Guided Reading: Where you spend your time is where you get your results. Be mindful of how you spend your time by Dr. Sam Bommarito

reading creatuve commons

Guided Reading: Where you spend your time is where you get your results. Be mindful of how you spend your time by Dr. Sam Bommarito

Regular readers of the blog know that over the past few months I’ve proposed a reading evolution. What this entails is instead of debating we should be discussing. We should be willing to admit weaknesses in our favorite practices and try to address them. We should be acknowledging that the practices we don’t necessarily favor do have some application some of the time. Overall, I suggest we stop the cycle of throwing everything out and starting over every few years. Instead we should learn to tweak things. Today I am going to tell you about the tweaks in practice I suggest teachers consider when using guided reading. I’m basing what I say in part on a presentation I just completed at this year’s Write to Learn Conference in Missouri

Back in the day we used to say where you put your time is where you get your results. This means making sure your time allocations are thought through carefully. At the Write to Learn Conference in Missouri, I noted that researchers like Tim Shanahan have found that research is not kind to guided reading and similar approaches in terms of showing those approaches affect reading achievement. I noted this did not fit my personal experiences. During my Title I days in the late 1990s and early 2000, projects I worked on won national awards for reading achievement gains. These awards known as the Secretaries’ award were given to exceptionally successful Title I programs of the time. Winning these awards placed the programs in the top 1/10 of 1% of all programs in terms of demonstrating gains in reading achievement. We were using guided reading and reading workshop to achieve these goals. Our results would seem to contradict the findings Shanahan cites. But not really. You see I believe what made a difference for our district was that we were fully implementing guided reading as suggested by Fountas and Pinnell. We were using our time in a way that not all programs calling themselves guided reading do. To see what I mean by that let’s look at a recent article by Fountas and Pinnell.

F & P Magazine

As you can see from the article there are five major contexts (components) within a guided reading program only one of which involves using leveled text. Our teachers were trained to make sure that most of the reading done by students was not reading leveled text.  We were making sure our students were exposed to a wide range of reading experiences. I’m positing that many of the programs studied by the research cited by Shanahan are in fact OVERDOING the small group leveled reading part of the guided reading program and UNDERDOING the other parts.

In retrospect, I believe what happened in our project was that the kind of “complex text” and “at or above grade level text” that Shanahan believes is necessary for achievement in reading was, in fact, being used by our staff. Such text easily fit into the read aloud and think aloud portions of guided reading.  Our staff was trained that in any lessons that were developed they should make sure they had a good answer to the question of what work they were leaving for the students and why they were leaving that work. This helped the scaffolding done by our staff to be well thought out and explicit.

Let’s now fast-forward to today and things being said by educators like Burkins and Yaris. I had the good fortune to hear them speak at one of our local ILA meetings and I found what they were saying remarkably in line with what we had been saying to our staff all those years ago. One thing Burkins and Yaris call for is to make sure you are leaving work for the children. Another thing Burkins and Yaris noted really caught my attention. They said we were putting too much of the work being done in guided reading into the small group setting. They maintained that a lot of this work belonged in one of the other five parts of the guided reading program.  By not doing it in the other parts of the guided reading we left ourselves in the dilemma of having to over scaffold in order to get through our small group work. The solution to this is really quite simple.  Do the work in the manner in which Fountas and Pinnell outlined. Allot more time to things like Read Alouds and Think Alouds. These are usually done in a whole group setting. This is exactly the kind of setting Shanahan favors. By doing that, teachers should find by the time they are doing small groups the students will almost be ready to own the strategies being taught. In that way, the small group setting becomes a place where the last part of the gradual release of responsibility occurs. I am proposing that if one studied places where Guided Reading is done in this manner (the manner in which F & P actually outlines) that small group instruction would be found to be an effective last step in the gradual release process. In sum, I’m suggesting we do more of what Shanahan suggested (whole group work using complex text) and less of what some of us are currently doing (small group work that includes work that properly belongs in other places). I asked the teachers at my session to make sure they were using all the parts of guided reading and they were including those complex text and on and above grade level text within those parts.

That’s all for this week’s suggestions for tweaking Guided Reading. Next week I’ll take on the issue of what leveled text to use within the small group component of guided reading. I will also review how to select those texts and the limits and limitations for some of the systems using leveling text. Until then this is Dr. Sam saying:

Happy Reading and Writing


Dr. Sam Bommarito (“tweaker” extraordinaire)

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

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Looking at clouds from both sides- Opening dialogues in order to start a READING EVOLUTION

reading creatuve commons

By Dr. Sam Bommarito

It seems the Reading Evolution has begun.  For those who are not familiar with what this is all about, when I first started this blog about a year ago, one of my earliest blogs was about having a reading evolution (and that’s not a typo!).  I’ve been teaching since 1970 and over that time I’ve seen the pendulum about reading instruction swing back and forth.  Why does this happen? I hypothesized it was because as we swung from the phonics cures all position to the phonics isn’t needed position there were children that indeed fit each position. BUT THERE WERE ALSO SOME WHO DID NOT! This guaranteed, that whichever extreme we went to, once either was adopted, it would be a matter of time before some children weren’t succeeding therefore justifying the thought that it was time to rip it all up and start over. Usually enough time passes between swings for a generation of teachers to come along who hadn’t been around for the last set of failures. Hmmmm.

But what if the two sides were would be willing to admit there are limits and limitations to their preferred way of teaching reading (translation some children for whom the approach simply wouldn’t work). Then perhaps we could begin an evolution, that is instead of tearing everything down and starting over every few years, we could “tweak” what we were doing.  When it came to phonics instruction, we would fit the program to the child not the other way round. The key here is that folks had to be willing to use the methodology of “the other side” with at least some of the children some of the time.

History has not been kind to folks like me who suggest taking such middle ground.  It’s hard to get changes in educational practice. Oftentimes it takes adopting an extreme view just to get any movement at all. Would there be any hope for such a point of view- a willingness to look at clouds from both sides?

It seems like destiny that I find myself back at Write to Learn conference. This posting will be going out from my hotel room there.  Here’s what happened at Write to Learn a year ago. I met Eric Litwin and listened to his ideas about the “great debate”.  He predicted that knowledgeable teachers talking to each other on social media might have a shot at ending the reading wars. Eric and I have since become good friends and talk often about reading, reading instruction and of course, the reading wars. I think he had a brilliant idea there about the reading wars.

Is it possible that teachers from seemingly polar opposite points of view would talk to each other or even have something to talk about? Could they actually stop debating for a while and start talking to each other instead? If they did I think they would start learning from each other and as we all know learning can be a very powerful thing.

I see some evidence the Reading Evolution  has already begun. Here is an example  I want to thank Judy for allowing me to use this comment from a Facebook book posting she made.  I think demonstrates that the dialogue is not only possible but may in fact have already begun. Please take careful note of what she learned from “the other side”.

“Phonics and Reading Recovery are not  opposing teams. It’s one team”

Judy Boksner Damski

NO 1


Judy likes the idea of a reading evolution. She has gone beyond talking to the “other side”.  She’s actually using the methods of the other side. This phenomena actually  goes beyond that. When my “mystery guest” posts sometime soon, my readers will recognize her as a well known authority on Reading Recovery. She will be reporting that she has taken the kind of training usually given only to teacher of Dyslexic children.  She is responding to the fact that some of the kid watching teachers in recovery have noticed that the usually level and intensity of phonics instruction in recovery is not benefiting SOME children, specifically children identified as Dyslexic.  She is taking part in the Reading Evolution.

