Is your child learning reading the right way?

It's not just about learning to read. It's also about how your child is being taught to read. Here are the most popular approaches - one of these is likely used at your child's school.

By Linda Jacobson

Learning how to read. . . after the war

Blessed be the child who is learning to read in this millennium. She managed to escape the great reading wars, which have largely been put to rest thanks to a 1998 National Research Council report. The report finally brought reason to the contentious debate by concluding that no one method of reading instruction is right for all children.

Before the National Research Council weighed in, parents, school boards, education experts, and policymakers had to choose sides in the reading wars: fighting for either phonics-based methods or whole language instruction. Phonics-based reading programs break words down into small parts and teach children to decode words. Whole language focuses on entire words and their meaning in context.

Today, as relative détente reigns in the reading instruction world, most experts endorse using a combination of strategies — including a hybrid of phonics-based and whole language instruction that's known as "balanced literacy instruction." These strategies are woven into a specific reading curriculum that, most likely, your child's school teaches. (Note: none of these programs are endorsed by any government body, but have been embraced by different schools and educators.)

So why should you care what kind of curricula is being used at your child's school? Maybe you're worried your child isn't learning to read quickly enough or you don't understand some of the lingo being used. Or you might be concerned that the teacher is drilling phonics and all you were taught was to love literature. By knowing which ready curricula is being used, you can better understand the method the teacher is taking towards literacy — and how to best support your child in this effort.

What follows are the most popular reading programs being used in schools today.

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Kaufman

Direct Instruction

Grades covered: K - 5 (for reading)

Developed by Zig Engelmann in the 1960s, Direct Instruction (DI) is used in thousands of schools throughout the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and Australia. DI is a structured, top-down approach with teachers conveying information to students in a carefully controlled environment.

DI has four reading programs distributed by McGraw-Hill Education; the most popular is Reading Mastery. DI can be used as a supplemental intervention program or as a core reading curriculum. Those who favor more progressive reading models have criticized Englemann’s heavily scripted, teacher-led approach. Nevertheless, DI consistently earns high marks from researchers for its effectiveness. The American Federation of Teachers even chose DI as one of six promising programs for raising student achievement.

What it looks like: Teachers who use the DI approach follow detailed instructions for everything from the way students should hold a book to which words to emphasize. Reading Mastery covers the essentials of reading and uses orthography, a technique that alters some letters and letter pairs in the alphabet to help students understand how they are pronounced. As children grow more comfortable and confident in their reading, the special letter symbols are removed. Don’t expect routine evening homework if your child's school uses DI. Engelmann views homework — especially for children in the primary grades — as ineffective and unfair, particularly for disadvantaged children who may not get homework support at home.

Imagine It! (previously Open Court)

Grades covered: K - 6

Imagine It! from SRA/McGraw-Hill is a comprehensive elementary reading and writing program. Imagine It! is a structured, prescriptive program that's designed to reach all levels of learners.

In the past, some critics of Open Court, the earlier version of the program, have argued that it's more effective at teaching isolated literacy skills than developing students’ reading comprehension. The program has been found to boost reading test scores, but some critics question whether the gains continue into the later elementary grades. Many teachers also objected to the inflexible structure of the program. In 2011, the Los Angeles Unified School District scrapped Open Court, and adopted the Treasures curriculum instead.

When the Open Court curriculum was being revised, teachers were consulted to address ways to improve it, so Imagine It! includes many new instructional features, including enhanced vocabulary instruction and digital activities.

What it looks like: The centerpiece of Imagine It! is the “teacher edition,” which highlights how lessons link to the Common Core State Standards (the new national education standards) and gives teachers a variety of strategies for instruction. The program's theme-based student readers include fiction and nonfiction texts, as well as poetry. Additional support is provided through the eStudent Reader, an interactive, online resource. Typical homework includes writing sentences with spelling words and nightly reading and writing assignments.

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Kaufman

Literacy How

Grades covered: K – 8

Literacy How isn’t a curriculum but an approach to literacy instruction that emphasizes both decoding and comprehension. Literacy How formerly a division of Yale's Haskins Laboratories, which conducts research on spoken and written language Literacy How's approach, which grows out of a strong research foundation, mentors work directly with classroom teachers, providing instruction and support. According to Literacy How's website, "We believe teachers teach students to read, write and spell, not programs or products. So Literacy How empowers teachers to know the best way to teach." (In her book, The Good School: How Smart Parents Get Their Kids the Educaiton They Deserve, Peg Tyre applauds Literacy How's research-based approach, pointing out that many teachers don't receive effective training in reading instruction.)

Literacy How has worked with hundreds of teachers in Connecticut schools, Rhode Island, New York, and Massachusetts. Literacy How's results are impressive and show improved outcomes in achievement for Hispanic and low income students.

What it looks like: Literacy How mentors work with client schools by assessing existing literacy programs and modifying them as needed. In some cases, Literacy How conducts one-day workshops. In other cases, Literacy How mentors provide teachers with training and ongoing support, and monitor student progress. The Literacy How program emphasizes early intervention, phonics instruction, and differentiated learning (that is, assessing kids and working with them at their individual level) .

Reading Street

Grades covered: K - 6

Published by Pearson’s subsidiary Scott Foresman, Reading Street is designed so teachers can tailor instruction to students’ individual needs. What's particularly appealing about this language arts program is that it's based on the Common Core State Standards (curriculum authors include experts who helped to design the Common Core English language arts standards).

A 2007 study by Magnolia Consulting of Charlottesville, VA, showed significant achievement gains among students using Reading Street. All of the study students ireached and often exceeded end-of-year benchmarks in fluency. However, the study also concluded that these gains were equivalent to, and sometimes slightly below, those students using other reading programs.

What it looks like: Unlike most programs, Reading Street provides kindergarteners with their own student edition, “My Skills Buddy,” that serves as a companion to the classroom content and is used to practice skills. Teaching strategies are also included for English language learners.

Weekly lessons include examination of fiction and non-fiction texts. Vocabulary words are introduced and practiced throughout the week. Each of the curriculum's units is organized around a “big question” that connects the reading and writing assignments. Another plus: Pearson’s SuccessNet website supports the program through multimedia lessons.

Reader's Workshop

Grades covered: K- 8

Not a formal program, but a popular approach to teaching reading and reading comprehension, Reader's Workshop (also called "Reading Workshop") helps kids become skilled, independent readers.

The Reader's Workshop concept was first introduced by teacher Nancie Atkins in her groundbreaking book, In the Middle, and has been championed by the highly respected Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Reader's workshop has been shown to boost students reading skills, as well as their enthusiasm for reading.

What it looks like: Students in Reader's Workshop read books at their individual reading level. In most Reader's Workshops, kids are allowed to pick the books they read — with guidance from the teacher. Reader's Workshop format includes lessons on reading and comprehension strategies, read aloud time, guided reading (small group instruction), and independent reading. Many teachers create comfortable Reader's Workshop corners with bean bag chairs, pillows, and — of course — lots of books. Posters that encourage reading and good reading habits are also a common feature in Reader's Workshop classrooms.

In her book, The Reading Zone, Nancie Atkins describes the effectiveness of the Reader's Workshop approach, which she sees in action at the school she founded, the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) : "The [other CTL] teachers and I make time every day for our studetns to curl up with good books and engage in the single activity that consistently correlates with high levels of performance on standardized tests of reading ability. And that is frequent, voluminous reading. A child sitting in a quiet room with a good book isn't a flashy or, more significantly, marketable teaching method. It just happens to be the only way anyone ever grew up to become a reader."

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Kaufman

Success for All

Grades covered: K-12

Founded in 1987, Success for All (SFA) is a whole-school literacy instruction program that uses cooperative learning to keep students engaged. At the elementary level, the lessons use puppets, videos, and other types of multimedia to make learning both fun and challenging.

SFA has probably been evaluated more than any other reading curriculum (see a list of the research). A 2003 large-scale study found that SFA was one of only three programs that show strong evidence of effectiveness. Another study found that SFA eroded the achievement gap in schools. Some critics question these and other assessments of SFA because Bob Slavin, one of the program developers, has been involved in most of the major evaluations.

What it looks like: Reading Roots, SFA's beginning reader program, is a 90 minute comprehensive program that focuses on decoding (including phonics), fluency, and comprehension to develop a strong reading foundation. The program also emphasizes oral language development and writing instruction. Reading Wings, for second to sixth grade readers, builds on and enhances basic reading skills. Programs also exist for middle and high school readers. Students are assessed and regrouped according to their reading level every quarter to make sure they are receiving the instruction that fits their needs.


Grades covered: K-6

Treasures, which is marketed by MacMillan/McGraw Hill, is a comprehensive language arts program for students in kindergarten through sixth grades. It presents high-quality literature and explicit literacy instruction. Because it includes a balance of non-fiction and fiction work, Treasures moves students toward meeting the Common Core State Standards, which emphasize nonfiction texts.

Some districts have also adopted the Treasures program because it includes tools to support English language learners, such as pictures, multi-media, and opportunities to interact with classmates who are English proficient. Some critics, specifically teachers new to the program, have complained that the lessons include too much material to cover in a week, but others say they work around this problem by not doing all the activities.

What it looks like: Treasures lessons follow themes — such as families, friends, and transportation — and explores them through small group work using read-aloud texts, activity books, and other tools.

The Treasures program follows a “teach-teach-review” sequence in which skills are reviewed every third week. Leveled readers — different versions of the same text that are easier or more complex — allow teachers to address students’ individual needs.

Linda Jacobson is a freelance education writer who lives in Southern California.