The Chicago Reading Framework

  • Oral Reading Fluency Reading comprehension Vocabulary improving Reading Achievement Phonological awareness
  • 12 November, 2007

For several years, I have used a basic framework for guiding my action in the public schools. I have used this framework as a consultant when guiding others to improve achievement, and I used it myself as director of reading of the Chicago Public Schools. The description below lays out some of the basics. This is a piece I wrote for my teachers and principals in Chicago awhile back, to give them a sense of the essential direction that instruction needs to take.  

          The Chicago Reading Framework emerged from work that I have done in schools during the past eight years. The project started in one low income, inner city school and has now grown to more than 200 schools throughout Illinois and around the United States. The reason why this project has been so successful, and why the Chicago Public Schools now has adopted it system wide, is two-fold. First, it has been successful in helping many schools improve reading achievement. Chicago children need to do better in reading and the past successes of this framework—and the success of similar efforts elsewhere—holds great promise for our children. Second, this approach tries to build upon and take advantage of our current professional knowledge and strengths. Although this framework does offer some new direction and guidance, it does not try to replace all of what we are already doing. Chicago schools have many successes and this framework should support continuation of those things that are already working well in the teaching of reading.

 Chicago Reading Framework

          The Chicago Reading Framework starts from the premise that effective school reading instruction can teach most children to read. This premise is not just a wishful hope—principals and teachers, including some in Chicago, already have used this model to improve reading at their schools. And we are not just talking about improving reading test scores, at least not directly. Our goal should not be to have higher test scores, but to teach children to read so well that their test scores reflect the improvement. That kind of improvement is best accomplished through an emphasis on reading instruction rather than on better test preparation and the like. That is why the Chicago Reading Initiative is investing so much in the continued professional development of our teachers.

          The Chicago Reading Framework is based upon syntheses of large amounts of educational research. Research can tell us whether particular approaches are likely to be successful based on how well they have succeeded in the past, and it can give us sound guidance with regard to how to implement programs more successfully. This framework is consistent with several syntheses of reading research such as the National Reading Panel Report (2000), the Prevention of Reading Difficulties (1998), and Becoming a Nation of Readers (1984), as well as local school evaluation studies such as those conducted by the Chicago School Research Consortium.

          Before presenting what the Framework is and what it should provide, let’s consider what it is not. First, the Framework is not a program, per se. It has no specific instructional materials tied to it. It does not require the use of specific instructional methods or activities. The research is clear: Many programs and materials work and there is not one way to successfully teach reading. Of course, some approaches are likely to be more successful than others. Teachers should rely on what they already know to begin addressing children’s reading needs, and over time—if appropriate—they will be guided to improve upon their current efforts. In the meantime, the Framework will focus attention on what needs to be taught and on ensuring that children receive sufficient amounts of teaching in each area.

          A natural tendency of teachers and principals is to delay implementation until they feel that they completely understand the framework. In this case, that would be a big mistake. Chicago Public School teachers know a lot. Let’s start using that knowledge immediately to help Chicago children become better readers. We’ll refine the quality of what we do as we proceed, but for now it is time to get started.

Amount of Instruction

          It is essential that schools offer substantial amounts of reading and writing instruction. Surveys show that the average elementary teacher provides only about 55 minutes per day of direct reading and language arts instruction using activities that research indicates have much possibility of improving reading achievement (Baumann & Hoffman, 1999). Studies clearly show that increases in academic learning time can improve reading achievement (Rosenshine & Stevens, 1984); however, with the exception of Cunningham’s (1991) Four-Block Plan which addresses the needs of beginning readers, teacher education materials have been virtually silent on the use of time in reading instruction. Methods texts and other ancillary publications cite its importance, but say almost nothing about how to use or manage instructional time in reading. Consequently, teachers are left to figure out on their own how much time to spend on reading instruction or how to apportion instructional time among the various components of reading. Time allotment decisions are especially difficult for upper grade teachers because of departmentalization.

