Why I Like Reading Recovery and What We Can Learn From It by Dr. Sam Bommarito

Why I Like Reading Recovery and What We Can Learn From It by Dr. Sam Bommarito

Eric Litwin asked about Reading Recovery, what is it, how is it implemented, is it effective? As many of you know I am a former Reading Recovery teacher. I can sum up my opinion about Reading Recovery in three words: It REALLY works.  Why do I say this?

First of all, let’s look at the research past and present.  Back in 2007 an extensive review of programs by the federal governments What Works Clearinghouse found that Reading Recovery was the only intervention that made a significant difference in reading achievement for young children.  A current search of the IES>WWC website finds only three early learning studies that met their standards of review https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/EvidenceSnapshot/420 . Reading Recovery is the most successful of those three programs. Readers can follow the preceding link to go to IES>WWC’s Evidence Snapshop Page. There is a link there to download the full intervention report.

Here is a screen capture of that page:

WWC Screen Capture


Many times, early literacy programs help in areas related to decoding (alphabetic, reading fluency), but fail to impact comprehension and achievement.  I want to call your attention to is that RR had significant improvement index scores in all four areas, including comprehension and achievement.  I know of no other early literacy intervention that can make that claim. So, as I said at the outset, Reading Recovery REALLY works.

Eric also wanted to know my opinion of why it works and what we can learn from it. I believe the key to why it works is that Reading Recovery follows the principle of making the program fit the child not the other way round.  RR teachers are first and foremost kid watchers.  As a RR teacher I noticed what the child was doing. One example is that I looked for self-corrections. My own experience is that when the child begins to self-correct, the effect of everything else in the program begins to become cumulative.  If the child is reading materials in their ZPD, each time they read they are effectively teaching themselves new words and understandings. One of the reasons I gave such an impassioned defense of the use of the three-cueing system (last week’s blog entry), is that as I planned my program for each student back in the day,  I was always encouraging cross-checking and use of all the cues. My prompts NEAR POINT OF ERROR would include things like “Say the first sound think of the clues”, “what word starts with that sound and makes sense”, “I like the way the word you just said makes sense, but it doesn’t start with this sound. Can you think of another word that makes sense and starts with this sound?” RR teachers are totally familiar with the concept of ongoing assessment. Their kid watching forms the basis for informing all their instruction.

Eric also wanted to know how important it is to do Reading Recovery individually. My answer is VERY. I’ll go one step further.  If you want results like the ones listed in the WWC reports, then you need to implement RR using trainers certified to carry out the training.  Mark Twain once said, the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightening bug. Point taken.  I know some administrators view RR and the associated training as too expensive. However, when one factors in the fact that most RR students who complete the program never need any further interventions, then the cost benefit results look much better. Also, while most RR teachers only service 4 students the first semester, many service more the second semester because the “late starts” are usually a little further along than their first semester counterparts. This leads to more than 4 students cycling through the program second semester.  I know of places where recovery teachers serviced 10-16 students each year. So, I view RR as cost effective.  Is there anything from RR that can be transferred over to the main program?

I’ll start by saying, RR is designed for students for whom the regular literacy program is unlikely to work. It is at least a Tier 2, or Tier 3 intervention. But it is a program rich with effective literacy practices. I want to share something I learned at my very first RR convention.  Before trying to transfer RR practices to the classroom, first revisit the practice and look at the learning principles behind the practice. Then adapt the practice and how it is implemented to the classroom. That advice has proven very useful over the years.

When I was looking over research about RR when I was first trained I found out that in America, it took almost twice the number of lessons than in other countries to get students released. My take on that was that we need to look at practices in those other countries, which tend to not use basals but instead use child center literacy-based approaches, in order to improve our own practices.  When I stopped being an RR teacher and started being a push in Title One staff developer, I found myself doing exactly what was suggested at that first conference. Look at practices and then adapt those practices to the classroom. They formed the basis of much of what I modeled for my classroom teachers. I will save talking about the practices I transferred until after Bill Kerns and I put together our proposal for a preconference workshop at the early learning conference scheduled for St. Louis in November (http://www.missouriearlylearning.com/). There we hope to share some of those effective practices.  For now, know that first among those practices is learning to prompt NEAR point of error, not at point of error. Classroom teachers can use a technique called “staggered start”. Using “staggered start” they can then prompt near point of error for all the children their guided reading groups. If I’ve peeked your interest, please do follow the blog. I promise a blog entry on all these practices as soon as Bill and I get the proposal written. That will be well in advance of the conference.

So, Eric, first thanks for carrying on this conversation and especially thanks for your great questions.  Yes RR works. Look at the description from WWC in order to see what it involves. Teachers who implement it should learn how to do it as it was intended. If you want to borrow it’s practices, first visit the theory behind practices in RR and then adapt those practices that might help your children into the your main program.  So, until next week…


Happy Reading & Writing


Dr. Sam Bommarito (once an RR teacher, always an RR teacher)

Here is a link to the IES>WWC site set to filter all literacy programs not just early literacy programs:



Copyright 2018 by Dr. Sam Bommarito

Opinions are my own , I am responsible for their content

Yes, Virginia There Really are Three Cueing Systems (AND it pays to help student to balance their use of the three cues and to crosscheck them). By Dr Sam Bommarito & commentary by Dr. William Kerns

Better 3 cues

Yes, Virginia There Really are Three Cueing Systems

(AND it pays to help student to balance their use of the three cues and to crosscheck them).

By Dr Sam Bommarito


(Also see commentary by Dr. William Kerns at then end of the blog- as always Bill has some great insights!)

I’m betting my readers can decode the following message, using a combination of meaning cues, syntactic cues and letter cues (RR teachers call them visual cues). Know that all the vowels are missing from my message. They are each replaced with “-“.


D–r r.-s–rch-rs,


Th- r–d-rs o- my bl-g c-n r–d th-s w-th–t th- v-w-ls m-ss-ng. I th-nk th-y -r- us-ng th- thr– c—s t- h-lp th-m d-c-d- th-s m-ss-g-. Cl-y r-c-mm-nds w- t—ch cr-ssch-ck-ing. C-nt-xt pl-s th- f-rst s–nd.=  cr-ssch-ck-ng.


