What does it mean to follow a reading program?

  • 20 April, 2024

Blast from the Past: This blog entry first posted on May 5, 2018, and re-posted on April 20, 2024. The reason for this re-post is twofold: I received the letter below from an educational consultant who was troubled about how some school districts were using commercial reading programs and wanted my take on it. Also, recently, some critics have been making claims about the appropriate design of commercial reading programs if they were to be used successfully to enhance literacy achievement – unproven design claims that seem to come out of the same camp that this letter was reacting to. Given that I have reprinted the 2018 blog entry, but have added research references, several new paragraphs at the bottom, and a link to an even older blog that carries additional relevant information. The original blog post generated a great deal of discussion, so be sure to follow the link at the end to see the 62 comments. I think readers will find those to be thought-provoking as well.

Teacher question: I am currently working in two large school districts that have purchased certain commercial programs and materials that claim to be SOR. Both districts insist that all schools implement these programs with ‘fidelity.’ The schools within these districts vary enormously. Some serve majority ELLs and recent immigrants, some serve mostly children from professional families, some serve a majority of low-income families. I cannot understand how it could make sense for teachers in such widely varied settings to read the same words from the teachers’ manual, present the same information with the same materials to expect the same outcomes. The notion of fidelity seems very confusing to me. What am I missing?

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Shanahan response:

Years ago, I was invited to coach some teachers. I’ve done a lot of that over the past almost 50 years. I watch a lesson, and the teacher and I sit down and discuss how it may be improved.

But this was going to be a strange situation.

The school had adopted a curriculum program I’d developed. They hadn’t told me that. Now I was to critique teachers who were using my lessons. Uncomfortable territory.

The principal assured me it would be fine since the classes using my stuff were doing well—better test scores than in the past. I wasn’t so sure.

Two teachers were using the program: one was experienced but she’d never taught reading before, and the other was a rookie.

I watched the first teacher, had the follow up meeting… nothing remarkable.

But then I sat in on the neophyte’s class. She wasn’t a superstar—yet. But she was darn good, one of those lessons that probably couldn’t get much better. What she may have lacked in artfulness, she more than made up in fundamental teaching chops. Heinemann probably wouldn’t sign her to a book contract, but you’d be pleased if she were teaching your kids!

During that lesson I started to think I was pretty wonderful. Here was a fresh-faced beginning teacher, a greenie, working with a challenged bunch of kids and outperforming past teachers… using my program. Magic!

Then I came to my senses.

For instance, when presenting the brilliant vocabulary lesson that I’d designed, the rook would sometimes add an extra example of a word’s meaning; other times, she omitted one.

The same kind of thing happened during the comprehension portion of the lesson: Sometimes she’d ask the wonderful questions as I’d written them, sometimes she’d recast one or omit one or add one.

It looked like she was following my lesson plan, and she was, kinda. But she was also sort of teaching her own lesson.

When we sat down for our debriefing, she immediately thanked me for designing such a wonderful program. She explained that she wouldn’t have known what to do if it hadn’t been for me. That was true—in a way. And, yet it was only part of the reason for her pedagogical success.

That incident came to mind while reading a new research synthesis (Parsons, Vaughn, Scales, Gallagher, et al., 2018) published this month in Review of Educational Research that examined studies of “teachers’ instructional adaptations;” the kind of instructional responsiveness that rookie had demonstrated.

Parsons and company reported that studies over the past 40 years have described the phenomenon in a variety of ways: instructional decision-making, scaffolding, reflective teaching, adaptation, teacher metacognition, dialogic teaching, etc. But whatever it has been called, it’s an essential, and too often ignored, component of effective teaching.

Coaching has been found to enable adaptive teaching (Vogt & Rogalla, 2009), and six studies reported that focusing teacher attention on student learning (assessment) improved both teacher adaptability and student outcomes. Teaching experience also tends to improve adaptability (my rookie was an outlier—it usually takes a while to gain the kind of “teacher vision” she exhibited).

What was it that I had seen in that observation? A complex pedagogical dance between a teacher trying to adhere to the major outlines of a program—I’d provided the bones of the lesson and sequenced the major activities—while she observed the students’ responses and reacted accordingly. If she saw confusion, she reworded my script or added an example or helpful explanation. If the lesson was clear, but student interest was flagging, she added a teaspoon of enthusiasm and kept their heads in the game.

That reminds me that there are two really important things underlying effective teaching.

On the one hand, as teachers we need to have a profound understanding of what needs to be taught. It matters that primary teachers possess a depth of knowledge of the alphabetic system, or that high school algebra teachers be well schooled in math. That’s where great curricula come in; a coordinated body of texts, lesson plans, and activities that have a strong chance of engendering the desired knowledge and skills.

On the other hand, slavishly following such a curriculum is unlikely to succeed, unless teachers are wisely adaptive. Effective teaching will always be more than following a script. Teachers must assess on the fly and note whether the kids are getting it and if they are not, then something needs to happen. Teachers must make both immediate adjustments—adding explanations, changing examples, requiring more practice—and more ambitious changes, too (“today’s lesson was a bust, I need to reteach it tomorrow”).

