How teachers implement effective literature-based reading programs

Schoolkids in classroom. Girl reading task aloud at lesson.There is great diversity to the ways in which teachers implement literature-based reading programs, reports James Zarrillo, Assistant Professor at California State University, Long Beach.

Zarrillo conducted two studies in a period of two years in the Los Angeles Public Schools. In the first 1986-87), he conducted an indepth study of five elementary school teachers, and, in the second, the following year, he studied an additional 18 teachers representing all elementary grade levels who used some form of literature-based reading in their classrooms. These classes were comprised of students of all levels of reading ability from a variety of cultural and economic backgrounds.

Influence of whole-language approach

The widespread use of literature-based programs, Zarrillo believes, is due to three factors: (1) the call by educators and parents for an increased role for quality children’s literature in the elementary school, (2) decisions by teachers not to have their reading programs circumscribed by basal materials, and (3) the influence of the whole language approach to literacy.

Zarrillo defines literature-based programs as those which incorporate original fictional and/or non-fictional materials which have not been rewritten for school use.

For purposes of these studies, Zarrillo defined as ‘effective’ those programs in which both the teacher and principal judged that the overall quality of the students’ reading and writing justified continuing the program the following year and those programs towards which children had positive attitudes.

On the basis of these criteria, 15 of the 23 classrooms studied were judged to have effective literature-based reading programs (8 were judged ineffective). Data on these programs was collected by unstructured interviews with teachers, administrators and students, by classroom observation and by analyzing samples of the student’s written work.

Three types of programs

Teachers in this study, Zarrillo reports, differed widely in their philosophy of reading instruction. Most of the teachers believed that children learn to read by reading, and that language arts should be integrated into their curriculum. However, some teachers stated that reading needs to be taught as a series of sequential skills and that language arts should be taught separately from other subjects. Still, other teachers synthesized both beliefs by using a combination of sequential skill lessons and whole language activities in their teaching.

In these 23 classrooms, Zarrillo identified three separate types of literature-based reading programs. The most common was the “core book” in which the whole class is exposed to the same book. The second most common program was the literature unit, in which reading and follow-up language arts activities were planned around a common theme. A third program, based completely on self-selection, was used by one teacher.

Core books

Most often, the core book was read aloud by the teacher. Zarrillo found that teachers in programs judged to be effective made this method work by introducing the book with enthusiasm and reading aloud with style and emotion. Students typically became very involved with the serialized drama as chapters were read aloud. Effective teachers also used this as a starting point for independent reading and writing projects. Children were given choices in at least some of these activities. In addition, there was time set aside daily for silent reading.

Zarrillo observed, however, that the core book method did cause some problems for children with different reading abilities or interests. In one class, many students were unable to read the core book even after it had been read aloud by the teacher, and, in another class, the boys were bored by the book’s subject.

In addition, Zarrillo judged this method to be unsuccessful when the teacher taught the core book as if it were a text book by using round-robin reading, ability grouping and fill in the blank tests of factual information. Also, classrooms in which the core book was subjected to in-depth literary analysis seemed to rob the children of their initial enthusiasm for the book. Parenthetically, Zarrillo cautions against the attitude that there are only certain “right” answers to interpretive questions.


The literature unit, the second most popular method of incorporating literature into the reading program, is a technique in which the study of a theme, genre or author becomes the subject around which books are chosen.

Teachers using this format are effective, in Zarrillo’s opinion, when they are flexible in forming groups; varying groups for different activities or letting the children establish groups based on common interests. Successful literature unit teaching depends on an adequate supply of books. Planning literature units a year in advance and in cooperation with other teachers is recommended.

Zarrillo cautions against choosing too narrow or frivolous a subject as this can trivialize the curriculum. He states that units based on classic genres, the short story, poetry, or fables, as well as authors, important social studies themes or science topics help ensure that children are exposed to good literature from which a teacher can plan worthwhile activities.

Self-selection of reading

Only one teacher in these studies used self-pacing and self-selection for her entire reading program. This teacher scheduled a half-hour class period each day when students silently read books of their choice and followed this by a period of writing. The students chose the kind of writing they wanted to do: a journal, a letter to an author, creative writing, etc. The children were assigned handwriting or individualized spelling as needed.

The teacher conducted 5 to 10 minute conferences with students frequently (at least once every 8 days) to hear them read and to discuss their work. Students were also allowed to form groups to work on projects that had been discussed with the teacher. Zarrillo judged this teacher to be successful because her students were good readers and writers and did well on standardized tests. However, Zarrillo points out that this teacher taught in a school where the parents and administration supported innovative, child-centered program.

Other teachers in these studies expressed serious reservations about individual, self-paced programs. They stated that there was a lack of administrative support and an insufficient quantity of books in their classrooms for such programs. Moreover, they feared that such a program would create a chaotic classroom environment and could possibly result in poor performance on standardized tests. Many teachers simply acknowledged a lack of training to implement such a program effectively.


The results of these studies indicate that there are at least three different kinds of literature-based reading programs which can effectively develop the reading and language arts skills of elementary students. Success with literature-based reading, Zarrillo states, depends upon several measures, including:

-presenting the book or unit in a way that generates enthusiasm among the students

-requiring children to respond to what they hear and read (all successful programs involved posing interpretive questions; students usually had some choice in the way they responded or variety in the tasks that were assigned)

-scheduling silent reading time each day in a book of their choice

-teaching language arts lessons to children when needed

-allowing the children some choice of topic, presentation, etc. in group projects (successful teachers, however, considered projects peripheral and did not allow them to take time from reading literature)

Zarrillo observed that successful literature-based programs are found in schools where administrative support allows teachers to design programs and where teachers work together to develop curriculum and materials.

“Teachers’ Interpretations of Literature-Based Reading” The Reading Teacher October 1989 pp. 22-28.

Published in ERN November/December 1989 Volume 2 Number 5

One Response to “How teachers implement effective literature-based reading programs”

  1. Dorthea Litson

    I have a son that is in 3rd grade, and I am told by his teachers that he is struggling with reading and writing. I am searching for reading strategies that I do with him at home.

    Or what can I demand from the teachers?


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