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Timothy Shanahan
Shanahan on Literacy
Timothy Shanahan

The Slow Path Forward: We Can — and Do — Learn from Reading Research

We in education tend to have very strong beliefs. And, those beliefs can overwhelm our knowledge — or even our willingness to gain knowledge.
Last week’s entry here focused on teaching kids with more challenging texts than we’ve been told to use in the past. The reason for the change wasn’t some brilliant insight on my part, but a gradual accumulation of direct research evidence. Evidence that shows beyond beginning reading there is no benefit to controlling the difficulty of texts in the way that we have done — matching kids to books with various accuracy criteria.
I certainly understand the suspicions of those who have long been told that kids can’t progress unless taught at their “instructional levels.” What I don’t get is the unwillingness of some to even consider such an idea given the evidence.
I got a kick out of one reader who led with her wonder rather than her disbelief. She did something crazy: she tried my advice. She placed students in harder texts and provided them the support and motivation to succeed and the kids did well. So far so good. Over time, if she continues to try it, I think she’ll find that she can get her students to higher levels of achievement than in the past.
Her note came in right at the time I was reading a newspaper article on reading, one printed in 1951 — the same year I was born. It even quoted Helen Robinson, whose research I have long admired. However, it contained so much baloney that it gave me hope — we are learning, we are making progress. The only way to do that, of course, is to reduce the strength of our beliefs, and to increase our reliance on data. Here is what we were telling people in 1951. I follow it with my own comments.  

Let Teacher Help Child’s Reading

by Marcia Winn 
Sept 11, 1951

Home Interference May Handicap

A number of years ago when this writer was 10, a neighbor accosted her. Billy, who was 7 and halfway thru the second grade still couldn’t read. Would she, the learned one of 10, take over Billy for the summer and see if she could improve his reading.
Billy’s mother thought it would be nice if he could learn to spell at the same time.
The offer, made terribly tempting by a remuneration of 50 cents a week [an hour a day of dear little Billy], was snatched up. So all thru the hot summer Billy and his tutor read and spelled. He had a nice time, and she was 50 cents a week richer, and he ended up reading and spelling with great facility. Don’t ask us why. Maybe he merely wanted to get back to the empty lot next door and play ball.
Were Billy 7 and half way thru the second grade today, the reading experts would protest such high-handed treatment. In the first place, if Billy is half way thru the second grade and can’t read, he is no problem. He simply isn’t “ready” for reading. He’s not a problem, remedially speaking, until he is in the third grade. Then he needs help only because in the fourth grade he’ll need his reading for what is described as ” a wide variety of content subjects,” whatever that means. One assumes he’ll need his reading to read.
Secondly, the reading experts of today say Billy’s reading should be a hands-off subject at home. Let teacher do it, not mummy.
If you worry because your child seems slow in grasping reading, talk to his teacher, not to him, Mrs. Helen Robinson, director of the reading clinics at the University of Chicago, advises. If you attempt to take matters into your own hands by reading with him, all you’ll do is upset him. Naturally you’ll read better he. You’ve been at it for years.
“Often this business of reading with the child threatens his security,” Mrs. Robinson says. “The parent identifies himself with the child. The popular opinion is that the child who doesn’t learn to read easily is of low mentality. The parent suspects this. I’ve seen a mother burst into tears when assured that her child’s I.Q. really was quite normal.”
Many parents try to help by spelling out the letters of the word [c-a-t, cat]. You may have learned to read this way, but Mrs. Robinson says that such home teaching is one of the major handicaps the remedial teachers have to overcome. Spelling does not precede reading she emphasizes; it follows it.
Instead, Mrs. Robinson suggests, see what your child’s teacher wants you to do. [There’s no point in getting your convictions gummed up with the whole school system; Billy is not going to learn the way you learned, and that’s that. He may emerge a better reader than you, or a poorer one, but whichever way, it’s today’s soup, and you can’t change it.] The teacher may want you to read aloud to him, not with him. She may say he is lacking in his background of experience and language. She may advise excursions on which you name every object.
Reading, Mrs. Robinson says, is a language skill that depends upon vocabulary. A barren language does nothing. A child gradually develops reading ability as he develops a sight vocabulary and recognizes meaningful words. His growth in this is as gradual as is in any other part of his makeup. You wouldn’t ask your child to scale a ladder before his legs, muscles, and sense of balance were ready.
Some children shinny up ladders at 2; some not until 6. It is the same with reading. It may interest you, however, to know that reading growth continues for many years, usually thru high school, and even college.

There is some pretty shady advice in this column.

  1. The major point, based on the expert advice, is that if your child is having trouble learning to read, stay out of it. We now have substantial research showing that parents can help their kids’ early literacy growth — a lot. Often parents are still put off by teachers with the “just read to them,” advice offered in this article … but parent involvement these days tends to be much more specific than that.

    Many more kids come to school reading than in the past I suspect (though without statistics for that claim), and there is clear evidence of more kids entering school knowing letter names and letter sounds. Parents can and should be involved in the teaching of their children. Obviously the reporter was put off by this strange advice — advice more based upon ideology than empirical evidence. The author had, at the age of 10, taught a struggling 7-year-old reader so she knew it could be done without harm; that’s the kind of skepticism we should all engage in.
  2. The notion that parent help was a major impediment for struggling readers was not something that Dr. Robinson found in her landmark dissertation. She identified many precursors to reading difficulties, but too much help and attention at home did not make her list. (And, no, if parents don’t use the school district’s approach, the works will not get gummed up.)
  3. Younger readers might be shocked by the idea that it’s okay for kids to lag in the primary grades. The advice often was stronger than that. When I was reading specialist I was called before the school board to explain why I was teaching a struggling first-grader. The notion that kids would mature into reading is certainly not a research-based idea. Kids who struggle early tend to continue to struggle and we need to intervene early to interrupt that cycle.
  4. Still another odd notion here is that kids need to memorize a lot of sight words to learn to read. We know a better than that now. Helen Robinson was a student of William S. Gray, the senior author of the Dick and Jane Readers. Those books did not include phonics or spelling or much emphasis on sounds and letters at any point in the process, and Dr. Robinson was clearly echoing her mentor’s unproven beliefs. These days we know much more about the central role that decoding plays in early reading development.
  5. The idea that a good approach to teaching vocabulary is to go on a naming excursion is pretty shallow, and not likely to result in kids learning the words that they need for most reading.
Despite these questionable professional insights, there were also signs of scientific thought. The journalism seems a bit confused, but it looks to me like Helen Robinson was trying to explain that IQ was NOT the major determinant of beginning reading and that kids who struggled with reading early on were not necessarily dumb.
That was a widely held belief at the time, despite the fact that research was showing that low intelligence was not the root of most poor reading. (IQ becomes more important in reading as students get older, because the importance of vocabulary, reasoning, and memory increase as one takes on more challenging texts).
My take away from this analysis: We are making progress. There are obviously many beliefs that were common in reading education that we have managed to grow beyond through empirical study. However, given that we continue to treat our unstudied opinions as if they were scientific findings, I suspect our future progress will be as hard won as in the past. Even with that, looking at the changes in our understanding of reading during my lifetime, it is clear that more progress is possible.

About the Author

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 (opens in a new window).

Publication Date
July 5, 2016