Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

A SPECIAL SECTION ON READING RESEARCH - Reading between the Lines: Observations on the Report of the National Reading Panel and Its Critics

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

A SPECIAL SECTION ON READING RESEARCH - Reading between the Lines: Observations on the Report of the National Reading Panel and Its Critics

Article excerpt

Mr. Cooper steps back and tries to see the whole picture that might emerge from the different pieces of research on reading instruction.

I COULD NOT read the preceding exchange between Elaine Garan, Stephen Krashen, Timothy Shanahan, and Peggy McCardle and Vinita Chhabra from the perspective of a reading expert.1 I'm not a reading expert. In fact, I can't say I've read much about reading instruction beyond parts of the original Report of the National Reading Panel (NRP) and the articles that are principal to this debate.2 Rather, I examined these articles as someone who knows a bit about the methodology of research synthesis,3 as a former two-term school board member who lived through the "Reading Wars" side by side with our superintendents and principals who needed to make decisions about reading instruction,4 as the spouse of a first- grade teacher with over 25 years' teaching experience, and as the dad of two kids who successfully learned to be avid readers in America's public schools. So I apologize for my loose technical language, which I know will drive reading experts crazy.

Phonics Instruction

What did I learn from my reading on phonics instruction? Let me start with the bottom line. I found it very informative to read the article by Gregory Camilli, Sakako Vargas, and Michele Yurecko, but not to take from it the lessons that the authors offered. They chose to focus on how their results differed from those of the NRP. Just as easily, and perhaps more usefully, they might have framed their findings to highlight the consistency between the two sets of results. I was impressed with the fact that Camilli, Vargas, and Yurecko and the NRP approached the evidence differently -- most notably by focusing on different comparison groups to test the effect of phonics and by using different effect size weighting schemes -- but came to similar conclusions. In particular, I think both sets of research synthesists would agree with the following findings of the research:

* the advantage of instructional approaches that include systematic phonics over instructional approaches that include some or no phonics is statistically significant;

* however, instructional approaches that include systemic phonics instruction show their greatest advantage in the early primary grades; and

* instruction in systematic phonics should be integrated with other types of reading instruction to create a balanced reading program, for phonics instruction is never a complete reading program.

The research literature examined by Camilli, Vargas, and Yurecko has been disassembled and reassembled, trashed and praised, pushed to the left, and tugged to the right. Yet it seems to me that neither side has been able to make these three findings go away.

What do these results mean to school superintendents and principals? If I were the superintendent of a school district using a reading approach that did not include teaching systematic phonics in early grades or if my district's approach used phonics only, I would find out how much money I could get for our teaching materials on eBay. Then again, maybe I would just hold onto our stuff and purchase the appropriate complementary materials.

Why did Camilli, Vargas, and Yurecko seem so focused on their differences with the NRP rather than their agreements? Although they labeled themselves "agnostic" in the Reading Wars, we know that there are no agnostics (or atheists) in a foxhole. Making such a claim challenges readers to search for where the authors' "hidden theory" creeps in.

Rather than claim neutrality, it is most helpful to users of research syntheses -- indeed of any research -- when the authors try to interpret the results from multiple points of view. Imagine the familiar eight- ounce water glass. As a researcher, I may be able to estimate that the glass contains four ounces of water. I may use multiple techniques to arrive at this conclusion, and the conclusion might even be the average of several estimation procedures. …

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