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Building on the Best, Learning from What Works: Early Steps

This brief from the American Federation of Teachers examines the strengths and weaknesses of Early Steps, one of five promising reading intervention programs they evaluated (also see Direct Instruction, Exemplary Center for Reading Instruction, Lindamood-Bell, and Reading Recovery in this section).

Why are some schools effective at educating most students, even those from disadvantaged, high poverty areas, while others struggle fruitlessly to fulfill their academic mission? How can schools replicate the successes of their more effective counterparts?

Researchers, working for years to answer these questions, have described the characteristics of successful schools-e.g., high expectations for all students; challenging curricula; clear standards and a coherent, focused academic mission; high-quality professional development aligned to the standards; small class sizes, especially in the early grades; an orderly and disciplined learning environment; a supportive and collegial atmosphere; and an intervention system designed to ensure that struggling students can meet the standards. But, while we now know a great deal about which reforms are effective, comparatively little is known about how to achieve them.

As many schools have found out the hard way, systemic reform is extremely difficult-especially when it must occur simultaneously on many fronts, and is begun without benefit of high-quality curriculum materials, appropriate professional development, or readily available technical assistance. In fact, a number of schools-especially those that are already foundering-have found that lasting improvement is impossible without concrete, step-by-step implementation support.

According to a recent study of efforts to raise academic achievement for at-risk students (Stringfield, et al., 1996), the reform strategies that achieve the greatest academic gains are those chosen and supported by faculty, as well as administrators. Success is also dependent on the existence of a challenging curriculum, and on paying "a great deal of attention to issues of initial and long-term implementation, and to institutionalizing the reforms." This and other studies have also found that schoolwide reforms tend to be more effective than pull-out or patchwork programs, and that externally developed programs-particularly those with support networks from which schools can draw strength and tangible assistance-tend to do better than local designs.

Given these and similar research findings, we developed the criteria below to help identify promising programs for raising student achievement, especially in low-performing schools. You will find descriptions of five reading intervention programs on the following pages. Although each particular program has its own strengths and weaknesses, all show evidence of:

  • High Standards. The program helps all students acquire the skills and/or knowledge they need to successfully perform to high academic standards.
  • Effectiveness. The program has proven to be effective in raising the academic achievement levels of "atrisk" students in low-performing schools, based on independent evaluations.
  • Replicability. The program has been effectively implemented in multiple sites beyond the original pilot school(s).
  • Support Structures. Professional development, materials, and ongoing implementation support are available for the program, either through the program's developer, independent contractors, or dissemination networks established by schools already in the program.

In addition to information about each program's track record on raising student achievement, we have also attempted to gather and report details about main features and estimated costs. We hope that this information will assist members as they begin weighing the available options against student needs, school goals, and available resources. In deciding which programs warrant further investigation, we urge that you consider each program's "fit," as well the data on its efficacy and cost-effectiveness.

Early Steps

Grades Covered Grade 1.
Curriculum Materials Participating schools are provided with sets of small graded books forearly first grade to late first grade.
Instructional Support/Professional Development Early Steps provides professional development for first-grade teachers andTitle I tutors. Other school personnel, such as coaches, music and artteachers, and the principal can also be trained. Teachers are able to enrollin the program as a graduate class, beginning with weekly meetings duringthe first month of school followed by monthly meetings for the rest ofthe school year.
School Reform/Restructuring Assistance Not applicable
Role of Paraprofessionals Classroom paraprofessionals and other non-certified staff can be includedin some of the day-to-day operations of the program but cannot serve asactual tutors.
Cost of Implementation Start-up costs for a program serving 30 students-including studentmaterials and teacher training-are estimated at between $15,000 to$25,000. Professional development represents the bulk of these costs,with a trainer conducting partial-day site visits approximately 10 timesduring the school year to conduct short seminars. These costs (which canbe shared with neighboring program schools) include a $1,000 a day honorariumfor the trainer, plus travel and expenses. Additional costs mayinclude release time, depending on the type of implementation.
Results*/Effect Size Studies While results for this program are still preliminary, early indications are promising. One pilot study compared program students with a matchedcontrol group at the end of first grade. Early Steps students outperformedtheir counterparts significantly (ES=+.47, word recognition; +.80,spelling; +.77, passage reading). One year later, Early Steps students werefound to have maintained this gap (ES=+.65, word recognition; +1.2,word attack; +1.0, passage reading).
*To give a sense of scale, an effect size of +1.00 would be equivalent to anincrease of 100 points on the SAT scale or 15 points of IQ--enough to movea student from the 20th percentile (the normal level of performance forchildren in poverty) to above the 50th percentile (the norm for mainstreamstudents).

