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Improving Schools to Improve Reading Instruction
Sebastian Wren, Ph.D.

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Book Review 
There are two facets to understanding reading -- first is to understand how a child learns to read.  That, I would argue, is the realm of cognitive psychology.  The second is to understand how we, as educators, should teach children to read.  That is the realm of education.  I would argue that all educators should endeavor to understand both -- pedagogy and psychology fit so well together.

But there is a third facet that has been intriguing me for some time -- why is it some children do not learn to read well?  The answer lies in part in the realm of cognitive psychology and in part in the realm of education, but mostly, it lies in the realm of school improvement. 

Struggling readers are not evenly distributed in this country -- they are overwhelmingly concentrated in low-performing schools.  While 40% of early readers in this country are lacking even basic skills, almost none of those "below basic" readers are to be found in our affluent, suburban school districts.  Almost all "below basic" readers are to be found in schools that are in very low-income areas.  However, there are many schools in this country that serve populations of students from low-income families that are none-the-less quite successful at teaching all of their students to read proficiently.

I encountered an elementary school near El Paso a few years ago where 100% of the students participated in free-and-reduced lunch programs, and where most of the students were from linguistically diverse homes.  Yet virtually none of the students were failing the state's accountability assessments.  Talking to the principal, he said that having his students pass the state test (the TAKS) was not his goal -- his goal was for all of his students to go to Harvard, and he accepted no excuses for anything less.

To really understand reading, you have to understand schools like this -- schools that teach all children to read well and accept no excuses for anything less than proficiency and success.  What is it they do that works so well?  These books provide some insights.

-- To learn more about a particular book, or to purchase a copy of that book, just click on the image of the book cover --
The Literacy Coach's Handbook: A Guide to Research-Based Practice
Sharon Walpole and Michael C. McKenna
Published in 2004 by Guilford Press

I have worked as a consultant helping struggling schools for the better part of a decade, and there are three lessons that I have learned over and over again in every school and district where I have worked.  First and foremost, I have learned that improving reading achievement for all students in a struggling school is a long, arduous process.  There are no quick fixes and there are no easy answers -- the whole system has to work together for sustainable improvement in reading instruction, and it takes several years for changes to really take hold.  When schools call me up and ask me to give a talk for a day, the answer is almost always an emphatic "NO." I prefer not to work in a school that is not clearly working on a long-term improvement process.

Second, I have learned that struggling schools almost always need an external person to come in and offer guidance, at least in the beginning.  If struggling schools could have improved on their own, they would have done it a long time ago.  People who work in struggling schools want their schools to improve -- they just don't know how, and sometimes a skilled, knowledgeable person who is external to the system must step in and help to move them in a common direction.

Finally, I have learned that if struggling schools are to truly improve, they MUST, I repeat, MUST have a person on their staff who is a reading "expert" who is empowered to sustain improvement efforts over time.  The single best thing that I can do as an "external" person is help a struggling school to identify and support a reading expert -- a reading instructional leader -- a "literacy coach" for the other teachers.  Then, I can train and mentor that literacy coach and gradually work myself out of a job by shifting more and more leadership responsibility onto the coach's shoulders.

Low-performing schools that evolve into high-performing schools always have a person on their staff who is filling the role of that "literacy coach." That person provides job-embedded professional development to the other teachers, offers support in reading instruction, facilitates planning and learning meetings, observes and models instruction, organizes and shares reading assessment data, helps teachers set and reach learning goals for students, etc.  That coach is essential for true, sustainable reading improvement.

Sadly, there are thousands of literacy coaches out there in low-performing schools who really are not very effective.  There are some awesome coaches who are really making a lot of progress with their schools, but there are a lot of other coaches who are not so effective.  In my work, I am finding that the ineffective literacy coaches have never really understood the role they are supposed to play, and they have never really been supported by their school administration.

This book by Walpole and McKenna is a wonderful resource for schools where literacy coaches are being used to help improve reading achievement for all students.  The Literacy Coach's Handbook offers some very concrete guidelines for both the coach and for the school administration that is supporting the coach.  This book is very useful for literacy coaches who are struggling to identify their roles and responsibilities -- it is also very useful for school administrators who want to use the literacy coaches most effectively to improve their schools.  

No Quick Fix:  Rethinking Literacy Programs in America's Elementary Schools
Edited by Richard L. Allington and Sean A. Walmsley
Published in 1995 by Teachers College Press

Most low-performing schools in this country are low-performing because of the literacy achievement of their students.  To get off of the "low-performing list" a school need only raise literacy scores -- other scores will follow.

The importance of reading and language arts in the high-stakes world of school improvement has led many schools to clamber and clutch desperately for any quick-fix solution that they believe will quickly raise literacy scores.  Unfortunately, these quick-fix solutions very quickly become part of the problem.  School systems that I work in are often clogged with a motley collection of reading programs -- some of them are being used by a few teachers, some are being "modified" by others, some are simply sitting in boxes.  Money is thrown at the problem every year, and teachers eventually become jaded because whatever program is being touted as the cure-all this year is sure to be replaced next year.

The way some schools look for the magic, quick-fix solution that will finally improve reading scores is a lot like the way some people look for the miracle drug that will help them lose weight.  There is no quick-fix.  There is no magic pill.  And some of those "cures" can kill you.  

There is only one solution -- a long-term, focused, well-planned improvement effort.  You start with framework for improvement -- a general plan and set of guidelines.  You examine your resources and curriculum in light of this framework, and cut anything that doesn't fit.  You invest heavily in professional development (again, focused on the goals outlined in the framework), and you put your energy into teaching children to read well in the first place, reducing the need for remediation programs for older struggling readers.

It sounds simple.  It's a wonder more schools aren't doing it.  

No Quick Fix is a wonderful collection of research on school improvement peppered with stories and case-studies of schools.  Chapter 1 provides a simple framework for improvement -- six principles that, if followed -- will result in high achievement for all students.  Subsequent chapters provide information that is useful for following those principles.

I started working on school-improvement efforts shortly after this book was published, and it was enormously helpful for me to read and re-read this book as I worked to help low-performing schools improve.  I have shared many of the chapters in this book with colleagues in my field, and often those people have commented that what they read made them think differently about beliefs about school improvement they had never really questioned.

Schools That Work: Where All Children Can Read and Write
Richard L. Allington and Patricia M. Cunningham
Published in 1996 by Addison Wesley Longman
Classrooms That Work: They Can All Read and Write
Patricia M. Cunningham and Richard L. Allington
Published in 1999 by Addison Wesley Longman

I'm putting these two books together because they really do complement each other seamlessly -- reading one without the other provides a very incomplete picture about school systems and classroom systems.  Allington and Cunningham both understand reading and have made enormous contributions to reading research.  But more importantly, they both understand the environments and systems where reading instruction and learning takes place.  They have spent their careers studying high-functioning and low-functioning schools and classrooms.  They know that good instruction requires a healthy school system that cultivates and supports knowledgeable, highly-skilled teachers.  

Highly effective teachers are rarely found in sick, dysfunctional school systems.  Improving instruction begins with improving the school system.  Allington and Cunningham imply that starts with the campus principal, but I know in my work that actually starts with the district superintendent and the school board.  Cultivating healthy schools where healthy teachers teach all children to be proficient readers starts at the top.  Every school administrator and school-board member should read these two books, and then take deliberate steps to improve their schools.


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Last Updated 8-7-04