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What Research Really Says About Teaching Reading (Even Beyond ILA 2019)

By ILA Staff
 | Oct 22, 2019

The sound of chatter filled the room as teachers, educators, and researchers made their way into the theater on the second day of ILA 2019. With coffee in hand, the crowd eagerly awaited the beginning of the newly added panel, What Research Really Says About Teaching Reading—and Why That Still Matters.

Abiding the Rules of the Road

David Pearson took the stage shortly after the clock struck 7:00 a.m. From the start of his presentation, Pearson gave the packed room a reminder: He’s all for research-based practice, but if we’re going to go down that road, let’s make sure we have a road map and follow the rules of the road.

Delving into research-based practice, Pearson went on to share his version of the rules of the road:

Rule #1: Policymakers have to read beyond the headline (or have a reader on staff).

Pearson stressed that readers looking at the headline but not taking it a step further by reading all the content is problematic. Headlines can leave out a lot of the details, nuances, and truth.

Rule #2: When research is applied, it ought to be applied in an even-handed way.

No cherry picking. You must look at all research, not just the bits that fit your biases. This also includes equity among students and teachers, said Pearson.

Rule #3: It’s our moral and ethical obligation to use the best evidence we can muster for making policy decisions of consequence.

Pearson explained that if we applied the best available evidence standard we would not have so many phonics programs for older students, would not mandate percentages of decodable text, and would still have bilingual education programs in California, Arizona, and Massachusetts.

Rule #4: When you invoke the mantle of science, you have to accept the full portfolio of methods scientists use.

“When you invite the research family to the policy table, you have to invite them all, even the cousins you’d rather not talk to,” said Pearson, who received laughs from the crowd.

Rule #5: Build your case on your evidence, not on the back of a straw person.

To this point, Pearson said that often educators try to advance the practice they want to promote by asserting that the problem is that no one is currently doing what they advocate. In reality, there is little evidence to warrant the claim that no one is doing it.

Last, Rule #6: You have to talk to others in the field who you don’t share basic assumptions about how to do research or what the research says.

According to Pearson, you must stay at the table and cut through the rhetoric. While individuals tend to stay with people who are like them, this approach is bad for educational policy and a problem for society today.

Building a Future of Strong Readers

As the engaged crowd digested Pearson’s road map, he moved the program into the panel format featuring renowned literacy experts Nell K. Duke, Sonia Cabell, and Gwendolyn Thompson McMillon.

The group began the panel by discussing what research tells us about teaching and facilitating in the early years. According to Cabell, children start developing the skills they need for later literacy success from birth. Preschool teachers can help facilitate this at a young age by drawing children’s attention to print while they’re reading out loud, playing phonological games, and practice writing in settings that inspire curiosity.

“Children must develop their language skills as early as possible,” said Cabell, “By the end of kindergarten children’s language skills start to stabilize. They grow in their skills, but really they are in the same place as their peers.”

Early on, the code-related skills predict achievement well in kindergarten and first grade. But by the time students get to third grade, it’s the early oral language where the emphasis is on meaning that has the better predicting value predicting later reading achievement, added Pearson.

Addressing the Scripted Curriculum Conundrum

Gwendolyn Thompson McMillon shifted the conversation to the pros and cons of scripted curriculum. In research, McMillon found that when preservice and inexperienced teachers get into the classroom, they are more comfortable when they’re given direction on what to say and do. Also, depending on how the scripted program is presented, it can increase engagement among students. However, she moved to explained how the cons of scripted curriculum can cost both educators and students. 

“If it’s a scripted program, my concern is that students who may not get the kind of language interaction at home, and often times that’s students who are socioeconomically impoverished, may not get that in the classroom,” McMillon said. “Then when would it happen? I’m concerned that the interaction [with scripted programs] isn’t there.”

It wouldn’t be professionally responsible for any of us to recommend using scripted programs with no responsiveness to children in front of us. It’s about how much guidance you’re putting into the program, Duke added.

Cabell joined the discussion by adding that some of the goal for scripted programs is to teach teachers how to teach a topic, therefore they may be a benefit to many.

Exploring Texts for Beginning Readers

Pearson turned to Duke to move the conversation to texts for beginning readers.

“The weight of the evidence suggests that decodability is an important factor in texts for beginning readers,” Duke says. “That degree to which the texts are decodable does matter for children and for their development. More decodable texts foster literacy development better, even though it’s not what some people want to hear.”

There is also evidence that suggests other factors in the text that are important: The diversity of genres represented, natural language, and the degree the text is engaging the kids, Duke continued. In her opinion, the most promising work in the area is what is currently is referred to as multiple criteria texts, which focus decodability but do not stop there. She recommends educators learn more at

Tackling Reading Comprehension

There is a large body of research supporting the explicit teaching of comprehension strategies using a gradual release of responsibility model, said Duke. There’s no doubt about its importance.

“It’s as though because we think content knowledge building is so important, we’re just going to ignore three decades of research on comprehensive strategy instruction,” said Duke. “This isn’t a zero-sum game saying, ‘if you can’t attend to content, then you can’t teach comprehension strategies’ or ‘if you teach comprehension strategies, you must not be paying enough attention to vocabulary or morphology.’”

There is also concern that the literacy field is usurping content instruction in school districts. Meaning, literacy is dominating the day with some programs having curricula addressing social studies and science standards. This leaves districts feeling as if teaching both subjects are optional. This is deeply problematic, said Duke. Literacy practitioners should be advocating for science and social studies instruction.

“For too long, literacy has been a bully and pushed science and social studies off of the stage,” Pearson said in his final comments. “Literacy should be a buddy, not a bully, for science and social studies.”

Though the panel came to a close, the critical conversations were just beginning. Attendees could be heard exiting the crowded auditorium debriefing the panel with fellow colleagues, while Twitter (referred to as “the wires” by Pearson) was buzzing using the hashtag #ILAresearch. Although ILA 2019 has come and gone, we look forward to educators and researchers continuing the conversation about what research really says about teaching reading.

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