic phonics (teaching sounds from words) using words from the book they wrote. The book becomes one of the materials that you can use for repeated reading. I can’t begin to tell you how proud the student who wrote the Strange Animals bookwas when he was able to go home  and read a book he had written to his family.

Another thing I sometimes do with older readers is to have them write a “show don’t tell” paragraph. Here’s one I wrote:

When the boy walked in the door, he had to duck his head. He was sweating and a little out of breath. He was smiling. He tossed the ball from hand to hand. He had made the team.

What team do you think he was trying out for?

The rules for a “show don’t tell are simple.” You can give clues, but you can’t use the word. After creating their show don’t tell paragraphs, I usually let students pair and share more than once. I tell them if the other person doesn’t get it, then add another clue or two. This is a great activity for teaching inference. After doing it for some years, I found a similar activity in Jennifer Seravallo’s Readings Strategies book, LINK. For students who need it, let them do “show don’t tell” using language experience. (of course, the answer for my show don’t tell is basketball!)

In sum, writing can help to develop reading comprehension and fluency. So can learning about prefixes, suffixes, and roots. This isn’t all one can do to help older students with decoding, but it is a good start.

BTW- I’m already starting to line up some folks for upcoming interviews. I think you will find some great ideas for things that can help you help your students in literacy. As always:

Happy Reading and Happy Writing

Dr. Sam Bommarito, aka the centrist who uses ideas from all sides to inform his teaching

Copyright 2021 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.


Reading Recovery is a viable, balanced approach to literacy: Thoughts about my upcoming session at LitCon by Dr. Sam Bommarito

In the three-plus years since I began this blog, I’ve written about Reading Recovery several times. I’ve said there is a lot we can learn from reading recovery LINK. I said that Reading Recovery works. I talked about how studies from What Works Clearinghouse found it was the only early intervention program that positively impacted decoding skills and comprehension LINK. When WWC reported on a randomized trial of 6,888 students, they found RR met WWC standards without reservation LINK. Some critics claim the effects of RR don’t stick. However, when I interviewed Susan Vincent, who currently teaches at Miami University and who has a long-time affiliation with RR,  LINK, she reported that when her former district looked at the long-term effects of RR, they found that the RR teaching stuck. I wondered why the results in Susan’s district were so different from those reported by the critics.  Susan explained that RR is a short-term intervention designed to catch students up. Reading Recovery sets students up to make normal progress when they return to their district’s mainstream program. In the case of Susan’s district, students in the mainstream program make good progress every year.  However, if RR students return to districts where most students are making little or no progress, one would expect their progress to match that of those students, i.e., little or no progress. Critics who don’t consider that in their studies are reporting incomplete and misleading results. Be sure to consider that when reading studies that claim RR teaching doesn’t stick.

I was trained in RR many years ago. I mark that training as a major milestone in my teaching career. To this day, I continue to use what I learned from RR. I am not alone in the feeling that recovery training helps to make teachers better. When I shared that feeling on social media- the response from other recovery teachers was overwhelmingly positive LINK. They learned so much.  For instance, Susan Vincent reported that when she did her OG training, she already knew what they were teaching her about phonemes et al. She had learned it all during her RR training.

Now let’s look at highlights from my LitCon presentation that will be coming up this January:

The message that I will be giving is clear. RR works. It is based on “gold standard research.”  I won’t claim that it works for everyone or that it is a one size fits all program. But I will echo the thoughts of Paul Thomas, who will also be presenting at LitCon. Dr. Thomas says the dialogue about literacy should change from what all students must do to what all students deserve. I’ll be making the case that students deserve RR as one option to help them.  

I will now give a link to a short promo about my presentation and after that, a link to register for the conference. I hope to see you there!

Link to my 2-minute promo:

Link to the conference registration: LINK

Dr. Sam Bommarito, aka the centrist who uses ideas from all sides to inform his teaching

Copyright 2021 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.

Paul Thomas & SOR- It’s not settled, and it’s not simple: An interview conducted by Dr. Sam Bommarito

Paul Thomas & SOR- It’s not settled, and it’s not simple: An interview conducted by Dr. Sam Bommarito

I was excited when I found out that Paul Thomas and I would be speaking at the LitCon conference next January and even more excited when Paul agreed this week to do an interview about his book and what he will be saying at LitCon. Here’s a little bit of background about Paul taken from his website:

Now it is time to have a look at the interview. Here are the topics we discussed. They are time stamped.

