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Ethical Issues in Literacy Research

reviewed by Valerie A. Allison - December 08, 2014

coverTitle: Ethical Issues in Literacy Research
Author(s): Carole S. Rhodes & Kenneth J. Weiss (Eds)
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 0415534305, Pages: 168, Year: 2013
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Ethical Issues in Literacy Research is a resource intended for a broad audience, from beginning researchers to their mentors/instructors, and across diverse fields of literacy inquiry. While it is unlikely that every chapter in the text will be relevant to any one reader, the scope of this short work is impressive. For this reviewer, it made good on the promise implied in the foreword, “I learned a lot by reading it myself” (p. xv).

The editors, Carole Rhodes and Kenneth Weiss, suggest that the text has the potential to be used for graduate courses on research methodology. The text is organized in three sections focused on different research areas. All chapters include several common features: the identification and definition of an ethical issue embedded in literacy research, a vignette describing a scenario related to the issue, pre-reading questions, background drawn from the literature, suggested activities to enhance readers’ exploration of the topic, and a summary.  

Within Part One, the editors have assembled an intriguing collection of chapters that critically examine ethical dimensions of studying literacy practices and development within school contexts. In the first chapter in the section, Amy Johnson Lachuk and Mary Louis Gomez provide a helpful backdrop for the readings that follow. Lachuk and Gomez encourage readers to interrogate the relationships they have (or will form) in completing research; they ask readers to consider how the relationships formed between participants and researchers shape research process and the knowledge produced. Additionally, they query how relationships are influenced by a myriad of potentially unexamined contextual variables (social, political, and historical). Lachuk and Gomez illuminate the extent to which all research involving human participants and the stories of their lived experiences are bound in relationships and need to be evaluated alongside the evidence researchers present of their “answerability” (Bakhtin, 1990) to participants.

Chapters Three through Six consider the ethical dilemmas inherent in working with specific populations of learners, from “at-risk” to bilingual/dual language learners to deaf and hard of hearing. Each chapter increased this reviewer’s understanding of situational specific ethical considerations. Among the important questions the chapters prompt readers to consider are:

Do the stories I construct of vulnerable participants contribute in worthwhile ways to knowledge in my field, or do they simply serve to titillate the reader and, thereby, exploit the participants?

Do the stories I construct of participants reify their identities in ways that serve as judgments, positioning participants as static characters and reinforcing stereotypical images of groups of individuals in society?

How might my actions as a researcher impede or enhance the educational experiences of the learners who are my participants?

Have I done everything possible to ensure my methods of assessing and analyzing student participants’ development and competencies are culturally and linguistically defensible?

All the chapters in Part One could be utilized in facilitating discussions among novice researchers. While they are concerned with literacy practices, they could easily fuel discussions about researcher/participant relationships in other disciplines and/or in out-of-school contexts.  

Part Two of the text consists of three chapters related to the ethics of research with pre-service and in-service teachers. Chapters Seven and Nine interrogate dilemmas researchers may face in balancing conflicting obligations to hosting teachers, their administrators, and the students. These two chapters would make thought-provoking readings for graduate students who are proposing research projects involving teachers and their students. They would encourage novice researchers to think through their proposals with the goals of mitigating risks in study design. Additionally, they would prompt novice researchers to anticipate troubling scenarios that might arise in the process of conducting research, and formulate hypothetical responses to effectively and ethically balance their obligation to protect all participants from avoidable harm.

Chapter Eight, by Stacie Tate, provides an intriguing balance to the Lachuk and Gomez chapter. While Lachuk and Gomez focused on the impact of participant/researcher relationships on the stories told about participants, Tate explores how her own life story influences her research agenda, her relationships with participants, and, ultimately, how she carries out and reports her research. Tate reminds prospective researchers (and teachers) that their positionality is never neutral. It cannot—nor should it—be our goal as scholars to sanitize our research, removing all evidence in our work of our identities as individuals with unique life narratives, beliefs, and priorities. Instead, Tate seeks to compel researchers (and teachers) to come to know themselves and their life stories as a means to shape reforms in literacy instruction and research. Tate posits that when researchers and teachers analyze the personal histories that have shaped their perspectives, they are positioning themselves to see more from others, their histories and perspectives, and shared common ground.

The final part of Ethical Issues in Literacy Research consists of four chapters related to ethical dimensions of research involving online environments. Mirroring Part One, the ethical dilemmas discussed in these chapters are largely transferable to dilemmas found in face-to-face participant relationships and to disciplines beyond literacy. In Chapter Ten, Kenneth Weiss provides a broad overview of ethical concerns facing instructors using online forums as components of undergraduate and graduate coursework. Carole Rhodes explores the ethical considerations instructors/researchers should be cognizant of when they teach using online environments and conduct research that utilizes students’ online texts as data in Chapter Eleven. Weiss, Rhodes, and Carol Delaney and Barbara Guzzetti (Chapter Twelve) assert the importance of instructors/researchers developing their expertise prior to teaching in online or hybrid environments. They caution that beyond being familiar with the functionality of online forums, instructors/researchers need to carefully consider the potential social and emotional vulnerabilities student participants might experience. It is the instructor’s ethical responsibility to mitigate risks to student participants. Finally, in the last chapter of the text, Cynthia Leung and Zafer Unal articulate concerns that have arisen with the increased use of online surveys as efficient, convenient, and cost-saving alternatives to traditional survey methods. Leung and Unal articulate the potential for breaches in confidentiality and/or anonymity when using online surveys, particularly when researchers use free online survey generators.

The editors and authors of Ethical Issues in Literacy Research have produced a text that will be insightful and beneficial to emerging literacy scholars and their instructors/mentors. Furthermore, the text will serve as a valuable resource to more seasoned researchers. It addresses a range of research contexts and ethical dilemmas that even veteran scholars may find unfamiliar. The authors effectively compel readers to question aspects of literacy research previously assumed to be unproblematic.


Bakhtin, M. M. (1990). Art and answerability: Early philosophical writings. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 08, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17778, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 9:00:48 AM

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About the Author
  • Valerie Allison
    Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania
    E-mail Author
    VALERIE A. ALLISON is an associate professor and head of the education department at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania. Her research interests include self-study of teacher education, critical pedagogy, and socio-cultural dimensions of literacy development. Most recently her work has been published in Life Writing, Reflective Practice and Studying Teacher Education.
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