BTW- one of the important takeaways of the above passage is that consonants give more information than vowels.  That’s something I learned a long time ago in the pre-reading wars days. This fact is educationally significant. You should be aware that there are some K-1 readers who are unable to discern the vowel sounds. They are sometimes in second grade or beyond before they can hear them/say them. They still learn to read.  I think the three cueing systems help to explain how. It also explains why, while I do advocate the use of synthetic phonics, I also advocate that the synthetic phonics instruction be supplemented with an analytic phonics approach. For an example of researchers saying there is no reason to teach the 3 Cueing System see


Overall, I hope figuring out my message (minus all the vowels!) convinces my readers of this blog to look a little more carefully about how readers decode. I’ll start with the thought that by and large the readers of this blog are highly proficient. Yet you DID use all three cueing systems to read my message. The critics claim only poor readers use them.  My very good friend Eric Litwin proposed a way to decide what reading practices are really best practices. He says ” I am coming to the position that we must use three perspectives and each one helps us understand what could be a best practice. One, is it supported by research? Two is it supported by classroom experience. Three, does it make sense (common sense)?”
For me, classroom experience and common sense dictate that we should use our knowledge of the three cueing systems to scaffold all readers (not just “poor” readers) into literacy. Researchers critical of using the three cueing systems need to revisit the question of the three cueing systems and look carefully at the role of cross-checking.  When students learn to crosscheck “wild guesses” become “educated guesses”.  This is ONE of the methods MOST readers use to decode what they read. IT IS NOT THE ONLY METHOD. I view it as an example of analytic phonics.  But in some places, it has become the forbidden method.  That fact is hurting some children on a daily basis.

This is a chant I often use with the children to encourage crosschecking:

“Say the first sound, think of the clues, then you’ll know all the words to use. Say the first sound, say the first sound, say the first sound.”

By the way notice that I said “say the first sound” not the first letter. Example:

The clue is I saw it in the sky.

First sound is “s”, what word?

First sound is “st”, what word?

The first answer is sun.

The second answer is star.

Both answers come from educated guessing i.e. using visual cues (letter clues) plus meaning cues to arrive at the correct word. My point here is that it is important to teach the students about the SOUNDS of consonant blends and consonant diagraphs. Also notice how crosschecking can usually overcome most of the limitations of guessing words from their first sound.

So, I really do think the three cueing systems exist. Speech pathologists have been basing instruction on them for years! In my own head I often think of readers as falling into decoding continuum that is as follows:


To be in the center of that decoding continuum, readers should learn to use all three of the cueing systems and crosscheck them.

Readers- your thoughts, opinions and concerns.

Dr. Sam Bommarito aka creator of educated guessers

Thanks to Eric Litwin for his input on this issue


A Commentary on Scaffolding and Cueing Systems

By Dr. William Kerns

Sam Bommarito’s blog this week is a valuable reminder of the importance of helping readers make use of grapho-phonic (visual and sound), syntactic (sentence structure) and semantic (meaning) cueing systems in order to improve their understanding of increasingly complex texts. In this commentary, I build on the following point made by Sam within the blog: “We should use our knowledge of the three cueing systems to scaffold all readers (not just “poor” readers) into literacy.” Instructional scaffolding should promote engagement and challenge.

Instructional scaffolding is rooted in the work of Wood, Bruner and Ross (1976) who understood scaffolding as a “process that enables a child or novice to solve a problem, carry out a task or achieve a goal which would be beyond his unassisted efforts” (p. 90). Appropriate scaffolding will help a reader to develop increasing skill both within and between cueing systems  while solving problems related to reading tasks and pursuing goals.

Vygotsky’s concept of the zone of proximal development (ZPD) provides a framework for understanding how to use scaffolding in the context of cueing systems. Children who are striving toward increasing independence in the use of cueing systems  rely on scaffolding such as think-alouds by a teacher in order to become more proficient readers. Scaffolding takes place within a ZPD, which is often defined as “the distance between the actual development level as determined by independent problem-solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86).


When using instructional scaffolding, teachers should focus on the difference between a reader’s demonstrated performance and their learning potential (Kozulin, 2003). ZPD’s can be said to change as a reader’s skill evolves, so it is critical to carefully track performance in the use of cueing systems.

A possible mistake by teachers is to engage in instructional scaffolding without the use of adequate or ongoing assessment. Assessment should track patterns in students’ use of cueing systems. These patterns may vary with different genres and modes of texts. Patterns may also change over time. Methods of assessing these patterns include conducting a miscue analysis (Davenport, 2002; Goodman, 2008; Goodman & Goodman, 2004), assessment of prior knowledge (Afflerbach, 1998), and running records (Clay, 2017).

Many instructional strategies for scaffolding are available (see Beers & Probst, 2017; Block, 2004; Gallagher & Kittle, 2018; Keene, 2018; McKay & Teale, 2015; Serravallo, 2015). Scaffolding should have as its goal the guiding of students to “complete complex mental tasks they could not complete without assistance” (Pearson & Fielding, 1991, p. 842). Reading aloud (Regan & Berkeley, 2012) and shared reading (Falco & Soloway, 2011; Stahl, 2012)  can open the door for a teacher to engage in a think-aloud as a form of instructional scaffolding.

In a think aloud, the teacher can pause while reading to verbally demonstrate the thought process involved in the use one of one or more of the cueing systems (Davey, 1983). Too often, a think-aloud can be passive in which children simply sit at their desks and listen to the teacher engage in a musing about a text. This is not how strategic use of the think-aloud instructional strategy should work. Instead,  the think aloud should be used as a gateway toward involving children in active problem solving and challenges at appropriate levels of difficulty.

Teachers should use think-alouds to help children learn and utilize reading strategies within one or more of the cueing systems that can be useful in varied contexts. In this way, a reading task is broken into manageable parts as a cognitive apprenticeship (Collins, Brown, & Newman, 1990; Dennen, 2004). This can be done through guiding questions and statements that help children see how a skilled reader makes connections to a text, then allowing children to participate in making sense of a text by drawing on a cueing system (Pentimonti & Justice, 2010). The use of cueing systems should increasingly be self-regulated (Zimmerman & Schunk, 2011) by the child.

In sum, I urge instructional scaffolding as part of activities such as shared reading. Teachers can use instructional scaffolding to guide students as they set goals, preview texts, use visual clues in order to make predictions, ask strategic questions and making connections (e.g. text-to-self; text to text, text to world). A goal of a teacher is to help children engage in strategic and reflective thinking in the use of cueing systems to make meaning from a text.



