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Dedicated to Teachers

Podcast: Jennifer Serravallo and Rachael Gabriel on ForwardEd, How Research, Interpretation, and Science Fuel Teaching


Today on the podcast we have an excerpt from Heinemann’s ForwardED slow conference series. Today’s conversation features Jennifer Serravallo, author of New York Times’ bestseller The Reading Strategies Book as well as many other popular Heinemann professional books, and Rachael Gabriel, Associate Professor of Literacy Education at the University of Connecticut.

Shop the latest from Jennifer Serravallo: The Reading Strategies Book 2.0


This conversation is part of Heinemann’s new video series ForwardED: Forward, Together in Education. If you would like to watch the full videos of this and other conversations, you can find them on the Heinemann Publishing Facebook page or YouTube Channel.


Below is a transcript of this episode.

Jen: All right. Hi, Rachael.

Rachael: Hello Jen.

Jen: Oh my Gosh. After all our Twitter conversations and emails, here we are talking face-to-face. Well, kind of, right?

Rachael: Yeah, as close as we can get. I'm so excited to do this, thank you.

Jen: Oh, thank you for accepting the invitation. So I read your recent Ed Leadership piece and absolutely loved it. And one of the points that you make in the piece is that in order to have a scientific approach to literacy, we need to be making sure we're looking at the sciences, plural.

What fields of science do you think are getting ignored right now in the conversation? And I'm wondering why you think that might be.

Rachael: I think it shifted a little bit, because the conversation keeps evolving. So when I first wrote that, I was thinking more about kind of the divide between natural and social sciences, 'cause there's a lot of emphasis on neuroscience and cognitive science, and cognitive science bridges natural and social, or kind of the hard sciences and the soft ones.

And so that was what I had in mind when I was writing it. But I now think that that there's been a little bit of shifting. There's been some things taken up from linguistics, but not everything. And so again, it's sort of the finite item level knowledge from linguistics, but not the social and cultural aspects of how language actually works. And so kind of picking and choosing from a couple of different sciences and calling it, still putting it under the banner of the science of reading, as if it's a singular thing, and as if it's the only thing. So if it's singular like that, it's in opposition to something.

So there's the science, and then for everything else, there's MasterCard. Or for everything else it's not scientific, so it shouldn't be used. It's kind of an unhelpful positioning, because it doesn't leave any room for any new discoveries, and it also doesn't leave room for anything to add nuance or questioning or anything that destabilizes the central truth of, these are the things that should happen, and we know exactly how and why for everybody.

Jen: Yeah, and I think one of the things that I wonder about, and maybe the incorporation of linguistics and what language means, is the demographics of kids that tend to be studied, and those that tend not to be studied. In some of the research that's being privileged. What do you have to say about that?

Rachael: So I love this cause I was a psychology major in college, and I remember reading about a study. I think it's called The Strangest People or The Weirdest People. I'm sure we can link to it in the show notes. I talk about this a little bit in my Reading Teacher article about the science of reading, and it basically sort of broke down how much of what we know about psychology is based on studies of freshmen in college, because, you know, freshmen psychology students have to participate in studies.

And so like a huge amount of what we think we know, like as if it can be completely known, but a lot of the patterns that we've recognized that we think are definitely incomplete and possibly wrong are based on like 18 to 21 year old people that go to liberal arts schools and take psych 101. And that ends up being a pretty small proportion of the population. And so that doesn't really speak to or recognize.

And then of course, we also can look at psychology journals and see that they're mostly edited by and written by folks in the Western hemisphere who write and publish in English. And if we look closer, it still is mostly white, mostly men. That's shifting, it's shifting, but it's not equal by any means. And so in terms of perspectives and interpretation, what we know and I'm using goofy inflection on that word, like there's no known. We have some evidence and we make sense of it, but we do the making. We do make the sense of it. We don't just have kind of a certainty.

I think certainty in general is kind of unscientific. Like we do a lot to make sure we understand how certain we are about science. We have lots of different statistical tools and conventions and agreed upon ways of saying things in scientific publications that show how certain we think we are. But certainty, complete certainty, isn't a thing because humans are so different from each other.

