Reading Aloud with Children in a Teacher Education Program By Dr. William Kerns


Reading Aloud with Children in a Teacher Education Program

By Dr. William Kerns


Today Bill takes a turn at the blog and talks about reading aloud and encouraging a love of reading

 Last week this blog featured pictures highlighting the International Literacy Day Intergenerational Read-In that took place September 6 at Harris-Stowe State University. This activity was organized by my friend and colleague, Betty Porter Walls, who is an associate professor in the College of Education. Volunteers were encouraged to bring a favorite book to read aloud to preschool children. Books were also available for section on the occasion. This is one of multiple activities in which we in the College of Education encourage reading aloud with children. Other activities include service learning in the community. I am honored to participate. In this week’s blog entry, I will briefly reflect on strategies for reading aloud as well as the importance of reading aloud.

Choice in readings is so important. If you are a K-12 teacher or teacher-educator, I strongly recommend researching available books that work well in read aloud activities (Trelease, 2013). Additionally, I recommend collaborating with local authors who take care to produce and seek out books that avoid far too common cultural stereotypes that are contained in books that purport to promote an appreciation for diversity but fail to accurately or sensitively reflect a cultural group (Nieto, 1996; Reese, 1999).

We are fortunate in the College of Education to be able to work with community organizations such as the St. Louis Black Authors of Children’s Literature Initiative. Members of this group routinely participate in read aloud activities while providing books to read that are sensitive to the needs and interests of African-American children. This is so critical given a long lamented scarcity of children’s books that give voice to people of diverse backgrounds (Tunnel & Jacobs, 2008), including books that portray the history of a group and that portray the current lived experiences of members of a cultural group (Yokota, 1999).

Keys to reading aloud with children include conversation that draws upon and builds background knowledge. This dialogue might include strategically thinking aloud about contents of the text (Ness, 2018), prompts and questions that but also fun, engaging stories and songs. Let children have fun with the book or the story. Let reading be playful, because after all, play is the work of the child. During read-aloud activities, teachers (and peers) can model strategies for reading increasingly challenging content in texts. Reading aloud can include the explicit modeling of reading strategies, the teaching of vocabulary, reviewing of text structure (van Kleeck, Stahl, & Bauer, 2003), while asking guided questions that prompt students toward predictions and analytical thinking (McGee & Schickedanz, 2007; Reutzel & Cooter, 2008).

However, there is a mistake that I have too often observed. Sometimes adult readers will focus on the strategies while children are bored. I wish to stress the importance of helping children love books and love reading. If we focus on strategies but children hate reading, we have failed in the read aloud.

The varied language arts skills (listening, speaking, reading, writing) should be honored. This happens when the teacher (or other adult) who is reading aloud prompts children to use make meaning of a text through cues that involve viewing, listening, and reading, and to communicate through opportunities to speak and write. Movement can help a child to engage in reading. So, allow children the opportunity to sway with the wind if that’s part of a story. Or to stand like a tree. Encourage students to roar like a lion. Suddenly students are having fun while enjoying the text. Reading aloud doesn’t need to be teacher-centered, remember, it can be student-centered, with the children prompted to actively participate.

My areas of specialization are Secondary English Language Arts as well as literacy.  I view reading aloud as a key topic for secondary language arts and literacy, not just early literacy (Coyne et al., 2009). Reading aloud exposes children to literary skills and contributes to a child’s achievement in literacy and the language arts (Farrant & Zubrick, 2012; Swanson et al., 2011). Reading aloud doesn’t need to stop in the primary years through the strategies should change given different ways that young children learn compared with adolescents. Young adult novels, short-stories, and varied texts from diverse cultures offer rich opportunities for reading aloud activities. Language arts and literacy activities should continue to be engaging and active in high school.

An effective language arts or literacy teacher is an active participant in the classroom and a skilled observer of the learning process. I want to see students engaged in literacy and language arts activities that are engaging, inspiring, and that help them to stretch their skills and abilities. Notice a phrase that I did not use: “best practices”. This phrase means many things to many people. Often it is imbued with echoes of the debates sparked by the National Reading Panel and phrases such as “gold standard of scientific research” which tends to mean the medical model of research, with randomized participants and control groups. “Best practices” means something different to a social-constructivist than to a behaviorist. I am, unapologetically, of course, a social-constructivist. Progress in learning should be regularly assessed (before, during and after activities) using both formal and informal means. Reading aloud and participating in dialogue with children helps to build literacy skills, including fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.