1. Tell us a little bit about yourself. (01:30)

2. Recent issues of RRQ and P.D. Pearson’s new book have led many to believe that it is “not settled science”.  What is your take on that? (02:50)

3. Does it make any sense to effectively ban selected practices found in balanced approaches to reading, e.g., reading recovery, workshop teaching or guided reading? (6:45)

4. What is your take on some SOR programs, including retention in 3rd grade as a part of the program to raise test scores? (10:47)

5. Cambourne and Crouch recently said we should stop using the Reading Wars metaphor and replace it with the metaphor of the Reading Quilt- with different “sides” adding different pieces to the quilt. Do you see any hope for that point of view? Do you see hope for an end to the divisive discourse?  Do you see hope for ending the reading wars? (13:20)

6. Final thoughts (24:00)

Here is the YouTube interview:

Here is a link to Paul’s Book:

Follow Paul on Twitter: @plthomasEdD 

Here is a link to Paul’s blog:

Here is a link to more information about Lou Labrant:

Here is a link to the Missouri Reader special issue, which contains the explanation of Cambourne and Crouch’s quilt metaphor and explains why it is a better way of looking at things instead of the Reading Wars metaphor:

Here is a link to the LitCon conference next January. In addition to Paul and me, my very good friend Mary Howard will also be presenting. See the registration site for details and to discover the many other literacy leaders who will be conducting sessions at the conference:

Next week, I will be talking about my LitCon presentation. I originally planned to do that this week but wanted to get this interview out as soon as possible.

So, until next week,

Happy Reading and Writing!

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

Copyright 2021 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

If you found the blog through Facebook or Twitter, please consider following the blog to make sure you will not miss it.  Use the “follow” entry on the sidebar of the blog.

Seeking Common Ground and Common Practices: Let’s Promote Dialogue Not Discord in the Discussions Around Teaching Reading Dr. Sam Bommarito

Seeking Common Ground and Common Practices: Let’s Promote Dialogue Not Discord in the Discussions Around Teaching Reading Dr. Sam Bommarito

I have friends on both sides (all sides) of the reading debate who post regularly on social media. Lately, they report that they avoid terms like “balanced reading” or “science of reading”. That is because using them can result in bullying and what some call the “uncivilized discourse” that often characterizes discussions around such literacy issues. This week I had an “aha moment” around that problem. It came when I was writing a response to a SOR proponent I talked to on one of the larger Facebook groups for reading teachers. This person reported having a bad experience using balanced literacy and the various practices surrounding it. They were convinced BL didn’t work. When I pointed out that various issues of Reading Research Quarterly reported more than 25 years of research demonstrating the efficacy of using context (a kingpin for BL/MSV) LINK, they retorted that the International Reading Association had “skin in the game”.  That was a red flag for me. I will now share what I said in response to that remark. I will then talk about the implications of what I said. Here is a verbatim screen capture of my remarks.

The heart of my message was this:

“…the centrist message I am giving is appealing to a lot of folks. They are tired of the bullying and the fighting. They are tired of zealots from any side who demonize ‘the other side(s).’ They want to seek out common ground and common practices. Good things can come of SOR/BL….”

A central fact surrounding this discourse is that we are not there yet in terms of having a science of reading (I know some disagree). Research reported in RRQ, and other places make that clear LINK. However, that does not mean that there isn’t much BL folks can learn from SOR. Burkins & Yates wrote a book about that LINK. The mistaken beliefs each side has about the other must be challenged. For instance, using SOR doesn’t mean comprehension is automatically ignored any more than using BL means that phonics is automatically ignored.   

When I did my first posts around the most recent iteration of the reading wars LINK (that was almost four years ago!), I used the following logic:

  • What works for one child doesn’t always work for another.
  • Every approach has limitations. No approach works for every child.
  • Therefore, the pendulum of instructional practices has kept swinging because when one side “wins,” they invariably call for discarding all things from the other side. BUT, since there are kids for whom the new soup de jour doesn’t work, eventually, the new way gets challenged and replaced. The process repeats itself. It has done so for all the 50 plus years I’ve spent in education.

Isn’t it way past time for us to face the fact that we need to draw on things from all sides? We need to listen carefully to Cambourne and Crouch, who so eloquently explained why we need to replace the reading wars concept with the reading quilt concept, LINK.

