Sunday, 29 July 2012

How do we ensure that all children learn to read?

            If all children are to learn to read to a good level of proficiency in the first few years of schooling, we need a clear plan to ensure that no child falls through the net. Such a plan must be both effective and cost-effective. It has become increasingly accepted in recent years that a three tier, phased model of reading instruction, known as Response to Intervention (or RtI), is the best means of achieving this.
            The three tier RtI model is predicated upon a first tier of exemplary initial instruction in reading for all students during their first year of schooling (Kindergarten in New South Wales). This first tier of instruction should essentially comprise the best scientific evidence-based instruction. To the layman, this sounds obvious but in many Australian schools a less effective implicit model of reading instruction has held sway for the last few decades. Much of this implicit approach to reading instruction is highly desirable as a bedrock upon which to build effective reading instruction, and it may be enough for a minority of children, but most will need direct, explicit and systematic instruction in the five pillars or ‘five big ideas’ of teaching reading : phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. What is often lacking in initial reading instruction, in particular, is effective, specific instruction in what is known as synthetic phonics; how to relate letters to sounds and to blend letter sounds into words.
            Even when afforded exemplary reading instruction, there will always be some children who take longer than others to catch on. It is important to identify these low-progress readers as early as possible so that they do not fall too far behind their peers as their difficulties compound. Children who do not learn to read in the first few years of schooling are typically destined to a school career of educational failure because reading underpins almost all subsequent learning. A safe strategy is to target students who fall into the bottom twenty five per cent of the population for remedial reading intervention, as soon as their difficulties become apparent. Students’ progress should be checked regularly, in order to provide remedial intervention for those who need it from the beginning of Year One, at the very latest.   
            The RtI model recommends that struggling readers, the low-progress readers who comprise the bottom quartile, should be offered more intensive Tier 2 intervention in small groups of three to four students. Again the instruction provided to these students should be based on what the scientific research evidence has shown to be most effective— essentially the same five big ideas of reading instruction but more intensive and more individualised. In small groups, teachers are able to be more responsive to the specific idiosyncratic needs of the students with whom they are working. Small group instruction can be just as effective as one-to-one instruction for children without severe reading difficulties.
            Even with a solid Tier 2 small group reading program in place, there will still be a very small number of students who ‘fail to thrive’, perhaps about 3-5% of all Year 1 students. These are the students for whom we should reserve Tier 3 one-to-one intensive reading instruction, preferably with a specialist reading teacher with a sound background in special education. The same five big ideas are still critical. What is different, of course, is the intensity of instruction. Having successfully taught the vast majority of Year 1 students the basics of learning to read by Tier 1 and, where necessary, Tier 2 small group teaching, it is a far more manageable proposition to provide these few remaining students with the individual reading support that they will need, for as long as they need it.
            With this three tier Response to Intervention model in place, predicated upon scientific evidence based reading instruction, almost all, if not all, children will become proficient readers. Of course, the RtI model does not stop at the end of Year 1, it is important to monitor reading progress closely for all students, especially for the first three years of schooling. But by employing these procedures rigorously and teaching scientifically, it is not too much to expect all of our children to learn to read.

Note: A longer version of this post is available at: http://tinyurl.com/7cr8ddo


  1. The RtI approach sounds very sensible but I have two questions:
    The RtI approach sounds very sensible but I have two questions:

    1. You point out that 'reading underpins almost all subsequent learning'. That's true, but since a proportion of the population (around 20%) has always had difficulty with learning to read, doesn't it rather beg the question as to why the education system relies so heavily on reading as a route to students' learning? Good teachers have always used multi-media to good effect. In the past this included illustrated talks, picture/graphic books, drama, tableaux etc. I'm not questioning the idea that reading is an important skill, but I am concerned about the implicit assumption in the education system that learning can't take place without it.

    2. You say that if RtI is implemented 'almost all, if not all, children will become proficient readers'. Are you referring to children in mainstream schools or to all children, and what is the scientific evidence for this claim? I'm concerned about policy-makers seeing successful reading interventions as magic bullets and blaming teachers, parents or children if *all* children don't become proficient readers.

    1. Thank you for being the first person to post a comment on my blog. Let me try to respond to your two questions

      1) The idea that any education system would not “rely heavily on reading as a route to students’ learning” is quite a challenging thought. (Sir Humphrey might even use the word ‘courageous’.) I am also troubled by the idea that because 20% of the population struggle with reading that we should, therefore, consider other options for knowledge transmission. While I have few problems with the idea of using other methods additionally, it does seem rather defeatist, to say the least, to accept that 20% will remain poor readers and therefore to provide alternative provision. Literacy simply is central to an effective education and my aim is to reduce the numbers of those who leave school unable to read, or to read well, to an absolute minimum. The RtI model provides, in my view, the best way of doing that. It makes conceptual sense and is predicated upon an evidence-based approach to instruction.

