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CIERA’s Nell K. Duke named 1999 NCTE Promising Researcher

03-05-2000 CIERA Principal Investigator Nell Duke, of Michigan State University, focuses her work on what she believes are the most pressing issues facing American education: equity, informational text, and multiple literacies. As a recipient of NCTE’s prestigious award, in this interview she shares her thinking about the role of research in the future of American education.

Nell Duke

What do you see as the critical issues facing American education right now?

To me, there are two very pressing issues in American education today. The first is the need to find real answers to equity problems in American education. It continues to be the case that if someone gives me a child’s race, sex, SES, etc. there’s a good chance I can guess what their achievement will be. Since 1990 on NAEP scores, we’ve stopped closing the gap. Schools must fulfill the promise to provide equal access and opportunities to education to ALL children.

We are doing research that fills this need. CIERA’s Schools that Beat the Odds is a great example of what we should be doing to address the issue of equity problems in education. [I envision] a parallel study of individual non-mainstream students who are successful, to find out what allows some to succeed and others not. Also, the CELA Exemplary Teacher Studies look at characteristics of effective teachers.

The second issue facing American education is the question of how schools must change to meet the needs and changing demands of society. Today, people need to read, write, access, and navigate more and more different texts than ever before. We need to learn new things more than ever, and need to learn how to learn more quickly than ever. How must schools change to teach students how to do all of this, and how to be productive citizens in [our modern technological] American society?

Again, our research addresses this need. My work on informational text tackles these issues. I believe that we also need to work on understanding [the role of] technological literacy in schools, and to begin making more connections between school and the real world, in early literacy especially. We need to bring ALL students to high levels of literacy across multiple literacies.

Please tell us more about your work with informational text.

I, and others, have started a line of research to determine whether or not young children can handle informational text. The previous perception was that they could not, but empirical data from these studies are dissolving this myth. The answer, as we have found in research, is yes they can. Young children can be successful with informational texts and texts other than the traditional narrative.

Another body of work shows that informational text is very important in later schooling. Bits of evidence and lots of rhetoric tells us we should increase the diversity of texts early on. A third body of work questions how many opportunities we are giving kids to use informational texts, and tells us that young kids do not have many opportunities in school. My current study (not yet complete) addresses the need to find out empirically what happens when we do diversify the genre exposure of young kids. I have received a three year a 3-year grant to study this. This is a very important next step in the line of research.

Interestingly, my guess is that young kids get more exposure to informational text at home than at school, and that in some low socio-economic households, informational text may be the main form of text in the home. Informational text exposure may be especially good for low-SES kids.

ADVICE TO PARENTS: Our best evidence says that to expose kids to informational text is not at all bad. Kids CAN be successful. It is fine--better than fine--to expose your children to informational text. If you are exposing your children to informational text at home, feel good about it; if you are not, please think about trying it. Go to the library and to your local bookstore. There has been an explosion of age-appropriate and interesting informational texts for kids in recent years.

As an NCTE Promising Researcher, how will your future work contribute to the achievement of literacy goals for America's children?

My contribution will focus on equity issues and the advancement of the use of informational text and other non-traditional literacies in schools. I really believe in empirical research… that it can tell us things. It is best at helping us to test assumptions that we hold. We should always continue looking at and testing our assumptions.

If you could say one thing to America's teachers, what would it be?

Can I say three things?

• Range/variety:
Teachers need to remember that there is no one right way of teaching reading to every child. A range of approaches is always better than one. Huge bodies of research indicate that you should not be looking for that ONE answer.

• Be strong/don’t give up:
By all means, believe in what you are doing. The attack on the US public school system and on teachers is empirically baseless, and there is no indication (empirically) that literacy is declining. Actual evidence suggests that literacy rates are increasing slightly. So, please don't give up.

• Reflection:
What separates the excellent and not so excellent teachers is their ability to continually reflect on and reevaluate what they do, and to have a rationale for everything they're doing.

How would you describe CIERA’s role in your development as a researcher?

I believe it is important to talk about what CIERA is teaching me, as a new scholar. CIERA has an important mission of shaping the researchers for the future of the field. One of the things that CIERA has taught me is the importance of dissemination. Researchers need to understand that you can do the most wonderful research, but you need to get it out there to make a difference. Dissemination is a two-way street. CIERA has provided me so many innovative and responsive ways of getting the word out... things I would not have learned otherwise. This wasn't taught in grad school!

Last updated: Mon, Sep 30, 2002

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Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement
University of Michigan School of Education
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