Jen: Yeah, let's talk about that idea of certainty. So when there's something that's worth being published, it's got to have some finding to it, right? And the findings need to be somewhat statistically significant, right? For those who haven't taken statistics in college, or haven't gone for research design methods classes, or maybe it's been a while, can you explain in plain English, what does statistical significance even mean?

Rachael: So statistical significance just means better than chance. So the classic example is like flipping a coin. Like it'll be one or the other, and that doesn't mean the coin is weighted in any particular direction. But once we get to the point where it keeps being heads over and over, more than you'd expect from chance, we start to think that it is significant. And then we've, we being the scientific community, has set levels of what we think is acceptable. And in education research, we usually set the level at 95% certainty.

We basically say, we want to be 95% confident that this is not a mistake. Not that this is always true for everybody, but that this is not just purely chance, that when kids grew under these circumstances, it was because of the circumstances instead of due to chance.

Jen: And so that 95% does not mean it's going to work for 95% of children.

Rachael: Oh, no.

Jen: It just means it's 95% sure that it's not just a fluke.

Rachael: Right, in this case. No, it's not going to work for everybody. It's just like what I'm telling you about the 30 kids I tested earlier this week, or thousand kids I tested, I'm 95% sure that what I think happened, happened, not necessarily that it would happen anywhere else, but that's what I think happened, happened.

So on the 21 undergraduates that I tested from their psych 101 class. Yeah, it's just their certainty about their claim, not about the generalizability of the claim.

Jen: Yeah, and so I think that's something that I think is misunderstood, right? This idea that, okay, this research study found this. So therefore let's put this thing, which may not even have been studied in a classroom, into practice in classrooms for all children.

Rachael: Yeah.

Jen: Yeah, no. (laughs)

Rachael: That's not what that means. (both laughing) No, that's not. No.

Jen: So this idea, like this thing works, so let's do it for all children. I feel like that's another common thing that's being talked about now. Right? That there's this, if certain advocates are saying that all kids can benefit from this particular sequence, pace and methods, because it was shown in this study or in this series of studies, I'm wondering, in what ways do you feel like that thinking is flawed?

This idea that we should just do this for everybody because it's shown to work for some.

Rachael: Like how long do we have? (both laughing)

Jen: Just go on all day.

Rachael: I think the one potential place for common ground is the idea that instruction should be responsive to the students. I think the division comes back again when we figure out like what being responsive looks like. Fidelity to the program is one thing. Fidelity to the child is another. And I think folks that are used to, like, engaging in child watching and using that as a way to fuel their instruction are frankly appalled that you would follow the program instead of the child.

I think folks that don't know how to do child watching don't even know it's a thing and are frankly appalled that somebody would make stuff up instead of following a program. Your life opportunity is attached to being literate, your schooling opportunity, your standing in the community. Even if it's just your child, your standing in the community as a parent if your child is struggling with literacy. These are really big things that hit on a bunch of different kinds of fears.

And so when someone suggests that there's certainty attached to a program because it's research based, or when they say that there's certainty attached to an approach because it's scientific, folks are willing to give up a lot for certainty. Like we see this all the time in kind of fundamentalist approaches to anything, to dieting, which I write about a little bit in the leadership article, to religion, to really anything. When we promise certainty, we get a big teacher and say like, "This is how it is, and you can count on it." Usually somebody's lying.

Jen: Yeah, I mean, the stakes are very high. Everyone agrees we want kids to be highly literate, not only skilled, but also love to read. We're all on the same page about that. It's just the question of what exactly are the techniques that are going to help. And, you know, as experience of a New York city public school teacher, with more than 30 kids in a classroom, ranging three full grade levels, to those who are really in the classroom with kids and seeing the wide range, the idea that one size fits all is just a really challenging idea to accept.

