Analysis of contexts and practices that support reading achievement

Magnifying glass over the stack of booksResearchers at the University of Vermont studied six schools whose students met or exceeded standards set for performance on statewide reading tests administered at second and fourth grade. Demographic data on all elementary schools in Vermont were used to identify schools serving low-, middle- and high-socioeconomic communities. Two high-performing schools and one low-performing school was selected in each category. Eight to 15 all-day visits were made to each school, and all K- 4 teachers and others involved in literacy practices were interviewed and observed. The study posed two primary research questions: What classroom practices and school context factors promote high student performance in reading? Do the factors that influence success and promote excellent performance vary among successful schools, depending on school characteristics?

Four factors were found to be common in successful schools and absent in less-successful schools:

  1. The commitment to literacy improvement in the school had remained strong over an 8-to-10 year period, with stable administrative and curricular leadership in literacy instruction.
  2. The school community was focused, working toward a shared vision of student achievement with open communication among the faculty.
  3. The K-4 teachers were knowledgeable and articulate about their work and were characterized by high levels of expertise.
  4. Opportunities and ample time were provided for students to read and discuss books.

Demographic Clusters

Three demographically distinct clusters of schools were identified: the rural, small, poor “Country” schools; the small-town, middle income “Main-Street” schools; and the large-town, well-to-do “Uptown” schools. Country schools (36 percent of schools in the state) tended to serve homogeneous, Anglo communities that were generally small, poor and rural with large numbers of adults who had no education beyond high school. Teachers were paid significantly less in these small, rural schools. Main Street schools (36 percent of the state) were composed of small centers of business surrounded by rural areas. Approximately 15 percent of the adults had a college education. They tended to be larger than country schools and had more classroom and support teachers and instructional aides. Uptown schools (16 percent) were the most affluent. They were relatively homogenous; primarily middle- and upper-middle-class, Anglo, English speaking, and U.S.-born. Adults tended to be well-educated. These schools had the fewest students identified as eligible for special education services and reduced-price lunch.

The schools in this study ranged in size from about 100 to 300 students, Country being the smallest and Uptown the largest. Data was collected by saturating each school with multiple day-long observations and interviews with all involved staff. Two factors, socioeconomic level and the nature of literacy instruction, did not play an explanatory role in literacy achievement test scores in the successful schools. Findings indicated that several factors characterized the six successful schools and were not found in unsuccessful schools: consistent commitment to and leadership in literacy improvement, a focused vision or belief in children’s ability to learn, ongoing communication among the faculty, knowledgeable and articulate teachers, and ample time devoted to reading and discussion of books.

In successful schools, the school community was focussed, working toward a shared vision of student achievement, with respect and communication among faculty. There was little tendency to attribute children’s lack of success to others, or to blame the child, parents, or other teachers. The sense of community was complemented by the faculty’s sense of autonomy in making instructional decisions. In all six successful schools, open communication among administrators and teachers defined this sense of community and encouraged teachers’ decision making. Teachers said they had never been forced to jump on any bandwagon and had been allowed to use what they, as a group, considered best practices. A sense of mutual responsibility also was reflected in interviews with personnel at these successful schools. There was a sense of professionals working together to seek better and better ways to help kids. Children tended to read and write every day faithfully, at all grade levels. Ample time was allotted to literacy, and large school and classroom libraries were accessible on a regular basis. Every teacher in these successful schools was focussed on improving literacy.

Less Successful Schools

There was less curricular cohesiveness in poorly performing schools. Teachers supporting different philosophies were at odds. Tensions existed between teachers because the approaches and curricula varied between grade levels. Teachers tended to attribute students’ low literacy scores to non-school factors. They were more likely to use a teacher-directed style of instruction that required all students to work on the same task at the same time. Some of the less successful schools described their literacy programs as a “mishmash” of phonics and whole language philosophies. Teachers in less successful schools did not exhibit the complex management of groups and activities that more successful teachers used. They spent more time on isolated drill work. Staffs in lower-performing schools seem to implement basal or literature groups by unexamined tradition or on the basis of idiosyncratic beliefs about good teaching. There was less communication among teachers and no shared vision for students’ learning. There was more teacher-talk in less successful classes and a focus on task completion rather than mastery of skills and concepts. Opportunities to read were fewer and less rigorously maintained.


These researchers underscore the importance of context in understanding success in meeting academic standards. All the successful schools had made changes in the previous decade to improve their students’ literacy performance on state-mandated tests. But the impetus for change was not the result of a focus on testing alone. Personnel in these schools made decisions that increased both student performance and the professional confidence and satisfaction of the staff. Success in these schools depended on a complicated process that included sufficient time for reading, administrative leadership, an autonomous professional community, and a high level of teacher expertise. There is little evidence that a specific strategy, approach or program determines high student performance. There is no evidence that low-socioeconomic schools cannot achieve success. However, the quality of the implementation of an instructional program does predict success. Certain predictors of success were identified: extensive opportunities to read, a balance of word- and text-level instruction, complex instructional routines in which children’s efforts were scaffolded, and expert classroom management. Higher literacy test scores were the result of a school’s intelligent, inspired choices made with the goal of providing effective schooling for all students.

“Contexts and Practices of Six Schools Successful in Obtaining Reading Achievement”, The Elementary School Journal, Volume 104, Number 5, May 2004

Published in ERN September 2004 Volume 17 Number 6 <P< body>

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