But Dr. Sam, haven’t the SOR folks shown their way works and works well? Shouldn’t we just adopt it all and be done with it?  The answer is most of the evidence presented by the current SOR is not even close to the level of gold standard research. Gold standard research requires implementation at the district level over many years using valid tests, i.e., tests of reading, not decoding. This past week I spent several days asking an ardent SOR supporter to provide gold-standard evidence. She cited one study and had no idea whether the testing instruments used in that study really measured reading rather than decoding. In the past, when I’ve asked for gold-standard research, what I usually get back are mainly studies that don’t even come close to meeting such standards. Frequently they are studies that use instruments like the DIBELS. DIBELS measures mainly decoding and fails to directly measure comprehension.

Why should we be worried about having gold standard research? Would you be willing to be a passenger in an aircraft that passed its wind tunnels tests but had never been tested in actual flights between cities? I wouldn’t. In the same way, before mandating programs to the exclusion of all others (a practice I have criticized LINK), we must at least look at the results of implementing those at a district level. Doing that is the educational equivalent of using actual flight tests instead of wind tunnel tests to inform the decision about the viability of an aircraft.

I also want to point out that when folks evaluate “the other side,” they must test with the best plane the other side has to offer. It must have been built to meet the company’s standards, i.e. they must demonstrate the other sides practices were carried out with fidelity. When the critics of BL are asked to produce studies where the BL best practices were done with fidelity, they can’t.  They include all districts instead of drawing a sample of districts doing BL with fidelity. They can’t draw such a sample because they have no working definition of BL.  Doing it the way they do is like testing a rival company’s product by using a badly built plane from 50 years ago instead of studying their latest best-built jet.

I’ll finish by saying that life in the center is not easy. Eyebrows get raised from all sides when I report that I use decodables AND predictables AND trade books. I measure fluency using more than just speed. I use both synthetic and analytic phonics. I use a lot of materials from Dr. Tim Rasinski to build my students’ orthographic knowledge. I teach fluency using Rasinski’s method of reading for performance. The research around repeated readings strongly supports the use of such practices. I do comprehension checks, even with students working at the very beginning levels of reading.

I agree with Tim Rasinski that teaching is both art and science. Accordingly, I use direct teaching some of the time. The philosophical underpinnings of that method come from Aristotle. It tends to be the method most preferred by the SOR folks. I also use the inquiry methods. Its philosophical roots trace back to Socrates.  Inquiry learning is a favorite of BL groups.  BTW I’ve noticed that both those methods are still around, even after a couple of millenniums, with little chance that one will be replaced by the other. The two methods do not constitute a mutually exclusive dichotomy. They do require an application of the teaching both the art and science of reading in order to decide which method is best suited to which situation. The most important conclusion I’ve drawn from all the research around the issue of what practices to use in the teaching of reading is that “It Depends!”

I’ll end by asking folks from all sides to be willing to try ideas from “the other side” when ideas from your favorite approach aren’t working for a kid. I’ll also ask that we all do more talking and less bickering. I  wrote an article about that LINK, p 20. I think if we could start doing that, there would be some definite winners. The winners would be the kids we’re all supposed to be helping.

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

Copyright 2021 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.

Dispelling the myths that MSV is not research supported and that balanced literacy has failed by Dr. Sam Bommarito

Dispelling the myths that MSV is not research supported and that balanced literacy has failed

Dr. Sam Bommarito

Over the past few years, there has been a steady criticism of MSV (using the three systems of information- Meaning, Syntax and Visual).  There have also been criticisms of programs using the constellation of educational practices known as balanced literacy. The criticisms have turned vitriolic. The claim is made that such practices can actually hurt children. One zealot actually suggested that I should be charged with educational malpractice based on the practices I use. Yet the parents of children I tutor are more than happy with the results I’m getting and the children are thriving. They are in the process of becoming lifelong readers and writers. What are we to make of all this? Perhaps the naysayers have missed the mark.

MSV has a place in literacy instruction.

Let’s begin with MSV (the three systems of information).  According to the naysayers, it doesn’t describe how readers actually read. They claim that only poor readers use the three cueing systems. Really? I wonder if they realize that when Marie Clay and others did the groundbreaking research on MSV they looked at what all readers do, not just what poor readers do. As a matter of fact, I think many of the readers of this blog use MSV some of the time when they do their own reading. Let me give you an example. Consider the following:.