Now wait a minute Doctor B., back up! I’ve heard reading recovery doesn’t work for anybody, that it should be discarded that it hurts children. Regular readers of this blog know that I have mounted strong defenses of recovery several times and pointed out research like that from the National Clearing House which for a number of years has reported Reading Recovery is the best of the early intervention strategies. How can that research be true and what the critics have to say be true. I think I have an explanation of what’s actually happening. It has to do with the fact that before I was a reading teacher I spent a number of years teaching political science and history. There is political move called “using a strawman”. When using a strawman, you only report the weaknesses of your opponent. You ignore the strengths. I feel that tactic is currently being used by some (NOT ALL) of the advocates of the phonics cures all position to discredit Reading Recovery. Here are some of my recently posted thoughts:

NO 2

When asked about the NCH data (and by the way my mystery guest blogger will be providing even more supporting data) the critic said the methods used by NCH were flawed. Interesting position but not one widely held.  In sum then, the usual attack on Recovery list a series of studies showing it doesn’t work. The ones showing that it does FOR MANY (NOT ALL)  CHILDREN are OMITTED. Classic straw man tactics. Another important point. Reading Recovery is the only beginning reading program to show gains in comprehension as well as decoding.  Many of the claims of huge gains in “reading” made by some advocates are actually huge gains in decoding. Not at all the same thing. The NRP report indicated that there is an initial bump in scores caused by phonics instruction, that further gains just don’t happen. This is a typical phenomenon in reading instruction.  For instance,  Shanahan says that past a certain point instruction in reading strategies lack further effect. My take- the kids got it, they’re using it. Now use your teaching time to teaching something else. Please note that nowhere did I say not to do it, rather I’m saying once the kids are using it move on. Could it be that one of the reasons RR is so successful is that their teachers are trained to be Kid watchers and do exactly that? Hmm.

What comes of all this is the thought that no one method is going to succeed with every child. But usually teachers can  find something that will work with every child, just not the same something! I’ll refer you to my blogs citing the First Grade Studies and the work of Allenton. At the end of the day, in terms of reading achievement scores, teachers make more difference than methods. My quarrel with SOME of the advocates of synthetic phonics is not over the fact it should be done (IT SHOULD!), but whether it should be done exclusively (IT SHOULDN’T).

What would happen if more teachers are willing to talk about the weaknesses of their methods as well as the strengths. What would happen if teachers started learning from “the other side”. I think what would happen is the Reading Evolution. There’s a lot of potential bumps in the road and sticky situations. But teachers are used to that. Teachers who are empowered by learning all the ways of teaching phonics, empowered by being allowed to use multiple methods,  who are listened to when their way works with a particular child, who are valued in the same way teachers are valued in places like Finland, those teachers have a real shot at finally ending the reading wars. They have a real shot learning from each other so they can help the kids. Eric- this is Sam talking to you from my room at the Write to Learn Conference in Mo. I’m so very glad that a year ago at this very conference you had the idea of using social media to start a dialogue around the great debate. It’s happening. Teachers use #GrtDb and #HelpEcOther (help each other) and continue the conversations. How have you learned from the other side? How can we best help our children. Eric and I would LOVE to chat with you about that! And Eric I think it is especially appropriate that I am writing and posting this particular blog at the very same conference where I first got the notion from you that maybe informed teachers, discussing (INSTEAD OF DEBATING) educational ideas in a way that might finally find a way to cut through the gordian knot that has been the Great Debate in Reading.  We’ll see where this goes. REMEMBER #GrtDb and #HelpEcOther. We’ll be looking for you on twitter.


Happy Reading and Writing


Dr. Sam Bommarito (aka cloud watcher extraordinaire & king of “let’s talk, shall we?”



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










The Reading Evolution: Part Two (and it’s still not a typo, I mean evolution) By Dr. Sam Bommarito.

reading creatuve commonsThe Reading Evolution: Part Two (and it’s still not a typo, I mean evolution)

By Dr. Sam Bommarito.

A while back I wrote a post entitled The Reading Evolution. I want to come back to that topic and expand on it. A lot has happened since that first post and I want to share some of it with you

First, the premise of the original post is really very basic and simple. We need to stop debating with each other. We need to start talking to each other.  

We must do this with the caveat that we admit up front that our particular way of doing things has limits and limitations. Instead of getting mad at the folks who point goes out our weaknesses, the better path is learn from their criticisms and to tweak our favorite approach. As much as we can, try to fix whatever limitations are pointed out. That is the basic ground rule of having a reading evolution.

Why do I think we need a reading evolution? I think because this because in the last five decades since I first began teaching there have been regular pendulum swings between those who feel phonics cures all to those who feel really better off without phonics. There are also other things involved. My take on what has been happening is whenever we get to either of those extreme positions there are a significant number of children do not progress using those extreme methods. Usually enough time has passed between the swings for most folks to have forgotten that that approach didn’t work last time.  Let’s start by looking at the phonics cures all extreme point of view. I call it extreme in the sense that on a continuum of no phonics to all phonics it is at the very far edge of the right side of the continuum.

Does phonics cure all- NO! Is phonics necessary but not sufficient for progress in reading- YES. 

Over 50 years ago The First Grade Studies looked at the best approaches of that time. The overall conclusion was no one approach works best for all children. Every approach worked better with a phonics supplement. Years later, Allington came to similar conclusions about no one approach working with every child. There’s more. A new found friend on twitter provided these links:

Part of what I think the information in these links shows is that no one approach to phonics works so well that it should replace all the others. Phonics by itself does not get the job done. Phonics instruction must be supplemented with direction instruction in comprehension.  My overall take on this is simple. Find the approach to teaching phonics that works with the child you are helping and use it. Do it concurrently with comprehension instructions. I want to be crystal clear that I’m fully aware that there are some children that need an intense synthetic direct instruction phonics program. That needs to be provided to those children. However, providing it to all children results in precious instructional time being used up. That is why I propose that such intense instruction be provided in a tier 2 or tier 3 setting. Otherwise you run the very real risk of having the first year and a half or two year of instructional time failing to provide adequate work in comprehension. Some phonics cures all proponents have even suggested we focus mainly on phonics and wait for working in comprehension around  until around 2nd or third grade. We’ve travelled that road before. It doesn’t work. Review the work of Pressley and Durkin to see why I say that.

Are balancing literacy and reading recovery and workshop and guided reading the main causes of children not learning to read? NO!

Some advocates on the very extreme of the phonics continuum are using a technique I learned about when I taught history and political science at the very beginning of my teaching career. The technique is called strawman. Look at your opponent, think of their weakest points. Present those as their only points. Net result, a strawman that you can use to convince the public they are all wrong. What happens if you don’t just look at the strawman but look at the full program? Let’s just take one of the examples of the methods of teaching reading that is under intense attack. Reading Recovery. According to the opponents it hurts kids, it’s ineffective and it needs to be gotten rid of as soon as possible. Usually a host of studies are cited showing all kinds of weaknesses and flaws in the program.