Coyne, M. D., Zipoli, R. P., Chard, D. J., Faggella-Luby, M., Ruby, M., Santoro, L. E., et al. (2009). Direct instruction of comprehension: Instructional examples from intervention

research on listening and reading comprehension. Reading and Writing Quarterly, 25, 221–245.

Farrant, B.M., & Zubrick, S.R. (2012). Early vocabulary development: The importance of joint attention and parentchild book reading. First Language, 32(3), 343–364.

McGee, L. M., & Schickedanz, J. A. (2007). Repeated interactive read-alouds in preschool and kindergarten. The Reading Teacher, 60, 742-751.

Ness, M.K. (2018). Think big with think-alouds, grades K-5: A three step planning process that develops strategic readers. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Nieto, S. (1996). Affirming diversity. White Plains, New York: Longman.

Reese, D. (1999). Authenticity & sensitivity: Goals for writing and reviewing books with Native American themes. School Library Journal, 45(11), 36-37

Reutzel, D. R. , & Cooter, R. B. (2008). Teaching children to read: The teacher makes the difference. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education.

Swanson, E., Vaughn, S., Wanzek, J., Petscher, Y., Heckert, J., Cavanaugh, C., Kraft, G., & Tackett, K. (2011). A synthesis of read-aloud interventions on early reading outcomes among preschool through third graders at risk for reading difficulties. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 44(3), 258–275.

Trelease, J. (2013). The read-aloud handbook (7th Ed.). New York, NY: Penguin Random House.

Tunnel, M. O., & Jacobs, J. S. (2008). Children’s literature briefly. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Merrill Prentice Hall.

van Kleeck, A., Stahl, S. A., & Bauer, E. B. (Eds.). (2003). On reading books to children: Parents and teachers. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Yokota, J. (1999). Japanese and Japanese Americans: Portrayals in recent children’s books. Book Links, 8(3), 41-53


Getting by with a little help from my friends- reading to children at the Harris Stowe State University preschool by Dr. Sam Bommarito

Getting by with a little help from my friends- reading to children at the Harris Stowe State University preschool

chocolate-lindt-box-wallpaper- public domain


“When I say to a parent, “read to a child”, I don’t want it to sound like medicine. I want it to sound like chocolate.” – Mem Fox

 I just spent the morning on Thursday at Harris Stowe State University in St. Louis.  For quite a number of years, Dr. Betty Porter Walls, an associate professor at Harris Stowe, has organized “read ins”, where community volunteers come in and read to the children at the university’s preschool.  On Thursday, we did an early celebration of the International Reading Day by having such a read in. Over 20 volunteer readers participated.

Since the preschool population is young, ages 2-5, readers are instructed to do simple book introductions/picture walks.  They do not read the entire book, rather they highlight talking about the book, perhaps reading a passage or two from the book. Betty makes it clear the key goal is to get the children interested in literacy.  For the university’s preschool children reading really does “sound like chocolate, not medicine!”

I brought along a copy of a book I recently purchased for my own grandchildren. It is Eric Litwin’s newest book called “If You’re Groovy and You Know It, Hug a Friend!” Like all of Eric’s books, it is both educational and engaging.  The words of the book are sung to the tune of “If you’re happy and you know it”.  The children seemed to really enjoy themselves as they listened to a couple of verses and clapped along as I “sang” the book.

Eric Litwin if You're Groovey

Readers at this event usually work in teams, with each team member reading a book. I was fortunate to have Candy Pettiford on my team.  She is a children’s author and a former member of the St. Louis Black Author’s Association. She gave a lively rendition of a book she wrote called “Oh the Things You can Do! (When you Don’t Watch TV). Her book also included a song.

Pictured above is the cover of her book and a picture of the two of us together after the read. Pictured below is Julius Anthony, president of the St. Louis Black Authors, myself, Dr. Bill Kerns who often authors things for this blog, and Dr. Betty Porter Walls organizer of this event and many more like it.


Today’s event was a reminder of the importance of reading to children. Doing that is the key to creating lifelong readers. We’re fortunate in St. Louis to have many educators and others who are willing to do that for our area children. All in all, it was a very good day.  You can’t go wrong when you share good books with children.


Happy Reading and Writing


Dr. Sam Bommarito, aka the book reader

To contact Candy Pettiford about her books, e-mail her at


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


The call for a reading evolution part two: And yes, I still mean evolution not revolution By Doctor Sam Bommarito

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The call for a reading evolution part two: And yes, I still mean evolution not revolution

By Doctor Sam Bommarito

After almost 50 years in the field of education, and almost 40 years focusing on literacy education I am quite tired of the ever-swinging pendulum.  Among the top items on my bucket list is to do what I can to help bring the pendulum to rest in the middle, where I think it should have been on along. Big task, not a lot of time left. One of the things that must happen for this dream to come true is the Great Debate in reading needs to become the Great Dialogue in reading. The two sides need to stop arguing and start problem solving.

I’ve given my view of who the two sides are before. However, many of my new readers may not have seen it. On the one hand are the “phonics cures all folks”. They are strong advocates of synthetic phonics. Philosophically they are empiricists and favor direct instruction for all, all of the time.  On the other hand, there are the discovery learning folks. Philosophically they are constructivists. They favor teaching as needed analytic phonics. They favor inquiry learning. I often find myself being a kindred spirit with them.  I feel these two points of view have been around for quite some time. Think Aristotle and Socrates. I expect both points of view will be here long after all of us are gone.  I’d love to see some great thinker unify the two points of view into one consolidated theory of learning. I don’t see that happening any time soon, certainly not in time to fulfill my bucket list wish. Based on research- which side should prevail?

Let’s look at one of the most contentious of the issues the two sides deal with that of phonics- when and how phonics should be taught.  My view is that research demonstrates both sides are correct. It also demonstrates both sides are incorrect.  How can that be? This is explained in detail in the blog post Bill Kerns and I did (  The upshot of it is this: Synthetic phonics helps most but not all readers.  Many readers for whom synthetic phonics fails to do the job can be helped with analytic phonics or other forms of phonics instruction.  I think we are perfectly capable of designing educational programs that take all this into account. I’ve talked about what they might look like in previous blogs.

Here is the heart of the matter. We need to have a reading evolution. When something fails to work for every child stop jumping on to something brand new to replace the “failed practice”. In point of fact, the “failed practice” is often working for most, just not for all. Instead we need to learn to tweak things. My notion is this.  The best level for program adoptions in not at the national one size fits all level. The best level is with local school districts who know their kids best. They need to adopt as good a balanced literacy program as they can find. Good means it fits their kids.  Good means that it succeeds for most kids (90-95%).  Then include RTI for the kids for whom the main program isn’t working (read Mary Howards stuff, she has some great ideas around this).  If some aspects of the program aren’t working, then tweak them. A specific for instance- recent research is indicating that using small group instruction hasn’t worked the way we wanted- especially in the poorest school. Burkins and Yaris recently published ideas on how we can change how we use our time in guided reading. They talk about how we can teach in a way that leaves more work for the kids leading to more growth for the kids. Their book provides a pretty good blueprint on how to tweak guided reading/reading workshop. Don’t replace things, fix things. Do it at a local level. What works in one district might not work in others.

Most important in all this is call a “truce” in the reading wars. Each side needs to admit their practices have limits and limitations.  Synthetic phonics has been adopted nationwide in England. Yet there are some children that fail to thrive. I strongly suspect those many of those children would thrive if teachers were taught alternative methods of teaching phonics, including analytic phonics, and allowed to use that knowledge with selected children. Advocates of analytic phonics need to address the fact that adopting such a program for all children often results in many children having large gaps in the knowledge about phonics. Phonics programs really do need to be systematic.

