Using Research to Improve Literacy Practice and Practice to Improve Literacy Research Barbara R. Schirmer Kent State University
The disconnection between research and practice is not a new phenomenon, but as researchers and educators look toward the future of deaf education, it seems crucial to look back at the reasons behind this disconnection with the goal of creating a professional milieu in which we use research to improve literacy practice and practice to improve literacy research with deaf students. This article examines the issues underlying the relatively insignificant impact of research on literacy practice from the perspectives of the fields of literacy, special education, and deaf education.
The disconnection between research and practice is well known and long bemoaned, if not by teachers, certainly by researchers. Researchers conduct studies that lead to new knowledge about the reading and writing processes of deaf individuals and to new instructional strategies that enhance literacy development. Yet these results seem infrequently translated into teaching practices eﬀectively used by teachers of deaf students. As educators and researchers look ahead to deaf education in this new century, it seems crucial to look back at the reasons behind this disconnection, to create a professional milieu in which we use research to improve literacy practice and practice to improve literacy research.
Correspondence should be sent to Barbara R. Schirmer, Kent State University, 405 White Hall Kent, OH 44242 (e-mail: [email protected]
kent.edu). 2001 Oxford University Press
Questioning the Objectives of Researchers In a recent special issue of Reading Research Quarterly entitled “Envisioning the future of literacy,” Dillon, O’Brien, and Heilman (2000) noted that research into literacy has often been less eﬀective than it should be. Policy makers and individual “experts,” who wish to promote particular political agendas, capture the public’s attention by criticizing the research as not accountable to the public interest, lacking scientific rigor, and jeopardizing the achievement of children. Literacy researchers are not only discredited but also often ignored when educational policies are being made at the national, state, and local levels. At the same time, literacy researchers themselves are divided by arguments about theories, paradigms, methods, and instructional approaches. More seriously, Dillon et al. argued that many researchers are distracted by desires for academic prestige. They suggested three classes of literacy scholars. The first class of researcher scholars anticipates the newest research topic, methodology, or paradigm. They are far more interested in future trends than in grounding their work on past knowledge. The reason is simple: “In higher education, where most of the research is supported and conducted, researchers are rewarded for carving out new directions, generating articles and grant proposals, and positioning themselves as leaders in the field. To invent new genres, coin new terms, set directions for others to follow, and create
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new paradigms is to cement one’s reputation as a scholar. In contrast, less glamour is associated with grounding one’s work solidly on others’ research or refining and improving upon existing ideas” (p. 10). We can interpret the bilingual-bicultural movement in deaf education as a leap toward new directions without considering what we already knew about bilingual education and the language development of deaf children. National recognition certainly has been aﬀorded to individuals who advocated widely for bilingual-bicultural education. However, we still have sparse data regarding the eﬀectiveness of the paradigm or the instructional strategies within the paradigm that improve achievement. Indeed, the history of deaf education seems fraught with the quest for new paradigms and approaches but few attempts to discover how to improve our current models. Recently, I had a dinner conversation with two of my former master’s students in deaf education, both pursuing doctorates in special education at another university. One of the students, in the first year of her doctoral program, is just beginning to define her area of dissertation research. Her major advisor provided her with a topic quite removed from the student’s area of interest, saying, “I expect my doctoral students to make a big splash in their dissertation and this topic is one that hasn’t been explored. There’s nothing new to learn about literacy learning in deaf children.” This professor is not knowledgeable about deafness, deaf education, or literacy. However, she thinks that she knows enough to steer clear of the topic because she cannot conceptualize a “big splash” research investigation emerging from the study of literacy. According to Dillon et al. (2000), the second class of researcher scholars strives to achieve status by “introducing a single groundbreaking idea, mapping out a portion of some new territory, or working consistently on a set of problems within a given paradigm over time” (p. 10). Committed to their ideas, researchers who pursue this route cannot consider data from teachers and children that may indicate serious flaws. The Reading Milestones basal reading series is an example. Based on research in the 1970s, which indicated that deaf students had diﬃculty with particular syntactic structures, the reading series introduced these structures gradually. The developers of the series made
