Dr. Terry Salinger: Using Research to Improve Literacy

How can research inform and improve literacy in the U.S. and around the world? In honor of International Literacy Day 2018, Terry Salinger, PhD, AIR’s chief scientist for literacy research, answered this question and more.

Q: What’s a common misconception about literacy?  

Dr. Terry Salinger: Many people, including some educators, think there are only one or two “proven” ways to teach reading to young children, when in fact, individuals learn in many different ways.

Creating the right environment may actually be more important than any specific instructional approach. Young children need to hear rich, oral language; see people reading and writing on their own and with them; and have access to books and writing utensils. In some ways, this applies to older literacy learners as well; they benefit from instructional experiences that take advantage of what they know and build the new skills and understanding they need. 

Learners at all levels and their teachers need to understand that for most people, learning to read and write takes energy, time, and hard work.

Q: Considering that effective instructional approaches can vary, how would you say research has influenced on-the-ground efforts to improve literacy?

Dr. Salinger: Research conducted by AIR has helped educators and product developers better understand programs that can help struggling readers and build teachers’ capacity to teach reading. This kind of research contributes to an understanding of “what works,” and often of what does not work. Research is very important, especially when it explores why a program or approach has not worked well.

Other strands of research, especially in cognitive and developmental psychology, should also be applied directly to improving literacy—a prime example of turning research into action. Work in these areas continues to investigate how individuals of all ages learn to process language and how they become readers and writers. But, as often happens, this research may not be published in a timely fashion, and it rarely includes implications for practice. 

Q: What else would you say stands in the way of efforts to improve literacy rates?

Dr. Salinger: This is a complicated question. Often the biggest impediment is money – for building teachers’ capacity and professional knowledge, for books and materials, and for small classes so that teachers can get to know students well enough to tailor instructional programs that meet their needs.

Q: Returning to the idea of research and evidence influencing improvements in literacy: What role do you think research has in developing public policies that could improve literacy?

Dr. Salinger: An example is what AIR does on behalf of the National Center for Education Statistics. This work provides policy makers with the data they need to understand upward and downward trends in students’ achievement and make decisions about funding for schools and education initiatives.

AIR’s reports interpret the numbers in ways that policy makers—and the public—can understand so that discussions about how students are performing can focus not just on data in isolation, but also on students who are improving and those whose performance has remained static for far too long.

Q: What’s next for efforts to improve literacy?

Dr. Salinger: We are only beginning to explore the potential for technology to improve literacy. One example is blended learning programs that provide digital books that build in supports for struggling readers, such as access to pronunciation or definitions of unfamiliar words or short comprehension checks after a reading selection.

These types of programs can be especially beneficial for older students (think middle school and above) who read below expectation. These supports enable them need to read interesting, engaging, age-appropriate materials, rather than the “baby books” that some reading programs provide. They are also invaluable for English learners.