Let’s stop weaponizing research and instead use ALL the research to learn from each other. (An open message to Emily Hanford and her followers)
Before reading the blog post, please consider this:
MY LIST OF KEY TALKING POINTS ABOUT THE CURRENT CONTROVERSIES RESULTING FROM HANFORD’S RECENT PODCASTS & POSITION STATEMENTS. SOME OF THEM ARE IDEAS POSITED BY OTHER EDUCATORS
- Overall- my take on Hanford’s position is that her overall story is INCOMPLETE and not even close to being on target.
- Many of us are asking for the rest of the story.
- The data Hanford provides to “prove” her path to literacy works focuses on short-term success with teaching decoding. Recent studies have questioned whether the short-term success of Hadford’s favored approaches really constitutes a silver bullet LINK.
- A test that directly measures reading should include the following:
The chart is taken from this article LINK
- Hanford’s view of reading that reading = decoding is incomplete. If one takes the more inclusive view that reading = decoding plus comprehension Hanford’s data for long-term success in teaching reading is almost nonexistent. That is because the testing instruments used in most of the studies she cites focus mainly on decoding and do not include a direct measure of comprehension (see Box 1).
- Tests of READING must include both an assessment of decoding and an assessment of comprehension. When measuring reading, the testing instruments’ comprehension measures must be direct (see Box 1). The research design should include longitudinal multi-year data showing the impact on both decoding AND COMPREHENSION parts of the reading scores. Folks taking the narrow view of what constitutes Science of Reading have consistently ignored requests to produce such studies. Instead, they focus on studies demonstrating only the strengths of their preferred methods and the weaknesses of the methods they wish to replace.
- SOR, as defined by Hanford, fails to include enough attention to comprehension. There is plenty of evidence that SOR folks spend time assessing and practicing comprehension but very little evidence that they spend much time TEACHING comprehension or comprehension strategies.
- Too many important issues have become oversimplified and polarized; it is irresponsible to reduce the teaching of reading to phonics instruction and nothing more.
- What works for one child doesn’t always work for another. We need to adapt our policies and practices accordingly.
For a time, let’s suspend the talk around our areas of disagreement. Let’s instead talk about areas of agreement and common ground. The following essay is designed to help readers seek out and define that common ground. As I learned from Nell Duke and others, that is not a path where we use research to prove our predetermined points. The path we need to follow is one where we follow research to see where it leads.
Let’s stop weaponizing research and instead use ALL the research to learn from each other. (An open message to Emily Hanford and her followers)
It is no secret that one group within the science of reading movement claims they represent the one and only science of reading. They say that what has come before are failed practices in desperate need of replacement. Emily Hanford’s recent podcasts epitomize that line of thinking. Hanford and folks who agree with her claim to have one-size-fits-all research-based answers that will help almost every child. As you will see in this blog entry, I don’t think they do. Let’s see why I say that.
Keep in mind Hanford’s background, work history and credentials. Her background is in public relations. She has used her skills from this background to create a successful public relations campaign for her position on social media and elsewhere. That is easy to do when much of what she says is never peer-reviewed. She has convinced many folks of the correctness of her position. The problem is her position is based on both questionable research and an incomplete look at the research. So, it would seem Hanford has her own story to tell (sell). It is designed to convince folks that the best course is to adopt her favored methods and abandon all others. I question whether Hanford or any other folks taking this position have all the research they need to back it up. Let’s see why.
For starters, a careful examination of the research reveals that many well-credentialed researchers do not believe that it’s all settled science and that there is only one science of reading with one set of folks having exclusive rights to it. Any number of researchers take issue with that assertation. LINK. These researchers warn that that position fails to consider all the research. They have also questioned the quality of the research she claims “proves” her position LINK. As indicated earlier, they note that her pronouncements are often not subject to peer review. Too often, the “successes” she claims for her methods are based on tests that mainly measure decoding, not full comprehension tests (tests that measure everything contained in this chart).
Link to the article from which this chart is taken. LINK
Some of the people Hanford seems to support have actually been charged with “making that stuff up” LINK and taking an indefensible “Phonics First Phonics Only” point of view LINK. The number of researchers taking a critical position about those claiming there is one and only one science of reading is far too great for anyone to claim that all researchers agree on that point. There is no one “science of reading” LINK, LINK– It is time for Hanford and others to retract that claim and the claim that their point of view represents the one and only science of reading.
