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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

Which is best pull-out or push-in interventions?

March 13, 2019

Teacher question: My district is looking to improve our current intervention model. Currently, our reading interventionists operate on a pull-out model. However, we have heard that a push-in model can be be more effective so are interested in moving in that direction. What does the research say about the effectiveness of pull-out versus push-in for reading intervention? If one is more effective than the other, what would that entail?

Shanahan's response:

When people tell you that you should adopt a model or approach that they like because it is more “effective” you should ask to see their evidence.

I went looking for research on “push-in” interventions. There is, of course, a lot of research data showing that various pull out interventions have worked at improving reading achievement. However, I could find only one study on push in interventions and it was carried out 15 years ago. It was very small and preliminary study that did no more than “suggest the possibility” that such an approach could be beneficial. Too little to go on.

(If your colleagues have found any such studies, please send them along).

There seem to be two different versions of push-in reading.

One is the idea of the teacher who essentially “shadows” certain students providing them with assistance as necessary (e.g., keeping them attentive, adding explanation when needed, closely monitoring student seatwork, etc.). The point of this kind of push-in teacher is to ensure that the struggling students fully participate in and benefit from the regular classroom teaching. (This model seems to be most common with physical handicaps and severe cognitive difficulties, but I’ve seen it with minimal disabilities as well. More on this in a minute,)

Another, version relegates the is the push-in teacher to the role of parallel teaching. This teacher works with a small group of students in their classroom, providing them with alternative instruction. While, the classroom teacher works with the more advantaged small groups, the push-in teacher is dealing with the more challenged teachers. With this approach kids don’t lose time walking down the hall to the intervention teacher, and they don’t suffer the discomfort and disconnect from classmates common with pull-out programs.

I’ve personally only seen any push-in model in practice once in my career … and it was one of the worst observational experiences of my life. The problems were so stark as to be the stuff of goofball comedy.

The push-in teacher instead of helping her charges to better understand and learn from the classroom instruction, seemed to be in competition with the general education teacher. At one point she literally got up and erased what the teacher had written on the chalkboard! Obviously, a horrible example, so horrible that I can’t imagine that it could go any worse in your district. In any event, if you decide to go the push-in route, you’d better make sure the teachers can work well together and that they have a shared vision of what’s needed to advance children’s learning.

For reading instruction, the alternative teaching approach makes the greatest sense. If the classroom teacher is devoting an hour to small group teaching, then each of the three groups might get about 20 minutes of attention per day. With the push-in model, perhaps the two more advantaged groups could get 30 minutes each, and the strugglers could receive a full hour of actual teaching. That could be terrific.

With the neediest kids, I usually advise going with approaches that have done especially well in the research studies. Given the dearth of evidence on this approach — and the large amount of positive support for various kinds of pull-out efforts — I’d not argue for push-in. My hunch is that if I could pull out a small group and teach them separately, I could do more successful job of teaching these kids effectively and could build better upon the classroom teaching.

However, if your colleague carried the day, I’d insist that the alternative teaching route be taken, and make sure that the children served by the push-in teacher receive substantially more instruction than would usually be possible.

Maybe push-in can work even better than pull-out, but I will need at least a small amount of research that actually supports this alternative. Until then, I’d recommend using any approach that maximizes the amount of teaching that the children are going to receive.

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"You may have tangible wealth untold. Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold. Richer than I you can never be — I had a mother who read to me." — Strickland Gillilan