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Preventing reading problems


The negative effects of reading problems are well documented (Harris & Sipay, 1990). There is evidence that reading disability is associated with social, economic, and psychological problems. There is little evidence, however, that efforts to correct reading problems through remedial reading programs or through special education placement have been very successful (Allington & McGill-Franzen, 1989; Hiebert & Taylor, 1994; Johnston & Allington, 1991; Karweit, Slavain, & Wasik, 1992-93; Kennedy, Birman, & Demaline, 1986; Rowan & Guthrie, 1989). Instead, there is evidence to suggest that children who encounter difficulty in learning to read fall further and further behind their achieving peers (Stanovich, 1986). Traditional approaches to dealing with reading problems, such as tracking and grade retention, do not help; indeed, they often appear to be detrimental to eventual student achievement (Shepard & Smith, 1989; McGill-Franzen & Allington, 1993).

In contrast, a growing body of evidence suggests that reading problems are preventable for the vast majority of students who encounter difficulty in learning to read, if these students receive extra support in the form of an early intervention program (Goldenberg, 1994; Hiebert & Taylor, 1994; Reynolds, 1991). In this paper, the term early intervention refers to early school intervention programs that are designed to prevent problems in literacy from developing rather than trying to correct a problem after it is established. For the most part, such programs have been used in first and second grades. Several of these programs have proven very effective when compared to conventional compensatory reading programs. For example, Hiebert, Colt, Catto, and Gury (1992) report that while 77 percent of the students in their early intervention project were reading at a primer level at the end of first grade, only 18 percent of a comparison group who participated in a traditional Title I program achieved that level of reading proficiency. While almost half (47 percent) of the students in the conventional Title I program remained nonreaders at the end of first grade, only 7 percent of the early intervention students were nonreaders. Thus, a growing body of evidence suggests that almost all reading problems are preventable.

A review of the research literature indicates that there are at least five early reading intervention programs that have documented effectiveness. This paper will only very briefly describe the individual programs and then will concentrate on the factors that seem characteristic of all or at least most of these successful intervention programs.

Two of the five programs, Success for All (Madden, Slavin, Karweit, Dolan, & Wasik, 1991; Slavin, Madden, Karweit, Livermon, & Dolan, 1990; Slavin, Madden, Karweit, Dolan, & Wasik, 1992), and the Winston-Salem Project (Cunningham, Hall, & Defee, 1991; Hall, Prevatte, & Cunningham, 1993), involve comprehensive reorganization of the entire classroom routine; all students in the grades in which the program is implemented are affected.

In the Winston-Salem Project all first and second grade reading/language arts instruction was reorganized around four major, thirty-minute blocks of activities: teacher-directed group reading activities, word learning activities, writing, and self-selected reading. In addition, in the school that served a very high proportion of at-risk students, an additional 45-minute block of time for very small-group instruction was included. During this small-group instruction time, students had additional opportunities to practice reading, writing, and word learning activities.

Though it has now been implemented in more than 85 schools, Success for All was first implemented in schools in major metropolitan areas that served, almost exclusively, children from low socioeconomic backgrounds who had few experiences with literacy. Major features of this schoolwide program included heterogeneous grouping for most of the day, cross-grade grouping according to reading level for 90 minutes of smaller group (15 to 20 students) reading instruction, and one-to-one tutoring for those students who needed extra support.

The Boulder Program (Hiebert, Colt, Catto, & Gury, 1992) and Reading Recovery (Clay, 1985; Clay, 1993; Clay, 1993a; Pinnell, 1989; Pinnell, Fried, & Eustice, 1990) are add-on, pull-out programs; they are added to whatever approach to language arts instruction is being used in a school. The Reading Recovery Program, which originated in New Zealand, has been widely implemented in the United States and in several other countries as well. It is exclusively a first grade, one-to-one tutoring program. Reading Recovery is also recognized for the extensiveness of its teacher training program, which is conducted over the course of a year with fully certified teachers.

