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Academic Freedom Isn't Free: Understanding the Zombie Politics of the National Reading Panel in 2022

A core aspect of George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation in 2001 was the report from the National Reading Panel (NRP)[1].

The NRP report represents a key feature of NCLB that isn’t being interrogated fully during the current “science of reading” (SOR) movement: NCLB mandated that instructional practices must be scientifically based (similar to the call for reading instruction to be “scientific” today).

If federal legislation already mandated reading instruction must be research-based two decades ago, why are we experiencing yet another Chicken Little moment claiming that teachers and teacher educators do not know or simply refuse to implement the SOR?

First, the NRP demonstrates key problems with identifying the research base along with then finding practical ways to inform day-to-day classroom instruction with that evidence.

The best way to describe the results of the NRP, then, is that it was a highly contested report that claimed to identify the then-current state of scientific research on how children acquire reading and how best to teach reading.

When the report was issued, Joanne Yatvin, a panel member, challenged the panel for lacking classroom teachers, protested the narrow definition of “scientific” the panel used to review the then-current state of evidence on reading, and predicted (accurately) that the panel findings would be misrepresented.

See Yatvin’s work here:

The NRP findings also were challenged by scholars such as Elaine Garan; see here:

The NRP report and the debates prompted by the report are a stark lesson in the problems surrounding establishing the “science” of anything in education, but the report also demonstrates the essential problem with politicizing both research and educational policy/practice.

The NRP was a political vehicle similar to Reagan’s A Nation at Risk, and the result is not a dispassionate overview of research on reading but a distorted report driven by internal and external ideological biases.

That political element, in fact, brought the promises of the NRP and scientifically-based reading practices to its ultimate demise—a Reading First scandal grounded in federal funding and textbook adoption.

When the NRP was released and throughout the 2000s, then, the only fair way to describe the findings of the NRP was that the report was contested within the field of literacy, overly narrow, and ultimately derailed by political and ideological bias.

None the less, the NRP introduced a framework, the five pillars of reading, that remains influential today: Phonemic Awareness, Phonics, Fluency, Vocabulary, and Comprehension.

However, as Yatvin warned, what the NRP found is typically misrepresented, especially related to phonics; one extremely useful source for understanding what the NRP concluded is a teacher’s guide created by Diane Stephens in 2008:

Here, paraphrased, are the key points highlighted by Stephens (herself quoting directly from the report):

  • Phonemic Awareness: PA is a “means rather than an end”; doesn’t increase comprehension; only one of many elements needed to read independently.
  • Phonics: Minimal value in kindergarten; no conclusion about phonics beyond grade 1 for “normally developing readers”; systematic phonics instruction in grades 2-6 with struggling readers has a weak impact on reading text and spelling; systematic phonics instruction has a positive effect in grade 1 on reading (pronouncing) real and nonsense words but not comprehension; at-risk students benefit from whole language instruction, Reading Recovery, and direct instruction.
  • Fluency: The ability of students to make sense of text grammatically and with understanding of punctuation.
  • Vocabulary: Vocabulary is acquired many ways by readers; number of words acquired cannot be accomplished through direct instruction. About 1/3 of vocabulary learning in grades 3 – 8 linked to reading.
  • Comprehension: Weak evidence in report on comprehension. Emphasizes need for SBRR (scientifically based reading research) and “putting teachers in positions where their minds are the most valued educational resource.”

A short but accurate point to emphasize here is that the NRP did not (even discounting its contested process) find that systematic phonics instruction was essential for all students throughout the early years of schooling.

NRP in 2018-2022

The SOR movement has resurrected not only the NRP report and findings but also the zombie politics of misrepresenting the NRP findings.

A consistent aspect of the media messaging about the SOR has been citing NRP findings as proof that all students need systematic phonics instruction—from Hanford’s “Hard Words,” ground zero of the movement, to a recent critical piece by Goldstein on Lucy Calkins (the only research cited is the NRP report[2]).