“I   b-t    y- -u  c-n   r- -d   th-s”

Back when I was teaching the Analysis and Correction of Reading course, I’d use examples like this to demonstrate that consonants carry more information than vowels. That is important to know. It is especially important to know if you are working with very young readers who sometimes lack the auditory discrimination to hear vowel sounds, especially short vowel sounds. Such children exist. Such children can still be taught to read. But not using teaching schemes that allow only letter by letter sounding.

Let’s get back to the main point. If you decoded the above sample  (and most of you did), you didn’t do it by using only the letter sounds. You used other information, including orthographic information and information from MSV. You likely crosschecked the data from the different systems of information in order to make sure that what your read made sense. BTW- you are good readers using MSV to decode the message. So much for the myth that only bad readers use MSV. Naysayers use quantitative studies to try to prove this point. Qualitative information and qualitative studies are left out. They most certainly should not be left out as the qualitative information provided here clearly shows. Talking about why using both qualitative and quantitative information is important is definitely a topic that will be the subject for future blogs.

There is an excellent review of research around the topic of using context to help reading. Here is a link to the Reading Research Quarterly PDF talking about that. I also include a brief excerpt from that PDF. Regular readers know I’ve talked about this PDF many times.

“….Unlike the position advocated by SOR groups who criticize use of the three-cueing system, Scanlon and Anderson emphasize that the thrust of our argument is that the use of context can be a valuable assist for word solving both when a student’s knowledge of the code is still developing and when in consistencies in English orthography result in only an approximate pronunciation of a word. In either situation, successful word solving that includes a careful interroga-tion of the letters in the word supports the orthographic mapping required for skilled word learning. Additionally, the word-solving process itself becomes generative as it helps to familiarize the student with new letter–sound cor-respondences and orthographic patterns that can then be applied in decoding even more new words, thus expanding the power of the self-teaching mechanism (Share, 1995).This work, which includes studies of K–4 students, showed the effectiveness of the Interactive Strategies Approach, indicating “that using both phonics- and  context-based information facilitates the ability to build sight vocabulary, which in turn enables readers to turn their attention to the most important goal of literacy learning: meaning construction.”

Balanced literacy approaches such as reading/writing workshop and guided reading can and do work in many districts.

I’ve written many times about the manner in which the naysayers criticize the use of balanced literacy practices. Their logic seems to be as follows:

  • The number of children not learning to read is far too high (no argument there- even one kid not learning to read is one too many!)
  • Balanced reading is widely used (no argument there lots of places are using balanced reading in one form or another)
  • Therefore, balanced reading is the reason all those kids are not learning to read (WHOA! A great public relations ploy, but very bad analysis, see below)

Here’s the problem with the third point. It is based on what’s happening in ALL DISTRICTS. That would include districts doing balanced reading with fidelity, districts doing balanced reading but doing it poorly, districts using SOR, districts not really using any particular method, etc.  Based on the fact that SOR is included in what is currently happening,  should we then conclude both Balanced Reading and SOR practices don’t work? When asked this question, SOR advocates maintain that we must look at just the districts using SOR practices and see how well SOR performs.  Point taken. We should. BTW that also means we should look at districts using workshop or guided reading or other balanced literacy programs with fidelity. Then draw conclusions.

That is not at all what is being done currently. Too often the naysayers fail to look at how districts doing balanced literacy with fidelity are doing.  I’ve had them say they can’t do such studies because they can’t really define balanced literacy. Hmm. That can be a problem if you want to conduct research around its efficacy.  It would be especially important if you wanted to do a research study based on a sample of districts doing balanced literacy with fidelity. Definitions of balanced literacy are readily available- see the seminal work of Pressley LINK, or the description of balanced literacy given by Kerns in the most recent issue of The Missouri Reader, LINK (pg. 10)  Any claims that balanced literacy has failed should provide studies that use a carefully drawn scientific sample of districts doing balanced literacy with fidelity. Instead, most of the naysayers base their claims on all districts and the myriad of things one finds when looking at what all districts do.