Another problem is that she lauds
the success of literacy programs in places like Florida and Mississippi. But those programs include the practice of retaining students. That practice is harmful to all students. It is especially egregious in terms of its impact on children of color LINK. I call on Hanford and others to join those of us who call for all literacy programs to drop this hurtful practice. She should not hold these programs up as examples of best literacy practices until these incredibly hurtful practices are removed.
In this week’s podcast, Hanford has crossed over from journalism (using a very generous definition of that term) to yellow press journalism. She has done that by delivering unfounded personal attacks on the leadership of competing reading methods, claiming those methods are failed and ineffective and implying that the leaders of those methods are simply in it for the money.
Let’s look at a key problem with the focus of Hanford’s analysis. Here is a screen capture from the transcript of her latest podcast:
For Hanford, reading is decoding (sounding out words). This is classic Phonics First/Phonics Only thinking. That kind of approach has been roundly criticized by major figures in the field like Shanahan. LINK. In the meantime, the clear successes of the students’ improved performance on leveled text (including improved comprehension) are discounted/ignored.
As I already indicated, I strongly feel that Hanford has crossed a line in her most recent podcast. Her personal attacks on major figures in the literacy world are based on accepting her PR proclamations that most previous methods were failures. Those claims are based on the continued public relations tactic of discount and discredit. They do not hold up when ALL the evidence is considered. Reading Hanford’s account, one is left with the impression that there has never been a study that shows any of the criticized methods works. That is not true. As one example of Hanford’s discount and discredit tactic, let’s dig deeper into her analysis of one of those methods- her analysis of Reading Recovery. Here is another screen capture from the transcript of her podcast:
So. the initial study she cites gives results that indicate that Reading Recovery works well. She then goes on to point out that there are studies indicating the results don’t stick. That is true, but does that mean Reading Recovery doesn’t work in the long run? As with all research, the devil is in the details. I interviewed Susan Vincent, who told me about her district’s results LINK. In her district RR continued to work in the long term. In her district, the reading recovery students were returning to a Tier 1 program that was working, and students were making good progress. So, in her district, Reading Recovery did what it what supposed to do. It accelerated the students’ growth so they could benefit from the district reading program. Let’s discuss that point further.
Reading Recovery is an INTENSE, SHORT-TERM First-grade intervention. In places like Susan’s, where the students return to a working district program, the students continue to thrive. When citing studies that claim to show RR does not have long-term success, those studies often fail to ask the right question. The right question is, “on average, is the recovery students’ progress less than the progress of students in the district’s mainstream program?” Citing studies that fail to consider that factor as studies showing that RR has failed is a gross misrepresentation of the research results. It provides a convenient method to discount and discredit an intervention that is, in point of fact, working exactly as it should work.
Discounting and discrediting, as Hanford and others have done with competing methods of instruction, is a great public relations ploy. Often, the ink isn’t dry on the reports of success before the attacks on the results begin. The attacks on competing programs’ results are subject to far more stringent standards of success than the defense of their own program. BTW at least some of the data they use to evaluate their own programs are of questionable quality LINK The bottom line is that this a great public relations ploy, but it is a horrible way to evaluate programs or get ideas for improving programs. In the case of Reading Recovery, they discredit widely accepted sources of information like the What Works Clearinghouse LINK.
This is from the draft of a joint statement being prepared about this topic. It says:
“We are asking for the rest of the story. The research that is being ignored, the stories of school districts and educators who have seen incredible success using comprehensive approaches to reading instruction that are conveniently left out of this narrative.”
Hanford claims the women she attacks are selling folks on really bad products and continuing to do so because they are in it for the money. It doesn’t occur to her or her followers that these women are continuing to use the methods because they know they are helping and that they have data showing the methods are working. Calling something a “failed method” when data shows otherwise is public relations at its worst. As I’ve already pointed out, she and her supporters have not convinced the whole research world that they are the one and only science of reading and that she and her supporters have the one and only answer. That makes the very personal and unsupported attacks against these major literacy figures especially troubling
Before getting into my suggestions on what we could/should do about the whole issue, let me say something as a teacher of 50 years. Many people have bought into the half-truths, misdirections and misinformation being spread by the public relations campaigns of Hanford and others. These supporters are viciously attacking teachers for doing their job. The Twitter attacks are mean-spirited, and because of them, many educators have simply been bullied into not speaking out. I’ve had firsthand experience with these.