Early Steps (ES) is an early intervention/tutorialprogram in reading and language arts forfirst-grade students who are at risk for readingfailure. The program was recently developed byDarrell Morris, professor at Appalachian StateUniversity and developer of the Howard StreetTutoring program, a reading tutorial for second andthird-grade students. Unlike Howard Street,which relies primarily on volunteers, Early Steps utilizesonly certified staff to work one-on-one with struggling students.

Like Reading Recovery, one of the most popularfirst-grade reading tutorials, ES concentrates on tryingto ensure that all first-grade students acquire theconcepts and skills that will help them become fluentreaders. The program aims to catch and correctreading problems before students enter the post-primarygrades and begin to experience real failure.Early Steps employs a balanced approach to theteaching of reading, incorporating explicit instructionin phonemic awareness and phonics, as well asthe reading experience activities favored by ReadingRecovery. ES tutors work with students in readingnew books at their instructional level, re-readingfamiliar texts, writing and learning problem-solvingstrategies that can be used to tackle difficult words.

There have only been two evaluations of EarlySteps studies, thus far. Both focus on the use of theprogram as an after-school tutorial,

Main Features

Each Early Steps tutoring session lasts 30 minutes,and is divided into four main sections:


During this portion of the session, theteacher and tutor work together with the student,who re-reads a familiar book that has been introducedduring a previous session or class. This activity,which typically lasts about eight minutes, isdesigned to help the student gain fluency, speed,accuracy and comprehension when reading.Children are also taught metacognitive skills andlearn to become aware of how they are used whenencountering difficult words.

Word study

During the word study portion ofthe tutorial, children are taught phonemic awareness,phonological and metalinguistic skills that canhelp them decode unfamiliar words successfully.During the early stages of literacy, students areintroduced to grapho-phonemic patterns, beginningwith consonant sounds. This is followed by demonstrationsof how consonants and vowels are combinedto form common words. Students progresssystematically through word study activities, fromlearning the letters of the alphabet to discriminatingsounds to learning the relationships betweengraphemes and phonemes, matching sounds to picturenames and, eventually, to word sorting. Withword sorting, such as rhyming, students learn todistinguish visual and auditory patterns. Word studyalso addresses spelling by teaching about families ofvowels (short and long).


ES students are encouraged to writetheir own sentences as a way to practice phonemicand metacognitive awareness skills as well as toencourage creativity. While writing each sentence,the student is instructed to speak each word aloud,then focus on specific letters and words. The tutorre-writes the sentence, then splices it. The student isthen asked to put the sentence together in its originalform. In this facet of the program, the child hasthe opportunity to see the relationship betweensounds, letters, words and how they are combinedto form meaningful sentences.

New reading

The final portion of the EarlySteps tutorial involves the introduction of a newbook, with text that is slightly more difficult than inthe book that began the lesson. Before the studentbegins reading, the teacher encourages him/her todiscuss possible main ideas, using pictures, vocabularyand other features as cues for gaining meaning.As children begin to read and encounter new andunfamiliar words, they are encouraged to employthe decoding and comprehension skills and strategiesthey have learned. Although some studentsmake many initial errors, they are taught to self-correctfor these mistakes. The instructor is expected toobserve for an appropriate period during these activitiesbefore providing any direct intervention.