A few critics who do focus their criticisms on one or more of the balanced literacy programs e.g. workshop or guided reading usually do so when data becomes available showing those programs are working well. When this happens the naysayers use the public relation’s tactic I call, discount and discredit. When positive data becomes available they find ways to “prove” the data is inaccurate or irrelevant.  It doesn’t stop there. In addition, they often provide data to “prove” the SOR practices are better than balanced literacy. These claims often rely on testing instruments like the DIBELS. Those instruments focus mainly on decoding, not comprehension. Overall I find that when I call for research studies to back up the various claims of the naysayers the studies they cite fail to achieve the level of  “gold standard” research.

Let’s talk about  “gold standard”  reading research. Here is a partial list of what one should look for in “gold standard” research.

  • The research reported should have been done over a period of years.
  • The research should involve district wide implementation of a program or select programs WITH FIDELITY. The study would include a careful, precise description of the program being studied. It would include verification that the program was fully and properly implemented (done with fidelity!).
  • It would use measures of reading that include both a decoding and comprehension component. Nell Duke has done work describing what is included in state-wide  reading tests. See my blog for details. LINK  The blog entry includes a chart Duke created describing the content of state wide reading tests (Box 1).
  • The research should be published in a recognized, peer reviewed journalof research. Reading Research Quarterly would be an excellent example of such a journal.
  • The research should be replicable. Ideally should have been replicated several times.
  • Both quantitative and qualitative research can rise to the level of gold standard research. Both can and should be included in the body of research supporting various claims.

Every time I ask the naysayers for proof for the efficacy of their programs or for the proof discrediting the programs they claim don’t work, I don’t get anything close to responses using gold-standard research. Instead, I get stock public relations answers. These answers do not use both qualitative and quantitative information. These answers are often made using limited & limiting views of what reading is and about how research in education should be conducted. These answers are based on research that uses testing instruments that don’t fully test reading.

Moving Toward a Centrist Perspective

My readers are reminded that lately,  researchers in prestigious journals such as the Reading Research Quarterly have concluded that “we are not there yet” in terms of having a science of reading  LINK. I’ve written several times saying that promoting one set of literacy practices and banning all others is a decidedly bad idea. It takes away the right of local districts to find the best fit for their students. It limits the power of teachers to adapt programs to the child. It effectively creates a situation where teachers are forced into teaching situations where they are trying to force square pegs into round holes.

Some have likened the stance taken by selected SOR advocates as more a marketing campaign than a real discussion of research LINK. In the end, the winners in such discussions are the for-profit companies pushing their wares and the losers are the teachers and the kids who eventually find out the hard way that one size really doesn’t fit all.  I’m not against using practices associated with SOR. Regular readers know my students read in decodables. They also are provided systematic instruction in synthetic phonics. But they also read in predictable text and high-interest trade books. They also learn about reading with prosody using materials and ideas provided by literacy leaders like Tim Rasinski LINK. That includes using Rasinski’s materials on prefixes/suffixes and roots and his famous word ladders. Overall,  I try to use programs and materials based on how well they fit the particular child I’m working with. I am not a fan of adopting one size fits all programs. Welcome to the world of the centrist. It is a world in which balanced literacy is carried out with fidelity using the latest and best information about balanced literacy practices. LINK

In Conclusion

Of all the many hats I’ve worn in my 50 plus years in education the one I am the proudest of is that of reading teacher.  I find it upsetting that we seem to be willing to listen to everyone on the planet about the issue of how to teach reading, but seem all too ready to ignore the teachers that are working with the kids directly in the field. It’s been over 50 years since the First Grade Studies concluded that teachers make more difference than any particular program, LINK.  Isn’t it time to stop talking about the combative and shortsighted view exemplified by centering the discussions around terms like “the reading wars” and look instead to anchoring those discussions in more cooperative models like Camborne’s reading quilt LINK (p 5)? Isn’t it time to join what P.D. Pearson once called “The Radical Middle” LINK?  Isn’t it time to stop bickering and to start talking? LINK Isn’t it time to let districts empower teachers by helping them learn a variety of methods so teachers can find and use the methods that best fit each child. Isn’t it time that we finally try out the center? It’s my belief that if we do,  the winners will be the kids. Those kids will become the thinkers and leaders that build that better world that we all continue to hope for.

Happy Reading and Writing

Dr. Sam   (aka the reading teacher in the middle still taking flak from all sides)

Copyright 2021 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.

