The Enduring Influence of the National Reading Panel (and the “D” Word)

What do the National Reading Panel (NRP) report (2000), A Nation at Risk (1983), and the seminal “word gap” study by Hart and Risley (1992/1995) have in common?

First, each of these has become a recurring citation in mainstream media when addressing reading (NRP), school accountability (A Nation at Risk), and literacy (“word gap”).

Next, and quite troubling to those of us in education and literacy, all of these have been debunked.

A wide array of scholars have called into question Hart and Risley’s methods, conclusions, and assumptions. Gerald Bracey and Gerald Holton have unmasked A Nation at Risk as a false political crisis. And NRP panelist Joanne Yatvin as well as Stephen Krashen have significantly refuted the validity of the NRP report and process.

Recently, the reading wars have been rebooted across mainstream media; concurrent with that has been a rash of new reading legislation in several states.

In both cases, a common phrase is “the science of reading,” a thin veil for renewed emphasis on systematic phonics—in part driven by advocates for children with dyslexia.

News articles across Education Week, NPR, PBS, and other outlets have praised this so-called need for the science of reading while almost uniformly referring to the NRP as the primary research base for that “science.”

One journalist, Emily Hanford, who won an EWA award for her “science of reading” article, discounted my charged the NRP had been debunked with “One member expressing a minority view does not equal ‘debunked.'”

Here, I want to note that I have discovered many people react strongly to the term “debunk,” seemingly because they interpret its meaning simplistically; however, note the nuance of the term:

debunk

In the case of the NRP report, I contend it has been debunked because, specifically, a member of the committee who protested that the panel included no genuine teacher of reading has carefully shown that the report is inadequate and also predicted it would be misused in the following ways:

FALSE: The National Reading Panel was a diverse and balanced group of reading experts.

TRUE: Congress asked for a balanced panel, but that’s not what it got….

FALSE: The panel carried out a comprehensive analysis of the entire field of reading research.

TRUE: Only a small fraction of the field was considered, and only a few hundred studies were actually analyzed….

FALSE: The panel determined that there are five essentials of reading instruction.

TRUE: Although the NRP reported positive results for five of the six instructional strategies it investigated, it never claimed that these five were the essential components of reading….

FALSE: The panel endorsed only explicit, systematic instruction. [a]

TRUE: Only in the phonics subgroup report is “explicit, systematic” instruction called essential….

FALSE: The panel identified certain comprehensive commercial reading programs as being research-based, and concluded that teachers need one of these programs, or a comparable program, to teach children effectively.

TRUE: No comprehensive reading programs were investigated by the panel. The panel had nothing to say about whether teachers need a commercial program or can develop their own….

FALSE: The panel identified phonics as the most important component of reading instruction throughout the elementary grades. [a]

TRUE: The panel made no such determination….

FALSE: The panel found that phonics should be taught to all students throughout the elementary grades. [a]

TRUE: The panel found no evidence to justify teaching phonics to normally progressing readers past 1st grade….

FALSE: The panel’s findings repudiate whole language as an approach to teaching reading.

TRUE: The panel did not investigate whole language as a topic and did not draw any conclusions about it as an approach to teaching reading….

ALSE: The panel found research evidence indicating how teachers should be trained to teach reading. [a]

TRUE: The panel found no such evidence….

I stand fast that even though Yatvin technically is a minority opinion, she has the greatest expertise of the panel and her clarifications have proven accurate.

But there is more reason to reject the NRP report as sacrosanct guidance for how to teach reading; it was at the center of the politically corrupt Reading First scandal that exposed relationships between government officials and Open Court textbooks.

It is not mere speculation that there is a problematic relationship between phonics advocacy and for-profit organizations serving education.

The short version about the fact of the NRP being debunked is that it was a politically skewed panel from the beginning, and then its process was also deeply flawed, manipulating what research was considered in order to favor a systematic phonics message that wasn’t supported by the actual science of reading available then, and now.

To reference the NRP report as credible is to overstate its value, to misrepresent not only the report but the field of teaching reading.

Yet, journalists with no expertise in literacy and no background in the history of reading or teaching reading are falling prey to alluring language, “the science of reading,” and fulfilling the warnings offered by Yatvin nearly two decades ago.


[a] Note that in the current media coverage of “the science of reading,” this is exactly how references to the NRP are being misused.

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