One of the important ironies and contradictions of the SOR movement is that findings from the NRP are now twenty years old, and a robust body of research has both expanded and contested those findings. Notably, since SOR advocates often cite the NRP, many scholars have revisited and carefully detailed the flaws and misunderstandings surrounding the report

  • Seidenberg, M.S., Cooper Borkenhagen, M., & Kearns, D.M. (2020). Lost in translation? Challenges in connecting reading science and educational practice. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S119– S130. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.341
  • Bowers, J.S. (2020).Reconsidering the evidence that systematic phonics is more effective than alternative methods of reading instruction. Educational Psychology Review, 32(2020), 681–705. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10648-019-09515-y
  • Collet, V.S., Penaflorida, J., French, S., Allred, J., Greiner, A., & Chen, J. (2021). Red flags, red herrings, and common ground: An expert study in response to state reading policy. Educational Considerations, 47(1). https://doi.org/10.4148/0146-9282.2241

Important to note is that even Seidenberg (a cognitive scientist strongly endorsing the SOR) concludes with Borkenhagen and Kearns: “[T]he main point is that the report was not a sufficient basis for designing an effective reading curriculum, but that is how it is frequently taken—today.”

Further, Bowers offers a solid clarification about drawing conclusions from the NRP reports on phonics:

In sum, rather than the strong conclusions emphasized the executive summary of the NRP (2000) and the abstract of Ehri et al. (2001), the appropriate conclusion from this meta-analysis should be something like this:

“Systematic phonics provides a small short-term benefit to spelling, reading text, and comprehension, with no evidence that these effects persist following a delay of 4–12 months (the effects were not reported nor assessed). It is unclear whether there is an advantage of introducing phonics early, and there are no short- or long-term benefit for majority of struggling readers above grade 1 (children with below average intelligence). Systematic phonics did provide a moderate short-term benefit to regular word and pseudoword naming, with overall benefits significant but reduced by a third following 4–12 months.”

BOWERS, J.S. (2020).RECONSIDERING THE EVIDENCE THAT SYSTEMATIC PHONICS IS MORE EFFECTIVE THAN ALTERNATIVE METHODS OF READING INSTRUCTION. EDUCATIONAL PSYCHOLOGY REVIEW, 32(2020), 681–705. HTTPS://LINK.SPRINGER.COM/ARTICLE/10.1007%2FS10648-019-09515-Y

Since policy and classroom practice were significantly impacted after the NRP was released, and the NRP again is significantly influencing policy and practice today because of the SOR movement, if we genuinely are dedicating ourselves to scientific research to inform classroom practice, then we must no longer cite the NRP since it is both a politically flawed report carefully contested by literacy scholars for twenty years and since the current understanding of that science is better represented by recent scholarship (including those cited above).

Ultimately, the NRP report is merely an artifact in the history of the long and tedious reading debate that recurs every decade or so, negatively impacts classroom practices, and then recycles itself like scenes in Groundhog Day.

The media, advocates for reading, and political leaders would be better served focusing on current evidence available about how to teach reading and the complicated place of phonics instruction in that process. For example, England implemented systematic phonics mandates in 2006, and recent research has challenged that policy, concluding, once again, a need for balanced approaches to reading instruction that are student-centered and driven by teacher autonomy and expertise.

In 2022, citing the NRP is nothing more than zombie politics that erodes the credibility of anyone who continues to use those reports as proof of the SOR.

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[1] See the full reportreports from the subgroups, and the minority view by panel member Joanne Yatvin.

[2] From Goldstein:

But in recent years, parents and educators who champion the “science of reading” have fiercely criticized Professor Calkins and other supporters of balanced literacy. They cite a half-century of research that shows phonics — sound it out exercises that are purposefully sequenced — is the most effective way to teach reading, along with books that build vocabulary and depth.

 IN THE FIGHT OVER HOW TO TEACH READING, THIS GURU MAKES A MAJOR RETREAT

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P.L. Thomas

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education (Furman University, Greenville SC), taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher educati...