Simply put, there's no perfect method or commercial program for teaching struggling readers how to read. Every method or program has flaws. As Richard Allington, past president of the International Literacy Association, has noted, no program is complete, and no program is as important as the teacher:

"Study after study points to teacher expertise as the critical variable in effective literacy instruction…. I've never encountered any product that by itself, comprises even a full reading curriculum, much less a full literacy curriculum. Some products provide support for some very narrow, specific element or elements of a full curriculum.

The product might provide a short-term plan for developing various skill and strategy proficiencies. While those products might assist teachers in planning skill and strategy instruction, they typically provide little opportunity for students to develop the autonomous automatic and appropriate application of those proficiencies while actually reading. In other words, they provide scant opportunities to actually read."

The Six T's

Allington found that exemplary teachers used six key features to guide reading instruction, features that were far more important than methods or commercial programs. He called these features, found in a series of studies, the Six T’s:

1. Time. Exemplary teachers had students spend a great deal of time reading and writing; half a school day was not excessive.

2. Texts. Students read lots of interesting texts. Because teachers matched students’ texts to their reading levels, students read these with high word recognition accuracy as well as fluency and comprehension.

3. Teaching. Teachers did much more than tell students what to do. They showed them. They "routinely gave direct, explicit demonstrations of the cognitive strategies that good readers use when they read…. They modeled the thinking that skilled readers engage in as they attempt to decode a word, self-monitor for understanding, summarize while reading, or edit when composing."

4. Talk. Teachers did not question students as if they were seeking only the one right answer. They did not act like interrogators. Instead, "exemplary teachers encouraged, modeled, and supported lots of talk across the school day. This talk was purposeful talk, though, not simply chatter. It was problem-posing, problem-solving talk related to curricular topics…. Teachers posed more ‘open’ questions, to which multiple responses would be appropriate."

5. Tasks. Exemplary teachers minimized short workbook-like activities. Instead, they often had students work on a writing task for two weeks.

They had students read whole books, complete individual and small-group research projects, and work on tasks that integrated several content areas, such as reading, writing, and social studies. They also gave students managed choice: students could choose from one of the tasks their teacher offered.

6. Testing. Exemplary teachers emphasized self-efficacy; they "evaluated student work and awarded grades based more on effort and improvement than simply on achievement. Thus all students had a chance to earn good grades…. Improvement was noted based on where students started and where they ended up, rather than on the latter alone."

Though easy to remember and psychologically sound, these key features oversimplify reading instruction. As Allington warned:

"While the six T’s offer a shorthand, of sorts, for describing exemplary teaching in the elementary grades, they also oversimplify the complex nature of good teaching. For instance, the six T’s actually operate interactively. It seems highly unlikely that we could develop teaching that reflects any single T alone."

Although teachers of struggling readers may have to add to Allington’s Six T’s, two things are clear: First, to help struggling readers become proficient, highly motivated readers, teachers will have to adhere to the Six T’s.

Second, they’ll have to personalize and go beyond any prepackaged reading method or program. They’ll have to supplement such programs, continuously monitor the struggling reader’s progress, identify causes of difficulty that may impede progress, modify methods and programs to eliminate causes of difficulty, and keep learning about reading disabilities.

Critical Questions

If, by themselves, the Six T’s have yet to sufficiently motivate struggling readers to attend, focus, correctly use the right learning strategies, make and sustain sufficient efforts, and think about what they’re reading, the questions below might help teachers, support staff, and parents to identify some of the barriers to progress and brainstorm possible solutions.

  • What does she fear?
  • What does she like?
  • What does she dislike?
  • What does she do well?
  • What does she struggle with?
  • What does she want to do?
  • What does she want to avoid?
  • What does she want to get?
  • What tactics does she use to get what she wants?
  • What tactics does she use to avoid what she dislikes?
  • What are her goals?
  • What are her resources?
  • Who does she like, respect, or both?
  • Who doesn’t she like, respect, or both?