An overview of the newly released issue of The Missouri Reader: Common Sense Discourse on the Teaching of Early Reading – a blog entry by Dr. Sam Bommarito

An overview of the newly released issue of The Missouri Reader: Common Sense Discourse on the Teaching of Early Reading-

A blog entry by Dr. Sam Bommarito

As promised, the newest issue of The Missouri Reader is out. In it, a number of teachers, university professors and researchers give different points of view about the dialogue around the issues of teaching early reading. As we say in our editors’ expressions:

“This edition of The Missouri Reader represents different views of the Science or Reading (SOR).  Some of the articles represent very strong views for one side or the other and do not necessarily represent the views of the Missouri Literacy Association (MLA) or the International Literacy Association (ILA).  Our goal is that the various articles result in discussions that move us forward in discussing the value of doing what works for EACH student.”

As some of you may already know, I am the Co-Editor of this journal along with Glenda Nugent. The Missouri Reader has been around for over 45 years. It started as a “paper journal.”  Now we publish digitally. We have two issues each year. We are peer-reviewed, and our editorial board has many highly qualified people (see the sidebar on the Table of Contents page of the journal). We publish many articles by well-known experts in the reading field. However, we also encourage teachers to publish, especially action research, book reviews, and app reviews. The last page of each issue explains how to submit an article for review. We are an official publication of the Missouri Literacy Association. Missouri Literacy Association is an ILA affiliate. Anyone with the following link can read the current issue for free:

I want to also call your attention to another issue for you to explore. It is a poetry issue that was published in 2019. It is our most-read issue of all time (however I am hoping that this current issue may claim that honor soon). The poetry issue contains TONS of innovative ideas about how to use poetry in the classroom. It was the brainchild of Missouri’s own David Harrison. He approached Glenda Nugent (my Co-Editor) and I about the idea of a special issue dedicated especially to poetry. We are so glad he did. Here is the link to that issue. Feel free to share it with other interested educators.

Part of our way of distributing The Missouri Reader is using what we call “word of cyberspace.” We ask our readers to share the links to the magazine with other readers. As a result, we are now read all around the world. So, if you like what you see in one or both of the issues, please share the links. They’re both free. THANKS!

You can help support The Missouri Reader by joining the Missouri Literacy Association- membership is open to all. Here is a link where you can join:

Until next week,

Happy Reading and Writing

Dr. Sam Bommarito (Co-Editor of a peer-reviewed teacher’s journal)

Copyright 2021 by Dr. Sam Bommarito. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the view of this author and do not necessarily reflect any other person or organization’s views.

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.

It’s time to fundamentally change the dialogue around the issue of how to teach beginning reading: The case for taking a centrist position by Dr. Sam Bommarito

This past Thursday night, I took part in a fascinating book club discussion around Eric Litwin’s book, The Power of Joyful Reading LINK. Eric was present for the book club, and he had many interesting things to say. What he had to say is very much pertinent to the upcoming special edition of The Missouri Reader that is scheduled to come out next weekend. That issue will focus on the question of where we are in the “great debate” on the issue of how to teach beginning reading best.  Basically, Eric said that too often, we focus on all the wrong things, e.g., analytic phonics vs. synthetic phonics and do not focus on the central question of how to best teach reading. That question is, “How can we take full advantage of the power of joyful reading?” For me, that means making sure the key goal of any reading program is to create lifelong readers (and writers). I feel that the answer to the question of how to cut through the gordian knot of best ways to teach reading can come from considering the following question:

“How can we fundamentally shift the dialogue from the current ‘us/them’ approach we seem to be taking in our current talks around the question of best approaches to teaching reading into a dialogue based on the quilt metaphor?”

The talking points I have developed for our upcoming special edition of The Missouri Reader issue will delve into the issues raised by the so-called reading wars. They are designed to shift the conversation from an adversarial one to a cooperative one.  Taken together, I hope that the following talking points make a powerful argument for taking a more cooperative, centrist approach to the issue of teaching reading. Here are the talking points:

1. Taking an us/them approach, treating the issue of teaching beginning reading as a dichotomy is counterproductive. It guarantees that the Great Debate will turn into what Frank Smith once called The Never-Ending Debate, LINK.