Afflerbach, P. (1998). Reading assessment and learning to read. In O. Jean and F. Lehr (Eds.), Literacy for all: Issues in teaching and learning (pp. 239–263). New York: The Guilford Press

Beers, K. & Probst, R.E. (2017). Disrupting thinking: Why how we read matters. New York, NY: Scholastic.

Block, C. C. (2004). Teaching comprehension: The comprehension process approach. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Clay, M.M. (2017). Running Records: For classroom teachers (Second Edition). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Collins, A., Brown, J. S., & Newman, S. E. (1990). Cognitive apprenticeship: Teaching the crafts of reading, writing, and mathematics. In L. B. Resnick (Ed.), Knowing, learning, and instruction: Essays in honor of Robert Glaser (pp. 453–494). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Davenport, M.R. (2002). Miscues not mistakes: Reading assessment in the classroom. Portsmouth: Heinemann Publishers.

Davey, B. (1983). Think aloud—Modeling the cognitive process of reading comprehension. Journal of Reading, 27, 44–47.

Dennen, V. P. (2004). Cognitive apprenticeship in educational practice: Research on scaffolding, mentoring, and coaching as instructional strategies. In D. H. Jonassen (Ed.), Handbook of research on educational communications and technology (2nd ed., pp. 813–828). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Falco, V., & Soloway, R. (2011). Building independent readers with interactive read-alouds and shared reading: Lessons for modeling comprehension strategies and engaging students in effective guided practice. New York, NY: Scholastic.

The Reading Wars Circa 2018: Why is the Pendulum Still Swinging and How Can We Stop It? By Dr Sam Bommarito with commentary by Dr. William Kerns


The Reading Wars Circa 2018: Why is the Pendulum Still Swinging and How Can We Stop It?

By Dr Sam Bommarito

Please see Dr. Kern’s remarks at the end of this post

Last week I explained the difference between analytic and synthetic phonics. I’ve been making the case that we need to be prepared to use both, depending on the needs of the children we are working with.  Make the program fit the child, not the other way round. One of my readers asked why, after all these years, does the question of what do about phonics still persist? Why do the various sides continue to disagree?

I’ll start by saying I have good friends on both sides of the issue that gains the most attention, analytic vs. synthetic phonics.  I find they are people who are wonderful educators and who want the best of our children. In my opinion both those sides are right and both those sides are wrong. How can that be?

I think the answer lies in part with the question of which works best, analytic or synthetic phonics?  I think the actual research-based answer is, it depends.  For most children a systematic synthetic approach seems to work best.  That means direct instruction and a carefully orchestrated phonics program.  For some children however, such a program doesn’t work.  There are long standing indicators of this. I’ve already mentioned that in England, which has a mandated nation-wide synthetic phonics program, there is a persistent percentage of children who fail to thrive in the program.  I’ve indicated that my own experience in the field has shown that such children can be helped using an analytic or an analogic approach.  We need to give teachers training and give them the ability to use such programs when needed. Why hasn’t this common-sense middle of the road position been adopted?

The answer to that question lies in the fact that there are proponents on each side of the issue who insist that all instruction (or virtually all instruction) be done using their methods and only their methods. There’s more to it than just phonics.  You see the advocates of synthetic phonics tend to have a behaviorist-based point of view with a strong belief in direct instruction.  The advocates of analytic phonics tend to have a constructivist-based point of view with a strong belief in discovery learning. When advocates of these two points of view insist that their methodology AND ONLY their methodology be used things go badly. Whichever extreme becomes the current soup de jour, there is a guarantee that it won’t work for some children. Once enough educators come to realize that the current soup de jour isn’t working for everyone, the pendulum swings the other way again and again and again!.

In order for a program of literacy instruction to work, it needs to include elements of both these educational approaches. Both approaches have been around for quite some time (think Aristotle vs Socrates). I predict that both approaches will continue to be around for a long time to come. The trick is to put together a decoding program and a concurrent meaning making component that draws on both. What might such a program look like?

  1. All literacy programs should have a phonics component. I know that some educators viewed the “Phonics vs. Whole Language” debate as the “Phonics vs. No Phonics” debate. One of my key mentors, the late Dr. Richard Burnett, Professor Emeritus of UM-St Louis viewed it differently. He saw the Great Debate as My Phonics (Analytic) vs. Your Phonics (Synthetic). For a variety of reasons, I subscribe to this point of view. I think most educators have long since concluded that some form of phonics is necessary. The battle continues to rage over which kind, how much and when.


  1. Phonics instruction needs to be systematic. Proponents of analytic phonics tend to take an “as needed” approach. This leaves the very real possibility that there will be holes in children’s knowledge of phonics. For those who choose to build their reading program around an analytic approach, there needs to be more than just the “as needed” component. I’m not saying an analytic approach can’t work at all, it can (see Dr. Kerns remarks at the end of this post). But to be successful it requires teachers with an in-depth knowledge of phonics and a K-1 scope and sequence in place that makes sure nothing is missed in the critical two year course of the K-1 instruction.


  1. When designing reading curriculum, please consider implementing a synthetic program as the base for teaching decoding with both an analytic and an analogic component to supplement it. I indicated in section 2 that I think a successful analytic program can be accomplished (in some places has been accomplished). See Dr. Kerns remarks for an explanation of analogic based phonics and for an alternate approach to setting up a phonics program i.e. using analytic phonics as the basic approach. Over the years I’ve come to conclude that a synthetic program would have the best odds of succeeding, especially if supplemented with materials and practices from the other two approaches.


  1. The phonics program needs to be EFFICIEINT and ENGAGING. If my biggest criticism of analytic phonics is that it can potentially leave holes in the student’s knowledge, my biggest criticism of synthetic phonics is that it can take up far too much instructional time and turn out to be deadly dull. This can lead readers to view reading as deadly dull. It is CRUCIAL that the decoding part of any reading program leaves enough time for the meaning making part of the program AND it is CRUCIAL that the meaning making part run concurrently with the decoding part. It should be included from the very first day of instruction.


