Over the past 35 years, researchers
from a variety of backgrounds such as education, psychology, linguistics,
and neuroscience have converged on the problem of illiteracy, and we have
learned volumes. There has been a tremendous amount of growth in
our collective understanding about how children learn to read and why some
children struggle and sometimes fail to learn to read.
At this point, I would say that
we have a fairly complete understanding of how children learn to read.
I would say that we have a sketchy understanding about how best to teach
children to read. And I would say that we have very little understanding
about how best to teach teachers to teach children to read. While
there is considerable knowledge about reading acquisition in the research
community, we have had limited success bringing that research information
Research-into-practice is a battle
that must be fought by researchers, educators, policy makers, publishers,
parents, communities, and professional development service providers. There
is a wealth of good research information that too often does not find its
way into classroom practice, and while the call for "more research" is
well and good, I am more concerned with making better use of the research
information that we already have.
Tens of thousands of people visit
this website every month, and I'm gratified by that, but creating good,
understandable reviews of research information is really only a first step
in this battle. I am quite positive that, even though thousands of people
download all of the various documents that have been created for this website,
those documents by themselves are not helping children learn to read.
First of all, the teachers (and administrators) who most need this information
are often the ones least likely to get it. And secondly, the documents
provided on this and other similar websites do little to actually change
There is a good deal of research
about professional development that we must pay better attention to, and
clearly, good professional development requires more than simply creating
a teacher-friendly document and encouraging teachers to read it. That won't
change practice. The real question that we have to address in the research-into-practice
battle is, what will?
A few years ago at the National
Reading Conference, I remember Scott Paris describing characteristics of
"Beat the Odds" schools -- high-performing schools that happened to have
demographics which are typically associated with low-performing schools.
He described various aspects of school improvement that all sounded compelling,
but he said that nearly all of the hallmarks of the "Beat the Odds" schools
were not universal -- that is, some schools had them, others didn't. They
had different reading programs, they had different leadership styles, they
had different resources -- there was a lot of variability from school to
school, but all of them were consistently "beating the odds."
According to Paris, the only hallmark
of a "Beat the Odds" school that was universal -- a characteristic
that every one of them shared -- was a knowledgeable person on staff who
was responsible for improving reading on that campus (or in that district).
He said that person was not primarily responsible for working directly
with the students, but instead was responsible for working with the teachers
-- providing ongoing, job-embedded professional development and support.
That person was not just a "curriculum coordinator" -- that person was
an expert on reading research and reading instruction who provided job-embedded
professional development to build the capacity of all of the staff.
Similarly, at another National Reading
Conference, I remember Robert Calfee describing some work that he and his
team of researchers had done to improve reading instruction in schools.
Calfee described the focus of the work, and the type of information that
was shared and used in instruction, and all of it was sound and compelling.
He also mentioned that to conduct the work, they had people playing the
role of a reading facilitator, working with the teachers, helping them
to incorporate theory into practice -- essentially providing job-embedded
professional development for the teachers.
I have started tuning into this
element in research studies because it think it is a very important element
in school improvement that is often overlooked. Frequently, when successful
reading improvement initiatives are described, the "what" is examined critically,
but the "how" is elided. While there have been many studies that have celebrated
the successes associated with teaching vocabulary, background knowledge,
phoneme awareness, and the like, most of these studies have paid little
attention to how best to support teachers in their efforts to include these
important elements in their instruction. It is one thing to say that all
children should be taught to be aware of the phonemes in spoken language
-- it is quite a different thing to say how teachers should be taught to
teach phoneme awareness.
I can cite many references that
describe the hallmarks of effective reading teachers -- usually they include
a sophisticated understanding of the process of reading acquisition, an
understanding of reading assessment, and a rich treasure chest of instructional
activities they can use to address the learning needs of individual children.
Catherine Snow's research indicates that strong support from a knowledgeable
teacher for a period of two years early in a child's schooling can make
all the difference in a child's reading development (See I
is for Instruction). Bond and Dykstra's research also emphasizes the
importance of teacher quality. Gerald Duffy and Dale Willows have,
through the course of their work, found that teachers' knowledge and understanding
of reading is critical to any reading improvement efforts. I've seen it
over and over in the research literature: good teachers are knowledgeable
about the research literature (understanding various theories and the empirical
support those various theories have), and they are dynamic, flexible teachers
who respond to the individual learning needs of their students with a variety
of creative instructional strategies.
