I'm a Terrific Reading Teacher, Why Should I Follow the Research?

  • 05 October, 2019

Teacher question:

What does it mean that something has research support? I’ve been a teacher for years and I’ve taught hundreds of children to read. Now I’m being told that in our district we are expected to teach in some new way that has research behind it. I like how I teach reading and I don’t want to change. Why should I?

Shanahan response:

I suspect that there are a lot of teachers who agree with you. Someone like me claims that a particular approach is essential, but they see learning proceeding well without this supposedly indispensable element.

Why trust some researcher who doesn’t even know your kids, when you can trust your own eyes?

First, it’s important to know what we mean when we say that research shows that a teaching approach “works.” It does NOT mean this approach supports learning and nothing else does. It means that when such comparisons have taken place, this particular approach showed marginal benefits.

That there is some improvement at the margin doesn’t mean that all the kids in the experimental group prospered and that all the kids in the comparison group languished. It simply means that the average level of performance differed for the two groups.

You might have noticed that I used the term comparison group rather than control group. We don’t usually have “control groups” in reading studies as it would be unethical to withhold reading instruction from anyone. Any instructional approach will likely increase learning a bit, so learning will always be evident in both groups.

In this case, the kids getting phonics outperformed the kids who didn’t. Maybe many of the phonics-taught kids did a bit better than the comparison kids. Or, maybe some kids in each group failed to learn to read, but there were fewer of these outright failures when phonics was part of the instruction.

In any event, the outcome of these studies isn’t that the phonics kids learn, and the non-phonics kids don’t. It isn’t black and white like that, just whiter shades of gray. Essentially, following the research means trying to alter the students’ probabilities of success.

Second, in considering whether you should follow the research, it helps if you understand the concept of “opportunity cost.”

Let’s say you have been teaching reading for 10 years, and your kids are learning, their test scores are pretty similar to those obtained by your colleagues, the parents have seemed happy with your services, and your principals have given you positive evaluations.

Obviously, what you are doing is working. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?

That sounds so good, but it ignores what I referred to as opportunity cost. That you have been teaching reading as you have deprived you of the opportunity to see what might have happened if you’d taught reading in some other way.  

That’s where research comes in. Researchers will try to arrange their studies in such a way that it becomes possible to evaluate how your business as usual approach does against some other approach. And, that’s where we might see that as well as your kids have been doing, they could have done better if they had been taught a bit differently.

In other words, your self-satisfaction with the way you are teaching may not be justified, at least when scrutinized against alternatives. No teacher can ever know what her kids are missing from staying with the current approach that seems so satisfying.

Third, the kind of research I’ve been alluding to focuses on particular outcomes, most often reading achievement, but other outcomes, too (e.g., reading interest, motivation). Teachers sometimes may sound like “science deniers” because they don’t share a commitment to the goals of the research.

The researcher worries about how many words correct per minute the kids can read, whether the kids can decode a list of nonsense words, or how many multiple-choice questions were answered on a standardized comprehension test. The teacher may have other criteria in mind.

I myself come across this one frequently. I’ll write about research proving that Method A obtains better learning results than Method B, and I’m inundated with missives from Method B advocates who are certain that if I visited their classroom, I’d change my mind.

These teachers aren’t idiots, they just have different goals than the ones espoused by the researchers.

I’m trying to get kids to the highest literacy levels possible. The teachers may want that, too, but they may value a feel-good classroom environment even more. That’s why they are so sure that if I saw how great their classroom is, then I’d prefer their approach to the purportedly more effective one.

Teachers often tell me that they need to do it their way, because they are teaching “love of reading.” That their state lacks a “love of reading” standard, or that their approach hasn’t been found to foster any especial fondness for reading, or that love of reading depends heavily on how well the kids can read doesn’t seem to faze them.

We can pile research study upon research study at these teachers’ feet, but no matter how high the stack gets they’ll never be persuaded since it ignores their personal goals.

Finally, educators usually know very little about research—its methods, its reasoning, its ethics. Even at Research I universities, Colleges of Education provide a dearth of research training for teachers and principals. It is hard to trust in something that you don’t understand.

Teachers often confide their sense that “research can prove anything,” both revealing their deep suspicions of the unreliability of research findings and the lack of trustworthiness of researchers.

Of course, researchers themselves are quite concerned about those reliability problems. That’s why, for instance, most of us don’t make recommendations for practice based upon single studies. We’ve learned to look for an average effect across bodies of research to ensure a scope and consistency of findings.

If a study says the XYZ Reading Program gets great results, that’s one thing; but if 38 or 51 studies say it does, then I’m on board. That’s the reason why reports like those of the National Reading Panel, the National Early Literacy Panel, or John Hattie’s compendium of meta-analyses get so much play… one more study is unlikely to disrupt their results since these results are already based on so many data. It’s that consistency that we trust in.

