Donalyn Miller

I’ve Got Research. Yes, I Do. I’ve Got Research. How About You?

In 1847, Hungarian doctor, Ignaz Semmelweis made a remarkable discovery. When doctors washed their hands in a solution of chlorine and water, childbirth fever rates at Vienna General Hospital dropped from 18% to near zero. Offended that Semmelweis implied doctors were killing their own patients, the medical community rejected hand washing as an infection prevention measure, and drove Semmelweis out of medicine and into an insane asylum.

A few years later, Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister made scientific advances that reinforced Semmelwies’s claims about germ theory and infection. Hand washing between patient examinations is considered best practice today.

In spite of all scientific evidence, we still live in a world where hand washing isn’t universal practice. Folklore, tradition, and culture exert powerful influences on human behavior. You can’t convince everyone with research. You might recall that Pasteur invented vaccinations, too.

In 1977, the Journal of Reading (now The Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy) published Richard Allington’s landmark paper, “If They Don’t Read Much, How They Ever Gonna Get Good?” Allington described factors that engage children with reading and charged that ineffective reading instruction hindered reading development for many children. Almost 40 years later, many educators remain ignorant of Allington’s findings or reject his observations outright. Multiple studies since 1977 have identified what helps children learn to read well and become lifelong readers, but the general public and many educators remain ignorant of this research.

In 2000, the federally funded National Reading Panel concluded that,

“With regard to the efficacy of having students engage in independent silent reading with minimal guidance or feedback, the Panel was unable to find a positive relationship between programs and instruction that encourage large amounts of independent reading and improvements in reading achievement (p. 12).”

The National Reading Panel Report caused as much damage to reading instruction practices as the standardized testing movement and set independent reading initatives in schools back decades. Instead of considering what necessary “guidance and feedback” teachers must provide students for independent reading to become most effective, many school districts and reading programs threw out independent reading altogether.

Almost immediately after the report was released, the reading research community jumped to disprove the Panel’s dismissal of independent reading. Conducting meta-analysis of over 50 reading research studies, Stephen Krashen found that the single greatest factor in reading achievement (even above socio-economics) was reading volume—how much reading people do. Krashen’s influential book, The Power of Reading, has been in print for 11 years now, but the New York Times still quotes the National Reading Panel from time to time.

I’m frequently asked to substantiate with research my opinions about independent reading. I don’t mind. The research is ubiquitous and it doesn’t take me much time to find it. While I am happy to provide websites, journal articles, and book recommendations for colleagues seeking more information about reading research, I often wonder why people ask for it. Does anyone go to the basketball coach and ask her to provide research to support why players are running plays and practicing shots? Does anyone go to the band director and ask him why musicians are playing their instruments during band class?

Why must English teachers constantly defend the need for students to practice reading and writing in a class dedicated to reading and writing?

Do we really need research proving that kids who read the most outperform kids who don’t read that much? Do we really need research proving that when readers are engaged with what they read they invest more effort in reading? Do we really need research proving that when kids have books in classrooms, libraries, and homes they read more? I suspect many of the research requests I receive are from teachers who need research to convince administrators or parents who question why kids are “just reading” in a reading class.

If you are looking for research about independent reading, here are a few of the research reports, journalistic articles by researchers, and professional books that have shaped my understanding of independent reading and informed my teaching:

“Every Child, Every Day” by Richard Allington and Rachael Gabriel

“Creating Classroom Cultures That Foster Reading Motivation” by Linda Gambrell

The Power of Reading by Stephen Krashen

Classrooms That Work: They Can All Read and Write by Patricia Cunningham and Richard Allington

Reading Matters: What the Research Reveals about Reading, Libraries, and Community by Catherine Sheldrick Ross, Lynne McKechnie, and Paulette Rothbauer

Creating Lifelong Readers Through Independent Reading by Barbara Moss & Terrell Young

No More Independent Reading Without Support by Debbie Miller and Barbara Moss

Engaging Adolescents in Reading edited by John Guthrie

“Farewell to Farewell to Arms: De-Emphasizing the Whole Class Novel” by Douglas Fisher and Gay Ivey

The IRA/CBC/NCTE Position Paper on Leisure Reading

Scholastic’s Kids and Family Reading Report (2014)

You can find more reading research by cross-referencing the bibliographies of my books, and books by Kelly Gallagher, Linda Rief, Laura Robb, Kylene Beers, Penny Kittle, Teri Lesesne, Jeff Wilhelm, Lester Laminack, Janet Allen, Cris Tovani, Franki Sibberson, Nancie Atwell, Lucy Calkins, Irene Fountas and Gay Pinnell, and other teacher practitioners and researchers who have written well-regarded books about reading.

I invite everyone to share in the comments section of this blog post the professional resources that have formulated the research-basis for your teaching methods. We can all learn and share from each other.

You might be saying to yourself, “Oh, you can get research to say anything.” No, you can’t. You cannot find credible research proving that the Sun rotates around the Earth or that bad air causes diseases. You cannot find research proving that test prep improves children’s reading achievement or test performance.

In The Reading Zone, Nancie Atwell reminds us, “A child sitting in a quiet room with a good book isn’t a flashy or marketable teaching method. It just happens to be the only way anyone became a reader.”

Today, any doctor who rejected hand washing as a basic hygiene measure would lose his license. Rejecting foundational research in reading education is teaching malpractice. Pinterest and Teachers-Pay-Teachers aren’t pedagogy. We must become knowledgeable and remain current about research in our field. That’s what professionals do.

The children we serve deserve professional teaching.