However, I have a harder time finding
references that describe how best to cultivate a population of effective
reading teachers within a school.
I have noticed that one theme that
seems to be popping up time and again, however, is that effective teachers
do not learn their craft in so called "sit-n-git" workshops. Instead, good
professional development seems to be more job-imbedded, goal oriented,
and most of all, ongoing. I suspect that one of the best ways to achieve
that kind of professional development within a school is to make use of
a literacy coordinator like the ones that Scott Paris described.
Somebody on the campus who is responsible for helping all of the teachers
to be better reading teachers.
I think the research that supports
that kind of intervention does exist, but I think it is buried. We just
need to dig for it. If we re-examine school improvement efforts, I suspect
we'll often find that, when a school improves, somebody in that school
was responsible for providing ongoing, job-embedded professional development
to the teachers to enhance their capacity and strength as reading teachers.
Further Reading on the Importance
of Teacher Quality:
Block, C.C. (2000). A case for exemplary
classroom instruction: Especially for students who come to school without
the precursors for literacy success. National Reading Conference Yearbook,
Block, C.C., Oakar, M., and Hurt,
N. (2002). The expertise of literacy teachers: A continuum from preschool
to grade 5. Reading Research Quarterly, 37 (2), 178-206.
Duffy, A.M. and Atkinson, T.S. (2001).
Learning to teach struggling (and non-struggling) elementary school readers:
An analysis of preservice teachers' knowledges. Reading Research and Instruction,
Meijer, P.C., Verloop, N., and Beijaard,
D. (2001). Similarities and differences in teachers' practical knowledge
about teaching reading comprehension. The Journal of Educational Research,
Moats, L.C. (1995). The missing
foundation in teacher education. American Educator, 19, (2), 9-19.
Moats, L.C. & Lyon, G.R. (1995).
Wanted: Teachers with knowledge of language. Topics in Language Disorders,
Moats, L.C. (1994). The missing
foundation in teacher education: Knowledge of the structure of spoken and
written language. Annals of Dyslexia, 44, 81-102.
Intimacy With Language: A Forgotten
Basic in Teacher Education Rose Bowler (Ed.). The Orton Dyslexia society,
Baltimore, MD. 1987.
Brady, S. and L. Moats. (1997).
Informed instruction for reading success: Foundation for teacher preparation.
A Position Paper for the International Dyslexia Association.
Bond, G. L. and Dykstra, R. (1967).
The cooperative research programme in first grade Instruction. Reading
Research Quarterly, 2, 5-142.
Cantrell, S.C. Effective teaching
and literacy learning: A look inside primary classrooms Reading Teacher
52: 4 (JAN 1999) 370-378
Hedrick, W.B.; Pearish, A.B. Good
reading instruction is more important than who provides the instruction
or where it takes place Reading Teacher 52: 7 (APR 1999) 716-726
McCutchen, D., Harry, D. R., Cunningham,
A. E., Cox, S., Sidman, S., & Covill, A. E. (in press). Reading teachers'
knowledge of children's literature and English phonology. Annals of Dyslexia.
McCutchen, D., Abbott, R. D., Green,
L. B., Beretvas, S. N., Cox, S., Potter, N. S., Quiroga, T., & Gray,
A. (2002). Beginning literacy: Links among teacher knowledge, teacher practice,
and student learning. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 35, 69-86.
Morrow, L.M., Tracey, D.H., Woo,
D.G., & Pressley, M. (1999). Characteristics of exemplary first-grade
literacy instruction. The Reading Teacher, 52(5), 462-476.
Paris, S. (2001). Developing
readers. In R.F. Flippo (ed.), Reading
Researchers in Search of Common Ground. International Reading
Association, Newark, DE.
Westerman, D.A. (1991). Expert and
novice teacher decision making. Journal of Teacher Education, 42 (4), 292-305.