an assumption about reading development based on language development. Research in the past two decades indicates that this assumption is flawed. Indeed, no research indicates that simplifying the sentences structures of reading material and introducing them according to a sequence of diﬃculty results in higher reading achievement levels among deaf readers. In fact, limited evidence indicates that this type of reading material is actually more diﬃcult for deaf students to comprehend because of the lack of text coherence and that syntactic diﬃculty may be less a factor in comprehension than word recognition, vocabulary, and limited context (Israelite & Helfrich, 1988; Kelly, 1996; LilloMartin, Hanson, & Smith, 1992; McKnight, 1989; Stoefen-Fisher, 1987–1988). The whole language movement is another such example. As data regarding the importance of the direct and systematic teaching of reading skills emerged in the 1990s, researchers committed to whole language, such as Goodman (1992), have had great diﬃculty accepting criticism of the whole language paradigm (Coles, 1998; Snow, Burns, & Griﬃn, 1998; Stanovich, 2000). Dillon et al. (2000) describe the third class of research scholars as motivated by a question about literacy. These researchers work with others, researchers as well as teachers and other practitioners, to pursue answers that lead to the generation of theories or the development of new instructional strategies. This type of research typically receives less attention than the other two forms. We need only look at the numerous articles published in the Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, American Annals of the Deaf, and The Volta Review, as well as many other journals for broader audiences, to realize the relatively small impact of this type of research on instructional practices. Duﬀy and Hoﬀman (1999) observed that educators have often pursued the “silver bullet,” that is, the perfect method, approach, or materials to literacy development. Persistence in this search has frequently led to adherence to a single good idea or method. As a result, reading professors promote their favorite methods and ignore or demean competing ones, school districts adopt a single packaged program that teachers are expected to employ faithfully, and teachers identify themselves by the method or program they use (“I’m a Direct Instruction teacher” or “I’m a whole language
Using Research and Practice
teacher”). These stances reflect the belief that one method fits all students. Duﬀy and Hoﬀman suggested that, instead of conducting research that compares one reading method with another, researchers should study what teachers do with methods in order to recognize and understand the complexity of classroom life, how teachers adapt and modify methods and materials to meet the needs of diverse students, and the processes and contexts for teacher problem solving, decision making, and development.
Questioning the Bases for Educational Policy Making Allington (1999) and his colleagues have been examining educational policy making in Texas, New York, California, and Wisconsin for the past several years. They are interested in the policy shifts in these four states and the influence of reliable, replicable educational research on the policies that were the focus of advocacy and the policies that were actually made. Allington found that educational policy making is assuredly a political activity. Popular public support means considerably more than rigorous research support. Then again, both sorts of support essentially can be invented, for example, by continually quoting persons in positions of authority. Once the quotation has been reiterated enough times in enough settings, it assumes the aura of scientific truth. In deaf education and deaf studies, well-known individuals, such as Harlan Lane and Donald Moores, can editorialize and subsequently be quoted until their words become fact rather than opinion. In 1993, subsequent to the publication of Lane’s book, The Mask of Benevolence: Disabling the Deaf Community, Lane and Moores publicly aired their diﬀering opinions in American Annals of the Deaf regarding whether deaf education is oppressive, whether deaf educators are locked out of leadership positions, whether there was a golden age in deaf education, and whether mainstreaming is a disaster. In this point-counterpoint, they eloquently showed that passion for ideas is not proof of reality (Lane, 1993; Moores, 1993a, 1993b). One could quote either person and present a view diametrically opposed to the other. Persuasive rhetoric is a second and complementary
way to aﬀect public policy making. Allington (1999) noted that Newt Gingrich’s line about “grabbing the good words for your side while hurling invectives at the opposition” can be an extremely eﬀective strategy in the short run, but the polarization it engenders harms consensus building in the long run. In the literacy arena, the parallel is advocating for whole language by using words such as “natural,” “authentic,” and “childcentered” to describe whole language and “decontextualized,” “synthetic,” and “rote learning” to describe instruction in decoding skills or a code-emphasis approach. All sides assume that their position is based on superior, reliable, replicable research. According to Stahl (1998), however, these propaganda terms and catch phrases are now retarding the whole language movement because this language provides little prospect for common ground. In an example from the other side of the whole language-to-skills continuum, advocacy for teaching phonemic awareness, sound-spelling correspondence explicitly, sound-spelling relationships systematically, and using what is referred to as decodable text has been supported through reference to a white paper produced by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) that served to summarize NICHD-supported research. Allington and Woodside-Jiron (1999) found this white paper, generally referred to as “30 Years of Research: What We Now Know About How Children Learn to Read,” to be highly flawed. They examined the actual research studies cited in the NICHD white paper and compared the results with its recommendations. They found a clear mismatch: the actual research studies cited in the NICHD white paper did not provide support for its recommendations, yet they were used as such during public hearings and in quotations to the press. In other words, the white paper, quoted widely in the media and used regularly in discussions of state policy makers, provided a skewed analysis of the actual NICHD studies. Allington and Woodside-Jiron were concerned about “the extent to which the NICHD-supported research has been used as a policy lever to advocate for particular and specific curricular emphases in general education reform and the widespread acceptance of the white paper as a reliable synthesis of that research” (p. 10). The advocacy for a code emphasis in reading in-
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struction described by Allington and Woodside-Jiron, based partly on the NICHD white paper, led to significant increases in curriculum control by governing bodies such as state boards of regents. For example, in Ohio as in other states, phonics became a mandated separate course of study for all students in teacher education programs.
