The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

My Experiences in Teaching Reading and Being a Member of the National Reading Panel

on February 9, 2018

After posting a video I loved  about how children learn to read  I decided to be completely open with readers and describe my experiences with teaching reading and being a member of The Nation Reading Panel.

I began my career by teaching first grade in an elementary school near my home in New Jersey. My only training was a summer–long course in the basics of education that I took just after graduating from college where I had majored in “The arts”. Although I was far from knowing what and how to teach anything but drama, I had strong opinions about what should be happening in a primary grade classroom,

The text book I used for my beginning readers was “Fun with Dick and Jane”, a very popular choice in 1952. It told a simple story about the activities of a boy, his younger sister, their parents and their dog. Each page had a large picture of one or more of the characters in action. The written story below was just two or three sentences that described what was pictured above.

Although “Fun with Dick and Jane” was widely criticized by many experts, and finally abandoned by schools, it seemed to work for my students. I kept our reading lessons short and tried to make them enjoyable. I also read aloud other books from our school library and had the children learn to recite poems and sing songs that I knew. As I remember things, in my first year of teaching my students presented three plays in the school auditorium. The first one was a song. accompanied by movement: “Over the River and Through the Woods to Grandmother’s House We Go”; the second a dramatization of “The Little Red Hen” and the third was a student produced version of “Hansel and Gretel”.  I will never forget the girl who played Gretel having trouble pushing the witch into the paper furnace and shouting, “Get in there you Battard”!

Above all, my students saw most of the pieces I read to them as gifts they could sing, recite, turn into a puppet show or read again on their own. Although I still did formal teaching of reading throughout the year, and my students still filled out the usual workbook pages, I saw their learning as the result of their pleasure in literature. At the end of the year I felt confident about promoting all of them to second grade. All of them could read!

Much later– almost fifty years later–as the superintendent and principal of a small rural school district, I was invited to be a member of the “National Reading Panel”, a group of 15 people who had been selected to judge the best pratices in the teaching of reading in order to set standards for good teaching throughout our country. Some members of the Panel were reading researchers, others were university professors in a variety of fields, and two were parents of children with reading difficulties. However, I was the only member of the Panel who had experience teaching reading to young children. The panel’s job was to examine reputable studies on reading and produce a report that would identify the most effective teaching practices. The only assistance we received were lists of the most popular studies, drawn from more than the 100,000 studies published between 1966 and 1998.

Less than a year from when we began our investigation, Congress requested that we submit our report. Explaining our difficulties we begged for more time, and one more year was granted. Still, it was clear to us that we would have to cut our consideration of many studies. What the majority of the panel voted to do was to examine only the studies selected previously by “The National Research Panel” and published in their book,  “Preventing Reading difficulties in Young Children”. Although their selections were relevant to our task, they certainly did not cover the entire field of teaching reading. I and some other members objected to that limited review, but the majority disagreed.

I emphasize this decision because the work of the NRC clearly limited and re-directed our original intention to examine the entire research field which included types of studies beyond what the NRC had used. Although that fact was significant, it was not mentioned in our final report, giving the impression that we had examined a much broader field of research than we did.

It was this decision to narrow our field of study that moved me to write a minority report and request that it be included in the the final report of the National Reading Panel.  Most of the members of the panel were not pleased with my decision, but they consented.

Although the National Reading Panel’s report was released by the federal government in 2000, and its recommendations have influenced teaching practices in countless schools since then, it has not managed to raise the level of reading competence for ordinary students or helped teachers to improve the reading skills of those students who are struggling. I still believe that our recommendations were too narrow.

14 responses to “My Experiences in Teaching Reading and Being a Member of the National Reading Panel

  1. Steve Buel says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Joanne. This kind of thing persists to this day. I was just talking to an ODE person about the k programs in Oregon and the idea that we use the CCSS for K even though no kindergarten people were involved.


