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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

Why Research-Based Reading Programs Alone Are Not Enough

July 2, 2015

From a reader:

Every teacher has experienced this. While the majority of the class is thriving with your carefully planned, research supported instructional methods, there is often one kid that is significantly less successful. We work with them individually in class, help them after school, sometimes change things up to see what will work, bring them to the attention of the RtI team that is also using the research supported instructional methods. But what if the methods research support for the majority of kids don't work for this kid?

Several months ago I read an article in Discover magazine called "Singled Out" by Maggie Koerth-Baker. Regarding medicine rather than education, the article is about using N of 1 experiments to find out whether an individual patient reacts well to a particular research backed treatment.

"But even the gold standard isn't perfect. The controlled clinical trial is really about averages, and averages don't necessarily tell you what will happen to an individual."

Ever since I read the article, I've been wondering what an N of 1 experiment would look like in the classroom. This would be much easier to implement in the controlled numbers of a special education classroom, but we do so much differentiation in the regular classroom now, I'd like to find a way to objectively tell if what we do for individuals is effective in the short term, rather than waiting for the high stakes testing that the whole class takes. Formative assessment is helpful, but I suspect we need something more finely tuned to tease out what made the difference. We gather tons of data to report at RtI meetings, but at least at my school, it's things like sight word percentages, reading levels, fluency samples, not clear indicators of say, whether a child As a researcher, how would you set up an N of 1 experiment in an elementary classroom?

My response:

This letter points out an important fact about experimental research and its offshoots (e.g., quasi-experiments, regression discontinuity designs): when we say a treatment was effective that doesn’t mean everyone who got the special whiz-bang teaching approach did better than everyone who didn’t. It just means one group, on average, did better than the other group, on average.

For example, Reading First was federal program that invested heavily in trying to use research-based approaches to improve beginning reading achievement in Title I schools. At the end of the study, the RF schools weren't doing much better than the control schools overall. But that doesn't mean there weren’t individual schools that used the extra funding well to improve their students’ achievement, just that there weren’t enough of those schools to make a group difference.

The same happens when we test the effectiveness of phonics instruction or comprehension strategies. A study may find that the average score for the treatment group was significantly higher than that obtained by the control group, but there would be kids in the control group who would outperform those who got the treatment, and students in the successful treatment who weren’t themselves so successful.

That means that even if you were to implement a particular procedure perfectly and with all of the intensity of the original effort (which is rarely the case), you'd still have students who were not very successful with the research-based training.

Awhile back, Atul Gawande, wrote in The New Yorker about the varied results obtained in medicine with research-based practices (“The Bell-Curve”). Dr. Gawande noted that particular hospitals, although they followed the same research-based protocols, were so scrupulous and vigorous in their application of those methods that they obtained better results.

For example, in the treatment of cystic fibrosis, it's a problem when a patient’s breathing capacity falls below level. If the lung capacity reaches that benchmark, standard practice would be to hospitalize the patient to try to regain breathing capacity. However, in the particularly effective hospitals, doctors didn’t wait for the problem to become manifest. As soon as things started going wrong for a patient — breathing capacity started to decline — they intervened.

It is less about formal testing (since our measures usually lack the reliability of those used in medicine) or about studies with Ns of 1, than about thorough and intensive implementation of research-based practices and careful and ongoing monitoring of student performance within instruction.

Many educators and policymakers seem to think that once research-based programs are selected, then we no longer need to worry about learning. That neglects the fact that our studies tell us less about what works, than they do about what may work under some conditions. Our studies tell us about practices that have been used successfully, but people are so complex that you can’t guarantee such programs will always work that way. It is a good idea to use practices that have been successful — for someone — in the past, but such practices do not have automatically positive outcomes. In the original studies, teachers would have worked hard to try to implement successfully; later, teachers may be misled into thinking that if they just take kids through the program the same levels of success will automatically be obtained.

Similarly, in our efforts to make sure that we don't lose some kids, we may impose testing regimes aimed at monitoring success, such as DIBELing kids several times a year … but such instruments are inadequate for such intensive monitoring and can end up being misleading.

I’d suggest, instead, that teachers use those formal monitors less frequently — a couple or three times a year, but to observe the success of their daily lessons more carefully. For example, a teacher is having students practice hearing differences in the endings of words. Many students are able to implement the skill successfully by the end of the lesson, but some are not. If that’s the case, supplement that lesson with more practice rather than just going onto the next prescribed lesson (or do this simultaneous to the continued progress through the program). If the lesson was supposed to make it possible for kids to hear particular sounds, then do whatever you can to enable them to hear those sounds.

To monitor ongoing success this carefully, the teacher does have to plan lessons that allow students many opportunities to demonstrate whether or not they could implement the skill. The teacher also has to have a sense of what success may look like (e.g., the students don’t know these six words well enough if they can’t name them in 10 seconds or less; the students can’t spell these particular sounds well enough if they can’t get 8 out of 10 correct; the student isn’t blending well enough if they …, etc.).

If a program of instruction can be successful, and you make sure that students do well with the program — actually learning what is being presented by the program — then you should have fewer kids failing to progress.


And, since most classrooms in the U.S. contain English learners, this advice couldn't be more timely or important. Resting on "research-based" curriculum models is a plan for mediocrity since none of the research has addressed the actual demographics of classrooms across the nation. At best, a research-based curriculum may have data reflecting some of the children in any classroom. Using curriculum that's good for some is not a very good plan for effective early education. Preparing teachers to know more about child development, language development, and individual differences, as well as equipping them with topnotch observation skills - that's where we need to place our focus.

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"Children are made readers on the laps of their parents." — Emilie Buchwald