Making Informative Decisions Based Upon the Research of Others

[Three weeks ago, I promised to write more about my thoughts concerning Reading First. I also illustrated one BIG reason why everyone should understand what is at stake here, and how the cards are dealt. While the effectiveness of Reading First remains in question, we still have something to learn from this political nightmare. Sadly enough, I know going in that this post will receive far less attention than others less deserving.]

Update: The discussion over the effectiveness of Reading First is far from dead. Stephen Krashen's recently posted editorial in USA Today, Scott's reaction on Reading Coach Online, Miguel Guhlin's challenge for the leadership gurus, and Matthew K. Tabor's briefly summarizing take are only a few current examples. While my take here is that we have something to learn from all of this, what's your take?

Just thought I'd ask.

For Gary Stager and every other school board member, superintendent, principal, teacher, policy maker, parent, and critical thinker:

Only in America will the Secretary of Education actually be named “Spellings” but that’s neither here nor there. On one count, I couldn’t agree more with the logic that Secretary Margaret Spellings (2008) has presented in her recent article.

When we don’t get reading instruction right, the consequences extend beyond our schools and into our prisons, hospital wards and unemployment lines. It’s no surprise that people who lack fundamental reading skills are more likely to drop out of high school, more likely to encounter health problems, and less likely to have a job. (¶ 4)
Hence, the responsibility to effectively teach reading throughout the curriculum lies with every educator, parent, and responsible adult. It seems that this particular shoe fits us all – teachers, parents, and responsible citizen alike.

Apart from this well-articulated idea from Spellings (2008), however, I see little reliance on logic and far too much reliance on rhetoric. Unfortunately, her inclusion of phrases like “sound science” (¶ 5) and “research-based reading instruction” (¶ 12) do nothing to convince me that Reading First really has succeeded.

Please. Help me keep up.

Does “sound science” refer to the one size fits all approach encouraged by Reading First or our government’s tendency to rely on data assembled through a clumsy, hurried, and shallow approach to data analysis? When reading instruction is “research-based”, does that mean that it’s only based on a limited number of conveniently selected studies?

Admittedly, in today’s highly scrutinized academic climate, it is increasingly important to identify the most effective practices in reading instruction. Therefore, it is only natural to turn to the work of researchers whose interests lay at the heart of reading instruction and best practices alike. It is in turning to the research that one might uncover a plethora of truths, openly exposing the many flaws with which Reading First has been plagued. In this brief post, a number of the flaws inherent in the Reading First program will be explored, as well as flaws deep-rooted in human nature and the attitudes we may have in relation to the research base.

First, Reading First would be more effective if it wasn’t so strictly prescriptive. To be clear, a “one size fits all” approach to reading instruction - or any kind of instruction, for that matter - simply doesn’t exist. As has been stated so accurately by Richard Allington (2005):
Effective teachers are much like the effective physician who offers a multi-pronged approach to reducing cholesterol… Teachers, like doctors, must make decisions based on the unique evidence they observe in their students. This makes “replicability” of effective instruction something very different from teaching from a scripted lesson plan. (p. 463)
Hence, an essential quality possessed by effective teachers is the ability to exercise good judgment. Because of this truth, teachers must be given autonomy in deciding which practices will work most effectively for the varying types of learners with whom they may work (see Garan, 2005, p. 442). Reading First, unfortunately, affords no such freedom as it mandates that scope and sequence of reading instruction be followed religiously.

Second, while Reading First may be touted as “research-based reading instruction” (Spellings, 2008, ¶ 12), it may not be as efficacious as anticipated. According to Richard Allington (2008):
No intervention has raised the achievement of 90 percent of poor readers to the 50th percentile. Moreover, no research suggests that the classroom teachers can help 90-95 percent of students acquire grade-level reading proficiencies by learning more about phonology, using a scripted curriculum, teaching systematic phonics, or following some “proven program”. (p. 25)
Therefore, simply because a program claims to be “research based” doesn’t mean it will be effective.

Timothy Shanahan (2002) has been clear in the reason why one must move forward with caution when considering the research so as to better make more informed decisions. “In our ardor to apply research findings to reading, we can make things worse rather than better. Too often, when we consider what the research says, we systematically ignore and misinterpret the meaning of research evidence” (p. 9). Accordingly, a conscious effort in interpreting research findings is crucial.

Moreover, while the National Reading Panel initially put forth some effort in examining the research base (prior to Reading First and its effects), the kind of base that must be examined would require a far more detailed – and honest – effort than was ever put forth. Said Joanne Yatvin (2002) of her experience as a member of the NRP, “Along the trail, pressured by isolation, time limits, lack of support, and the political aims of others, we lost our way – and our integrity” (p. 364). She continued, offering additional detail about some of the decisions made in haste coupled with questionable methods employed:
Members convinced themselves that, because they had worked hard under adverse conditions, the report was satisfactory. Most of the scientists also seemed to believe that the standards they had set and the methodology they had developed were accomplishments important enough to compensate for the shortcomings in their work. To justify themselves, they added a special section titled “Next Steps” that explained the small number of topics investigated and suggested areas for future investigation. Another special section called “Reflections” was also added to summarize and emphasize the panel’s accomplishments. These last-ditch efforts were to no avail. The panel’s claim to scientific objectivity and comprehensiveness was lost. (p. 367)
If panel members themselves have felt so unsure about the breadth and scope of their efforts, why should others feel so compelled to acknowledge their undertaking with reckless abandon?

Finally, as an attempt to interpret research findings is undertaken, a careful consideration of the research methods employed can aid in the process of identifying valid studies. Sadly, the “research” reported by the National Reading Panel (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000) provides a contrasting example in connection with this topic as a number of inconsistencies in the data presented and weaknesses in the methods employed have been identified in this once seemingly valid research report. Krashen (2004), for example, cites a considerable number of examples that demonstrate that methods utilized by the NRP were less than ideal. Allington (2005, p. 466) goes even further when he aggressively calls the report produced by the NRP “anti-scientific” (see also Yatvin, 2002). Again, just because a program claims to be research based, doesn’t indicate effectiveness. A careful analysis of the methods employed in the study will help in determining validity.

In conclusion, as further detailed, comprehensive attention to the research base is undertaken, more informative decisions can be made to ensure better instruction as we continue in our struggles to effectively teach children to read.

  • Allington, R. L. (2008). Setting the record straight. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 61(6): 22-25.
  • Allington, R. (2005). Ideology is still trumping evidence. Phi Delta Kappan. 86(6), 462–468.
  • Garan, E. (2005). Murder your darlings: A scientific response to The voice of evidence. Phi Delta Kappan, 86(1), 438-443.
  • Krashen, S. (2004). False claims about literacy development. Educational Leadership, 61(6), 18-21.
  • National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction [Online]. Retrieved June 14, 2008, from
  • Shanahan, T. (2002). What reading research says: The promises and limitations of applying research to reading education. In S. J. Samuels & A. Farstrup (Eds.), What research has to say about reading instruction (3rd ed.) (pp. 8-24). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
  • Spellings, M. (2008, June 7). We need more Reading First, not less. The Salt Lake Tribune. Retrieved June 23, 2008, from
  • Yatvin, J. (2002). Babes in the woods: The wanderings of the National Reading Panel. Phi Delta Kappan 32(5), 364–69.
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