Sunday, November 20, 2016

What Is Research-Based Instruction?

Did you ever wonder about the term "research-based"? We all want to make sure our instruction is research-based. But every commercial program for reading instruction on the market advertises itself as research-based and professional developers always preface their talks by saying their recommendations are research-based. We are told the Common Core is research-based. What exactly does "research-based" mean?

The conventional definition of research-based is instructional practice that is "founded on an accumulation of facts that have been established in research." Let's take that Common Core favorite close reading as an example. Close reading is research-based. It is founded on some things that we know about reading instruction. For example, research shows definitively that reading comprehension and fluency are improved by repeated reading. Research also shows that focusing on vocabulary and sentence structure strengthens reading comprehension. Since close reading deals with these factors of reading comprehension proponents can say that close reading is research-based.

What close reading is not is researched. According to the Common Core's own review of the literature published here, "close reading was not a widely practiced method prior to the adoption of the Standards, [and so] it has not been studied directly through rigorous academic research." There are no studies that demonstrate that close reading accomplishes improved reading. There are no studies that show that close reading makes you more college and career ready. There are no studies that demonstrate that close reading is a better use of time than other instructional strategies focusing on fluency, vocabulary, and syntax.

Is this a distinction without a difference? I don't think so. Let's look at an instructional strategy that has been proven to improve reading comprehension - reciprocal teaching. Reciprocal teaching is an integrated strategy approach where students are taught to use several reading strategies within a small group discussion environment to process their understanding of the text. Like close reading, reciprocal teaching combines several well-researched reading comprehension strategies for improving comprehension, in this case summarizing, question generating, clarifying, and predicting. Like close reading, reciprocal teaching focuses on vocabulary and comprehension. Unlike close reading, however, reciprocal teaching itself has been subjected to rigorous research and has been found to be effective in improving student use of reading strategies and improving comprehension.

So, as teachers, we are faced with a dilemma. Do we spend scarce instructional time on a research-based strategy like close reading that is being heavily pushed by Common Core proponents and perhaps by the administration of our school or do we focus on a researched strategy like reciprocal teaching as the more likely to get the results we want (improved comprehension, vocabulary, sentence level understanding) or do we do a little of both?

To help us make a decision we can take a look at what the literacy experts say. In any research-based sales pitch we must always be aware of who is doing the selling. Common Core proponents support close reading, but these people are not literacy specialists. The leading researcher on reading comprehension in the country, P. David Pearson, has some concerns about close reading. Pearson has critiqued close reading's emphasis on text dependent questions and tasks as too narrowly focused and too dismissive of student background knowledge. Another researcher, John Guthrie is concerned that close reading ignores the importance of student engagement in the reading. Snow and O'Connor have suggested that close reading works against the valuable outcomes that come from discussion and argumentation, because students are limited to only what is in the text (Pearson & Hiebert, 2015).

So, when we see the term research-based we know as teachers that we need to dig a little deeper. If the proponents of the Common Core were devoted to the research, they might well have wanted to highlight reciprocal teaching as a strategy to be supported and spread through every classroom in the country. But as is true with many things in literacy instruction, the Common Core was driven by a political agenda (college and career readiness) and proponents found the research on which to base their recommendations for meeting that agenda. As teachers in classrooms full of real kids with real learning needs, we need to do better.

Embracing research to guide our work is a good thing. But teachers must be wise consumers of that research. Teachers must surely make decisions on the basis of research, but just as surely on the basis of the particular needs of the children in front of them. Close reading may well be a valuable instructional strategy, but based on the lack of research, the jury is still out. We may want to include close reading in our instruction, but we certainly would not want to do so to the exclusion of strategies with a stronger research base.

Here are some questions that may help you be an informed consumer of research.

  • Who paid for the research?
  • Who stands to profit from the research?
  • Who conducted the research?
  • What particular theoretical/psychological construct seems to underpin the research?
  • Has the research appeared in a peer reviewed journal?
  • Does the research square with my own experience?
  • Has the research stood the test of time and been replicated by others?
  • Does the research square with what we know about how children learn language?
  • How well does the population studied in the research match with my own students?

Work Cited

Pearson, P.D. & Hiebert, E.H. (2015) Research-Based Practices for Teaching Common Core Literacy. NY: Teachers College Press.

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