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Getting the Reading Curriculum That Works


Q. Where can I go to check how effective the reading curriculum that my child's school is using is the best?

Both the National Reading Panel and the National Reading Conference have issued reports which conclude that systematic, intensive, explicit, phonics-only reading instruction in the early grades of school is the best.


These are the reading programs that are authorized for federal grants through the federal reading program, Reading First. You could ask at your school whether the reading curriculum that is used is scientifically-based and qualifies for funding under Reading First. If not, you ought to get with other parents and meet with educators to discuss a curriculum change at your school.


Another piece of evidence to share: a study published in the highly regarded Reading Research Quarterly by Mathes et al. and which won the Albert J. Harris Research Award from the International Reading Association, found that explicit and comprehensive reading instruction was significantly effective in dramatically reducing reading failure.


There are many studies that support this conclusion. When a study contradicts it, you have to look at whether the publication that published that study has a bias against direct instruction of reading - that's frequently the case - and whether that study went through the formal peer review process. Almost every study ever put forth that found in favor of Whole Language reading techniques wilted under peer-review scrutiny. That's because the objective empirical data is clearly in favor of phonics-only, direct instruction. Even though most educators don't know how to teach reading that way, it's the best way.


It's a tough task indeed to wade through the marketplace for reading curriculum. It's enormous, running into the dozens of products from which to choose. It's tough to pierce through the veneer of marketing language to really analyze how well various products really work in establishing full literacy in children ages 5 to 8. You have to remember that there are comprehensive reading curricula, but also supplemental curricula, and curricula targeted solely at remediation. Most schools are using a Whole Language-based reading program, while there is growing interest in the effectiveness of phonics-based reading curricula, even though they aren't yet widespread in schools.


Ironically, there is very little hard evidence available that ANY reading curriculum really works for all kids in all circumstances, even though advocates contend that they do. There are many people who swear by Spalding Phonics, for example, or Success For All.


Also ironically, the three most widespread products in the nation's public schools -- McGraw-Hill's Open Court, Scott Foresman's Reading, and Houghton Mifflin's Reading - weren't even included in a big federal study that was supposed to rate the "best" reading curriculum available. The companies themselves have lots of data which they say shows their curriculum is the best. But federal researchers dismissed that data as being inconclusive because it was obtained without rigorous scientific standards that differed with how the federal researchers conduct their studies.


Although it has been criticized for not being more comprehensive, the What Works Clearinghouse has completed a federally-funded study of a limited amount of reading curriculum that might offer some guidance in the areas of alphabetics, fluency, comprehension and general reading achievement:

The clearinghouse has been criticized for giving a high rating to Reading Recovery, a remediation program that features intensive, one-on-one tutoring, is highly expensive, and offers scant hard evidence that it really does lift struggling readers onto solid reading ground. Since the study excluded so many phonics-based programs, it does appear that the federal funding was intended to bolster the status quo, which is Whole Language-based.


Nonprofits such as the National Right to Read Foundation have offered plentiful evidence that Reading Recovery actually is ineffective and wasteful because it is based on the Whole Language philosophy rather than phonics-based.


You can get an idea of what kind of reading curriculum does work - the phonics-based curriculum -- from the Foundation:



Homework: The Knowledge Alliance is a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization dedicated to securing research-based curriculum and instructional practices for the nation's schools. You can see the group's membership list for an idea of the scope of different kinds of companies and organizations that share this interest:


By Susan Darst Williams Reading 10 2008


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