What works in teaching reading

The evidence points towards the benefits of changing daily teaching practices, writes Robert Slavin

EVERY YEAR, bright and enthusiastic children enter kindergarten throughout the U.S. Whatever their backgrounds, these children fully expect to succeed in school. Their definition of success, the schools’ definition, their parents’ definition, and society’s definition are all the same: success in elementary school primarily means success in reading.

Everyone knows the importance of success in reading, and everyone knows that the quality of reading instruction children receive can mean the difference between success and failure. In light of the stakes involved, for children, and for society, you’d imagine that there would be a great deal of research and development going on to identify effective reading programs and practices.

Much research has in fact established the general outlines of what should be emphasized in reading: phonemic awareness (knowing how sounds become words), phonics, comprehension, vocabulary, and fluency. Yet how much do we know about the actual programs available to teachers to help their children become successful and joyful readers?

The Best Evidence Encyclopedia (The BEE)

In order to find out what works in teaching reading, my colleagues and I at Johns Hopkins University created a set of systematic reviews of research on reading programs. These reviews are on a website called the Best Evidence Encyclopedia, or the BEE (www.bestevidence.org). The BEE provides easy-to-read, brief summaries of evidence on what works in education, as well as full reviews. We have completed reviews of beginning reading, upper elementary reading, and middle and high school reading, as well as a review of programs for struggling readers in the elementary grades. In order to be included in the reviews, studies had to meet a set of common-sense requirements:

  • Students using each innovative program had to be compared to children who used ordinary methods;
  • Students using each program had to be well matched with those using ordinary methods;
  • Measures had to be fair to all groups (not inherent to the innovative program); and
  • The programs had to be evaluated for at least 12 weeks, preferably a year or more.

We examined all studies carried out since 1970 in all countries, as long as the reports were available in English. A total of 240 studies met our standards.

Across the individual reviews, the findings fell into a consistent pattern. The highlights were these:

Phonics is necessary but not sufficient for effective reading programs. Successfully evaluated programs almost all emphasized systematic, synthetic phonics, as the National Reading Panel recommended. However, many ineffective programs also emphasized phonics. Other aspects of the programs were also critical.

Most of the textbooks and CAI (computer‑assisted instruction) software have never been evaluated. However, across 24 studies of textbooks and 52 studies of CAI, it became clear that simply adopting a different book, curriculum, or CAI program made little difference in reading outcomes.

What did make a difference was use of phonetically-focused programs and practices that train teachers to focus on building students’ motivation, active interactions, engagement, and thinking skills. For example:

  • Cooperative learning methods in which children work in pairs or groups of four to tutor each other in phonics skills, help each other learn study skills, and take turns reading to each other;
  • Metacognitive strategy instruction in which students are taught methods for understanding what they read, such as predicting what will happen next, summarizing, making graphic organizers to represent key ideas, and so on; and
  • Classroom management and motivation programs, which train and coach teachers in methods of organizing classrooms, effectively engaging all pupils, using time effectively, and having a rapid pace of teaching.

For struggling readers, we found that phonics was particularly important, but again, it was not sufficient by itself. Here is what works best:

  • Phonics-focused, one-to-one tutoring. Tutoring programs that focus on teaching struggling readers to unlock the reading code have substantial effects on learning;
  • One-to-one tutoring by teaching assistants. While the most effective tutoring methods use teachers as tutors, teaching assistants can also get very good results. Volunteers can also be effective tutors;
  • Small-group remediation works less well than one-to-one. Remedial programs in which a teacher works with a group of three-to-six students can be effective, but these methods tend to be less effective than one-to-one; and
  • Struggling readers benefit from effective classroom programs. The same programs that were most effective with students in general were particularly effective with struggling readers. This is especially true of cooperative learning methods such as Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies (PALS) and Cooperative Integrated Reading and Composition (CIRC).

Combined, comprehensive programs work best. For all students, the most effective (and extensively evaluated) approaches were programs that combine phonics, one-to-one tutoring for struggling readers, cooperative learning, and effective classroom management and motivation methods. One example is Success for All, a comprehensive model used in about 1,000 elementary and middle schools in the U.S. Another is Read 180, which combines CAI with phonetic materials, cooperative learning, and effective teaching methods to help struggling students in middle and high schools.


Our review concluded that improving reading is not just a matter of phonics, better books, or computers. Instead, reading reform means investing in teachers, giving them effective tools and strategies to ensure that every child gets a firm phonetic base as well as strategies to comprehend all sorts of texts, to build fluency, to develop vocabulary, and most importantly, to love to read.

For more information on our reviews, visit the Best Evidence Encyclopedia.

About the author

Robert Slavin is Director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University, and Director of the Institute for Effective Education at the University of York. He is also Chairman of the Success for All Foundation.

Further reading

Cheung A & Slavin RE, (2005) Effective reading programs for English language learners and other language minority students, Bilingual Research Journal, 29 (2), 241–267.

National Reading Panel, (2000) Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. Rockville, MD: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Slavin RE, Cheung A, Groff C, & Lake C, (2008b) Effective reading programs for middle and high schools: A best evidence synthesis, Reading Research Quarterly, 43 (3), 290–322.

Slavin RE, Lake C, Chambers B, Cheung A, & Davis S, (2009) Effective beginning reading programs: A best-evidence synthesis.

Slavin RE, Lake C, Chambers B, Cheung A, & Davis S, (2008a). Beyond the basics: Effective reading programs for the upper elementary grades.

Slavin RE, Lake C, Davis S, & Madden N, (in process) Effective programs for struggling readers: A best evidence synthesis.

What Works Clearinghouse (2008) Beginning reading. What Works Clearinghouse Topic Report.


May 2009