Rachael: And the acrobatics you have to do to make it work. If you are in a position where you have to use this particular approach on this particular day, the acrobatics you have to do to hold kids' attention and to make it worth it for them to pay attention, there's a cost to those. So, you know, you do see there's a time cost, but there's also like an energy and effort and investment costs on the part of the child to like manage themselves to be calm and appropriately engaged, but also on the part of the instructor.

And so even if you had an extra 15 minutes for something else, you've used up a lot of the resources in the classroom, a lot of the interactional resources that could have supported learning to support an approach that may or may not have been a good fit for the group of kids that you have. And that could be for all 30 of your 30. I found this line of research that Carol Connor did at ASU, or in Arizona over a series of years, that kind of suggested that there's like maybe two or three versions of literacy instruction that should be happening all the time.

And if they were happening, then most everybody would be getting what they needed in that classroom, not in 17 different tiers of intervention, but like in their one and only main experience. We would be getting about 95% of the kids. We like that number, what they need, and it's not a million things. It's two or three.

And two or three we can manage, especially given that some of those things are to allow some students to be more self-directed and less teacher directed. We want to give teachers a resource that they can use and not expect them to come up with everything on their own.

Jen: And I think if we want to, you know, in support of the idea of some kind of program or curriculum or scope of sequence, if we want teachers to really be meaningfully looking at kids' work, making assessment-based decisions, attempting some sort of differentiation for whatever that means in your classroom, they can't be reinventing the wheel constantly.

I think it's wise to equip teachers with something to follow, and then in addition, give them the tools they need to really look at their kids, understand what they need, and make some decisions to reteach, pre-teach, change the teaching, whatever it is, to differentiate.

Rachael: I write about this. I cite this study called Shackles and Scaffolds all the time, because it's a perfect metaphor for curriculum, that if you aren't allowed to play with it, then it ends up holding you back in your learning as an educator, and in your satisfaction with your job as an educator. But if you have nothing at all, it could have been a scaffold for your learning. It could have given you what you needed so you had a room to explore and to experiment and to watch your students and see how things are going.

Because experience should add up to knowledge, right? Like teachers teaching for a bunch of years, you have all of these experiences that have accumulated that could accumulate into more understanding.

Jen: I think what that's talking about is just continuous development, continuous learning on the part of teachers. And like you said, the flexibility to use or not use certain aspects of resources that you have at your disposal. And I think sometimes there is an undercurrent of this idea that embracing research means that we're discounting teacher expertise, or teachers firsthand experience.

I mean, I've read studies where the sample size is only 30 children, and then there's teachers who have 40 children a year, times 20 years, hundreds and hundreds of children. And they're the kind of teacher who really thinks, reflects, studies, adapts, changes. You have so many case studies there to be learning from. And that experience should count for something, right?

Rachael: So maybe, but I think that's one big maybe. Pedagogically, it'll count for something if and only if you were engaged in systematic inquiry of some kind. I think the idea that teachers are thinking, reasonable, intellectual beings, there's this kind of chicken-egg thing happening where systems are created to not let them be, the way PD is designed, the traditional way PD is designed.

And lots of folks have found workarounds to make it more thinking and intellectual for teachers. But the idea that you kind of like have these five full days of the year and you do something different on each of the five full days, and you pick those things like a year and a half earlier, and they're sort of scheduled for you before some of those teachers even work at that school.

So how could you know that that was what they needed in their own growth and development? There's sort of silly structures that don't treat teachers as professionals, let alone intellectuals. And yet, if you are going to be learning from practice, you have to be an intellectual about it.

You have to have, and this is a little Virginia Woolf-y, but like you have to have the time and the space to make sense of what you're seeing year after year, to like notice the patterns and build on them. And you also have to have colleagues to talk about them with, because if you don't hash some of this stuff out, you can't grapple by yourself all the time. And if you don't have an opportunity to talk with colleagues or your colleagues aren't available for that kind of thing, then I don't think it does accumulate.

Jen: And on top of it, there's this real barrier to accessing some of the research, whether it's like literal barrier, I can't access it because I log in and it's $40 to download this one article. It's access in terms of time. It's access in terms of, I mean, some of the journal articles, no offense to your colleagues, but it's written in a very hard to understand language. So there's all kinds of barriers.

