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“Evidence-Based” – is it enough?

In the above clip, Dr. Sally Shaywitz, a noted authority and researcher in the field of dyslexia, describes the type of intervention that she believes children who struggle to read deserve – she suggests it be

“Evidence-based”… NOT “Research-based.”

There is nothing wrong with being research-based. Appropriate interventions should be based on research. However, research itself does not guarantee improvement in reading skills. You must have evidence of effectiveness, and the only way to get this is to do scientific research, as Dr. Shaywitz suggests in the above clip, of the same caliber as that done by the FDA to approve pharmaceutical drugs.

At a recent conference, a representative from another exhibiting company approached the NOW! table. She, too, had developed a reading program based on “research.” She cited a factoid that there are more connections between the visual cortex and the area of the brain thought to handle word recognition than there are between that area of the brain and the auditory cortex. This “knowledge” of hers led her to believe that sounding out words is not an important skill.

But what evidence is there to suggest such methods are effective?

Many people claim to have evidence, but what they have is not scientific in nature. Quasi-experimental studies that do not include randomly selected participants don’t qualify. Anecdotal evidence, like before-and-after scores from a local school or district, doesn’t qualify. These results are not generalizable. It can only be assumed that the methods will work for the general populace if the study participants were randomly selected and compared against a control group. Then the scoring and growth needs to be examined – those showing raw score growths do not qualify. Only standard scores can show significant clinical growth. Then other considerations need to be made – are the norms age or grade-based? Are those things being accounted for? Sloppy research can be just as troubling as manipulated and falsified data.

The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity says that children should have a right to such evidence-based methods. We’d like to wholeheartedly agree.

However, looking at the most popular programs available to people with dyslexia will yield a true scarcity of such evidence. Looking at their websites, one will find lots of anecdotal evidence of effectiveness (a school district that trained some teachers saw improvement in their students; a classroom teacher swears by the program, saying that their students have improved in their test scores), but this does not make it an evidence-based program. Quasi-experimental studies have been done on many programs, documenting select populations and the results of using a specific program. This is not scientific evidence, though, and having this does not make for an evidence-based program of the type Dr. Shaywitz and the Yale Center are demanding.

It is time to start asking for evidence when advocates for people with dyslexia and educators begin touting their pet programs. It is time to produce the research that supports the effectiveness of the methods, and it’s time to do this now. We should demand BOTH the research that suggests gains can be made AND the evidence that the program works. Anecdotal results are hardly reproducible, reducing the results to conjecture, and, scientifically speaking, just a hypothesis.

We are on the cusp of a high level of wave in our society that will demand awareness about dyslexia and how it should be addressed in schools. Legislative bodies around the country are considering and passing laws about how to intervene on behalf of students who struggle to read. Millions of dollars and thousands of hours will either be used effectively or ineffectively based on these decisions.

Does the program that YOUR school is considering have SCIENTIFIC MERIT, or just a lot of people talking about it?