Evidence-Based Reading Policy in the United States: How Scientific Research Informs Instructional Practices
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Brookings Papers on Education Policy 2005.1 (2005) 209-250

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Evidence-Based Reading Policy in the United States:

How Scientific Research Informs Instructional Practices


Over the past decade the root of certain education policies in the United States has shifted from philosophical and ideological foundations to the application of converging scientific evidence to forge policy directions and initiatives. This has been particularly the case for early (kindergarten through third grade) reading instructional policies and practices. The use of scientific evidence rather than subjective impressions to guide education policy represents a dramatic shift in thinking about education. Some education policy initiatives in the United States now reflect a reliance on findings from rigorous scientific research rather than opinion, ideology, fads, and political interests.1 Advances in brain imaging technology now make it possible to provide evidence of the impact of scientifically informed reading instruction on brain organization for reading.

Why Reading?

Within American education policy writ large, the area of reading has become the focal point for education legislation based on scientific research. There are two major reasons for this change in emphasis. First, reading proficiency is the skill most fundamental to academic learning and success in [End Page 209] school. No doubt, mathematics, social studies, science, and other content domains are essential for academic and intellectual development, but learning specific information relevant to these disciplines is difficult, if not impossible, for anyone who cannot read. In the United States, proficiency in reading also is significantly related to one's quality of life—not only occupational and vocational opportunities but public health outcomes, as well.2

Second, an unacceptable number of children in the United States cannot read proficiently. The National Center for Education Statistics within the U.S. Department of Education recently published the 2003 Reading Report Card as part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.3 This current snapshot of the reading ability of students in the fourth, eighth, and twelfth grades reflects a persistent national trend. In the fourth grade alone, 37 percent of students nationally read below the basic level, rendering them essentially illiterate. Only 31 percent of students are reading at or above the level of proficiency. As if these results were not disturbing enough, consider the outcomes when the national reading data are disaggregated by subgroup. Sixty percent of African American children and 56 percent of Hispanic and Latino youngsters read below basic levels; only 12 and 15 percent, respectively, read at or above the level of proficiency. In New York City alone, more than 70 percent of minority students cannot read at a basic level. To be clear, it is not race or ethnicity that portends this significant underachievement in reading, it is poverty; and minority students happen to be overrepresented among impoverished families. These findings of the dismal status of reading are all the more unfortunate (and unnecessary) given the converging evidence that most children, when provided with well-trained teachers, effective instructional programs, and strong educational leadership, can learn to read.4

Reading Failure: The Role of Philosophically Based Instruction

A comprehensive discussion of the maladies that have plagued education, education research, and education policies in general, and reading research and instruction in particular, is beyond the scope of this paper.5 However, the literature points to the consistent finding that curriculum and instruction for reading have been based primarily on untested theories and assumptions, if not romantic beliefs, about learning and teaching.

A notable example is the large-scale implementation in recent decades, despite little or no evidence of its effectiveness, of the whole-language approach. This now invalidated approach is still used to guide teacher preparation and licensing, the development of classroom instructional materials, [End Page 210] classroom reading instruction, and reading assessment practices. Relying, in part, on constructivist views of learning and development, proponents of whole language claim that learning to read should be as natural as learning to talk...