Critical features of five programs that prevent reading failure

iStock_000008693718XSmallResearch evidence suggests that reading failure is preventable for all but a very small percentage of children. John J. Pikulski, past member of the International Reading Association Board of Directors and currently at the University of Delaware, writes that such evidence is particularly important in light of the fact that efforts to correct reading problems after third grade have proved largely unsuccessful.

Pikulski contends that although preventive programs seem expensive, they are actually very cost-effective when compared to the costs of retention and remedial programs. What is more, he says, the savings in human terms is incalculable.

Five first-grade programs with demonstrated success

Pikulski reports that five first-grade intervention programs, in particular, have demonstrated success in preventing reading problems in those students most at risk for reading failure. These are: Success For All, the Winston-Salem Project, the Boulder Project, the Early Intervention in Reading (EIR) Project and Reading Recovery.

While all five programs have demonstrated their effectiveness, Pikulski cautions that the degree to which any program is effective may depend on particular circumstances in school environments and student populations.

Schools with a high percentage of at-risk students might consider total school intervention programs like Success For All or the Winston-Salem Project. EIR and the Boulder Project are designed for use with small groups while Reading Recovery requires one-to-one tutoring. Pikulski adds that some children in any school may require the intense one-to-one support of Reading Recovery.

In brief

Success For All has been implemented primarily in Baltimore and Philadelphia with groups of economically underprivileged, inner-city students.

A program for kindergarten through third grade, Success For All focuses on regular class instruction with supplementary support. All students, regardless of grade, are regrouped by reading level into classes of 15 to 20 students for 90 minutes each day. Direct, whole-class instruction eliminates the need for ineffective seat work. Individual 20-minute tutoring sessions augment group instruction for students falling behind.

The Winston-Salem Project has been used in first-grade classes in two schools in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. One school serves a middle-class community while the other serves students from economically deprived backgrounds. In both schools, daily reading instruction is organized into four 30-minute blocks. In heterogeneous classes, students read an anthology of children’s literature as well as trade books during the Basal block.

The Writing block consists of a 5-10 minute mini-lesson followed by independent writing activities. During the Working with Words block students learn to read and spell words selected by the teacher and to “make words” by manipulating groups of letters to form as many words as possible. Finally, during the Self-Selected Reading block, students read books they choose themselves, including non-fiction books related to science and social studies topics. ,p> Teachers in these classes continue with the same groups of students for two years. On average, these students actually spend about 3 hours and 15 minutes a day in reading-related activities. (At the school serving the lower-income community, many at-risk students receive an additional 45 minutes of small-group instruction by Chapter 1 and special education teachers.)

Early Intervention in Reading has been used in several schools in Minnesota in lower- and middle-income communities. The EIR program is conducted mostly by regular classroom teachers. In addition to regular reading instruction, each teacher works daily for 20 minutes with five to seven of his/her lowest-achieving students.

This small-group work focuses on repeated reading of picture books or summaries of books and on developing such decoding skills as phonemic segmentation and blending. These at-risk students spend additional time rereading material by themselves, in pairs or with an adult.

The Boulder Project involved reorganizing and modifying Chapter 1 instruction in two schools in Boulder, Colorado.

The Chapter 1 teacher works with three children at a time for 30 minutes each day, while an aide works with another group of three. The teacher and aide exchange groups halfway through the year. The program focuses on the repeated reading of predictable trade books, teaching word identification skills through the use of analogy or word patterns, writing words from word pattern instruction and writing in notebooks about topics chosen by students.

Reading Recovery is an individual tutoring program in which at-risk children work with a specially trained teacher for 30 minutes each day outside the regular classroom. Each lesson involves five major activities. First, students read familiar stories. Then they read from a new story while the teacher keeps a running record of errors, omissions, substitutions, etc. Next, the students work with letters as needed. The student then creates and dictates one or more sentences that the teacher records. The teacher then reads these back to the student and guides him in writing them accurately. These sentences are cut into individual words for the child to reconstruct. Students take these sentences home daily for further practice. Finally, a new story is read, after which the teacher and child discuss and explore language, concepts or specific vocabulary as needed.


Pikulski concludes from the reports on these effective prevention programs that:

1. Children who are having trouble with beginning reading need considerably more reading instruction. Also, a student’s total program of reading should be taken into account when planning early intervention in order to ensure effective and coordinated instruction.

2. To be successful, it is essential that those children who are most at risk receive individual or very small group instruction.

3. Special reading programs are most effective at first grade, though some students may need continued support beyond first grade.

4. Texts should be simple enough for students to read with relative ease. Both predictable texts as well as literature that uses familiar language patterns can be effective. Texts constructed to encourage application of word-identification skills are also beneficial.

5. Reading the same text several times seems to be a very effective approach to helping at-risk children develop reading fluency. Instructional procedures should ensure that students are reading for meaning.

6. Early intervention with at-risk students should focus attention on individual words and letters. Phonemic awareness and phonics instruction is helpful. Using word patterns is also effective.

7. Writing supports the development of word-recognition skills. Writing activities focusing on individual letters and words should be brief but occur daily.

8. Ongoing assessment is necessary. Oral reading fluency is an informative, effective assessment procedure.

9. Communication must be encouraged between home and school. Students should be given materials for daily reading at home.

10. Professionally prepared, experienced teachers are important for successful early-intervention programs. Training must be provided so that teachers can consistently deliver effective instruction. Teachers should receive continuous professional support through at least their first year in a new program.

Pikulski concludes that a substantial portion of the money currently spent on compensatory and special education programs needs to be redirected toward preventing reading failure.

“Preventing Reading Failure: A Review of Five Effective Programs”, The Reading Teacher, Volume 48, Number 1, September 1994, pp. 30-39.

Published in ERN, November/December 1994, Volume 7, Number 5.

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