Research-Based Principles for Improving the Reading Achievement of America's Children

Learn ten lessons from research about the home and school experiences necessary for reading success in this concise overview.
  1. Home language and literacy experiences that lead to the development of key print concepts are plentiful among children who enter school prepared to learn to read.

    Joint book reading with family members helps children develop a wide range of knowledge that supports them in school-based reading. Once students are in school, parental help in the form of modeling good reading habits and monitoring homework and television viewing is associated with gains in student achievement. Programs that assist families in initiating and sustaining these sorts of activities show positive benefits for children's reading achievement.

  2. Preschool programs are particularly beneficial for children who do not experience informal learning opportunities in their homes.

    These preschool experiences include opportunities to listen to and examine books, say nursery rhymes, write messages, and see and talk about print. Such preschool experiences lead to improved reading achievement in the school years, with some effects proving durable through grade three.

  3. Skills that predict later reading success can be promoted through a variety of classroom language and meaningful reading and writing events in kindergarten and grade one.

    The two most powerful of these predictors are letter-name knowledge and phonemic awareness (the conscious awareness of the sounds in spoken words). Instruction that promotes phonemic awareness engages children in hearing and blending sounds. Activities that promote this attention to sounds can be motivating and playful for young children, including oral renditions of rhymes, poems, and songs, as well as writing their own journals and messages. Such instruction has demonstrated positive effects on primary-grade reading achievement, especially when it is coupled with letter-sound instruction.

  4. Primary-level instruction that supports successful reading acquisition is consistent, well-designed, and focused.

    Teachers lead lessons where children receive systematic word recognition instruction on common, consistent letter-sound relationships and important but often unpredictable high-frequency words, such as the and what. Teachers ensure that children become adept at monitoring the accuracy of their reading as well their understanding of texts through instruction in strategies such as predicting, inferencing, clarifying misunderstandings, and summarizing.

    Instructional activities that promote growth in word recognition and comprehension include repeated reading of text, guided reading and writing, strategy lessons, reading aloud with feedback, and conversations about texts children have read.

  5. Primary-level classroom environments in successful schools provide opportunities for students to apply what they have learned in teacher-guided instruction to everyday reading and writing.

    In these classrooms, teachers read books aloud and hold follow-up discussions, children read independently every day, and children write stories and keep journals. These events are monitored frequently by teachers, ensuring that time is well spent and that children receive feedback on their efforts. Teachers design these events carefully, using information from ongoing assessment of children's strengths and needs as the primary basis for new activities.

  6. Cultural and linguistic diversity among America's children reflects the variations within the communities and homes in which they live and is manifest in differences in their dispositions toward and knowledge about topics, language, and literacy.

    Effective instruction includes assessment, integration, and extension of relevant background knowledge and the use of texts that recognize these diverse backgrounds. The language of children's homes is especially critical for schools to build on when children are learning to speak, listen to, write, and read English.

    There is considerable evidence that the linguistic and orthographic knowledge students acquire in speaking and reading their first language predicts and transfers to learning to read a second language. When teachers capitalize on the advantages of bilingualism or biliteracy, second language reading acquisition is significantly enhanced.

  7. Children who are identified as having reading disabilities benefit from systematic instruction, but not at the cost of opportunities to engage in meaningful reading and writing.

    These children profit from the same sort of well-balanced instructional programs that benefit all children who are learning to read and write. Programs are characterized by intensive one-on-one or small-group instruction, attention to both comprehension and word recognition processes, thoroughly individualized assessment and instructional planning, and extensive experiences with an array of texts.

  8. Proficient reading in third grade and above is sustained and enhanced by programs that adhere to four fundamental features.
    • Deep and wide opportunities to read
    • The acquisition of new knowledge and vocabulary, partially through wide reading but also through explicit attention to acquiring networks of new concepts through instruction
    • An emphasis on the influence that the kinds of text (e.g., stories versus essays) and the ways writers organize particular texts has on understanding
    • Explicit attention to assisting students in reasoning about text
  9. Professional opportunities to improve reading achievement are prominent in successful schools and programs.

    These opportunities allow teachers and administrators to analyze instruction, assessment, and achievement, to set goals for improvement, to learn about effective practices, and to participate in on-going communities in which participants deliberately try to understand both successes and persistent problems.

  10. Entire school staffs, not just first-grade teachers, are involved in bringing children to high levels of achievement.

    In successful schools, goals for reading achievement are clearly stated, high expectations for children's attainment of these goals are shared with all participants, instructional means for attaining these goals are articulated, and shared assessments are used to monitor children's progress.

    Instructional programs in successful schools may have many different components, including a range of materials and technology, but they maintain a focus on reading and writing. Successful programs extend into the home by involving parents in their children's reading and homework. Community partnerships, including volunteer tutoring programs, are common in such schools.


Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

1. Home Language & Literacy Experiences

Baker, L., Scher, D., & Mackler, K. (1997). Home & family influences on motivations for reading. Educational Psychologist, 32, 69–82.

Bus, A.G., van IJzendoorn, M.H., & Pellegrini, A.D. (1995). Joint book reading makes for success in learning to read: A meta–analysis on intergenerational transmission of literacy. Review of Educational Research, 65, 1–21.

Neuman, S.B. (1996). Children engaging in storybook reading: The influence of access to print resources, opportunity, & parental interaction. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 11, 495–513.

2. Preschool Programs

Campbell, F.A., & Ramey, C.T. (1995). Cognitive & social outcomes for high–risk African–American students at middle adolescence: Positive effects of early intervention. American Educational Research Journal, 32, 743–772.

