The Trouble With Research-Based Reading Programs

I am a big fan of research. In fact, I’ve dedicated a whole section of my blog to sharing the most interesting and recent tidbits that I discover about learning.  When it comes to finding the right learning program for your child I fully support the push for evidence-based solutions.


Are research-based reading and learning programs the answer to your child’s learning differences (difficulties, “disabilities”)? Learn how that idea may actually hold your learner back.


Push for evidence-based instruction = GOOD!

We all love certainty.  We don’t want to waste time and precious resources on programs that don’t actually work or even worse, set our students further behind.  In a perfect world, we’d only sign on to a sure thing, or as sure of a thing as possible.  Here’s the challenge, though, or at least one of them.


Research can be expensive.

Let me first mention that there is a distinction between research-based and evidence-based.  Research is more theoretical while evidence is just that – evidence of effectiveness.  In order to gather evidence that a particular program is effective, naturally some type of research will be involved.  So for our purposes I’m just going to use the word “research” for both.  Either way, conducting theoretical research or gathering evidence (via research) still requires time and money.


Who is paying for this research? If we’re talking about research involving fMRI’s or other types of brain scans, that type of research is really, really expensive!  School districts certainly can’t afford to foot the bill.


You’re more likely to find this type of research at the university level.  Research at the university level typically involves undergraduate or graduate students who may study a small number of participants for a short period of time.  They do have to graduate, after all.


Any small, short term study must be replicated in order to be valid.  This costs more money AND it requires a team willing to repeat a study that’s already been done.


A Mixed Bag

Sadly, as it stands now, we only have a handful of evidence-based solutions to choose from when it comes to helping struggling learners.  Linda Mood-Bell is one of them. Orton Gillingham, for the most part, is another.  Orton Gillingham is considered to be evidence-based and yet the research is still mixed about it.


Some say it IS effective.  Some researchers didn’t find any evidence that it was effective at all, and some found only some components of the approach to be effective, such as explicit, systemic phonics instruction.  That brings us to another challenge to consider if we want to hold fast to the requirement that learning programs must be evidence-based…


Is the research reliable?

If we use research to support our decision for or against a particular learning program, how much stock can we put into the results of that research?



Let’s take a look at an example of one study by Boets et al (2007).

Researchers looked at pre-literacy skills, or children’s ability to go on and learn to read and write.  They reported that trouble with pre-literacy skills likely results from an underlying problem with phonological processing, but that was found to be the case only in some individuals.


The researchers also found that some individuals with dyslexia have difficulty with basic processing of time-sensitive information, (fancy term alert) “auditory temporal processing,” which leads to a problem with phonological processing.


But not every child with this same phonological processing disorder went on to develop literacy problems or dyslexia.  What?


To complicate things further, they found that some children with relatively good phonological processing skills went on to develop dyslexia.


In some of the children with good phonological processing and dyslexia, a specific visual dysfunction was diagnosed (visual magnocellular processing) rather than that fancy auditory temporal timing issue discovered in others.


Bottom line?

What this study illustrates is that:

1) Not every child with learning difficulties is going to fit a particular profile, even when we’re only talking about one specific learning challenge like dyslexia.

2) How do we know which type of child our evidence-based program shows the evidence for?   Is it your child, or is it a different child with a different set of unique challenges?


Research is a very useful tool but it’s just that, a tool.  It has its limitations.  You may think differently on this, but I personally don’t believe that it should be the single most important deciding factor in determining which approach will work best for the very unique needs of your child.


Some evidence-based programs will fail your child because they simply aren’t the right fit.  On the flip-side, you may find plenty of powerful, effective programs out there that may not have the resources or wherewithal to gather the research/evidence to back it up.


As they say, the proof is in the pudding.  Unfortunately, sometimes you have to try the pudding in order to know if it’s a winner or not!  (Food for thought.)


Speaking of learning programs, I offer online training for parents and educators who wish to tailor-fit intervention to their learners’ unique challenges.  Yes, the training is designed around evidence-based practices, so if that’s still the most important thing to you, I’ve got you covered.   If you’d like to learn more, please visit Remove the Limits to Learning and select the free or paid training that’s right for you.