          The Chicago Reading Framework establishes a 2–3 hour per day minimum time standard for reading and writing instruction and encourages schools to explore additional ways (i.e., before-school, after-school, summer programs, parent involvement, homework) for expanding instructional opportunity beyond the regular school day. Teachers and principals are cautioned against expending daily instructional time on activities that research has shown to be ineffective for literacy improvement (though they can still use such activities as long as they do not reduce the amount of reading and writing instruction), but teachers are free to experiment with activities that have not yet been researched. The idea is to provide all students with the maximum opportunity to learn to read and write while maintaining adequate amounts of time to teach math, science, history/social studies, and other school subjects. The time allotments for reading and writing are great, but so is the need.

           Teachers can organize this 2–3 hour time allotment in many ways. In other words, this is not a 2–3 hour time block, though schools can do this. Teachers, for instance, are not expected to provide all of their reading instruction between 9:00AM and 11:00AM each morning. Classroom schedules are complex and reading instruction can be provided throughout the day. This means that the Framework will fit a wide range of classroom schedules, and that teachers should be able to improvise plans that meet their student needs and the actual instructional circumstances of a particular school. Instruction in reading within social studies, science, and mathematics can count, too.

Focus on Essential Content

           Reading instruction should emphasize those skills or abilities that research has shown to be essential to reading development. Accordingly, the Chicago Reading Framework includes four basic categories, or components, of instruction—word knowledge, fluency, comprehension, and writing. The Framework requires that classroom teachers emphasize equally each of these four aspects in their reading instruction. That means that teachers should devote approximately one-quarter of the instructional time to each of these areas of development. This time equivalence is to be accomplished over a period of time (1–2 weeks) rather than on a daily basis. This ensures that students will receive instruction in all of the essential parts of reading, but that teachers will not be unduly constrained by a lockstep format that restricts creativity and engagement and that does not permit the flexibility necessary to accommodate to the demands of real classroom settings.

           To be included as an instructional component, five criteria had to be met, criteria established on the basis of a thorough review of existing empirical research and clinical reports. (a) It was essential that there exist experimental or quasi-experimental studies that evaluated the teachability of each category. So, for example, studies had to show that vocabulary instruction (a part of word knowledge) led to better vocabulary growth or that fluency instruction led to more fluent reading. (b) It was required that studies show the generalizability of each component by demonstrating that improvements in each component led to improved overall reading achievement, at least for some populations. Thus, studies had to show that writing instruction not only led to better writing, but to better reading achievement as well. (c) It was required that studies demonstrate the combinability of the four components by showing that various measurements of each component correlated positively and significantly with the other components and with overall reading achievement. (d) It was required that there be evidence demonstrating the independence, or separability, of each category. Such evidence includes case studies of precocious, learning disabled, or brain-injured subjects who were able to make gains in one component without commensurate or similar development in the others, or who made gains in three of the components without equivalent progress in the remaining one. (e) Finally, it was required that developmental studies reveal different growth curves for each category. These criteria, applied together, suggested Word Knowledge, Fluency, Comprehension, and Writing as four related, yet separable components of literacy growth that are amenable to teaching, and that when taught, are likely to lead to higher reading achievement.

           Recently, the National Reading Panel was appointed to inform the U.S. Congress about the implications of reading research for the teaching of reading. The panel in their report (NRP, 2000) found that instruction in three of the framework categories—word knowledge (including phonics, phonemic awareness, and word meaning), fluency, comprehension—made a clear difference in reading achievement for elementary and secondary level students, and the fourth category of the framework—writing—has been shown to be effective as well in previous research syntheses (Tierney & Shanahan, 1991).