  1. The decoding part of the program promote should promote prosody– see especially the works of Dr. Tim Rasinski including his book The Megabook of Fluency. Hints: prosody is much more than reading rate. Prosody means learning to read like a storyteller not a robot!.


  1. The meaning making part of the program needs to include regular student talk and should develop their ability to think and evaluate what they’ve read. It should include think alouds by the teacher, so students see firsthand how experienced readers deal with complex text. It needs to tie reading and writing together.  Writing should not only include writing about what is read, but also include writing that encourages the students to use the strategies good writers use. For instance, teach inference by having them learn how to write using “show don’t tell”. Writing that way themselves will help them understand what to do when they encounter such things in their reading. That’s how to teach inferencing strategies in a way that assures the strategy use will be authentic.


  1. The meaning making part of the program needs to include (be focused on) learning to work with complex text. Reading strategies should be taught in the manner described in section 5. More writing needs to be done around expository text, including instruction on how to write expository text.


  1. Teacher preparation courses should include instruction in a variety of forms of phonics instruction including analytic, synthetic and analogical phonics (yet another approach to teaching phonics that has not gained as much attention as the other two approaches). See recent ILA publications on the topic of phonics






and also see Zimmerman, B. S., Padak, N. D., & Rasinski, T. V. (2008).

So, there is my proposal for starting a dialogue around what to do about phonics and meaning making in a literacy program. All sides need to talk. All sides need to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of each of the approaches. All sides need to make adaptions that overcome potential problems to their approach. All sides need to make sure that the approach they advocate really fits the children they propose to teach.  I’ve been teaching since 1970. I’ve watched the pendulum swing so many many many times. I’d love to see it finally stop and come to rest in the middle. I think it would be best for us and most importantly I think it would be best for the kids.

Happy Reading and Writing!


Dr. Sam Bommarito- aka Seeker of Common Ground


Copyright 2018 by Sam Bommarito who is solely responsible for its content

My colleague Dr. William Kerns has a reaction to the above post. At the end of the day the only way the Great Debate in Reading can finally be ended is if it turns into The Great Dialogue about Reading. In that spirit please consider Bill’s remarks.

Teach the Child Not the Phonics Program

by Dr. William Kerns

Sam was kind enough to send me his blog in advance. I will give a short response of my own. Sam is right that the debate between analytic phonics and synthetic phonics should not be confused with a debate of “phonics or no phonics”. Such a debate would be absurd, amounting to a debate over whether children should learn letter-sound correspondence (the obvious answer is “yes”). Analytic phonics and synthetic phonics represent two different forms of explicit and systematic phonics instruction.

An Ongoing Debate

Sounding out letters and blending sounds together is stressed in synthetic phonics. Lessons tend to emphasize understanding letter-sound correspondence and letter combinations rather than emphasizing whole words. Sounds are vocalized in isolation in order to understand the letter-sound correspondence. Meanwhile, in analytic phonics (sometimes known as implicit phonics), children learn to recognize letter-sound correspondence in the context of a word or a set of words. These words at first begin with the same letter and sound (cat, can, cab) then later they would end with the same letter and sound (can, tan, ran).  Next, students have an opportunity to study letters and sounds that are in the middle of words.  Teachers emphasize whole words followed by a study of word parts.

Thus, children receiving analytic phonics instruction have an opportunity to gain familiarity with a word rather than focusing on sounding out word parts without an understanding of the word. Lessons tend to involve pictures to build visual whole word associations, and activities such as dramatic performance that build a child’s ability to use context cues to recognize and make meaning of a word. Children learn spelling patterns by drawing on prior understandings at the whole word level. Proponents of analytic phonics emphasize what Margaret Moustafa (1997) called “whole to part phonics” in which meaning is constructed as the child is guided to draw on a broad array of reading experiences and on a preferred mode of learning, rather than focusing primarily on the decoding of text.

Critics of synthetic phonics claim that it is heavy on sounding out letters but light on activities and games that emphasize whole words. According to critics, children lack a motivation to read if they also lack an understanding of the words that they are reading. Motivation to read is among the key concerns often raised about synthetic phonics. Children involved in synthetic phonics instruction tend to engage in activities focused on sounding out and blending lettings in order to pronounce a word, often divorced from even making sense of the whole word or sets of words.

Meanwhile, critics of analytic phonics counter that children receiving instruction grounded in analytic phonics are more likely to lack an understanding of the sounding out of letters and the blending of letters together.

A “balanced” approach to phonics instruction which involves both synthetic and analytic phonics is often touted as the “end of the phonics debate”. Yet, the debate continues. Sam’s approach as described in the blog represents one reading specialist’s effort to discern what it means to take a balanced approach. He does not deny the importance of synthetic or analytic phonics, rather, he posits that children benefit from both. Even in Sam’s approach, lively debates can be held regarding the extent of emphasis on synthetic phonics.

Teaching the Child and Not the Program

Each individual child will have individual needs. Assessment should guide teachers in determining the extent to which a child will benefit from synthetic phonics instruction, if at all. Sam and I said in a Missouri Reader article (Bommarito & Kerns, 2018) there is no one size fits all solution to this issue and this stance guides me in also arguing that we should teach the child, not the phonics program. The needs of a child should be systematically assessed in order to determine strategies toward differentiating instruction (Tomlinson, 2017; Watts-Taffe et al., 2012). Explicit, carefully planned phonics instruction should be adjusted according to the findings from ongoing assessments. A child who is an exceptional learner (e.g. gifted, a learning disability, a reading disability) will need accommodations as determined through assessment and monitoring. A child who is learning English as a second language may have needs that are influenced by the first language given that the graphophonemic system used in a first language can influence how a child makes sense of a second language (Goswami, 2005).

This said, I lean strongly in the direction of whole language, which means that I lean toward analytic phonics with the caveat that careful assessment of a child’s needs may show that an individual child could benefit from synthetic phonics too (emphasis is mine, Sam). For further discussion of the mixed findings in this area see Bommarito & Kerns, 2018)  https://joom.ag/8cML  pg 10. Remember, I am arguing in favor of effective differentiated instruction.

I fear the potential negative consequences to a child’s motivation for reading if a strict synthetic phonics program may involve blending letters in a manner that holds no interest to the child, lacking in the goal of comprehension. Too often, synthetic phonics programs can be restrictive.