• There was considerable uniformity about what literacy educators believe. Commeyras and DeGroﬀ (1998) noted that understanding why literacy educators tend to hold similar beliefs may help explain why the basic structure of schools and the school experience of children have remained remarkably constant over decades of recurring reform movements. School reform may change schools less than schools change reforms, because patterns of schooling are so entrenched.
Questioning the Sources of Information Do teachers form their views of reading instruction the same way that the general public does? Are they more critical and analytical readers of the relevant research? In an attempt to answer these questions, Commeyras and DeGroﬀ (1998) surveyed literacy educators, whom they defined as K–12 teachers, reading specialists, library-media specialists, school principals who make policy decisions related to literacy education, and teacher educators in reading, language arts, and related fields. Results indicated that the following interests, experiences, beliefs, and sources of influence contributed to how they teach and continue to learn about teaching: • Literacy educators read journal articles, books, and professional newspapers targeted for audiences of practitioners more often than they read research journals or electronic sources. • Elementary school teachers typically read magazines with a focus on general education topics rather than publications devoted specifically to literacy issues. • Literacy educators are relatively open-minded about new ideas and curious to learn more about current trends in literacy education. However, this interest in new ideas and current trends might also reflect a susceptibility to jump on the latest educational bandwagon. • Literacy educators reported that their reading influenced their beliefs more than their instructional practices. The practices they used were not always in line with changes in their beliefs about how they should be teaching reading. • The survey revealed a disparity between interest and actual experience of educators. They expressed high interest but slight experience with new instructional trends such as using book clubs with children, becoming a teacher researcher, or using portfolio assessment.
How do researchers form their views of schools? Allington (1997) suggested that most of the research community derives much of its knowledge of public schools from the same place as the public does: the media and local knowledge. In reviewing the research literature, he found that relatively few literacy researchers enter public school buildings to study teaching and learning, and of those who do, even fewer spend more than a few days a year in any given school or classroom. In addition, he found that the schools they enter, rarely the most impoverished, remote, or dysfunctional, are more often local and familiar. Allington concluded, “Because so few spend such limited amounts of time in such a restricted array of schools, much of our research reflects quite impoverished depictions of the curriculum, the instruction, and the organizational culture of public schools” (p. 3). He warned that literacy research will continue to be marginalized until researchers address questions relevant to the teachers who will potentially use the research to make instructional decisions and pursue those questions outside of the small box of their own knowledge of schools and schooling. Undoubtedly, researchers in deaf education spend as much, or as little, time in the schools as other educational researchers and need to consider the implications of making generalizations based on research conducted only in local, familiar schools and programs.