           The first category, Word Knowledge, includes instruction in sight vocabulary, phonemic awareness, phonics, spelling, and word meanings. The second category, Fluency, emphasizes speed, accuracy, and expression in the reading of connected text. Comprehension is the third category, and it includes both understanding text and learning from text, emphasizing literary and content (sciences, history, etc.) reading. Writing is the final component, consisting of students’ learning to compose their own texts effectively for a variety of purposes. These four categories are all equally important across the various grade levels, but the emphasis within categories shifts somewhat over time. For example, early word instruction centers on phonemic awareness, phonics, and sight vocabulary, but as children accomplish these, the emphasis switches to the study of word meanings throughout the higher grades. In another example, initial instruction might place greater emphasis on literary (narrative) reading or writing as part of instruction in comprehension or composing, but this emphasis shifts to a greater focus on studying and composing expository or explanatory content texts as students get older.

         Word knowledge. Word knowledge includes both word recognition and word meaning instruction. In Kindergarten through third grade, it is imperative that teachers provide children with substantial amounts of word recognition instruction. Phonemic awareness instruction (teaching children to hear and manipulate the separable sounds in words) should be part of the focus of reading instruction in the preschool and kindergarten years. Most children will benefit from approximately 20 hours of phonemic awareness instruction (about 15 minutes per day for a semester), but such instruction should continue until students are able to fully segment simple words (such as dividing the word cat into its separate sounds: /k/ /a/ /t/).

            Beginning in Kindergarten and continuing for about three years, children should receive daily phonics instruction. Phonics instruction should provide children with three kinds of knowledge: they should learn the letter names and sounds; they should learn how to read many of the common spelling patterns in the language (i.e., eat, ane, tion, ing); and, they should learn to use this information to decode new words and to spell words (that means reading practice should be part of the phonics instruction).

           During these early years, there also should be emphasis on teaching children sight vocabulary—that is, words that they can recognize immediately without sounding or any other obvious mediation. High frequency words like the, of, was, can, saw, there, to, for, and so on need to be learned to a high level of proficiency. Teachers can use many word lists to guide their focus here including the Dolch list, Fry list, or Cunningham’s word list. The key is teaching children to recognize such word quickly and accurately.

           After about three years of phonics instruction and sight vocabulary instruction, most word teaching should shift to an emphasis on vocabulary or word meaning. As with phonics and phonemic awareness instruction, a wide range of vocabulary methods or materials can work successfully. The best instructional efforts require students to use the vocabulary in a wide variety of ways (speaking, listening, reading, writing), and they require students to analyze and explore rich definitions of the words and their relationships with other words. Effective vocabulary instruction also builds in a substantial amount of review.

          Spelling instruction is an important part of word teaching, too. It should help students to spell in a conventional way, and it can provide them with an opportunity to think systematically about how words are structured. Spelling instruction needs to be kept brief, and it is probably best taught in conjunction with the phonics and word meaning teaching that should have the major emphasis.

           Fluency. Fluency refers to the ability to read a text with sufficient speed, accuracy, and expression. Although fluency refers to both silent and oral reading, the research suggests that oral reading instruction is most effective for developing this ability in students. Activities like paired or assisted reading, in which students take turns reading portions of a text aloud to each other, giving each other feedback, and rereading the text multiple times until it can be done well have been found to be effective from the primary grades through high school.

           If a student is fluent with a particular text, the teacher has two choices. First, if the teacher believes that the student is placed in an appropriate text for reading, then he or she only has to continue to monitor the child’s reading (by listening) and the amount of fluency instruction for this student can be reduced (fluency is the only component of the framework that can be reduced in terms of time coverage—and it can only be done so if the students are already fluent at an appropriate level). Second, if the teacher thinks the student should be working in more difficult materials, then he or she can have the child practice fluency in more difficult texts, including in social studies or science books.

           Students who are fluent can usually read a text with only about one mistake per hundred words, and they can read the text smoothly and quickly. Young children (through second grade) should strive to read a text about 60–80 words per minute), while for older children reading should proceed at 100+ words per minute. Students need to punctuation and pause appropriately so that the text sounds like language.