Readers, I can take any approach you care to name and fill a couple of pages with studies showing the weaknesses of those approaches. One of my basic premises is that all approaches have weaknesses. The question becomes do they also have offsetting strengths. In the case of recovery there are many. Early research in RR demonstrated that those who fully completed the program rarely needed services again. Not a word about that from the opponents. I have posted a link to the What Works Clearing House a number of times.  Research the site. You’ll find it reports that recovery outperforms all other methods of beginning reading intervention. Recovery gets results in both decoding and comprehension. The other approaches only get results in decoding. These findings have been replicated a number of times over the years.  Just look at previous postings of the National Clearing House to verify that. When faced with this information one of the opponents said the National Clearing House methodology was questionable.  I suppose readers who agree with that can discount this information. I suspect most readers realize that the clearinghouse provides a solid look at what we can learn from research. It is a widely used website. It plays by the actual rules of scientific research.  The main point here is simple. In and of itself a strong synthetic phonics program does not automatically produce better readers/long-term improvement in both comprehension and reading achievement. By contrast, RR has consistently produced good results in BOTH decoding and comprehension over a period of a number of years.

I’m sure most readers are familiar with claims that some synthetic phonics proponents make. They report it produces an almost magical increase in reading achievement. The devil is in the details. The tests used to demonstrate this actually measure decoding. A careful look at the tests will show at best some use of vocabulary and some correlational comprehension data. Nothing to really write home about. If it sounds as if I’m quite skeptical of the overall claims. I am. If I’m to be convinced of the efficacy of an approach, the data supporting, it should include information from FULL comprehension testing not just decoding.

So it seems that when the “strawman” version of Reading Recovery is looked at carefully, its actually a tin man (IRON MAN?). Why on earth would we want to drop it?  Similar information for other “failures” of reading approaches are available. These approaches do have limits and limitations, but none so severe as to cause us to drop them completely. All have a myriad of strengths making them worth keeping.

How can we- should we- proceed in the current round of the great debate?

First and foremost, let’s keep the gold standard of what good literacy program to include that fact that it should be able to demonstrate a long-term gains in reading achievement/comprehension. Any test used to demonstrate that must include a significant comprehension component. In my day we use the Gates Macginitie reading test which had vocabulary section and the comprehension section. I’ll point out that results from just the vocabulary section were not always the same as the overall results. That’s my way of saying vocabulary alone is not a sufficient measure of comprehension. Correlational studies using modified cloze procedures are equally weak. If the proponents really want to demonstrate comprehension gains, they should begin using instruments that are fully up to the task.

My main premise remains the same as it did when I first proposed the evolution.  That is let’s stop throwing everything out and starting over every couple of years. Let’s stop ripping materials that are working for the kids and teachers out of the teacher’s hands in order to replace them with a one size fits all set of materials which is likely to not work for at least some of the kids.  That’s demoralizing to say the least. Instead let’s take a hard look at what we’re doing and by hard look I need a look that includes admitting the limitations of our favorite ways. Then let’s tweak things. I’m going to be presenting to teachers at the Missouri Write to Learn Conference about guided reading. Let me tell you what I’m going to tell them about how to tweak guided reading. First look at the Fountas and Pinnell chart showing all the instructional contexts that should be present in Guided Reading (see the chart on the inside back page of their book Teaching for Comprehending and Fluency). Make sure that you are doing everything on the chart not just the small group guided reading group things. Second most of the reading your kids do should not be in their leveled text. That doesn’t mean that you don’t include leveled text. It just means you’re also include additional texts in other parts of the Guided Reading program, using the kind of deep complex text, the at/or above grade level text that is sometimes missing from some folks as they do guided reading.  I’m also going to ask them to do a careful read of Burkins & Yaris’s book, Who’s Doing the Work?  Burkins and Yaris suggest that we tend to over scaffold during the small group part of guided reading. They say that we try to pack far too much work that in the leveled reading section, work that rightly belongs in other parts of the overall guided reading program. That’s just one example of how listening to criticism of a program (such as guided reading does not use enough on grade level, complex text) and adapting it to try to fix some of the concerns

Who should be making these decisions about what to adopt?

At the end of the day I believe that decision is best made by local school boards. That is because local school boards know the kids best. Every attempt should be made by the boards to adopt a main program that has at least 95% success rate. If that is done, then the tier system can work for the other kids. What I say next is preaching to the choir. The teachers of tier kids know that these particular kids learn differently from the way the main program uses. Not better, not worse, just differently. But they can learn and thrive. I am personally LD with some signs of mild ADD. I have my doctorate. Nuf said? The Internet is full of stories of students who learn differently who succeed widely and that includes students with dyslexia.

At the moment, I think we tend to greatly over identify Dyslexic students.   Dr. Shanahan just discussed on his blog. He reports that we don’t yet have a satisfactory instrument for identification of dyslexia.  You can read the last paragraph of this blog post to see how he would identify the Dyslexic students  There are students who truly do need that kind of intense direct phonics instruction advocated by the synthetic phonics folks. I was talking to a friend who knows quite a lot about this and found that Reading Recovery is more than aware of the need and is making adaptations. Maybe sometime I can talk her into talking about that in detail on this blog. We’ll see

Is it time for a Reading Evolution? – YES

Okay so there you have it. Time to admit “our way” has flaws. Time to learn about its weaknesses. Time to adapt to make “our way” as strong as we can. And most of all, time to develop ways to serve the folks we’re meant to serve. Let me remind you of who that is. You may work for a school district or a publisher or a clinic or whatever. But your real boss is the students you serve. They don’t care which reading theory you believe in or what your favorite practices are. They only care that you will find a way to scaffold them into becoming a better reader. So please let’s stop debating. Let’s start discussing. Let’s start learning from “the other side”. That is what my reading recovery friend has done. She’s taken their training courses. Most advocates of synthetic phonics are not going to extreme views. Let’s talk to them as my reading recovery friend has done. Then let’s start acting on those discussions. Let’s get started on the Reading Evolution.


READERS- If you are in the Midwestern Region please come see Glenda (my Co-Editor for the Missouri Reader)  and I. We will present highlights of the special poetry issue of the Missouri Reader next Friday.  On Sat, I will do a solo presentation on Guided Reading including all of the points I discussed in this blog.

Here is the conference link.


Happy Reading and Writing

Dr. Sam Bommarito (aka, professional tweaker, I just love to fix things!)



P.S. The study that came to be known as “The First Grade Studies” was done by Bond and Dykstra in 1967.  It appeared in RRQ (see screen capture below).  It has been the subject of a great deal of analysis and commentary including a special edition of RRQ in 1997 that marked the 30-year anniversary of the publication of the study.

