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Teachers Won’t Embrace Research Until It Embraces Them
Margaret Goldberg
Right to Read
Margaret Goldberg

Teachers Won’t Embrace Research Until It Embraces Them

I understand why advocates, researchers, and policymakers who feel the urgency of our literacy crisis are frustrated when teachers don’t embrace reading science. But my entry into the world of reading research was difficult, and while I take pride in my determination to learn, I understand why other teachers might be deterred. If we want teachers to apply research, it may be helpful to think about why they aren’t. I’ll open my own experience up as an example.

 In the Balanced Literacy Community 
I felt that…
In the Reading Science Community
I found that…
Hierarchy of ExpertiseI was an expert because I was told, “You know your students best.”Teachers were described as “unprepared” and “ineffective.”
Understanding ReadingReading was described in terms that matched my own memory of learning to read: “natural” and “magical.”Reading was a complex neurological process that I didn’t understand and phrases like “curriculum casualties” and “reading failure” terrified me.
Responsibility of the TeacherMy role was simple and pleasurable because I believed students learned to read by reading.
I matched students with books while observing and encouraging their progress.
I’d be to blame if any of my students did not become skilled readers.
Professional ReadingI was a good reader. Books and articles were enjoyable, easy to read, and often included anecdotes to which I could relate.Articles included words I’d never encountered before (saccade), concepts I didn’t understand (effect size), graphs I couldn’t read, and references to studies I didn’t know.

I was welcomed and spoken to with respect, if not with admiration, by the presenters.
They understood my job.

I left with concrete strategies to try with my students the next day.

At conferences, I was not the intended audience and comments about teachers not only made me feel unwelcome, but discouraged me from inviting my colleagues.

I left rethinking important ideas, but without knowing how to apply what I had learned.

Community and RelationshipsI was aligned with my colleagues, my supervisors, the people who trained me, and the educators I knew to admire.I became an outsider in my district and until I connected with others, I felt alone.

Asking teachers to move away from Balanced Literacy is asking them to break from the people and materials they have trusted, to abandon much of what they’ve been told about teaching, and to rethink things that may have inspired them to enter the profession. If we want teachers to walk away from a familiar and empathetic professional community, they need to be warmly welcomed into something new.

We need more teachers connected to the research community. Without teachers asking teacher-y questions — “What does this mean for my instruction?” “How do you do that with 25 wiggly five year olds?” “What should I have the other kids do while I ___ with a small group of students?”— research does not make its way into classrooms.

It is not a lack of teacher willingness to change that has stalled instruction in the dark ages; there is no one who feels the urgency of applying new learning to instruction the way a teacher does when she’s sitting in a training, knowing she’ll face her students the next day.

Classroom teachers are the most direct and efficient conduit to students, so if we care about student learning, we need to care about teachers and their feelings, even if it means rethinking the tone, accessibility, and framing of research.

When I felt overwhelmed by new learning, a few mentors helped me regain my balance and encouraged me to continue learning and teaching.

They said:

  • That’s not a stupid question. Let’s think about that together.
  • I think you might find that [book/article/webinar] has some of the answers you’re looking for.
  • To apply this in your classroom, you might try…
  • If you’re looking for research on [sight words] you might need the term [orthographic mapping].
  • I know this might mean changes in the way you teach and even the way you think about [reading comprehension] and I’m happy to help you work through the implications.

The care they took in speaking to me rather than about “teachers” meant the difference for me between feeling shut down and feeling inspired. And my students reaped the rewards of my learning.

We would all benefit from researchers and specialists seeking out connections with teachers — research would improve, as would instruction — and the combined strengths of both communities would benefit students.

About the Author

Margaret Goldberg is the co-founder of the Right to Read Project, a group of teachers, researchers, and activists committed to the pursuit of equity through literacy. Margaret serves as a literacy coach in a large urban district in California and was formerly a classroom teacher and curriculum developer. All posts are reprinted with permission from the Right to Read Project (opens in a new window).

Publication Date
July 19, 2019