I worry these days about the idea of teaching with “fidelity to program.” Was my rookie evidencing fidelity? In a way she was. But any careful analysis of a transcript of her lesson would reveal that she was making important adaptations to my brilliant handiwork. She was taking a good lesson and making it go. Both components are essential, and one is no more important than the other if learning is the goal.

I’m a big fan of shared curriculum because without it, it is virtually impossible to get large-scale school improvement. Likewise, it makes no sense to adopt such a shared curriculum and then tell everyone they can do whatever they want with it. But such a collective commitment to a common program of instruction in no way should limit a teacher’s ability to adapt lessons to student response. Follow the research, teacher adaptation matters.

Since this entry was first published, there have been various criticisms of curricula – including some that I have helped to develop. The non-research-based complaint has been that there is too much good stuff and that teachers can’t possibly make appropriate choices to teach in the kinds of varied situations that your letter describes.

The problem with that approach is that it leaves so many kids high and dry. What if you work in a school with many kids above grade level? Or who struggle with dyslexia? Or who are English Learners? Or minority kids who want to learn to read but also to feel some connection to their culture?

Then, of course, there are the schools that are happy with what they are doing with spelling, so they don’t need spelling lessons, while other schools won’t even consider a program – no matter how much they like the other features – if it doesn’t have weekly spelling plans.

I’m personally more concerned about programs that assume one-size fits all more than I am about those that intentionally include more than any single classroom could possibly digest.

The critics have a point though, some teachers may have difficulty making sound choices when there is a lot of good stuff there.

The critics approach is to try to “idiot proof” the programs, narrowing them down to the point that fidelity is the only possibility. They believe – without any evidence, of course (so much for the “science of reading,”) – that this narrowing will raise literacy levels, even if the programs can’t easily be adjusted to meet the needs of diverse students.

I recommend two different solutions to this problem. Rather than narrowing the possibility of addressing varied children’s needs, I suggest the following:

1.     My plan, oft described here, of dividing instruction into quarters or quinters (I made that word up), allocating time on word knowledge, text reading fluency, reading comprehension, writing – and possibly, certainly with English-learners, oral language. Schools that have adopted that scheme often find that it guides them to increase attention to some areas that a program might be a bit short in, and to cut back when too much time is accorded to some areas of concern. Knowing, for example, that you must teach phonics for 30 minutes a day can serve as a kind Occam’s razor, both ensuring that enough time is invested in that essential, while making sure that it doesn’t prevent sufficient attention to the rest of the curriculum.

2.     A second solution is to facilitate some kind of group planning process. Involve your reading specialists and special education teachers in this, too. Basically, allow your teachers some latitude in omitting or insisting upon certain lessons, but do that as a group rather than a free-for-all in which every teacher does whatever she wants to do with the curriculum. I wrote about that years ago and have a link to that here. These kinds of discussions or meetings can both identify problems the teachers may be having with a program or lessons that are duds – dealing with those as a group will increase the chances that good choices will be made.



Parsons, S. A., Vaughn, M., Scales, R. Q., Gallagher, M. A., Parsons, A. W., Davis, S. G., Pierczynski, M., & Allen, M. (2018). Teachers’ instructional adaptations: A research synthesis. Review of Educational Research, 88(2), 205-242. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654317743198

Vogt, F., & Rogalla, M. (2009). Developing adaptive teaching competency through coaching. Teaching and Teacher Education, 25(8), 1051–1060. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2009.04.002

Link to past comments on this topic:


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See what others have to say about this topic.

Gale Morrison Apr 20, 2024 01:52 PM

I think we have to contend with the biases and false assumptions made in the name of "I know what works in my context." I'm not sure this blog gets at that well enough. Schools in high income areas with good rankings from test scores FALSELY assume their kids don't need structure and explicit instruction in tier 1. Schools in impoverished communities jump to say "our kids can't do this, it's too hard." This is a really huge problem and something the SOR movement gained traction to address. I love the first part of what you wrote about what great teachers do and what it looks like, adapting based on constant assessment of student attention and checks for understanding by the teacher throughout the lesson and instructional time.

Timothy Shanahan Apr 20, 2024 01:56 PM


I don't disagree with that point... but replacing those biases with the fiction that all kids are the same and everybody knows the same thing at the same time so there is no need for adjustment doesn't buy us anything.


Debbie Hepplewhite Apr 20, 2024 02:22 PM

I agree with the principles in this piece, I'm the author of various 'bodies of work' (phonics programmes), but I point out, at the outset, that I still need teachers to be teachers! See here for example (the first couple of minutes is all that is needed to see I'm valuing the input of the teachers): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sqxaae0h7Ew&t=55s

Elana Gordon Apr 20, 2024 02:45 PM

Thanks for this repost! I’m an interventionist and my district purchased a scripted intervention program. The essence is built on sound research, but there are tweaks that need to be made during each lesson. This is an area we have tried to have conversations around all year. I think this cycles back to the importance of where teacher knowledge and sound curriculum intersect. I also love the idea of having these conversations in teams so that we are all continuing to adhere to the essence of the lessons , but adding in our teacher knowledge as a group of teachers connected in a goal and not as individuals on our own path. Thanks, it’s something I’ll continue to think about as we move forward in my district.

