Research is Only as Good as the Sense You Use to Apply It

You know the old saying, “If a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it….”  Well, similarly, we have to wonder, “If something is good for children but can’t be measured, is it still good for children?”

Authors of a November 2011 article in Young Children examined the ways that research from the National Early Literacy Panel has been interpreted in literature and applied in classrooms.  Part of the article offers great news on how research has informed and improved practice.  But there were concerns and caveats as well.   

One critique that stood out to me, was their concern that oral language skills are difficult to authentically measure.  As a result, in research the link between oral language and literacy skills appears to be weaker than the relationship between alphabet knowledge and literacy skills.

In application, the authors fear that more emphasis is put on alphabet knowledge, and little attention is paid to things like oral language skills.  But literacy experts would agree that oral language is very much a critical part of building literacy skills.  The skill is complex and fluid and thereby much more difficult to measure than is drilling through a sheet full of letters to test alphabet knowledge.  But the ease of testing doesn’t have anything to do with how children learn to read.  Oral language skills do.  As do phonological awareness and print concepts.  Unfortunately, for some teachers, the focus remains almost entirely on alphabet awareness as a literacy foundation.

When components of emergent literacy are dissected and examined some teachers forget that in this case, the combined whole is much greater than the individual parts.  Alphabet awareness is a component of literacy, not literacy itself.  Unfortunately when research isolates literacy skills to better understand them, some begin focusing on those individual aspects in dangerously disproportionate and disconnected ways. 

In addition to overemphasizing alphabet awareness at the expense of other literacy components, the authors point out that in some cases literacy instruction has begun to replace other necessary learning experiences in areas like math, science, and social skills as well as valuable opportunities for play.  They also note that narrow interpretations have led to drilling skills and other methods that are not developmentally appropriate for preschoolers.

I am quite in favor of being aware of research and using it to influence curriculum decisions, but when we forget to use our own good sense in applying it, the attempt  may be counter-productive.

Top photo source.

Reference: “The National Early Literacy Panel and Preschool Literacy Instruction: Green Lights, Caution Lights, and Red Lights” Young Children. November, 2011. By Kathleen A. Paciga, Jessica L. Hoffman, & William H. Teale.

Read More:

Why Don’t You Teach Reading?  A Look at Emergent Literacy (Series)

Finding the Sweet Spot for Early Literacy

Five Ways to Make Literacy Learning Meaningful

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15 Comments

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15 Responses to Research is Only as Good as the Sense You Use to Apply It

  1. Excellent, excellent point! Speech-language pathologists have notoriously had a difficult time measuring oral language skills, and some have reverted to methods that have again been proven to be more measurable, but less accurate, such as methods that look strictly at expressive vocabulary. I think a child’s ability to tell narratives has risen to be noted as the best oral language measure, but again it can be difficult to measure! Ha! Telling narratives, like learning to read, is nuanced and involves the integration of SO many skills, which is hard to fit in one neat little test. WHICH is why the point you make about drilling a specific skill over spending time in a variety of quality learning experiences is even MORE important! Since we are asking our children to do complex tasks like telling stories and reading, we need to give them varied experiences to support ALL of the skills they will need to reach the final goal.

    And isn’t it funny that pretend play skills impact narrative skills, which greatly impact reading! Hmm. Maybe we really do need to give kids time and space to play, imagine, and EXPERIENCE!

    Thanks you again for another thoughtful post.

  2. Judi Pack

    There is a study that (I know Thelma Harms speaks of it often) indicates a strong correlation between children who grow up in families where there is a lot of conversation and their resulting school “success.” They were compared to children whose early years at home were spent with families who rarely engaged in conversation with them, only used “directive” language, e.g., “come here, sit down, let’s go” etc. Those children did not do well. Of course, we could look at this and imagine that there may be many other factors in the conversation-less families that contribute to that lack of success in school later. If I find the name of the study, I will share.

  3. Judy – Hart & Risley were the researchers whose work I think you’re referring to. Here’s a link to a nice summary of their study: http://www.lenababy.com/Study.aspx

    David Dickinson has also done a lot of research and writing about the connection between oral language and literacy. I’ll see if I can find a good online piece of his to share, too, for those who are interested.

