Improving early reading achievement

iStock_000016876858XSmallTwo years into a five-year project, researchers at the Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement (CIERA) at the University of Michigan report their preliminary findings. Elfrieda H. Hiebert, University of Michigan and P. David Pearson, Michigan State University, write that the goal is to address the persistent problems of early reading in preschool through third grade, and to answer the question of how we can help all children, especially those at risk for failure, to learn to read.

They are attacking the problem on several fronts: developing research projects that embrace the nation’s diverse population of students; and studying the materials, instructional methods, theoretical perspectives and dissemination methods currently used. Their fundamental commitment is to work with and learn from educators in poor, largely minority schools.

These researchers began by studying high-achieving schools in low-income areas. They studied the approaches to literacy used in 14 of these outstanding schools. They found a combination of school and teacher factors common to effective schools.

Significant school factors included strong links to parents, systematic evaluation of pupil progress, strong communication within the school building, and a collaborative model of delivering reading instruction.

Important teacher factors included time students spent in small-group instruction and independent reading, high pupil engagement, and strong home communication. These teachers relied on coaching and scaffolding rather than telling and recitation in their reading lessons. In all the most effective schools, reading was a priority at both the building and classroom levels. Teachers and administrators gave their reading program the time, energy, and resources to make sure all children learned to read.

These researchers are committed to making the complex process of reading acquisition and instruction understandable to policymakers and to finding ways to implement effective beginning reading practice in diverse school settings. They report on four insights that CIERA research has provided over the last two years.

One size does not fit all

When teachers use a consistent approach with all first graders, the same approach differs in its effectiveness as a function of children’s entry-level skills. Children with a foundation in literacy did particularly well in classes where trade books and a contextual strategy for deciphering unknown words were the main instructional approach, but they did less well in classes where phonics worksheets and phonics strategies were emphasized.

For initially low-achieving students in the same two contexts, achievement patterns were the opposite. In schools where low-income children were achieving above expected levels, teachers had created programs that recognized the need for differentiation of instruction. In these schools, resources for Title 1 and special education are pooled to maximize flexibility in delivering instruction. Teachers meet with children in small groups and differentiate their instruction for students with various skill levels.

Inventive approaches are needed to differentiate instruction and take advantage of community and cultural resources

When the strengths of children and the high expectations and resources of families are integrated into primary classrooms, children achieve more. Children who are identified early as struggling readers thrive in classrooms where expectations are high and where these children are viewed as competent. When schools give family and community perspectives primary consideration, classrooms become more motivating and effective. Successful schools study how parents and teachers view each other’s roles and responsibilities in promoting children’s learning. 

For children who find learning to read difficult, using children’s particular cultural experiences and traditions can boost learning. For example, when the oral-language strengths of inner-city, African-American children were integrated into classrooms, students were able to use rhyming activities to help them learn to read. Creating such classrooms, however, involved much guidance and continued support for teachers.

Commercial reading programs and state standards do not support reading acquisition of low-Income students

There is relatively little research on which texts best support beginning reading. CIERA researchers evaluated the instructional potential of texts for young readers on the basis of three factors: engagingness, accessibility and generalizability.

Analysis of first-grade commercial literature programs revealed that they are constructed in ways that obscure word patterns. Stories include many different high-frequency words and many different rhymes with little repetition. These books provide few opportunities for reading a core group of words or studying common patterns.

Effective teachers, especially in low-income schools, have to make substantial adaptations for these programs to meet the needs of their students. Hiebert and Pearson conclude that texts currently used in first grades require a substantial level of reading proficiency to read independently. They suggest this is one of the reasons for the frequent use of whole-class read-alouds.

Most state guidelines are not helpful to teachers. The standards in all but one or two states were either extremely general or so specific as to inhibit teachers’ ability to differentiate instruction to meet individual children’s needs. Researchers also found that standards and the content of assessments were not well aligned in most states. Therefore, a teacher who implemented instruction according to state standards could not count on seeing her efforts reflected in test scores.

New technologies and policies help teachers provide appropriate, effective instruction

The Internet and CD-ROMs make it possible to provide educators with examples of effective teachers working successfully with diverse populations of students. Samples of effective instruction on CD-ROM allow beginning teachers to observe instruction and student learning. Research in teacher training using a searchable database of clips demonstrates that this technology enables teachers to use what they learn in other contexts.

Some new programs stemming from public policies have had an encouraging effect on children’s reading acquisition. The America Reads volunteer tutoring program is one example of the many low-cost, one-to-one tutoring programs for students who need help learning to read. It demonstrates that with planning and follow-through support for the volunteers, effective reading programs can be adapted to a variety of contexts.


Hiebert and Pearson believe that research-based reading instruction that proves effective in one classroom should be tried in other classrooms and then evaluated. The data from those evaluations should be used to fine-tune subsequent instruction. They recommend an incremental, self-improving approach to program development and research in reading. In this way, educators can craft instructional programs and strategies that meet the needs of all students, especially those in low-income areas, who are most reliant on schools for their literacy development.

“Building on the Past, Bridging to the Future: A Research Agenda for the Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement” Journal of Educational Research Volume 93, Number 3, February 2000 pp. 133-144.

Published in ERN April 2000 Volume 13 Number 4

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