Reading Programs

There are two ways to think of reading programs. The first way is to think of a reading program as a product — something that you buy off-the-shelf and plug into your curriculum. The second is to think of it as a curriculum — something that evolves and develops over time, and which is unique to your school and customized to the needs of your students. In the literature, these terms are often used interchangeably, and it can get confusing. It is common to read about a school reform effort that used reading programs such as Saxon Phonics or Reading Recovery as a component in their overall reading program.
To avoid confusion, I’ll be clear: I’m talking about off-the-shelf reading programs here — “subprograms.”

The problem with “subprograms” is people confuse their campus reading curriculum with the campus’ adopted subprogram. Schools are often identified as “Reading Recovery” schools or “Success for All” schools. When administrators are asked to describe their reading curriculum, they might say, “We use Accelerated Reader here.” If the subprogram defines the curriculum, then a large percentage of students will not become successful readers.

There is no subprogram that can insure that all children will become successful readers. In fact, I’ll make a stronger statement — I do not believe that a subprogram could ever be created that would even come close to insuring success for all readers. I base this on the firm belief that only a knowledgeable, flexible teacher who uses assessment data to individualize instruction can help all children.

As Dr. Reid Lyon, director of the child development and behaviorial branch within NICHD, said in a public policy forum presentation:

“…no one program, no one approach is ever going to be equally efficacious, equally beneficial for all kids. No way. There is no magic bullet out there. We have never, in all the clinical trials we’ve been doing on reading instruction, found a program that covered all kids that came in front of that program.”

Lyon went on to say, “So what happens when you’re only reaching 60 percent of the children with the program? Then the teacher has to be able to modify, adjust, influence the representations that that program is giving, alter those in some way so that the program and its contents connect with the internal schema, what the person has in their heads so they get it. But how can teachers do that if they don’t know what it takes to learn to read?”

Reading subprograms, by their very nature, are not responsive to the individual learning needs of children. Reading subprograms can help certain students gain certain skills. But when subprograms dictate reading instruction, some students are left behind and other students are bored.

If EVERY child is to be helped, then it is up to the teacher to take frequent diagnostic assessments, and structure each child’s instruction to complement the learning needs revealed by that assessment. To do this, the teacher must have a very sophisticated understanding of the process of reading acquisition and the cognitive development that accompanies reading acquisition, and the teacher must have a very sophisticated understanding of ongoing diagnostic assessment. Further, the teacher must be adept at individualizing her instruction, moving students around to different instructional groups dynamically, and the teacher must also have a repertoire of powerful instructional activities at her disposal that she can use to address each child’s instructional needs. A reading subprogram may provide some powerful instructional activities, but no reading subprogram really helps the teacher to develop the sophisticated understanding of reading acquisition and reading assessment that is necessary to use those activities to their greatest potential.

And that, as I see it, is the problem with subprograms. We believe at some level that the subprogram can “fix” our struggling schools. Some even strive to create “teacher-proof” reading subprograms. Now, we are turning to computers as surrogates for powerful teachers. The explosion in computer technology and educational software is wondrous, but computer software, no matter how good it is (see C is for Computer Programs), can not take the place of highly qualified teachers.

We are looking for solutions in all the wrong places.

The only solution that will really help all of our children to be successful readers is to address teacher excellence (see H is for Highly Qualified Teachers). Any reading initiative that does not focus primarily on enhancing the teacher’s understanding of reading and reading acquisition is doomed to failure. Any initiative that does not help teachers learn how to take continuous assessments of reading development and respond to that assessment data with individualized instruction is also doomed to failure.

Reading subprograms have come and gone, but student performance has remained unchanged for decades (See N is for NAEP). And there is no reason to believe that student performance ever will change until we start seriously investing in the professional development of our teachers. Preservice training and teacher certification standards must change, but more importantly, schools must make a commitment to enhancing every teacher’s core knowledge about reading and reading acquisition. As Allington and Cunningham said in the final chapter of their excellent book, “Schools that Work Where All Children Read and Write:”

Good schools are collections of good teachers, and creating schools where all children become readers and writers is simply a matter of figuring out how to support teachers in their efforts to develop the reading and writing proficiencies of every student.

Professional Development “Programs”

There are some “programs” which primarily focus on enhancing the knowledge and skills of the teacher (and focus less on enforcing a rigid curriculum), and are therefore worth mentioning.

The Comprehensive Assistance Centers across the country have begun developing what they call the Reading Success Network to bring support to teachers trying to draw upon research information to support their instruction.

The Professional Development Institute (PDI) is promoting the Literacy First Process nation-wide. Their mission is to work systematically and collaboratively with school staff to enable as many children as possible to read beginning materials independently by the middle of first grade and to continue to read grade-level materials as they progress through school. Their professional development strategy focuses on enhancing teacher’s knowledge-base, and on developing systemic solutions to literacy instruction problems.

And Accelerated Schools seems to be devoted to a long-term school enhancement process that focuses primarily on the professional development of the teachers. This is a school-wide, systemic reform model, but as anybody who works in reading knows, to have reading reform in a school, you must address intervention at the level of the whole school and district, and the culture of the campus and district must be examined.

Useful “Subprograms”

Having finished my tirade about subprograms, let me now back off a bit and say, there are some subprograms that are better than others, and some subprograms are actually quite useful when used appropriately. And while I firmly believe that our money, time, and energy should be primarily dedicated to teacher professional development, and while I also firmly believe that a subprogram does not constitute a reading curriculum, I will say that there are some subprograms that are useful resources even for the best, most highly qualified teachers. When teachers are well trained to use assessment data to individualize instruction, they may still turn to a subprogram to provide some structure to that instruction. For example, if a student is having difficulty with reading fluency, the teacher may take advantage of the computer program called Reading Assistant (see C is for Computer Programs) to help that student practice reading with fluency. Similarly, for students who need some instruction in letter-sound relationships, the teacher may use the computer program called Read, Write, and Type.

Kevin Feldman has written two useful, short, informative documents describing different programs that have been shown to help children develop good reading skills and habits. The first is a description of K-6 programs, and the second is a description of programs that can be used to help older struggling readers to develop proficiency.