What works best for early readers

The choice of reading curriculum accounts for  one quarter of the difference in achievement, concludes a study of 30,000 Florida students in first, second and third grade who were taught with six different curricula.  Teach Effectively notes that Reading Mastery, SRA’s version of Direct Instruction, produced the best results.

In Journal of School Psychology, researcher Elizabeth Crowe wrote:

Overall, students in the Reading Mastery curriculum demonstrated generally greater overall ORF (oral reading fluency) growth than students in other curricula. Also, they more frequently met or exceeded benchmarks for adequate achievement in first, second, and third grade. In first grade, regardless of SES status, students generally met adequate achievement benchmarks. Among second graders, on average, only students using Reading Mastery and Success for All met benchmarks, while the lowest scores for students were among those using Houghton Mifflin. In third grade, on average, students did not reach the adequate achievement benchmark. However, Reading Mastery students came closest to the benchmarks because scores among these students were the highest across curricula.

Programs were equally effective (or ineffective) for disadvantaged and middle-class children.

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  1. We’ve known since Project Follow Through that the Direct Instruction works best. The problem is that it contridicts the educational establishments ideas of what instruction should be (constructivist). And, they would rather follow their idealogical rabbit hole then actually insure that the kids can read.

  2. The next question to ask: What happens after third grade, when context, vocabulary and background knowledge become more important to reading proficiency?

  3. Claus has it exactly right: what happens next. Clearly, one of the long-standing weaknesses of the system is that we teach “decoding” in first and second grade, and then simply assign reading for the next ten years.

    The problem is, however, as texts get harder and material becomes more complex, students need assistance in how to tackle the more challenging texts. Especially at the upper levels, all teachers need to teach students how to read for their class. That means all teachers in all content areas. Reading is a learning skill, not an English skill. However, most teachers simply tell students they need to “read it again” or “read it more carefully.”

    Thus, the one book people need to read is by a Denver-area teacher and educational researcher named Cris Tovani. The book, based on her efforts to work with struggling readers, is called “I Read It, but I Don’t Get It.” It literally changed my life as a teacher, moving me from assigning reading to teaching it. Additionally, Tovani has written a follow-up about reading in the content areas called “Do I Really Have to Teach Reading?”

    The answer is yes.

  4. Claus,

    Are you thinking that students are already mastering reading through 3rd grade? Is it possible that with a mastery of 3rd grade reading we’d see reading improvements in subsequent grades without any changes? Of course nothing in this study says changes aren’t needed in subsequent grades as well.

  5. The Reading Mastery curriculum actually continues through 6th grade. The 4th grade program teaches foundational science and history content. For example, it teaches how to read a time line, the 3 states of matter, and much about the solar system including Earth’s rotation around the sun. Basically, it teaches the background knowledge kids need to make sense of history and science in the following grades. It teaches specific vocabulary and directly teaches skills like map reading. Schools using RM usually give it up after 3rd grade because their kids are testing “proficient”.

  6. pm–

    I don’t mean to criticize the study. The question is: Does the foundation laid before third grade prepare students for success after third grade? All too often, low SES students who do quite well until third grade begin to fall off again afterwards. Some, like E.D. Hirsch, argue that those students have become proficient decoders, but that they lack the content knowledge and vocabulary to read more sophisticated texts.

    I do not know RM well enough to comment on its long-term effectiveness. Stacy suggests that it includes important content knowledge in fourth grade. Hirsch and others argue for stronger content- and vocabulary-focus in third grade and earlier–though they do not minimize the critical importance of decoding skills.

    It would be interesting to see how RM fares for students who follow it through 6th grade.

  7. anonymous says:

    Yes, it would be interesting to see how RM fares for students who are taught using it past third grade.

    However, this research should be driving curriculum choice towards RM (from any of the other 5 curricula) for K-3. Resisting this conclusion without providing any significant contradictory data is clear evidence that the curriculum choices are being made on the basis of ideology rather than what would actually benefit children the most.

    Or is there data showing that in 4th grade and later, children taught with RM who used to read well suddenly can’t, and children who struggled to read earlier all of a sudden learn to read proficiently but only if they’ve been taught with other curricula?

  8. Claus,

    For the “fall off” you mentioned, were those students taught reading using direct instruction techniques? Common sense would say that there is more to learn after 3rd grade, I just wonder if a different foundation would have different long term effects.

  9. Michael E. Lopez says:

    It could be just my imagination, but damn if SRA hasn’t been doing things right since I was a kid and I had this really crazy set of question-cards with clear plastic overlays and grease pencils…

  10. For students to succeed in reading after the primary years, they need lots more than just decoding. The density of the vocabulary and the syntactic structures increase rapidly, requiring greater increasing verbal language sophistication. Though I have a minor bone to pick about it, as Don Hirsch developed in his editorial for the NY Times a couple of weeks ago, competence in these areas is not improved by abstacted drills on getting the main idea and such. Stacy got it right: The higher levels of RM include much of this.

    Educators (and I are one) would do well to abandon the search for a magic key that, turned once, creates super-learning students. Just as focusing on phonemic awareness is insufficient, so is simply teaching after phonics going to lead to disappointment. We have to keep on teaching, just as Mr. Mazenko noted. And, it’s not just reading instruction that’s required in the higher grades; we also need additional work on general language competence.

  11. It is important to note that far too often reading/langauge arts instruction is curbed sharply in grades 4-5. If students were in a double-block of reading/language instruction in K-2 (common for many DI implementations) and moved to a single block of instruction from grade 3 on, that will certainly result in a skills lag. I believe there are several studies of how Reading Mastery instruction impacts older students, but I can’t recall any specific ones to memory at this time.

    SRA just started a new website for Direct Instruction teaching programs. They are offering free training webinars, samples, etc… a pretty good (and free) site for Reading Mastery and other direct instruction programs: http://www.sradirectinstruction.com.

  12. Doug Sundseth says:

    I must say that complaints that we shouldn’t use a program because its success on step 2 is unknown is a bit rich when the alternative is a program that utterly fails on step 1. The cliche you want is “making ‘perfect’ the enemy of ‘good'”.

    Decoding skill is not sufficient, but it is absolutely necessary. And “whole language” fails miserably at teaching decoding skill.