Screen Capture 1st grade studies


Allenton’s work is widely known. Here is a link to the PDF I drew on to talk about his views:


Introducing the special edition of the Missouri Reader- Poetry- a Path to Literacy by  Dr. Sam Bommarito, Co-Editor of the Missouri Reader


Introducing the special edition of the Missouri Reader- Poetry- a Path to Literacy by

Dr. Sam Bommarito, Co-Editor of the Missouri Reader

You may know that one of the hats I wear is that of Co—Editor of the Missouri ReaderMissouri Reader has been publishing for over 40 years now.  We publish between two and three issues a year. We are peer edited and have a highly qualified review board.  We do publish some very well-known literary leaders. But we also give teachers a chance to publish right alongside them Most often those teachers are graduate students at one of our state’s universities, though we do accept articles from all over the United States (and Beyond!). Details on how to submit are always found on the last page of each issue of the journal.  This latest issue is something very special. As you both read about it and then actually read the journal itself, you’ll see what I mean. For me personally the timing of this issue couldn’t be better. It’s my birthday today (don’t ask!). It’s also the first anniversary of this blog. Over 10,000 people have read it since beginning it last year.  In a way, things have come full circle. That first blog entry was written at Tan Tar Ra (Lake of the Ozarks, Mo.) at last year’s Write to Learn Conference. Next week Glenda (my Co-Editor) and I will be at this year’s conference making a presentation on Friday, March 1st..  It will be about this issue of journal (it’s that special). If you’re in the Midwest region come see us, links to all the registration information can be found in our journal. We are part of the Missouri State Literacy association which is a co-sponsor of the Write to Learn Conference.

Readers. I now want to editorialize a bit.  Please indulge me. It relates to the theme of our special issue, Poetry- a Path to Literacy.   Lately I’ve been wondering aloud why we have so many people writing about the need to return to joy in the reading and writing field (lots of titles about that lately). Why do we have a famous video called Don’t Read Like a Robot.  Why are some so determined to turn reading into a race?  Do we really need a nation of Robot Readers and Auctioneers? Or do we need a nation of students who know how to read like Storytellers? Storytellers around those long-ago campfires were the beginnings of what we now call civilization.  The historian in me thinks they were at the heart of the movement that separated human kind from the rest of the living creatures on our planet. To read a story like a story teller you’ve got to understand the characters, know what they act like, what they should sound like. I think that is why Rasinski calls prosody the gateway to comprehension. To read like a story teller is to return to the most basic of basics.  All the authors contributing to this very special issue of our journal hope that our readers find the ideas and resources in this issue that will help them get back to the real basics. Learning to read poetry well is one of the key things that make up what I call the real basics. I also hope the readers of this issue will find much of what they need to help create a nation of readers who know how to read like story-tellers. Perhaps then we would not have to worry about how to bring joy back to all aspects of literacy. The answer is so very simple. Read (and write) because you want to. Let your children do the same.

Pardon me, it’s nighttime and I suddenly feel the urge to build a very nice campfire. Then I think I’ll get out a copy of the new journal. I hear there are some wonderful things to read in it, poems and such. I hear that there’s a whole world of joy to find if you’re just willing to look. Please do have a look. You deserve some joy and so do your children.


Here is the link to the newest Missouri Reader:

Happy Reading and Writing!

Dr Sam Bommarito (aka, the storyteller/poet/singer songwriter)

Copyright 2018 by Dr. Sam Bommarito. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the view of this author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization.

Five things that can lead to success in K-2 Literacy: A look at the old and the new (and they are both the same) By Doctor Sam Bommarito

OLD AND NEW creative commons

Five things that can lead to success in K-2 Literacy: A look at the old and the new (and they are both the same)

By Doctor Sam Bommarito

Regular readers may recall my Jan 11th blog post where I talked about the Shanahan/Berger podcast. It was done through Amplify. Folks who signed up for that podcast got a whitepaper from Amplify entitled Five leadership practices that drive success in K-2 literacy. It was written by Krista Curran, SVP and General Manager for Assessment and Invention. It reports on the results of interventions done in 11 schools where “mCLASS data showed exceptional growth in student literacy”. Details of all this can be found in the Amplify document, which was distributed by their website. What caught my eye was their overall conclusions about what “school leaders, teachers and other staff” did to contribute to that success. Here are the 5 things they listed:

Five Leadership Characteristics

While recognizing the limits and limitations of a single study done with a relatively small N, I find the above conclusions intriguing. They reminded me of another project I was involved in a very long time ago. Back in the late 1980’s and throughout the 1990’s and into the early 2000’s I was part of a Title 1 program in a “next to urban” district in St. Louis. As a matter of fact that district bordered on Ferguson. My building was Title 1, sometimes Chapter 1, depended on the year. We were twice given the Secretaries’ Award. That award went to Title 1 programs showing exceptional gains by their students. Winning the award meant the buildings in the district were in the top 1/10 of 1 percent of all Title 1 programs in the nation in terms of improving student’s achievement scores and other factors considered in giving the award. My building always had 90% plus free lunch, the yardstick used by Title 1 to determine what buildings would qualify for Title 1 services. The year I did my dissertation work, the first graders in my building had Gates-MacGinitie reading scores that were one full standard deviation above what one would expect in a building with that free lunch rate. In point of fact, their median score was at or near the 50 %’ile. What we were doing was working and working very well. I would point out that the measure of comprehension we were using measured vocabulary knowledge (about ½ the items) AND comprehension (the other ½), unlike some measures today that measure mainly decoding with some attention given to vocabulary and little or no attention given to directly measuring reading comprehension.

As I think back to the project I participated in and looked at the 5 points listed by this recent report it hit me that the teachers, staff and administration at my building (and the other elementary buildings in the district) were doing all the things mentioned by this recent report. Our tact may have been somewhat different in terms of interventions. We moved from a basal instruction, using a basal well known for it’s strong phonics program, to a guided reading/workshop model, a model that has some critics and doubters. However it REALLY worked for us and did so over a number of years. I always note (tongue in cheek) that the year after I left, my building’s reading scores went down dramatically. What changed was not the fact I left but rather the fact that new leadership came to central office and readopted the basal with the strong phonics program. Over the next few years reading scores went down dramatically. The district took years to recover from that change over. For readers of this blog- when I talk about “word callers” (and some folks take me to task for using the term) I’m talking about children who don’t comprehend because decoding was overstressed and comprehension was virtually ignored in early instruction. I worked with such children for years. I found those children thrived in the workshop environment. In this blog, I’ve often called reading recovery the bumble bee of the literacy world. According to some theories it should not fly at all. Yet it does. Shall I give a similar name to my old Title 1 project? By some theories it shouldn’t have worked at all. Yet in fact in worked better than most of the projects of it’s era.

Two thoughts here. One is that my district’s story serves as allegory for those who would ignore comprehension and focus entirely on decoding in the early grades. Based on my experience that is not a particularly good move for developing great readers (though it may develop great decoders). The other thought is that as folks design literacy programs might do well to look hard at the conclusions of the recently published white paper. I think it outlines ideas that all sides of the current reading debate could live with. As a matter of fact I would predict they would thrive if they used them. So I hope I’ve given my readers some food for thought here.

Next Week I hope do a blog entry on Missouri Reader’s upcoming issue. It on the theme “Poetry- the Game Changer”. The theme comes from an article David Harrison wrote as the anchor piece for the issue. Glenda (my co-editor for the Missouri Reader) and I are presenting the key ideas from this issue on March 1st, at The Missouri Write to Learn Conference held at the Tan Tar Ra resort, Lake of the Ozarks, Mo. Here is a link to the conference:

Next week also marks the 1st anniversary of this blog. The blog has had 10,000 readers since starting. WOW! Thanks to all of you who have come to visit over the past year. Please do keep coming!!!

