Early Steps Reading Intervention Program

Black k-3 teacher working one-on-one with student

Learn about the strengths and weaknesses of Early Steps, a promising reading intervention program evaluated by the American Federation of Teachers in their series “Building on the Best, Learning from What Works.”

AFT Series: Building on the Best, Learning from What Works

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. 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 "at-risk" 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.

Overview of Early Steps

Grades Covered Grade 1.
Curriculum Materials Participating schools are provided with sets of small graded books for early 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 art teachers, and the principal can also be trained. Teachers are able to enrollin the program as a graduate class, beginning with weekly meetings during the first month of school followed by monthly meetings for the rest of the school year.
School Reform/Restructuring Assistance Not applicable
Role of Paraprofessionals Classroom paraprofessionals and other non-certified staff can be included in some of the day-to-day operations of the program but cannot serve as actual tutors.
Cost of Implementation Start-up costs for a program serving 30 students-including student materials 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 times during the school year to conduct short seminars. These costs (which can be shared with neighboring program schools) include a $1,000 a day honorarium for the trainer, plus travel and expenses. Additional costs may include 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 matched control group at the end of first grade. Early Steps students outperformedt heir counterparts significantly (ES=+.47, word recognition; +.80, spelling; +.77, passage reading). One year later, Early Steps students were found 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 an increase 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 for children in poverty) to above the 50th percentile (the norm for mainstream students).

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

Like Reading Recovery, one of the most popular first-grade reading tutorials, ES concentrates on trying to ensure that all first-grade students acquire the concepts and skills that will help them become fluent readers. The program aims to catch and correct reading problems before students enter the post-primary grades and begin to experience real failure.Early Steps employs a balanced approach to the teaching of reading, incorporating explicit instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics, as well as the reading experience activities favored by ReadingRecovery. ES tutors work with students in reading new books at their instructional level, re-reading familiar texts, writing and learning problem-solving strategies 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 the program 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, the teacher and tutor work together with the student, who re-reads a familiar book that has been introduced during a previous session or class. This activity, which typically lasts about eight minutes, is designed to help the student gain fluency, speed, accuracy and comprehension when reading. Children are also taught metacognitive skills and learn to become aware of how they are used when encountering difficult words.

Word Study

During the word study portion of the tutorial, children are taught phonemic awareness, phonological and metalinguistic skills that can help them decode unfamiliar words successfully.During the early stages of literacy, students are introduced to grapho-phonemic patterns, beginning with consonant sounds. This is followed by demonstrations of how consonants and vowels are combined to form common words. Students progress systematically through word study activities, from learning the letters of the alphabet to discriminating sounds to learning the relationships between graphemes and phonemes, matching sounds to picture names and, eventually, to word sorting. With word sorting, such as rhyming, students learn to distinguish visual and auditory patterns. Word study also addresses spelling by teaching about families of vowels (short and long).


ES students are encouraged to write their own sentences as a way to practice phonemic and metacognitive awareness skills as well as to encourage creativity. While writing each sentence, the student is instructed to speak each word aloud, then focus on specific letters and words. The tutor re-writes the sentence, then splices it. The student is then asked to put the sentence together in its original form. In this facet of the program, the child has the opportunity to see the relationship between sounds, letters, words and how they are combined to form meaningful sentences.

New Reading

The final portion of the EarlySteps tutorial involves the introduction of a new book, with text that is slightly more difficult than in the book that began the lesson. Before the student begins reading, the teacher encourages him/her to discuss possible main ideas, using pictures, vocabulary and other features as cues for gaining meaning.As children begin to read and encounter new and unfamiliar words, they are encouraged to employ the decoding and comprehension skills and strategies they have learned. Although some students make many initial errors, they are taught to self-correct for these mistakes. The instructor is expected to observe for an appropriate period during these activities before providing any direct intervention.


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

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

Case study

Kalispell, Montana

The only independent study of Early Steps was conducted in Kalispell, Montana, a small school district with many lower and middle-class Caucasian families attending TitleI schools. In general, the students selected into the study were among the most economically disadvantaged in the district. All students in the study were also performing in the lowest 20th percentile of their class in reading and on related tasks, such as alphabetic knowledge, spelling, word attack and recognition of words in context. Students were assigned to two matched groups, receiving different types of tutorial interventions. After one year, students who had been taught using Early Steps significantly outperformed their peers in reading assessments. In addition, 52 percent of the EarlySteps students were found to be reading at or above grade level, compared to 23 percent of students in the control group.


While the research on Early Steps is still preliminary, it appears to be a program that can help schools deliver effective one-on-one tutorial interventions to low-performing first-grade readers. The program focuses on improving the reading and language arts skills of the lowest 20th percentile of students, using specially trained certified teachers andTitle I tutors to deliver instruction. For effective implementation, all ES tutors must receive extensive professional development from program staff.Teachers are required to attend an intensive initial training session before they begin to work with students, in addition to follow-up workshops held during the year.

Early Steps' apparent effectiveness can be attributed to its balanced and comprehensive approach to reading instruction-an approach that provides the lowest-achieving students with individualized attention from and practice with trained and certified tutors. The program was designed to complement and supplement a broad range of primary reading programs. Participating schools are provided with quality professional development for tutors, as well as a framework for delivering a carefully paced and structured series of tutorial lessons. The lessons were designed to reflect the research base on beginning reading, incorporating both direct instruction in the basic skills of phonemic awareness and phonics, and the literature-based instruction that can help build background knowledge and improve student comprehension and vocabulary. Initial data indicate that this is a mix that works. Research shows significant improvement in the reading skills of the lowest quintile of first-grade students in the program. It should also be noted that the success rate with the bottom tier of these at-risk students was even higher.

Selected resources

Morris, D. (1982). "Concept of word and phoneme-awareness in the beginning reader." Research in the 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.: Kalispell School District.

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