Effective reading programs

Magnifying glass over the stack of booksNo one program is sufficient for all instructional reading needs, asserts John Schacter, Senior Research Associate, Milken Family Foundation, Santa Monica, California. “A single reading program is not a silver bullet to vastly improve a school’s reading achievement,” writes Schacter, who analyzed over 300 program evaluations in an effort to identify effective programs.

Schacter found 14 programs that met rigorous research requirements and were judged to be effective. These included whole-school, small-group and tutoring programs as well as reading technologies.

Research into children’s reading achievement shows that certain elements of instruction tend to be present in effective programs. The National Research Council’s 1998 report, “Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children,” highlighted the following elements:

  • ample explicit instruction and practice with letter/sound correspondences;
  • familiarity with spelling/sound correspondences;
  • practice in sight recognition;
  • sustained reading practice in the classroom through choral reading, partnered reading and individual reading;
  • rereading of familiar text;
  • explicit teaching of comprehension strategies such as summarizing, predicting, drawing inferences, asking questions and monitoring one’s understanding;
  • matching reading materials to the child’s reading level;
  • creating environments with a variety of reading materials; and
  • encouraging frequent and sustained reading at home.

Research Standards

Only programs meeting rigorous research criteria were evaluated. Program designs had to include experimental and control groups with random assignment to group. Results had to be reported in effect sizes that showed the difference between the experimental and control groups’ performance in terms of standard deviation.

Only valid and reliable measures of reading achievement could be used. An experiment had to be at least three months in duration and the results had to be replicated in more than one study.

Schacter warns that his findings should guide, not dictate, program selection and acknowledges that although the programs he evaluated are commercially available products, many teachers have created successful reading programs on their own.

Effective programs

School-wide programs proved effective by rigorous research include Success For All, Direct Instruction/DISTAR (also called SRA Reading Mastery Series), Exemplary Center for Reading Instruction, Open Court and the Carbo Reading Styles Program. Schacter says that these programs, not surprisingly, integrated many if not all of the recommendations of the National Research Council.

Only two effective small-group programs were identified: Junior Great Books and Project Read. Successful tutoring programs were generally conducted by trained professionals and included the Howard Street Volunteer Tutoring Program, Early Steps and Reading Recovery.

Recommendations for effective tutoring included hiring a certified reading specialist to supervise the program; ongoing training and evaluation of tutors; highly structured tutoring sessions; intensive and consistent tutoring; excellent reading materials; ongoing student assessment; coordination with classroom instruction and parental involvement.

Few reading technologies have been tested under experimental conditions, even though most software developers claim that their products are researchbased. Most reading technologies are expensive and the proven return in terms of achievement is moderate at best. The only effective technologies Schacter identified were Fast Forward, Little Planet and Wiggle Works.


Schacter recommends that, in addition to choosing a reading program that has been tested in rigorous research studies and proven effective, schools consider the following recommendations to increase the likelihood for successful early reading development:

  1. Teachers hired for kindergarten-through-thirdgrade positions should have training in research-based reading instruction. Only a small percentage of current teachers are able to teach reading effectively to children who do not grasp it easily.
  2. Children should be formally tested near the end of kindergarten for early intervention. Two simple 15-minute tests of phonological awareness and letter identification can successfully identify children at risk for reading failure.
  3. Schools should carefully evaluate basal readers to ensure they are aligned with activities and strategies supported by research. Most basals do not adequately support explicit teaching and the application of the alphabetic principle in writing,and do not provide sufficient practice blending and segmenting words or manipulating phonemes. In the area of learning to manipulate the sounds of a language, not enough scaffolding is available for students with diverse learning needs.

In summary, Schacter recommends that teachers and administrators use his evaluations as a foundation for selecting a new reading program to improve their schools’ reading achievement.

“Reading Programs that Work: An Evaluation of Kindergarten-Through-Third-Grade Reading Instruct, ERS Spectrum Volume 19, Number 4, Fall 2001, Pp. 12-25.

Published in ERN, February 2001, Volume 14, Number 2.

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