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Separate the Chaff from the … What? – The Irony of Reading Research

by Paolo Martin

As a reading specialist, I have to confession to make:  I really dig science, numbers, and experiments. You see, there was a time in my life when I used to run experiments which studied the expression of RNA specific to molecules that regulated wound healing.  It's true!  With that said, I can appreciate the idea of "scientifically-based reading research" (SBRR).  This is a term that has been widely used since the passage of NCLB and the Reading First Act, and the publication of the National Reading Panel's five essential elements of reading instruction in their report "Teaching Children to Read."  Like research that contributes to the understanding of how a particular molecule affects wound-healing, I'm all for scientific research that contributes to our understanding of educational topics like, let's say, the effect of phonics, reading rate, and prosody on students' reading comprehension.  I say this, however, with an emphasis on "contributes to our understanding of educational topics."  Unfortunately, SBRR today, as informative and unbiased as it sounds, is not used by the powers that be to truly tease out the very complex nature of reading and learning to read.

In reality, reading experts like Louisa Moats, who was the project director of the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development's Early Interventions Projects in 2001, often go beyond the "science" of reading research to using the rhetoric of SBRR to endorse personal and professional philosophies about reading instruction (and products - i.e., Sopris West products) while vehemently condemning the poor quality of other SBRR which supports practices that run against the grain of their ideologies.  In her Fordham Institute paper "Whole-Language High Jinks," Moats stops short of calling certain reading programs "wolves in sheep's clothing," but makes bold suggestions on how to sort "the wheat from the chaff," endorsing reading programs like Open Court and assessment measures like DIBELS as grounded in "scientifically-based reading research."  While other researchers like Moustafa and Land (2002) found results contradictory to research endorsing Open Court, and other reading researchers have questioned the true ability of DIBELS to predict comprehension achievement (Samuels, 2007), Moats still stands by these reading programs while continuing to write articles fit for the pulpit, laced with fire and brimstone, condemning other programs and folks who don't ascribe to exactly the same reading principles that she strongly believes in.  Nothing scientific about that!  But educators in the field will have to do the best they can to get beyond the rhetoric and really weigh the odds when figuring out what's best for our children.  And perhaps--just perhaps--the kind of unscientific, pseudo-religious rhetoric touted by "experts" looking for self-aggrandizement will blow away in time, like chaff extricated by the wind, and we can focus on what really matters - our kids.

Tags: reading research, scientifically-based reading research, reading instruction, reading assessment

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