Happy Reader and Writing


Dr. Sam Bommarito (aka, protector of bumble bees and other such amazing creatures)

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





Insights into the comprehension process: A reply from my former professor


I got a rather extensive reply to my last post from a colleague for whom I have the utmost respect. Dr. Rocchio was one of my instructors when I was doing my graduate work at UMSL (University of Missouri-St Louis) in the 1970’s. I took the Content Area Reading Course from him. Later, that was a course that became mine for almost a decade as I taught as an adjunct at UMSL. His teachings in that first course greatly influenced how I handled the teaching of that course and my whole view about literacy instruction in general and literacy instruction for the older reader in particular.

 Please consider carefully what he has to say, it brings some new and interesting insights. It also brings series of 4 questions that I want to address collectively next week.  I want to thank Dan (we’ve been on a first name basis for quite some time) for following the blog and for providing the insightful commentary that follows.

 Dr. Sam (aka, Sam a former student of Dr. Rocchio)


I really appreciate the thought-provoking article on reading comprehension.  I am glad you included the work of Shanahan, the recent IES summary of research, and the work by Miller and Moss (2013).    I would agree with your proposition “that learning to have authentic conversations around various kinds of text is one road that can lead to improving reading comprehension.” In addition, I would agree “that teachers must provide direct instruction, and they must also scaffold students in to learning how to handle various level texts and text structures.”


The real difference between the two comprehension models you described seems to lie in the basic framework of literacy instruction.  Shanahan suggests in his blog that most of the literacy instruction should be teacher directed and that literacy instruction should include the direct teaching of the following components for about 120 minutes/daily in grades 1-3:


  1. phonics or word analysis strategies (at the early grade levels)
  2. fluency
  3. general reading comprehension strategies focused mostly on the disciplinary structures of text and much of this with grade level text and above grade level text
  4. vocabulary or word knowledge with a focus on key conceptual knowledge
  5. writing instruction


I do agree with Shanahan that we must include the teaching of complex texts that challenge our readers beyond what has been traditionally labeled a reader’s instructional level.

My most recent experience in third grade classrooms supported the close reading of complex text..  I worked with three third-grade teachers and the reading coach in the Lindbergh school district to develop a six-week economics unit that included 110 minutes/day of reading and writing workshop, and twenty-five minutes/day of social studies instruction.  We included the following components:


  1. whole group close reading of above grade level texts related to running a business and making a sellable product or service
  2. close reading of complex texts in guided reading groups
  3. teacher modeling of how to gather key ideas from text related to a student’s business plan
  4. followed by student independent searching for appropriate texts
  5. students reading of fiction and non-fiction texts at a variety of reading levels
  6. students writing about their reading ( e.g., developed a business plan)
  7. key vocabulary words were taught directly as they came up during the unit.

All students were highly motivated to develop their business plan and their sellable good or service.  What we learned is that texts used beyond the instructional level of students were made accessible by a combination of teacher read-alouds, shared reading, partner reading along with teacher scaffolding.  Results indicated that students of all reading levels were able to successfully read and write about texts above their reading level.

Some of the perplexing questions that arose from the Lindbergh district action research and the model of reading instruction suggested by Shanahan are these (Sam’s note I will address these questions collectively in my next blog entry):


  1. under what conditions is it appropriate to use grade level and above grade level texts in the literacy day for primary, and intermediate level readers?
  2. under what conditions is it appropriate to use instructional level texts with primary and intermediate level readers?
  3. how does this instruction differ for average, above average and struggling readers?
  4. how do teachers scaffold the teaching of disciplinary reading and writing strategies with texts beyond a student’s traditional instructional level?

Pearson’s work ( Research Foundations of the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts( 2013) provides some guidance when he points out that “.integrated approaches have generally outperformed ‘encapsulated’ approaches on a variety of measures.” Pearson’s work on Seeds of Science/Roots of Reading (see this link suggests the value of applying key comprehension strategies within an integrated literacy/science framework.

Guthrie’s CORI model (see this link: provides some further guidance about how we might answer the questions above.  In fact, several of the recommendations from the 2010 IES practice guide are drawn from Guthrie’s work.  CORI’s literacy framework includes the following:

  1. an integrated content area/ literacy unit plan
  2. authentic texts at various reading levels
  3. the direct teaching of appropriate comprehension strategies
  4. fluency instruction
  5. writing instruction about the reading of authentic texts
  6. guided reading with various levels of students
  7. flexible supplementary instruction for struggling readers
  8. motivational supports such as student choice and hands-on activities

Allington’s 2015 (Reading Teacher article on Text complexity) notes the following: “…increasing the complexity of the texts used in elementary schools as the best strategy for enhancing reading achievement, as the CCSS authors recommend, lacks a base in the research evidence available.”  In addition, “we need better evidence of instructional scaffolding that might be best used to facilitate just how more complex texts can be used to enhance reading development.

I am an advocate of reading comprehension research that utilizes a comprehensive literacy framework like those developed by Pearson and Guthrie.  This type of research can help teachers understand how to best integrate all key literacy outcomes and content outcomes within a school day.  But the most useful research is that research performed in classrooms where the primary goal is to improve our students’ desire, self-efficacy, and ability to read to solve real world problems related to work, school, and the improvement of one’s community.

I would love to see additional research that follows the models suggested above. So, I hope others will share such work.


Thanks for listening.

Dan Rocchio, Ed. D.

Professor Emeritus

Maryville University

Response entry copyright 2019 by Dr. Dan Rocchio

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


Learning to have authentic conversations around various kinds of text: One road that can lead to improving comprehension By Dr. Sam Bommarito

Learning to have authentic conversations around various kinds of text: One road that can lead to improving comprehension

By Dr. Sam Bommarito

A lot has happened this week. I’m still trying to unpack it all and make sense of it. By and large it was a very good week. The events of the week all focused around the topic of comprehension. They’ve lead me to propose the position you find in the title of this piece. Scaffolding students into authentic conversations around text can dramatically improve the student’s comprehension. I’ve drawn this conclusion while looking advocates of what might seem on the surfaced seem to be disparate (maybe polar opposite) views of reading. But surprisingly, listening carefully to what advocates each of these positions has to say about literacy instruction can lead one to support the position I’ve proposed on comprehension. Let’s dive right in, start unpacking, and see what on earth I’m talking about.

The first of the sources I looked at was a live on-line chat between Dr. Timothy Shanahan and Larry Berger CEO of Amplify; Here is a link to a YouTube video of that chat (note the whole wait period of the chat was taped so you have to drag the play line to .28:00 or so to get to the start of the chat)


The part of the chat that caught my attention was what was said around comprehension. When asked about what strategies to teach and how to teach them, Dr. Shanahan referred me to the following PDF:


Here is a link to this PDF:

I found a good explanation of the PDF on the What Works Clearinghouse website:


The link to the above analysis is:

The upshot of it all is this: Shanahan cites research indicating that a factor analysis of comprehension resource fails to find more than one factor. He criticizes what many teachers do. They build instruction in reading comprehension around multiple reading strategies, treating each as an isolated, distinct skill. He maintains that research is not kind to that way of doing things. There is just not much evidence of gains in comprehension scores when doing things that way Instead, he advocates what I characterize as a wholistic approach to teaching comprehension strategies. It really is just one factor so treat it that way. The pdf explains what implementing such an approach might look like. The chart from What Works Clearinghouse details the effectiveness of what is advocated based on research. My take: the five things listed above constitute the kinds of things teachers could be (should be) doing. Doing these things gets research based results, especially 1, 2 and 5 (see the evidence ratings for each). So teachers should teach students how to use reading strategies, teach them to use the texts organizational structure and establish engaging and motivation context in which to reach reading comprehension.