The Boulder Program operated exclusively with the resources of a Title I program. The program worked originally with a pupil-teacher ratio of six students for each teacher. Through the use of carefully trained, supervised paraprofessionals who worked closely with certified, trained teachers, the ratio was reduced to three students for each teacher. Instruction was daily for twenty minutes.

The Early Intervention in Reading Program (EIR) (Taylor, Frye, Short, & Shearer, 1992; Taylor, Strait, & Medo, 1994) takes yet another approach. Regular first and second grade classroom teachers work for an extra twenty minutes with the five or six students who are encountering the greatest amount of difficulty in learning to read. Provision is also made for these students to practice their reading for an additional five or ten minutes each day by reading individually or in pairs to the teacher, a teacher’s aide, a volunteer, etc. (For fuller descriptions of these programs, see Pikulski, 1994, or the citations in this paper.)

The dependence on a strong, effective program of regular classroom reading instruction is recognized.

All five programs clearly acknowledge that the small-group or individual early intervention instruction that students receive is an addition to, not a substitute for, the instruction they receive as part of the regular classroom program.

In the case of two of the programs (Success for All and the Winston-Salem Project), regular classroom reading instruction has been redesigned to ensure that appropriate instructional routines and materials are used. However, even when early intervention instruction is added to an effective existing reading program, there is also the anticipation that the sound practices that are part of the early intervention program will become infused into regular classroom instruction if they are not already part of it. For example, Reading Recovery teachers almost always spend part of their day as regular classroom teachers, reading consultants, language arts coordinators, etc.; through these roles they attempt to introduce instructional principles and practices that are part of Reading Recovery into the ongoing regular classroom.

Reading for meaning is an overriding consideration.

All of the programs reflect a model of reading as an active, meaningful, constructive process. Before-reading activities are used to build or activate relevant background knowledge, concepts, and vocabulary. Students are taught to monitor their reading to ensure that what they are reading makes sense. They are taught strategies for correcting word recognition errors that detract from meaning, and they are given opportunities for reacting and responding to selections they have read. The texts they are asked to read are read for enjoyment and for information. Other activities are developed within a framework of reading for meaning. Because reading for meaning is the constant point of reference and because students in these programs need substantial help in building word identification skills, the amount of time spent in discussing selections and in teacher questioning about the selection is kept to a minimum.

Intervention instruction is frequent, regular, and of sufficient duration to make a difference.

All of the successful programs offer students special instruction on a daily basis for periods ranging from 20 to 45 minutes. Daily contact with students ensures that progress is steady and allows teachers to become very familiar with students and their strengths and needs. Frequent contact also allows teachers to reinforce and extend strategic behaviors that students are acquiring. An instructional period of at least 20 to 30 minutes allows time for instruction and practice along a number of dimensions that provide students with the strategies they need to become effective readers.

In terms of duration, the Reading Recovery Program limits student participation in the program to one hundred sessions, the philosophy being that if a child is not “discontinued” (the term for meeting the criteria required to function successfully in the middle range of student’s regular classroom without special support), some other form of special support is needed.

The prevailing philosophy in most of the other early intervention programs appears to be that first grade is the point where special help should be offered to prevent reading failure; that many, if not most, students will, by the end of first grade, be able to make sufficient progress in reading to function in a regular classroom setting without special help; but that some students will continue to need support through second grade. Though some of the programs began as just first grade programs, most now continue through second grade for students who need longer periods of special help.

Pupil-to-teacher ratio is kept very small.

The highest number of students who work with one teacher in any of these early intervention programs is seven. Programs such as Early Intervention in Reading and the Boulder Project present evidence that many children can make significant progress when instruction is given to small groups of students; however, there is no question that one-to-one tutoring is the most powerful form of intervention (Pinnell, et al., 1994; Wasik & Slavin, 1993). It seems highly likely that at least some children who are encountering very serious problems in learning to read will need the intense support of one-to-one tutoring. As yet, no one has suggested guidelines for determining which students can respond to group instruction and which require individual tutoring. It seems reasonable to begin with group instruction for most students and to switch to individual instruction for those students who are having difficulty making progress.

