The more things change, the more they stay the same
Starting from data, we learn that many kids struggle to read words and answer straightforward questions about what they read – a fundamental problem that should be addressed with a clear plan with a high chance of success. But therein lies the problem. We disagree on how to address this problem with warring factions camped out within the educational landscape. Part of this entrenchment results from dissent that arises about how best to understand and teach reading. There may be a consensus that reading matters, but there is also disagreement about how we should go about teaching reading. And dissent around this topic is made just that much worse by the complexity of what it takes to educate children to read.
There is a tireless debate surrounding the whole language versus phonics approaches to reading instruction. The names of these approaches change from time to time. The whole language approach was rebranded to balanced literacy. Yet, the core of the debate remains unchanged. Do we put books into kids’ hands and allow them to discover reading through guided reading experiences? Or do we provide explicit instruction in the components processes of reading – in particular letter-sound correspondences taught using phonics? Sadly, people still believe that we should narrowly define the act of reading instruction to fit within the strict confines of these perspectives as they have been defined historically.
But neither of these limited perspectives encompass all that we have learned nor the full spectrum of readers who make up the plurality of the U.S. And no one person or monolithic group of individuals can fully encapsulate and understand this complexity. The parable of the blind men and the elephant seems like an apt analogy to help appreciate this dilemma. Each of us is groping around at this problem within the confines of our unique world views stymied by the fixedness of thought and ideas that emerge from the limited ability of humans to capture the full diorama of any problem. Expertise and background knowledge gained through book learning and real-world experiences can go a long way to functionally expand our capacities to appreciate a problem and come to reasoned well-founded conclusions. Yet, expertise to represent the totality of a challenge is achieved by exposure to the full spectrum of readers and contexts in which reading develops. It can’t just emerge from the perspective of what is best for children at high risk of being struggling readers nor those children who seemingly learn to read just as effortlessly as they learned to produce and understand spoken language.
Overcoming these challenges requires dialogue to establish a shared awareness, which must be synthesized, communicated, and translated into concrete, actionable steps. However, our ability to engage in this hard work is disrupted by continual conflict and dissent. And sadly, the damage done by conflict and dissent is not exclusively the result of waring between the historically polarized factions discussed thus far. The dissent also emerges within these factions – especially within the skills-based camp. And the warring within this camp has led to real and pressing challenges that threaten our collective ability to move the needle on reading education.
Dissent within this group seems inevitable because the approach they adopt is based on deconstructing word reading, spelling, and comprehension into the component processes and areas of knowledge that support them. And here is where we lose all of the whole language / balanced literacy folks. They would rather talk about the construction of meaning as the act of reading based on personally held schemata, and they argue their work is science-based and grounded in the cognitive sciences. However, from what may have started with a sleeper cell of holdouts in Europe that included folks such as Bartlett and his explorations of the construction of meaning from stories such the War of the Ghosts, emerged a much different cognitive revolution in the behavioral sciences that supplanted radical behaviorism in North American. And this revolution gave rise to cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience, which fall under the broader umbrella of the cognitive sciences.
The overall impact of the cognitive sciences on Educational Psychology has been profound. And one of the results of this influence has been the identification of a host of candidate processes and sources of knowledge implicated in word reading, spelling, and text comprehension. Overall, this has been a good thing and has supported the development of tools, assessments, and instructional practices. And this work is ongoing.
However, there is also a dark side to how the conversation surrounding the translation of this research has unfolded. Cognitive science is grounded in deconstructivism. Simply meaning that understanding advances by taking complex acts that we perceive as relatively straightforward and effortless, such as a proficient reader’s understanding of a text passage and breaking that act down into its constituent parts. There are myriad ways of breaking it down and a host of theories to explain what seems to us to be such a simple act. Yet, much of this science has been descriptive identifying correlates of word reading, spelling, and comprehension. Some of this research has been developmental exploring trends that emerge as children develop their reading capacities. Far less of this research has been instructional and focused on figuring out if instruction in specific processes and areas of knowledge supports the development of word reading, spelling, and comprehension and for whom it does so.
Sure, the science is thoughtful and deliberate. But it is also painfully slow to generate answers to pressing questions. It takes time to go from start to finish, and the most informative studies – longitudinal and instructional studies – take the longest to conduct and disseminate. They also are far more expensive to conduct than one-off descriptive studies that illustrate correlations.
The time it takes to generate concrete recommendations based on this process frustrates many stakeholders – parents, teachers, educational leaders, and policymakers who want concrete answers to straightforward questions about how to go about reading instruction. They want the answers now. And, we need answers to these questions because kids are in school right now. Sadly, the majority of third-grade students across the country fail to pass reading tests administered at the end of third grade. Even more troubling, the majority of students graduating from high schools across the nation lack the requisite reading skills to be competitive in the 21st-century workforce.
Yet, it can’t be stressed enough that getting answers takes time, and researchers are hesitant by their nature to rush to provide solutions. Also, they are often engaged in different pursuits than translating research into practice. Even if more of them were involved in this work, ideally, they would be part of a larger consortium of individuals. No singular, homogenous group has the requisite expertise and knowledge to translate research into practice. But these realities should not stand in the way of more researchers engaging in this necessary work.
When there isn’t thoughtful engagement from the research community to support how findings are contextualized into the classroom, a vacuum is created. A void that has become a fertile playground for others to muck about. And some of these folks seemingly love to expound upon which constellations of processes and sources of knowledge matter the most, which should be taught to children in support of literacy development and exactly how it should be done. These prophetic voices demarcating what constellations of these processes and sources of knowledge matter and how to go about teaching them can become extremely granular and get bogged down in the minutia. This level of minutia is precisely what many educators crave and gladly consume.
All of this espousing about what matters, why it matters, and how to go about teaching it is done under the flag of science. But oddly, there aren’t that many folks credentialed as scientists doing this work. So, it seems we must find ways to fill this void with thoughtful dialogue that includes a diverse array of individuals who collectively have the knowledge, practical experience, and wisdom to engage in this work. This work is not easy, but it is the work that needs to be done. But to be clear, this works needs to be undertaken as a dialogue with all groups engaged in a back and forth and sharing of experiences, expertise, understanding of the different challenges and ideas about how we might focus efforts to address them.
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