On the very same day I found this post on WordPress:

zblog entry by Two Teachers on IR

Rhonda and Gen are two literacy specialists who have been doing this very popular blog for quite some time. Their world view is quite different from that of Shanahan. Here is the link to their post Their blog entry talks about a book from the This Not That Series. That series is edited by Duke and Keene. Good credentials there. The book is by Debbie Miller and Barbara Moss . My summary of the blog post content  is as follows: IR is done with maximum student choice and minimum interference from the teacher. That independent reading by the student is supported by individualized direct instruction. The idea of what support the teacher should give is detailed. It includes direct instruction, mini lessons and conferencing. They cite research claiming IR with the kind of teacher support advocated in this book has merit.

As I thought about what both Rhonda and Gen/Shanahan were talking about it hit me. I’d seen this kind of thing before. I’d seen it while watching workshop teachers and trainers scaffold children into deep conversations about books. Some of those students were as young as first graders. I’d seen those self-same teachers teaching comprehension strategies in the same manner as each of the folks from these disparate points of view about reading advocated. Dare I say that I think I’ve found some common ground here? I think I have.

Which brings us back to where I started, my proposition that learning to have authentic conversations around various kinds of text is one road that can lead to improving reading comprehension. Teachers must provide direct instruction. They must also scaffold students in to learning how to handle various texts and text structures. They must scaffold them into having deep conversations around those texts, both with their teacher and with each other. It’s not about the rote teaching of isolate comprehension strategies. It’s about the smart teaching of comprehension strategies, scaffolding students into making the strategies their own. Readers what do you think? Am I on to something here? I’d love to know.

Let’s change gears for a minute. Next week I will continue with this topic. I think I found another real gem in the handout the participants on the Amplify talk got. . However I right now I wanted to make my readers award of a new feature I will be adding to the blog from time to time. I like to do interviews of literacy leaders. I’ve been doing more of them lately. Decided to test the waters to see if there are still more literacy leaders willing to talk with me. Turns out there are. Among them are Ralph Fletcher (conferencing guru), Molly Ness (primary author of the newly released ILA position statement on Read Alouds & Independent Reading) and Willy Woods (organizer of the annual write to Read Conference, a major annual statewide conference here in Missouri). Sooooo. Expect that I will be interlacing interviews of these people in the upcoming weeks. That means from time to time I’ll be take a break from the ongoing topics I’m exploring to do those interviews.

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


Dr Sam Bommarito (aka, seeker of common ground and best practices)


P.S. If you are a visitor from the internet and liked this blog please consider following it.  Just type in your e-mail address on the sidebar of this blog post. THANKS

Copyright 2018 by Dr. Sam Bommarito. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the view of this author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization.

Interview with Jennifer Serravallo about her new book: A Teacher’s Guide to Reading Conferences. Interview conducted by Dr. Sam Bommarito.

A teachers guide

Interview with Jennifer Serravallo about her new book: A Teacher’s Guide to Reading Conferences. A very special thanks to Jennifer for doing this interview.  The book should be out in about two weeks. This interview will also appear in the February issue of the Missouri Reader.

  1. What key things you would like teachers new to conferring to learn from using this book? What are the key things you would like those experienced with conferring to learn?

If you’ve never tried conferring with readers before, this book will help you get started immediately and will introduce you to the types of conferences I use in the reading classroom. I’ve worked with many teachers new to conferring as a staff developer, so I know what questions are most common and what aspects challenge them most, and I have answered those questions and addressed those challenges in the book.  I describe various conference types clearly and offer video examples online. When I was learning to confer, I always found it important to not only read about conferring but to see my staff developers and coaches model them for me. And now when I present about conferring I always get comments that the videos were so helpful—so they are a part of this book!

For those who have been conferring for a while, there is a lot in this book that will help elevate conferring time, making it more meaningful for you and students – strategies for being more goal-directed, ways to offer students opportunities to self reflect, progressions of skills on printable note-taking forms to help teachers focus within goals but move students along, considerations for emergent bilingual students, as well as interviews with some practitioners who have been mentors to me and have wise words to offer us all.

I find there are some universal questions I get about conferring from those new to it and those experienced with it that I address in the book. For example: how to manage conferring, how to fit it in, how many children to aim to see each week in conferences, how long to spend with each conference, how to know what the perfect strategy is to teach a student, and how to keep conferences short and focused, to name a few.

  1. I was taught that conferring is the heart of workshop. How would you react to that? What might you say to convince teachers who feel there is not time for conferring to include it in their literacy program?

I say in the book that “conferring is where the magic happens” so I agree with whoever told you it’s the “heart!” I believe that every reader in your classroom is unique – the two kids reading level J books don’t have the same strengths and needs, the two kids in your class who are your strongest readers might not be strongest with the same things, the children with IEPs likely don’t have the same plan. It’s crucial then that we spend some of our time each week working with children one-on-one to set goals, support them with strategies for those goals, and monitor their progress. I also describe strategy lessons (or “group conferences”) in the book, and these are going to be important to include in your repertoire for efficiency’s sake when kids would benefit from learning the same strategy and it makes sense to do so.

  1. As a follow up to question 2, what advice do you have for making time for conferring? What support materials do you include to help with scheduling and managing it all?

I think sometimes there’s a struggle to find the time because it’s not clear what the rest of the class is doing while the teacher is conferring. My advice? While teachers confer, students read. This does a few things: first, it helps the students have ample time to practice strategies independently that they learned during their last conference with you and give them a chance for more reading volume which will help them grow as readers, and second, it frees you up to meet with students one-on-one and in groups. In the book, I offer sample schedules and a simple process for scheduling the conferring time (while the rest of the class is reading) to help teachers get to each student a couple of times a week, as well as tips for pacing each conference so they don’t run too long.

  1. You discuss different kinds of conferences.  Could you give some examples of how and why to use a particular kind of conference and good ways to decide on the content of a particular conference.

Each conference type I discuss in A Teacher’s Guide to Reading Conferences has its own purpose and structure. For example, a goal-setting conference is the sort of conference you’d conduct to help a student reflect on their work and set a goal, with the teacher as a coach/support. By contrast, a compliment conference is a conference where you offer a student positive feedback by naming something they are doing that will be helpful as they work on their reading goal. The goal-setting conference usually takes about 5 minutes because there is some time spent looking at a student’s work together while the teacher offers guiding questions for reflection, then once the goal is set the teacher provides a strategy and gives the student a chance to practice with some feedback. The compliment conference is really quick—usually just 90 seconds or so—because in that type the teacher spends a short amount of time checking in to see how the student has been doing with their goal, offers some feedback, and then moves on.  No new strategy, no guided practice. What I want teachers to do is to feel like they have a repertoire of ways to work with students so that they can be responsive and flexible—matching what a student needs to the strategy they choose to teach as well as the method they use to teach it.

