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Strategies for Achieving the Goal of Every Child Reading

About Reading

Strategies for Achieving the Goal of Every Child Reading

If 40 percent of all third-graders are not reading adequately today, reducing this substantially by the time children being born today reach third grade will be an enormous undertaking.

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Different kinds of strategies will be necessary to improve the performance of children in general, of those with mild reading difficulties, of those with serious reading difficulties, and of those who are dyslexic. There is a great deal we can do now on all of these fronts, including:

Base educational decisions on evidence, not ideology

Some areas of emerging consensus include:

  • Children need explicit, systematic instruction in phonics and exposure to rich literature, both fiction and nonfiction.
  • While children need instruction in phonics in early reading development, even then, attention to meaning, comprehension strategies, language development, and writing is essential.
  • At all times, developing children’s interest and pleasure in reading must be as much a focus as developing their reading skills.

The famous pendulum of educational innovation swings more wildly in reading than in any other subject. Pendulum swings of this kind are characteristic of fields driven by fashions, not by evidence. Hemlines go up and down because of changing tastes, not new evidence; progress in medicine, engineering, and agriculture, based to a far greater degree on evidence from rigorous research, is both faster and less subject to radical shifts. In the same way, educational practice must come to be based on evidence, not ideology.

While there is always more we’d like to know, we do know enough now to take action that will greatly reduce the number of children who cannot read and greatly increase the number who can reach high levels of achievement. We cannot wait for research to answer every question while another generation of children falls behind.

Promote adoption of texts based on the evidence of what works

Historically, reading textbooks have been adopted primarily based on criteria that have little to do with evidence: attractiveness, cost, supplements, and so on. This must change. There is little evidence about the effectiveness of particular textbooks, but there is enough evidence to recommend certain types of approaches, such as the use of texts with a high proportion of words that can be sounded out in first grade.

Provide adequate professional development

Better books will not in themselves lead to better readers. Teachers and paraprofessionals must receive quality staff development on instructional strategies. This means far more than the brief inservice presentations traditionally provided by textbook publishers.

Effective professional development requires extended time for initial training that includes discussions of research on how children learn to read as well as specific instructional strategies. In addition, it requires extensive in-class follow-up. Expert coaches (who may be fellow teachers) need to visit the classes of teachers who are implementing new reading approaches and then need to have time to discuss strengths and next steps with the teachers. Teachers and paraprofessionals need to have opportunities to meet regularly to discuss their implementation of new methods – and to share problems, solutions, and innovative ideas.

Professional development needs to be seen as a never-ending process that involves the entire school staff, not a one-time event.

Promote whole-school adoption of effective methods

Some of the most effective approaches to early literacy instruction are comprehensive methods that provide instructional materials, assessments, extensive professional development, accommodations (such as tutoring) for children who are having difficulties, designs for classroom and school organization, and other features. These methods are adopted by the entire school, providing a common focus and extensive assistance in implementing a well-integrated design for change.

Involve parents in support of their children's reading

Research shows that parent involvement, especially in activities that directly support their children’s school success, is correlated with reading achievement. Parents can do a great deal to build their children’s literacy development. They can read to children from infancy through the elementary grades. They can monitor their children’s home reading and ask teachers to require regular reading as homework. They can take children to the library and borrow or purchase books.

Teachers should make special efforts to open communication with parents, encouraging them to take an active interest in their children’s schoolwork and progress. Many parents feel uncomfortable without such an invitation and guidance. Teachers can provide parents with special strategies to increase the value of home reading, such as talking to children about characters and plots, and asking them to make predictions or summarize stories.

Parents can serve as volunteer listeners or tutors in the school. Perhaps most important, parents can communicate a love of reading, pleasure in children’s reading progress, and support for the school’s efforts to ensure the literacy of all children. And parents can advocate within the school and beyond for use of effective instructional methods for all.

Improve preservice education and instruction

Reading instruction would be improved if all teachers had instruction on the research base about learning to read, instruction on applications of that research in the classroom, and experience with such methods during their preservice education and early years of teaching.

Preservice education typically gives teachers too little instruction in reading methods and is often discrepant with research on effective methods. Also, prospective teachers rarely get opportunities to practice reading methods before their student teaching experience. Schools of education need to improve their programs for elementary teachers substantially and to give prospective teachers experiences, such as tutoring in local schools or working in summer school or afterschool programs, that will give them better preparation in this most critical of skills.