Some children really do learn to read no matter what methods we use.  Others need aspects of one approach or the other to succeed. Both sides have got to agree to stop insisting that all teaching be done with their methods and only their methods. Both sides need to agree when their favorite methods aren’t working for all kids, that teachers should be allowed (and encouraged!) to use methods from the other sides.  Specifically, teachers need to be taught about all the ways to teach phonics. Districts need to adopt programs that seem to fit their population the best. Whichever emphasis the final adoption might take, practices from “the other side” should be allowed and encouraged for the selected students who need them.

In the next few weeks I’ll be exploring what a reading evolution might look like.  I’ll be inviting reader comments. I’m asking that advocates of each side be respectful of the points of view of the other.  Let’s give this a try. Let’s tweak things instead of replacing them. Let’s start the Great Reading Dialogue.  Let’s have a Reading Evolution!


Dr. Sam Bommarito (a.k.a, person with a bucket list and a dream)

ABOUT THE BLOG- The response to the blogs around Reading Recovery have been amazing- over 4000 readers in the past few weeks. It will be a while before I publish a blog that deals directly with RR so I would encourage readers who found their way to this post through the RR Facebook page to please follow the blog.  I think you will enjoy the future discussions of what I hope will become a reading evolution.


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








What I Learned from Reading Recovery and How It Helped to Inform my Classroom Practices by Dr. Sam Bommarito

What I Learned from Reading Recovery and How It Helped to Inform my Classroom Practices

by Dr. Sam Bommarito

I’ll begin by saying what this blog entry is not about.  It’s not about trying to move Reading Recovery practices directly into the classroom or to create some pseudo Reading Recovery program. As I said in an earlier blog if you want Reading Recovery like results, then get your teachers trained by certified RR trainers and implement RR with fidelity. This blog entry is about following the advice I received at my very first RR conference. Before trying to move any Reading Recovery practice into the classroom, first visit the theory behind the practice and then adapt the practice classroom setting.

Like Dr. Mary Howard and many others, I mark my career in two parts, how I taught before my recovery training and how I teach now. What now follows are reflections on some of the most important takeaways I have from RR. They are things have helped me become a better teacher and a better teacher of teachers.

Takeaway one- I learned to be a kid watcher and to make effective use of my knowledge of the three cuing systems. Fit the program to the child, not the other way round.

Yetta Goodman coined the term kid watcher and laid the foundations for the science of miscue analysis. Her initial observation was simple but profound.  You can’t read a child’s mind. So, you can’t directly see how a child is thinking and problem solving as they read. You can however observe the child’s actions as they read.  By seeing what the child is trying (or not trying) as they problem solve their words you can get a sense of what strategies the child is (or is not) using as they read.  Quite a number of years ago at a Mid Missouri TAWL conference, Yetta reported that Marie Clay and her husband Ken Goodman concurrently came up with the idea of using the three cueing systems. Ken used the names given to the three cueing systems by his chosen field of linguistics. They were Semantic, Syntactic and Grapho-phonemic. Concurrently Marie Clay began looking at what I think are the very same three cueing systems naming them Meaning, Structural, and Visual. Both Clay and Goodman used the notion of miscue analysis.  By looking at what cueing system the child was using when making an “error”, one can tell which (if any) of the three cueing systems the child was using. So, for Clay and Goodman, errors were not really errors at all. They were attempts to use the cueing systems that misfired. Hence the name miscue.

By systematically recording which cueing system (if any) the child was using when their attempt misfired (miscue), teachers can glean a lot of information on what the child is attempting to do as they problem solve their words. Teachers can also tell whether the child is crosschecking, i.e. using more than one of the cueing systems at the same time.  Suddenly teachers could know what the child was thinking as they problem solved their words. By careful observation and record keeping (especially the use of running records) teachers can get ideas on what the child needs to learn to make a balanced use of all three cueing systems. Our field abounds with excellent sources on how to make use of this incredibly valuable information.  It seems to me that by using this information teachers can become mind readers after all!!

Takeaway two- I learned how to prompt and most importantly learn how to prompt near point of error.