Another benefit of that meta-analytic approach to thinking about research findings is that it allows us to know not only that an approach worked—that is, had a positive effect on learning—but it can allow us to see who the approach worked with or under what circumstances it has worked.  

The “it worked or didn’t” school of thought apparent in many school districts tends to obscure the level of detail teachers need to apply the research results successfully—and that detail, frankly, would give teachers greater confidence that the research was worth following. If, in the research studies, 30 minutes a day of fluency instruction improved achievement, then requiring fluency instruction, but with no specific guidance as to dosage or text type is likely to fail.

The teacher who has kids read aloud one easy page of text for fluency practice is honoring the research finding (fluency instruction is effective) but is not following the particular instructional practices that led to that finding.

The benefits of following the research should be marginally improved reading achievement.  Research is the only tool we have that allows us to determine the kinds of teaching most likely to advantage our students’ learning; commonsense and past experience are useless before such questions. It is easy enough for a teacher to wave off higher achievement as a laudable goal—"these kids seem to read well to me”—but technology and changes in how we work and interact socially demand higher levels of literacy than in the past if our students are to fully participate in the benefits of our society. More knowledge about how research is done and how it is evaluated would go a long way towards helping teachers trust that research can really help them to do better.

I hope you’ll be able to successfully make the changes your district is asking for. If done well, it could lead to better achievement for your boys and girls.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Sam Bommarito Oct 05, 2019 07:43 PM

Don't always agree with everything you say, however I learn from you even when I disagree. But in this particlar posting you've simply hit the nail right on the head. Will be cutting and pasting this particular posting onto a paper to hang in my office as a daily reminder about how to think about research. Hoping your including both quantative and qualative methods in your thoughts since both can answer the question how likely is it that this outcome is simply a result of chance. I'll always go with the things that put the odds more in my favor (and in the kids favor). Thanks for this post!

Laura Polkoff Oct 05, 2019 07:47 PM

Your blog on the importance of keeping up with the reading research really resonates with me.

We are in a world of programmed based Reading instruction. Last year I pointed out a flaw in one of the programs our district uses and I brought in the research to support my opinion. I was told that we need to use scientifically based programs. It is the law.

I tried to explain that it is not the program but how you use your resources with the most effective scientific practice. They did not agree and that is where the discussion ended.

Elizabeth Oct 05, 2019 08:06 PM

I am currently teaching dual credit English at a high school, but I am also a dyslexia therapist. I notice a trend in secondary English that has concerned me. SSR and enjoyment of reading is the primary push with books like The Book Whisperer used to support the movement. I am all about getting kids to read and bring passionate about books, but I am noticing a big hole in this reading philosophy. What I am finding this year with my very smart and strong dual credit kids is that they struggle with academic text. I am having to teach them how to work through academic text. They don't know how to struggle through difficult text, which is an essential college skill.

And this goes back to teaching with methodologies that are popular and feel good but don't have clear learning outcomes.

Anyway, i just thought of this while reading your excellent article.

Cathy Callow-Heusser Oct 05, 2019 09:48 PM

I love all your blog posts, but this has got to be one of your best. Opportunity costs are so important to consider, particularly because it's far too often kids who live in poverty or children of color whose opportunities are reduced. If we've got less than 80% (or whatever criterion one chooses) of our students reading on grade level, that opportunity cost likely affects those who most need the additional supports...and who are at greatest risk of dropping out. I truly wish teachers would consider the long-term outcomes of that opportunity cost, in both reading and math. Thanks, Tim. I love the messages you share.

Margaret Oct 05, 2019 10:06 PM

I agree with everything you said here, but my concern when I read the teacher’s comments above is that similar things were said as my district brought in Reader’s Workshop a couple of years ago, and I’ve read your take on Reader’s Workshop. At least in my district, programs we have are believed to be research based. Of course, you may have edited the teacher’s comment and maybe her district is truly bringing in a research based program. But, just in case, it might be worthwhile to ask how she has been teaching and what program they are pushing before you urge her to follow it.

Ellen hunt Oct 06, 2019 02:11 AM

I'm glad to hear you depend on duplication of results. A friend who got her master's in teaching after writing about medical research for years said she was appalled that studies in one classroom were quoted in education publications as definitive. I am relieved as a grandparent and voracious reader that this is not supposed to be the case. Ellen Hunt, Chicago

Cheryl Crockett Oct 06, 2019 01:56 PM

“Why trust some researcher who doesn’t even know your kids, when you can trust your own eyes?”
I enjoyed reading your responses to that very common question educators ask. Your responses were quite thorough and written in an “easy to understand” way. To me, the confusing part is that the term “researched-based” is sometimes thrown around so lightly by people, publishers, etc, and not everyone digs deep enough to see the specifics of the research. Educators can’t assume the research was done in the way you mentioned in your post. As an educator, my goal is to use research-based best practices with my students, and as result of all my “research into the research” I’m confident I am. This allows me to assume the time I am spending helping students to become better readers, is time well spent AND, will ensure better and sustainable learning on their part. Thank you for your posts!

