Interview with Tim Shanahan - National Early Literacy Panel

National Early Literacy Panel

Interview with Tim Shanahan

From the Fall 2008 issue of Catalyst

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Tim Shanahan
Timothy Shanahan, Chairman,
National Early Literacy Panel

To help build a body of scientific evidence on young children's early literacy development and on home and family influences on that development, the Institute, in 2002, funded a group of nine nationally recognized experts, known as the National Early Literacy Panel (NELP). The panel reviewed the research on language, literacy, and communication in young children ages birth through five. As the panel's long-awaited report nears its release this fall, Timothy Shanahan, chairman of the NELP, took time out to talk about its findings, what parents and teachers can expect, and why the report will be worth the wait.

Shanahan, who served on the National Reading Panel, is also a member of the Institute's Advisory Board and a past president of the International Reading Association. The internationally recognized reading researcher with extensive experience working with children in Head Start, those with special needs, and in inner-city schools, is a professor of urban education at the University of Illinois at Chicago and director of its Center for Literacy.

This interview was conducted, condensed, and edited by B. Denise Hawkins.

What did the National Early Literacy Panel or NELP set out to do?

The NELP reviewed research on beginning literacy ability. The National Reading Panel looked at traditional school-aged kids and then the issue became what about pre-schoolers and kindergartners? The NELP was charged with taking a good careful look at the early years as children develop literacy skills.

Work on the NELP report has been underway for a number of years. For many, the findings have been much anticipated. What news is in store for those who have been eagerly awaiting results and updates about what the literature says about the effectiveness of instructional strategies, programs, and practices for young children?

Those who have never done this kind of work don't realize the extent of the effort. The panel has spent a lot of time going through the research very carefully and systematically, looking at hundreds of studies that have been conducted over the years and trying to make sense of them and how they fit together. I think that the public and the field will find that the report will have been worth the wait.

While I don't think that there will be any big surprises in the findings, there may be a few small surprises along the way. The findings wil give folks a higher level of certainty than they have had in the past and provide guidance on the actions that they can take to improve kids' early literacy and language development.

Without tipping your hand too much, can you talk about what you learned from doing this research and perhaps some unexpected things this study has yielded?

One of the things studies like this uncover are gaps. There are a lot of questions that practitioners and parents have that can't be answered with the existing research. One of the things that this study has done is identified for the research community open questions where we don't have sufficient knowledge. What we have found will guide both government research priorities and also individual choices of researchers into areas where we need answers.

What is in store for parents and classroom teachers looking forward to the report's findings?

Both for parents and for people who teach young children, this [NELP report] is really going to give them a useful outline of the types of things that need to be taught; the things that have worked effectively in the past. I don't know if it will make their work any easier, but it will make it more effective by allowing them to focus on what really matters in early development.

How does your experience and work on the NELP compare to your work on the National Reading Panel?

As a National Reading panelist, I was immersed in reviewing the research on particular questions. One of the things that you have to do when multiple research questions are being pursued is make sure that they are all getting adequate answers and the same level of attention.

Who are the panelists serving with you on the NELP? What types of expertise do they represent?

The individuals on this panel are professors; they include those who have taught pre-school and have done research on preschool literacy. They are physicians, curriculum designers, and professional development experts. They really have a pretty wide set of experiences in this area and many of them are parents and grandparents. They bring a lot of expertise, especially in the early years of kids' learning.

How many research questions did the NELP panel pursue? What were they?

The panel looked at four major questions. The first was what counts as early literacy development? When the National Reading Panel looked at school-aged kids, it didn't want to get bogged down in the definitions and disagreements. It accepted any measures of reading and writing that were valid and that the public could look at and say, "Yes, that's about reading and writing."

The NELP panel had a problem. Young children — three and four year olds — don't read and write. The question becomes, how do you know if a program or intervention is having a positive effect if you can't measure it using reading and writing measures? The panel set out to find what early measures of literacy and language were really good predictors of success in reading and writing.

Give us a glimpse into how the NELP panel pursued answers to this question?

We had to review hundreds of studies on that one question alone to identify those measures and variables that were going to matter. Once we identified those, panelists found all of the studies that had been published where somebody tried to improve young kid's literacy development — every intervention, every program. Because there were fewer studies on young children, it was possible to say let's look at all experimental studies where somebody tried to improve kids' literacy. The panel searched and found a couple hundred articles that fit into various categories. They then used those studies to determine, generally, what programs and efforts improve kids' early literacy.

Once they knew what programs and interventions were actually effective, they then were able to ask questions about under what circumstances and context were they effective? Are there particular child characteristics that make a difference in whether things work or not? They looked at what constitutes literacy for young children and asked what can we do to improve literacy measures in those early years?

These are some interesting questions that I think pre-school teachers and parents are going to be interested in the answers to.

I understand that the NELP report and its findings will be adapted and shared with the business sector and others outside of the literacy and education communities.

If you look at the impact of literacy in society, it is either enabling or undermining people's ability to participate in the workplace effectively. It's impacting people's ability to take care of their health needs; it has an influence on whether people are able to stay out of the criminal justice system, and it dictates people's engagement in civic life.

We are starting to get a picture of what kinds of things need to be done in society to ensure that we get to higher levels of literacy. Those things have to be not only of interest to a parent, but they need to be of interest to everybody who has a stake in this society. Business leaders want to make a profit and a workforce who can do the things that they need them to do. They want to be able to give value added in their products and services, but that's only going to happen if we have a sufficiently literate society.

The NELP report was developed in partnership with the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the U.S. Department of Education, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services with funding from the National Institute for Literacy.

The Panel was convened under the auspices of the National Center for Family Literacy.