Fluency is a major goal.

These programs use methods and materials that help students to recognize words accurately and rapidly, and to group words into meaningful phrases–the three dimensions of fluency. There is clear evidence that unless students become fluent in their ability to identify words, they will have difficulty concentrating their attention on comprehending and responding to the texts they read (LaBerge & Samuels, 1974; Nathan & Stanovich, 1991).

To build fluency, students are encouraged to reread a book several times once it has been introduced. There is evidence that the repeated reading of a text leads to improved word identification skills and comprehension (Blum & Koskinen, 1991; Dowhower, 1987; Herman, 1985; Samuels, 1979). As children move through these programs, they become familiar with an increasing number of texts. They are encouraged to reread these texts to gain additional practice, to extend their fluency, and to build confidence in their growing reading competency. Children feel very rewarded by their feelings of confidence. As one child put it, “I think about these books [ones he’d already read] as my old friends!”

Instructional procedures are used to introduce new books in order to insure that students are successful in reading them.

To avoid failure or frustration for students, each new book is introduced with as much support as a teacher judges is needed. For example, a “picture walk” is often used as a before-reading activity. Students and teacher discuss the illustrations on each page. Students are asked to speculate about the text’s contents, and unusual or difficult vocabulary is pointed out by the teacher and discussed. Thus, the student begins reading the book with prior knowledge and clear expectations about the selection’s content.

Another frequently used technique is shared reading, in which the text is read first by the teacher as students follow along in the text. Then as a group, students progress to reading the text with teacher help as needed. Teacher support is gradually withdrawn, and students assume more responsibility. Finally, individual children practice reading the text. Instruction often moves from a shared reading model to a guided reading model in which students assume responsibility for the first reading of a selection after the teacher helps prepare them and supports them during their reading. In all the successful intervention programs there is a clear progression from much teacher support in the initial phases of the program to increasing student independence.

Texts are carefully selected and sequenced to ensure student success.

The types of texts most frequently used in early intervention programs are predictable texts. The earliest books used in the programs tend to have a close match between pictures and texts, have recurring language patterns, and include repetition of language elements, which make them easy for students to read. Even children with very restricted word recognition capabilities quickly begin to think of themselves as readers because they are successful with these predictable texts. As students progress in the program, the degree of predictability decreases to ensure that students attend to the printed text in order to build a multifaceted word recognition strategy that will make them increasingly independent readers. In the initial phases of instruction, selections also tend to be short so that students can finish a text within an instructional period. As their reading capabilities grow, texts become longer and more challenging.

While none of the successful programs use traditional, narrow measures of readability, all sequence the instructional materials, based on many factors including text predictability (reflected in factors such as recurring language patterns, close picture-to-text match, repetition of words or phrases, etc.), length of text, challenge of vocabulary, complexity of language, sophistication of concepts, etc., so that students are challenged to apply the strategies and skills they are learning.

Word learning activities are used to help children become very familiar with print.

Reading new texts and rereading familiar texts ensure that students in these programs engage in meaningful, connected reading. These programs also include activities that help students focus on and become familiar with printed words. For example, the Winston-Salem Project uses a procedure called “Making Words” (Cunningham, 1991; Cunningham & Cunningham, 1992). Students are presented with the letters that form a word from a selection they read. Words are selected because of their interest and because they contain word identification elements that will be useful to the students. For example, students might be presented with the letters a c e e h r t. (Students delight in trying to guess the “long” word, a word that uses all the letters and is from a recently read story.) Progressively longer words are built from the letters. A teacher might begin by asking students to take two letters and form the word at. Next, they might be asked to add a letter to form rat, to change a letter to form cat, to rearrange the letters to form act. Using similar directions they might move through eat, ate, tea, tear, rate, crate, create, to teacher.

