IRA Attendees Flock to Sessions
On Applying Reading Research
The International Reading Association welcomed a record 20,000 teachers, administrators, researchers, teacher-educators, and policymakers here for its 46th annual convention, offering nearly 1,000 sessions, workshops, and institutes aimed at improving reading instruction for students in preschool through high school.
Similar to IRA conferences of the past, the sessions focused on reading theory, research, and classroom application. But underlying much of the discussion this year was the need for research-based strategies for the classroom, and the requisite teacher preparation and professional development to help teachers apply them effectively.
“There are a lot more sessions focused on more direct kinds of strategies for teaching reading,” said Alan E. Farstrup, the IRA’s executive director. “It reflects the times.”
Many districts and states are mandating more research-based approaches to teaching reading—particularly for more direct instruction in phonetic, or sounding-out, skills for the youngest readers and older students struggling to become proficient. But preservice and in-service programs for teachers have often been slow to catch up, lacking the resources or the will to make significant changes to their programs, some presenters here said.
Those presentations that sought to help educators sort through the research and rhetoric about improving literacy instruction were among the most popular at the gathering, held April 27 to May 4.
A session on what the research says and doesn’t say about phonics instruction, led by Wake Forest University professor Patricia M. Cunningham, for example, drew more than 1,000 participants. Educators packed a ballroom designed for 700, sitting on the floor, leaning against the walls, and spilling out the doorways before hotel security personnel blocked the entrance and turned hundreds of people away. Other sessions promising help in translating research into practice were also filled to capacity.
In one preconference session, IRA board member Timothy Shanahan offered his own framework for effective reading instruction, crafted from years of classroom experience, research, and discussions with teachers.
Mr. Shanahan, a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a member of the influential National Reading Panel, outlined a four-point program for teaching children to read. The four principles focus instruction on word knowledge, including recognition and understanding of words; fluency, or reading speed, accuracy, and expression; comprehension; and writing.
The “Literacy Teaching Framework” calls for at least two hours a day devoted to reading instruction that research has proved works. While other elements may be incorporated into the school day, they should not be included in the instructional time, Mr. Shanahan said.
For example, silent, sustained reading, a popular approach that sets aside 20 to 30 minutes during the school day for individual reading, should not count as part of the reading block. Despite anecdotal and qualitative evidence that such programs can improve students’ motivation to read, the limited research available has not proved or disproved their effect on achievement, Mr. Shanahan said.
“More time spent on reading instruction means more learning; it’s that simple,” he told about 200 educators. “But if it isn’t proven to work through research, you can’t count it toward instruction.”
Other features of the framework include: students’ use of a variety of texts, including literary, informational, and technical; children’s active engagement in their learning; and after-school activities that extend learning opportunities.
Mr. Shanahan has helped implement and refine the plan in low-performing schools in Joliet, Ill., over the past decade. Those schools, he said, have seen significant gains, as much as 25 percent in one year, in students’ scores on state reading tests. More than 200 schools in states throughout the Midwest and West have adopted the framework.
Dissatisfied with letting others set their political agenda, leaders of the International Reading Association are striking out to establish their own.
They’ve launched the Five Star Policy Recognition program, and last week nominated Illinois as the only state worthy of that distinction.
The IRA has long had a strong lobbying presence in Washington, but not necessarily in the state capitals. The policy-recognition program represents one effort to change that.
“We’re a very knowledgeable organization when it comes to the area of quality reading instruction,” said Katherine Au, a member of the IRA board and a professor of education at the University of Hawaii. “We want to be able to be proactive in the policy arena in the states. It just seemed like this was an area where we wanted to have an influence.”
To earn the honor, states must meet five criteria culled from the organization’s list of student rights. The states must require that teachers be certified and receive ongoing professional development, support intervention programs for struggling readers, and ensure that students have access to technology and a wide variety of reading materials. In addition, states must refrain from mandating a particular instructional method and from relying on standardized tests alone to make promotion or graduation decisions.
Nominations are made by the organization’s state councils. Five states were nominated this year, but only Illinois made the cut. In the coming year, the IRA will conduct an “audit of policy implementation” to see whether those measures are actually carried out. If it passes muster, Illinois will win the award.
—Karen Diegmueller & Kathleen Kennedy Manzo
A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 2001 edition of Education Week as Reporter’s Notebook