Questioning the Reasons for Current Practice Versus Best Practice The disconnection between research and practice has been a concern not only of researchers in literacy per se but researchers in special education as well. Vaughn, Klingner, and Hughes (2000) examined the reasons why research-based practices are not sustained in classrooms of students with disabilities. They began by as-
Using Research and Practice
sessing the legitimacy of the two reasons most frequently cited. The first, “blame the teacher,” posits that two criteria are most important to teachers: knowledge of the practice and ease of implementation. The second reason, “blame the researcher,” posits that researchers design practices eﬀective in a few selected classrooms of carefully trained teachers and expect these practices to be eﬀectively applied in complex classroom situations with diverse students by teachers who may be minimally trained in the practice. These reasons were found to be inadequate explanations of sustainability. Vaughn et al. found the following reasons why teachers disregard or discontinue using “best practices”: • The benefits are not immediately apparent. • The practices they are already using are at least moderately eﬀective. • There is little agreement among researchers, and there are many ways to teach students. • Unless the practice will improve scores on highstakes tests, there is no reason to make a change in instructional practice. • If the practice takes too much classroom time, it is not worth implementing. Dietz (1994) was looking specifically at the insignificant impact of behavior analysis on education when he wrote, “It is disconcerting, though not uncommon, to invent a better mousetrap and find that no one is very interested” (p. 33). Although his suggestions for eﬀective solutions were targeted directly at researchers of applied behavior analysis, with some modification they also make sense for literacy researchers, particularly researchers who study the literacy learning of deaf individuals: 1. Conduct research in a greater number of schools, with a greater number of students of diverse abilities and age ranges, who are studying a range of subject areas. Simply put, collect more data. 2. Commit to schools for long-term restructuring of practice instead of abandoning sites when the data show the eﬀectiveness of an instructional practice. 3. Investigate issues important to teachers, students, and parents. 4. Become directly involved in teacher education. 5. Present findings to teachers through means ac-
cessible to teachers such as the publications they read, in readable language. I am usually not much interested in surveys, but each January I look forward to one survey published by the International Reading Association. Each year, Cassidy and Cassidy (2000) survey literacy leaders to determine which are the “hot” topics for the coming year and which are “not hot” any longer. In the most recent survey, they also asked whether a given topic “should be hot” or “should not be hot.” These literacy leaders represent job categories such as college professor, administrator, and classroom teacher and have been active in taking leadership roles in various organizations of literacy professionals. Table 1 shows what’s hot and what’s not for 2000. Most of the topics can be categorized thematically as related to instructional approach, materials, components and strategies for reading instruction, factors within the child or child’s development, and assessment. The following are a few examples of comparisons within categories: • Instructional approach. Balanced reading instruction is very hot, direct instruction is hot, reading recovery is cold, skills instruction is cold (it was hot the previous year), and whole language is extremely cold. • Materials. Decodable text is very hot, multicultural literature is cold (it was hot last year), and literature-based instruction is very cold (it was cold last year). • Components and strategies for reading instruction. Guided reading is very hot (it was cold last year), phonemic awareness is very hot (it was extremely hot last year), phonics is very hot, and comprehension and vocabulary/word meaning are very cold. • Factors within the child or child’s point of development. Early intervention is very hot, preschool literacy instruction and family literacy are cold (they were hot last year), English as a second language and reading/learning disabilities are cold, and middle school reading is very cold. • Assessment. State/national assessment is very hot, performance assessment and standards are hot, and portfolio assessment is very cold. Although the predictions of the particular literacy leaders surveyed may not represent the interests of all
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Table 1 What’s hot and what’s not in reading research and practice for 2000
Note. From “What’s Hot, What’s Not,” by J. Cassidy and D. Cassidy, 1999/2000, Reading Today, 17, pp. 1 and 28. Copyright 1999 by Jack Cassidy and the International Reading Association. Reprinted with permission.
classroom teachers, these professionals believe that research-based practice is very hot. Interestingly, this topic had not been previously included in the survey, indicating that research-based practice has taken on relatively recent importance among educators. It is intriguing to examine the categories that the literacy leaders felt should receive a diﬀerent rating than they actually seemed to have. Although decodable text is very hot, they thought it should be very cold. While phonemic awareness and state/national assessment are very hot, they thought these topics should be cold. English as a second language, preschool literacy instruction, and multicultural literature are cold, yet
they thought these topics should be very hot. Literature-based instruction, portfolio assessment, vocabulary/word meaning, and middle school reading are very cold. However, they thought literature-based instruction should be hot, portfolio assessment and vocabulary/word meaning should be very hot, and middle school reading should be extremely hot. They thought that reading recovery and reading/learning disabilities should be hot instead of cold. And they thought that comprehension should be extremely hot instead of very cold. Cassidy and Cassidy noted, “This contrast between what is ‘hot’ and what ‘should be hot’ might suggest that forces other than leaders in the field
