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General Summaries of Reading Research
Sebastian Wren, Ph.D.

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Book Review 
Reading research is a very broad area -- there is a lot involved in learning to read, and there is even more involved in teaching children to read.  Most books about reading research focus in on a particular area under the large umbrella of reading research, such as phoneme awareness, phonics, vocabulary, writing, motivation, comprehension, etc.  Other reading-research books attempt to provide a very general description of the whole field of reading research (or at least a significant chunk of it).  From time to time, an author or a committee attempts to review a wide range of reading research and synthesize the findings in one book or one report. 

Below are a few of those general reviews of reading research that I think are well worth reading.

-- To learn more about a particular book, or to purchase a copy of that book, just click on the image of the book cover --
Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print
Marilyn Jager Adams
Published in 1990 by MIT Press

This is clearly the most often cited, most influential book in the area of reading research.  In the history of this field, "Why Johnny Can't Read," "The Great Debate," and "Beginning to Read" are the three publications that have had the most profound, far-reaching impact on reading instruction.  "Beginning to Read" is quite simply the most important book that has been written about reading research in the past 20 years, and it stands alone at the very top of my list of recommended readings for all reading teachers, policy-makers, and anybody else interested in understanding the "big picture" of reading research.

Marilyn Adams is a delightful writer who has a talent for taking fairly abstract and complicated ideas and conveying them in the most clear and understandable way possible.  This talent for synthesizing various, distantly related research findings into a cohesive, comprehensible picture that can be understood by a wide audience has made Marilyn Adams the de-facto voice of the reading research community.

Be warned, however, this book is not light reading.  It is true that Adams is a graceful writer who has a talent for making complicated research understandable, and she has a knack for helping people see how best to apply reading research in instructional practice.  However, some of this research information is still quite challenging to understand.  In this book, Adams shares current research that is very easy to translate into instructional practice.  But she also shares findings that, while good to know, do not have very obvious implications for instruction.  Anybody looking for a simple "how to" manual for reading instruction will be disappointed by this book -- this book requires thought on the part of the reader, and some chapters in this book are devoted to very abstract research findings and models describing the cognitive processes that are involved in the act of reading.  This book is, however, required reading for anybody who wants to develop an advanced understanding of the state-of-the-art in reading research.

Reading Research at Work: Foundations of Effective Practice
Katherine A. Dougherty Stahl and Michael C. McKenna
Published in 2006 by Guilford Press

In May of 2004, Steven Stahl lost a 4-year battle with cancer at a young age, and we lost one of the greatest contributors to the field of reading research and instruction.  With the passing of this happy, funny, wonderful man, our field also lost a brilliant collection of research that will never be conducted.  I mourn the loss of a friendly and delightful character I barely had a chance to know, and I also mourn the loss of all that he could have shared with our field if he had been able to live out his life.

Reading Research at Work: Foundations of Effective Practice celebrates the enormous contributions that Steven Stahl made before he passed away.  Steven worked until he could no longer work to share his vast experience and insight with us, and after he passed, his most influential and profound writings were collected and reprinted in this book.  Friends and colleagues also added chapters to this book to share different perspectives about the contributions Steven made through his career.

Reading this book, it was hard for me to reconcile the serious and profound contributions to reading research with the jovial, easy-going man I knew.  He was at the center of every debate in reading research.  He was in charge of some of the most important reading research and policy events of the past 20 years.  He conducted some of the most important, seminal research in all of the five "big ideas" of reading instruction.

And he was a young prankster who cracked jokes all the time.  I really can't wrap my mind around that.  Had I not known Steven, I would read this book and think of a venerable old scholar who meticulously pushed out the boundaries of our knowledge through the course of a long and diverse career.  But I knew Steven to be young, vital, and so very personable.  He always made time for teachers and students and friends and family, and reading this book, I can't help but wonder where he found the time to do so much.

If you read this book, you will be amazed at how much of instructional practice was influenced by one man.  He conducted research in phoneme awareness, phonics, and fluency, and of course, he was best-known for his work on vocabulary and comprehension.  He was also an expert in assessment in all areas of literacy.  He inspired me with his prescient advocacy for a "balanced" approach to reading instruction, and I promise you, while you may not know it, he changed what you know about reading, too.

Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children
Committee on the Prevention of Reading Difficulties in Young Children,
Edited by Catherine E. Snow, M. Susan Burns, Peg Griffin
Published in 1998 by National Academy Press

In the mid-'90s, leaders in the field of reading research were assembled by the National Research Council to synthesize what we know with some certainty about how children learn to read, why some children fail to learn to read, and how best to teach children to read.  The panel published its report and emphasized the most obvious finding from years of reading research -- it is easier to prevent reading difficulties from developing in the first place than to attempt to address those difficulties once they have taken root.

