Reading First: Effective?

The learning curve was high. Learning about the criteria of “scientifically-based reading research” (SBRR). Learning about the criteria for Learning First. Supporting teams as they wrote their Reading First grants. Implementing the grants. Studying our results and reapplying for a second round of grants. I was part of a team supporting multiple districts in Iowa at that time – intermediaries between local districts and the state department of education.

Screenshot 2020-01-19 at 10.10.14 AM


2001 and onward

Reading First promotes instructional practices that have been validated by scientific research (No Child Left Behind Act, 2001). The legislation explicitly defines scientifically based reading research and outlines the specific activities state, district, and school grantees are to carry out based upon such research (No Child Left Behind Act, 2001). The Guidance for the Reading First Program provides further detail to states about the application of research-based approaches in reading (U.S. Department of Education, 2002).  (Source Link)

I vividly remember that the advertisements began rolling in over Christmas with “Meets Reading First Requirements” stamped on each cover. And I was shocked and dismayed.  The guidelines had not been written YET and publishers were claiming to KNOW and MEET the non-existent guidelines.

Perhaps there was a “secret” list.  Perhaps there already was a document released by the U.S. Department of Education . . . I will return to their role later.


Districts and schools with the greatest demonstrated need, in terms of student reading proficiency and poverty status, were intended to have the highest funding priority. (Link)


  • Reading curricula and materials that focus on the five essential components of reading instruction as defined in the Reading First legislation: 1) phonemic awareness, 2) phonics, 3) vocabulary, 4) fluency, and 5) comprehension;
  • Professional development and coaching for teachers on how to use scientifically based reading practices and how to work with struggling readers;
  • Diagnosis and prevention of early reading difficulties through student screening, interventions for struggling readers, and monitoring of student progress. (Link)

The first bullet supported the National Reading Panel Report and we worked with national experts to increase our knowledge around those five components.  Professional development was high before, during and even after the grant process.  The last bullet was, of course, about students.  Paying more attention to individual students in order to be able to determine success and accelerate learning.


. . . one, states (and districts) could allocate resources to various categories within target ranges rather than on a strictly formulaic basis, and two, states could make local decisions about the specific choices within given categories (e.g., which materials, reading programs, assessments, professional development providers, etc.). The activities, programs, and resources that were likely to be implemented across states and districts would therefore reflect both national priorities and local interpretations. (Link)


We had professional development resources from the Iowa Department of Education covering SSBR, the five components of reading, the 90 minute uninterrupted reading block, explicit instruction, data, assessments, leadership and professional development.

Districts were NOT required to choose a core reading series as NONE that were published at that time met the SBRR criteria for all five components of reading. NONE.


The findings presented in this report are generally consistent with findings presented in the study’s Interim Report, which found statistically significant impacts on instructional time spent on the five essential components of reading instruction promoted by the program (phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension) in grades one and two, and which found no statistically significant impact on reading comprehension as measured by the SAT 10. (Link)

The first two results reported in the summary were these:

  • Statistically increased instructional time on the 5 components in grades one and two
  • No statistically significant impact on reading comprehension

So more time was spent on all five components and yet reading comprehension did NOT improve.

The summary concludes with this paragraph

The study finds, on average, that after several years of funding the Reading First program, it has a consistent positive effect on reading instruction yet no statistically significant impact on student reading comprehension. Findings based on exploratory analyses do not provide consistent or systematic insight into the pattern of observed impacts. (Link)