    • Okay, here’s a good application article written by Dickinson and Patton Tabor, who authored one of my favorite books for early educators on supporting second language learners in preschool programs (One Child, Two Languages). It’s called “Fostering Language and Literacy in Classrooms and Homes” http://www.pbs.org/teacherline/courses/rdla170/docs/fostering_language.pdf

      • Kathy & Judy- Thank you for sharing those resources. It’s true that there is research out there supporting oral language skills, but because alphabet awareness is essentially measured the same way every time (basically right/wrong) and oral language may be measured in so many ways (expressive/receptive, directive/conversational, etc.) the strength of the relationship, and the subsequent application can vary. I personally think that a large part of oral language development is being aware of the importance, the components, and integrating that into authentic experiences. It’s very difficult to drill oral language skills, which is why I think it’s often overlooked. Implementation takes more mindfulness and intention. Thanks again for sharing the links, Kathy.

  4. In many fields these days we strive to use “evidence-based” treatments or practice as much as possible. I generally agree this is a good goal – in our work using methods that research studies have shown to be successful. But this tends to leave out new methods and techniques that are untested, and old methods passed down over time that are hard to test, as your post points out. (I’m not talking about untested medical methods that could harm people.) And as your post implies, many of the most important aspects of teaching, psychology, medicine for example, are extremely difficult to research accurately.

    I’ve just been looking into teaching children gratitude, for instance. The small amount of research out there shows a weaker link between gratitude practices and positive results in children than in adults. But the concept of gratitude is hard to capture in a research setting. And I believe that as researchers find a better way to measure gratitude, more positive results will be found for teaching gratitude to children. In the meantime, I’ve read other people who’ve implied teaching children and teens gratitude isn’t worthwhile because the research doesn’t support it. This seems similar to the mindset you were concerned about, people not fully understanding the strengths and weaknesses of scientific research.

    I guess this is another example of why to continue supporting strong science education in our schools.

    • notjustcute

      Suzita- what a great example. Gratitude may be difficult to accurately measure, but that shouldn’t keep us from working to instill it in our children. Research is valuable, but all those studies we now site, didn’t exist at one point. So just because we can’t find the proof yet, doesn’t mean the principle is wrong. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  5. Amanda – You’ve raised such an important issue in this “age of accountability”, where policymakers, funders, and other key decision-makers want “evidence” – measurable results – to base their decisions on. And yet there is an enormous chasm between actual research findings and how teachers, parents, and other caregivers interact with children and the decisions they make regarding their learning. I agree with the authors of the YC article – the application of research findings to “real world” settings depends on the ability to analyze and interpret those findings and communicate them in a way that doesn’t assign more meaning or importance to them than the research deserves. That’s REALLY hard to do well (and it’s not done very well very often)! Plus, it seems to be human nature to turn complex research into simple soundbites or bullet points, which inevitably results in misapplication of the data. The measurement issue you raise is just one of a dozen issues that affects how research is done, which research gets funded, which study results make headlines, and which findings are the easiest to turn into policy or practice recommendations. (Sorry to go on about this – it’s been a pet peeve of mine for a long time, starting with the blatant misinterpretation of “brain research” findings back in the 90s. Remember the supposed “Mozart effect”? I won’t go into detail, but talk about misinterpretation!)

    All that to say, I’m with you, Amanda! Yes, research findings can be helpful in guiding decisions (with lots of caveats around interpreting them) but it’s only one source of information we should use. The wisdom of those who work with children every day should certainly be valued every bit as much, in early literacy instruction as well as every other aspect of their education and care. Preach on!

  6. Jane

    I’ve just stumbled upon your website and just wanted to say THANK YOU for such an amazing resource. I love it all, but especially the book activities. A group of moms in my neighborhood have just formed our own little “playschool,” in which we take turns planning activities and lessons. I am so excited to share some of your wonderful ideas with them.

    • notjustcute

      Thank you, Jane. And welcome! I’m hoping to release an ebook in the spring full of book activities that build emergent literacy skills. Hope you find it useful!

  7. I think Child’s Play Music may have summed it up better than I did in her Facebook response: “It’s the old problem: “not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” When researchers concentrate on the components of literacy learning that can easily be measured they miss the important stuff.” http://www.facebook.com/#!/ChildsPlayMusicPerth/posts/232028420217781
    Thank you for all the great comments!

  8. Pingback: Weekend links | Ahimsa Mama

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