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10 Things Every Reading Program Should Have

I often see fierce debates over very specific issues of their literacy instruction. Just this week, I came across an argument over what size pencils students need to use in primary. In fitness, there is a term for this phenomenon: "majoring in the minors". Gym nerds will often obsess over the precise amount of protein/carbs/fat to eat, while not getting the big picture items right, like getting enough sleep and consistently hitting the gym. 

Similarly, you will often see education entrepreneurs hyper focus on a specific pedagogy and try to pitch it as the catch all solution to education woes. Truthfully I enjoy researching all the intricacies and debates within education. However, I am very sceptical that any one small change in instruction can make a meaningful difference in your classroom. Instead, I think it's the big picture items that matter most. Over the last year, I have been evaluating language programs.

I typically evaluate these programs according to two criteria, their research evidence of efficacy, and their inclusion of evidence-based practices/instruction. For the second criteria, I chose 7 instructional types and 3 instructional methodologies that have very strong research evidence for improving literacy outcomes. 

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The 3 Essential Instructional Methodologies.png

I would argue that these instructional types should be the pillars of a complete reading literacy program. This does not mean every teacher needs to include every instructional type. For example, it does not make much sense for the average grade 8 teacher to be teaching phonemic awareness. However, students in their k-8 journey should receive all 7 types of instruction. By focusing on the strategies and instructional types that have the strongest evidence, we have the highest likelihood to improve our instructional results. While I originally came up with this list for the purposes of evaluating programs, I also think it is in general a good idea for teachers to include these instructional types in their literacy instruction. 


1.  Phonemic Awareness: Is the ability to manipulate and identify individual sounds/phonemes within oral language. To the best of my knowledge, there are 7 meta-analyses of this topic. They all showed moderate to high results, with a mean effect size of .72. The scientific research shows the strongest outcomes for phonemic awareness instruction that includes blending/segmenting drills. In segmenting drills, students break apart a word and identify each sound. In blending drills students take an already segmented word and put it back together to say the word. Research has also consistently shown that PA instruction yields the highest results, when that instruction includes letters. For more information on PA instruction, click here: 


2. Phonics Instruction: Explicitly teaches the connection between letters and sounds. There are many forms of phonics instruction, but we have the strongest research for synthetic phonics and speech to print phonics. In synthetic phonics, teachers teach the sounds associated with graphemes (the smallest units of letters that can make a sound). For example, both “j” and “ge” can make one sound. Providing instruction on these graphemes and how they can represent sounds would be synthetic phonics. In speech to print phonics, this process is flipped, and the instructor teaches which graphemes can represent each sound. To the best of my knowledge there are 15 meta-analyses of this topic all showing positive outcomes, with most studies showing small to moderate effects. Across these meta-analyses I have found a mean effect size of .43 (corrected for outliers). For more information, click here: 


3.  Morphology Instruction: Morphemes are the smallest unit of language that include meaning. Morphology instruction often includes instruction on prefixes, suffixes, root words/bases. Morphology instruction also typically includes some form of instruction on etymology (the history of language). Morphology focuses on why words are spelled the way they are. I have reviewed 4 meta-analyses of this topic, showing a mean effect size of .51. For more information on this topic click here: 


4. Vocabulary Instruction: Vocabulary can be taught for the purposes of fluency or comprehension. Marulis et al, in 2010, conducted a meta-analysis on vocabulary instruction for the purposes of increasing word fluency and found a mean effect size of .85. Elleman et al, conducted a meta-analysis on vocabulary instruction for the purposes of comprehension in 2009 and showed that comprehension increases were specific and did not transfer. This means that teaching general vocabulary is not efficient for increasing general comprehension. However, teaching specific vocabulary can improve comprehension of specific topics. For example, teaching Shakespearean vocabulary will likely make it easier for students to understand a Shakespear play. For more information on this topic, click here: 


5. Spelling: In 2010 Graham et al, conducted a meta-analysis on the impact of writing interventions on reading outcomes. He found an effect size of .79 for spelling. Considering that phonics alone shows a mean effect size of .43, I think it is fair to say that encoding instruction is crucial for literacy outcomes. In 2020, Galuschka et al conducted a meta-analysis on how best to teach spelling. Their research showed the strongest outcomes for morphology, then phonics based spelling instruction. Personally, I really like to teach spelling via elkonin boxes and word matrices. For more information on this topic, click here: 


6. Fluency Instruction: focuses on helping students to read more quickly and accurately. Fluency instruction can include interventions such as repeated reading, varied reading, guided reading, readers theater, and etc. Repeated reading is by far the most well studied fluency intervention. To the best of my knowledge 4 meta-analyses of the topic have been done showing a mean effect size of .76. Repeated reading has been shown to work best, when an adult reads a text to a student and then has the student practice reading it outloud until mastery. Fluency is important to master, because it highly correlates with comprehension outcomes. For more information about repeated reading click here: 


7. Comprehension Instruction: There is less definitive research on reading comprehension compared to decoding and fluency based instruction. However, Filderman et al conducted a meta-analysis in 2021 on reading comprehension. His meta-analysis showed the highest outcomes for strategy based instruction (ES .69), then content and vocabulary instruction (.64). However, Elleman 2009 showed that content and vocabulary instruction did not transfer to general reading comprehension skills. This type of instruction typically only helps students to understand texts relevant to the specific content/vocabulary instruction. For example, teaching students about baseball vocabulary might improve their comprehension of a baseball story, but will not help them improve generalized reading comprehension skills. That said, no published meta-analysis to date has looked at whether or not strategy instruction improves generalized reading comprehension, as assessed by standardized assessments. So the research is a bit murky on this topic. 


While Filderman identified strong evidence that strategy instruction could improve reading comprehension, there were many different unique strategies grouped into this umbrella term. Which makes it hard to show evidence for a specific type of strategy instruction, based on this study. One instructional strategy that does have significant research evidence is Reciprocal Teaching. Rosenshine conducted a meta-analysis in 1994 on Reciprocal Teaching and found a mean effect size of .88. For more information click here:   


While these 7 types of instruction are important. We also have significant evidence that instruction should be explicit and sequential. The National Reading Panel specifically looked at systematic phonics instruction compared unsystematic phonics and found a mean effect size of .44. The NRP defined systematic phonics as being explicit, based on a scope and sequence, and including decodable texts. Similarly John Hattie, identifies 15 different meta-analyses on direct instruction. All 15 meta-analyses show positive results, with a mean effect size of .57. 


It also makes sense that we tailor instruction to our students' specific needs. It does not make sense to have a grade 7 student focus on reading grade level texts, if they lack basic decoding knowledge. Steenbergen-Hu conducted a meta-analysis on differentiation in 2016 and showed individualizing student instruction had a mean effect size of 2.35, while this effect was based on a small number of studies and is likely inflated, it still suggests that individualization is positive. Recently I conducted a meta-analysis on the pace of phonics instruction, for the purposes of this blog, while I found significant trends for a moderate pace for core instruction, there were no statistically significant effects in intervention settings, for any pace. To me these results suggest that students in intervention settings do not benefit from a one size fits all approach. 

I do not think every teacher needs to include every item in this list. However, I do think including these instructional types is likely to improve the quality of a language program. Teachers have a limited amount of time to provide instruction and to develop their own skills. It makes sense for them to focus on the forms of instruction that have been most well proven to improve reading outcomes. That said, instruction does need to look different in every grade. For example, most older students should not need phonemic awareness or phonics instruction. However, most older students will likely benefit from more comprehension instruction. If you want to read more about how to tailor your instruction to your students grade level, click here: 

Written by Nathaniel Hansford

Last Edited 2023-01-28


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