Teachers Won’t Embrace Research Until It Embraces Them

I understand why advocates, researchers, and policymakers who feel the urgency of our literacy crisis are frustrated when teachers don’t embrace reading science. But my entry into the world of reading research was difficult, and while I take pride in my determination to learn, I understand why other teachers might be deterred. If we want teachers to apply research, it may be helpful to think about why they aren’t. I’ll open my own experience up as an example.


In the Balanced Literacy Community 
I felt that…
In the Reading Science Community
I found that…
Hierarchy of Expertise
I was an expert because I was told, “You know your students best.”Teachers were described as “unprepared” and “ineffective.”

Understanding Reading
Reading was described in terms that matched my own memory of learning to read: “natural” and “magical.”Reading was a complex neurological process that I didn’t understand and phrases like “curriculum casualties” and “reading failure” terrified me.
Responsibility of the TeacherMy role was simple and pleasurable because I believed students learned to read by reading.
I matched students with books while observing and encouraging their progress.

I’d be to blame if any of my students did not become skilled readers.

Professional Reading
I was a good reader. Books and articles were enjoyable, easy to read, and often included anecdotes to which I could relate.Articles included words I’d never encountered before (saccade), concepts I didn’t understand (effect size), graphs I couldn’t read, and references to studies I didn’t know.
TrainingsI was welcomed and spoken to with respect, if not with admiration, by the presenters.
They understood my job.

I left with concrete strategies to try with my students the next day.
At conferences, I was not the intended audience and comments about teachers not only made me feel unwelcome, but discouraged me from inviting my colleagues.

I left rethinking important ideas, but without knowing how to apply what I had learned.

Community and Relationships
I was aligned with my colleagues, my supervisors, the people who trained me, and the educators I knew to admire.I became an outsider in my district and until I connected with others, I felt alone.

Asking teachers to move away from Balanced Literacy is asking them to break from the people and materials they have trusted, to abandon much of what they’ve been told about teaching, and to rethink things that may have inspired them to enter the profession. If we want teachers to walk away from a familiar and empathetic professional community, they need to be warmly welcomed into something new.

We need more teachers connected to the research community. Without teachers asking teacher-y questions- “What does this mean for my instruction?” “How do you do that with 25 wiggly five year olds?” “What should I have the other kids do while I ___ with a small group of students?”- research does not make its way into classrooms. It is not a lack of teacher willingness to change that has stalled instruction in the dark ages; there is no one who feels the urgency of applying new learning to instruction the way a teacher does when she’s sitting in a training, knowing she’ll face her students the next day. Classroom teachers are the most direct and efficient conduit to students, so if we care about student learning, we need to care about teachers and their feelings, even if it means rethinking the tone, accessibility, and framing of research.

When I felt overwhelmed by new learning, a few mentors helped me regain my balance and encouraged me to continue learning and teaching.

They said:

  • That’s not a stupid question. Let’s think about that together.
  • I think you might find that [book/article/webinar] has some of the answers you’re looking for.
  • To apply this in your classroom, you might try…
  • If you’re looking for research on [sight words] you might need the term [orthographic mapping].
  • I know this might mean changes in the way you teach and even the way you think about [reading comprehension] and I’m happy to help you work through the implications.

The care they took in speaking to me rather than about “teachers” meant the difference for me between feeling shut down and feeling inspired. And my students reaped the rewards of my learning.

We would all benefit from researchers and specialists seeking out connections with teachers- research would improve, as would instruction- and the combined strengths of both communities would benefit students.

12 Replies to “Teachers Won’t Embrace Research Until It Embraces Them”

  1. Dianna says:

    Yes it is easy to feel alone in a community of teachers
    when your approach differs from the norm. As an
    Intervention teacher using a SSP program, I am treated
    as an outsider even though I had been a classroom
    teacher in this school for 10 years. My students and their
    progress give me strength when I witness the mighty battle they face to learn how to read.
    My online colleagues provide the collegiality no longer
    on offer in my staff room.
    Despite all the talk about respect for diversity, for many
    teachers, it’s their way or the highway. This is probably
    what saddens me the most.
    So thank you for your posting. It certainly resonated
    with me.

  2. rick nelson says:

    The post portrays justified teacher feelings, but those feelings have little to no impact on widespread failed reading instruction. Teachers have no power to choose how they are taught, or materials they teach with, or methods if their admins disagree. In my “whole language” district, teachers caught using spelling books in class have been threatened with dismissal. Teachers who advocate for science-based practices tend to get in trouble with the ideological decision makers who hold the power and passionately deny the consensus of brain science on reading.
    The reading crisis must be fixed above the classroom, school, and district level. States must stop accepting ed theory credits for teacher certification, but instead require brain science courses and test scores. States regulations decide who gets certified.
    States can decide to require purchase of decodable texts as a condition for other textbook reimbursement.
    Grab’em by the purse strings. You won’t beat the science-denying ideologists except by requiring budget accountability when spending public funds.