I'm just wondering what your response or thoughts are to that.

Rachael: Full disclosure, I'm on the Board of the International Literacy Association at the moment. But when I look at ILA's materials before I was on the board, and one of the reasons that I was willing to run, is they are never signed by one person. Like any sort of information that is put out has like the longest list of names. It looks like the liner notes of a CD, like teeny little print and like a bazillion people. Because even if like five or six people wrote the words, like typed them into a computer, it gets vetted and vetted, like over and over again. And they don't put it out as like, this is a research document or a policy brief, unless lots of folks who have said yes, we agree. And so there is-

Jen: And those are very accessible, I want to say. I feel like ILA has done a really good job of making things accessible, not everything's behind a paywall. A recent edition of the Reading Research Quarterly, where I think every article was available to everybody. I mean, that's remarkable. So I just want it to say thank you for that.

Rachael: Yes. Oh good. I'm so glad. And that's part of the hope. We'll come back to that issue and yeah, that's part of the hope that's coming. So anyway, sorry. In some ways it's inevitable, because there just aren't studies that answer the question you're trying to answer. And so if you're like, you know, somebody goes to Facebook and says like, "What should I teach tomorrow?" There isn't a study about that. Sorry. (laughs)

Or like, what is a great spelling program for ninth graders who live in Nebraska and are all left-handed. We don't have a study for most of the things that you might go with a question about. And so this is something that doc students often are frustrated with when they first get into kind of searching for the research that they want to read about in an area, is you have to figure out how to ask for it. What are the keywords that I'm looking for to actually get me that article?

So we end up with these translations of research. Some of them are faithful translations. Some of them are not. Some of them are thoughtful interpretations. Some of them are not. We need them like that's, (laughs) we will never have the research to answer all of our questions.

We need faithful, thoughtful interpretations. And what we don't often think about with a lot of these programs that say that they're research based, nobody's researched them. They're just based on ideas that have been researched, sometimes from an idea from this study and one from that study and what, you know, in a combination that's never been tested. It's our best guess.

I think one thing we have to be good at is both sides sort of like as a consumer, knowing that you've found a faithful interpreter and also as the profession, sending out more faithful interpreters. Your work is powerful because you're a faithful interpreter, and because people can tell, 'cause you know when it rings true and when it doesn't.

And part of the way that practitioners know when it rings true is that, like, it has resonance with what they've seen before. And that is sort of the heart of peer review. Like I determined that it is right, it's true, because it rings true with what I've seen before. And so when practitioners give you their peer review and you know that you've drawn on things that other folks have found in controlled systematic study, your own systematic study or controlled systematic study of like the last hundred years, or of whatever that's available, then you've not just got resonance, but you've got overtones and you've got, what do you call them? Harmonics and sympathetic harmonics.

And so people, when they're reading, it can actually make new connections from your work. I think that's how we know that it's right. Like it's truthful, it multiplies, and it also has some relationship to research, and it resonates with these other ideas and potentially even helps you form new ones. You're playing a song that people have been playing because you're a faithful interpreter. I worked with Dick Ellington as my doctoral advisor, and I always thought, like, he did his own research, original research, so I don't want to minimize that. But the reason that he was powerful in our field is because he was a really good storyteller, and he would tell the story of the research.

Jen: I was just going to say, I think we also need researchers like you, like Nell Duke, people who are actually in classrooms with teachers and kids. So I think that that's, I mean, I don't know how rare you think that is in your field overall or how common that is, or people that are conducting research and are regularly partnering with teachers, hearing from teachers, having teachers try things in their classrooms, this divide between research and what happens in classrooms.

A lot of people have written and talked about this. I think that's a really important hurdle as well.

Rachael: Yep. That's another one that's like partly personal choice and partly structural, like the way that you advance in teaching is to be really good at teaching, not to also partner with like, you have to take on a lot extra to do that, and you have to take on risk to do that.

