Reading & Literacy

Federal Agency Casts Net For Reading Panelists

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — September 21, 2004 4 min read
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A federal literacy agency is soliciting nominees for a new commission to continue and expand on the work of the influential National Reading Panel.

Last week’s announcement came more than 2½ years after initial planning for the group began, in response to demands for a follow-up to the controversial 2000 panel report that provided the framework for federal and state reading policies.

The Commission on Reading Research will review a broad array of studies to help build on educators’ understanding of effective instructional approaches and strategies.

The National Institute for Literacy is asking research organizations representing the fields of psychology, sociology, anthropology, reading, and education to nominate prospective panel members. The 15-member follow-up group will be appointed by the literacy institute, the U.S. departments of Education and Health and Human Services, the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, and the Education Department’s Institute for Education Sciences.

It is expected to begin in October and work over the next two years to review research on effective reading instruction and factors affecting student achievement. Limited staffing at the literacy institute caused the delay in organizing the panel, according to Sandra Baxter, the interim director.

“The National Reading Panel revolutionized education by establishing the scientific basis and critical components of reading instruction,” Ms. Baxter said. “This new panel will build on that work and provide educators with more information to help them base their instruction on sound, scientific principles.”

Expanded Focus

The commission will have more leeway to look at different types of studies, including experimental and quasi-experimental studies, as the earlier panel did, but also findings from correlational and descriptive research.

First, Ms. Baxter said, the group will select topics to study—which might include those tackled by the National Reading Panel, such as alphabetics and comprehension—and then write related research questions. It will then analyze what panel members deem to be high-quality studies that might provide answers.

The National Reading Panel was required to limit its review to quantitative research, leading to criticism that its narrow focus did not acknowledge practical problems of applying research in the classroom. (“New Panels to Form to Study Reading Research,” Jan. 30, 2002.)

While the National Reading Panel determined the elements of instruction that are essential to helping children learn to read, it did not draw specific conclusions on how they should be taught.

Some experts hope the new panel will help fill in the missing pieces.

“I certainly would look forward to a final report that reflects the complexity of the issues that face the field of literacy and literacy education,” said Victoria Purcell-Gates, a professor of education at Michigan State University in East Lansing. “Probably the most pressing issues facing reading achievement across countries is the disparity in achievement between learners from different social classes and income levels,” she said. “You need to look at different research designs to probe [those issues].”

A review of the broader research, Ms. Purcell-Gates said, would require that the panel represent a diverse group of researchers from each of the methodological approaches who can work together to synthesize the findings and put them into practical terms that could be useful to teachers and policymakers.

Watching Closely

The makeup of the panel is likely to draw scrutiny, particularly from researchers who rely more on qualitative methods—such as descriptive studies, case studies, and ethnographies—and who have perceived that such work has been given short shrift in policies dealing with curriculum and instruction.

But Jack M. Fletcher, a prominent reading researcher who will chair the new commission, said the panel would review an array of issues and its members would bring a variety of research experience.

“There is a real need to bring practical, research-based information to teachers,” said Mr. Fletcher, a professor in the department of pediatrics at the University of Houston who has been a recipient of NICHD research funding. “We are soliciting major organizations, … so [the panel] will have broad representation.”

Some experts, however, doubt the panel’s work will be comprehensive, or as useful to teachers as it could be.

“At best, if the panel focuses on approaches alone and does so solely by reviewing narrowly defined ‘scientific’ studies based on statistical analyses, it is likely to produce relatively narrow and decontextualized generalizations about effectiveness,” said David Reinking, a professor of education at Clemson University in South Carolina.

Mr. Reinking, who is the editor of the journal Reading Research Quarterly, contends that looking beyond instructional methods and approaches to other issues, such as how teacher knowledge and experience, literacy resources for students, and school leadership affect achievement could yield more valuable information for the field.

“At worst,” he continued, “it may rekindle the reading wars that have consumed disproportionate attention among academics and policymakers, but that have accomplished little in furthering reading instruction or children’s literacy development.”

Ms. Baxter is accepting nominations for the reading commission at sbaxter@nifl.gov.

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A version of this article appeared in the July 28, 2004 edition of Education Week as Federal Agency Casts Net For Reading Panelists

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