I remember professional learning with Emily Calhoun where we discussed how the “title” of any book was the promise the author makes to the reader about what the book will be about. A book is bigger than an article in a newspaper or a magazine. Is a headline similar? This lead me to some research about headlines and the types, functions, and even the definitions. Scacco and Muddiman in “The Current State of News Headlines” report four functions of headlines.

The news headline can serve a variety of functions, including story summarization, interest generation, immediacy satisfaction, and attention direction. (Link)

    • Story summarization
    • Interest generation
    • Immediacy satisfaction
    • Attention direction

Consider this headline. Which function fits?

Results are in: Mississippi students No. 1 in the country for reading gains

Do you know enough to make a decision?

This headline was published in Mississippi Today and according to its website,

Mississippi Today is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) news and media company with a forward-facing mission of civic engagement and public dialog through service journalism, live events and digital outreach. (Link)

Does that descriptor of the publication change your mind about the function of this particular headline?

The first paragraph of this article says,

Mississippi was the only state in the country to improve reading scores, and was number one in the country for gains in fourth-grade reading and math, according to newly released test results.

and yes, it was published the day after the NAEP results were released. (Link)

Has your view of the FUNCTION changed based on a) additional knowledge about the publisher; b) the knowledge of date of publication; and/or c) the first paragraph of the publication?

Which best fits your thinking?

    • Story summarization
    • Interest generation
    • Immediacy satisfaction
    • Attention direction

Why does it matter?

P. David Pearson at #ILA19 was a panel member for a Saturday 7 a.m. session titled: “What Research Says About Teaching Reading and Why that Still Matters.” Dr. Pearson proposed several rules for our work and I have been considering this first rule over the last two months as I have read across Twitter, blogs and newspapers.

Rule 1:  Policymakers have to read beyond the headlines.

I would be remiss if I didn’t note that teachers, administrators, college instructors, parents, and anyone in the U.S. REALLY needs to read beyond the headlines. But careful attention is required particularly in the field of reading, reading instruction, and any “claims” in the headlines about reading pedagogy.

What does this article tell us?

Gains in 4th grade reading in Mississippi.

Only state with gains in 4th reading.

No gains in 8th grade reading in Mississippi.

The gain was 4 points.

“The 2019 results mark the first time Mississippi has met or outperformed national averages.” (In 1992, Mississippi was 16 points below the national average.)

Mississippi scores declined from 2009 to 2013.

And the “credit” for the “increase in scores”:

The Mississippi Department of Education attributed the some of the continued success in reading scores to the Literacy-Based Promotion Act, a law that went into effect in 2013 that requires third-graders to pass a reading test before they can be promoted to the fourth grade.

Do those facts match up with the function of the headline?

For additional practice let’s consider a second view of the Mississippi scores found in this blog post from Paul Thomas last week.

Mississippi Miracle or Mirage?:

2019 NAEP Reading Scores Prompt Questions, Not Answers


Which function matches this headline?

    • Story summarization
    • Interest generation
    • Immediacy satisfaction
    • Attention direction

And here’s the first paragraph of the blog post.

There is a disturbing contradiction in the predicted jubilant response to Mississippi’s outlier 4th-grade results from the 2019 NAEP reading test. That contradiction can be found in a new article by Emily Hanford, using Mississippi to recycle her brand, a call for the “science of reading.”

What do you believe is the purpose of this headline?  Is it similar to the previous article?  Or different?

Dr. Thomas then quotes two paragraphs from E Hanford’s own post:

The state’s performance in reading was especially notable. Mississippi was the only state in the nation to post significant gains on the fourth-grade reading test. Fourth graders in Mississippi are now on par with the national average, reading as well or better than pupils in California, Texas, Michigan and 18 other states.

What’s up in Mississippi? There’s no way to know for sure what causes increases in test scores [emphasis added], but Mississippi has been doing something notable: making sure all of its teachers understand the science of reading.

Paul answers Hanford’s claim that “there’s no way to know for sure” with

To be fair, there is a way to know, and that would be conducting scientific research that teases out the factors that can be identified as causing the test score changes in the state.

Scientific research . . .

A broader look at the data suggests that in 1998, Mississippi was only 10 points below the national average. What changed to cause growth between 2005 -2009?

Screenshot 2019-12-07 at 8.59.17 PM

Blog post Source Link


Facts/Questions from this article:

Is the 2013 legislation responsible for any growth? What research supports this hypothesis/generalization?

Is this the role of NAEP data? Should it REALLY be?

What about the 8-point jump in 4th-grade reading in MS from 2002 to 2009 with no explanation?

Original author Hanford used correlation (not scientific) instead of causation (scientific).



No research?

No evidence?

In any informational text, the information that is included is always critical.  But equally important (Hat tip to Katie Clements) is the information that is left out. And the questions that remain after reading the articles. One place for readers to begin in with the promise of the headline, the match between the headline and the article content, and the basic functions of a headline are one entry point.

Did the articles match up to the “hype” of the headlines?

Did they serve the function?

Why is P. David Pearson’s rule about headlines important?


Skinner, K. Results are in: Mississippi students No. 1 in the country for reading gains.  Retrieved from https://mississippitoday.org/2019/10/30/results-are-in-mississippi-students-no-1-in-the-country-for-reading-gains/ on December 7, 2019.

Thomas, PL. Mississippi Miracle or Mirage?: 2019 NAEP Reading Scores Prompt Questions, Not Answers. Retrieved from https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2019/12/06/mississippi-miracle-or-mirage-2019-naep-reading-scores-prompt-questions-not-answers/ on December 7, 2019.

11 responses

  1. Good questions — left to be answered. Do the headlines match up to the facts?
    “We can’t know for sure.”
    Hmm. Thanks for the thinking, Fran!

    1. Thanks, Jen. So much to think of in the current world. Do the headlines match the facts? And what is the function of the headline?
      – Story summarization
      – Interest generation
      – Immediacy satisfaction
      – Attention direction
      So much to consider for Readers and Writers!

  2. Fran, thank you for writing this thoughtful post. Your analysis is spot on and is just what I after reading the NY Times opinion piece this morning as I was waiting for my breaks to get adjusted.

    1. Thanks, Jenn. It seems as if everything in literacy is “complicated” as some authors are always defensive when questioned about their details while others blatantly ignore the details. Headlines, their match to the articles, and their functions were a great place to begin!

  3. Truly well explained and well thought out. Thank you for this exemplary writing to inform. Well done Fran!

    1. You are welcome! Such kind words!
      We must BE thinking readers!!!

  4. […] dealt with “Rule #1.” (Link) P. David Pearson at #ILA19 was a panel member for a Saturday 7 a.m. session titled: “What […]

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