We need to foster deep engagement in reading among children as well as a lasting motivation to read. Ellin Oliver Keene (2018) urges that engagement should be fostered through an intellectual urgency to learn, an emotional resonance with content (ideas, concepts, characters, experiences), perspective bending in which the thinking of others changes the way that a child is thinking, and the aesthetic world of forming connections. I do not see how a strict program of synthetic phonics can foster deep engagement in reading as urged by Keene or a lifelong love of reading. Let reading be fun and adventurous rather than merely a program to endure.

Let children play with words and word sounds, make use of music in the instruction of phonics and fluency (Rasinski & Smith, 2018), explore, engage in dramatic performance. Let children tell stories and participate in games. This can take the form of analogic phonics (Zimmerman, Padak & Rasinski, 2008), guiding students to gain decoding skills through reasoning by analogy. In analogic phonics, children tap into prior knowledge related to a rime within a word, phonogram word, or word family in order to engage in puzzle solving with rimes in unknown words. In short, I advocate creativity and playfulness while also teaching phonics rather than being tied to a set reading program which limits opportunities for truly deep reading engagement.



Bonmarito, S., & Kerns, W. (2018). Effective differentiation: key to growing proficient, motivated, lifelong readers. The Missouri Reader, 41 (2), 10-21.


Goswami, U. (2005). Synthetic phonics and learning to read: A cross-language perspective. Educational Psychology in Practice, 21 (4), 273-282.

Keene, E.O. (2018). Engaging children: Igniting a drive for deeper learning K-8. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Moustafa, M. (1997). Beyond traditional phonics: Research discoveries and reading instruction. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Rasinski, T.V., & Smith, M.C. (2018). The megabook of fluency: Strategies and texts to engage

all readers. New York, NY: Scholastic.


Tomlinson, C. (2017). How to differentiate instruction in academically diverse classrooms

3r dEd.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.


Watts-Taffe , S. , Laster , B.P. , Broach , L. , Marinak , B. , McDonald Connor , C. , & WalkerDalhouse, D. ( 2012 ). Differentiated instruction: Making informed teacher decisions. The Reading Teacher, 66 ( 4 ), 303 – 314 .

Zimmerman, B. S., Padak, N. D., & Rasinski, T. V. (2008). Evidence-Based Instruction in Reading: A Professional Development Guide to Phonics. Boston, MA: Pearson Education.

Copyright 2018 by Bill Kerns who is solely responsible for its content


The authors thank Tim Rasinski & Eric Litwin for feedback provided in advance of the publication of this blog.




Synthetic vs Analytic Phonics? – Pick what fits the child (not the other way round) by Dr. Sam Bommarito

PHONICS 2Synthetic vs Analytic Phonics? – Pick what fits the child (not the other way round)

In the next few weeks I’m tackling the issue of phonics, and the relationship between phonics use and meaning making.  Last week a reader asked what I meant by synthetic and analytic phonics.  That’s as good a place as any to begin, so let’s talk a little about the “big two” approaches to the teaching of phonics and how to use them.

Synthetic Phonics– The heart of synthetic phonics approach is the direct teaching of letter sounds (phonemes). Children learn that t says “t” (not Tuh!), or long a says its name, “a” or short a says “a”.  This approach lends itself to systematic programs, with clear scope and sequence.  Such approaches have the clear advantage over “as needed” approaches in that they avoid the pitfall of unintentionally skipping instruction in important sounds. One of the conclusions of the classic research piece commonly known as the First Grade Studies was that every beginning reading approach examined in the study benefited from a phonics supplement. The supplement used most often was the Speech to Print Phonics kit. This program used a form of EPR (every pupil response). This was in the pre-computer days, so the EPR was accomplished by students holding up small paper slips provided with the program.  The slips had one letter on them, with slips for each letter of the alphabet available. The teacher first saw to it that each child had a small group of slips with letters to choose from (same choices for each child).  The teacher would then say a letter sound.  The students would hold up the letter. Properly done (there are tricks about what to do when students look at other students slips before raising theirs), the teacher was given instant feedback on which students consistently knew the sounds and which needed additional instruction/practice. This is a classic example of on-going assessment.  I mention this kit because it makes clear that synthetic phonics approaches promote the learning and knowing the letter sounds in isolation. Subsequently students learn to blend the sounds into actual words.

Analytic Phonics– Analytic phonics uses discovery approach to learning sounds (indirect teaching).  For instance, to teach the t sound the teacher might say, it’s the same sound that starts toy, and Tom and team. Everyone start to say toy (t)(toy). Start to say Tom (t)(Tom). Start to say team (t)(team). Can you hear the sound they start with? Can you find that sound in other places in this reading? (please click audio file to hear the previous sentence read aloud).


When doing this the teacher should be mindful NOT to accept tuh as the answer. If students add the uh sound to their consonants it will cause endless confusion as they try to figure out words. Proponents of analytic phonics sometimes prefer a “teach as needed approach”. This can lead to potential holes in the students sound symbol knowledge.

Very often teachers using the analytic method will also say things like, “get your mouth ready for the first sound” OR “say the first sound”.  This can lead to word guessing.  This effect of wildly guessing at words can be controlled by instead saying “say the first sound AND think of the clues”, e.g. what word starts with the sound “t” and makes sense in the sentence or goes with picture on this page or makes sense based on how the story is going. Clay called such a teaching move “crosschecking cues”.  Yep, I’m talking like knowing what cueing systems readers use might be useful. In this instance it will result in more accurate guesses, educated guesses, instead of wild guesses. Not everyone will agree with that practice, but my experience in the field has demonstrated to me that it is a very good use of instructional time.  More about that in future blogs.

There are also other approaches to teaching phonics. The ILA has an excellent PDF about this topic that covers more than just analytic and synthetic phonics https://www.literacyworldwide.org/docs/default-source/where-we-stand/ila-explaining-phonics-instruction-an-educators-guide.pdf

.In addition, in a recent blog entry Tim Shanahan does an excellent job of explaining the concepts of analytic and synthetic phones. http://shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/synthetic-phonics-or-systematic-phonics-what-does-research-really-say#sthash.YSjKV4H8.dpbs.

Pay special attention to his take aways:

“Make sure young (bold and color added for emphasis) children receive daily, explicit, systematic decoding instruction.”

“But don’t be fanatical about synthetic or analytic approaches.”

