Reading Research: Looking Where the Light is Better

by Robert Pondiscio
January 12th, 2010

There’s an old joke about a drunk looking his wallet under a streetlight instead of in the dark alley where he dropped it?  Why?  “Because the light’s better here.”  

I thought of that joke when reading Dan Willingham’s latest over at the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog.  Willingham has written extensively about the importance of background knowledge to reading comprehension and the limited benefit of reading strategies instruction.  Dan’s observation, “teaching content IS teaching reading” has become my personal mantra.  But if it’s true, then why the continued focus on reading strategy instruction in teacher training and professional development?

Anti-intellectualism?  No.  Dan’s thesis is both simple and surprising: it’s a function of how academic research is carried out.  For starters, educational research is “a more conservative enterprise than you might think” and there are structural incentives rewarding short-term research in which measurable effects are easy to isolate.”

Consider what it takes to do research on strategy instruction versus knowledge instruction. Teaching children reading strategies is quick. A research project might call for 10 or 20 lessons in total, each lasting 30 minutes or less. One can imagine getting a school administrator’s permission to do such a study in his or her district.  But the hypothesis for knowledge instruction is that it takes years to make a broad impact on students’ knowledge.

Measuring the effects of background knowledge would require a whole new curriculum across grades  for validity.  “A researcher will not (and should not) persuade a school administrator to change curricula just for the sake of a research project,” Dan writes.

The comparative ease of doing reading strategies research combined with the inherent conservatism of the research process means that most reading research is strategy research, and that there is a dearth of research on the impact of a knowledge-rich curriculum on reading. Researchers usually find that strategy instruction leads to big effects, but they are not looking at it long-term.”

In short, researchers are looking where the light is better, not where the answers are.

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