Lost in Translation?

We (Mark, Matt Cooper Borkenhagen, and Devin Kearns) have a new paper about the science of reading and education, to be published in an issue of the journal Reading Research Quarterly (RRQ) devoted to this topic. The title is “Lost in Translation? Challenges in Connecting Reading Science and Educational Practice”.

Some of you will want to read the paper. It isn’t very technical but it is nonetheless written mainly for the people who read articles in RRQ. With that in mind, we (my colleague Molly Farry Thorn and I) will be breaking down the major topics in a series of blog posts here. We are also going to cover some important issues that didn’t make it into the paper, e.g., efforts to seek legislative remedies for low literacy.

What’s this new paper about? Here’s the abstract:

Can the science of reading contribute to improving educational practices, allowing more children to become skilled readers? Much has been learned about the behavioral and brain bases of reading, how children learn to read, and factors that contribute to low literacy. The potential to use research findings to improve literacy outcomes is substantial but remains largely unrealized. The lack of improvement in literacy levels, especially among children who face other challenges such as poverty, has led to new pressure to incorporate the “science of reading” in curricula, instructional practices, and teacher education.

In the interest of promoting these efforts, we discuss three issues that could undermine them: the need for additional translational research linking reading science to classroom activities; the oversimplified way the science is sometimes represented in the educational context; the fact that theories of reading have become more complex and less intuitive as the field has progressed. Addressing these concerns may allow reading science to be used more effectively and achieve greater acceptance among educators.

There are many obstacles to making better use of science to improve literacy outcomes. We know that many teachers aren’t exposed to basic facts about how reading works and how children learn as part of their professional training. Teachers who gain this background through their own efforts then run up against colleagues whose beliefs are very different—and principals who know little about the controversies. Teachers also have to work with commercial curricula that make it hard to know what to teach, when, how, and for whom (e.g., children from different language or economic backgrounds). I discussed many of these issues, and their long history, in my book.

But that’s not what this paper is about. 

The question we ask is: how much of what we’ve learned from the “science of reading” is useful to teachers? We think there isn’t enough translational research that speaks to how findings from the scientific literature can be incorporated in effective teaching materials and practices. We say:

[O]ne reason the science doesn’t get into the classroom is because it does not provide sufficient guidance about what to do there. It is not only that cognitive science is not a part of teacher education. If it were clear to teachers how such science could improve their effectiveness and their students’ progress, they would clamor for it. Some already do.

Sound interesting? Take a look at the article. And stay tuned to this station.

— Mark & Molly

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