Parents often ask me, "What's the best reading program for my child? He struggles with reading. It's awful." Unfortunately, this question can't be answered. Why? Programs do not teach reading — teachers do.

As Richard Allington, past president of the International Reading Association, so rightly asserted:

"In the end, enhanced reading proficiency rests largely on the capacity of classroom teachers to provide expert, exemplary reading instruction. ... Teaching cannot be packaged. Exemplary teaching is not regurgitation of a common script but is responsive to children's needs. In the end, it will become clearer that there are no 'proven programs,' just schools in which we find more expert teachers — teachers who need no script to tell them what to do."

In line with Allington's warning, while packaged programs get widely praised and adopted, their effectiveness varies widely. Some struggling learners benefit greatly, others regress, stagnate or make little progress.


This strongly suggests that teaching reading to struggling learners requires substantial support, knowledge and skill. To help these learners, teachers need adequate time and materials. They need to know each learner's needs: the levels of materials he (or she) can comfortably read, the concepts and skills he needs to learn (curriculum), the methods, strategies and instructional considerations likely to accelerate his progress, and the topics and strategies likely to motivate him.

Teachers need high-level skills to effectively deliver this knowledge. They may also need in-class support from other professionals or paraprofessionals who fully understand the situation, the learner's needs, his teacher's goals and strategies, and how to deliver them.

For teachers to fully understand the struggling learner's needs requires more than a battery of standardized tests; it requires a comprehensive reading evaluation by a knowledgeable and skilled reading specialist. For an evaluation to be sufficiently comprehensive, it should include valid, standardized tests and one or two informal reading inventories (IRIs) as well as ample observations of the learner sufficient to identify both barriers to progress and potential solutions that teachers will likely embrace with skill and enthusiasm.

If possible, it should also include a description and the results of preliminary diagnostic (trial) teaching to identify what approaches and program adjustments will likely accelerate the learner's progress. Beyond this, it requires the ongoing monitoring of progress so teachers and parents can quickly make needed changes if progress is poor.

Without frequent, ongoing monitoring, learners often rebel or languish in ineffective programs.

Reading levels

So, if teachers teach reading, and no commercial program is automatically the "best" packaged off-the-shelf reading program for your child or any other struggling learner, what are the most important instructional factors that parents should look for and teachers and administrators should plan for?

Regardless of reading methods, reading levels are one. Selecting the right level materials for struggling learners is one of the most important instructional decisions that teachers and reading specialists make. It’s one that dramatically influences the progress and emotional well-being of struggling learners.

Thus, to successfully teach reading, regardless of methodology, teachers and reading specialists must understand, value and adhere to the three most important reading levels:

  • independent
  • instruction
  • frustration

If they don't identify the right levels, and adjust these as struggling learners regress or progress, they're increasing the odds that some students will prosper, some will suffer endless boredom, and some — usually struggling learners will figuratively thrash around and drown when trying to swim against powerful rip tides.

Fortunately, informal reading inventories (IRIs) provide a good deal of the information needed to start identifying these three critical levels.

For all students, but especially struggling learners, reading's rip tide is a frequent diet of frustration-level materials. More often than not, it will destroy the optimism, enthusiasm and overall motivation for reading that most parents and educators want children to embrace. And yet, many struggling learners face daily diets of frustration-level reading materials.

In departmentalized programs, struggling learners might comfortably read interesting materials for 35 minutes a day in remedial reading or resource class, but face the impossible task of mastering frustration-level materials in health, science and so on for the rest of the day. Without doubt, this is an excellent diet for fostering stress, anxiety, anger, inattention, resistance, despondence, depression, disruptive behavior and lifelong feelings of what one struggling learner a 55-year-old high school dropout called "piled-high stupidity."

Frustration-level materials

So, in addition to IRI results, how can parents and teachers recognize frustration-level materials? Easy.

Does your child or student struggle to quickly identify or understand more than one of every 20 or so words? Is his reading choppy full of stops and starts? Does he do what he can to escape reading? When asked to read silently, does he endlessly stare into space or incessantly examine his two pencils or complain, complain and complain? Is he regressing or making minimal progress? Does he look sad? Is his emotional well-being and behavior deteriorating?

To struggling learners, three words capture the essence of frustration-level diets: avoid, avoid, avoid. For teachers and reading specialists to accelerate learners' poor progress and create more optimistic, hopeful learners, they must heed these three words. They have only one way to do so: Avoid frustration-level materials.

Instructional-level materials

What criteria define this "magical" level? From the International Reading Association's "The Literacy Dictionary," here's a formal definition of instructional level that many IRIs approximate: "Better than 95 percent word identification accuracy and better than 75 percent comprehension." To word identification, I would add "with good fluency."

When looking at the two figures, it's important to note they refer to reading new materials, ones they're seeing for the first time. This is also true for independent-level figures.

It would be a mistake to rigidly adhere to the 95 percent and 75 percent figures. The Literacy Dictionary uses the phrase "better than," which is usually good advice.

If three years of constant failure with frustration-level diets have taught "Edwin" a composite of many struggling learners to believe "I'm a stupid failure who will never succeed at anything," he may initially need instructional-level materials at 98 percent word identification accuracy and comprehension at 85 percent accuracy. In other words, he needs to frequently see himself succeed.

For the many Edwins in America's schools, it's important that frequent successes not be isolated successes. For many Edwins, frequent success needs to be part of a strong, systematic program that materially strengthens their self-efficacy. Practically speaking, self-efficacy is their belief that they can succeed if they correctly use the right strategies, make reasonable efforts and persist when necessary.

