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REL Midwest Ask A REL Response


June 2018


What does the research say about the use of leveled texts or phonics readers to teach beginning reading, specifically Fountas and Pinnell Leveled Literacy Intervention, Phonics for Reading, REWARDS, and Lexia reading programs?


Following an established Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest protocol, we conducted a search for research reports and descriptive studies on the use of leveled texts or phonics readers to teach beginning reading. In particular, we focused on identifying resources related to Fountas and Pinnell Leveled Literacy Intervention, Phonics for Reading, REWARDS, and Lexia reading programs. For details on the databases and sources, keywords, and selection criteria used to create this response, please see the Methods section at the end of this memo.

Below, we share a sampling of the publicly accessible resources on this topic. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The search conducted is not comprehensive; other relevant references and resources may exist. For each reference, we provide an abstract, excerpt, or summary written by the study’s author or publisher. We have not evaluated the quality of these references, but provide them for your information only.

Research References

Cheatham, J. P., & Allor, J. H. (2012). The influence of decodability in early reading text on reading achievement: A review of the evidence. Reading and Writing, 25(9), 2223-2246. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The purpose of this review is to synthesize the existing research on decodability as a text characteristic examining how reading decodable text impacts students‚ reading performance and growth. The results are organized into two sections based on the research designs of the studies: (1) studies that described student performance when reading texts of varying decodability levels, and (2) studies that compared the reading performance of students after participation in a treatment that manipulated decodable text as an independent variable. Collectively the results indicate that decodability is a critical characteristic of early reading text as it increases the likelihood that students will use a decoding strategy and results in immediate benefits, particularly with regard to accuracy. The studies point to the need for multiple–criteria text with decodability being one key characteristic in ensuring that students develop the alphabetic principle that is necessary for successful reading, rather than text developed based on the single criterion of decodability.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full–text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Cheung, A. C. K., & Slavin, R. E. (2012). Effects of educational technology applications on reading outcomes for struggling readers: A best-evidence synthesis. Baltimore, MD: Center for Research and Reform in Education, School of Education, Johns Hopkins University. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “ This review examines the effectiveness of educational technology applications in improving the reading achievement of struggling readers in elementary schools. The review applies consistent inclusion standards to focus on studies that met high methodological standards. A total of 20 studies based on about 7,000 students in grades K–6 were included in the final analysis. Findings indicate that educational technology applications produced a positive but modest effect on the reading skills of struggling readers (ES=+0.14) in comparison to ‘business as usual’ methods. Among four types of educational technology applications, small–group integrated applications such as ‘Read, Write, and Type’ (‘RWT’) and ‘Lindamood Phoneme Sequence Program’ (‘LIPS’) produced the largest effect sizes (ES=+0.32). These are tutorial educational technology applications that use small-group interaction tightly integrated with reading curriculum. Supplementary models, such as ‘Jostens’ and ‘Lexia,’ had a larger number of studies (N=12) and a more modest effect size (ES=+0.18). Comprehensive models ‘READ 180’ and ‘Read About’ (ES=+0.04) as well as ‘Fast ForWord’ (ES=+0.06), did not produce meaningful positive effect sizes. However, the results of these two categories of programs should be interpreted with extreme caution due to the small number of studies involved. More studies are required to validate the effectiveness of all technology applications. Policy implications are discussed.”

Foorman, B., Beyler, N., Borradaile, K., Coyne, M., Denton, C. A., Dimino, J., .et al. (2016). Foundational skills to support reading for understanding in kindergarten through 3rd grade. (NCEE 2016–4008). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The goal of this practice guide is to offer educators specific, evidence–based recommendations for teaching foundational reading skills to students in kindergarten through 3rd grade. This guide is a companion to the existing practice guide, ‘Improving Reading Comprehension in Kindergarten Through 3rd Grade’, and as a set, these guides offer recommendations for preparing students to be successful readers. Both guides recommend some practices that can and should be implemented beginning in kindergarten, and both guides also suggest some instructional practices that can be implemented after students have mastered early reading skills. This guide synthesizes the best available research on foundational reading skills and shares practices that are supported by evidence. It is intended to be practical and easy for teachers to use. The guide includes many examples in each recommendation to demonstrate the concepts discussed. This guide provides teachers, reading coaches, principals, and other educators with instructional recommendations that can be implemented in conjunction with existing standards or curricula and does not recommend a particular curriculum. Teachers can use the guide when planning instruction to support the development of foundational reading skills among students in grades K–3 and in diverse contexts. Professional–development providers, program developers, and researchers can also use this guide. Professional–development providers can use the guide to implement evidence-based instruction and align instruction with state standards or to prompt teacher discussion in professional learning communities. Program developers can use the guide to create more effective early-reading curricula and interventions. Finally, researchers may find opportunities to test the effectiveness of various approaches to foundational reading education and explore gaps or variations in the reading–instruction literature.”

Mesmer, H. A. E. (2009). Textual scaffolds for developing fluency in beginning readers: Accuracy and reading rate in qualitatively leveled and decodable text. Literacy Research and Instruction, 49(1), 20–39. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This study examined first graders’ accuracy and reading rate in highly decodable and qualitatively leveled texts. The study inspected accuracy and rate by different levels of practice (practiced vs. unpracticed) and at different times of the year (October, January, and May). Seventy–four first graders read both leveled and decodable texts with and without practice and then reread the same texts throughout the year. The accuracy results were inconclusive, favoring decodable texts in one analysis and leveled texts in another analysis. However, participants were significantly more fluent (words per minute) in practiced readings of leveled texts. Across the first–grade year, first graders were also more fluent in leveled texts although differences diminished throughout the year. Specific text features that facilitated fluency in leveled texts are discussed.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full–text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Murray, M. S., Munger, K. A., & Hiebert, E. H. (2014). An analysis of two reading intervention programs: How do the words, texts, and programs compare? Elementary School Journal, 114(4), 479–500. Retrieved from:

From the ERIC abstract: “In this study, the student texts and teacher guides of two reading intervention programs for at–risk, first–grade students were analyzed and compared: Fountas and Pinnell’s ‘Leveled Literacy Intervention’ (LLI) and Scott Foresman’s ‘My Sidewalks’ (MS). The analyses drew on the framework of available theory and research on beginning texts developed by Mesmer, Cunningham, and Hiebert in 2012. This framework includes attention to word–level, text–level, and program–level features. The student texts of the two programs had similar average percentages of single-appearing words and words that can elicit a mental picture (concrete words); however, LLI texts featured more repetition of words, a slightly higher percentage of highly frequent words, and a considerably higher percentage of multisyllable words. MS texts contained a higher percentage of phonetically regular words and a higher lesson-to-text match between phonics elements in teacher guides and the words in student texts. Instructional implications and future research directions are discussed.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full–text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Ransford–Kaldon, C. R., Flynt, E. S., Ross, C. L., Franceschini, L., Zoblotsky, T., Huang, Y., et al. (2010). Implementation of effective intervention: An empirical study to evaluate the efficacy of Fountas & Pinnell’s Leveled Literacy Intervention System (LLI) 2009–2010. Memphis, TN: University of Memphis, Center for Research in Educational Policy. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This report summarizes evaluation results for an efficacy study of the Leveled Literacy Intervention system (LLI) implemented in Tift County Schools (TCS) in Georgia and the Enlarged City School District of Middletown (ECSDM) in New York during the 2009-2010 school year. Developed by Fountas & Pinnell (2009) and published by Heinemann, LLI is a short–term, small–group, supplemental literacy intervention system designed for students in kindergarten through second grade (K-2) who struggle with literacy. The goal of LLI is to provide intensive support to help these early learners quickly achieve grade-level competency. Both school districts evaluated in this study adopted the targeted, small–group implementation model of LLI in their schools with support from Heinemann consultants providing LLI professional development. This report focuses on the implementation and impact of this model during the first full school year of the system in these schools. The purpose of this study was threefold: (1) to determine the efficacy of the Leveled Literacy Intervention system (LLI) in increasing reading achievement for K–2 students; (2) to examine the implementation fidelity of LLI; and (3) to determine perceptions of the LLI system according to relevant stakeholders. This study focused on two U.S. school districts and comprised 427 K-2 students who were matched demographically and randomly assigned to treatment and control groups. This evaluation used a mixed-methods design to address the following key research questions: (1) What progress in literacy do students who receive LLI make compared to students who receive only regular classroom literacy instruction? (2) Was LLI implemented with fidelity to the developers’ model? and (3) What were LLI teachers’ perceptions of LLI and its impact on their students’ literacy? Altogether, the results from this evaluation allow us to conclude that the LLI system positively impacts students’ literacy skills. These results also suggest that continued implementation of LLI would be beneficial in both Tift County Schools and the Enlarged City School District of Middletown.”

