Teaching Reading: What the evidence says

Henrietta Dombey and United Kingdom Literacy Association (UKLA) colleagues, 2010

How should decisions about education be made?

At first glance, there’s an obvious answer to this question: on the basis of experience and evidence. Thousands of teachers work every day with hundreds of thousands of pupils. Thousands of hours of educational research are spent looking at how teachers teach, how learners learn. Surely, the job of ministers of education is to find ways of synthesising all this and, within the constraints of funding, to turn it into policy.

Ah! if only.

In fact, what takes place is that ministers do something quite different. By and large, they don’t listen to teachers and they don’t look at research -particularly if it’s research about how children learn. Instead, they look for ‘favourites’, experts whose views correspond with their party’s philosophy-of-the-moment. At such times, many of the usual requirements and stipulations of educational research go flying out of the window. So, what gets dispensed with is the rigour of demanding that:

  • all research making comparisons between two sets of pupils, compares ’like with like’, in terms of age and range of ability, in terms of race, gender and class, in terms of linguistic background;
  • samples of pupils being exposed to a specific new programme of teaching are compared to a ‘control group’ whose education is as near as possible going on under the same conditions as the sample group,bar the specific new programme of teaching (keeping the variables constant);
  • any conclusions about the consequences following a new programme of teaching should be short-term, medium-term and long-term (and not just one of these);
  • every effort should be made to make the testing of the consequences as multi-dimensional as possible and not restricted to one simple quantitative test of one aspect of the skill concerned.

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