What is 'Reliable' Evidence?
One of the most difficult challenges for teachers is to weigh up whether a program or a strategy is backed by reliable evidence. We have principals and vice-principals and learning specialists and literacy specialists for that, don't we?
Unfortunately, there are plenty of roadblocks that make finding reliable evidence more difficult than it should be. Recognising this is the first step toward finding the answers you need.
1. The program or PD cites its own research. 😳
That is, the research has not been conducted independently.
2. The academic research article has not been peer-reviewed, so only the person writing the article agrees with it (for instance, even though this website does not purport to be an academic publication, it has been peer-reviewed for accuracy and offers further reading to check the veracity of its comments. For more information, see About).
3. The people who have recommended the evidence are not aware of the full picture and choose strategies and programs because they have 'heard they are good' or because they have been using them for years. Neither of these reasons are verifiable or reliable evidence.
4. Teachers are not commonly taught the science of reading in their initial preparation. That is, 40 years of research and a mature consensus of opinion derived from thousands of research studies have been largely unrecognised in many universities.
5. Further to point 4, graduate teachers are also not routinely taught to evaluate research for themselves. Instead, they are often told to use the reading program in whatever school they are hired to work in. As a result, some teachers don't feel it is necessary to access new research or to question the status quo. This can put some teachers in a Catch-22 situation, where they want to help struggling students but do not have the appropriate knowledge to do so. This is one of the reasons why some students are often remediated rather than provided with appropriate whole class instruction in early reading.
How to Choose Reliable Evidence in Reading Research
1. Read key research articles and books yourself. Only when you begin to read widely will you begin to understand the issues.
2. Be curious and arm yourself with knowledge. You don't need to trust an author just because they are cited. Think about the assumptions the author is making. For instance, if you have read Ken Goodman's work and then read the articles that have since disproven his opinions, you might also realise that an author who cites Goodman as reasoning for their argument may not have read as widely as they might and may not be a trustworthy source. Unfortunately , it is human nature to follow others' opinions and many of us feel we don't have the time to do the research for ourselves. But as my father would say, 'hurry slowly'. Your accumulated efforts over time will build a foundation of knowledge.
3. Look for converging evidence. As McCardle and Chhabra write in their book, The Voice of Evidence in Reading Research (2004), 'Researchers and teachers alike know that one size never fits all, and this is certainly true of children learning to read... When many studies are conducted over time with a wide cross-section of children and the studies obtain highly similar results, researchers become confident that the findings reflect a true picture of reading development, reading difficulties and the effects of different types of reading instruction. This converging evidence is critical as a basis of policy and in making instructional decisions. Teachers should not be asked to change their classroom practice based on a single study or a good idea that has not been thoroughly and rigorously tested' (p.6).
Finally, here is just one of my favourite pages of Lyn Stone's wonderful book, Reading for Life (2019), shared by Heidi Gregory of Dyslexia Support Victoria: