Simply put, there’s no perfect method or commercial program for teaching struggling readers how to read. Every method or program has flaws. As Richard Allington, past President of the International Reading Association, has noted, no program is complete, no program is as important as the teacher:
Study after study points to teacher expertise as the critical variable in effective literacy instruction…. I've never encountered any product that by itself comprises even a full reading curriculum, much less a full literacy curriculum. Some products provide support for some very narrow, specific element or elements of a full curriculum. The product might provide a short term plan for developing various skill and strategy proficiencies. While those products might assist teachers in planning skill and strategy instruction, they typically provide little opportunity for students to develop the autonomous automatic and appropriate application of those proficiencies while actually reading. In other words, they provide scant opportunities to actually read.
Far more important than the method or commercial program are the key features that exemplary teachers use to guide reading instruction. Based on a series of studies, Allington identified six key features. He called these the Six T’s:
Time. Exemplary teachers had students spent a great deal of time reading and writing; half a school day was not excessive.
Texts. Students read lots of interesting texts. Because teachers matched students’ texts to their reading levels, students read these with high word recognition accuracy as well as fluency and comprehension.
Teaching. Teachers did much more than tell students what to do. They showed them. They “routinely gave direct, explicit demonstrations of the cognitive strategies that good readers use when they read…. They modeled the thinking that skilled readers engage in as they attempt to decode a word, self-monitor for understanding, summarize while reading, or edit when composing.”
Talk. Teachers did not question students as if they were seeking only the one right answer. They did not act like interrogators. Instead, “exemplary teachers encouraged, modeled, and supported lots of talk across the school day. This talk was purposeful talk, though, not simply chatter. It was problem-posing, problem-solving talk related to curricular topics…. Teachers posed more ‘open’ questions, to which multiple responses would be appropriate.”
Tasks. Exemplary teachers’ minimized short workbook-like reading and writing activities. Instead, they often had students work on a reading and writing task for two weeks. They had students read whole books, complete individual and small-group research projects, and work on tasks that integrated several content areas, such as reading, writing, and social studies. They also gave students managed choice: students could choose from one of the tasks their teacher offered.
Testing. Exemplary teachers emphasized self-efficacy; they “evaluated student work and awarded grades based more on effort and improvement than simply on achievement. Thus all students had a chance to earn good grades…. Improvement was noted based on where students started and where they ended up, rather than on the latter alone.”
Though easy to remember and psychologically sound, these key features oversimplify reading instruction. As Allington warned:
While the six T’s offer a shorthand of sorts, for describing exemplary teaching in the elementary grades, they also oversimplify the complex nature of good teaching. For instance, the six T’s actually operate interactively. It seems highly unlikely that we could develop teaching that reflects any single T alone.
Although teachers of struggling readers may have to add to Allington’s Six T’s, two things are clear: First, to help struggling readers become proficient, highly motivated readers, teachers will have to adhere to the Six T’s. Second, they’ll have to personalize and go beyond any prepackaged reading method or program. They’ll have to supplement such programs, continuously monitor the struggling reader’s progress, identify causes of difficulty that may impede progress, modify methods and programs to eliminate causes of difficulty, and keep learning about reading disabilities.
Allington, R. L. (June 2002). What I’ve learned about effective reading instruction. Phi Delta Kappan, 740, 742-747.
Allington, R. L. (2005/6). What counts as evidence in evidence-based education? Reading Today, 23(3), 16.
Howard Margolis, Ed.D., is Professor Emeritus of Reading and Special Education at Queens College of the City University of New York. He is former editor of the Journal of Psychological and Educational Consultation and for the last 18-years has edited the Reading and Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties. He and Dr. Gary G. Brannigan, Professor of Psychology and Chancellor’s Scholar at the State University of New York-Plattsburgh, are authors of the forthcoming book for parents, Reading Disabilities: Beating the Odds. They write a blog on reading and learning disabilities, reading2008.com/blog.