School districts should also invest in high-quality induction programs to make certain that new teachers are well prepared in effective approaches to reading, classroom management, assessment, and are well supported in implementing these strategies.

Provide additional staff for tutoring and class-size reduction

Schools need additional staff to ensure adequate reading performance by all children. These staff are needed for two purposes. First, they are needed as tutors for children who are struggling in reading in the early grades. Second, they are needed to reduce the size of reading classes. The same teachers can be used for both of these purposes; for example, a certified teacher can provide tutoring sessions to at-risk children most of the day, but also teach a reading class during a common schoolwide reading period, thereby reducing class size for reading.

Class sizes can also be reduced for reading by providing training to librarians, special education teachers, and other certified teachers willing and able to teach reading, or by hiring retired teachers or other part-time teachers for the same purpose.

Paraprofessionals can also be used to provide one-to-one tutoring to struggling students. Such tutoring requires extensive training, follow-up, and supervision and should supplement, not replace, tutoring by certified teachers for children with the most serious reading difficulties.

For students without serious reading difficulties, volunteers, if trained and supervised to provide assistance consistent with the school’s reading program, may also be effective tutors, especially to provide students with extended supported time for reading.

Improve early identification and intervention

Diagnostic assessments should be administered regularly to kindergartners and first-graders. Moreover, both time and instruments should be available for individual assessment as needed. Such tools can tell us which children are having reading difficulties and enable teachers to provide immediate and high-quality interventions if necessary.

Introduce accountability measures for the early grades

In recent years, many states have implemented assessment and accountability schemes that hold schools accountable for the performance of children in selected grades. Usually, the earliest assessments are of third- or fourth-graders. If younger children are assessed for accountability purposes, it is almost always on group-administered standardized tests that have little validity for young readers.

The problem with these strategies is that they have unintentionally created disincentives to focus on the quality of instruction in the early grades. A school that adds prekindergarten or full-day kindergarten programs or invests in professional development for beginning reading or adds tutors or reduces class sizes in the early grades may not see any benefit of these investments in terms of third- or fourth-grade test scores for several years.

One solution to this problem would be to introduce individually administered reading measures at the end of first or second grade. These might be given by specially trained teachers from other schools (such as Title I teachers or other teachers without homerooms). Such measures could be used for accountability assessments in combination with the results from other assessments in the elementary grades. But extraordinary care must be taken to ensure that pressure on students or staff to do well on these assessments does not translate into the use of inappropriate tests or instructional time lost to test preparation.

Intensify reading research

If early reading were as high a priority in our society as, say, space exploration was in the 1960s, there is little question that early reading failure could be virtually eliminated. A large and broadly focused program of research, development, and evaluation could resolve early reading problems within five or 10 years; at present, there is no effort of this size or scope on the horizon.

We need to learn more about how to:

  • Identify the most effective reading approaches, programs, methods of school and classroom organization, and intensive professional development approaches
  • Develop strategies for the children who do not succeed, even with high-quality instruction and tutoring
  • Choose forms of tutoring that make best use of this expensive resource
  • Promote effective strategies for prekindergarten and kindergarten
  • Determine the proper balance between phonics and meaning (For example, it would be useful to learn the best mix between decodable and sight words in early first-grade reading materials, and it would be useful to know precisely how long and how intensively children need instruction in phonics.)
  • Help children with inadequate reading skills who are now in the upper elementary and secondary grades
  • Develop and evaluating better strategies for children who speak languages other than English, whether they are taught in English or in their home language
  • Use technology for beginning reading, for upper-elementary reading, for writing, and for remediation
  • Build effective extended-day and summer programs

Every Child Reading: An Action Plan. (June, 1998). Learning First Alliance. Reprinted with permission.

Copyright © 1998 by the Learning First Alliance. Learning First Alliance member organizations include: American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, American Association of School Administrators, American Federation of Teachers, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Council of Chief State School Officers, Education Commission of the States, National Association of Elementary School Principals, National Association of Secondary School Principals, National Association of State Boards of Education, National Education Association, National Parent Teacher Association, National School Boards Association. For more information, see (opens in a new window)

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