How Would I Fix Reading First?

  • 28 May, 2008

A recent research report said Reading First failed to improve students’ reading scores. I was disappointed given the hard work of so many teachers, but the study was far from perfect.

The Department of Education was more efficient in getting Reading First underway in the schools than it was in getting the study off the ground, so they couldn’t carry out a nationwide randomized controlled trial. Unfortunately, the study only looked at reading comprehension scores and not at performance in any of the underlying skills that support comprehension (so you can’t tell whether the program impacted those skills or not).

Far more serious was the problem of contamination. While the feds were paying to change the Reading First schools, schools across the nation were adopting the same reforms without this help. It’s good that schools were making these changes, but the more like Reading-First-schools that they became in curriculum, materials, professional development, and assessment, the less chance that Reading First could be shown to be making a difference. If the teaching is the same, you just can’t expect any difference in the outcome.

I have been asked by reporters about whether Reading First should be jettisoned. Obviously, if it doesn’t work, we don’t want it. But the research so far has not convinced me that it can’t be made to work. As sobering as these data are, I think they should move us to change Reading First rather than kill it.

So what would a new and improved Reading First look like?

1. Amount of instruction would increase.
The feds required Reading First schools to commit to 90 minutes per day of reading instruction. I’ve been critical about that amount because according to surveys, that is less time than the typical primary grade teacher teaches reading. If you want to increase achievement, it is wise to increase the amount of instruction. Reading First contracts should commit schools to 120-180 minutes a day of reading and writing instruction.

2. Greater flexibility in instructional time.
Another Reading First rule is that the 90 minutes of instruction must be uninterrupted. That means that the PA system shouldn’t be going off every two minutes during reading time, or that the “special” teachers shouldn’t be pulling kids out of class during that time. I certainly agree with protecting time as well as you can from these intrusions, but generally, it’s the amount of teaching that matters—not the structure of it. Anyone who has taught first grade (I have) knows you can’t teach for 90 minutes uninterrupted by bathroom breaks. I’d be more flexible with the time. The Reading First implementation study found Reading First kids were getting less than an hour a day of teaching. I blame the “reading block” concept. When 10:30 AM comes, teachers are done teaching reading. I prefer that teachers provide the full allotment of time, no matter what the clock says. In other words, more flexible scheduling should mean kids get their allotted amount of teaching—no matter how long it takes.

3. Include writing in the curriculum.
The National Reading Panel (NRP) examined five aspects of the curriculum (phonemic awareness, phonics, reading comprehension, vocabulary, and oral reading fluency) and found that instruction in each of these provided students with learning benefits. The panel did not look at writing instruction, but if it had it would have found two important facts: writing can be taught and the teaching of writing can be done in ways that help reading achievement. Reading First followed the research very closely in some policies, and not so closely in others. If the problem with writing was that it was not reviewed by NRP, then I suggest that this is a profitable area to go beyond the officially-reviewed research.

4. Expansion of phonemic awareness to include phonological awareness.
The National Reading Panel reviewed the research on phonemic awareness and found that teaching it was beneficial in kindergarten and grade one. Unfortunately, a lot of young children struggle unnecessarily with phonemic awareness. At least during the first half of kindergarten (and for those kids who seem to be going at a snail’s pace in developing PA), it is wiser to focus attention on larger sound units (phonological awareness), including word separations, syllables, and onsets-rimes. Expand the curricular focus in this area, especially with younger kids.

5. Greater focus on comprehension, vocabulary, and fluency in professional development.
The Reading First implementation study found that Reading First teachers were doing nothing different from other Title I teachers with regard to comprehension and vocabulary instruction (and in most grade levels, oral reading fluency). This suggests to me that the professional development for these teachers (and the materials adoption) did not stress the research findings of reading comprehension, fluency, and vocabulary. Reading First should thoroughly implement all the research findings, not just some of them.