Writing is used to teach and extend word identification skills.

It has long been recognized that asking students to write words (not copy them) is a very effective approach to developing word recognition and reading skills (Adams, 1990; Clay, 1985). For example, in the Early Intervention in Reading Program the students select a sentence to write. The teacher then encourages each student to think about the spelling of each word and to write as much of the word as he or she can. Teacher support is offered only as needed in order to ensure that the students write the word accurately. For example, for children who are having difficulty with phonemic awareness (the conscious awareness that spoken words are composed of units called sounds and the ability to manipulate those sounds), the teacher draws a box for each of the sounds in the word. The children are guided to think about the number of sounds in a word and the letters that represent those sounds. For example, the teacher would draw three boxes for the word teach, grouping the ‘ea’ and ‘ch’ in separate boxes since in that word ‘ea’ and ‘ch’ represent single sounds.

The writing used in the early intervention programs is somewhat different in nature than writing instruction in a regular language arts program. In a regular language arts program, the primary emphasis is upon communication, expression, and organization of ideas. In first drafts, children are encouraged to use “temporary” (also called “invented”) spellings in order to move on with their ideas, and then, as they move through process writing, to revise and edit their writing. In the early intervention program, communication remains a purpose, and the writing is always meaningful, often based, for example, on something of interest to children or on a book just read; however, the writing is also more specifically used to draw students’ attention to the details of printed words in order to reinforce and extend a student’s growing word identification skills. As Clay, who developed Reading Recovery procedures, puts it, “A case can be made for the theory that learning to write letters, words, and sentences actually helps the child to make the visual discriminations of detailed print that he will use in his reading” (Clay, 1985, p. 28).

Given the brief amount of daily instructional time available in each of these early intervention programs, teachers must make choices about where to focus their instruction. As noted earlier, these programs are not comprehensive language arts programs. The area of writing is a good example. The child who participates in an early intervention program still needs classroom writing instruction that focuses more pointedly on organizing and clearly communicating ideas through writing and in engaging in the full process of writing, including revising and editing.

Each of the programs calls for considerable teacher decision making, but within a well-defined sequence of instructional activities.

When a student is reading aloud, a teacher must decide when to coach a child in the use of strategic behavior and which strategies and skills to teach the child to use. When students are writing, decisions must be made about how much and which forms of support should be given. Nevertheless, there is a regular pattern of activities. The following activities tend to be scheduled in a regular pattern:

  • Rereading familiar texts: As noted earlier, the primary purpose of rereading familiar books is for building fluency.
  • Reading or rereading a new book: New texts allow students to try out and extend the strategies and skills they are building. As they interact with new and somewhat challenging materials, opportunities arise for teachers to coach the application of strategies.
  • Working with words: These activities force students to attend to the detail of words.
  • Writing words or sentences: Writing is used to reinforce and extend reading skills.

Through the use of a regular sequence of activities, children quickly come to know what will be happening in each instructional session and the order in which it will happen. Time is not lost in transitions or in deciding on activities.

Instruction is fast paced.

In the past, it often seemed that educators felt that students who were falling behind in learning to read needed to be taught at a slower pace. Allington (1994) refers to this as a “slow it down; make it concrete approach.” Of course, this meant that such students were doomed to always being “behind.” In contrast, there is a sense of urgency in these early intervention programs.

Activities completed at home extend student opportunities for reading.

All of the early intervention programs stress the importance of cooperation between home and school. Parents are informed about the nature of the program, regularly updated on their child’s progress, and told about ways in which they can support the child and contribute to her or his progress. Students take home materials every, or almost every, day. They may borrow books they have read; they may take home teacher-constructed summaries or variations of books they have read, sentences or stories they have written, etc. Teachers are careful to send home only materials that students can successfully respond to at home without teacher support. Again, the emphasis is on consistent success and the avoidance of failure.

Assessment is meaningful, practical, efficient, and ongoing.

