On the Misuse of Research Evidence in Reading

  • argument
  • 26 June, 2010

Originally posted June 26, 2010; re-posted on August 31, 2017. This post is timely given some of what I saw on Twitter this week as well as some recent questions and responses to my posts. There is still a great hunger to use research to support one's claims rather than using research to try to figure out what instructional actions to take. Too many principals buying programs then seeking reasons why they did. I will write more about this soon.

  I remember the first time I was asked to testify before Congress. I was so full of myself. Wow, what a big shot, getting to speak truth to power. But then, once I had done it, it was clear to me that there was nothing impressive about it. The Senator who had invited me asked me to be there because I had done some research that supported a bill he was proposing. I wasn’t really invited to help Congress to understand the issue, but to secure support for his bill (which of course had many provisions with no basis in any research). If my research results were different, he would have gone forward with his bill, but without my testimony.

  Over the years that has gnawed at me every time I get calls from policymakers and media, not asking me for information on a particular topic, but for information with a particular slant. Do you know of any research against Reading Recovery? Do you know of any research the supports Reading Recovery?

  Using evidence in that way might be the way to win an argument (and to get your way), but it is not the approach that we should be taking if we want policies and practices that are really likely to work. Some policy people and reporters do understand that and they are getting wiser in their use of education studies.

  But, just this week, on an educational research listserv that I lurk on, there was a question, not from the public, but from a researcher, looking for the research that supported a particular practice. A teacher had come to her because the principal was changing some school literacy policies. The teacher liked things the way they were and so came looking for help. The researcher apparently thought the current policies were great, so she was seeking evidence that she was right (she sent out for calls supporting particular practices in literacy education). That is bizarre. No wonder people get skeptical about how we operate.

  We should be looking at the evidence and trying to make a determination of what it means rather than seeking data that support what we already want to do. And, when such evidence does not exist, we should be very honest about our inability to provide data on a particular question (no matter what our point of view). This idea of cherry-picking evidence to support a position is a misuse of evidence and it is ethically shaky. It certainly does not move us forward as a community that is trying to achieve higher literacy levels in our society.


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On the Misuse of Research Evidence in Reading


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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