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Why The Reading World Needs Evidence-Based Research

by Dr. Jack Dempsey, Director of Research

When Evidence is Lacking

Humans can be stubborn. We’re often not willing to change our mind until the right kind of evidence convinces us to. But what makes one piece of evidence, whether it’s testimony from a witness in a murder trial, observations of a person’s character, or results from a statistical model, more or less meaningful than any other?

The world of reading education has notably been rife with pseudoscientific claims based on little to no empirical evidence. For instance, whole language approaches to reading education persisted for decades despite clear evidence that phonics instruction was vital for mastering word-level decoding skills.

This was in part due to whole language approaches fitting nicely with some educators’ intuitive beliefs. Unfortunately, what makes intuitive sense is not always true. If you need an example of how the consequences of following intuition versus available evidence can be disastrous, just take a look at stagnant reading scores over the past few decades!

This issue doesn’t just stop at the reading wars, either. For example, “speedreading” tutorials focus on improving reading speeds well beyond the level where consistent comprehension is possible. In fact, the so-called principles behind why speedreading purportedly works, like minimizing subvocalization and rereading, go directly against what the psychology of reading has shown through decades of careful testing.

These claims are even more insidious when targeted to individuals with learning disabilities. For example, “dyslexic fonts” and other similar applications have been growing in popularity in recent years, despite not showing any evidence that they improve reading comprehension.

Evidence-Based Research at Cascade Reading

At the bare minimum, claims about whether a new tool can improve reading require evidence. But what determines if evidence is useful or good? The answer is simple: evidence is only as good as the method designed to collect it.

This principle drives the research at Cascade Reading. It simply would not be enough to assume that the Cascade Format improves reading comprehension – we need to show it!

At Cascade Reading, we have objectively shown via between-group testing (i.e., A\B testing) that reading in the Cascade Format improves comprehension for elementary students and adults from various language backgrounds. We also have shown through self-report measures that the Cascade Format helps students generate intonational structure while reading and helps particularly struggling readers feel more confident.

These findings were achieved via statistical modeling techniques of quantitative data, but we also took a qualitative approach when we asked adult English Language Learners to give us open-ended feedback after reading in Cascade. One participant’s feedback was particularly inspiring:

“As someone with ADHD, I’ve often doubted my reading abilities. For the past 10 years…I struggled to read long English articles. I’d either forget what I was reading or grow too impatient to read beyond a couple of paragraphs…Th[is] made me a sensitive and pessimistic English learner. However, after testing your website, I felt an immense sense of relief…I found myself excited to scroll down and read more, and for the first time, I was doing it quickly and effectively.”
Hearing such a powerful testimonial from someone with ADHD, which affects millions of adults and children in the US alone, shows how powerful the Cascade Format can be for people with learning disabilities. Of course, a larger scale study would be needed to provide more evidence that the Cascade Format particularly improves reading comprehension for these individuals, but this quote shows us that, at a minimum, the Cascade Format can make a positive impact on people’s lives.

What can teachers do?

There’s a lot of misinformation out there, and a lot of it looks similar to evidence-based research. So, what are teachers supposed to do? After all, they are busy enough as is without having to spend hours scrutinizing whether a new educational tool is evidence-based. One solution would be for teachers to conduct their own action research, which would still take a lot of time, effort, and resources.

What might take less time is to always look at the source of the information. Here are potential red flags:

  • If a company doesn’t have a research page on their website,
  • If there are no citations of work published in peer-reviewed education journals,
  • If there are no research scientists on the company’s team.
Even if a new tool passes these checks, it’s always worthwhile to be a skeptic. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Send an email to the company asking what scientific research the product is based on. Ask them if they have conducted research in schools to see if their product actually improves student reading abilities out in the real world. And, most importantly, ask what they’re doing to develop and improve upon their product. Don’t be afraid to ask direct questions – your students deserve it!

Dr. Jack Dempsey

Director of Research, Cascade Reading

Cascade Reading mark.

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