Academic Exchange Quarterly    Summer   2004    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume 8, Issue 2

To cite, use print source rather than  this on-line version which  may not  reflect print copy format requirements or   text lay-out and pagination.




Beyond Research: Improving How We Improve Reading


William G. Ruff, Arizona State University West

Cory Cooper Hansen, Arizona State University West

Karla Gable, Arizona State University West


Ruff, Ed.D., is an Assistant Professor of Educational Administration and Supervision, Hansen, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Language and Literacy, and Gable, M.Ed., M.C., is a Lecturer in Educational Administration and Supervision.



To garner the literacy levels necessary for a post-modern society to prosper, reading programs must match effective reading pedagogy. No Child Left Behind of 2001 (NCLB) mandated reading improvement, and Reading First provides funding to implement research-based programs. We must go beyond scientifically based research to consider implementation of reading programs identified within the context of NCLB. Developing shared understanding of reading pedagogy is as essential as scientifically based reading research if all children are to read by the third grade. 



Recently, a professional educator magazine, Educational Leadership, published an issue focused on reading research. In framing this focus, Scherer (2004) wrote, “The reading wars of the 1990s have turned into the Reading Research War of the 2000s” (p.5). As the war rages, schools are abandoning older reading programs to gain their share of Reading First funding in hopes of improving reading achievement (Manzo, 2004). Descriptions of effective reading practices are abundant in educational literature, but such knowledge does not transfer to classroom practices any more frequently than the mere coverage of a lesson’s content achieves learning. More than twenty years of accountability-focused reforms demonstrate the innumerable barriers between understanding what needs to be done in classrooms and implementing what needs to be done (Gordon, 2003). To garner the literacy levels necessary for a post-modern society to prosper, the capacity for understanding how to deploy successful reading programs must expand to match our blossoming understanding of effective reading pedagogy.


The Federal Reading Mandate

Reading First and Early Reading First programs are the literacy components of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Reading First provides assistance to states and school districts for: establishing research-based reading programs for students in kindergarten through third grade; preparing teachers to identify specific reading barriers; selecting and administering reading assessments; and developing effective instructional materials, programs, and strategies proven to prevent or remediate reading failure. Additionally, Reading First seeks to strengthen coordination among schools, early literacy programs, and family literacy programs to improve reading achievement. Similarly, Early Reading First purports to: support local efforts, through scientifically based strategies and professional development, which enhance the early language, literacy, and pre-reading development of preschool children; provide preschoolers with cognitive learning opportunities in high-quality language and literature-rich environments to optimize readiness for kindergarten; demonstrate language and literacy activities supporting age-appropriate literacy development based on scientifically-based reading research; identify preschoolers at-risk for reading failure using screening assessments; and integrate scientific reading research with existing programs in preschools, child care agencies, Head Start centers, and family literacy services. In reviewing these federal mandates, two educational priorities emerge: (1) reading programs, assessments, materials, and teacher training are to be scientifically based on reading research and (2) these scientifically based functions shall be implemented into schools, preschools, Head Start centers, and other existing community organizations.


An Overview of Scientifically Based Reading Programs

A Consumer’s Guide to Evaluating a Core Reading Program, produced by the University of Oregon, has become a framework for states evaluating whether a commercial reading program has the research base required under federal law for Reading First grants (Manzo, 2004). Although such a list raises concerns regarding successful implementation within the context of differing needs across schools, districts, states, and regions, its use is widespread. Six identified reading programs fall into two categories: (1) comprehensive classroom approaches to reading instruction and (2) basal reading programs.


Comprehensive classroom approaches emphasize explicit instruction through scripted lesson plans. Two such programs are SRA/McGraw-Hills’s Open Court and Success for All. Both programs feature direct instruction, based on a hierarchical model of reading skills and strategies. Early instruction emphasizes phonics, use of decodable text and then quality children’s literature with integrated language arts. Open Court has had success with children at risk of early reading failure (Mitchell & Wile, 2002). Foorman, Francis, Beeler, Winikates, and Fletcher (1996) found that low-achieving students were brought to the national average for reading achievement and scored significantly higher than a whole language control group. Open Court can serve as a stand-alone, primary program, which differs from the multiyear school wide prevention and early intervention focus of Success for All.