This book synthesizes a wide body of research and represents the views of a wide variety of perspectives.  At times the book rambles a bit -- with so many authors and so many views about such a wide variety of areas of reading research, it is understandable that the book would occasionally lose a bit of focus and clarity.  However, overall, it is a very thought-provoking book, and it offers one of the widest views of a variety of issues that researchers are endeavoring to examine and understand.  Many things are presented with little debate or argument -- the Matthew Effect, the Simple View of Reading, etc.  Others are described as areas where research is not so clear.  This is a nice follow-up to Marilyn Adams' book, and I would recommend it as "suggested further reading."

Straight Talk About Reading: How Parents Can Make a Difference During the Early Years
Susan L. Hall, Louisa Cook Moats, Marilyn Jager Adams
Published in 1999 by Contemporary Books

This book was supposedly written for parents who want to understand what they can do to support their child's reading development.  I think that is actually a very small part of the target audience for this book.  I imagine some parents will pick up this book, but as I read it, this book actually contains a lot of good information that teachers can use -- perhaps information that teachers can communicate to parents.

Anybody who needs a basic crash course in early reading acquisition would do well to read this book.  Susan Hall writes from the perspective of a mother who was raising a struggling reader -- who was frustrated at the lack of good information that is available for parents who want to know more.  Louisa Moats is a talented writer who understands the research in reading development and reading instruction very well, and who has a talent for conveying that information clearly to a variety of audiences.  Together, they have produced a nice summary that is certainly appropriate for parents, but which I think will be of greatest interest to pre-school and early-elementary teachers.  People who run day-care centers may also want to pick up this book -- there is a lot they can do to help young children develop healthy literacy skills.

What Really Matters for Struggling Readers: Designing Research-Based Programs
Richard L. Allington
Published in 2001 by Addison Wesley Longman

The title of this book is a little misleading.  In the preface, Allington starts off with a small note saying that in writing this book, he is assuming that basic phoneme awareness, letter-knowledge, and word-attack skills are already being taught.  He basically takes those important areas for granted in writing the rest of the book.  That doesn't offend me, but the title suggests that those things don't REALLY matter. 

I think what Allington was trying to emphasize was the idea of the "struggling" but non-fluent reader -- a reader who has developed some very basic reading skills, but has not developed fluency and advanced comprehension skills.  In that sense, Allington quite rightly points out that most struggling readers have very few opportunities to practice their skills, and they receive very little in the way of enriched, engaging instruction.  This book helps teachers to rise above the minimal expectations that we so often place on early readers, and challenges teachers to engage students in much richer more challenging instruction -- and lots of it.  Throughout his career, Allington has lead the field in his arguments for time-on-task.  He has shown through repeated studies that students in general are given few opportunities to practice literacy skills and engage in challenging reading activities.  Moreover, he has argued that the students who receive the least attention, least instruction, and least support are the struggling readers who most desperately need help from teachers and time to practice their skills in class.

After reading Classrooms that Work and Schools that Work, I strongly suggest you pick up a copy of this book and think about what can be done in your school to provide hours of opportunities every day for students to engage in authentic, challenging, and engaging reading and writing activities.

Reading Instruction That Works: The Case for Balanced Teaching (2nd Edition)
Michael Pressley
Published in 2002 by Guilford Press

The second edition of this book is a stark improvement over the first edition, and honestly, I thought that would be hard to do.  The first edition was very informative and well-written, and I found it downright inspiring.  The new edition somehow is even more so.

This book is very enjoyable to read -- Pressley is another talented researcher who also has a gift for conveying complicated issues in a concrete, understandable way.  This book really made me think about how we motivate students to read.  It also made me think about how quickly the Matthew Effect takes hold of young, struggling readers and really suppresses their desire to read.  And as Pressley has done repeatedly through his writing, this book really helped me to understand what the difference is between being able to read and being literate.  

Pressley is not satisfied with students having basic reading skills -- Pressley wants students to deeply comprehend what they read.  He wants teachers to challenge students' understanding of what they read.  Pressley argues that simply drawing facts from short passages of text is not sufficiently challenging or engaging or important.  Education should be designed to enable students to read widely, and to synthesize, evaluate, and formulate new ideas.  Good literature is not found in three paragraphs of text -- it is found in great books that must be read repeatedly in order to truly appreciate them and understand them.  I read the first edition of Pressley's book; I read the second edition; and I'm sure I will read it again -- it is good literature.

