Classroom Instruction

The most important gift that can be given to a child is the gift of literacy. And for many children, the only person who is in a position to share that gift is their classroom teacher. Many children come from homes that do not support or value literacy or even education. Their linguistic foundations are not as solid as those of their peers, and their preparation for formal learning environments is simply inadequate. For these children, the question must be asked, “if not their teacher, then who?”
Catherine Snow shared the results of a study in her book Unfulfilled Expectations (1991). She examined children with a great deal of home support, and compared them to children with low levels of home support. Not surprisingly, children with low levels of home support did not achieve as much success as children with high levels of home support. Snow then looked at the influence that classroom support could have with these children. She found that a few years of instruction from a strong teacher could level the playing field for children from low-support homes.

In Snow’s study, after two years of instruction with a strong, knowledgeable reading teacher, there was no measurable difference in academic achievement between children who came from low-support homes and children who came from high-support homes. In her study, 100% of the children in both categories experienced high levels of academic success.

At the other end of the spectrum, students who spent two years with a “weak” classroom teacher achieved considerably less academic success. Children who came from low-support homes who were placed in low-support classrooms struggled and floundered in class. And alarmingly, about 40% of the students who came from HIGH-support homes ALSO struggled and floundered in low-support classrooms.

Percentage of children who achieve success with varying levels of home and classroom support

High home support Low home support
High Classroom Support 100% 100%
Mixed Classroom Support 100% 25%
Low Classroom Support 60% 0%

For all children, the importance of a highly-qualified, knowledgeable reading teacher is paramount. Without an artful teacher providing good foundations in reading skills, all children are at risk for reading difficulties, and as a result, are also at risk for general academic and financial failure (See “C is for Consequences for Reading Failure”).
The key to effective reading instruction is assessment. Teachers, especially early reading teachers, must become highly skilled at using focused, ongoing assessment to diagnose each student’s reading development, and further, teachers must constantly use that assessment information to structure focused, individualized instruction for each student. For more information about using assessment to inform instruction, see “A is for Assessment.”

Teaching a child to read is complicated, and cultivating teachers who are extremely adept at teaching all children to read takes an investment of time and money. Schools too often are looking for quick fixes for their reading programs, but those quick fixes often impede the development of a good, research-based, long-term reading initiative that could support the development of highly trained and knowledgeable reading teachers. However, as Snow’s research has shown us, all childen — even children who come from high-support homes — are at risk if they do not have highly-trained and knowledgeable reading teachers.

Here is a wonderful resource put together by McKenna that describes other web-based resources that are available to help teachers with their reading instruction.

The Southwest Education Development Laboratory has a database that describes effective, early reading instructional activities and which also describes some published resources that are available for purchase. For teachers looking for ideas on, for example, how to teach children phoneme awareness, this database may be helpful. Go to and look for the Instructional Resources Database and the Instructional Activities Database.

Campus and district leaders must play a more active role in school improvement if all children are to become successful readers. Check out L is for Leadership for more information on the role that campus and district leaders can play in helping all children learn to read proficiently.

Also, if there is one book that stands out as an excellent overview of what really matters in early reading instruction, it is the book by Allington and Cunningham called “Classrooms that Work: They Can All Read and Write.” This book is very readable and describes some realistic solutions to some very real problems facing classroom teachers. “Classrooms that Work” is #2 behind Marilyn Jager Adam’s book “Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print” on my list of books that I believe every classroom teacher should read and be familiar with.

And I heartily recommend the book Reading Researchers in Search of Common Ground by Rona Flippo. This is a collection of articles by various reading researchers, and many of the topics focus on the importance of teacher training. I especially enjoyed the chapter by Scott Paris titled “Developing readers.” It was very readable and very informative.