          Reading Comprehension. Students need to be taught to understand text independently. Comprehension instruction includes three components. First, we teach children to seek particular types of information. Second, we teach children how text is organized or structured and how to use these organizational plans to remember information from text more effectively. Third, we teach children a variety of strategies or actions that they can take before, during, and after reading to improve their understanding and recall.

          For young children, learning what information to pay attention to when they read might be tied to general ideas such as knowing that good readers focus on both literal information that the author explicitly tells you, inferential information that you have to interpret based upon information that the author has provided, and prior knowledge or the information that you bring to a text. As children get older, and the reading demands get more challenging and more disciplinary, instruction needs to show them what kinds of information to seek when they are reading history or science or mathematics or literature.

           Text organizations vary greatly across narrative and expository text. Students need experience and instruction in dealing with both of these. For reading narratives, children need to learn about plot structure (including characters, problems, solutions, outcomes, etc.). Knowing the organizational structures of a story help children to identify key information and to remember the story later. Similarly, students need to know about various ways that expository texts are organized (such as problem-solution, cause-effect, comparison-contrast), including knowing that particular types of information will be provided in particular texts. For example, social studies books will usually provide information on geography, economics, culture, and history. Students can use this information to think more effectively about how the author is presenting a particular culture or era.

           There are also a plethora of techniques that can be used by kids to think about text more effectively. Teaching students to monitor their reading (to make sure that they are understanding and to ask for help when they are not), to ask their own questions, to summarize, and to translate text into graphic form are just a few of the techniques that can be taught.

            Finally, it is essential that all of us remember that students benefit from comprehension instruction—not just practice. Many teachers give students reading assignments that require the answering of questions, but such practice is insufficient. Children need to be taught how to comprehend effectively.

            Writing. Children need to be able to write their own texts as well as being able to read what others have written. Reading and writing depend on much of the same information (including knowledge of spelling patterns, text organization, vocabulary, etc.), and learning to read and write simultaneously can give children an advantage. Writing should teach children to write for a variety of purposes and audiences, using strategies and actions that will allow them to solve various problems of writing. The compositions that children develop should be meaningful and effective.

           Children need to know how to retell events (narrative writing), explain and analyze information (exposition), and argue a position (persuasion), and our instruction should show them how to do these effectively. Children need to know how to alter their voice and message to meet the needs of an audience, and they need instruction in how to write text for themselves, for others who share much information with them, and for those audiences at a greater distance of time and space and shared knowledge (such as writing for publication). Students need to know how to write compositions that are appropriately elaborated, focused on a single topic, organized clearly, and that reflect proper mechanics, usage, grammar, and spelling. And students need to have a variety of techniques that they can use effectively to prepare for writing and to revise and edit what they have drafted.

           The Chicago Reading Initiative will provide professional development in all four areas for teachers and principals. However, such efforts will take time. Teachers can begin teaching in all four areas using their current knowledge and expertise, and they can improve upon those efforts through their own professional development efforts as well as through those opportunities provided by the Chicago Public Schools.

            Sometimes I am asked why a particular item is not included in this system: formal grammar instruction, language transition work for second language students, free reading time, teacher reading, and so on. The reason is that none of these has been shown by research to improve achievement for children across the grades. However, these kinds of activities can still be used in CPS classrooms. They just cannot be counted towards the two hours of required instruction.


           Powerful reading instruction is longitudinal. It builds quality upon quality, across classes, grade levels, and schools—and it does so across the complexity of program offerings that most schools provide (Title programs, special education, preschool, after school, etc.). The Chicago Reading Framework should help to establish continuity, or connectedness, across teachers at all grade levels, and from all aspects of a school or district instructional program. Entire school faculties, not just reading teachers, need to teach using the Framework. Any professional in the Chicago Public Schools whose teaching requires the use of written materials or texts are expected to be part of the effort.

            It has been traditional to focus reading efforts at particular levels such as first grade, primary grades, or grade levels in which retention decisions have to be made. The piling up of resources at these points is likely not the best way to build effective programs for children. We need to maximize our efforts across the entire system since reading development is essential for student success in academic areas such as science, history, and mathematics, as well as for their future participation in society. The Framework treats all levels of instruction as being important to students’ development.

           There are many ways that schools can ensure continuity. For example, it is possible to purchase some commercial programs that will provide some consistency of content coverage. However, commercial programs are just one alternative for accomplishing such continuity. Continuity can be accomplished through teachers arriving at a set of social agreements or shared, specific curricular goals including a clear specification of which grade levels will take responsibility for teaching particular content. We encourage principals and faculties to engage in planning and decision-making that will ensure greater continuity across the grade levels. Over time, we will provide greater guidance in this area, but we will do so—at least in part—based on the local efforts in our most successful schools. In other words, we will strive for greater continuity and consistency in the future, but we will not do this through arbitrary mandates from the top.

Assessment and Evaluation

          Another way to ensure that we have an effective reading program is to provide appropriate assessment. I am not speaking about formal achievement tests like the ITBS or ISAT here. Those tests have their place, but it is not in improving daily instruction. Teachers and principals must be aware of how well their children are learning their lessons so that they can make the appropriate and necessary adjustments along the way.

         If a teacher is teaching sight vocabulary, she needs to know whether children are learning the words that are being taught. Such knowledge will allow the teacher to slow down or speed up or to intensify the effort. Similarly, a teacher needs ways of monitoring whether children are making progress in fluency or with comprehension strategies or that their students’ writing is improving. Many teachers already collect such information on their children and are able to provide feedback to parents and improvements to daily instruction. Principals need to be able to access this type of information as well so that they better support their teachers’ efforts.

            The Chicago Reading Initiative will eventually provide schools with improved support for ongoing assessment in the four instructional areas to help teachers to improve their teaching, as well as to improve our own monitoring of your success. That way we can get the resources where they are needed and we will increase our effectiveness with all children.


          Educational research has accumulated over the past 30 years and it has overwhelmingly argued for greater time, greater focus on the essentials of learning, greater continuity, and greater awareness of children’s progress. The Chicago Reading Framework attempts to address each of these concerns—and over time, we will try to provide assistance to all teachers to help them to do so. Though research supports focusing instruction on the four key elements—words, fluency, comprehension, and writing—each could be argued for on the basis of commonsense alone. And yet, in too many schools and classrooms, these basics are sometimes ignored.

          Children who struggle tend to receive less instruction than their more successful peers. They are, likewise, less likely to receive well balanced instruction that addresses all of these key areas of concern, and there are likely to be fewer supports for continuity and ongoing assessment. It is also often in these schools that there is the greatest desire by policymakers to impose a “magic bullet” solution upon the teachers. However, research is clear that there is no magic bullet. What is needed is sound teaching, sound supervision, and lots of it. We need to ensure that these necessary conditions exist in all Chicago Public Schools. Energetic, intelligent, high quality teaching remains the best solution to our reading problems, and the Chicago Reading Framework should help marshal such teaching towards our children’s needs. In the coming days, months, and years, we will be providing resources to help you to use the Framework most effectively. However, until such support is available, there is no reason not to provide children with sufficient amounts of instruction devoted to these key areas of development. We know what to do. The time is now.


Baumann, J., and Hoffman, J. (1999.) The first r revisited: A national survey of educational practices. Reading Research Quarterly.

 Cunningham, P. M. (1991). Multimethod, multilevel literacy instruction in first grade. Language Arts, 68, 578–584.

National Assessment of Educational Progress. (1999). NAEP 1998 Reading Report Card. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

National Reading Panel. (2000). The report of the National Reading Panel. Washington, DC: National Institute of Child Health and Development. (2000). 

Tierney, R., and Shanahan, T. (1991). Reading-writing relationships: Proc­esses, transac­tions, out­ comes. In P. D. Pearson, R. Barr, M. Kamil, and P. Mosenthal (Eds.), Hand­book of Reading Research (vol 2., pp. 246-280). New York: Longman.


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The Chicago Reading Framework


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He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.