6. Spread the reform over 2-3 years.
Reading First teachers had to learn a new curriculum and new instructional approaches and implement them. They had to adopt a new core curriculum. They had to adopt new assessments. They needed to put in place new interventions for low readers. All of these are good things to do, but in Reading First they were all to be implemented in Year 1. I would suggest that a more effective approach would be to implement these reforms over time. Year 1 upgrades the program and get the new instruction in place, Year 2 start monitoring instruction with classroom assessments and put in place pull-out interventions. Year 3 add classroom interventions to the mix and so on. Give Reading First teachers a chance to get good with these things.

7. Ban use of monitoring assessments as accountability tests.
It’s a great idea to have teachers using assessment data to identify whether kids are learning what they need to. It is a dumb idea to use that data to determine if the teachers are doing a good job or if the program is working. Teachers should have no reason to “cheat” on monitoring assessments. I saw lots of children who were not learning adequately made to look like they were on DIBELS so that the teachers’ scores would look good. Blah! Using monitoring tests for accountability undermines their success.

8. Focus coaches on coaching and expand professional development.
Reading First schools hired coaches. But these coaches spent an awful lot of time juggling DIBELS data, managing book orders and book rooms, and helping the principals administer the school reading program. The main focus of the coaches should be on improving teaching and that means they should spend most of their time on coaching, observing, critiquing, answering teacher questions, doing workshops, etc. Eighty percent of the coaching time should be devoted to coaching.

9. Involve parents.
The Bush administration was upset that teachers take so little responsibility for kids’ learning that they wanted all of the focus of Reading First on what the schools can do. I am sympathetic to the view that educators need to take greater responsibility, but not to the degree that I’m unwilling to ask for parents’ help. The research says that parents can help their children learn to read. If we are going to spend all this money, we need a “full-tilt boogie” kind of response to kids’ learning—doing everything, and I mean everything, that we can to help them read better. Leaving the parents out of this is hurting.

10. Expand the grades covered.
Reading First focused only on improving the teaching of reading in grades K to 3. It would be wise to aim it at entire elementary schools, no matter what grades they include. The research base of Reading First was not drawn entirely from research on the primary grades, and the implementation of this program needs to be widened. It will be easier to implement some of these changes if they are school-wide, instead of just primary (that may also focus teachers and coaches on comprehension and writing more, too). 

11. Include classroom management in the professional development.
At least some of the professional development that the coaches could provide should be focused on classroom management and discipline. One of the major reasons Reading First teachers squandered about a third of the required teaching time was due to poor classroom management. Better managed classes provide a greater opportunity for learning to read, so Reading First should expand its menu of required professional development topics to include an emphasis on time use and management, not just on reading instruction itself. 

12. Help English learners more.
The National Reading Panel did not look at research on second-language learners so Reading First did not adequately address these students’ needs. Now the National Literacy Panel for Language Minority Children and Youth has reviewed this research and Reading First should make some adjustments for the needs of English learners. One of the biggest points that should be made is that it is essential that there be an English oral language period or ESL time included in the instructional model for these kids.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Independent Scholar Jul 02, 2017 01:57 AM

I especially agree with your suggestions 7, 8, and 9. My opinion is that explicit sound-blending and sound-spelling of actual vocabulary (ie. words-to-be-read) ahead of time, is the solution. To this end, free materials are offered at parents must eventually provide this type of explicit "reading readiness" (either by themselves, or by hiring tutors) or whether teachers will perhaps be allowed the freedom to choose and use this no-nonsense approach, who knows?

Howard Seeman Jul 02, 2017 01:58 AM


You make some good points above. However, I also think that this can be helpful to you: Go to: If you get this book and video: PREVENTING Classroom Discipline Problems, [they are in many libraries, so you don't have to buy them] email me and I can refer you to the sections of the book and the video [that demonstrates the effective vs. the ineffective teacher] that can help you. [I also teach an online course on these issues that may be helpful to you ]If you cannot get the book or video, email me and I will try to help.Best regards, Howard Howard Seeman, Ph.D.Professor Emeritus,City Univ. of New York

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How Would I Fix Reading First?


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