Harvard Educational Review
  1. Methods of Literacy Research

    The Methodology Chapters from the Handbook of Reading Research (Vol. 3)

    Edited by Michael L. Kamil, Peter B. Mosenthal, P. David Pearson, and Rebecca Barr

    Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002. 164 pp. $16.50.

    Since the 1984 publication of the first volume of the Handbook of Reading Research (HRR), the series has been seen as a researcher’s guide to the field of literacy studies. While the second volume contained no chapters on the subject of methodology in literacy studies, Methods of Literacy Research: The Methodology Chapters from the Handbook of Reading Research, Volume 3, contains ten such chapters. This renewed focus on the role of methodology signals two important shifts in researchers’ attitudes. First, methodology has become a central issue for literacy researchers. Many of the authors link methodological concerns with practical issues, indicating that research design has an impact on the classroom as well as the academy. Second, researchers have become more interested in expanding their methodological options, increasingly appropriating theoretical frames and methods from other fields.

    In their preface to volume three of HRR, the editors encourage methodological exploration, drawing on historian Daniel Boorstin’s notion of a "verge" as a zone of exploration between the familiar and the unknown. They state that "the fortified borderlands and imperial reigns of reading research of old have given way to border crossings and new participants in the reading research of new" (p. viii). One goal of this collection is to delineate verges in the field and to encourage researchers to investigate those spaces.

    A helpful way to categorize the chapters is by considering whether they are predominantly methodological or theoretical in their approach to research. Some of the more methodological chapters discuss established methods in the field of reading research. For example, Therese Pigott and Rebecca Barr consider various methods of conducting literacy program evaluation. They argue that "we need both carefully designed studies and collaborative participation from all of those who care about research, policy and practice" (p. 30). Pigott and Barr also claim that the "intervention and evaluation should both be grounded in theory" (p. 30). Susan Florio-Ruane and Mary McVee discuss the importance of ethnography to literacy research. They note that when the first volume of HRR included a chapter on ethnography, it had already attracted the interest of literacy researchers who saw it as a powerful tool to explore theories that literacy involves social practices and occurs in community contexts.

    Florio-Ruane and McVee’s examination of ethnographic methods includes a brief history of the anthropological roots of ethnography and its appropriation by educational researchers. The authors also rely on Kathryn Au’s work and her reflections to discuss three recent developments in educational ethnography: the applied value of ethnographic research, literacy studies through the lens of social history theory, and the importance of postmodern theory, particularly feminism, to educational ethnography. Yet it may have been impractical to present an inclusive description of how ethnography is employed in educational research since, as the authors note, ethnographers have not agreed on a single understanding of the method.

    Narrative research is one area in which Boorstin’s notion of the verge is particularly appropriate. In a chapter drawing heavily on qualitative work done outside of literacy research, Donna Alvermann makes a strong claim for scholars to take advantage of the multitude of narrative methods, including "autobiography, autoethnographies, biography, personal narratives, life histories, oral histories, memoirs, and literary journalism" (p. 47), all of which share the primacy of story. Alvermann discusses three areas of concern in narrative research: the problems of subjectivity, truth, and representation. Without opting for easy answers, Alvermann considers how these challenges to narrative research have been discussed by influential scholars including Elliot Eisner, Clifford Geertz, and Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot.

    Additional chapters that focus on methodological perspectives include Peter Afflerbach’s discussion of the history and utility of verbal reports and protocol analysis, and Timothy Shanahan’s review of research synthesis. Afflerbach notes that much of the research on protocol analysis has focused on the cognitive dimensions of reading, using readers’ descriptions of their methods and strategies to develop our understanding of the cognitive tasks. Afflerbach suggests that future researchers may use verbal reports and protocol analyses to explore the social context of reading, such as the role of motivation and affect. Shanahan’s chapter introduces research synthesis, including a historical perspective and a detailed description of how scholars conduct these studies, which will interest many who have debated the methods and conclusions of the recent reports on reading by the National Reading Panel and the National Research Council.

    The editors also include a chapter by E. Jennifer Monaghan and Douglas Hartman that describes the methods of historical research, or historiography, which they describe as the "self-conscious practice of thinking about the development of historical scholarship" (p. 34). This chapter both provides an introduction to historical analysis and encourages scholars to adopt this rarely used methodology. Monaghan and Hartman claim that understanding "a particular reading method . . . requires more than simply knowing about it: It must also be located in the milieu of its times" (p. 33).

    Two chapters in this collection center on theoretical approaches to literacy research. Marjorie Siegel and Susana Laura Fernandez present a concise account of the origins of critical theory while they simultaneously acknowledge that "there is no single ‘critical approach’" (p. 67). They note that even though critical perspectives have a long history in the social sciences, they are relatively new to literacy studies, perhaps because the field has been preoccupied with teaching methods. They urge researchers to consider literacy from a critical perspective, which they see as "more urgent than ever as new literacies, along with new modes of exploitation, multiply in our increasingly globalized and digitalized world" (p. 73). In the other chapter, James Paul Gee provides an overview of the work done in discourse and sociocultural studies, synthesizing research in a way that will be informative to students, yet offers minimal new insight.

    Perhaps the most interesting chapter addresses a growing segment of literacy studies: teacher research. James F. Baumann and Ann M. Duffy-Hester report on a qualitative study designed to uncover "the nature of methodologies teacher researchers have employed" (p. 3) in literacy studies. Their results reveal considerable variation in how this work is conducted. For example, while many teachers researching in their own classrooms avoid using statistical methods, some do incorporate them. Baumann and Duffy-Hester stress that teachers’ perspectives differ from those of most qualitative researchers in the classroom because "teacher researchers are first and foremost teachers, who are responsible for the learning and well-being of the students assigned to them" (p. 18). Unlike other chapters that draw on the experience and accumulated knowledge of scholars, Baumman and Duffy-Hester make their claims based on evidence, which gives readers insight into the strength of their argument.

    Although the contents of this volume have already appeared in HRR, the value of the book lies in having multiple perspectives on literacy research bound together in way that invites readers to consider the range of methodologies adopted by researchers. An obvious audience for this collection will be students and professors of research courses. These authors also provide insight into the past and future of literacy studies, which researchers and practitioners in the field will value. Even with ten chapters on methodological approaches, the editors note that this volume does not provide an exhaustive overview of methods. As literacy research expands its techniques and researchers explore new methodological options, we can expect exciting new developments that enrich our theoretical and practical understanding of literacy development.

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