Effective reading programs in low-income schools

iStock_000014442615XSmallWhat factors make schools and teachers particularly effective in teaching reading to students at-risk for failure? Researchers examined schools around the country to determine what characterized those that were highly effective in developing the reading skills of primary students. Barbara M. Taylor, University of Michigan; P. David Pearson, Michigan State University; Kathleen Clark, University of Minnesota; and Sharon Walpole, University of Virginia, studied 14 schools in Virginia, Minnesota, Colorado and California whose poverty levels ranged from 28 percent to 92 percent. They were looking for schools that had recently implemented reform programs to improve reading and that had a reputation for producing better than expected results in reading with low-income students.

The study included 11 schools involved in reform that had reputations for outstanding reading achievement, plus three control schools. Eight of the selected schools had implemented an externally developed model of early reading intervention such as Book Buddies, Early Intervention in Reading, Right Start in Reading, or Reading Recovery. In six of these schools, the reading interventions were set within the context of homegrown schoolwide reform programs. The other two schools were using externally developed, nationally recognized schoolwide reforms, Success for All and Core Knowledge. One school had both a homegrown schoolwide reform and its own early-reading program. Three schools were recruited for comparison. These were schools with similar student populations but with no history of either exceptionally high reading achievement or reform activity.

Researchers found that not all of the schools said to be exemplary lived up to their reputations. They decided to define outstanding reading achievement empirically, using a combination of gain scores from classroom reading tests and annual scores on standardized reading achievements to determine which schools were truly outstanding. Four schools in the present study stood out as most effective. Six schools were classed as moderately effective and four as least effective.

Principals in each school were asked to recommend two good or excellent teachers at each grade level(K-3) to participate in the study. Once again, researchers found that not all the recommended teachers were as exemplary as their ratings. Teachers
were observed five times over the course of the study. Each completed a written survey and two weekly logs of reading/language arts activities. All principals and more than three-quarters of the teachers were interviewed in depth.

Teachers were asked to identify low and average readers in their classes, from whom researchers randomly picked two average and two poor readers in each classroom to participate in the study. These students were given a battery of reading tests in November and again in May to measure their progress. Researchers analyzed the factors that were positively correlated with early reading achievement, both at the school level and within classrooms.

Effective school-level factors

Reading was a priority in all the most effective schools. They spent more time on reading activities each day — 134 minutes versus 113 minutes per day in less effective schools. The most effective schools made a concerted effort to reach out to parents in more ways and established more positive links with families. Three of the four most effective schools had active site councils on which parents, teachers and staff worked together to make important school decisions. These schools offered many activities to get parents involved. One school had developed an at-home reading partnership.

Systematic assessment was positively related to growth in reading. Teachers in the most effective schools assessed students at least three times a year and shared the information about students’ performance with their principal and fellow teachers. These curriculum-based classroom assessments were intended to provide information for monitoring individual students’ progress and to shape curricular and instructional decisions. They provided a form of internal accountability and useful benchmarks of each student’s progress.

The sharing of this information with the entire school staff was important in all four of the most effective schools. Teachers had learned how to use test data to identify specific strategies to help struggling readers, to provide support in implementing
strategies and to create major school celebrations when schoolwide goals were met.

The professional communication and collaboration within a school building was positively correlates to reading achievement. Teachers in all four of the most effective schools collaborated across and within grades. Factors such as peer coaching (a minimum of 45 minutes every two weeks), team teaching within and across grades, working together to help all students, and program consistency throughout the primary grades were all found to be related to students’ reading achievement.

Collaboration was extremely important in these schools because it enabled teachers to provide two small-group sessions per day for the poorest readers. Title 1 and special-education staff worked in classrooms to provide lots of small-group help. All the most effective schools focused on small-group instruction in the beginning grades.

The schools rated as most effective in increasing students’ reading scores may have adopted externally developed programs but they had also developed reform measures that were based on the specific needs of their students. Teachers in these highly effective schools said that yearlong staff development efforts were important to their success. Visits to other schools with innovative programs, followed by sharing of observations with colleagues were also reported to be extremely helpful.

In summary, the most effective schools in this study made reading the clear priority. Teachers and principals considered reading instruction their job, and they worked hard together, including parents in their mission. Most teachers sent a letter home weekly and called students’ homes at least once a month. They believed that all children could read well by the end of third grade. These teachers were able to reach consensus on schoolwide monitoring systems, a collaborative approach for delivering reading instruction, and professional development with the constant goal of improving an already effective reading program.

Effective teaching strategies

Effective teachers combined explicit phonics instruction with coaching students to use a range of strategies to figure out unknown words while reading. Although most teachers used explicit phonics instruction, only the most effective programs coached students in applying strategies by demonstrations and think-alouds. The most skilled teachers were frequently observed asking higher-level questions about stories, as well as asking students to respond to books in writing. Students in their classrooms also spent more time reading independently. Word recognition and reading practice were the focus of reading instruction in the first two grades, but little explicit instruction in comprehension strategies was seen in any primary classroom.

On average, teachers in effective schools operated differently than teachers in other schools. However, there was instructional variation among teachers within schools as well. Not all the best teachers worked in the most effective schools. Only 52 percent of the teachers in the most effective schools were observed to demonstrate outstanding skills, compared to about one-third of the teachers in less effective schools.

Skilled teachers were more adept at keeping students on-task. Students in their classes spent more time in small-group instruction and their preferred style of teaching was coaching. While all teachers used explicit phonics instruction, the best teachers demonstrated a more balanced set of approaches to word identification and they demonstrated the ability to help all students apply the alphabetic principle to everyday reading. These teachers would do whatever it took to meet their students’ widely different needs.

Students need small groups, good supervision and lots of time

A school needs good morale and teachers willing to work collaboratively to achieve outstanding primary reading levels in high-poverty schools. Teachers and schools have to reach out to parents again and again. The results of this study indicate that children in these schools make the greatest growth when a high proportion of their reading instruction is delivered in small groups, when their progress is monitored regularly and when they have lots of time to read and to learn needed skills and strategies. The teachers who are most accomplished in teaching children to read excel at coaching and in keeping all children academically on-task.

However, Taylor et al. conclude that even the most effective schools have a long way to go in improving reading instruction among poor populations. Effective instructional practices within well managed classrooms need to be combined with schoolwide efforts. Staff in effective schools talked about the improvements they had worked toward over many years. There is no single quick answer to how best to reshape school reading programs. However, hard-working educators who combine a desire to improve their classroom practice with a commitment to strong, collaborative schoolwide programs can help students meet high expectations. The most effective schools were positive environments that were friendly places for children to learn.

While these data show a correlation between certain school and teacher characteristics and higher student reading scores, researchers caution that the results of this study do not provide conclusive proof that they are the cause of the increases. These researchers believe that more classroom observations of reading instruction would be helpful in understanding why some teachers are so effective in promoting beginning reading achievement.


“Effective Schools and Accomplished Teachers: Lessons about Primary-Grade Reading Instruction in Low-Income Schools” The Elementary School Journal Volume 101, Number 2, November 2000 Pp. 121-166.

Published in ERN February 2001 Volume 14 Number 2

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