There is a tremendous amount of potential in education research. Sadly, this potential is largely untapped because teachers are not taught this material systematically. As a result, they have to find it out for themselves – if they do at all. However, just knowing about the research is not enough. To make those research findings pay off in children’s lives, we need to be really good at implementation: knowing about which elements of any given setting need to be aligned, and then ensuring that they do align.
A good example is the ground-breaking study by Vellutino and colleagues from 1996. David Kilpatrick references this study in the inaugural Reading League Journal, and we also mention it in our book. Briefly, this study showed that, with systematic, explicit instruction by highly trained staff, the number of students with reading difficulties in a US school district could be reduced by 95% in 25 weeks. Kilpatrick’s point is that, despite the inspiration and hope that these findings offered, the results were not duplicated in many of the schools that went on to use this ‘Response to Intervention’ approach. This was not because of any problem with the findings, or the intervention, but because of problems with implementation, such as employing programmes that did not teach the pertinent skills.
So, programme selection is incredibly important, and those making such decisions need to ensure that they are grounded in the knowledge of reading research to make informed decisions. But that is just the first hurdle. If we only rely on the programme, and don’t think about the implementation in meticulous detail, we can derail our own best efforts – remembering that changing low reading in older students is significantly harder than it is with the children in the Vellutino study, who were at Grades 1 and 2. In that study, two key elements of the successful implementation were the level of training and the quality of assessment.
All the reading tutors delivering the programme had at least two years’ teaching experience. Then they undertook 30 hours of training, additional reading, bi-weekly feedback meetings and supervision by the experimenters. What does this tell us? That effective teaching of reading requires significant investment in further study, both academically and practically. Schools who are serious about having an impact on the weakest readers will commit to thorough processes for staff selection and staff preparation.
Secondly, the study required detailed assessment to select students for the intervention (and as a control group). It is vitally important to survey the whole cohort and to weed out those students who are low performers due to low motivation. (This information is particularly useful for classroom teachers, signalling to them that they can raise their expectations.) We need to identify children who have good oral language and good comprehension skills, but who are masking poor decoding skills; children who have good decoding skills but poor comprehension; and children who have poor decoding skills and poor comprehension. This ensures that funding is being allocated judiciously and that children’s time out of class is used efficiently.
There are many other factors that can make or break an implementation in any field. The key element, underlying all others, is leadership. If leaders are focused, committed and willing to attend to apparently minor details, implementation is much more likely to be successful. If the approach is ‘near enough is good enough’, we can be almost certain that the implementation will not be good enough!
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