  1. Your extensive support materials are one of the things that make all your works so popular.  What support materials will be available on line for use with this book? How do you see this book being used in conjunction with your other books e.g. The Reading Strategies Book and Understanding Texts & Readers? Where can we go to get a copy of your book?

As I mentioned earlier, there are videos featuring children in grades K-8 to show each conference type discussed in the book, as well as written transcripts of all of the conferences in case you prefer to read along or read instead of watch. I think the support material that folks will get most excited about are the note taking forms. There is one note taking form for assessment conferences that has questions and prompts that go with each of the 13 goals that form the framework for The Reading Strategies Book (i.e. Emergent Reading, Engagement, Print Work, Fluency, Plot and Setting,  Main Idea, and so on) and then thirteen note taking forms unique to each goal with a skill progression right on it. This way, once the teacher has identified a goal for a student, she can then use the corresponding note taking form and have the skill progression right in front of her as she confers. This will simplify decision-making and help keep the conferences focused. I’ve been using these forms with teachers in some of my study groups and they are absolutely loving them and finding them so helpful.

For those who have The Reading Strategies Book, they know that the book is set up by goal. I intended teachers to figure out a goal, then flip to the chapter that corresponds to the student goal. So with the note taking form that is goal-based with a progression, and the Strategies Book in their lap, they can easily identify the next step for a reader, flip to the corresponding chapter, and find a strategy.  Understanding Texts & Readers offers more detail and depth around leveled texts, and in that book I use the same goal categories in RSB. So in essence, they all work together (though they also each work individually do if you don’t have the other books you can still get everything out of each individual book I intended).

You can order a copy of A Teacher’s Guide to Reading Conferences wherever you get your books – Amazon, Barnes & Noble, your local independent bookstore. The book is out on Jan 31, and orders that are placed with HEINEMANN directly always ship first, and there is usually a 1-2 week delay with third party resellers. (Dr. B’s note: I’ve already pre-ordered this book through Heinemann, can’t wait for it to arrive. Should be here in about 2 weeks!)

Jennifer Serravallo is a literacy consultant, speaker, and the author of several popular titles including the NY Times Bestselling The Reading Strategies Book and The Writing Strategies Book. Her latest publication, Understanding Texts & Readers connects comprehension goals to text levels and readers responses. Upcoming publications include A Teacher’s Guide to Reading Conferences (January 2019) and Complete Comprehension, which is a revised and reimagined whole book assessment and teaching resource based on the award-winning Independent Reading Assessment (due out in Spring 2019). She was a Senior Staff Developer at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project and taught in Title I schools in NYC. Tweet her @jserravallo.

Jennifer Serrvallo’s other interview- link to Mo Reader Article On Understanding Texts and Readers (Use link then click on the article title on the cover page of the journal to go to article) 

P.S. If you are a visitor from the internet and liked this blog please consider following it.  Just type in your e-mail address on the sidebar of this blog post. THANKS

A Teacher’s Guide to Reading Conferences Copyright 2019 by Jennifer Serravallo 

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


Toward a complex view of the reading process: Advantages of looking at the strengths and weaknesses of all approaches and adapting our instructional practices accordingly by Dr. Sam Bommarito


Breadboard_complex creative commons licenseToward a complex view of the reading process: Advantages of looking at the strengths and weaknesses of all approaches and adapting our instructional practices accordingly.

Cyberspace is currently full of posts claiming that there is a one size fits all solution to improving reading, especially early reading. This solution focuses on intense systematic phonics instruction for all children. Close examination of such instruction shows it relies mainly on teaching synthetic phonics. Reading speed is valued over reading prosody. Some of the proponents claim there is just not time for comprehension concerns at the very beginning stages of reading. Comprehension comes later, perhaps as late as 3rd grade.   The pillars of this “simple view of reading” include vocabulary both comprehension. Yet the tests used by the proponents of this view to demonstrate gains are usually heavy on decoding and vocabulary and very light on comprehension. This can and should lead to questioning the face validity of such “reading” tests. My view is that they are more properly labeled as “decoding tests”.

When taking the courses for my doctorate one of the things I learned is that establishing a theoretical construct requires many observations over a great deal of time. However, it only takes one contrary observation to potentially call the whole construct into question. In the case of this simple view of reading I have some observations that seem to challenge the validity of their current construct.

First and foremost is the fact that Reading Recovery, which has been under steady attack from the proponents of the simple view of reading, has consistently been dubbed the most successful early reading program currently available. This observation was not made by the proponents of RR, but rather the independent government agency, the What Works Clearinghouse. It is a claim that has been made multiple times over multiple years. I did an entire blog about that and readers are welcome to review the statistical facts from that blog in their entirety:

Here is a key chart from that blog post:


I’m more than aware of the studies opponents cite, finding weaknesses and flaws in Recovery. Even strong advocates of RR like myself know there are limits and limitation to the program (as there are with virtually any program one would care to examine). I personally feel there are SOME students who will not benefit from RR. However I firmly believe that the data I cite in the blog indicates that it works with enough children enough of the time to make it a viable educationally significant option. The fact remains when early reading program are analyzed RR is the only one that consistently gets results in BOTH decoding and reading achievement/comprehension. The research cited by the What Works Clearinghouse indicates that code base approaches show gains in decoding but not in comprehension/achievement. Because of this I’ve come to call RR the “bumble bee” of the reading world. You see, according to the science of some individuals, the bumble bee should not be able to fly. But it does. In the case of RR, the bumble bee not only flies but actually outperforms all its code based competitors.

In a future Blog post Dr. Kerns and I are going to explore this observation along with others. There is the matter of research indicating that while code based instruction produces gains in work attack skills, past a certain point they fail to produce gains in reading comprehension/achievement. In that upcoming entry Dr Kerns and I will also look into look into the early research around Analytic vs Synthetic phonics. The upshot is that the research clearly indicates that there are students who benefit more from an Analytic approach, leading to the conclusion that neither approach should be exclusive in its use. In an earlier blog post I indicated that my mentor, the late Dr. Richard Burnett, professor emeritus of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, maintained that the great debate in reading was never about phonics vs no phonics. While there are folks who feel no phonics is the best approach, the fact is that the majority of people from the whole language/constructivist point of view favored the use of some form of phonics. I was present at the 1995 IRA (now ILA) reading hall of fame session where Ken Goodman said that there was a place for phonics in a whole language program. My interpretation of what whole language/constructivist based individuals of that time advocated was that they favored a analytic phonics approach used on an as needed basis. Too often critics of this position employ what amounts to a “straw man” approach. They pick on only the weakest points advocated by their opponents and knock those down. They ignore the strong points. While that is an effective ploy in political debates it rarely results in uncovering the full reality of what is going on.

There is also the matter of how much time is needed to carry out an effective synthetic phonics program. A careful read of the NRP will indicate that at the time of the report there was no clear answer to that question. It is an important one. Do we really need to spend most (all) of the early instructional time on teaching synthetic phonics? Should we really effectively ignore comprehension (i.e. spend little or no time teaching comprehension) in the early grades? Or is it possible to create synthetic phonics instruction that is efficient enough to leave time for comprehension instruction? A careful look at the reading world circa 1985 demonstrates that leaders in the field like Pearson and Presley called for more direct teaching of comprehension. They cited the work of Durkin to uphold their belief the teachers of that era were in fact not teaching comprehension at all. At best, they were simply practicing how to answer selected kinds of comprehension questions. Since that time the majority of folks in the reading world have come to the conclusion that the explicit teaching comprehension strategies should be an important part of every literacy program. My opinion is that explicit comprehension instruction should be a part of every literacy program from the outset. Details of all these aforementioned observations and criticisms will be included in the future blog post which will include an extensive look at the research being alluded to here. I anticipate it will be several weeks before that is ready.

