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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.

Have the Reading Wars Become Research Wars?

May 22, 2019

Teacher question: Although the Reading Wars might be over (somewhat), I can’t shake the feeling that we’ve entered the era of Research Wars. What’s a literacy coach to do? 

Shanahan's response:

I think you’re onto something. I’ve been seeing the same thing.

Of course, the original “reading wars” back in the 1990s were research wars, too.

In those days, one side argued kids would learn to read best with the least amount of explicit teaching. According to them, kids could learn decoding and how to make sense of text—and pretty much anything else that might be needed — if student motivation were sufficiently high and the tasks and texts were sufficiently authentic. The way to accomplish those suffciencies, according to them, was by exposing kids to high quality literature through big books, little books, independent reading, and writing opportunities. The role of “teaching” in this model was one of observing and responding, following kids’ leads, and providing “just in time” guidance. In other words, the less teaching the better.

The other side argued back that more learning would result from explicit teaching that followed a planned sequence. They supported textbooks, lesson plans, spelling, and phonics instruction. They weren’t exactly against motivation, but then motivation was not particularly manifest in any of their prescriptions either.

Very different views of the world.

But as different as they were, both groups used the same metaphorical (and rhetorical) baseball bat with which to thrash their opponents. The “r” word and “research says” were and have been the lingua franca of both sides in those “wars”.

That was why the federal government stepped into the fray back in the 1990s. Congress asked that a panel be appointed, not to make recommendations on how to teach reading, but to determine just what it was that the research actually had to say about the teaching of reading.

That’s what the National Reading Panel (NRP) was all about. By law the panel could only make determinations of fact.

Basically, the result of their analyses was the conclusion that explicit teaching of phonemic awareness, phonics, oral reading fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension offered learning advantages to kids.

The reason the panel could determine those particular facts — and not some others — was the decision-making rules that the panel set for themselves.

The panel decided it would only conclude that an instructional approach worked if it were tried out and, as a result, kids did better in some way.

That’s why the panel limited its review to experimental studies; that is, studies that test the effectiveness of particular interventions or instructional efforts in real instructional situations.

Of course, that meant ignoring lots of studies. 

For example, there are many studies that show that better readers read more than poorer readers. Those data are often used as the supporting evidence for schemes that set aside classroom time for kids to read on their own. 

The problem with that evidence, of course, is that it can honestly be interpreted in either direction (a fundamental problem with all correlational studies). Is it that free reading practice leads to better reading or that the best readers simply choose to read more than the poor readers do?

The panel approached this issue by asking the practical instructional question: Do kids read better if they have independent reading time during the school day?

We looked at studies that had provided such support for some kids and not for others and determined that, no matter how valuable reading practice might be, that way of encouraging practice was not particularly effective. 

The NRP report settled things down for a while. The field quieted.

But as you point out, the reading wars seem to be upon us again, with everybody using the “r” word.

In recent days, I’ve been told that

  • phonics instruction, though necessary, hasn’t improved reading achievement
  • it’s a bad idea to teach reading in preschool or kindergarten
  • kids learn more reading on their own than working with teachers
  • we need to provide more phonemic awareness instruction than the NRP concluded
  • decodable text is essential
  • morphology instruction can profitably replace phonics instruction in K-1
  • teachers must have extensive training in linguistics if they are to successfully teach phonics
  • comprehension strategy instruction is hurtful
  • synthetic phonics is more effective than analytic phonics
  • kids, if they are to learn to spell, need instruction in etymology
  • reading success requires lots of free reading time during the school day
  • particular “Tier 2 intervention” couldn’t possibly work, despite What Works Clearinghouse conclusions to the contrary … and on and on and on.

Claim after claim after claim, all under the apparent guise (or more accurately, the imaginative or hopeful guise) of science.

Some of these claims seem highly unlikely to me, because existing research has already demonstrated them not to be true. Some of these claims could be right, but we won’t really know until studies are done. Ideas can’t be rejected out-of-hand just because of an absence of determining evidence. Perhaps, someday those claims will be transformed into the kind of research-based ideas that should be incorporated in our teaching.

What can a literacy coach (or the rest of us) do?

Ask a lot of questions.

When someone says, “We will never raise reading achievement until we (fill in the blank). ”You need to ask, “Is there any evidence showing that doing that results in more learning for kids?” If they tell you that some reading guru said it (so it must be true), or about a personal observation of theirs or of some Heinemann author, or of a research study that didn’t actually try it out, then grab your wallet and run.

Even official reports with lots of research input need such scrutiny. Such documents often start out with research-supported assertions but devolve into more questionable claims. It is hard for readers who don’t already know the literature to separate wheat from chaff. Each of the contentions is supported by impressive looking references and citations; only those in the know or who have the time and resources to check it out can tell the difference between those cites of relevant empirical studies and those that are no more than opinion pieces or research only tangentially related to the claim.

As serious — and intense — as these literacy arguments may be, the governance issues may be even more important.

Educators must have ways of adjudicating curricular disputes without setting everyone’s hair on fire. And, school administrators, who too often buy into the shiniest new object, have to be able to protect themselves from bad choices.

When people make claims about what works in reading, they shouldn’t be allowed to win the argument without convincing evidence that their scheme has worked. That means that two measurably-equivalent groups of kids should have been taught — one with the usual approach and one with the “great new idea.” At the end of the day, the great-new-idea group should be successful before we decide that it really is a great idea.

And, because of the diversity of learners and instructional circumstances, more such studies are better than fewer and studies with kids who are like the ones we teach are particularly valuable. Often, something can be made to work in one situation or with a particular group of learners, but the results can’t be replicated anywhere else. If someone tells me third-graders need a particular regime of instruction, I’d be a lot less skeptical if the support study hadn’t been carried out with the Ed Psych subject pool at the local university.

Remember that the kind of research evidence that I’m calling for only guarantees that an approach can be effective; not that it necessarily will be in your hands. Educational research reveals what’s possible, not what will always succeed. Positive research results point us in what should be the most promising directions, but instructional diligence, effort, and wisdom will still be needed if kids are going to be 21st century literate.

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"Writing is thinking on paper. " — William Zinsser