      2) I used the phrase ‘almost all, if not all, children’ so as not to overstate the case. The fact remains that if we use scientific evidence-based initial instruction (Tier 1) properly, there will far fewer ‘instructional casualties’ needing Tier 2 small group intensive instruction. At the moment we recommend that we target the bottom 25%. Most of these struggling students will then be set back on track leaving only a small percentage who, admittedly, will need even more intensive one-to-one Tier 3 instruction and, quite possibly, for some, on a long term continuing basis. All of the work on RtI in the United States where it originated suggests that the remaining students needing Tier 3 will probably amount to less than 5%. If you are thinking about children with intellectual disabilities, I should add that many of the children who in the past were thought to be unable to learn to read, now readily do so when offered appropriate instruction; for example children with Down Syndrome. A really good overview of the RtI literature is provided in a very recent paper by Kerry Hempenstall: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/19404158.2012.704879

    2. Thank you for responding, Kevin.

      I am not in any way underestimating the importance of reading as a means of communicating ideas. What I'm concerned about is that difficulty with reading is often portrayed as a barrier to children learning anything. Some ideas, in fact, cannot be communicated effectively through the written word. Jenny Uglow, in 'The Lunar Men', traces the origin of the industrial revolution, not to Watt's steam engine, but to the process of being able to print, for the first time, accurate diagrams of complex machinery. (Try explaining verbally how to build a steam engine.) And some skills can be acquired only by repeated rehearsal - little reading ability is needed in order to become a highly skilled machine operator, electrician or plumber. Plays, films and TV documentaries are routinely used to convey ideas - and sometimes bring about sea-changes in thinking. Alternatives to reading have been used in education for centuries - Comenius' "Orbis pictus" has been in print for almost 500 years, so this is hardly a radical idea.

      In your post, you suggest that RtI could enable almost all children to become *proficient* readers. I don't doubt that with the right support, the vast majority of children could learn to read - but whether they would be proficient or not is another matter. Most of the scientific evidence I've read suggests that reading interventions generally improve reading ability - but that a significant number of children remain less than proficient by anybody's definition. I was simply wondering what the evidence is for the efficacy of RtI.

      Google scholar brought up a number of papers advocating RtI as means of assessment, but I could find no evaluations of its efficacy in producing proficient readers. Am I searching in the wrong place? Kerry Hempenstall's paper is, unfortunately, behind a paywall.

  2. Great read. Thank you for unpacking the term RTI so succinctly. I have two questions.

    1. You state the the five pillars or ‘five big ideas’ of teaching reading are: phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. Isn't the first one 'phonemic awareness?' not the greater over arching umbrella of phonological awareness? Much of the research is around phonemic awareness is one of the greatest predictors of reading success??

    2. You elude to 'programs' in the RTI model at each tier... 'with three tier Response to Intervention model in place, predicated upon scientific evidence based reading instruction' ..... are you expecting teachers to alone, teach to the five pillars, or is there a program you advocate? Eg- Jolly Phonics, SSP, etc, etc??

    1. Engel* tells the story of Robert Browning’s response to his wife (Elizabeth Barrett Browning) when she queried the meaning of an obscure line in one of his somewhat esoteric poems, written many years before:
      “My dear, when I wrote that line, only God and Robert Browning knew what it meant. And now God only knows!”’
      I feel a bit the same way! I wrote this a few years ago now and I am now not sure why I used the broader term phonological awareness rather than the more specific (and more accurate) term, phonemic awareness. Whether it was an attempt to be more inclusive or I misremembered what the National Reading Panel actually said or it was just a simple slip of the (metaphorical) pen, I cannot say. Suffice to say, may I reassure you that you are correct and that phonemic awareness is certainly what I meant. (I shall correct the error.) In fact, I would personally go further and say that the two critical aspects of phonemic awareness that should be emphasised are segmentiung and blending.
      As for your second point about RtI, there really is no need for teachers to continually reinvent the wheel when programs of proven efficacy are available; Jolly Phonics, for example. Certainly, the emphasis should be on synthetic phonics instruction but certainly not exclusively. All five of the ‘big ideas’ need to be addressed.
      Our own group at MultiLit, have researched and developed a number of programs:
      • PreLit is for preschool children in the year before commencing formal schooling and focuses on phonemic awareness and oral language skills
      • InitiaLit will be released later this year and is designed as a Tier 1 program of exemplary initial literacy instruction for children beginning school
      • MiniLit is a Tier 2 small group program for children struggling to learn to read after their first year of schooling (and may also be deployed on a one-to-one basis as a Tier 3 intervention)
      • MacqLit is a small group program for older low-progress readers in Years 3 and above
      • The original MultiLit Reading Tutor program which is effectively a Tier 3 program for older low-progress readers
      See www.multilit.com for further details.

      *Engel, E. (2002). A Dab of Dickens and A Touch of Twain: Literary Lives from Shakespeare’s Old England to Frost’s New England. New York: Pocket Books.


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