Success for All (SFA) requires a substantial school commitment, on-site coaching, and on-going professional development. Students are grouped by reading level, across grades, and direct instruction occurs amid cooperative learning and reading strategies. Comprehension gains, with students of differing levels of reading ability, were measured in two 1987 studies by the originators of the SFA approach (Stevens, Madden, Slavin & Farnish, 1987). They found significant gains in the SFA groups compared to basal series instruction.


Basal reading programs differ from comprehensive classroom approaches in that recommendations for instruction are made within a hierarchical system. Collections of literature, trade books, and leveled libraries structure the teacher’s manual. The teacher selects from multiple activities to develop phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension to meet the needs of a particular class. Four core reading programs have been identified as meeting Reading First’s criteria for research based materials and instruction (Manzo, 2004). They are Harcourt Brace, Houghton Mifflin, Macmillan/McGraw-Hill, and Scott Foresman. Extensive teaching resources are available for each that include technology, formal and informal assessment, and quality children’s literature.


Philosophical differences distinguish each program. Harcourt Brace presents explicit, systematic instruction linked with literature and structured spelling and grammar skills. Houghton Mifflin embeds phonics instruction in literature and outlines minilessons for skill and strategy instruction. Macmillan/McGraw-Hill focuses on varied genres and stresses formative assessment as an integral part of the program. Scott Foresman emphasizes a literature-based approach to instruction, arranges selections thematically, and integrates language arts.


Instructional effectiveness has been the focus of studies for each of the above programs. Signatures, published by Harcourt Brace, increased skills in first and fourth graders and both groups showed significant gains in Stanford 9 Total Reading scores (Center for Innovation in Assessment, 1998). Longitudinal investigations indicate Houghton Mifflin’s Invitations to Literacy series is effective in significantly increasing reading and writing skills among diverse populations (Pikulski, Valencia & Beck, 1999). A comprehension study found that both Scott Foresman and Macmillan/McGraw-Hill reading programs engaged students in higher levels of thinking than mere memorization (Risner & Nicholson, 1996).


Current research that supports effective reading instruction is the basis for each program. All are educationally sound and can be adapted to the needs of teachers and students. An evaluation by Mitchell and Wile (2002) found no educationally significant differences for reading gains across various reading programs, including Harcourt Brace, Success for All, and Open Court. Rather, the principal’s leadership and the size of the instructional group were identified as factors in the largest gain in student achievement (Mitchell & Wile, 2002). Since the various reading programs all produce similar results, the critical issue resides in how the programs are implemented and used in the classroom.


Correcting a Basic Misconception about Teachers and Their Practice

The notion of what is necessary for an individual to be productive in a democratic society is often in conflict with the public’s desire for an efficient system for inculcating common values and abilities into the nation’s children (Dewey, 1938; Spring, 1999). Each teacher must wrestle with such conflicting ideological issues daily and from a wide array of dimensions in the practice of teaching (Palmer, 1998). As a result, reform efforts have altered aspects of schooling, without greatly impacting the teaching and learning that occurs in the classroom (Tyack & Cuban, 1995; Ravitch, 2000). Furthermore, the reason for reform reticence in the classroom boils down to the notion that teacher beliefs, values, and perceptions influence teaching practice (Kennedy, 2004). Fullan and Hargraves (1996) wrote:

Many teachers have quite sensible doubts and disagreements about the validity of what it is they are being asked to do…What matters here is not just whether the particular model is valid or not, but how it connects to a teacher’s overall sense of purpose in the particular situation in which he or she is working. ( p. 21)


For decades, reading improvement programs have focused on the notion that teachers did not have the knowledge to raise reading achievement and staff development emerged as a panacea for reading improvement.

The future culture of the school will be fashioned largely by how staff development systems evolve…Whether better-designed curriculums will be implemented, the promise of new technologies realized and visions of a genuine teaching profession take form, all depend largely on the strength of growing staff development programs. (Joyce, 1990, p. xv)


Subsequently after a few years of in-service training and redesigning preparation programs, the assumption emerged that teachers were unwilling to perform the tasks necessary to realize reading improvement, resulting in mandated accountability systems.