F & P and Calkins have written extensively about prompting. F & P even have charts and apps to help the teacher to know what to say.  Key prompts for problem solving words would include- Does that look right? (does it look like the word you just said), Does it sound right? (is that syntactically correct, is that the way we usually talk), Does it make sense? (does what you just said make sense, fit how the story is going?). Prompting to crosscheck includes calling attention to the cues not used. For instance, if a child says a word that fit the picture but did not fit the letters in the word you might say “What you said makes sense, but does it start with the right letter? What word would also make sense but start with this letter <point to the letter, maybe even say the letter sound>.  There are a host of other ways to prompt, including prompts to help comprehension, but right now I’m focusing on prompts for problem solving words.

It is crucial that prompts be done NEAR point of error, not AT point of error. That means waiting. Wait to see if the child self corrects on their own.  That means, when possible, you must allow the child to read past the error. Praise the child if they spontaneously correct the error (I like the way you fixed that!!!) Early in my training I learned that encouraging self-correction is GOLD.  For many children, when they start self-correcting, that is the turning point in their ability to read and to learn new words from when the read.  That is why determining self-correction rate is one of the things we include on the running record form.

There is a major problem in using prompting routinely in the classroom.  It is best used one on one. It is best used in that teachable moment when a child makes a miscue. How can one have a significant number of such moments in a regular classroom setting?  One answer I learned that increases the number of those teachable moments is to use staggered starts when doing small group reading. Here is how that works. Do your usual introduction/teaching point in your small group. Then announce that today we are using staggered starts in this group. The first time you use staggered starts you will have to take extra time to explain it. After using it a couple of time, most groups learn what is involved. DON’T OVER USE IT. Use it when you need more teachable moments in selected small groups. These are the groups whose members included children that need more work on problem solving their words. Here are the steps:

  1. Each child learns they are not to start reading until you say. When they read, they are to read aloud in a whisper voice. I have them use whisper readers (see picture). I sometimes face them in different directions. Both these teaching moves are designed to lessen the effect of having everyone read at once.

Whisper Read Phones Free to Use Image

  1. Let the children know that once everyone is reading you will come around to work with some students individually. Let them know that EVENTUALLY everyone will get a turn, but it might take more than one session to do that. Also let them know that if the finish the story they are to IMMEDIATELY start from the start and read it again (and again, and again). They don’t stop reading until you say.
  2. Once all the children in the group are reading (I recommend using a group of 3-5), you are then free to circulate and sit in with selected children. I usually don’t do every child every time. BTY, besides getting in my chance to prompt with selected student, I sometimes use this same technique to get in a teaching conference with selected students. DON’T OVERUSE THIS, but it can be handy in a pinch!
  3. BOOK SELECTION IS CRITICAL FOR THIS TO WORK. Pick an instructional level text where the students are likely to make several miscues.  If there is a sound you are especially concerned with, pick a text that uses that sound a lot.  I use both predictable and decodable books during such lessons.
  4. You can stop circulating any time after you are sure that every student has been through the story at least once.
  5. Once you say stop, continue with the lesson as usual.

I’ll say this one more time. DON’T OVERUSE THIS. Use it when you genuinely need to do some one-on- one-word work with selected students who are having exceptional difficulty with problem solving their words.

Take away three- I learned to help kids write their way into reading. Doing the Elkonin boxes and writing short phrases was a powerful part of my recovery lessons. The general principal here is to sometimes let the kids write using the high frequency words they need to know. I currently use Rasinski’s Fry List phrases I ask them to copy a phrase and then write more about it.  I also do whole group story writing where I have selected Fry list words (or Dolch list words) posted on a chart and then and ask them to join me writing something using as many of those words as possible. This can be followed by them writing stories on their own, again trying to use some of the high frequency words in the story. This is not the only writing the kids do, but it is writing that helps build their sight word knowledge.

Takeaway four– I learned the value of observation as a part of ongoing assessment.  I think that today we over test and underteach. Constant summative assessments take away from teaching time. They can become counterproductive. Think about it. If you spend most of your time doing summative assessments eventually what you will find is that since you have not taken the time to teach something new, your students are not growing as readers (or writers). Now that I’ve had my chance to vent a little, lets be clear that assessment is necessary.  As a recovery teacher I learned that authentic ongoing assessment can be a very powerful tool. There are “assessments” that are not paper and pencil tests. They are instead rooted in careful and systematic observations.

