Bridging the gap between theory and practice in reading

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<ul><li><p>The current phase in the history of reading research was founded on the belief that basic research and theory development would eventually bad to better reading instruction. This chapter is a progress report. </p><p>Bridging the Gap Between The0 y and Practice in Reading Dale M. Willows </p><p>The chapters in this volume represent a very broad spectrum of approaches to the study of reading, ranging from the very theoretical to the very practical. Close collaboration between theorists and the practically oriented has not been characteristic of research on reading. On the contrary, rather strict boundaries have been drawn between the theoretical and practical domains. In this com- mentary, I will consider the nature of the relation between theory and practice in reading research from a historical perspective: I will focus on some general factors that have hampered communications between theory and practice. Within this context, I will discuss the research reported in the first five chapters of this volume and suggest ways in which viewing that work from a broad per- spective may lead to more productive relations between theory and practice in the future. </p><p>A Century of Research on Reading </p><p>There have been three discernible periods in the history of reading research. The first, which extended roughly from 1880 to 1920, coincided with the beginnings of experimental psychology. During this period, some promi- nent figures in experimental psychology (for example, Cattell, 1886; Dodge, 1900; Pillsbury, 1897) undertook research on letter and word recognition, eye </p><p>T. H. Cnrr (Ed.). 7At Lkwlspnf o j R d q SkilL. New Directions lor Child Development. no. 27. Sm Francisco: Josrcy-Bm, Ma&amp; 1985 109 </p></li><li><p>110 </p><p>movements, and legibility of print, among other topics. The focus of the research was on individual differences and visual perception rather than on reading per se, and the studies used normal adults as subjects. Although inter- est in the pedagogy of reading was growing (for example, Dewey, 1898; Hall, 1874; Huey, 1908), the early experimental psychologists did not attempt to derive any practical implications from their work. Indeed, Huey (1908) made no attempt in his classic work to determine the pedagogical implications of the research he summarized in the section on psychology. His recommendations concerning the teaching of reading seem to have been based on his own intui- tions and on those of other educators. Thus, this early productive period in the history of research on reading was dominated by basic research without con- cern for practical applications. </p><p>During the next period in the history of reading research, which ex- tended roughly from 1920 to 1960, experimental psychology, then dominated by behaviorism, abandoned the study of reading. There was hardly any basic research on reading, and no theories of the reading process were developed. The primary thrust of reading research during that period was practical, and the growing field of educational psychology produced an extensive literature on testing and on reading instruction. The testing movement resulted in numerous studies of reading diagnosis and assessment (for example, Gates, 1921), and it led to the development of standardized tests of reading. These in turn provided tools that teachers of reading could use to test the results of their efforts. As a consequence, a great many classroom studies of reading instruc- tion were undertaken. These studies for the most part compared the effective- ness of one method of instruction in the classroom with the effectiveness of another. Their ultimate quest was to find the best method of reading instruc- tion through strictly empirical means. </p><p>The most recent period in the history of reading research began about 1960 and continues into the present. This period has been characterized by a swing back to basic research on reading, but the goals are different: Basic research is now seen as a means to the end of improving reading instruction. By the late 1950s, as the influence of the behaviorist movement waned, there was a renewal of interest among experimental psychologists in the study of reading. Partially as a result of the publication of Jeanne Challs (1967) Leam- ing to Read: The Great Debate and of the results of Bond and Dykstras (1966- 1967) coordinated series of classroom studies, researchers embarking on studies of reading during this period were generally disenchanted with applied research as an effective tool for answering questions about how reading should be taught. Both of these major attempts to resolve the controversy about the best method of reading instruction demonstrated that the countless class- room studies had produced no clear-cut answers. What was clear from the findings was that a different approach was essential if reading research were ever to contribute toward the improvement of reading instruction. </p><p>The pioneers in the growing field of basic research on reading suggested what this approach might be. Their view was that an understanding of the </p></li><li><p>111 </p><p>reading process is a prerequisite to the improvement of reading instruction. For example, Gibson (1965, p. 1072) wrote that good pedagogy is based on a deep understanding of the discipline to be taught and the nature of the learning pro- cess involved, and Levin (1966, p. 140) suggested that the prior question is What is the process of reading? rather than What is the optimal teaching procedure? Definitive answers to the second wait on the first. In a discussion of basic and applied research on reading, Carroll (1968, p. 274) strongly advocated what he termed basic educational research on the assumption that it would lead ultimately to better educational practice, arguing that although results of many of the studies have no immediate applications, they promise to contri- bute towards a new theory of the reading process that will guide the develop- ment of practical materials and procedures for the teaching of reading. </p><p>Thus, when the movement toward basic research on reading began in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the prevailing view was that the development of better reading theories would eventually lead to the improvement of edu- cational practice. Since the mid 1960s, when published results of basic studies on reading began to appear in the literature, the field has grown exponentially. Numerous researchers from a wide variety of disciplines (for example, child development, perception, verbal learning, neuropsychology, cognitive science, linguistics, educational psychology, artificial intelligence) have become active contributors to the literature of research on reading. Whereas fifteen to twenty years ago little other than practical advice for educators was being written about reading, today there are dozens of books and hundreds of articles in the field. </p><p>At this point, it seems reasonable to ask: Have the promises of the movement toward basic research on reading and the development of reading theories begun to be fulfilled? There are two subquestions. The first concerns the influence of the basic research movement on applied studies of reading. Such studies would seem to be an essential link between laboratory-based studies of isolated variables with selected populations and direct classroom applications. Thus, the first subquestion is, Have the increase in basic research on reading processes and the development of theories and models of reading resulted in more and better applied