Twenty-four Proven Programs for Struggling Readers

One of the greatest impediments to evidence-based reform in education is the belief that there are very few programs that have been rigorously evaluated and found to be effective. People often make fun of the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC), calling it the Nothing Works Clearinghouse, because in its early days there were, in fact, few programs that met WWC standards.

If you believe in the “nothing works” formulation, I’ve got astonishing news for you. You might want to find a safe place to sit, and remove any eyeglasses or sharp objects, before reading any further, to avoid accidental injury.


I have been reviewing research on various programs for elementary struggling readers to find out how many meet the new ESSA evidence standards. The answer: at least 24. Of these, 14 met the “strong” ESSA criterion, which means that there was at least one randomized study with statistically significant positive effects. Eight met the “moderate” standard, which requires at least one quasi-experimental (i.e., matched) study with significant positive effects. Two met the “promising” standard, requiring at least one correlational study with positive effects. (For a list of struggling reader programs organized by ESSA categories, click here).

I should hasten to explain that the numbers of proven programs will be higher for struggling readers programs than for whole-class programs, because most of the struggling readers programs are one-to-one or one-to-small-group tutoring. But still, the number and diversity of proven programs is impressive. Among the 24 programs, eight used one-to-one tutoring by teachers, paraprofessionals, or volunteers. Nine used small-group tutoring by teachers or paraprofessionals. However, one used computer-assisted instruction, and five used whole-school or whole-class methods and reported significantly positive effects on the students who had been in the lowest-achieving third or quarter of the classes at pretest. Two of the 24 programs, Reading Recovery (1-1 tutoring by teachers) and Success for All (whole-school approach) are well known and have been around a long time, but many others are much less well known. Of course, one-to-one tutoring, especially by teachers, can be very expensive, but whole-school and whole-class approaches tend to be relatively inexpensive on a per-pupil basis.

Here’s my point. Schools seeking proven, practical approaches to improving outcomes for their struggling readers have a wide array of attractive alternatives. Six of them, Reading Recovery, Success for All, Sound Partners (1-1 tutoring by paraprofessionals), Lindamood (small group tutoring by teachers), Targeted Reading Intervention (1-1 tutoring by teachers), and Empower Reading (small group tutoring by teachers) all have large effect sizes from randomized experiments and have been proven in from two to 28 studies.

It is important to note that there are also many programs for struggling readers that have been evaluated and found to be ineffective, including tutoring programs. It matters a lot which program you choose.

Every school and district has children who are struggling to learn to read, and all too often their solution is to make up their own approach for these students, or to purchase materials, software, or services from vendors who can present no credible evidence of effectiveness. If there were no proven solutions, such strategies might make sense, but how can they be justified when there are so many proven alternatives?

A better use of time and energy might be for educational leaders to review the proven programs for struggling readers, seek information about their benefits and costs, speak with educators who have used them, and perhaps arrange a visit to schools using programs being considered. Then they’d have a good chance of picking an approach that is likely to work if well implemented.

Soon, we will have information about proven programs in every subject and grade level, for all types of learners. Wouldn’t this be a good time to get into the habit of using proven programs to improve student outcomes?

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