Cheryle Ferlita Oct 06, 2019 04:12 PM

This post was timely for me. I often look for research studies before just blindly implementing a required change in my classroom. While that is true it is also true that I go for ideas that engage my readers that are not researched based, but student loved. This is a reminder that maybe they don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
We have recently been required to implement an RTI model that supplants 30 minutes of my 90 minute 5th grade ELA/social studies instructional time. I am struggling with the research I read about the RTI process. I know what I think, but I can be stubborn when it comes to a method that Has been around for over a decade and does not seem to have results. Can you shed light on what the research has found on using this “walk to intervention” time block that is set aside to group students and deliver based on need? Thank you for your time.

Ang Oct 07, 2019 01:12 PM

One of the best posts I've read from you! This totally captures what is happening in the field and what we experience regularly as we try to help teachers understand reading instruction and the research. I particularly appreciated your perspective on the goals of research. I haven't though about the resistance to the research being a bi-product of the fact that teachers don't value the same outcomes or goals as researchers.

Ang Oct 07, 2019 01:12 PM

One of the best posts I've read from you! This totally captures what is happening in the field and what we experience regularly as we try to help teachers understand reading instruction and the research. I particularly appreciated your perspective on the goals of research. I haven't though about the resistance to the research being a bi-product of the fact that teachers don't value the same outcomes or goals as researchers.

Harriett Oct 07, 2019 07:20 PM

Thanks for your ongoing efforts to remedy this state of affairs:

"Finally, educators usually know very little about research—its methods, its reasoning, its ethics. Even at Research I universities, Colleges of Education provide a dearth of research training for teachers and principals. It is hard to trust in something that you don’t understand."

Sharon Oct 10, 2019 12:44 AM

I am uncomfortable with your statement, “Even at Research I universities, Colleges of Education provide a dearth of research training for teachers and principals.” This may be true in too many places, but not all. So please, let’s all be careful not to over-generalize. I teach at a university where I and my colleagues contribute to the scholarship of the literacy field. We also help our students, in courses specifically focusing on research and in others, to read, reflect on, and critique research about the pedagogical practices we model and espouse. We also support our teachers as they conduct action research in their classrooms. We share research we found that significantly affected our practices, careers, and lives. (Rosalie Fink’s 1995/96 “Successful Dyslexics: A Constructivist Study of Passionate Interest Reading” in the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, along with her subsequent research, did this for me.)
For those teachers, like the one whose question you answered in this post, who believe in the practices that they have seen work for their students, the good news is that they can look for research about those practices, and then make decisions about what and how to change. They might find quality research that their administrators had not previously known about that supports what they are doing more than the new program the administration has decided to try. They can educate the administrators.
And more good news for those teachers whose goal is for students to love reading and become life-long readers: It’s not an either-or scenario. There is research that supports allowing students to choose relevant books that match their interests and stimulate high level thinking, without having to worry that students won’t acquire the ability to read academic texts and score well on standardized tests. We can have it all!
I suggest starting with the thorough research by Gay Ivey and Peter Johnston. They provide a quantitative analysis of scores on achievement tests; dozens of rich quotes from authentic conversations about books between and among students and teachers; and data analysis relating to engagement and the social benefits of allowing students to read books of choice. The articles below will inspire teachers who want to promote what Penny Kittle calls “Book Love” while simultaneously improving literacy skills and enhancing academic performance.
Ivey, G., & Johnston, P.H. (2013). Engagement with Young Adult literature: Outcomes and Processes. Reading Research Quarterly, 48(3), 355-375.
Ivey, G. (2014). The social side of engaged reading for young adolescents. The Reading Teacher, 68(3), 165-171.
Ivey, G., & Johnston, P. (2018). Engaging disturbing books. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 62(2), 143-150.
There are many more research studies supporting some of the practices teachers at all levels have found to work well with the students they love and guide on their intellectual journeys. Hooray for research!

Raquel Oct 16, 2019 03:59 PM

Hi Dr. Shanahan,

As someone who teaches pre-service teachers at a school of education at a Research I university, I cannot tell you how frustrated I am by well esteemed reading professors who actively resist any phonics instruction and push Reader's workshop in order to foster "the love of reading." I appreciate you calling this reality out. Although I agree that we should not generalize that this is true everywhere, it is absolutely a problem. Keep fighting this good fight and I always look forward to reading your blog.

Jeff Mcneill Aug 07, 2020 06:01 AM

Hattie may get a lot of play, but his research is deeply flawed. https://mje.mcgill.ca/article/view/9475/7229

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

Comment *

I'm a Terrific Reading Teacher, Why Should I Follow the Research?


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.