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The MDRC Policy Brief, Reading First, and An Allergy to Reading

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Meanwhile, Stephen Krashen documents the continued failure of Reading First to show any real signs of success and raises the point that Frank Smith and Ken Goodman were right all along: We learn to read by reading. Imagine that.

Stephen Krashen

By Stephen Krashen http://www.sdkrashen.com

Understanding Reading First, a "policy brief" published by MDRC (Herlihy, Kemple, Bloom, Zhu,, and Berlin, 2009), presents a weak apology for the continued failure of Reading First to show any real signs of success. The report also fails to mention a very obvious reason for these failures. Reading First is based on the report of the National Reading Panel (NICHD, 2000). The "core" of reading instruction, the Panel concluded, consists of direct instruction in these elements: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension.

The Policy Brief states the Reading Panel's philosophy as follows: "As students learn to read, they master a series of skills from sounding out letters, to stringing these sounds into properly pronounced words, to fluently reading sentences, to comprehending the meaning of the words and sentences they read" (p. 5).

If the Panel Report is correct, Reading First children should read better than non-Reading First children.

Children in Reading First, however, did not do significantly better than comparison children in reading comprehension in two reports released in 2008. I will refer to these two reports as study 1 and study 2. Study 2 was a follow-up report of study 1. (Note that some of the authors of the study 1 were co-authors of the Policy Brief.) Study 1: The Reading First Impact Study, released April 30, 2008 (Gamse, Bloom, Kemple, and Jacob, 2008)

Study 2: The Reading First Impact Study: Final Report, released November, 2008 (Gamse, Jacob, Horst, Boulay, and Unlu, 2008)

The Policy Brief attempts to present a more cheerful view of Reading First.

Word decoding as precursor?

The Policy Brief assumes that word decoding (the ability to pronounce words out-loud) is a "precursor skill" to reading ability, and points out that in study 2, Reading First children did significantly better than comparisons on a test of word decoding, given in grade 1. The Policy Brief also notes that the results for reading comprehension and decoding in grade 1 were quite similar, with the reading comprehension results falling just short of statistical significance.

This is, however, an old story. Several previous studies have shown that children following an intensive, decoding-based curriculum similar to the way reading is taught in Reading First do quite well on tests of decoding but do not do nearly as well on measures of reading comprehension given after grade 1, reading comprehension tests that make greater demands on students' ability to understand what they read (Garan, 2001; Krashen, 2009a). This is exactly what happened with Reading First. These results do not support the view that word decoding is a precursor to the ability to read with understanding.

Were comparisons also doing Reading First?

The Policy Brief suggests that a reason for the disappointing results is that the "core elements of reading instruction" from the National Reading Panel were also being used in the comparison sites.

But the Reading First schools had more time devoted to teaching based on these elements. This was true in both studies 1 and 2. First graders in the study 1 had an extra 45 minutes per week, and second graders an extra 60 minutes a week of instruction on phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension, the five elements of reading endorsed by the National Reading Panel. In study 2, first graders had an extra 35 minutes a week and second graders an extra 49 minutes a week of instruction on the core elements. Not enough extra time?

The Policy Brief suggests that the extra time devoted to reading instruction might not have been enough to make a difference. But the Reading First children had considerable extra instruction. In fact, as shown in the figures above, the data from study 1 indicates that Reading First children in grades 1 and 2 had a total of 52 extra hours of instruction on the "core elements." In study 2, they had an estimated 42 extra hours. More Reading First, better results?

Additional test results confirm Reading First's dismal performance. In a test of whether more Reading First results in more literacy growth, study 2 examined test scores of students who had been in Reading First for three years, in grades 1, 2 and 3, excluding students who had not been in Reading First all three years. These consistent Reading First children were only slightly better than comparisons, and the difference was not statistically significant (Exhibits F2 and F3). In other words, children who received the most consistent Reading First instruction did not do significantly better than comparison students. This result was not mentioned in the Policy Brief.

Later Reading First, better results?

The Policy Brief finds a ray of hope in noting that children in late-award sites, sites that received grants in 2004, appeared to do better than their comparisons, which was not the case for early-award sites, sites that received grants in 2003. The late-award sites served children of lower socio-economic status, and received larger grants. Because late-award sites tended to be higher poverty, each group, early and late, was compared to different non-Reading First sites.

The late-award sites did only slightly better than their comparisons. Effect sizes were very small (the largest was .14), the difference falling short of significance in grades 1 and 3, but reaching significance in grade 2 (study 3, Exhibit 3.9). A very small pay-off for a huge investment of time (and money).

Could the National Reading Panel be wrong?

Despite the failure of Reading First, the Policy Brief accepted the correctness of the National Reading Panel Report uncritically, concluding that the findings of the Panel "remain the best evidence available about how to teach reading effectively to young children" (p. 8). There was no mention of the many critiques of the National Reading Panel report in the professional literature (e.g. Allington, 2002; Coles, 2003; Garan, 2001). Never considered by the authors of the Policy Brief is the possibility that the National Reading Panel's conclusions were wrong, that the core elements they endorsed are not, in fact, the best basis for reading instruction, and that this is the main reason why Reading First has produced such dismal results. An allergy to reading

Never mentioned is the possibility that the results could mean that Frank Smith (e.g. Smith, 2004) and Kenneth Goodman (e.g. Flurkey and Xu, 2003) have been right all along: We learn to read by reading, not through the skill-building/decoding approach used by Reading First, a hypothesis that the Policy Brief, the National Reading Panel, Reading First, and even the International Reading Association appear to be allergic to (Krashen, 2009b).


Allington, R. L. 2002. Big brother and the national reading curriculum: How ideology trumped evidence. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Coles, G. 2003. Reading the naked truth: Literacy, legislation, and lies. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Flurkey, A., and J. Xu. eds. 2003. On the revolution in reading: The selected writings of Kenneth S. Goodman. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Gamse, B.C., Bloom, H.S., Kemple, J.J., and Jacob, R.T., 2008. Reading First Impact Study: Interim Report (NCEE 2008-4016). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

Gamse, B.C., Jacob, R.T., Horst, M., Boulay, B., and Unlu, F. 2008. Reading First Impact Study Final Report (NCEE 2009-4038). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Garan, E. M. 2001. What does the report of the national reading panel really tell us about phonics? Language Arts, 79, 61-70.

Herlihy, C., Kemple, J., Bloom, H. Zhu, P., and Berlin, G. 2009. Understanding Reading First. Policy Brief, MDRC. New York: MDRC. (www.mdrc.org)

Krashen, S. 2009a. Does intensive reading instruction contribute to reading comprehension? Knowledge Quest 37 (4): 72-74.

Krashen, S. 2009b. Policy paper slights book. Reading Today. (February/March).

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), 2000. Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction: Reports of the Subgroups. Washington, DC: NIH Publication 00-4654.

— Stephen Krashen
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