Although more data exist on related programs,such as Howard Street Tutoring, the Early Stepsresults are still preliminary. There has been only oneindependent evaluation of the program. This study,conducted in Kalispell, Montana (see "Case Study,"below), involved a total of 49 students, with 23 inthe experimental group and 26 in a matched controlgroup. All students were in the first grade and werereading in the bottom 20th percentile of their classes.At the onset of the study, there were no significantdifferences between students in the two groups.Students in both groups received tutoring, theexperimental group using Early Steps and the controlgroup using generic methods. At the end of thefirst grade, students were assessed on spelling, wordrecognition and passage reading skills using program-aligned measures. In second grade, studentswere assessed again to see the extent to which theyhad maintained any gains. Second graders wereassessed with Woodcock Reading Mastery (WRMTRevised,G), testing for word identification, wordattack and passage reading skills.

At the end of the first year, Early Steps studentsoutscored control students in spelling, word recognitionand passage reading (ES=+.47, +.80 and+.77). When the students progressed to the secondgrade, they were assessed again to see the extent towhich they would retain the skills that they hadlearned. At the end of second grade, ES studentsoutscored control students in word recognition,word attack and passage reading by ES=+.65, +1.2and +1.0, respectively.

Case Study

Kalispell, Montana The only independentstudy of Early Steps was conducted in Kalispell,Montana, a small school district with many lowerandmiddle-class Caucasian families attending TitleI schools. In general, the students selected into thestudy were among the most economically disadvantagedin the district. All students in the study werealso performing in the lowest 20th percentile oftheir class in reading and on related tasks, such asalphabetic knowledge, spelling, word attack andrecognition of words in context. Students wereassigned to two matched groups, receiving differenttypes of tutorial interventions. After one year,students who had been taught using Early Stepssignificantly outperformed their peers in readingassessments. In addition, 52 percent of the EarlySteps students were found to be reading at or abovegrade level, compared to 23 percent of students inthe control group.


While the research on Early S teps is still preliminary,it appears to be a program that can helpschools deliver effective one-on-one tutorial interventionsto low-performing first-grade readers. Theprogram focuses on improving the reading and languagearts skills of the lowest 20th percentile of students,using specially trained certified teachers andTitle I tutors to deliver instruction. For effectiveimplementation, all ES tutors must receive extensiveprofessional development from program staff.Teachers are required to attend an intensive initialtraining session before they begin to work with students,in addition to follow-up workshops held duringthe year.

Early Steps' apparent effectiveness can be attributedto its balanced and comprehensive approach toreading instruction-an approach that provides thelowest-achieving students with individualized attentionfrom and practice with trained and certifiedtutors. The program was designed to complementand supplement a broad range of primary readingprograms. Participating schools are provided withquality professional development for tutors, as wellas a framework for delivering a carefully paced andstructured series of tutorial lessons. The lessons weredesigned to reflect the research base on beginningreading, incorporating both direct instruction in thebasic skills of phonemic awareness and phonics, andthe literature-based instruction that can help buildbackground knowledge and improve student comprehensionand vocabulary. Initial data indicate thatthis is a mix that works. Research shows significantimprovement in the reading skills of the lowestquintile of first-grade students in the program. Itshould also be noted that the success rate with thebottom tier of these at-risk students was evenhigher.

Selected resources

Morris, D. (1982). "Concept of word and phoneme-awareness in the beginning reader." Research inthe Teaching of English, (17).

Morris, D. (1992). Case Studies in TeachingBeginning Readers: The Howard Street TutoringManual. Boone, N.C.: Fieldstream Publication.

Morris, D. (1995). "First Steps: An early reading intervention program." ERIC DocumentReproduction Service No. ED 388 956.

Morris, D. (1998). "The role of clinical training in teaching of reading." In P. Mosenthal & D.Evensen (Eds.). Reconsidering the Role of theReading Clinic in a New Age of Literacy. Greenwich, Conn.: JAI Press.

Morris, D., Shaw, B., & Perney, J. (1990). "Helping low readers in grades 2 and 3: An after-school volunteer tutoring program." Elementary SchoolJournal (91).

