What Makes a Good Reading Program?

In the early grades, the best reading programs offer a balance of elements, including reading for meaning and experiences with high-quality literature; intense, intentional, and systematic instruction in phonics; and ample opportunities to read and write. However, many commercial programs neglect certain aspects of instruction. Although most programs support activities that build comprehension, they may not include sufficient instruction in fluency, writing, and the alphabetic principle.

What does a well-balanced program look like? One example is a commercial program that offers a well-integrated approach using three distinct phases of instruction over the course of first grade.

During phase one, students develop phonemic awareness, the alphabetic principle, and a general understanding of how print works. A variety of games and activities give students practice in letter recognition, oral blending, and segmentation. For example, the teacher may ask “What rhymes with ‘hat’ and starts with ‘c’?” Or,“Which of the following words begin with the letter ‘n’?” To help children become knowledgeable about print, teachers read to them using big books and also encourage them to write every day. With language games and activities, the class also works on basic sight recognition of easy high-frequency words such as “the,”“of,”“you,”“is,” and “are.”

During the second phase of the program, teachers explicitly teach letter-sound correspondences and spelling conventions. For the first time, children read independently with a graduated series of books that reinforce vocabulary and phonics lessons to date. As a part of their new reading efforts, they learn the strategy: if you don’t recognize a word, sound it out.

Meanwhile, teachers connect phonics and spelling skills with dictation writing activities. Read-aloud sessions with big books include a variety of fiction and nonfiction centered on building knowledge on a topic children can enjoy. The program offers activities and books that engage children in exploration and the delights of literature.

By midyear, children move into the third phase of the program. They receive anthologies, with each unit focused on an explorable concept, such as animals and gardening. Teachers encourage children to compare selections in the units, in search of connections and overlapping themes. During guided reading sessions, they help children work on strategies, such as predicting, summing up, using context clues to understand words, making inferences, and articulating their personal responses. Individual and small groups of children work on projects, such as composing plays, puppet shows, and research reports. Phonics work now moves to more complex patterns, such as diphthongs, inflections, and polysyllabic words. Daily writing and reading sessions continue, as children move from decodable books to easy-to-read books and other stories that each can choose individually.

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