I was brought into the world of workshop teaching, kicking and screaming. At first, I thought it would turn out to be a waste of time. Found out instead it was a way to become the ultimate kid watcher. It led to my learning to do systematic observations that became defacto ongoing assessments. It has become second nature to my teaching. F & P, Calkins, and Serravallo all have written extensively about how to systematically gather information about your students and to use that information to inform your teaching in a workshop setting. RR was my first experience in doing this. It made me more open and understanding about doing this when I did my workshop training.

There are many other takeaways from RR, takeaways I had as a teacher that I adapted into classroom use. I just gave my top four. I would love to hear from other RR teachers about their takeaways from RR, and how what they learned help to improve their classroom teaching. Please do chime in and make some comments!

So, until next week this is Dr. B. signing off,


Happy Reading and Writing



Dr. Sam Bommarito, (a.k.a., the Kidwatcher)

Copyright 2018 by Dr. Sam Bommarito who is solely responsible for it’s content








Running Records 101: The History & How to Score, Code, & Analyze

Thought this post makes a nice addition to my blog’s ongoing discussion of Reading Recovery. Thanks to Literacy Pages for making it available to reblog. Readers looking for the “Thanks to Reading Recovery Teachers” blog entry will find it is the next one down from this reblog.

A Message to Reading Recovery Teachers Everywhere: Well Done! By Dr. Sam Bommarito

The response to last week’s post about Reading Recovery was overwhelming. It set all time personal records on both my Twitter and WordPress accounts. Over 6000 impressions in one day on Twitter. Over 1182 people came to read my latest post on WordPress. The message was from the readers was clear. My readers LOVE Reading Recovery and found that it forever changed their lives as teachers. That change was very much for the better. I’m turning the rest of this blog over to my readers, so you can hear all the wonderful things they had to say about Reading Recovery   So…, for my friends on the RR site, know that what you do works, that it is appreciated and that it helps you become better teachers so that you in turn can help the kids.  This is my thought for you as you start the new year:

Well done!

Here is my “summary of findings” based on what RR teachers had to say:

New Part One

New Part THREE

New Part TWO

Finally- In the original article, I reported on research demonstrating that reading recovery is the most successful early learning program around. It results in improved student performance in both decoding and comprehension.  To cap things off, here is one more piece of evidence provided by fellow a fellow blogger, Rhonda from Literacy Pages. Thanks to her for letting me repost her remark.  The remarks are on a screen capture so link she gives doesn’t work, but I’ve provided a working version of that link at the end of the blog.

New Part FOUR

EPILOGUE: I’ve been posting my blog entries on the Reading Recovery Facebook site.  That is because the last few blogs have been surrounding RR teachers and what they do. The blog will now be turning to more general literacy topics that focus about finding common ground, good literacy practices and growing lifelong readers.   Should I ever have a blog post that directly relates to RR I’ll definitely post that on the RR Facebook site again. I will of course continue to read the RR Facebook site and make comments outside of my blog entries.  Remember that it was a comment by a RR teacher on the RR Facebook page that got the ball rolling on this project. THANKS to all the visitors to the blog (over a thousand in the past couple of weeks). I would love to have some of you follow the blog and join in our ongoing literacy discussions.  So to see future posts please do subscribe to this blog. I promise you that Bill Kerns and I still have lots more to say about literacy and helping children become lifelong readers.

Happy Reading and Writing


Dr. Sam Bommarito (so grateful that he become a Reading Recovery teacher)

The link from the Literacy Pages blog

Special Thanks to Rhonda at Literary Pages for use of her remark and for providing the link.

Special Thanks to Dr. Mary Howard for her encouragement in this project and for taking up this topic on her facebook page.

Special thanks to all who posted on facebook and twitter about my original blog on Reading Recovery. 

And a very Special thanks to all the teachers currently implementing Reading Recovery.  You are changing the world one kid at a time. And that is exactly how it should be!

Copyright 2018 by Dr. Sam Bommarito, who is solely responsible for it’s content



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 . 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 ( 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:,Literacy

Here is a link to a recent u tube video explaining the benefits one district found from reading recovery


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 6. 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)  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

.In addition, in a recent blog entry Tim Shanahan does an excellent job of explaining the concepts of analytic and synthetic phones.

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. 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