When It Comes to Reading, It’s All in Our Heads

Over the last decade, we have seen a real evolution into scientifically based reading instruction.  The work of the National Research Council and the National Reading Panel both focused on the research base that was out there, and what the data told us about good, effective instruction.  The American Federation of Teachers released a report on reading instruction titled “Teaching Reading is Rocket Science,” hoping to dispel, once and for all, that there was a proven scientific method behind effective reading instruction madness.

Those who believe in the whole language philosophy (and it is a philosophy folks, it is not an instructional method), would tell you that good reading instruction is actually more art than science.  We need to let students learn at their own pace, do the things they enjoy, and gain skills (or not gain them) on their own terms.  Instead of focusing on the need for practice and skills development, those who stand up against proven instructional methods would almost prefer we let our kids feel their way around reading, guessing in the untested instead of learning through the proven.
When we think about proven reading instruction, particularly in elementary schools, we often think about teachers, teachers’ aides, reading specialists, parents, and after-school programs.  How often, though, do we think of neuropsychologists?  But today’s Washington Post, the Health section no less, reminds us of the lasting and meaningful role hard sciences can have on teaching our children.
WaPo’s Nelson Hernandez paints a compelling picture of the impact neuropsychology, MRIs, and brain scans can have on diagnosing reading difficulties and helping educators provide the interventions specific students need.  The full story is here — <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/10/24/AR2008102402987.html?hpid=sec-health.
Eduflack has had the privilege of spending time with Laurie Cutting at the Kennedy Krieger Institute and seeing how this science works and how it can guide effective classroom instruction.  It is truly amazing to see the process the Post describes in action, to see how brain activity changes, both during an individual session and over time.  It is incredible to know we can use brain maps to literally see scientifically-based reading approaches take hold in a child’s head, giving the instructional foundations virtually all students need to learn to read.  And it is that science that must serve as a foundation for the future of reading instruction.
In the coming year, we are likely to see a de-emphasis in our attention to scientifically based instruction.  We’ve all heard how much scientifically based research was included in the original NCLB legislation.  We’ve all questioned the true impact and validity of the findings offered by the What Works Clearinghouse.  And we’ve are even slowly seeing the differences between both good research and bad research, though most are still learning how to tell the difference.  
Both presidential candidates, along with legislative leaders such as Senator Ted Kennedy, Congressman George Miller, and Congressman Buck McKeon have all spoken to the need to continue to “do what works” in our classrooms.  That means spending our valuable education dollars on methods and materials that are proven effective and based on real, replicable research.  No matter who is calling the shots come January 2009, we all must remember that guiding principle.  We pay for what is effective.  We reward what works.  
And we make a national commitment to move evidence-based instruction forward, regardless of the direction ESEA reauthorization may take.  At the end of the day, we are investing in our children, placing a large bet that virtually every child can succeed and every kid can perform.  We win that bet by putting our marker on a sure thing.  Evidence-based instruction is as sure as it gets these days.

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