I would add- make sure the instruction you use gets the job done but is EFFICIENT and interesting. You want there to be time for meaning making, especially meaning making around complex text. You want to find ways to include a “spoonful of sugar” i.e. teaching the sounds in a way that the students find to be engaging instead of deadly dull.  I’m certain my readers can tell us about commercial programs that do just that.

Here is the key to understanding my beliefs about the teaching of phonics. ALL THE APPROACHES HAVE STRENGTHS.  ALL THE APPROACHES HAVE WEAKNESSES, LIMITS AND LIMITATIONS. Based on both research and my own classroom experiences I’ve found that students can and will benefit from both of the “big two” approaches to teaching phonics. There is a place (and a need) for both synthetic and analytic phonics in every reading program. In several recent blog entries, I’ve advocated adopting a good, systematic, efficient synthetic phonics program as the anchor for phonics instruction.  This then needs to be supplemented with an analytic phonics teaching component for those children for whom a synthetic approach does not work well. And yes, I think the research evidence is overwhelming that such children exist. One of the key criticisms of many of the current programs using synthetic phonics is that they are deadly dull and take up too much time. Here is a link to a video that will help you understand what I mean by that.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wD4IRdeR0tE&feature=youtu.be I think there are other ways to accomplish the very same things including poetry and song. Readers who know about such things please chime in. Also, this year, both Fountas and Pinnell and Calkins have added a phonics component to their widely followed programs. Readers with first hand knowledge of using these, what are they like? Do they include both analytic and synthetic phonics instruction? Are they systematic?  Are they engaging? Do they leave enough time for comprehension work e.g. learning to deal with complex text? I would love to hear from you!!!!

Conclusion So, with all that said, I hope you see why I find myself advocating what some will see as a middle approach, or balanced approach to the teaching of phonics. As I said last time, people taking such a position have historically been dismissed.  Next time I will take up the issue of why I think the views of folks from the middle should be considered and my criticism of what happens when educators from the two “far sides” of this issue mandate that their kinds of phonics AND ONLY THEIR KIND OF PHONICS, be used.

Copyright 2018 by Dr. Sam Bommarito who is solely responsible for its content

Phonics- the Endless Debate: Another Case of Please Fit the Program to the Child, Not the Other Way Round by Dr Sam Bommarito

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Phonics- the Endless Debate: Another Case of Please Fit the Program to the Child, Not the Other Way Round by Dr Sam Bommarito

Frank Smith once characterized the Great Debate in reading as the never-ending debate.  Recent posts on blogs and twitter indicate that times haven’t changed that much. Proponents of “synthetic phonics & only synthetic phonics” are once more claiming that a changeover to synthetic phonics will go a long way toward solving the reading problem once and for all.  Since my teaching career in reading began in 1977, I’ve seen the pendulum swing many times.  Currently, the pendulum has definitely swung over to the synthetic phonics will cure all position. Problem is, each time such promises are made they are never kept. I think the reason is that pesky word- “all”.

Don’t get me wrong. Phonics is necessary.  Synthetic phonics provides the best place to start, and a place that will help most children.  But look at what happened when a whole country (like England) mandated the exclusive teaching of synthetic phonics. What happened is that a small but significant number of students didn’t thrive.  It could be that this is because of lack of fidelity to the program. Trouble is I have a very hard time accepting that as the explanation. I spent 18 of my teaching career in Title 1 buildings teaching reading and in-servicing staff on reading. I’ve seen first-hand children for whom synthetic phonics simply didn’t work but analytic phonics did.  My conclusion- use the teaching techniques that fit the child. Don’t force children to use approaches that don’t work for them. Don’t ban teachers from using approaches that could work for a particular child. Some of us seem to conveniently forget that research on synthetic vs analytic phonics has never demonstrated that synthetic phonics is superior in every respect. In his June 9 blog entry Timothy Shanahan said “Analytic phonics is, in my experience—and perhaps in that small effect size difference—harder to learn, but it can avoid some of those blending problems and tends to be more consistent with what kids will need to learn about morphology. Sometimes the right solution is “and” and it is not “either/or. Adopt a good phonics program, and make sure it works for your students—which might require that you add some synthetic or analytic instruction depending on how they are doing.”

Hmmm.  Maybe this never-ending debate is never-ending in part because neither side in the Great Debate (do we even call it that anymore?) can accept the that there is merit in using both approaches DEPENDING ON THE CHILD. Also remember, there is more to reading than decoding. Meaning making is important. One of the most telling criticisms of some of the current synthetic programs is that they use up far more instructional time than is needed.  So, one of the things I I look for in a phonics program is efficiency in teaching. The phonics program needs to leave enough instructional time so that kids have time to spend unpacking the meaning of complex text, talking about, writing about that text. Another thing I wish was present, but often is missing, are alternative instruction paths.  If the synthetic part of the program isn’t working for a child, there needs to be an analytic part of the program waiting in the wings.  Teachers need to know how to do analytic phonics when the synthetic program isn’t working. Both the analytic and synthetic programs need to be taught systematically.  Historically people such as myself who have taken what amounts to the middle position in the Great Debate have tended to be ignored.  Be prepared to use both approaches- what an outrageous idea!  But still I have to wonder, what would happen if we actually fit the program to the child instead of the other way round? Dare to dream!

Dr. Sam Bommarito, aka The Middle Man


Copyright 2018, Dr. Sam Bommarito

Curriculum Should be Adapted to Fit the Student Not the Other Way Round: My Advice to a Staff Developer Creating a Professional Development Program by Dr. Sam Bommarito

research creative commons Blue Diamond GalaryLast week I talked about the topic: “Using Research to Jump to Confusions P2: Looking at How We Could Teach Students about Comprehension Strategies.” I promised that this week I would share with my readers some advice I’ve just given to a staff developer on what her staff development could look like for a PD plan she created for this coming fall. Her plan spans several months and is designed to teach her staff how to implement guided reading. My advice to her reflects practical applications of what I’ve had to say in last week’s blog entry. My advice is grounded in a key assumption. That is that curriculum should be adapted to fit the students and their needs, not the other way round. I will now share some of the points I shared with her.

Point one: I think you will find some useful ideas in Burkins and Yaris’s book, Who’s Doing the Work?:
How to Say Less So Readers Can Do More. Be sure to visit their website: https://www.burkinsandyaris.com/ Here is why I suggest looking into these ideas.