  2. Gary R Hargett says:

    I learned to read with Dick and Jane. It seemed to work fine for me and my classmates. I remember how Dick and Jane’s experiences were so different from mine. They had a coal cellar, their dad wore a suit to work, and they would visit grandma on the farm. I grew up near Las Vegas. We didn’t know what coal was, and nobody wore suits in our working-class community. No farms were anywhere nearby or extended family.

    I have read the National Reading Panel report that Joanne describes, and I especially appreciated her minority view. It was a breath of fresh air. The information in that report did subsequently influence reading instruction, especially after NCLB mandated “scientifically-based reading programs.” In 2007, at the request of a local school district, I undertook a review of reading research. I discovered that the so-called scientifically based research was very narrow. It did not, as Joanne says, address the broad, important questions in reading. The experiments described in the research were centered on what I thought to be trivial questions, and the research boiled down to simple group comparisons. Teach Group A skill X, don’t teach it to Group B, and miracle of miracles, Group A outperforms Group B on that skill X. The “scientific” research was conducted on low-achieving students, yet NCLB led to adopting those methods for all, not just the low-achieving. Moreover, I never found a case where the more “successful” groups” approached grade level. All the students remained low-performing.

    I deduced that “scientifically based reading research” was a crock.

    I’ll add that NCLB relied on a narrow definition of “scientifically based.” A very good article in one of the AERA publications identified 15 different definitions of “scientifically based,” yet only the most trivial was promoted.


  3. doctorsam7 says:

    An if only- If only people had listened to your minority report. I think things would have been much better. I am of an age where as I observe the current state of the literacy world a strong feeling of Deja Vu comes. Before being a reading teacher I was a social studies teacher. People in that field often said, those who fail to study history are condemned to relive it. Perhaps this time round we could get it right.


  4. The problem you had then is the same as the problem I have now with “evidence-based best practices.” Among those children you taught back in 1952, I imagine you could have identified the tallest student in the room. Of course, that student wouldn’t actually be tall—just the tallest student in the room. The same could be said of “best practices.” I am sure that most of the best practices I have ever seen are not included in what others have identified as best practices. If you had used a ruler to measure the height of each one of your students, you could have dressed up “tallest student” by saying “evidence-based tallest student,” but it would not have changed the reality that among all the students in the world, your student wasn’t all that tall—unless you use Lincoln’s measurement when asked how tall he was: Just tall enough for my feet to touch the ground!


  5. Kookaburra says:

    Hi Joanne,
    I have just finished reading your minority report and your follow up article, “I told you so! The misinterpretation and misuse of the National Reading Panel Report.”
    I would like to commend you on the strength and bravery you showed by vocalising your (very valid) concerns in the first place and following through with ensuring they were included in the final report.
    I would also like to thank you for providing further insight into the report in your follow up article and in this blog.
    As you predicted, to this very day, proponents of synthetic phonics madly march around waving this very report in their arms as they shout about the “5 pillars” or “5 essentials” or reading instruction ‘as outlined in the NRP report’.
    I am so grateful to you for your honest account of the selection of topics and the fact that these were never outlined at the ‘key elements’ of readings; rather, they were just 5 elements of reading instruction that happened to be researched in the allowable time.
    I find it absolutely frightful that this report has had (and still does have) the weight it does in education policy and politics around the world. Thankyou for speaking up about it!


  6. […] that the panel included no genuine teacher if reading has carefully shown that the report is inadequate and also predicted it would be misused in the following […]


  7. […] My Experiences in Teaching Reading and Being a Member of the National Reading Panel, Joanne Yatvin […]


  8. […] My Experiences in Teaching Reading and Being a Member of the National Reading Panel, Joanne Yatvin […]


  9. writerjoney says:

    Although the meaning of the comment was not clear, I read the original article and realized that it agreed with me: the report of the National Reading Panel was not valid.


  10. […] My Experiences in Teaching Reading and Being a Member of the National Reading Panel […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: