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Beginning Reading Instruction
Sacks and Mergendoller studied 132 kindergartners in eleven classrooms. They found the children who scored the lowest on entry into kindergarten improved the most in reading achievement in classrooms with contemporary, meaning-emphasis reading instruction and improved the least in traditional phonics-oriented classrooms.
    Sacks, C.H., & Mergendoller, J. R. (1997). The relationship between teachers' theoretical orientation toward reading and student outcomes in kindergarten children with different initial reading abilities. American Educational Research Journal, 34, 4, 721-739.
First grade:
  • Reutzel and Cooter studied 91 first-grade children in four classrooms, two that used shared reading and other contemporary reading instructional strategies and two that had a traditional skills reading program.

    They found the children in the contemporary classrooms with shared reading became significantly better readers at the end of the school year than the children in the traditional skills classrooms (p<.01).

    • Reutzel, D.R., & Cooter, R.B. (1990). Whole language: Comparative effects on first-grade reading achievement. Journal of Educational Research, 83, 252-257.

  • Milligan and Berg studied 165 first-grade children, 82 in classrooms with contemporary reading instruction and 83 in classrooms with traditional reading instruction.

    They found the middle and lower-achieving children with the contemporary reading instruction were significantly better in reading comprehension than the middle and lower-achieving children with traditional reading instruction, especially the lower-achieving children. They also found the high, middle, and lower-achieving males with the contemporary reading instruction comprehended text significantly better than the males with traditional reading instruction.

    • Milligan, J.L., & Berg, H. (1992). The effect of whole language on the comprehending ability of first grade children. Reading Improvement, 29, 3, 146-154.
Second grade:
Eldredge, Reutzel, and Hollingsworth studied 78 second-grade children, some in classrooms with shared reading (also known as shared book experience, or S.B.E., an instructional technique where the teacher points to the text in full view of the children as s/he reads to the children) and some in classrooms with traditional round-robin reading (an instructional technique where the teacher has the children take turns reading consecutive parts of a story orally).

They found that shared reading typically moved average students from the 50th to the 80th percentile in word analysis, i.e., letter-sound correspondences, on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.

They also found the average students in the shared reading group became 20% better in oral reading than the average students in the round-robin group.

While all groups—above average, average and below average—benefited from shared reading, the below-average students benefited the most. The below-average students in shared reading became 41% better in oral reading than the below-average students in round robin reading.

    Eldredge, J.L., Reutzel, D.R., & Hollingsworth, P.M. (1996). Comparing the effectiveness of two oral reading practices: Round-robin reading and the shared book experience. Journal of Literacy Research, 28, 2, 201-225.
Third grade:
Anderson, Wilkinson, and Mason studied 149 third-grade children in six classrooms. They asked the teachers to teach their students four lessons, two lessons with an emphasis on overall story meaning and two lessons with an emphasis on such things as letter-phoneme correspondences and accurate oral reading.

They found that the lessons that emphasized overall story meaning led to better outcomes in relation to factors such as students' recall, oral reading, story interest, and lesson time. While all of the reading groups—high, average, and low—benefited from the emphasis on meaning, the average and low groups especially benefited from it.

    Anderson, R.C., Wilkinson, I.A.G., & Mason, J.M. (1991). A microanalysis of the small-group guided reading lesson: Effects of an emphasis on global story meaning. Reading Research Quarterly, XXVI, 417-441.
Multi-age primary grades:
Cantrell studied 49 children in 8 multi-age primary grade classrooms, four that focused on reading for meaning, the writing process, and skills taught in context and four that did not promote meaning-centered reading or the writing process and taught skills out of context. At least 50% of the student population in each school was classified as low income, based on eligibility for free and reduced-price lunch.

Cantrell found the children in the classrooms that taught skills in context did better than the children in the classrooms where skills were taught out of context on every measure of literacy achievement including reading comprehension, fluency, and phonics as well as writing organization, word choice, grammar, and spelling. They also did significantly better on the Stanford 9 assessment of reading and writing as shown in the following table.

  Percentile Score1
Stanford 9 Skills taught in context Skills taught out of context
Comprehension 67 41
Word analysis 47 37
Spelling 66 38
Language 76 36
1Scores above the 50th percentile are above average nationally and scores below the 50th percentile are below average nationally.
    Cantrell, S.C. (1999). Effective teaching and literacy learning: A look inside primary classrooms. The Reading Teacher, 52, 4, 370-378.
Fourth grade:
The 1992 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tested large numbers of fourth-grade children in 42 U.S. states.

The NAEP found that children whose reading instruction emphasized meaning outscored children whose reading instruction emphasized phonics.

It also found that children whose reading instruction had little or no emphasis on phonics outscored children whose reading instruction emphasized phonics (p. 30).

    Mullis, I., Campbell, J., & Farstrup, A. (1993). NAEP 1992 Reading Report Card for the Nation and the States. Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics.
(See also Scripted Reading Instruction, Texts for Beginning Reading Instruction)
Click on the underlined phrases below to see what professional groups say on beginning reading instruction:
  • Elementary School Practices: Current Research on Language Learning: New research…new practice!, a professional statement by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). Available at http://www.ncte.org/positions/practices.shtml
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