On average

  • Reading First had a statistically significant impact on the total time that teachers spent on the five essential components of reading instruction promoted by the program in grades one and two.
  • Reading First had a statistically significant impact on the use of highly explicit instruction in grades one and two and on the amount of high quality student practice in grade two. Its estimated impact on high quality student practice for grade one was not statistically significant.
  • Reading First had no statistically significant impacts on student engagement with print.
  • Reading First had a statistically significant impact on the amount of professional development in reading teachers reported receiving; teachers in RF schools reported receiving 25.8 hours of professional development compared to what would have been expected without Reading First (13.7 hours). The program also had a statistically significant impact on teachers’ self-reported receipt of professional development in the five essential components of reading instruction; teachers in RF schools reported receiving professional development on an average of 4.3 of 5 components, compared to what would have been expected without Reading First (3.7 components).
  • A statistically significantly greater proportion (20 percent) of teachers in RF schools reported receiving coaching from a reading coach than would be expected without Reading First. The program also had a statistically significant impact on the amount of time reading coaches reported spending in their role as the school’s reading coach; coaches in RF schools reported spending 91.1 percent of their time in this role, 33.5 percentage points more than would be expected without Reading First (57.6 percent).
  • Reading First had a statistically significant impact on the amount of time teachers reported spending on reading instruction per day. Teachers in RF schools reported an average of 105.7 minutes per day, 18.5 minutes more than the 87.2 minutes that would be expected without Reading First.
  • Reading First had a statistically significant impact on teachers’ provision of extra classroom practice in the essential components of reading instruction in the past month; the impact was 0.2 components.
  • There were no statistically significant impacts of Reading First on the availability of differentiated instructional materials for struggling readers or on teachers’ reported use of assessments to inform classroom practice for grouping, diagnostic, and progress monitoring purposes.
  • Reading First had no statistically significant impact on students’ reading comprehension scaled scores or the percentages of students whose reading comprehension scores were at or above grade level in grades one, two or three. The average first, second, and third grade student in Reading First schools was reading at the 44th, 39th, and 39th percentile respectively on the end-of-the-year assessment (on average over the three years of data collection).
  • Reading First had a positive and statistically significant impact on average scores on the TOSWRF, a measure of decoding skill, equivalent to 2.5 standard score points, or an effect size of 0.17 standard deviations (See Exhibit ES.5). Because the test of students’ decoding skills was only administered in a single grade and a single year, it is not possible to provide an estimate of Reading First’s overall impact on decoding skills across multiple grades and across all three years of data collection, as was done for reading comprehension. (Link)

On average in the United States:

More instructional time. More explicit instruction. More professional development. More coaching. More classroom practice. No difference in grouping, diagnostic, and progress monitoring. No difference in comprehension. Increased decoding for students in grade 1.


I worked with small and medium-sized school districts.  Their grants varied according to their needs.  Some elements were the same. Frameworks varied based on existing local materials and curricula.  The professional development and coaching encouraged change.  The pressure of a belief system under the umbrella NCLB of 100% of students proficient was great. Student learning did improve.  But were those celebrations of growth sustained over time?  We were fortunate that Iowa’s plan did NOT require a core basal. It did not require DIBELS for benchmark assessments. From winter of Kindergarten throughour benchmark (3 x a year) assessed accuracy, rate and comprehension. One measure. Sensible. Focused.


Well, that depends.

  • Bullet 1 under funding had five components to measure.  Are they all equal?
  • Bullet 2 had PD and coaching on the SBR practices and how to work with struggling readers so it also had multiple parts.
  • Bullet 3 had diagnosis and prevention with screening, interventions and monitoring so it also had multiple parts.

What criteria was identified and distributed for those “parts” before the grant process? Now the criteria for every program seems to be growth on NAEP scores – whether right or wrong.

What about the Audit Report for the Reading First Application Process?

This report, ED-OIG/I13-F0017, September 2006, from the Office of the Inspector General suggests that the bigger issues with the national implementation of Reading First were the result of the Department of Education failing to follow the rules. (Link)

FINDING 1A – The Department Did Not Select the Expert Review
Panel in Compliance With the Requirements of NCLB……………………………………………………………………………………6
FINDING 1B – While Not Required to Screen for Conflicts of
Interest, the Screening Process the Department
Created Was Not Effective …………………………………………………….7
FINDING 2A – The Department Did Not Follow Its Own Guidance
For the Peer Review Process ………………………………………………….8
FINDING 2B – The Department Awarded Grants to States
Without Documentation That the Subpanels
Approved All Criteria………………………………………………………….11
FINDING 3 – The Department Included Requirements in the
Criteria Used by the Expert Review Panels That
Were Not Specifically Addressed in NCLB …………………………..12
FINDING 4 – In Implementing the Reading First Program,
Department Officials Obscured the Statutory
Requirements of the ESEA; Acted in
Contravention of the GAO Standards for Internal
Control in the Federal Government; and Took
Actions That Call Into Question Whether They
Violated the Prohibitions Included in the DEOA ………………….13

You can read the specifics of those findings yourself.  Secret lists. Yes. The Department of Education controlled the applications, selection and criteria of materials above and beyond the guidelines in the law.


Please, check your sources. We expect students to quote, list sources, and explain their uses. Experts should as well.  This post pulls from federal reports and my personal reflections. Both sources are needed for context. Facts DO matter.

When a student interaction occurs on the playground between two students, there are multiple perspectives. The two students involved saw, heard and responded to something.  Other students “observing” may have seen or heard a part of the interaction. Adults observing may have seen or heard a part as well.  Many perspectives mean that there is no “ONE” story. There are many layers. And all layers do matter.

IES. (2008). Reading First:  Impact Study Final Report Executive Summary. (Link)

OIG, (2006). The Reading First Program’s Grant Application Process:  Final Inspection Report. (Link)

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