My point in this is not to totally discredit the use of synthetic phonics. In earlier blogs I have said there are definitely children who need that direct, intense systematic program. I also pointed out that following an as needed analytic program runs the risk of leaving large holes in students knowledge about phonics. There are ways to fix all the problems inherent in both these major approaches to phonics. At the moment the reading world seems locked in yet another debate (war) about early reading instruction. Critics of the critics of whole language point to the fact the attacks from the simple view of reading folks are really attacks on a straw man. Only the weakest points from the whole language constructivist views are taken. The charge is also made that sometimes their views are actually being totally misrepresented. My criticisms are not limited to the simple view of reading. I hear advocates of using an as needed analytic view of the reading process indicating that only their point of view works with kids. The fact is that SOME kids need some of the things advocated by the code based folks, and SOME kids need the things advocated by the constructivist based approach and, most importantly NEITHER APPROACH WORKS WITH EVERY KID EVERY TIME.

I’ll restate something I’ve said before. Both sides of this great debate (more accurately all sides in this great debate) need to explore the weaknesses as well as the strengths their own position They need to acknowledge that there are some strengths the opponents position. Teachers need to become adept in teaching phonics using all the various ways to teach phonics and they also need to become adept at teaching comprehension strategies. They must be allowed to use a variety of approaches so they can meet the needs of the diverse population of children they serve. We need to remember that beginning with the First Grade Studies and through the works of Allenton, research has consistently demonstrated that teachers make more difference than any particular reading approach. We need to empower teachers and give them the ability to help their students using the methods that fit each particular student. Fit the program to the child, not the other way round. I’ll have more to say on this point next week.

Regular readers of this blog know that my doctoral dissertation was on the topic of common ground. I found that the opposing sides of the great debate from that era had more instructional practices in common than they had that were different. I believe that if the current debate over reading changed into a dialogue about what works more children could be helped. The issue of what works needs to be addressed by more than the simple ability to decode. Reading without comprehension is not reading at all. It is simple decoding.  I detailed my position in the following blog post about calling for a reading EVOLUTION. You are welcome to read it:

So as we begin the new year lets shift the focus of things from debate to dialogue. Let’s recognize that reading is a complex process. Let’s start asking what will help THIS PARTICULAR CHILD, rather than try to find something that works with every child every time. The search for the latter has never been very fruitful. I maintain we are much more likely to find a workable answer if we stop debating and start dialoguing. Reading is a complex process. Different children learn in different ways. Let’s start a dialogue around that. Let’s begin the reading evolution.


Dr. Sam Bommarito (a.k.a. an evolutionary leader)


Copyright 2018 by Dr. Sam Bommarito. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the view of this author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization.

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Don’t judge a book by its cover: 21st century implications of this age-old bit of wisdom by Dr. Sam Bommarito

Grandmas Kindle

Don’t judge a book by its cover: 21st century implications of this age-old bit of wisdom by Dr. Sam Bommarito

Something interesting happened at our house at Christmas time. My two grown sons decided it was time for my wife to join the 21st century with her reading habits. My wife is an avid reader. Sometimes she even reads in the tub. Occasionally that can have some undesired effects on the books she reads. So, wouldn’t it be nice if there were such a thing as a waterproof book. Turns out there is. It’s called the Kindle and that’s just what the boys got her Christmas.  Those who know me well know that I’ve been a longtime advocate of making use technology. This includes making use of technology in the teaching of literacy. So, this newest event in the Bommarito household provides me with an opportunity to reflect on just where technology might fit into a literacy program.

I have some fairly well-developed ideas around using technology in literacy. My very first presentation on this topic was at a national conference. It was the IRA (now ILA) conference held in 1985. My topic was Using Microcomputers in Reading.  My foundational ideas around the topic were really quite simple. Computers and the host of things they have spawned are fundamentally tools. Like any tool, they can be put to good use or bad.  My thinking around such how to use such technology was heavily influenced by Seymour Papert and his book Mindstorms.  Papert saw computers as tools of the mind.  When used as thinking tools (as opposed to electronic flashcards) they can actually help us think in new ways we could not think in before and do things we could never do before.  Think of the movie Hidden Figures. Think of the many wonderful things projects children have done using computers beginning with the lego-logo projects Papert helped to make famous. And yes I’ve read the research on overdoing screen time. So as is the case with all human endeavors, moderation is in order.


I have a great deal of respect for my colleagues in the reading world and several of them have been expressing doubts and misgivings about using some of the technology available.  Some have even said they would never read a book using a Kindle.  E-books are suspect, and perhaps even substandard. I must respectfully disagree.

When I talk about the role (and potential role) e-books in literacy I usually begin by saying I don’t care whether a book has been published using the calligraphy of monks in the middle ages, the first printing presses, more recent computerized versions of the printing press or published as an e-book. My first judgement of any book is not based on the method of publication but rather on the books content and on the writing craft employed by its author. It is completely possible to create a really awful e-book. It is also possible to create a really awful paper book. But it is equally possible to create well written books using any of the methods of publication. As more people employ the technology, the number of good e-books available has increased. The most important takeaway here is that there is such a thing as a good e-book.

But, you may say, I just can’t curl up and read a good book on a Kindle (or similar device). Doesn’t seem right.  I respect that. However, many in the younger generation (and a few in the older generation) find it wonderful that they can bring their entire library with them on trips and such. The writing on my wife’s new Kindle has the look of paper, so it seems a bit less techi than some of its earlier versions. She can also vary the print size, something very handy for those of us at certain ages and stages.  I assure you she will continue to also read paper versions of many many books. But she has already conceded that there are some real advantages to the Kindle, including the fact it is water resistant (not entirely water proof).  My grandchildren have taken to it instantly. Grandma’s Kindle is a good thing and even has some of Grandpa’s Kindle versions of his favorite children’s books (grandma and I quickly learned how to share each other’s e-book libraries). Grandpa has been convinced of the utility of e-books for quite some time.

Using Kindle readers is certainly not the only way technology can be used in literacy. But it is one way.  Like all things, it should be used to fit the reader not the other way round. Those who don’t find it useful should opt not to use it. Those who find it useful some of the time should make use of it, in the tub and on the beach!!!  You need never worry about forgetting to take your favorite books with you when you’re off on vacation. Kindle readers are not the only technology to consider for use in a literacy program. I will have more to say about that point next week. In the meantime, excuse me.  I think I’m about to borrow grandma’s Kindle and read my copy of Pete the Cat, I Love My White Shoes. I’ve owned the kindle version of that book for a very long time! And today I’m supposed to be watching some of the Grandkids. As many of my readers know, they really love that particular book and they just love Grandma’s new Kindle soooooo… LG LG!

Doctor Sam Bommarito (aka long time techi, long time reader & very happy Grandpa!)

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Copyright 2018 by Dr. Sam Bommarito. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the view of this author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization.