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What Can Educators Learn From 20 Years of Reading Research?
  • November 03, 2016
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Author:  Julia Febiger, Director of Research, Literacy Education, HMH  | 11/02/2016 

Do you know which of the instructional practices you use in your classroom everyday are supported by 20 years of research?

The Institute of Education Sciences (IES) recently released a report pointing to effective reading programs and practices for adolescents. This report’s comprehensive review sought to answer which programs and practices that have been researched over the past 20 years are actually effective for helping middle and high school students who are struggling with literacy (including reading comprehension and vocabulary). 

First, the authors identified thousands of peer-reviewed studies on adolescent literacy. Next, the authors used the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) criteria to determine which studies had strong enough evidence, saying that: “Practitioners need to know not only which programs and practices appear effective, but which have the scientific evidence to support the claim.”

Here are some key takeaways from their research: 

  • Over 7,000 studies were uncovered by the literature review, but only 12 of these studies met WWC evidence standards AND found positive or potentially positive effects on reading comprehension, vocabulary, or general literacy.  
  • All 12 programs and practices in these studies with positive or potentially positive effects took place in middle school (grades 6-8), which means that more research needs to be done to find out what works best in high school (grades 9-12).
  • Nearly every program or practice (11 out of 12) incorporated upfront training or professional development (2 to 10 hours in length)
  • Among the 12 programs and practices that demonstrated positive or potentially positive effects, several “common instructional elements” emerged. While these elements were not evaluated individually, taken together they depict trends in what works for teaching reading to middle school students: 

  1. Step-by-step, predictable instructional routines (in 7 of 12 studies) 

  2. Explicit instruction in reading comprehension including activities or explanations of what to do when students don’t understand a text (in 6 of 12 studies)

  3. Integrating Writing instruction and reading instruction by having students compose a paragraph or more that can be used as an additional activity for comprehending text (in 5 of 12 studies)

  4. Cooperative learning tasks with student in pairs or groups, such as Think-Pair-Share or Numbered Heads (in 4 of 12 studies)

  5. Explicit instruction in vocabulary including definitions and explanations to improve receptive vocabulary (words understood) and expressive vocabulary (words used) (in 3 of 12 studies)

  6. Give explicit feedback to students about their performance (in 3 of 12 studies) 

For middle school students and their teachers, we think this is great news. Using this information can help education professionals evaluate instructional programs with confidence, knowing what practices are proven to move the dial. 

So what’s next? One important step is to engage in more research that will shed light on effective instructional practices and programs for high school students with literacy challenges. 

Additionally, we know that early intervention is critical for helping students develop literacy skills that will enable them to learn-to-read as well as read-to-learn throughout their lives. Knowing this, we hope that IES replicates such a thorough review of the research to inform literacy instruction for elementary students. 

By understanding what works in elementary, middle, and high school we can more effectively support students who struggle with literacy at all ages and stages. Comprehensive research takes a long time to compile, but we hope to hear more from IES soon. In the meantime, the practices above give us a solid research-backed lens through which we can evaluate reading programs and practices on behalf of all our students.

To read the full study, including more on READ 180 and its position as one of the only intervention programs investigated over the past 20 years to have a positive or potentially positive impact on reading achievement for adolescent students, please go here.



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