Officials,… journalists and other observers, are apt to… assume that everything deficient about education … can be remediated by more forceful demands that we “raise the bar.” The implication… [is that] teachers and students could be doing a better job but for some reason [have] chosen not to do so and need to be bribed or threatened into improvement. (Kohn, 2000, p. 39)


Such assumptions have been proven false; indeed, it is the psychic rewards of teaching that motivate teachers (Lortie, 1975). Teachers act from an ethic of care and responsibility (Fullan & Hargraves, 1996). So, a clear understanding of the teacher’s purpose is critical in adopting that new reading improvement program based on the latest findings of best practices in reading pedagogy. For successful change in classroom teaching practices to occur, Fullan and Hargraves recommend the change leader acknowledge the teacher’s purpose and provide the opportunity for teachers to challenge the assumptions contained within their practice and facilitate a culture where the practical knowledge of teachers is not squelched by published research or administrative decision. The leader’s role is to create a community of teachers empowered to discuss individual purposes together; so over time, a shared purpose may emerge.


The difficulty of improving reading achievement goes beyond an understanding of effective pedagogic practices. The difficulty lies in a basic misconception regarding the mind of the teacher. School improvement plans are developed based upon explicit and tacit assumptions. One such unquestioned assumption is how the mind of a teacher works. Just as research-based practices are developed from well-defined meanings, the meaning and constellation of meanings within specific reading programs are assumed to be static as program information is disseminated across many schools, districts, and settings. Furthermore, this assumption stems from another common unquestioned assumption that asserts the mind of a teacher acts as a processor managing discrete bits of information and those bits remain unchanged as they are processed.


Bruner (1996) discusses two conceptualizations of the mind. The computational view frames the mind as a computational device where information is processed, stored, and managed. “It takes information as it’s given, as something already settled in relation to something preexisting that maps onto states of the world” (p.2). Opposite of this view is culturalism—where reality is represented by constructed symbolism that is shared and elaborated upon by individuals among a cultural community. In contrast to the computational or information processing view, information is not a representation of a person, place, thing, or event; it is a created meaning contextualizing a relationship. The computational view assumes that information maintains the same meaning as it is processed by the mind of a teacher. The culturalism approach assumes meanings are created, dynamic, vary by context, and strongly influenced by beliefs, previous experience, and self-esteem. Similar to constructivism in viewing meaning as dynamic and individualistic, culturalism emphasizes the role of relationships and enculturation.


In changing the assumption about how teachers think from an information-processing model (computational) to the view that meaning must be created (culturalism), the entire system used to plan change must be reconceived. Plans for reading improvement must acknowledge and account for ideas of teacher agency, collaboration, self-evaluation, and culture. Agency is the ability of the individual to “initiate and carry out activities on one’s own” (Bruner, 1996, p. 35). The idea that teachers possess agency and must create meaning is incommensurable with the notion of mandating top-down classroom change. Rather, for change to occur, the teacher and reformer must collaborate toward developing a shared understanding of expectations. Once a shared understanding of expectations is established, the ability for accurate self-evaluation of change will emerge. The ability for self-evaluation is critical to the development of reflective practice, but unless a rich, shared expectation exists, reflections cannot achieve the depth necessary for change to occur (Haaga & Davison, 1986). As a shared understanding of expectations emerges between a reformer and individual teachers, collaboration among teachers reinforces shared expectations, promotes trust and the growth of further shared understandings. Refocusing efforts from the technical aspects of a reform toward creating shared meaning and a collaborative school culture are essential if improvement in reading achievement is to be realized.


Improving Reading Classroom by Classroom

In schools around the nation, reading improvement programs are being implemented focusing on the technical aspects of researched-based practices in reading pedagogy. Scant attention is being paid to the ways in which these best practice programs are being deployed. As a result, implementation practices reflect conceptualizations grounded in the classical management theories of the 19th century. An understanding of what works best in raising reading achievement is important and the knowledge base must continue to grow. Equally important, this understanding of reading pedagogy must be linked to an understanding of educational change or reading achievement will remain an illusive vision.