  3. KRISTEN says:

    As a former classroom teacher and current intervention teacher, I have experienced nearly every sentiment on BOTH sides of the conversation so expertly reflected this article. Thank you for reminding us that efforts to shift teaching practices and encourage “next-steps” happen collaboratively among educators. In addition, I would LOVE to see our science-aligned community include the other target audience for this information — SITE AND DISTRICT LEVEL ADMINISTRATORS. They hold the purse strings for purchases and need to be fully aware that when teachers beg for a curriculum that is not aligned with the science of reading ADMINISTRATORS owe it to the STUDENTS to say NO, and recognize the professional development opportunity that is needed for the staff.

  4. Jill says:

    It all starts from the top and trickles down. If your administration ensures that proper instruction is happening in the classroom and provides support for speciality teachers the students have great success. The last few years I feel that having good administration has gone to the waste side. Allowing teachers that are stuck in their routine to continue despite the students needs.
    This is coming from 20 years of teaching.

  5. rick nelson says:

    (Fixing my earlier miscopied version).
    Several years ago, England decided to buy schools phonics-based texts, train in how to use them, and test at the end of grade one to be sure phonics is being taught. Result? Steadily improving reading scores. See
    https://www.economist.com/britain/2019/07/18/how-phonics-took-over-english-schools
    Would that a good goal for your state?
    The problem in the US is that in schools of ed and school districts, 95% of curriculum officials are passionately opposed to schooling that includes drill, including phonics and math flashcards. Although cognitive scientists are emphatic that though learning to speak is automatic in children, learning to read, write, and do math requires drill, for 20 years curriculum officials have chosen to believe their emotions over science.
    This battle can be won for kids by going over the heads of school officials to the people who fund the schools. They have the power.
    To do so, after my 30 years working on this, I recommend the following.
    1. Collect data. Ask your school board members what books in what proportions are being purchased for K-3 reading. Analyze what percent are decodables (likely very low).
    2. Make your case for the science of reading and take it to your local superintendent. He will listen politely but in the end, not cross his curriculum ideologues.
    3. Take your presentation to school board members. They, in the end, will support their superintendent.
    4. Having exhausted local remedies, take your case to your elected state legislators. They pay the lion’s share of school costs by collecting taxes from you, so they have power, as do you with them. You have every right to ask that your tax dollars be spent efficiently and effectively.
    You might ask them for
    a. A legislative study of phonics (such as Virginia HJ794 (2001)). Collect data and whether phonics is being taught in the schools they are funding. Include collecting data on the extent to which decodable texts are being purchased for teacher use.
    b. Legislation requiring K-3 teachers in state teacher colleges to be tested in their knowledge of science-based reading instruction, as Virginia, California, and some other states do. (Though the California test is pretty bad.)
    c. Ask them to do for your state’s children what England has done: Teach reading scientifically.
    Organize parent-voters. Ask learning scientists at state universities to offer testimony. Get bi-partisan support for legislation. Go to the level where officials are not ideological on reading. Agitate. Educate. Win.
    – rick nelson

    • Karin Miller says:

      I turned ELLs into capable readers using balanced literacy. Phonics was not ignored, but it was taught in the context of literature.Data can be helpful, but it should inform, not drive instruction. Students learn to read by reading, not barking at sounds. Every reading lesson must include real reading.

      I taught for 36 years, and I am a certified reading teacher and ESL teacher.

      • righttoreadproject_5dose6 says:

        Respectfully pushing back on the notion that children learn to read by reading with an article from EdWeek:
        https://bit.ly/2Of5pnx

        “By contrast, children do not naturally develop reading skill through exposure to text. The way they learn to connect oral and written language depends on what kind of language they are learning to read. Alphabetic languages, like English or French, use letters to stand for sounds that make up spoken words. To read an alphabetic language, children must learn how written letters represent spoken sounds, recognize patterns of letter sounds as words, and match those to spoken words whose meanings they know.”

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  8. Jennifer says:

    This is a great post for allowing non-teachers to get inside a classroom teacher’s head. You and I are kindred spirits professionally. I’d like to add to your chart that on the Balanced Literacy side, teachers are not only trained a certain way, but evaluated according to that training. On the Reading Science side, certain terms and vocabulary are used to mean one thing in the research field and another thing in the schools. Same words, different meanings. It took me a while to figure that out and I am now obsessed with checking the references on any article so I understand the background of the author and the language used.

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