Using the “reading wars” metaphor guarantees that the debate around reading will endlessly swing between extreme positions about teaching reading. See the details about why I think that is the case in section three of this blog post. Because of the inadequacies of the reading wars metaphor,  I advocate for adopting the metaphor that Cambourne and Crouch are suggesting in the upcoming issue of The Missouri Reader LINK. It is the “quilt” metaphor.  There is a quilt of available reading practices. My take on this is that teachers should be allowed to take from the quilt those particular practices that are most likely to help the particular children they are working with. There is a caveat: Teachers must follow district guidelines/policies as they use these various practices.

2. Despite claims to the contrary, the issues around how to best teach beginning reading are not settled science.

I have talked about the Reading Research Quarterly Special Issue: Executive Summary Science of Reading- Supports, Critiques and Questions several times in the past few months. The summary gives us insights into what the top researchers in reading are thinking about this important topic, LINK.  Here is a brief excerpt from the summary of the document:

“In short, a key contribution of this special issue is to clarify that it is not enough to consider the collection of experimental studies conceptualized within SOR; instead, this special issue pushes a broader conceptualization.”

That push for a broader conceptualization of the SOR can be found in Pearson and Tierney’s new book A History of Literacy Education: Waves of Research and Practice.  I recently talked in detail about the content of this book in a recent blog LINK. Here is a key quote  from the book. I used this quote in the blog:

“When the editors of the Reading Research Quarterly invited scholars to submit articles to address this topic, we had envisioned more debate and adamant views. We predicted poorly. The contributors were restrained in their general characterization of the state of reading instruction, the preparation of teachers, and the state of student achievement. Our reading of the separate articles suggested that there was a general consensus that we were ‘not there yet’ relative to science being able to offer guidance to teachers about teaching and learning for diverse classrooms and learners.”

In light of the above quote and reading the considerable research around the Science of Reading issue, I stand by my conclusion that it is not yet settled science.

3. The issues around what works have been clouded by misinformation, misrepresentation and misunderstanding about what methods work (or don’t work).  That kind of thing has been carried out by folks from both sides (all sides?).

For example, using the ideas and methods of the SOR approach does not necessarily automatically produce “word callers.”  Using ideas from the SOR approach does not automatically exclude developing readers who comprehend.  Some critics of the SOR methods seem to indicate that both things are true. They do this by drawing on what I consider “strawman tactics,” looking only at those advocates of SOR who take things to the extreme or who implement the tenets of SOR poorly. Don’t get me wrong. I am a critic of those SOR advocates who take the “my way or the highway” positions. LINK, LINK.  But I do try to dialogue with folks who believe in the SOR approach or who are sure that Dyslexia is a real phenomenon.  I find that many of them have ideas that are very much worth considering. LINK, LINK. I even wrote an article for Literacy Today entitle Argue Less, Talk More (pg. 20) LINK. This article outlines how all sides could and should have productive dialogues around this important topic.

One of my earliest blogs proposed the idea of a “reading Evolution” LINK.  

In this entry, I argue that so long as we continue to treat things as a dichotomy (the reading wars), as long as both sides (all sides) take a “my way or the highway” attitude that the pendulum of instruction will continue to swing between extremes.  There is a fact of life in education that most teachers become well aware of. What works with one kid does not necessarily work with another. No one method works with all kids all the time. Accordingly, when the pendulum swings to a particular way of doing things, if folks from that method insist that their method and only their method be used, it is guaranteed that there will be some children for whom that method doesn’t work. What happens next is a call to try something better. We swing to another extreme. For most of my 5-decade career in literacy, I’ve watched the pendulum swing time and again. Isn’t it time for something new? Here is what I suggested in that blog entry:

“Effectively, it means trying something that we’ve never before tried in the history of teaching reading. That is leaving the pendulum in the middle, talking to one another, learning from one another, and putting together a system that helps as many children as possible by using the best ideas of all the approaches. P.D. Pearson expressed this kind of sentiment in the last round of the reading wars. Have a look: Life in the Radical Middle: A Personal Apology for a Balanced View of Reading.

That is what the “Reading Evolution” is all about. Having teachers who are willing and able to try to find the best methods for each individual child. My mantra has been “fit the program to the child, not the other way around.” No one side wins with the approach. But no one side loses either. The real winners of taking this approach are the students who finally get the instruction that is most likely to help them.

4. There is a real need to consider all research and all forms of research as we wrestle with the problem of how to teach reading, especially beginning reading.

