What works for struggling readers

Robert Slavin reviews research on all types of programs intended to help struggling readers in the elementary grades: one-to-one tutoring, small-group methods, technology, cooperative learning, and comprehensive school reform

EVERY EDUCATOR AND PARENT knows how important it is for children to get off to a good start in reading. Children who do not read well in the early elementary grades are likely to have problems in all areas of schooling, are unlikely to graduate, and may develop serious behavioral or emotional problems. Making certain that every child is successful in reading has to be one of the most important goals for every elementary school.

What we know
● One-to-one tutoring with phonetic materials and well-trained teachers works very well, but is most expensive.
● One-to-one phonetic tutoring by paraprofessionals and small-group methods also work well.
● Classroom process approaches, such as cooperative learning, are effective for upper-elementary students struggling in reading.
● CAI has little benefit for struggling readers.
● Comprehensive models that combine cooperative learning, tutoring, and other strategies work best.

Over the past 20 years, many strategies have been proposed to help children who are struggling to learn to read in grades 1–5. My colleagues and I carried out a systematic review of studies evaluating these programs. Our findings are summarized in this article.

Review methods

Our review included a total of 96 studies that compared various approaches to helping struggling readers. These studies had to meet the following standards:

  • Children who received the program in question were compared to a control group that did not.
  • Children in experimental and control groups were pretested and found to be equivalent.
  • At post-test, children were tested on valid reading measures.
  • The study took place over a period of at least 12 weeks.


One-to-one tutoring by teachers

One-to-one tutoring by specially trained teachers is, not surprisingly, one of the most effective strategies. Reading Recovery, a New Zealand program now used throughout the English-speaking world, has excellent outcomes, especially in recent UK studies that had more of a phonetic emphasis than earlier U.S. studies. Other phonetic approaches to one-to-one tutoring, such as Early Steps, Targeted Reading Intervention, and Reading Rescue, had even greater effects on children’s reading.

One-to-one tutoring by paraprofessionals and volunteers

Studies found that teachers get better reading outcomes than paraprofessionals, but paraprofessionals using programs such as Sound Partners may be more cost-effective. Reading outcomes for volunteers are variable, but usually less than those for teachers or paraprofessionals. However, volunteer programs with very well-trained volunteers, such as Book Buddies and SMART, had very good outcomes.

Small-group tutorials

Evaluations of phonetic programs provided in very small groups (two–six children) found moderate positive effects for several programs, such as Quick Reads, Corrective Reading, and Voyager Passport.

Classroom process approaches

One category of approaches for struggling readers, especially in the upper-elementary grades, involves improvements in core reading instruction for all students, rather than services to individuals or small groups. In particular, these approaches include cooperative learning methods in which students work in pairs or small groups; methods for teaching metacognitive “learning to learn” strategies; and combinations of cooperative learning and metacognitive teaching, such as Cooperative Integrated Reading and Composition (CIRC), Peer Assisted Learning Strategies (PALS), and Direct Instruction/Corrective Reading. For the lowest-achieving 25% of students in these studies, effects of these programs averaged at levels like those of one-to-one tutoring.


Over the past 30 years, one of the most common solutions for students who are struggling to learn to read is to give them computer-assisted instruction (CAI) software. However, the results of our review showed that this type of intervention has minimal impact on reading. Of all of the approaches included in the review, technology was found to have the smallest effect on the attainment of struggling readers.

Comprehensive school reform

The comprehensive school reform program Success for All combines all of the effective strategies discussed so far: cooperative learning, phonics, teaching of metacognitive skills, and one-to-one or small-group tutoring. A large number of evaluations of Success for All find this approach to have substantial and lasting impacts on reading achievement.

Figure 1 summarizes the findings of our review. As the figure shows, all of the approaches we reviewed had some positive effect on reading, but some had more than others. One-to-one phonetic tutoring and comprehensive school reform strategies show the greatest gains for beginning readers, and inexpensive classroom instructional process programs show substantial gains in the upper-elementary years.What_works_struggling_readers_Figure_1


The most important message from research on programs for struggling readers is that proven solutions are available. There is no reason that so many children must continue to struggle in reading. The research finds that relatively inexpensive interventions can be effective for many struggling readers, and might be tried before providing, for example, one-to-one tutoring by teachers. However, schools should be ready to do whatever it takes to make sure that every child leaves elementary school a confident and capable reader.

 About the author

Robert Slavin is a professor in the Institute for Effective Education at the University of York, Director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University, and Cofounder and Chairman of the Success for All Foundation, a restructuring program which helps schools to identify and implement strategies designed to meet the needs of all learners.

Further reading

Slavin RE, Lake C, Davis S, and Madden N (2011), Effective Programs for Struggling Readers: A Best-evidence Synthesis, Educational Research Review, 6, 1–26.

Slavin RE et al (2009), Effective Reading Programs for the Elementary Grades: A Best-evidence Synthesis, Review of Educational Research, 79(4), 1391–1465.


November 2011