Slavin, R. E., Lake, C., Chambers, B., Cheung, A., & Davis, S. (2009). Effective beginning reading programs: A best evidence synthesis. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University. Center for Data–Driven Reform in Education. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This article systematically reviews research on the achievement outcomes of four types of approaches to improving the beginning reading success of children in kindergarten and first grade: Reading curricula, instructional technology, instructional process programs, and combinations of curricula and instructional process. Study inclusion criteria included use of randomized or matched control groups, a study duration of at least 12 weeks, valid achievement measures independent of the experimental treatments, and a final assessment at the end of grade 1 or later. A total of 63 studies met these criteria. The review concludes that instructional process programs designed to change daily teaching practices have substantially greater research support than programs that focus on curriculum or technology alone. In particular, positive achievement effects were found for ‘Success for All, PALS,’ phonological awareness training, and other programs focused on professional development.”

What Works Clearinghouse. (2017). Leveled Literacy Intervention. What Works Clearinghouse Intervention Report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “ ‘Leveled Literacy Intervention’ (‘LLI’) is a short–term, supplementary, small–group literacy intervention designed to help struggling readers achieve grade–level competency. The intervention provides explicit instruction in phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, reading comprehension, oral language skills, and writing. ‘LLI’ helps teachers match students with texts of progressing difficulty and deliver systematic lessons targeted to a student’s reading ability. The What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) identified two studies of ‘LLI’ that fall within the scope of the Beginning Reading topic area and meet WWC group design standards. Two studies meet WWC group design standards without reservations, and no studies meet WWC group design standards with reservations. Together, these studies included 747 students in grades K–2 in 22 schools in three school districts across three states. ‘LLI’ had positive effects on general reading achievement, potentially positive effects on reading fluency, and no discernible effects on alphabetics for beginning readers.”

What Works Clearinghouse. (2017). Lexia Reading. What Works Clearinghouse Intervention Report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Lexia Reading is a computerized reading program that provides phonics instruction and gives students independent practice in basic reading skills. Lexia Reading is designed to supplement regular classroom instruction. It is designed to support skill development in the five areas of reading instruction identified by the National Reading Panel. The What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) reviewed 11 studies on Lexia Reading. Two of these studies meet WWC evidence standards. One study meets WWC evidence standards with reservations. The remaining eight studies do not meet either WWC evidence standards or eligibility screens. Based on the three studies, the WWC found potentially positive effects of Lexia Reading on alphabetics and comprehension and no discernible effects on fluency and general reading achievement. The conclusions presented in this report may change as new research emerges. Six appendices are included: (1) Study Characteristics; (2) Outcome measures for each domain; (3) Summary of study findings included in the rating for each domain; (4) Summary of subscale and subgroup findings for each domain; (5) Lexia Reading rating for each domain; and (6) Extent of evidence by domain.”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • “Decodable text”

  • “Leveled literacy intervention”

  • “Leveled literacy intervention” descriptor:“program effectiveness”

  • Lexia

  • Phonics descriptor: “program effectiveness”

  • Phonics for Reading

  • “Predictable text”


Databases and Search Engines

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched IES and Google Scholar.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the publication: References and resources published over the last 15 years, from 2002 to present, were include in the search and review.

  • Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations.

  • Methodology: We used the following methodological priorities/considerations in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types—randomized control trials, quasi-experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, and so forth, generally in this order, (b) target population, samples (e.g., representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected), study duration, and so forth, and (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, and so forth.
This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Midwest Region (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL Midwest) at American Institutes for Research. This memorandum was prepared by REL Midwest under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0007, administered by American Institutes for Research. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.