I intend to take an in-depth look at the issue of qualitative vs. quantitative research in future blogs.  For now, I will say this- based on the coursework I’ve had in both approaches, I firmly believe that one is not “better” than the other. Many SOR advocates approach things as if quantitative research should be considered first and foremost, perhaps exclusively. They treat qualitative information as a weak sister at best. I respectfully disagree. We need both to inform our instruction. I say this because doing educational research is a messy business. There are literally hundreds (thousands?) of variables that can come into play. Random assignment can only do so much to overcome this. There are limits to what quantitative studies can tell us. Qualitative work gives us important additional information that can be hidden or lost by using only quantitative information. One of my favorite examples of action research involving both qualitative & quantitative measures can be found in the action research of one of my former professors. I wrote a blog about that LINK. That same professor told of one district that looked at which teachers had the best reading outcomes with students. They then invited those teachers to make suggestions about what practices the district might consider adopting. I thought that was an innovative qualitative-based way of doing things. Bottom line- we need to use both quantitative and qualitative information to inform our instruction.

5. There are hopeful signs that work from both sides (all sides) can lead to further research that can help inform our reading instruction.

For me, Nell Duke is the epitome of what a good researcher is all about. She follows the research where it leads, even when it leads to challenging folks’ long-cherished ideas about reading. Be sure to look at the repost and discussion of her most recent article, where she proposes an improved model of how to deal with teaching reading. It will appear in next week’s Missouri Reader. Here is a preview of that model:

6. The best hope for helping all children does not lie in adopting particular methods. Instead, I believe it lies in empowering teachers by teaching teachers about a variety of different teaching methods and allowing local districts (not state or national mandates) to determine what methods would work best with their particular population.

The International Reading Association has long advocated a policy of using a variety of methods LINK.  Here is a brief excerpt from that statement:

“There is a strong research base supporting this position. Several large-scale studies of reading methods have shown that no one method is better than any other method in all settings and situations (Adams, 1990; Bond & Dykstra, 1967; Foorman et al., 1998; Hoffman, 1994; Stallings, 1975). For every method studied, some children learned to read very well while others had great difficulty.

This is not a new finding. For example, in their report on the First-Grade Studies, Bond and Dykstra (1967) wrote the following: ‘Children learn to read by a variety of materials and methods. Pupils become successful readers in such vastly different programs as the Language Experience approach with its relative lack of structure and vocabulary control and the various Linguistic programs with their relatively high degree of structure and vocabulary control. Furthermore, pupils experienced difficulty in each of the programs utilized. No one approach is so distinctively better in all situations and respects than the others that it should be considered the best method and the one to be used exclusively. (p. 123)’ .”

Taken together, I think these six talking points make a case for adopting a centrist position around the issue of how to best teach reading. I do think it is time to replace the Reading Wars metaphor with the Quilt metaphor. It is valuable to look at the best of what each point of view has to offer rather than tear down points of view that don’t fit our favorite way of doing things. I’d very much be interested in finding out what you think. Would you please respond with comments to this blog or by tweeting out your ideas? Also- please do be on the lookout next week for The Missouri Reader, and please do visit the MLA website for information about upcoming book clubs, LINK.


Dr. Sam Bommarito began his teaching career in 1970. During his career, he has taught every grade Kg-graduate school. His educational roles have included being a Title One reading teacher, Title One staff developer, and University professor. He is currently a national reading consultant and has presented at numerous local, state and national reading conventions. He has done a considerable amount of professional development training for schools in the St. Louis region and is actively involved in a literacy initiative spearheaded by Turn The Page. This initiative is designed to improve instruction in the St. Louis region. He is also currently doing pro bono work at an elementary school, where he does individual tutoring and whole class push-ins using Zoom.  He tweets about educational issues daily (@doctorsam7) and does a weekly blog about reading (DoctorSam7, via WordPress). The blog includes informational pieces, op-eds, and video interviews of people working in the field of literacy. He advocates for a centrist approach to reading, which he defines as an approach that uses reading practices from a variety of sources.  Teachers should align those particular practices to the particular children who will benefit from them the most. He has served as a board member and officer on both state and national ILA boards, and he is currently the Co-Editor of the Missouri Reader. This journal is a peer-reviewed state reading journal. It has been publishing for over four decades.

Dr. Sam Bommarito, aka the centrist who uses ideas from all sides to inform his teaching

Copyright 2021 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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