Sarason (1990) and Tye (2000) argue that most change efforts in education fail to alter the infrastructure of relationships among the components of the system and therefore fall short of achieving any lasting accomplishments. Sarason (1990) further argued that altering a network of relationships requires, "confronting the failures of the past, especially their under girding axioms—those unarticulated, not-to-be-challenged assumptions so effectively assimilated by us in the course of our socialization" (p. 111). To facilitate the successful deployment of research-based best practices in every classroom, assumptions about teachers and their practice must be systemically reconsidered. Many reading specialists use the notion that meaning is constructed in their work with students. This assumption also transfers, and must be applied, to the context of working with teachers in program implementation. Acknowledging that teachers must create meaning for themselves, and that meaning can only be transferred among people through a network of shared understanding, systemically changes the top-down conceptualization of how to conduct reading improvement programs. Furthermore, it outlines an approach to improving reading instruction classroom by classroom aligned with the best practices of school reform by changing the infrastructure of a school’s culture for lasting change.



Bruner, J. (1996). The culture of education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Center for Innovation in Assessment. (1998). A study of the instructional effectiveness of the Signatures program. Orlando, FL: Harcourt School Publishers. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED431172)

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York: Collier

Foorman, B. R., Francis, D. J., Beeler, T., Winikates, D., & Fletcher, J. M. (1996). Early

interventions for children with reading problems: Study designs and preliminary findings. Presented at the annual conferences of the Learning Disabilities Association, Dallas, TX, March 1996.

Fullan, M. & Hargraves, A. (1996). What’s worth fighting for in your school? New York: Teachers College Press.

Gordon, D. T. (2003). A nation reformed? American education 20 years after a nation at risk. (Ed.) Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Haaga, D. A. & Davison, G. C. (1986). Cognitive change methods. In Kanfer, F.H. & Goldstein, A.P. (Eds.) Helping people change: A textbook of methods (3rd ed.). New York: Pergamon Press.

Joyce, B. (1990). Prologue. In Joyce, B. (Ed.) Changing school culture through staff development. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Kennedy, M. M. (2004). Reform ideals and teachers’ practical intentions. Educational policy analysis archives, 12 (13). [Retrieved online April 13, 2004, http://epaa.asu/epaa/v12n13]

Kohn, A. (2000). The case against standardized testing: Raising the scores, ruining the schools. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Press.

Lortie, D. C. (1975). Schoolteacher: A sociological study. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Manzo, K. K. (2004). Reading programs bear similarities across states [electronic version]. Education Week, 23, 1-5.

Mitchell, S., & Wile, N. (2002). 200l literacy program evaluation: A report of the evaluation of

literacy programs in elementary and middle schools. OR: Portland Public Schools Research and Evaluation Department. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED431172)  

No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, 20 U.S.C. § 6301 et seq. (2001)

Palmer, P. J. (1998). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Pikulski, J. J., Valencia, S., & Beck, M. (1999). Second-year report on a five-year longitudinal study of Invitations to Literacy. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Ravitch, D. (2000). Left back: A century of battles over school reform. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Risner, G. P., & Nicholson, J. I. (1996). The new basal readers: What levels of comprehension do they promote? ERIC ED403546

Sarason, S. B. (1990). The predictable failure of educational reform: Can we change course

before it’s too late? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Scherer, M. (2004). What works in reading? Educational Leadership, 61, 5.

Spring, J. (1999). Wheels in the head: Educational philosophies of authority, freedom, and culture from Socrates to human rights (2nd ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Stevens, R. J., Madden, N. A., Slavin, R. E., & Farnish, A. M. (1987). Cooperative integrating

reading and composition: Two field experiments. Reading Research Quarterly, 22, 433-454.

Tyack, D. & Cuban, L. (1995). Tinkering toward utopia: A century of public school reform.

Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Tye, B. B. (2000). Hard truths: Uncovering the deep structure of schooling. New York:

Teachers College Press.