The most common form of assessment in these early intervention programs is checking the students’ oral reading of texts that have been part of instruction. Various terms such as running record, miscue analysis, and oral readingchecks are used to describe the recording of a child’s oral reading performance. Through a series of check marks and other notations made on a copy of the text a child is reading or even on a blank sheet of paper, a teacher can record the accuracy and quality of a student’s oral reading. The term running record comes from the notion that because no special materials are needed with this system, the oral reading can be recorded “on the run” without having a copy of the text the child is reading. In other approaches to assessing oral reading, teachers usually make notes on a copy of the text the child is reading.

Teacher training is practical and ongoing.

All of the programs described rely almost exclusively on certified teachers to deliver the intervention procedures so that the training that is provided builds upon an existing foundation of professional preparation. The institutional procedures that are part of the early intervention programs are usually introduced in relatively brief (a day or several days) sessions. The key to the success of these programs is that the teachers have access to and opportunities to consult with teachers or teacher trainers who are very skilled in the use of these procedures over a period of at least the first year of program implementation. In some early intervention programs, teachers who have just begun using early intervention procedures meet weekly with teacher trainers. Part of the meeting is often devoted to observing one of the novice teachers as she or he works with a student. An important element in the ongoing training is that it is occurring as teachers are working with their students so that the issues addressed arise from their actual teaching. A recent report (Pinnell, et al., 1994) suggests that this type of ongoing, practical professional development results in greater student progress as compared with training sessions that are concentrated into a more compact time frame.

There is some evidence (Slavin, Madden, Dolan, Wasik, Ross, & Smith, 1994; Hiebert, Colt, Catto, & Gury, 1992) that instructional assistants (teacher aides who have instructional responsibilities) can effectively teach in early intervention programs if they receive the appropriate professional development experiences, which must include the opportunity to work with highly experienced, trained professionals with a background in reading instruction in early intervention procedures.

Teachers believe in their early intervention programs–and in their students’ ability to learn to read.

Though this is not a characteristic that is reflected in the research articles about the early intervention programs, it is a characteristic that is very evident if one talks with or observes teachers in these programs. They clearly see and can document the progress of their students; they have evidence that the instruction they are providing is having a very significant effect. Children who would almost certainly struggle and have experienced growing frustration in trying to learn to read are succeeding.

Pupils build confidence and come to see themselves as readers and authors.

This characteristic likewise is not reflected in the research literature but, again, is very evident when one observes the programs in operation. Because the procedures used virtually guarantee success, students see themselves as readers and grow in confidence. They often point with pride to the books they have already read. They enjoy reading to each other, to parents, to classroom volunteers, and to visitors to their classrooms. The prevention of reading failure has made a very significant difference in the lives of these children!


Every child has the right to develop into a thoughtful, competent reader. As a nation, we actually perform quite well in reading achievement when compared to other industrialized nations or to past performances here in the United States (Elley, 1992; Kibby, 1993). Nonetheless, reading problems remain common in many of our schools. The results from the successful early intervention programs strongly suggest that many of these problems are preventable. It is also encouraging to note that many features are shared by these successful programs. A serious consideration of these common features may be very helpful in the design of new programs.

Finally, it seems important to note the sizeable number of teachers and reading specialists who, after reading or hearing about characteristics of early intervention programs, comment: “But you know, those are the characteristics of good reading instruction in general.” This is the case. Of course, the general principles are adjusted a bit–instruction is a bit faster paced, group size is smaller–but indeed the principles of sound reading instruction are the same. This same observation was made almost a half century ago by Arthur Gates, who wrote: “Some of the worst devices and most inadequate teaching methods are to be found in remedial reading instruction for pupils who, precisely because they have had difficulties with a subject, are most in need of the best possible teaching. The fact is that remedial teaching should follow the same general principles of learning that are, or should be, observed in any other type of instruction–with certain occasional departures to meet particular types of need. These variations represent not contradictions of the main principles but special applications of them which require unusual skill and understanding” (p. 165).