I was taught in reading/writing workshop that the most important planning question for a teacher is:

What work am I leaving for the students and why?

When B&Y came to speak at one of our local ILA meetings, I found what they had to say helped me scaffold teachers into answering that question in a way that leads to better lesson plans. B&Y feel we sometimes over-scaffold when doing Guided Reading lessons. Teachers should be mindful of this potential problem. They need to leave enough work for the students so that students can grow both their meaning making and decoding skills.

Point two: Make sure your teachers know where GR fits in the overall reading program. I’ve long thought that how you spend your instructional time, is highly predictive of what instructional results you get. Read what B & Y have to say about the things we tend to underdo and overdo in our overall reading program. Adjust you program accordingly.

Point Three: READING IN LEVELED TEXT IS NOT THE ONLY READING STUDENTS SHOULD BE DOING. If you adjust your overall instruction as advised above, you will find that students will do a great deal more reading more than just leveled texts. Fountas & Pinnell, Lucy Calkins and others say that classroom libraries should be organized by interests not by levels. I especially like Calkins idea about leveling classroom libraries. She maintains that teachers should have a portion of books that are leveled. However, most of the classroom library should be organized by interest. When I taught my teachers how to make use of this way of organizing classroom libraries, I recommended they use the leveled portion of the library with selected students who needed additional work in book shopping. These texts could be used to provide examples for these students that could scaffold them into making better book choices over time. Teaching student to book shop is critical. Consistently picking only books that are well above their ability to decode can lead to students abandoning far too many books. They need to be able to pick text that fit their interests, that they can make sense of and that they won’t abandon. Otherwise they can fall into a cycle of not reading at all or of abandoning so many books that they never start the cycle of wide reading that characterizes students who become lifelong readers.

Point Four: Remember that a child is not a level. Why use leveled text in our GR groups? I believe that using leveled text for the GR portion of reading instruction makes it more likely that the text will be in the child’s ZPD (zone of proximal development). HOWEVER, TEACHERS NEED TO PICK THE TEXT FOR MORE THAN JUST IT’S LEVEL. Text features are CRITICAL, especially if you want them to read complex text in both fiction and nonfiction. This brings us back to the question of what work are you leaving for the student and why? For instance, if you are doing the heavy lifting for decoding (by providing text they can decode relatively easily), that can leave you more time to scaffold them into learning how to handle other complexities of interacting with that text. There are many such possibilities. If you want students to learn how authors of non-fiction scaffold readers into learning the meaning of specialized language in their content area, then use text that is rich in this feature. Whatever your teaching point might be for the lesson, ask yourself does is this text you picked provide a target rich environment for that particular point? In that way you assure that there will be many potential teachable moments during your lesson. Be sure to give your students chances to talk about the text and how they are making meaning from that text. Also give them opportunities to write similar kinds of text for themselves (as I did in my inference lesson). Doing all this will give them authentic chances to employ the strategies they need to unpack the meaning of the text and to become self-aware of the strategies they employ.

Point Five: Teaching students comprehension strategies is a different animal from teaching them testing strategies. When teaching students testing strategies you goal is have them learn how to handle questions designed to test their reading. On the one hand, I believe it is necessary to help students learn how the various test questions work. This is especially true of the multiple-choice questions that seem to dominate many reading achievement tests. However, teaching students how such questions work is not to be confused with teaching them to use reading strategies. I recommend just enough test practice to get students used to the nuances of handing the test questions. Such test practice usually results in a bump in achievement test scores. Unfortunately, I seen situations where most, if not all the school year is spent in test taking practice. “Comprehension instruction” becomes an endless cycle of answering various questions about short passages in hopes that the scores will continue to rise. My experience has been that after the initial bump in achievement scores that comes from the students learning how to handle particular kinds of testing questions there then comes a long, long plateau of no further growth. In order for students to make growth in reading there needs to be new instruction. Teachers need to provide time for students to think about, talk about and write the text they are making meaning from. Are we trying to create a nation of test takers or a nation of thinkers? The only path to creating the latter is one that includes time for rich and varied conversations about what they read and chances to write about what they read using some of the various crafts good authors use. My remarks about how to teach inferences in my last blog entry should give you some ideas about how that might play out for other reading and writing strategies. It is critical that we stop overdoing the teaching of how to handle test question and start using the instructional time we save to provide students time to carry out meaningful text interactions

In conclusion, I think you created a solid well thought out PD plan to implement guided reading. I hope the points I’ve made will help you carry out your plan in a way that will reflect some of the newest ideas on what a good literacy program can and should look like. Remind your teachers constantly that how they spend their time is highly predictive of what their results will be. Make sure that they learn to be purposeful in the work they leave for their students. Help them learn how make sure that work is meaningful. Make sure they allow students ample time for meaningful conversations around complex text. I think these are the keys to helping your PD plan to be successfully implemented.

Dr. Sam Bommarito


Using Research to Jump to Confusions Part 2: Looking at How We Could Teach Students about Comprehension Strategies by Dr. Sam Bommarito

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Using Research to Jump to Confusions Part 2: Looking at How We Could Teach Students about Comprehension Strategies by Dr. Sam Bommarito

I’m back from a memorable vacation at Disney World spent with my son’s family, including my wonderful grandchild who got to celebrate her birthday at Disney. Special thanks to guest bloggers Bill Kerns, David Harrison and Mary Jo Fresch who provided the blog entries I used while I was gone.  In my last blog entry before the vacation, I talked about jumping to confusions as we apply research to teaching practice. I asserted that we sometimes jump to the very end results about research on what good readers do, without giving enough consideration to the path the good readers take to get there.  That first entry talked about word recognition. If you didn’t get to read it go to https://wordpress.com/post/doctorsam7.blog/205.  In the next couple of weeks, I will talk about the teaching of comprehension strategies and how we can use the research around comprehension strategies to help our students become better readers, writers and thinkers, especially when reading complex texts.