research on reading instruction? The sec- ond subquestion concerns direct applications of research findings to classroom practice. It can be stated as follows: Is reading instruction improving as a result of the findings of basic research on reading? I will address these two sub- questions here within the context both of the last twenty years of research on reading and of the chapters in this volume. </p><p>Trends in Theory-Based Applied Research </p><p>In any science, it is relatively rare for theory-based research conducted with a high degree of experimental control to lead to immediate and direct applications. It is more usual that, as the theories and models in an area become increasingly refined and sophisticated, their practical implications </p></li><li><p>112 </p><p>begin to be explored. This process of exploration involves assessing the poten- tial usefulness of the theory under conditions that increasingly approximate the real-world domain of application. It is only after such field testing that major applications are warranted. </p><p>In the area of reading research, much the same sequence would be expected to be followed. Theories grounded in basic research on the reading processes would lead to laboratory-based educational research, which in turn would lead to field-based applied research. Only then would large-scale appli- cations to reading methods and materials be justified. In an attempt to deter- mine the extent to which research and theories on the basic processes involved in reading are contributing to theory-based applied research, two colleagues and I undertook a major review of the research literature that has emerged during the very productive current period in the history of reading research (Willows and others, 1983). Our goal was to examine trends in the reading research that has emerged since the field became basically process-oriented. We considered the research in terms of the types of questions being addressed and in terms of the types of research designs and methodologies being used. </p><p>The literature of research on reading is currently being published in thirty to forty different journals (Willows and others, 1983). These journals fall into three major categories: those concerned mainly with basic processes (for example, Cognitive Psychology, Journal of Verbal Learning and Ver6al Behavior, Journal OJ Experimmtal Psychology: Human Perception and Pctfamurncc, Visible Lan- guage), those that focus on basic educational, instructional, and developmental research (for example, Child Development, Journal of Educational Psychology, Read- ing Research Qurtcrb, Journal of Reading Behavior), and those that feature applied research and practical articles (for example, Cumculum Inquiv, Elementary English, Journal of Reading, The Reading Each). </p><p>On the basis of a preliminary analysis of the research in all three cate- gories of journals, we selected Reading Research Quartcrb and Journal of Educa- tional Psychology as the most appropriate to review for trends in the relation between theory and practice in reading research. These educational journals are the two highest-status journals in which one would expect to find reading research that has been influenced by both theoretical and practical concerns. </p><p>Some of the data from our analysis have clear implications for the ques- tion, Have the increase in basic research on the reading processes and the development of theories and models of reading resulted in more and better applied research on reading instruction? Our study involved examining all reading-related studies published in Reading Research Qurin~ and Journal of Educational Pvcholou in a fifteen-year period from 1967 to 1981 -a total of 267 studies in all- and classifying each study on its underlying goals and research methodologies. Our analysis revealed three fairly distinct types of research. These research types correspond quite closely to the categories represented by the three categories of journals mentioned earlier. </p><p>The three types are distinguishable in terms of research goals and </p></li><li><p>113 </p><p>research methodologies. Basic process research on reading has as its primary goal the development of theories of the reading processes, and high internal validity (Campbell and Stanley, 1963) is an essential feature of its research design. The criterion of high internal validity dictates that the research metho- dology uses strict experimental controls, unambiguously quantifiable measures, and replicable procedures. Basic educational and instructional research is con- cerned with issues more closely related to learning and reading instruction, but, like all basic research, its methodology gives considerations of internal validity priority over those of external validity. In contrast, applied instruc- tional research directly addresses questions of practical importance to class- room learning, and its research methodology is guided by considerations of external validity. The emphasis on external validity requires that the research setting and procedures closely approximate the classroom situations in the real world to which the results should generalize. Thus, like the real world, this research involves complexity that is difficult to define and measure. </p><p>In classifying the 267 articles on reading, we found that the vast major- ity could be placed in one of these three categories. Figure 1 shows the number of each type of article in the sample of literature that we examined. It is evident from Figure 1 that the number of basic studies and of basic educational studies of reading increased substantially, but the number of applied studies published in two journals remained essentially the same over the fifteen-year period. Thus, i t appears that applied research is making few attempts to explore the implications of theories and models of the reading process for classroom read- ing instruction. At least, few results of such applied studies are being pub- lished in high-status educational research journals. </p><p>The Gap in the Theory-Practice Continuum </p><p>At the time when he was promoting basic educational research as the most promising direction for research on reading, Carroll (1968, p. 267) sug- gested that the goals of researchers reflect a "hierarchy of motives each imper- ceptibly merging into the next, as follows: Curiosity- Better understanding of natural phenomena- General, undefined utilitarian aims- Well-defined prac- tical goals." A continuum of motives extending from the purely theoretical to the purely practical suggests that movement of information would occur from theory to practice and back again through research. However, our analysis of fifteen years of the reading research literature suggests that there is relatively little movement across a theory-practice continuum. In most instances, a par- ticular line of research is pursued only by research of the same type, if it is pursued at all. In addition, there is a serious gap in the continuum. Although the theories and models emanating from basic research on the reading pro- cesses are having some influence on the questions addressed in basic educa- tional research, the instructional theories and empirical findings emerging from basic educational research are not being followed up with applied research. </p></li><li><p>Figure 1. Trends in Reading Research Between 1967 and 1981 </p><p>- - - - - Basic Process Research </p><p>Basic Educational Research </p><p>Applied Research -I -- -- --. </p><p>I / </p><p>1 I 1 </p><p>1967-1 97 I 1 9 7 2- 1 97 6 1977-1981 </p><p>Years of Publication of the Rca...</p></li></ul>


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