This post is about an on-line event we held on March 21, the second in our series of Reading Meetings. Our guest was Dr. Susan Brady, a researcher who has been affiliated with Haskins Laboratories in New Haven, CT for many years. Haskins is where modern research on the connections between spoken language and reading began. It is where Alvin and Isabelle Liberman, Donald Shankweiler, Anne Fowler, Susan Brady, Hollis Scarborough and many others developed core concepts such as the “alphabetic principle” and “phonemic awareness,” and conducted research on the process of learning to read and its dependence on speech.
The goal of our Reading Meetings is to talk with people who are trying to connect reading research and educational practice to improve literacy outcomes. We also want to model how people who disagree about important issues can manage to communicate and learn from each other.
These events are meant to be discussions, not lectures or webinars in which experts take an hour to declaim their views for the benefit of a passive audience. We want members of the audience to be able to pose questions and offer comments during the event, but we are new at this and still working out the mechanics. Going forward we are going to try very hard to reserve time at the end of each session for audience participation. Also, on Sunday (April 25) we are going to try out an Ask Me Anything (AMA) format in which we devote the entire session to a Q&A: me, Molly, and anyone who tunes in. If it is successful, we will hold them again periodically.
Back to March 21. We wanted to talk with Dr. Brady about concerns she raised in an article in The Reading League Journal about attempts to use the “science of reading” to improve curricula, instruction, teacher education and certification, assessment, etc.1 One fear is that the status quo will be maintained by making only token gestures toward incorporating this research. Another concern is that the research is being rendered in a simplistic manner that can be used to justify all manner of approaches, including ones that aren’t any better than we already have. Dr. Brady has written insightfully about these concerns, which I share.
My second goal was to get her perspective on how concepts such as phonemic awareness and phonics have changed. How did we get from The Alphabetic Principle to three-years of intensive instruction in phonemic awareness? Dr. Brady has been studying these topics for decades and knows how they developed because she was there.
The March 21 discussion went in a somewhat different direction, however. Dr. Brady had written a subsequent article for TRLJ that reviewed research findings about phoneme awareness (her term) and phonics since the National Reading Panel report.2 Her conclusions about issues such as whether instruction should proceed from syllables to onsets and rimes to phonemes, the use of particular tasks to teach and assess phonemic awareness, and the role of orthographic knowledge (spelling) in the development of phonemic awareness conflict with assumptions and practices incorporated in some popular curricula. In our discussion Dr. Brady explicitly criticized the recommendations in Dr. David Kilpatrick’s program Equipped for Reading Success. At the time I wondered whether her characterization of that curriculum was entirely accurate. Audience members also posted questions about this before the chat function was hacked and had to be shut off. We were not able to raise them before we ran out of time.
We normally post recordings of these events on our website. After this one was over, we (Molly and Mark) thought long and hard about whether to post this one. The session did not meet our goals for these events. It was more of a didactic lecture than a discussion. Whereas Dr. Brady’s article details the evidence supporting her conclusions about, e.g., which units to teach, that didn’t come across in the talk. The audience could only conclude that experts apparently strongly disagree about these issues, leaving them to wonder who or what to believe. That is exactly what we are trying to avoid.
Nor had we planned to critique specific curricula. There is a need to critically examine the assumptions and practices incorporated in popular curricula, but our discussion format isn’t adequate for that purpose. Finally, my attempts to shift the focus to two other topics–how assumptions about phonemic awareness have changed, and whether instructional practices are equally effective for children from different language backgrounds (especially speakers of African American English)—also weren’t very successful. The net result was that the session was not a good model of what we want these discussions to be, and it contained some inaccurate assertions. Rather than posting it, we uploaded a follow-up discussion that went over some of the issues and concerns, and explained our decision.
Of course, there were subsequent conversations on social media about these events which created some unfortunate discord. People were upset about the misstatements about Dr. Kilpatrick’s curriculum, and some have questioned Dr. Brady’s integrity as a scientist. In response, Dr. Brady has requested that we post this statement, which includes an apology for specific misstatements and content clarifications.
Brady and Kilpatrick’s disagreements about what research says about instruction merit further attention. However, we will not mediate these disagreements either in Reading Meetings or on our web site, as I have told Dr. Kilpatrick in response to queries. The better approach would be for them to take up their disagreements in a serious way in a suitable format. For example, each could publish a short article stating the main points of contention, and then provide responses to each other. Research journals often publish such exchanges. The Reading League Journal, where some of the disagreements came to light, would be suitable, or perhaps somewhere on the Reading League Teacher Facebook group, where concerns about the March 21 event were discussed.
My only further comment is that this post should not have been necessary, but we felt it was because we were concerned by the tone of some of the discussions online. The session was not good enough to upload, and so it wasn’t. People rightly pointed out that there were inaccuracies that needed to be addressed but it seems that the disagreements about the research unfortunately turned into personal debates. In my opinion the episode reflects the toxic environment that can result from mixing debates about reading (which continue to devolve into “wars”) with the hypercritical, mean-spirited elements of social media. This is the antithesis of deciding issues in an impersonal manner based on evidence, i.e., science.
Brady, S. (2020). Strategies Used in Education for Resisting the Evidence and Implications of the Science of Reading. The Reading League Journal, 1(1), 33-40
- Brady, S. (2020). A 2020 perspective on research findings on alphabetics (phoneme awareness and phonics): Implications for instruction. The Reading League Journal, 1(3), 20-28.