My 30 plus years of classroom teaching was spent in a very different era than today.  I can remember that back in 1985 the various editions of Harris and Sipay provided a widely agreed upon, go to resource of research-based thinking for that era. In the mid-80s everyone was looking hard at Durkin’s findings that only 6/10 of one percent of our classroom time was spent teaching comprehension. We practiced comprehension much more than that, but our practice could be likened to a batting coach telling a batter to keep swinging without giving any feedback or scaffolding on how to adjust their swing to handle the myriad of pitches that might come their way.  We studied the key reading strategies carefully. We were guided by Michael Pressley and others on what those key strategies were and how to teach them. We wanted our readers to become proficient readers, able to use all the key strategies found in research. Teachers and university professors alike got very excited and created many a lesson about these various strategies. Fast forward to today and we find reading experts like Timothy Shanahan saying that they work, but we have overgeneralized from studies about teaching reading strategies. If someone finds that 6 weeks of strategy instruction is beneficial, then recommending 12 years of it seems a bit excessive. (see his May 19th 2018 blog entry).  Class time needs to be spent on something more than the direct teaching of strategies.

My point of view about the overteaching of strategy lessons is somewhat different.  I think that we jumped right into directly teaching the comprehension strategies good readers use without considering how they got to be proficient at using those strategies. This is another example of jumping to confusions about the research on what good readers do. We jumped right to the end. We tried to teach the strategies without fully considering how good readers got to the end-point of effectively using those strategies.  Doing it that way didn’t work with sight words (my previous entry, https://wordpress.com/post/doctorsam7.blog/205) .  It would work better with comprehension strategies if we carefully consider how readers come to develop those strategies and use our classroom time accordingly.

So…, how do I think good readers get to the point of being able to develop and use all those strategies?  I propose that it happens during meaningful talk (and writing) about what they’ve read.  I’d like to use the teaching of inference as a case study of how teachers might design units to teach any of the comprehension strategies and/or teach readers about how to handle complex text. I will talk about how to deal with both teaching the strategy itself and teaching students how to handle the test questions standardized test makers use to assess their use of those strategies. I have used this teaching sequence successfully in an after-school program I teach in as a part of my current volunteer work with students.

My teaching sequence designed to help students infer begins with a writing component. Good writers often show rather than tell. So, we start with a writing unit built around that topic. I used to use one of my own design. Then Jennifer Serravallo books, Reading Strategies and Writing Strategies came along.  I found that Jennifer’s lessons were superior to the ones I had been using.  So, I started using lessons from her book Writing Strategies as part of my overall sequence of lessons surrounding inference. The lessons I used focused on how good writers often show instead of tell.

During the writing unit, students would talk about their pieces, sharing them with fellow students. They used peer revision and honed their clues so that their fellow readers would be able to determine what the student authors were showing them. During discussions around their passages, the key test of whether the passage was effective was whether or not their peers were able to infer what they were trying to show. Their peers enjoyed giving the student authors additional ideas for clues. Since the writer is always the boss of the story, ideas from their peers were suggestions not mandates. One of the hardest things for students to understand was that they could not just blurt out what they wanted to say. For example, you can’t just say Leon is very tall and he plays basketball.  That’s telling the reader not showing the reader. You could say, “When Leon came into the room he had to duck his head as he walked in the doorway. He was just back from practice. He didn’t seem tired, he seemed excited. He’d just earned his letter for playing sports. He was so proud.”   This passage might let you know Leon was tall and that his letter was one he likely earned in basketball. There are also other “shows” and other “tells” in this passage.

AFTER the students had the background and experience developed by this writing unit, we moved into guided reading lessons. For these lessons I picked books with lots of inferences, lots of examples of the author showing not telling.  Students talked about clues they’d spotted. They talked about what clues they might add based on their experiences in the writing unit. In my after-school work there are students from multiple reading levels. Because of that my guided reading lessons are often done in an ad hoc strategy group. These groups use a text all can read. The leveled text is at the decoding level of the lowest achieving reader in the group. The group was asked to identify various passages in the book in which the writer showed rather than tells.

Some activities for the group included:

  • Sharing the show don’t tell passages they’d found in the reading.
  • Discussing whether including these passages made the book more understandable and enjoyable.
  • Discussing what new clues they might suggest the author try. In this activity they had a peer revision session. I would play the role of the author and they would suggest additions or deletions to the passage.
  • Creating a multiple question modeled on multiple choice questions used in their commercial on-line program to assess inference.

WHOA- what is that last activity all about? I’ll have much more to say about that next week. The first part of my teaching sequence was designed to scaffold readers into understanding how inferencing works.  They wrote using the strategy, talked about their writing, did a Guided Reading lesson built around spotting when the author of the GR passage used the strategy too. They talked about both the content of the passage AND the processes used to make sense of that content. This sequence of lessons set the stage for teaching readers (& writers) how to use inferencing in their literacy endeavors. Unlike the direct teaching lessons for strategies, which too often used contrived applications of the strategy (one of Shanahan’s criticisms of lessons designed to directly teaching strategies), my hope is that this overall sequence teaches students HOW to think, how to use strategies good readers use. In the process, it makes them metacognitive (self-aware) of the strategies they are applying. The last activity in my Guided Reading lesson is designed to help them know what to do when they meet questions in commercial materials and tests that try to assess  their ability to draw inferences.

Before giving my final conclusions for this blog entry, I want to make the point that teaching inferencing and teaching how to handle inferencing questions are two very different things. I’ve seen situations where the “teaching” of inference and other similar reading strategies comes in the form of endless test practice. Students learn how to handle each type of question. Those questions usually come at the end of a short passage. The thinking is if they practice practice practice the test items they will get better at test taking.  Next week I will pick up on the ramifications of this point. For the moment I will say I’ve never seen this method of practice practice practice test questions work in the long run. Learning how the question works does provide a bump in achievement. However, once students understand how to handle that kind of question, there are usually no further achievement gains. In the meantime, tons of instructional time that could be used to help scaffold them in their use of strategies is totally wasted. More about this next week.

Next time I will share with you some advice I’ve just given to a staff developer on what her staff development could look like for a PD plan she created for this fall. Her plan spans several months and is designed to teach her staff how to implement guided reading. My advice to her about her plan reflects practical applications of what I’ve had to say in this week’s blog entry. In future blog entries I also hope to address the question of how to design sequences of lessons that might help readers unpack meaning in complex text.

So, until next Friday…

Happy Reading and Writing

Doctor Sam Bommarito (aka, teacher of teaching how to think)

                                                  Copyright 2018 Sam Bommarito