Handbook of Early Literacy Research
Edited by Susan B. Neuman and David K. Dickinson
  This is another collection of chapters written by some of the leading experts in reading research.  The book is broken down into six thematic sections: 1. Models of reading acquisition and development, 2. Precursors and predictors of reading success, 3. The role of home and community in reading development, 4. Preschool influences, 5. Instructional materials and classroom practices, and 6. Special interventions for struggling or at-risk readers.

The first section is a bit wonkish -- these chapters are really for the people who really want to understand underlying theory and models of reading development.  It's not light reading.

Not to say that the rest of the book is light reading.  Quite the contrary, this is a fairly technical summary of research findings.  Most of the chapters are very well written summaries of relevant research, but every chapter is still very dense with information and research references.  This is an academic book, a handy reference book, and very informative reading if you are trying to seriously hone your knowledge and understanding of reading research.  I would not recommend this book to people who are looking for classroom activities, but I would heartily recommend this book for reading specialists, curriculum coordinators, or people who need to have more than just a passing awareness of the research that should be used to guide instructional practice.

What Research Has to Say About Reading Instruction
Edited by Alan E. Farstrup, S. Jay Samuels, and Jay Samuels 
  This is a compendium of reading research that is very diverse indeed.  Since the playing field that is reading research is so very broad, different chapters in this book focus on various and sundry aspects of reading research ranging from decoding skills to home-school relationships to content-area reading instruction to metacognition to text structure, etc.  The common thread that runs through this collection of chapters written by different reading researchers is an attempt to include some discussion of instructional implications to help teachers find ways to apply research in instructional practice.

That said, the individual chapters in this book, while fairly disjointed and disparate, are very well-written and informative.  I frequently refer back to the chapter on fluency written by Samuels, Schermer, and Reinking, and the chapter on reading assessment by Hiebert and Calfee shaped much of the work that I have done to help schools develop a coherent reading assessment system.

If nothing else, this book helps readers understand what a huge and diverse field the field of reading research really is.  Being a "reading expert" is almost impossible in a general sense -- every reading expert has a select set of focus areas that they dedicate themselves to.  While I may know volumes about assessment and decoding fluency, I know very little about teaching adults to read (actually, much of what I know on that topic, I gleaned from reading the chapter in this book by Sticht and McDonald). 

There may have been an attempt on the editors' part to represent a variety of different views and topics in one book, and on that front, this book gives us an interesting sampling.  While I have little good to say about at least one chapter in this book, on the whole, this is worth buying because so many of the chapters were so well written and do such a good job of tracing a clear connection between research and practice.

Reading Researchers in Search of Common Ground
Edited by Rona F. Flippo
  I don't know if other fields are plagued with the controversies, polemics, and acrimony that inundates the field of reading research.  Perhaps there are equally vitriolic arguments and debates in paleontology or sociology.  I have dedicated most of my professional career to reading research, so I mostly know what goes on in my field.  And the vitriol that plagues the science of reading research is absolutely unproductive and at times completely unprofessional.  I have seen professionals -- celebrated, accomplished scholars -- get nose-to-nose with their colleagues and harangue them for some misdeed, misstatement, or transgression.  I have seen older scholars attack younger scholars, picking on them like bullies in a playground.  Mere participation on a panel of experts, such as the National Reading Panel, can get you on somebody's "naughty" list.

I know it is impossible to please all the people all the time, but our field seems to be literally defined by controversy and disagreement.  It has been coined "The Great Debate," and "The Reading Wars," and there is evidence that it has been going on for thousands of years.  People on one side or another have been described as "fuzzy-headed" or "racist" or "elitist" or "communist."  Seriously.  Communist.  Whole language approaches have been described as a "failure."  Phonics approaches have been decried as "drill and kill."  And people everywhere have been accused of "educational malpractice."

It's a pretty stupid debate.

Rona Flippo was convinced, however, that the polemics and vitriol in our field did not mean that reading researchers did not have a good deal of common ground that they could agree upon.  Like the (admittedly more civilized) debates that have taken place among evolutionary scientists, the debate does not really focus on the existence of evolution itself -- they all agree on the fundamental theory and the fundamental mechanisms that underlie evolution and diversity of species.  The focus of the debate is usually on a specific interpretation of data or a specific period in the geological record.

Flippo conducted a short study that came to be known as the "expert study."  She interviewed a diverse group of reading experts, representing a variety of philosophical perspectives, and found that they largely agreed on many important aspects of reading instruction.  They found common ground in areas that they all agreed should not be a part of reading curriculum.  They found common ground in areas they all thought were good practices that teachers should do often. 

This book contains the original "expert study" (reprinted), as well as follow-up essays from some of the various experts and their colleagues who participated in the "expert study."  Most of the essays talk about areas of common ground, but the authors offer caveats and warnings, usually offering the limits of the common ground.  The chapter by Scott Paris, titled "Developing Readers," is a wonderful essay describing a psychologists perspective on the debate and on the topic of helping children become proficient, life-long readers.  And Linda Gambrell's chapter on motivation is required reading for anybody who feels his or her students are simply not putting the necessary effort into developing reading skills.

