When we first started SparkEd Literacy at the end of 2021, our very first series of Instagram posts covered the National Reading Panel (NRP). The creation of the Panel, and the subsequent publishing of its report, profoundly impacted what we know about learning to read today. The NRP was so influential that we are transitioning those Instagram posts into a new blog series, where we describe the Panel, the report, and what we have learned from them in greater depth.
In today’s post, we will provide an introduction to the Panel, addressing questions such as:
Why was the NRP created?
Who was responsible for its creation?
Why was the NRP, and its subsequent report, so influential?
The information we share today comes directly from the report itself, as well as through Dr. Timothy Shanahan’s recollections of the NRP, shared through an interview with Jake Downs on Teaching Literacy Podcast. If you’re interested in exploring these sources directly, we have linked each of them at the end of our post!
SETTING THE SCENE
The National Reading Panel was called for at a tumultuous time in reading history. Beliefs regarding what reading instruction should look like were divisive, and terms such as “The Reading Wars” are now often used to describe the reading landscape at the time. This period of competing viewpoints characteristic of the 1980s was often simplified and boiled down to two clashing groups: proponents of phonics instruction and proponents of “whole language.” Reading instruction, and the curricula guiding this instruction, varied widely across different states, counties, etc. Some states adopted programs eliminating phonics and spelling instruction entirely. Ultimately, when reading scores comparing different states were released, further frustration and division regarding effective reading instruction ensued. The public became increasingly aware of these rising tensions, and growing alarm and urgency grew surrounding the state of reading education.
THE GOVERNMENT GAINS INTEREST
It was becoming increasingly unclear what the research actually demonstrated about how children learn to read. This confusion became so apparent that eventually, for the first time in the field of education, the federal government intervened in a significant way. In 1997, Congress tasked the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) and the Secretary of Education to conduct a review of the status of existing reading research. The government wanted answers and aimed to put the public at ease by clarifying confusion through a report summarizing research findings, ideally within a year. The Panel was asked “to assess the status of research-based knowledge, including the effectiveness of various approaches to teaching children to read” (National Reading Panel, 2000, p. 1-1). The report was not supposed to provide opinions or recommendations. It was directed to present:
The panelists’ conclusions
The readiness for applying the results of this research within classrooms
A strategy for quickly distributing this information to school systems to facilitate effective reading instruction
If relevant, a plan for additional research.
CREATING THE PANEL
At first, fifteen panelists were selected to participate in the creation of the report. Congress defined these panelists as “leading scientists in reading research, representatives of colleges of education, reading teachers, educational administrators, and parents” (National Reading Panel, 2000, p. 1-1). However, one panelist dropped out following the first meeting, leaving the following fourteen remaining panelists (you may recognize some of these names): Gloria Correro, Linnea Ehri, Gwenette Ferguson, Norma Garza, Michael L. Kamil, Cora Bagley Marrett, S.J. Samuels, Timothy Shanahan, Sally E. Shaywitz, Thomas Trabasso, Joanna Williams, Donald N. Langenberg, Dale Willows, and Joanne Yatvin.
The Panel eventually divided into the following six subgroups:
A BIGGER JOB THAN ANTICIPATED
This job ended up being far larger than most had anticipated. Over 100,000 studies relevant to reading had been published following 1966, and there simply wasn’t enough time to sort through it all. The Panel was tasked with investigating the areas of reading research they deemed relevant. They also had to determine a set of inclusion criteria to evaluate whether or not a study was of the caliber needed to incorporate into the review.
Just developing and outlining the Panel’s methodology was time-intensive. This methodology was ultimately shared with Congress to illustrate the expansiveness of the work that lay ahead. Congress granted the Panel an additional year to conduct this work, changing the timeline from under a year to two years.
Prior to determining the specific areas of reading research to explore, the Panel reviewed a report from the National Reading Committee, "Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children" (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998). This report summarized research “relevant to the critical skills, environments, and early developmental interactions that are instrumental in the acquisition of beginning reading skills” (National Reading Panel, 2000, p. 1-1). The report did not summarize research on how to most effectively teach literacy skills, and the National Reading Panel’s report was supposed to build from this work.
Additionally, in order to hear from other stakeholders in reading education, the Panel organized five regional hearings across the country. There, the Panel listened to the opinions and insights of “teachers, parents, students, university faculty, educational policy experts, and scientists” (National Reading Panel, 2000, p. 1-2).
AREAS OF STUDY
At the conclusion of these hearings, the Panel chose the following topics to become the main areas of study for the report:
Phonemic Awareness Instruction
Text Comprehension Instruction
Teacher Preparation and Comprehension Strategies Instruction
Teacher Education and Reading Instruction
Computer Technology and Reading Instruction
WHAT ABOUT OTHER AREAS OF READING?
This entire selection process outlined above is particularly noteworthy. If an area related to reading instruction was not included within the Panel’s report, this does not mean that the area is not important or relevant. It just means that it wasn’t examined and that the Panel initially viewed it as less significant (or possible) to study than the other focus areas. The report itself directly states, “The Panel’s silence on other topics should not be interpreted as indicating that other topics have no importance or that improvement in those areas would not lead to greater reading achievement. It was simply the sheer number of studies identified by Panel staff relevant to reading…that precluded an exhaustive analysis of the research in all areas of potential interest” (National Reading Panel, 2000, p. 1-3).
SEVEN GUIDING FOCUS QUESTIONS
THE NATIONAL READING PANEL'S INFLUENCE
There are a number of reasons the Panel and its report are so influential, only a few of which we will describe. As mentioned earlier, the assembly of the Panel demonstrated one of the first times the federal government had become so involved in the state of education. This involvement highlights the turbulence of the time and the tremendous desire that existed for clarity and understanding regarding the state of reading research.
Additionally, the Panel made an effort to sort through and scientifically investigate what began as a stack of over 100,000 studies. It was an incredibly sizable undertaking made with the intent to clarify the primary findings that were true across the research.
Lastly, the Panel analyzed studies that occurred within an instructional setting. This is important! Many studies related to reading are not conducted within the context of a classroom, and thus the efficacy of specific interventions within schools cannot be projected/determined. The studies selected occurred within instructional contexts, and thus conclusions could be drawn regarding the effectiveness of certain approaches.
Written by: Taryn Quaytman & Rachel Draper
Copyright © 2023 SparkEd LLC
STAY TUNED FOR MORE!
If you are interested in learning more about what the National Reading Panel discovered, we will be breaking down each of their areas of study outlined above in upcoming blog posts. Make sure to sign up for our biweekly newsletter so you never miss a new blog post!
Interested in reading the full report from the National Reading Panel? Find it here!
Interested in listening to Dr. Timothy Shanahan reflect on the National Reading Panel on the Teaching Literacy Podcast? Listen here!
Downs, J. (Host). (2020, August 5). 20 years of NRP 2000 with Dr. Tim Shanahan. (No. 20) [Audio podcast episode]. In Teaching literacy podcast.
National Reading Panel (U.S.) & National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (U.S.). (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read : An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.