Reading First

[Click here for the full version of this article as published in Critical Literacy Vol. 3, No.2]

A front page article in Education Week  (May 7, 2008) proclaims that “Reading First Doesn’t Help Pupils ‘Get It.'” This assessment is based on the U.S. Department of Education’s Reading First Impact Report. For those of you who are not aware, Reading First is a Federally funded grant program for “failing” school districts that use textbooks approved by the Federal government as being based on “scientifically based reading instruction.” What makes it scientifically based? That it presumably follows the advice of the National Reading Panel. The question becomes, why haven’t such programs shown effectiveness if they are scientifically based?

It turns out that where these reading programs are failing is in the area of “reading comprehension.” The report documents that schools using the program are increasing their use of the recommended practices. These programs do appear to help at so called decoding skills. However, the use of these recommended practices and these gains in decoding skills do not appear to translate into improvements in actual reading—that is, making meaning of text. Those who actually read the Reading Panel’s report should not be surprised. The fact is that the report did not have any evidence that the recommended strategies would help in reading comprehension. The only “scientifically based evidence” the panel found was that a limited amount of systematic phonics and phonemic awareness instruction would raise scores on tests of phonics and phonemic awareness for “regular” beginner readers(1). Just as in the evidence from the programs used in the field, there was no evidence in the Reading Panel’s report that such practices improved reading comprehension.

That advancement of such skills would raise actual reading ability is based on a theory of reading that is in fact quite controversial among reading researchers and specialists. Many of the foremost reading researchers, theorists and specialists have always contended that only a minimal amount of “skills-based” teaching is helpful, and that reading is most effectively learned through… reading(2)! (With support and help from those who already know how.) Moreover, the Reading Panel report found evidence for even this limited effectiveness of the skills-based approach only for students who were not shown to be problem readers, have learning difficulties nor to be second language learners. Yet these Reading First programs are often used for students of all types. In California, teachers are often mandated to use these programs in schools serving overwhelmingly Latino students whose dominant language is Spanish—in the name of scientifically–based curriculum. These skills–based strategies are applied in these programs for a much larger proportion of the teaching day than the research supports (more than a minimal amount is overkill—it’s like trying to pour more water into an already full glass). And at grades that the research has no evidence for effectiveness (the research on these approaches only looked at first or second grade). Students, whether they are already reading fluently for meaning or not, at all grade levels, are spending hours every week on decoding and phonics skills in these programs.

A friend of mine teaches kindergarten at one of these Reading First schools. The school is made up of over 90% Latino students. On the phone with her just the other day, she was telling me how they are constantly advised to examine the data on the students (another educational buzzword currently popular is “data-driven instruction”). She tells me that she is all for examining and basing instruction on data about her students. In fact the school spends considerable staff development time doing just that—examining the scores of the students so they know just where each student is. She can tell you exactly where each of her students measures up on all of the assessments which are carried out at the end of each six-week unit. Yet then she is told to keep all the students on the same page at the same time, and that she should not deviate from the script in the textbook (see, we’re not leaving them behind, they are on the same page as all the other students!). So what good does it do her to have this data? This practice ignores the research on the uselessness of teaching above students level of understanding(3). If you move on when students don’t get it, they certainly aren’t going to get the next lesson which builds on knowledge from the previous lessons, especially in a skills–based approach(4)! Her story of being mandated to use a one-size-fits-all approach is one I see and hear repeatedly from many of the student teachers and the experienced teachers I work with as a professor of teacher education, particularly those working with low-income minority children.

One of the worst problems of such programs is that they not only ignore the expertise that teachers bring to teaching their actual students—they try to prohibit it! Good teachers have always known that different children learn in different ways. Anyone who has taught knows that. Any parent with more than one child knows that. Good teaching is about figuring out that way for each student. If we really want to “Leave No Child Behind,” we have to stop tying teachers hands with scripted one-size-fits-all programs. We must allow them to do what they are trained to do, and spend a career getting better at—figuring out how the actual students sitting in front of them learn, and adapt their teaching to the students, not the other way around! (Which is part of the argument for small class sizes, but that’s another topic).

[Click here for the full version of this article as published in Critical Literacy Vol. 3, No.2]


1. Elaine M. Garan, “What Does the Report of the National Reading Panel Really Tell Us About Teaching Phonics.” Language Arts 79, no.1 (2001): 61-71.

2. Edward A. Chittenden, Terry S. Salinger, and Ann M. Bussis, Inquiry into Meaning: An Investigation of Learning to Read (New York: Teachers College Press, 2001). Gerald Coles, Misreading Reading: The Bad Science That Hurts Children (Heinemann, 2000); Kenneth S. Goodman, In Defense Of Good Teaching: What Teachers Need to Know about the “Reading Wars” (York, Me: Stenhouse Publishers, 1998); Stephen D. Krashen, Three Arguments against Whole Language & Why They Are Wrong (Heinemann, 1999); Jeff McQuillan, Literacy Crisis: False Claims, Real Solutions (Heinemann, 1998); and Frank Smith, Understanding Reading: A Psycholinguistic Analysis of Reading and Learning to Read. 6th ed. (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004).

3. John D. Bransford, Ann L. Brown, and Rodney L. Cocking, How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2000); and Linda Darling-Hammond, Barbara Low, Bob Rossbach, and Jay Nelson. The Learning Classroom: Theory into Practice (Burlington, VT: Annenberg/CPB, 2003).

4. James H. Block & Robert B. Burns, “Mastery Learning.” Review of the Research in Education, 4 (1976) 3-49; and J. Ronald Gentile & James P. Lalley, Standards and Mastery Learning (Corwin Press, 2003).


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