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March 1, 2004
Vol. 61
No. 6

Perspectives / What Works in Reading?

Perspectives / What Works in Reading? - thumbnail
She was a middle-aged woman who wanted to learn to read the newspaper. I was a college student who was trying to learn how to teach. We both should have gotten an A for effort. But that semester of Sunday afternoons spent going over scripted phonics lessons in an inner-city school cafeteria netted little success for either of us. She asked me how I connected the sounds with the letters, and I admitted I really didn't know. I hoped that she got an experienced teacher the next semester.
Although my understanding of the reading process has evolved, when it comes to reading instruction, I retain my faith in the necessity of “the good teacher.” I define “good teacher” as one who has expertise in the reading process and skill in assessing the needs of individual students, not just a warm body with a script in hand and a desire to help. After years of teaching and after even more years as an editor reading articles about the teaching of reading, I conclude the following about reading instruction.
  • We do know how to teach most children how to read, and we have known it for some time. In 1985, the Commission on Reading released Becoming a Nation of Readers. Among the research-based practices it delineated was phonics—but phonics with a caveat. The report recommended early phonics instruction (complete for most students before 3rd grade); artful texts written in natural language; less emphasis on worksheets; more time spent reading; more time modeling the reading process; and such strategies as reciprocal teaching.Today's official recommendations overlap the Commission's, but are narrower and more technical. The National Reading Panel concludes that all students must be taught alphabetics (phonemic awareness and phonics), reading fluency, vocabulary, and strategies for reading comprehension. The Panel endorses systematic phonics instruction for all students and one-to-one tutoring for struggling readers. The Panel withholds its approval of sustained silent reading and other practices that the reading research studies it selected do not show to be significantly effective and generalizable for all students. This, however, does not mean that the other practices don't work in many classrooms—only that the research cited by the National Reading Panel does not prove they do.In the 1990s and into this decade, brain research using fMRI technology has yielded fascinating information about how the brain works (p. 6), especially how brain images of struggling readers and proficient readers differ. Studies show that intensive, expert tutoring changes the signature of dyslexia and helps struggling readers. All educators should have an understanding of how brains activate when doing phonological tasks. Even so, the implications for instruction for all students are not quite as clear as the fMRIs are.In addition to brain research, research into practice is valuable, and immediately applicable. For example, researchers note the importance of explicit vocabulary instruction that emphasizes both phonics and meaning (p. 30) as well as extensive practice and assisted reading (p. 46). Finally, the importance of access to books in the home, school, and library (p. 82) is indisputable, and meaningful reading is key.
  • The reading wars of the 1990s have turned into the Reading Research War of the 2000s. Even though we know much about effective reading instruction, some researchers seem convinced that educators have never before based their practice on research. They suggest that researchers who have reservations about the National Reading Panel's findings are less than rigorous in their thinking and that educators who dislike a scripted approach are wrapped in their own well-meaning but misguided notions. On the other hand, other researchers find fault with the methodology of the research done by the Panel, suggesting that the Panel ruled out too many reliable studies and, thus, too many effective practices. Each side accuses the other of using research selectively to substantiate preconceived, ideological, or proprietary approaches.
  • Schools are in the middle. Meanwhile, to gain their share of the Reading First money, many schools are abandoning older reading programs and choosing one on the nonofficial “approved” list. The 2,000 schools that have received funding have adopted remarkably similar programs (Manzo, 2003). This standardization may result in benefits to the students—especially if results in the past have been poor. On the other hand, what if schools are throwing out richer and more varied programs for narrower and more scripted ones?
This issue of EL brings you into the middle of the Reading Research War, a war that threatens to take no prisoners. Despite our human wish for a single truth, research can be both right and wrong—even scientific research. Although medical science has found effective treatments for diseases ranging from polio to tuberculosis, medical science—on the basis of evidence—also routinely discards formerly heralded treatments as harmful. (Witness the labeling of hormone replacement therapy as carcinogenic.) The good thing about science is that it admits it doesn't know the answers for all time. Scientists remain open to examining new evidence without necessarily discarding the old. Educators need to do the same and seek understanding of all positions. A forum of debate, such as this magazine, is another essential way to expand our understanding of the truth—even if it is not peer-reviewed.
References

Commission on Reading. (1985). Becoming a nation of readers. Washington, DC: National Academy of Education & The Center for the Study of Reading.

Manzo, K. K. (2003). Reading programs bear similarities across the states. Education Week, 33(21), 1–13.

Marge Scherer has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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