What is the best approach to improving reading achievement by early readers? Is it a curricular approach or an approach that makes broader changes in how teaching occurs in the school and classroom, such as by limiting class sizes?
In a recent study in The Elementary School Journal, researchers conclude that in Sacramento, California, the curricular approach won the competition. To meet the Reading First goals of the No Child Left Behind Act, schools in the Sacramento district had to choose one of two approved programs: Open Court, a curricular program, or Success for All, a program that provided a broader strategy for improving instruction creating a living laboratory for this research question and study.
Open Court is an elementary reading program for grades K through 6 that teaches phonemic and print awareness and an understanding of the alphabetic principle in a systematic way. The program provides instruction in decoding, comprehension, inquiry, investigation, writing, spelling, vocabulary, grammar, usage, mechanics, penmanship, listening and speaking.
Open Court students scored higher
In schools that chose Open Court, elementary grade students scored higher on standardized tests than students in the Success For All schools. Students in the bottom quartile also improved more in the Open Court schools, conclude Karl Skindrud from the California State University at Dominguez Hills and Russell Gersten from the University of Oregon and Instructional Research Group in their independent evaluation. There was no reduced enrollment in special education with either Open Court or Success For All.
“These findings support the interpretation that the quality of the curriculum tools teachers use may be critical to students’ success…” the researchers write. “Interestingly, a recent comparison of SFA and Open Court by district evaluators in the Los Angeles City Schools (Maddahian, 2002) also showed that Open court students outperformed SFA students, ‘especially for low initial performing students in grade 2 across schools of similar poverty levels.'”
The researchers collected data on 936 grade 2 and 3 students over two years and on 5,694 K through 6 students over three years in 12 Title I schools. Because all 59 Sacramento district schools had adopted SFA or Open Court as part of district-wide reforms, the researchers were able to identify closely matched comparison schools. Each of four SFA schools was matched with two Open Court schools ranked just above and below it on the Title I poverty criteria.
Success for All (SFA) is a school-wide program that uses progress-monitoring systems, small class sizes, intensive early intervention for struggling readers and prescribes the core reading curriculum only for grades K and 1. The school selects any commercial reading curriculum it prefers for grades 2 through 6, the authors note. Use of cooperative learning and a family support team are key teaching strategies.
No decrease in special education referrals
The researchers speculate that the reason neither program was associated with dramatic decreases in special education referrals was that “beginning reading reforms in grades 2 or 3 appears to be too late to lead to a significant reduction in special education placements in this study.” Why was Open Court superior to SFA on most academic outcomes? The researchers speculate that a likely explanation is that there are clear differences between the two in curriculum control, content, and lesson pacing. “SFA has much less control over curriculum content and lesson pacing than Open Court. Open Court emphasizes explicit teaching of phonemic awareness, decoding, and comprehension in grades K-6 (and tutoring for slow primary students), but only controls reading curriculum for such students in grades K and 1,” the researchers note.
But there are too many differences to be able to target one factor as the reason for the differences in outcomes. Differences noted by the authors noted included the following: Increased instructional time in Open Court (150 minutes daily vs. 90-150 minutes daily in SFA); heterogeneous vs. homogeneous skill grouping in Open Courts and SFA, respectively and more intensive emphasis on decoding and phonemic awareness instruction in Open Court. A common complaint about Open Court, the researchers note, is that it takes too much time to use.
“An Evaluation of Two Contrasting Approaches for Improving Reading Achievement in a Large Urban District” The Elementary School Journal Volume 106 Number 5 May 2006 pps. 390-407.
Published in ERN May 2006 Volume 19 Number 5