Dr. Bill Conrad Apr 20, 2024 02:46 PM

Before you play jazz, you need to have command of the musical notes. Sadly, our colleges of education fail to provide teachers with the essential elements of teaching reading! Truth be told.

Letting unprepared teachers play jazz on a well constructed curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment is a recipe for disaster. Better to ask these unprepared novices and apprentices to stick to the script as closely as possible. And better to repair a failed college of education system so teachers are truly prepared to teach reading.

Amateurs improvising reading instruction does not serve children well! Even master figure skaters must prove their competence through successful completion of compulsories!

Doctors are not expected to build the heart-lung machine! They are expected to use it within carefully designed parameters.

For the most part, teachers should follow the reading curriculum, pedagogy, and assessments. Reading instruction is far too important and must be planned, implemented, and assessed within very strongly established professional standards.

It is not OK that 1/2 the children are not reading at grade level. Much worse for children of color!

Lara Handsfield Apr 20, 2024 03:46 PM

Thank you for this. I worry that fidelity to a specific curriculum (and any scripts it includes) has taken precedence over fidelity to our students—their strengths, needs, communities, languages, cultures, etc.

Sheila Keller Apr 20, 2024 04:34 PM

If one part of the problem is that those in charge don't believe that all teachers have the knowledge to make the best instructional decisions, and their safety approach is to require "fidelity", the program makers can help out by creating educative programs. There is a foundational skills program (which shall remain nameless) that recommends sticking to the script, but as you read through the manual and use their social media resources to learn even more, you become a good judge of the efficacy of that script! In this age of struggling teacher education + social media, it behooves us to first make sure the program we choose is indeed evidence, rather than just research-based, and then, make sure that the program provides endless opportunities for you to learn from them and from other users- a very good use of social media!

Tonya Martin Apr 20, 2024 06:07 PM

I teach in a district with a high percentage of highly mobile students. My district is adopting Benchmark Workshop so that every elementary school is teaching the same units at the same time. They will not expect us to read the script word for word, we will adjust to our student needs. Some veteran teachers are not happy with the decision to adopt a curriculum. I’m happy with the decision because I teach at one of the schools that have highly mobile students. Half of my class this year did not attend K-3 in my school. In the past each elementary school decided on their own essential standards (we are a Solution Tree PLC guided district) and had a different scope/sequence. My concern is how many teachers will not follow the new curriculum?

BTW, I love reading your blogs!!

Michelle Apr 20, 2024 11:27 PM

It is only when highly regarded and influential people like you make this very important message known that district leaders who demand fidelity to a program--and not their students--will start to come to their senses. Thank you for resharing these words. They're needed greatly right now!

Debbie Mickey Apr 22, 2024 02:36 PM

I work with a lot of teachers in many districts. While most have accepted the need to switch to the use of structured literacy instruction in our younger grades, most - whether veteran or novice teachers - don't really know HOW to do that. Even with good PD in the science and in structured literacy principles, when they get to a place where they don't know what to do, they'll fall back on what is familiar and comfortable - often that means leveled readers and 3-cueing practices. So a curriculum that is truly evidence-based can be a safeguard as teachers learn new ways of teaching reading. At the same time, I believe and it is stated by the authors of the LETRS PD series, that teachers need to be "smarter than their curriculum." There is a need for the right kind of balance as teachers grow their own knowledge and expertise in ways of teaching students to read based on the verified research.

Concerned Teacher Apr 22, 2024 02:58 PM

My district is the opposite. We adopted Wonders and instead of implementing it with fidelity the first year, to get baseline data and learn the program, they let us use it as a resource. That means that some teachers are teaching with rigor, and some are not. Every teacher in the district is using different resources and assessments. They tell us that we have a research based curriculum. I'm not sure who did the research on our district written curriculum that was chopped up and pieced together from an evidence based program. Doesn't this negate the purpose of using an evidence based curriculum?

Barbara Apr 22, 2024 04:00 PM

Thank you for this insight and for sharing the links to the research papers you cite. I'm wondering what your take is on the new wave of knowledge-based curricula that is sweeping so many states? I appreciate the idea of giving kids content in which to ground their application of skills and strategies, but worry so much about which content is deemed important, who gets left out and the kinds of opportunities teachers will have to be thoughtful and responsive.

Timothy Shanahan Apr 22, 2024 08:50 PM

Concerned Teacher:
No matter how well designed and scientifically supported a program is, it will not be effective if it is not implemented properly. The district is being lazy -- putting in place something that should be effective, but then undermining it by not requiring its use.

Likewise, no matter how well designed a program, if it does not address the needs of the students being taught, then it won't be effective (think, for instance, of a first grade class in which half the students enter the grade with beginning second grade decoding skills, and the other half has none -- making sure that all the first graders go through the first-grade phonics lessons is not going to be effective with half of those students). District office mandates and blind fealty to a program in such a case would be undermine success.

We have to get smart about this stuff.


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What does it mean to follow a reading program?


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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