- I have been told I’m in it for the money. The vast majority of my income comes from the pension I earned from teaching in Title 1 schools for 30-plus years, schools with very high percentages of at-risk children. No one pays me to write this blog, and I cover all the expenses for publishing it. I do not use any of the WordPress features that are available to use to generate money. Bottom line- I’m in this for the kids, not for the money.
- Some have said I should be charged with educational malpractice (decades of successfully helping children with test scores to prove it). Threats to sue for malpractice ring a little hollow since I’m not aware of a single case where such suits have been carried out successfully. It might have something to do with the fact that when all the evidence (research) is weighed in, it becomes apparent that their charge that all things from the past are failures simply doesn’t hold up.
The manner in which these attacks on Twitter are delivered is mean-spirited and hurtful. Early on in my involvement on social media, teacher friends advised me against saying anything at all because of the toxic climate on literacy issues. As I’ve indicated, some teachers have stopped posting. Others have simply left the teaching field altogether. Hanford’s latest attack doubles down on encouraging this propensity to attack teachers with the audacity to question skewed and inaccurate assertions around the research. She has now added major successful literacy figures to the teachers under attack. I call upon educators from all sides to bring civility and decorum back to discussions on social media. I hope Hanford will join me in making that call for civility by all sides.
Remember that several of the leaders under attack started as teachers. They were successfully using methods Hanford claims don’t work. That’s how their businesses got so large. Hanford’s claims that the practices promoted by such teachers are “failed practices” is bogus. That is not all she gets wrong. Her claim that they are in it for the money could easily be applied to her own situation. Is she in it because her job is public relations, and she needs a campaign that will capture public attention and, in the process, create lots of new income for her?
Actually, I believe that all the individuals I’ve talked to, including Emily, are not mainly in it for the money. I think they all believe in what they do. I think it would behoove Emily to back off from these unfounded allegations and recognize that the women she is attacking became successful not because of their charisma but because they found paths to literacy that worked for many children.
By the way, these teachers who have helped create successful businesses have a habit of adapting to new information (all good teachers do). Let’s take Lucy Calkins, for instance. I’ve known her and her work for over 20 years. Revision is at the heart of her way of teaching writing and reading. Her teaching methods are rooted in the idea of changing when new evidence comes along. Please keep in mind that is something she has been doing in all the twenty years I’ve known her, not just in reaction to the most recent criticisms of some of her practices. Calkins made the recent changes to help kids, knowing full well that folks taking extreme views around the issues would make that out to be a “retreat” (more public relations ploys). I view her doing what she has done as an incredibly brave stand.
Let’s turn to an area where workshop teaching methods really shine. That is the area of teaching (not just assessing or practicing) comprehension. I have written on the point that research supports the notion there is more to reading comprehension than building background LINK. My experience with workshop teaching convinces me that workshop teachers go well beyond simply teaching background. I have to wonder aloud whether Hanford and her followers understand the implications of the Science of Comprehension model LINK. I see plenty of evidence SOR folks assess and practice comprehension but very little evidence that they spend much time TEACHING comprehension/comprehension strategies. Perhaps Hanford can point me to the evidence demonstrating they do spend substantial time TEACHING comprehension/comprehension strategies.
Another question I have for Hanford is on the changes she has made to her SOR views around reading. How has your model evolved? What have you done about the criticisms that your model overdoes decoding and underdoes comprehension? I’ll again point out that the notion that providing background is sufficient to develop reading comprehension has been thoroughly discredited. It is true that everyone who has seriously studied reading comprehension knows that background knowledge is critical. I am not asking whether it is necessary (it is), but rather, I am asking is it sufficient? Do we need to do more than provide background knowledge? There is a whole body of research around the science of comprehension LINK. So, Ms. Hanford, what is your take around the research in the Science of Reading Comprehension model?
Overall, my take on Hanford and her public relations pronouncements is that her story is INCOMPLETE and not even close to being on target.
How do the narrowly focused direct teaching of phonics approaches that Hanford champions fair when looked at from folks outside her chosen group of researchers? Let me call your attention to recent studies that show the methods that Hanford and others promote are also subject to question. Below you will find an article indicating that OG is not a magic bullet. It is not the only such article LINK. Even some advocates of the Science of Reading question how phonics is currently being used within SOR LINK.
As indicated in the headline above- New research evidence is at odds with the views of many dyslexia advocates and state policies. Also, consider this screen capture from this study:
Link to the study LINK.
I could use the preceding and research cited in several of my blogs to turn the reading wars into the research wars. My research vs. your research. Some very learned folks have written on that topic LINK. The trouble is what I think the above information shows is something everyone should have long since become aware of.
