March 8, 2024

Sam Bommarito: A look at the science of reading movement through the eyes of the radical middle (

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Dr. Sam Bommarito retired after over a half-century of teaching everything from K through grad school. In a recent post, he offers a perspective on the Science of Reading movement.

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

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

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

Read the full post here. 

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