This last week I attended the Literacy Research Association conference, the largest literacy research-focused conference held each year in the U.S. The program was packed with hundreds of presentations, poster sessions, round table discussions, and special interest groups directed by the luminaries and newcomers in the varied fields associated with reading and writing.
I share this slightly wonkish topic here to offer some essential perspective to assertions in the press that teachers aren’t using the science of literacy research in their instructional decisions. That’s of interest mostly because the disappointing end-of-year test scores of reading proficiency have stagnated for 20 years.
But what does science mean in this context?
Well, this could be a healthy discussion with active debate, but as one of the conference presenters suggested, citing scientific research to “settle” how things should be done tends to end discussions, rather than engender them. The reason that almost nothing is settled when it comes to science is that science never ends. It constantly moves us closer to a full truth.
A research presentation that I found most compelling shared about A Critical, Interactive, Transparent & Evolving literature review in Initial Teacher Education in Literacy (CITE-ITEL for short). It is free online for anyone to explore hundreds of scientific publications curated, validated and then synthesized. These have been judged to be the most valuable for guiding the preparation of teachers for optimum literacy instruction.
CITE-ITEL is constantly expanding its collection of credible, current and historical contributions to knowledge about literacy teaching. Yet despite it all, none of this best information can prescribe how to teach individual kids in a class of children from diverse backgrounds, cultures and language communities.
Knowledge of excellent research guides teachers to take sensible steps in teaching reading based upon reliable data, not just the opinions of one loud group or another. Well-designed and conducted research can only suggest promising possibilities to the teacher working with a particular child or unique group. They put that together with their knowledge about their children to plan their work.
Those seemingly simplistic solutions for ensuring progress in literacy learning don’t come from just a few research studies. With the help of their supervisors and administrators, teachers can take advantage of resources like CITE-ITEL to answer tough questions about next steps for addressing their particular student’s needs.
Many teachers end the year having said goodbye to <25% of their fall student group that has moved out during the academic year, slowly replaced with other children, with new histories and needs. So across-the-board gains in literacy comes down to individual classroom teachers making decisions with and for each and all of the +30 children on their class rosters on any given day.