Simultaneously, success with instructional-level materials often needs to be wrapped in facilitative attributions. Instruction needs to teach struggling learners to take credit for their successes, when their actions directly caused their success: "I succeeded because I made the effort and correctly used the cross-checking strategy."

Conversely, educators and parents will also need to teach them to stop hammering their psyches when they struggle and strike out. Over time, and with quality instruction and strategic feedback, many will learn to replace self-derogatory thoughts with facilitative ones ones they believe: "I struggled because I didn't make a good effort or use the cross-checking strategy. I'll do them now."

This statement avoids derogatory, self-defeating characterizations while focusing on two controllable factors: effort and strategy.

So, make sure your child or students are taught with materials at their proper, personalized, instructional levels. This level differs from the independent level. Instructional is somewhat more difficult. But ideally and practically, it's critical for helping all struggling learners and all other students — it's the level at which teachers need to teach their students.

In other words, instructional level requires the direct, active involvement of teachers. For reading, it's the primary time for teaching. At this level, teachers need to show, tell, question, provoke, summarize, clarify and provide lots of guided and ultimately independent practice. They'll have to help struggling learners solve and overcome manageable difficulties without feeling overwhelmed by frustration.

But beware. If, from the start, students have to independently learn instructional-level materials, instructional becomes frustrational. Not good. So, where does the independent level fit in?

Independent-level materials

For all students, including struggling learners, independent-level materials are light years easier than frustration-level ones and somewhat easier than instructional-level ones. The keyword is "easier." Students can usually glide through the reading aspects of independent-level materials. No sweat.

In independent-level reading, all students including struggling learners should have the ability to absorb the content without serious word recognition or comprehension difficulties. Homework and recreational reading should stick to this level. Otherwise, frustration can dominate as students may unknowingly practice errors: a destructive practice.

So, what are the statistical criteria?

"The Literacy Dictionary" notes that "although suggested criteria vary, better than 99 percent word identification accuracy and better than 90 percent comprehension are often used as standards." As with the instructional level, these figures are guidelines that refer to materials new to struggling learners and other students.

For Edwin, how do you know what independent-level reading and assignments look like in class and at home? Look at how he does with the independent-level materials he's reading, how often and how well he completes homework, how fluently and expressively he reads aloud, what materials he truly enjoys when reading independently, what materials he talks about enthusiastically, and what materials and assignments he avoids or complains about.

Other factors

In the day-to-day reality of schools where struggling learners face a variety of materials, assignments and situations teachers need to consider other factors that informally but powerfully define instructional and independent levels. To successfully help learners succeed with these assignments and situations, teachers must often make quick, on-the-fly decisions.

These factors include the learner's:

  • Ability to succeed with reading materials of various length, complexity and abstraction
  • Ability to fluently read and write
  • Personal goals
  • Interest in the topic
  • Past success with such assignments
  • Ability to organize tasks and materials
  • Relationships with peers
  • Ability to function in groups
  • Confidence in his abilities
  • Expectations of success
  • Motivation to succeed
  • Expectations of support
  • Relationship with his teacher(s)
  • Need for rest or physical activity
  • Ability to meet the assignment's physical demands, such as handwriting and sustained reading of computer screens
  • Ability to establish and maintain focus and self-control
  • Ability to ignore nearby physical and social distractions, such as talking and peers

Final comments

Despite publishers' claims about their new and groundbreaking reading programs or the great success of their old and venerated programs, there's no one best program for all struggling learners. The research just isn't there.

One major reason is packaged programs even software programs don't really know learners. A packaged, knowledgeably supplemented program might work well for one learner in class, but not for another. Simply put, struggling learners differ far more than sand and water.

The importance of children's critical differences is highlighted in the federal regulations (CFR) for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA). The regulations require Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) to consider "the strengths of the child," "functional needs of the child" and "special factors" like the child's behavior, language needs and sensory abilities.

Can specific programs or methods meaningfully help? Can programs supported by strong research do the same? To both questions, the answer is "Yes, but only if ..."

  • the programs are sufficiently modified and supplemented — as necessary — to meet each struggling learner's unique constellation of needs
  • his teachers have the knowledge, skill, resources, support and opportunity to do this
  • each struggling learner is routinely given materials and assignments at his proper independent and instructional levels and not at his frustration level

But a single reading program packaged in beautiful, expensive boxes, supported by glowing testimonials from teachers, parents and students, and used in a rigid, orthodox manner, oblivious to the unique needs of struggling learners will usually fail vast numbers of them.

If such programs usually worked well for the vast majority of struggling learners, if they routinely showed far greater progress than other programs, an impressive body of well-designed research would demonstrate their effectiveness. Sadly, after decades of research, parents and educators are still waiting.

One caution is critical. In all cases when teaching reading to struggling learners, it's essential to frequently and validly monitor their progress. If weekly monitoring over three or four successive weeks shows regression, stagnation or minimal progress as can happen with the most carefully personalized of programs, taught by outstanding, well-supported teachers it's essential that the parents or school call a meeting to both identify active barriers to progress and plan to remedy them.

Unless these barriers are minimized or eliminated, and unless the accelerators for progress are strengthened, struggling learners will continue to struggle. Many will stop trying.

So what's the best reading program for struggling learners? What's essential for them to make critical progress? It's high-quality, well-supported teachers who frequently and carefully monitor progress and adjust reading levels and instruction as needed.

To date, there's no close second in sight.