And then same thing with researchers, it's disincentivized in lots of silent ways. Out loud, it's incentivized like, oh, our researchers are so engaged. But they also do these 17 other things, which makes sure that they never actually get to leave their desk. (laughs) So there's some challenges to that. There's a lot of research on research practice partnerships and what makes them go wrong.

And when they go well, and it's always more complicated than people think that it might be, because we're battling two structures that aren't made to mesh well together. But I think the more we know about each other, the better we are at finding the workarounds that would help us imagine a structure that would work well together. The good news in terms of like access, not accessibility, but access to the actual articles is that I think the pandemic has really sped up the timeline for publishers to not just consider, but make motions, moving toward being open access and really changing the whole funding model for how academic research is funded.

So right now it's funded by subscription, so that's why it's protected. And usually like libraries or university systems buy subscriptions to all the journals, so that the library has all the journals, and then the journals just run based on the money from the subscriptions. It's going to be different now. There are open access journals now and somebody has to pay for it, so like advertisers will pay for it, or an institution will pay for people to publish.

Jen: I can see the pros and cons of this.

Rachael: Yep. (both laughing)

Jen: I want to see if we're thinking the same thing. This is news to me. It's super interesting. I feel like the pro is open access. We love that. That's great. Super. The con is, I'm wondering if what's going to happen to journals will be what's happening to other kinds of media right now. Like they're looking for clicks in order to get more advertisers, and therefore will publish certain things in order to get that attention.

Rachael: And certain people. Yep. So controversial things. So the Science of Reading Special Issue was a really good one to do open access, because it's a hot button, and so people will click on it And it had lots of big names in it, and so that's awesome. So yeah, it totally disincentivizes publishing unknown authors and disincentivizes publishing unsexy topics. And I wonder about that in a big way.

Jen: Yeah, for sure. Well, thank you so much for taking time to chat with me. I've loved this conversation. I hope it's the first of many.

Rachael: (laughs) Me too. Thank you very much.


Text that reads "The Reading Strategies Book You Love, Now Updated With The Latest Instructional Thinking. Available January 2023". To The right there are two images of The Reading Strategies Book 2.0. They are spiral bound.


Jennifer Serravallo is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Reading Strategies Book and The Writing Strategies Book, which have been translated into Spanish, French, and Chinese. These and her other popular books and resources help teachers make goal-directed responsive strategy instruction, conferring, and small group work doable in every classroom. Her newest titles are Teaching Writing in Small Groups, A Teacher’s Guide to Reading Conferences, Understanding Texts and Readers, and the assessment and teaching resource Complete Comprehension for Fiction and Nonfiction.

Jen is a frequently invited speaker at national and regional conferences and travels throughout the US and Canada to provide full-day workshops and to work with teachers and students in classrooms. She is also an experienced online educator who regularly offers live webinar series and full-day online workshops, and is the creator of two self-paced asynchronous online courses, most recently Strategies in Action: Reading and Writing Methods and Content.

Jen began her career in education as an NYC public school teacher. Now as a consultant, she has spent the last fifteen+ years helping teachers across the country create literacy classrooms where students are joyfully engaged, and the instruction is meaningfully individualized to students' goals. Jen is also a member of Parents Magazine Board of Advisors for education and literacy. 

Jen holds a BA from Vassar College and an MA from Teachers College, where she has also taught graduate and undergraduate classes.

Learn more about Jen and her work at Hein.pub/serravallo, on Twitter @jserravallo, on Instagram @jenniferserravallo, or by joining The Reading and Writing Strategies Facebook Community


rachaelegabriel-7Rachael Gabriel is an Assistant Professor of Literacy Education at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education. Rachael began her career in education as a middle school teacher in Washington, DC. Since then she has worked as a literacy specialist, new teacher advisor and intervention provider. She earned a PhD in Literacy Studies from the University of Tennessee. Rachael’s teaching and research focus on: teacher preparation, development and evaluation, as well as literacy instruction, interventions, and related policies.

Topics: Podcast, Rachael Gabriel, Heinemann Podcast, Jennifer Serravallo, Jennifer Serravallo Podcasts, ForwardEd

Date Published: 11/04/21

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