EVERY METHOD & EVERY APPROACH HAS LIMITS AND LIMITATIONS.
That is true for any method you care to name, regardless of what “camp” the method comes from. I do try to read ALL the latest research LINK. For instance, the recent RRQ (Reading Research Quarterly) issues said, “we aren’t there yet” in terms of developing a complete science of reading. Articles from that same prestigious research journal warn against adopting binary thinking. Yet Emily’s public relations campaign seems predicated on an us (her brand of SOR) vs. them (all other programs) analysis. Turning the current dialogue into an us vs. them is counterproductive. It guarantees that the current dialogue will again turn into what Frank Smith once called “The Endless Debate” as we play out the “my research vs. your research discussion.”
Let me suggest a different course.
Let’s first consider the fact that no one approach, no one focus (decoding or comprehension), has been shown to help every child every time. I suggested four years ago that we have a “reading evolution” LINK. Also, sides need to accept that when their preferred methods are given a reasonable chance, and those preferred practices don’t work for particular kids, folks need to be willing to try things from the “other sides.” For instance, Balanced literacy folks, who tend to favor analytic phonics over synthetic phonics- need to recognize that analytic phonics usually doesn’t work for Dyslexic children. So, they must find ways to provide those children with a different form of phonics instruction. BTW that doesn’t mean banning analytic phonics. Some children don’t thrive on synthetic phonics. They need analytic phonics LINK. Reports from Australia indicate that some children there make no progress even after several YEARS of phonics instruction (see year three children) LINK. We need to find things that help those children for whom synthetic phonics doesn’t work LINK. We need help children who are word callers LINK. The list goes on.
As the recently issued joint statement draft says (bolding is mine):
- At a time when information spreads quickly and, sadly, too many important issues have become oversimplified and polarized, it is irresponsible to reduce the teaching of reading to phonics instruction and nothing more. To imply that other approaches are not just wrong, but money-making schemes, is reckless. Teachers and students will not benefit from biased storytelling and finger-pointing, especially when so much is at stake.
- You can believe in the critical importance of phonics and not agree with the incomplete story being sold in “Sold a Story,” which paints educators as naively inadequate, gives them a lot less credit than they deserve and diminishes their agency.
- We are asking for the rest of the story. The research that is being ignored, the stories of school districts and educators who have seen incredible success using comprehensive approaches to reading instruction that are conveniently left out of this narrative
That brings me to the key idea in this blog entry’s title. Let’s stop weaponizing research to prove “our way” is the only way. Instead, let’s use ALL the research and learn from each other. It is time to join P.D. Pearson in what he once called the radical middle LINK. Please download and read his piece about that. What he said then still applies today. Let’s follow all the research and see where it will take us. I think Emily Hanford and the believers in her public relations campaign are not the future of reading instruction. Their narrow focus will result in helping some children (Dyslexics) at the expense of others (Word Callers et al.). Ultimately, their way is almost guaranteed to cause yet another swing of the pendulum because they are not addressing the needs of ALL the children. That is the key here- helping ALL the children. One size does not fit all!
The future of reading instruction belongs to empowered teachers armed with the knowledge of ALL the research and working within the curriculum created by each district. While thinking about that, let’s ensure that districts’ right to create curriculum is not eliminated. I feel that some of the recent literacy legislation endangers districts’ rights to create curricula. I’m not alone in that thinking. Districts know their students the best and are in the best position to decide what will help their particular population.
We’ve spent a lot of time lately, with all sides mainly discussing what’s wrong with the other side. Parents and teachers alike are reporting they are tired of the endless bickering. The fact of the matter is that both sides are wrong in some ways. I am not the first to suggest that LINK. It’s equally true that, to some degree, both sides are right. Maybe it’s time to stop oversimplifying and creating false dichotomies and start asking about what works and doesn’t work in the setting of each district. As we do so, let’s use the same criteria for evaluating the research about what works. Perhaps then we can cut through the Gordian Knot that has been at the heart of this great debate for the past 50 years. I think the fundamental cause of the knot is a very simple thing:
What works for one child doesn’t always work for another.
Folks need to adapt their policies and practices accordingly. That is what I was trying to say when I first proposed the idea of a reading evolution LINK, and why I have consistently called for less bickering and more talk LINK. Dare to dream!
Dr. Sam Bommarito, aka the centrist who uses ideas from all sides to inform his teaching
Copyright 2022 by Dr. Sam Bommarito. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the author’s view and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization.
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