High-Quality Classroom Instruction

Classroom Reading Instruction That Supports Struggling Readers

Reading difficulties are common in our schools. In fact, in a recent national assessment, about one-third of 4th graders in the United States failed to demonstrate even "partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills" necessary to read and understand grade-level text (Lee, Grigg, & Donahue, 2007, p. 6). In schools that serve minority populations and many students who live in poverty, this percentage is even higher; more than half of the students in these groups cannot read and understand grade-level text at the basic level (Lee et al., 2007). A great deal of research has been done in the past 20–30 years to address this problem, and some significant findings have resulted. Especially important are the findings that a) students do not "outgrow" reading problems (Francis, Shaywitz, Stuebing, Shaywitz, & Fletcher, 1996; Juel, 1988; Torgesen & Burgess, 1998) and b) the vast majority of reading problems—even those that would develop into serious reading difficulties—can be prevented when students in the primary grades are provided with quality classroom reading instruction along with additional small-group intervention when needed (Mathes & Denton, 2002; Torgesen, 1998, 2000). If students do not receive high-quality instruction and intervention, early reading problems often develop into serious reading difficulties (Stanovich, 1986). Remediation of reading difficulties for older students is also possible, but it is more difficult than preventing the problems through early intervention (see Blachman et al., 2004; Denton, Fletcher, Anthony, & Francis, 2006; Torgesen et al., 2001).

The Power of Instruction


A central theme of this body of reading research is that quality reading instruction is powerful! Waiting for students to be ready to learn to read doesn't work. Some people seem to be looking for the "miracle of the month club" when it comes to helping students with reading problems, but there are no quick fixes. Noninstructional strategies such as having students read through colored overlays or do eye exercises have little or no research support, but studies of reading instruction have consistently shown that nearly all students can be taught to read (e.g., Felton, 1993; Jenkins & O'Connor, 2002; Mathes et al., 2005; Vaughn et al., 2006). In fact, brain imaging research has demonstrated that the way the brain processes information is different in typically developing readers than in those at risk for or experiencing reading difficulties, but that these processing patterns in the brains of struggling readers—even those with severe dyslexia—can actually change in a period of a few weeks when they are provided with concentrated, powerful reading instruction (see, for example, Denton, Fletcher, Simos, Papanicolaou, & Anthony, 2007; Simos et al., 2002).


Quality Classroom Reading Instruction


Providing quality classroom reading instruction with certain research-validated characteristics can make a big difference for struggling readers. For example, Foorman, Francis, Fletcher, Schatschneider, and Mehta (1998) found that when provided with a quality reading program that included explicit, systematic instruction in the alphabetic principle (how print represents the sounds of language) within a print-rich classroom environment, 75% of the 1st graders who were in the bottom 20% of their classes in reading could learn to read words in the average range without additional intervention. This is important, because the most prominent characteristic of students with dyslexia is the inability to accurately read words (see Lyon, 1995).


What does this powerful classroom instruction look like? The companion article on this topic, Classroom Reading Instruction That Supports Struggling Readers: Key Components for Effective Teaching, is devoted to answering that question in greater detail, but the overriding research-supported characteristics can be summarized as follows:


  1. Teach essential skills and strategies.
  2. Provide differentiated instruction based on assessment results and adapt instruction to meet students' needs.
  3. Provide explicit and systematic instruction with lots of practice—with and without teacher support and feedback, and including cumulative practice over time.
  4. Provide opportunities to apply skills and strategies in reading and writing meaningful text with teacher support.
  5. Don't just "cover" critical content; be sure students learn it—monitor student progress regularly and reteach as necessary.


As schools adopt and begin to make use of programs and approaches that are supported by scientific reading research, it is important that teachers receive the training and support they need to implement these programs well. There is no silver bullet—the problems of struggling readers are not solved by simply adopting a particular program. What teachers emphasize from these programs and how they deliver instruction matters a great deal.




Blachman, B. A., Schatschneider, C., Fletcher, J. M., Francis, D. J., Clonan, S., Shaywitz, B., & Shaywitz, S. (2004). Effects of intensive reading remediation for second and third graders. Journal of Educational Psychology, 96, 444–461.


Denton, C. A., Fletcher, J. M., Anthony, J. L., & Francis, D. J. (2006). An evaluation of intensive intervention for students with persistent reading difficulties. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 39, 447–466.


Denton, C. A., Fletcher, J. M., Simos, P. C., Papanicolaou, A. C., & Anthony, J. L. (2007). An implementation of a tiered intervention model: Reading outcomes and neural correlates. In D. Haager, J., Klingner, & S. Vaughn (Eds.), Evidence-based reading practices for response to intervention (pp. 107–137). Baltimore: Brookes.


Felton, R. (1993). Effects of instruction on the decoding skills of children with phonological-processing problems. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 26, 583–589.


Foorman, B. R., Francis, D. J., Fletcher, J. M., Schatschneider, C., & Mehta, P. (1998). The role of instruction in learning to read: Preventing reading disabilities in at-risk children. Journal of Educational Psychology, 90, 37–55.


Francis, D. J., Shaywitz, S. E., Stuebing, K. K., Shaywitz, B. A., & Fletcher, J. M. (1996). Developmental lag versus deficit models of reading disability: A longitudinal, individual growth curves analysis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 88, 3–17.


Jenkins, J. R., & O'Connor, R. E. (2002). Early identification and intervention for young children with reading/learning disabilities. In R. Bradley, L. Danielson, & D. P. Hallahan

(Eds.), Identification of learning disabilities: Research to practice (pp. 99–149). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.


Juel, C. (1988). Learning to read and write: A longitudinal study of 54 children from first through fourth grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80, 437–447.


Lee, J., Grigg, W. S., & Donahue, P. L. (2007). The nation's report card: Reading 2007: National assessment of educational progress at grades 4 and 8 (NCES No. 2007-496). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved November 5, 2007, from


Lyon, G. R. (1995). Toward a definition of dyslexia. Annals of Dyslexia, 45, 3–27.


Mathes, P. G., & Denton, C. A. (2002). The prevention and identification of reading disability. Seminars in Pediatric Neurology, 9 (3), 185–191.


Mathes, P. G., Denton, C. A., Fletcher, J. M., Anthony, J. L., Francis, D. J., & Schatschneider, C. (2005). The effects of theoretically different instruction and student characteristics on the skills of struggling readers. Reading Research Quarterly, 40, 148–182.


Simos, P. G., Fletcher, J. M., Bergman, E., Breier, J. I., Foorman, B. R., Castillo, E. M., et al. (2002). Dyslexia-specific brain activation profile becomes normal following successful remedial training. Neurology, 58, 1203–1213.


Stanovich, K. E. (1986). Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 21, 360–407.


Torgesen, J. K. (1998). Catch them before they fall: Identification and assessment to prevent reading failure in young children. American Educator, 22, 1–8. Retrieved on November 7, 2007, from


Torgesen, J. K. (2000). Individual differences in response to early interventions in reading: The lingering problem of treatment resisters. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 15, 55–64.


Torgesen, J. K., Alexander, A. W., Wagner, R. K., Rashotte, C. A., Voeller, K., Conway, T., et al. (2001). Intensive remedial instruction for children with severe reading disabilities: Immediate and long-term outcomes from two instructional approaches. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 34, 33–58.


Torgesen, J. K., & Burgess, S. R. (1998). Consistency of reading-related phonological processes throughout early childhood: Evidence from longitudinal, correlational, and instructional studies. In J. Metsala & L. Ehri (Eds.). Word recognition in beginning reading (pp. 161–188). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.


Vaughn, S., Cirino, P. T., Linan-Thompson, S., Mathes, P. G., Carlson, C. D., Cardenas-Hagan, E., et al. (2006). Effectiveness of a Spanish intervention and an English intervention for English language learners at risk for reading problems. American Educational Research Journal, 43, 449–487.


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