Santa, C. M. & Hoien, T. (1998). An Assessment ofEarly Steps: A Program for Early Intervention ofReading Problems. Kalispell, Mont.: KalispellSchool District.

For more information

Dr. Darrell R. Morris, Edwin Duncan Hall,Appalachian State University, Boone, NC 28608. Phone: 828/262-6054.E-mail: morrisd@appstate.edu.

Additional Reading

Adams, M.J. (1990). Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

American Educator, (1998) Vol. 22, Nos. 1&2: Spring/Summer.

Adams, M.J., Foorman, B.R., Lundberg, I. & Beeler, T. (1998). "The elusive phoneme."

Beck, I.L., McKeown, M.G., Hamilton, R.I. & Kucan, L. (1998). "Getting at the meaning"

Cunningham, A.E. & Stanovich, K.E. (1998) "What reading does for the mind."

Greene, J.F. (1998). "Another chance."

Moats, L.C. (1998). "Teaching decoding."

Torgesen, J.K. (1998) "Catch them before they fall."

American Educator, (1995) Vol. 19, No. 2: Summer.

Adams, M.J. & Bruck, M. (1995). "Resolving the 'Great Debate'."

Beck, I.L. & Juel, C. (1995). "The role of decoding in learning to read."

McPike, E. (1995). "Learning to read: Schooling's first mission."

Moats, L.C. (1994). "The missing foundation in teacher education."

Blachman, B.A. (1997). Foundations of Reading Acquisition and Dyslexia: Implications for Early Intervention. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

Chall, J.S. (1983). Stages of Reading Development. New York: McGraw Hill.

Gough, P. B. & Hillinger, M. L. (1980). "Learning to read: An unnatural act." Bulletin of the Orton Society,30.

Herman, R. and Stringfield, S. (1997). Ten Promising Programs for Educating All Children: Evidence ofImpact. Arlington, Va.: Educational Research Service.

Learning First Alliance (1998). Every Child Reading: An Action Plan. Washington, D.C.: LFA.

Learning to Read, Reading to Learn (1997). Washington, D.C.: American Federation of Teachers.

National Research Council (1998). Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children. Washington, D.C.:National Academy Press.

Raising Student Achievement: A Resource Guide for Improving Low-Performing Schools (1997). Washington,D.C.: American Federation of Teachers.

Shaywitz, S.E. (Nov. 1996). "Dyslexia." Scientific American.

Slavin, R.E. & Fashola, O.S. (1998). Show Me the Evidence! Proven and Promising Programs for America'sSchools. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Corwin Press.

Slavin, R.E., Karweit, N.L. & Wasik, B.A. [Eds.] (1994). Preventing Early School Failure: Research, Policyand Practice. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Stanovich, K.E. (1994). "Romance and reality." The Reading Teacher, 47.



Click the "Endnotes" link above to hide these endnotes.

1. An effect size is a standard means of expressing achievementgains and losses across studies, showing differences betweenexperimental and control groups in terms of standard deviation.An effect size of +1.00 indicates that the experimentalgroup outperformed the control group by one full standarddeviation. To give a sense of scale, this would be equivalentto an increase of 100 points on the SAT scale, two stanines,21 NCEs (normal curve equivalent ranks) or 15 points of IQ(Fashola and Slavin, 1996)-enough to move a student fromthe 20th percentile (the normal level of performance for childrenin poverty) to above the 50th percentile (in range withmainstream America). Because of differences among studydesigns and assessments, this can only be considered a"rough" measure of comparison. In general, an effect size of+.25 or more is considered to be educationally significant.

2. Santa, C. M. & Hoien, T. (1998). An Assessment of EarlySteps: A Program for Early Intervention of Reading Problem.Kalispell, Mont.: Kalispell School District.

American Federation of Teachers. (1999). Building on the Best, Learning from What Works: Five Promising Remedial Reading Intervention Programs. Washington, DC: Author.

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"Oh, magic hour, when a child first knows she can read printed words!" — A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, 1943