School & District Management

New Panels to Form to Study Reading Research

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — January 30, 2002 5 min read
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At least three new federal panels are being formed to continue the review of reading research begun by the National Reading Panel, whose report of two years ago has influenced the development of federal and state policies in literacy instruction.

Federal officials hope the groups—including one to follow up the review of quantitative research in the field undertaken by the congressionally mandated reading panel, as well as others on qualitative reading research and English- learners—will add to educators’ understanding of how instruction can improve student achievement.

While it is viewed as a landmark work among many reading researchers, educators, and policymakers, the panel’s 2000 report has drawn considerable criticism as having too narrow a focus. Federal officials also hope the groups will help quell the controversy surrounding the report, “Teaching Children to Read.”

“One of the criticisms of the NRP report was that it only looked at quantitative research,” said Sandra L. Baxter, the interim director of the National Institute for Literacy, the independent federal agency that is coordinating the panels on quantitative and qualitative research. “That was by no means a statement that qualitative research is not valuable. Our purpose is to look at the qualitative research and see what it can tell us about improving reading instruction.”

Widening the Focus

The NRP report synthesized the findings of more than three dozen experimental and quasi- experimental studies on the effectiveness of various approaches to teaching reading. It looked at what the panel concluded are the five critical components of good reading instruction: phonemic awareness (the understanding that words are made up of sounds and letters), phonics (a technique to help youngsters make those associations), fluency, vocabulary, and text comprehension.

The panel’s findings are the foundation of President Bush’s Reading First initiative, which will provide more than $900 million in grants for research- based reading programs.

Participating in the projects along with the National Institute for Literacy will be the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the Department of Education. The three organizations collaborate in the Partnership for Reading, which disseminates information on evidence-based reading research.

Panel selection has not yet begun, and members will be chosen primarily by the Education Department and the literacy institute.

The National Reading Panel, acknowledging that time limitations and the enormous size of the task restricted the scope of its work, decided to evaluate only peer-reviewed studies with measurable results. The research also had to be replicable and capable of being generalized to the population of students at large. Moreover, it had to examine the effectiveness of an instructional approach on student achievement, compared with students who weren’t taught that way. (“Reading Panel Urges Phonics For All in K-6,” April 19, 2000.)

Ethnographies, case studies, small-group studies, and other observational research were excluded. Such qualitative studies, which tend to be descriptive rather than measurable, often cannot identify the causal relationships between instructional practices and achievement that policymakers demand.

Timothy Shanahan

The 14-member panel, overseen by the NICHD, consisted of scientists engaged in reading research, psychologists, administrators, a pediatrician, a teacher, a principal, a parent, and a physicist. In its final report, the panel said that additional work was necessary for reviewing qualitative research as well as other issues.

‘A Cultural Divide’

Some of the critics of the NRP report found the news of the upcoming review of qualitative research both surprising and encouraging, but still insufficient.

“I do not believe the question is whether qualitative research is included or not, but rather whether the framework for understanding reading is sufficiently broad to allow us to understand the full range of complexities in learning and teaching in a way that will be useful,” said David Bloome, the president-elect of the National Council of Teachers of English, based in Urbana, Ill.

Timothy Shanahan, a member of the NRP, said the qualitative review could alert federal officials to the need for and value of combination studies that include both comparisons of reading-achievement data and careful observations about how certain instructional strategies play out in the classroom. He is concerned, however, that the kinds of research questions generally pursued by qualitative researchers are not as aligned to policy issues, such as accountability, as those in research that tends to produce numerical data.

“It is not just that people use different kinds of methods,” said Mr. Shanahan, who is on leave from his position as a professor of urban education at the University of Illinois at Chicago to oversee reading programs for the Chicago public schools. “It is a cultural divide. People doing qualitative research are looking at different kinds of issues.”

In his own preliminary review of the literature for the panel, Mr. Shanahan found very few studies that met the original panel’s criteria.

The upcoming panel on qualitative research, Ms. Baxter said, will use a different criteria for selecting studies than the NRP used. The review “may not be as instructive for policy purposes, but certainly it can be instructive for change purposes.”

But some researchers worry that if the work of the qualitative panel doesn’t directly inform policy, part of the literature could be construed as unimportant.

“I’m not sure we’re ready to say who are the excellent qualitative researchers and what are the excellent qualitative methods,” said Michael Pressley, a professor of Catholic education and psychology at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana and a critic of the NRP report. “I worry that this is going to be political. There are groups that would like to be able to say a federal panel looked at the body of qualitative research and didn’t find anything [concrete].”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 30, 2002 edition of Education Week as New Panels to Form to Study Reading Research

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