Dickinson, D.K., & Smith, M.K. (1994). Long-term effects of preschool teachers' book readings on low-income children's vocabulary & story comprehension. Reading Research Quarterly, 29, 105–120.

Whitehurst, G.J., Epstein, J.N., Angell, A.L., Payne, A.C., Crone, D.A., & Fischel, J.E. (1994). Outcomes of an emergent literacy intervention in Head Start. Journal of Educational Psychology, 86, 542–555.

3. Skills That Predict Later Reading Success

Cunningham, A.E. (1990) Explicit instruction in phonemic awareness. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 50 429–444.

Fielding-Barnsley, R. (1997). Explicit instruction in decoding benefits children high in phonemic awareness & alphabet knowledge. Scientific Studies of Reading, 1, 85–98.

Phillips, L.M., Norris, S.P., & Mason, J.M. (1996). Longitudinal effects of early literacy concepts on reading achievement: A kindergarten intervention & five-year follow-up. Journal of Literacy Research, 28, 173–195.

4. Primary-Level Instruction

Adams, M.J. (1990). Beginning to read: Thinking & learning about print. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hiebert, E.H., Colt, J.M., Catto, S.L., & Gury, E.C. (1992). Reading & writing of first–grade students in a restructured Chapter I program. American Educational Research Journal, 29, 545–572.

Ross, S.M., Smith, L.J., Casey, J., & Slavin, R.E. (1995). Increasing the academic success of disadvantaged children: An examination of alternative early intervention programs. American Educational Research Journal, 32, 773–800.

5. Primary-Level Classroom Environments

Morrow, L.M. (1992). The impact of a literature–based program on literacy achievement, use of literature, & attitudes of children from minority backgrounds. Reading Research Quarterly, 27, 250–275.

Pressley, M., Rankin, J., & Yokoi, L. (1996). A survey of instructional practices of primary teachers nominated as effective in promoting literacy. The Elementary School Journal, 96, 363–384.

Purcell-Gates, V., McIntyre, E., & Freppon, P. (1995). Learning written storybook language in school: A comparison of low–SES children in skills-based & whole language classrooms. American Educational Research Journal, 32, 659–685.

6. Cultural and Linguistic Diversity

August, D., & Hakuta, K. (Eds.). (1997). Improving schooling for language minority children: A research agenda. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Fitzgerald, J. (1995). English–as–a–second–language learners' cognitive reading processes: A review of research in the U.S. Review of Educational Research, 65, 145–190.

Jiménez, R.T., Garcia, G.E., & Pearson, P.D. (1996). The reading strategies of Latina/o students who are successful readers: Opportunities & obstacles. Reading Research Quarterly, 31, 90–112.

7. Children With Reading Disabilities

Englert, C.S., Garmon, A., Mariage, T.V., Rozendal, M.S., Tarrant, K.L., & Urba, J. (1995). The Early Literacy Project: Connecting across the literacy curriculum. Learning Disability Quarterly, 18, 253–275.

Vellutino, F.R. et al. (1996). Cognitive profiles of difficult–to–remediate & readily remediated poor readers: Early intervention as a vehicle for distinguishing between cognitive & experiential deficits as basic causes of specific reading disability. Journal of Educational Psychology, 88, 601–638.

Wasik, B.A., & Slavin, R.E. (1993). Preventing early reading failure with one–to–one tutoring: A review of five programs. Reading Research Quarterly, 28, 178–200.

8. Reading In Grade Three and Above

Anderson, R.C., Wilson, P.T. & Fielding, L.G. (1988). Growth in reading & how children spend their time outside of school. Reading Research Quarterly, 23, 285–303.

Beck, I.L., McKeown, M.G., Sandora, C., Kucan, L., & Worthy, J. (1996). Questioning the author: A year–long classroom implementation to engage students with text. The Elementary School Journal, 96, 385–414.

Guthrie, J.T. et al. (1996). Growth of literacy engagement: Changes in motivations & strategies during concept–oriented reading instruction. Reading Research Quarterly, 31, 306–325.

9. Professional Development

Louis, K.S., Marks, H.M., & Kruse, S. (1996). Teachers' professional community in restructuring schools. American Educational Research Journal, 33, 757–798.

Peterson, P.L., McCarthey, S.J., & Elmore, R.F. (1996). Learning from school restructuring. American Educational Research Journal, 33, 119–153.

Sacks, C.H., & Mergendoller, J.R. (1997). The relationship between teachers' theoretical orientation toward reading & student outcomes in kindergarten children with different initial reading abilities. American Educational Research Journal, 34, 721–739.

10. School–Wide Programs

Invernizzi, M., Rosemary, C., Juel, C., & Richards, H. (1997). At–risk readers & community volunteers: A three–year perspective. Scientific Studies of Reading, 1, 277–300.

Smith, L.J., Ross, S.M. & Casey, J. (1996). Multi–site comparison of the effects of Success for All on reading achievement. Journal of Literacy Research, 28, 329–353.

Teddlie, C., & Stringfield, S. (1993). Schools make a difference: Lessons learned from a 10–year study of school effects. New York: Teachers College Press.

Reported research comes from a line of work previously or currently supported by funds from the U.S. Department of Education.

Improving the Reading Achievement of America's Children: 10 Research-Based Principles. (1998). Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement. Reprinted with permission. For more information, see


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"Reading is not optional." —

Walter Dean Myers