Why Our Children Can't Read and What We Can Do About It
by Diane Mcguinness
Published in 1997 by Touchstone Books

Honestly, what caught my eye about this book was the introduction by Steven Pinker.  Pinker is one of the most amazing scholars of our time, and my curiosity about this book was piqued because I doubted that Pinker would take the time to write an introduction to a mundane or misinformed book.  To a "literacy wonk" like myself, this book was a real page-turner.  It was very well organized, beginning with the evolution of our writing system, and linking that information to the way children learn to read.  The brief, informal assessments were very handy, and the description about what to do with children who are struggling was highly insightful. 

As I ready this book, I see a belief on the part of the author in the preventative and curative powers of certain reading programs.  Personally, I worry about an over-reliance on reading programs.  I don't think DISTAR or Reading Reflex will fix all of our literacy problems, but I do understand that teachers need high-quality materials and demonstrably effective curricula to help all children learn to read proficiently.

Speech to Print
by Louisa Cook Moats
Published in 2000 by Paul H. Brookes Publishing

They say "The Devil is in the details."  There may be some truth to that.  When it comes to understanding literacy and reading instruction, it may be helpful to understand some of the nitty-gritty details in our language and writing system.  What is a phoneme?  What is a morpheme?  What is meant by "semantics" and "syntax?"  And why is this stuff important? 

Louisa Moats clearly wrote this as a textbook for a course on the fundamentals of language and their relevance to reading.  Every section has quizzes or exercises for the reader to complete to test comprehension of the material, and key words are highlighted and defined.  This would be a good book for a college course, but it is also engaging and enjoyable to read outside of the structure of a class.  Even given my background, I found myself picking up nuggets that I didn't really understand or know before, and I thought it was fun to take the quizzes before reading the chapters, just to see how much I already knew before  reading this book. (I learned a lot of the jargon and terminology years ago, but have forgotten much of it, especially the phonology and phonetics.)

There are some chapters in this book that I would recommend more strongly than others.  If you want to be immediately engaged by this book, you might want to turn first to the chapters on semantics and syntax.  The chapter on morphology was also quite interesting and entertaining. 

Progress in Understanding Reading: Scientific Foundations and New Frontiers
Keith Stanovich (and others)
Published in 2000 by Guilford Press

This may be sacrilegious of me to say, but this book is my bible.  (Or should I say Bible.  I should probably say Bible.)  Like the Bible, I have found that every time I re-read this book, I gain new insights and see relevance that I did not see in previous perusals.  I pull it out every time I have a question, because answers are usually contained within its pages.  Every investigative inquiry I have started in the past two years has begun with an examination of this book, because most of the time it provides an excellent overview of what research has been done in that area to date.

To a researcher, this book is inspiring -- the directions for future research are readily apparent to researchers who read this book.  To a writer, this book is intimidating -- I know I will never produce anything so comprehensive and informative in my life.  To a lay-person, this book is utterly incomprehensible.  Take that as a warning -- I have read this book cover-to-cover about four times, and every time it is like a new experience.  I have pulled out chapters and re-read them several more times.  I read a lot of the original articles that were used to create this book.  And I assure you, there is a lot of information in this book that I still don't understand.  It took Keith Stanovich most of his career to write this book -- I'm sure it will take me most of my career to understand it.

This is advanced reading for people who are already very facile with reading research.  I know a lot of very smart reading researchers, and Keith Stanovich is at least two of them.  His intelligence and scholarship are virtually unrivaled, not just in reading, but in a variety of fields.  Like many of the greatest thinkers in the world, it is hard to understand or relate to his brilliance.  But man, it sure is fun to try.

Best Practices in Literacy Instruction
Edited by Linda B. Gambrell, Lesley Mandel Morrow, Susan B. Neuman, and Michael Pressley
Published in 1999 by Guilford Press
  This is a collection of chapters authored by different experts in the field of literacy instruction, with a common theme of finding effective instructional practices for young children learning to read.  The topics of the chapters are quite diverse, and some of them, while interesting, do not seem terribly relevant to K-3 teachers (although they may be more relevant to 4-6 grade teachers). 

Some of the chapters in this book that stood out for me came later in the book.  Ray Reutzel has an excellent chapter on grouping strategies, Allington and Baker have a nice overview of instructional practices that are most effective for students with special needs, and Labbo, Reinking, and McKenna end the book with a discussion of the use of technology in early reading instruction.

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Last Updated 1-1-05