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are determining the literacy agenda” (p. 28). It might also suggest that the sources of information about literacy are quite diﬀerent for the literacy leaders than for reading teachers, parents, administrators, and policy makers. If two groups come to diﬀerent conclusions about which topics are important, perhaps it is because they are forming their judgments from diﬀerent bodies of information. This possibility points to the need for researchers to write for audiences of practitioners. Dietz’s (1999) observation about applied behavior analysts is pertinent to deaf educators. “Like many presentations at behavioral conventions and publications in behavioral journals, impact will be limited if the audience is made up of those who are already convinced (preaching to the converted reinforces the preacher but does not reach the audience in need of conversion)” (p. 39). Watching the trends come and go during the years since I first became a teacher of deaf children, I am fascinated and concerned to see what takes hold and why in deaf education. In 1997, LaSasso and Mobley conducted a survey of reading instruction for deaf students in the United States as a follow-up to the survey they had conducted 10 years earlier. The following statistics indicate that the research-practice disconnection is as prevalent in deaf education as in other fields: • 72% of the programs used basal readers, including Reading Milestones, which was down from 81% in 1987. Of the programs using basals, 67% used Reading Milestones, which was three times more often than the next most frequently used basal. • 81% of the programs used the language experience approach, which was up from 75% in 1987. • 81% of the programs also reported that whole language characterized their reading programs. • When asked which of several instructional frameworks they used as the “umbrella” framework for reading instruction, one-third reported “whole language,” which was twice as often as the next most frequently cited framework, “language experience.” “Basal reader,” “unit/theme,” and “individualized” accounted for 9% to 13% each. But one-fifth of the programs reported themselves as “eclectic.” The greatest influence on the methods of reading instruction, according to the respondents of the LaSasso and Mobley (1997) survey, was the literature and
research on reading and the literature and research on educating deaf and hard-of-hearing students. The respondents also cited teachers’ input as an important influence. Least influential were standardized test results, coordinators’ or program directors’ input, and what local schools do with normally hearing students. Only half of the programs indicated they used Reading Milestones because it worked well. The most frequently reported reason for selecting Reading Milestones was that “[i]t had been developed for deaf or hard of hearing students” (p. 53). When I was a teacher at the Boston School for the Deaf, a doctoral student from the University of Massachusetts conducted his dissertation research with my students. Every day, for virtually a year, I implemented an instructional strategy designed to improve their written language. When the study began, I argued incessantly with him that it would never work. I was wrong. It worked magnificently. Their written language improved dramatically. About a year after the study was completed, my students’ current teacher and I were talking about one of the children. She told me, “Micah can’t write.” It was a lesson in sustainability. I knew that Micah could write. I also knew that the teacher was not using an instructional approach that would enable Micah to develop as a writer. This is not meant as a criticism of the teacher but as a criticism of how poor a job I had done in sharing the approach with my colleagues. I know that in my heart, I became a researcher during that study. Those who work in colleges and universities have undoubtedly had similar “clicks” in their professional lives that brought them to roles that center on research. It is just as important that teachers have similar “clicks” in their professional lives so that research becomes fundamental to their identity as teachers.
Questioning Future Directions The first question we need to ask at this juncture in deaf education is whether we agree that a disconnection between research and practice continues. In examining the literature, I do not think it is unreasonable to conclude that in the past, much of the work of researchers has not been applied instructionally with deaf students. For example, whereas research supports
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the importance of developing metacognitive knowledge, instructional practices indicate that deaf students spend limited time reading for meaning (Strassman, 1997). Furthermore, apparently the interests and concerns of teachers of the deaf have had relatively little influence on the direction of the research. Although I did not conduct a meta-analysis of the origin of research topics, my review of the articles published during the past five years in three of the journals in deaf education indicated no survey of teachers’ needs or research based on topics nominated by teachers. If we believe that this pattern does not help to advance our knowledge base and improve our instructional practices, then we need to answer the second question: how do we change the landscape of the relationship between research and practice. In summary, I oﬀer the following suggestions in the spirit of a mildly irritating basis for discussions among researchers: • Read the work of others and construct research on a knowledge base built on past findings. • Analyze, assess, and critique the work of others. Decide whether the results are valid with students who are diﬀerent from the subjects in the research study, and particularly whether the practice makes sense for your students. • Build your reputation as a teacher, scholar, and/or educational program on documented results. • Welcome the complexity inherent in students and classrooms and do not seek to find one solution to the educational needs of all deaf students. • Use persuasive rhetoric to advocate for researchproven best practices. • Be open to findings contrary to personal viewpoints or beliefs. • Spend enough time in enough classrooms and enough schools to trust the generalizability of conclusions. • As a researcher, spend time with teachers by participating in their classrooms and schools, and read the material that teachers typically read. As a teacher, spend time with researchers by inviting them to your classroom and school, and read the material that researchers typically read. Received August 8, 2000; revision received November 3, 2000; accepted November 5, 2000
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