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Three concrete steps educators can take to accelerate reading growth for primary students during the 2021/22 academic year

Three concrete steps to accelerate reading growth

By Jill Bowdon
June 28, 2021

After the 2020/21 academic year, when many students experienced remote learning for at least part of the year, school leaders, teachers, families, and students are eager to get back to in-person learning. One of the crucial questions that administrators, coaches, and teachers face in the 2021/22 academic year is: After a year of disrupted schooling, how can educators “accelerate learning” in the 2021/22 school year to help students in the early grades experience more growth than would be expected in one year?

Accelerating learning seems like a daunting prospect, but research on reading suggests three concrete steps that educators can take to meet this challenge.

Step 1: Identify the skills your students have at the beginning of the year and again in the middle of the year

As with every fall, students will arrive on the first day of school with varying levels of skills and experience in reading. Teachers who work in the primary grades know this well: Students follow their own developmental trajectories, and there is always variation in skill levels at the start of school.

Teachers have a superpower for addressing this variation. Two promising practices include:

  • Screening all students for potential reading problems. Screening should occur at the beginning of the year and then again in the middle year so that teachers can get a more up-to-date portrait of students’ skills. For information about choosing a high-quality literacy assessment, check out the National Center on Intensive Intervention’s Academic Screening Tools Chart.
  • Using data to inform decisions about the pacing and content of instruction during the reading block. To learn more about differentiating instruction based on data, see the Data Team Protocol for Differentiating Instruction from the Doing What Works Library.

Teachers need support from coaches and school leaders to use data-based decision making. Many state education agencies recommend that districts implement multi-tiered systems of support in reading paired with school-based teams to review reading assessment data and inform decisions about instruction and interventions.

Step 2: Use effective instruction

Promising practices in reading instruction in the primary grades include:

  • Responding to students’ current skill levels. Experts recommend that teachers use data to understand what their students know and what they need to learn next (Gersten et al., 2008). Many teachers choose to respond to students’ needs by using small groups to provide “just right” instruction and as needed, by updating group composition to respond to students’ changing skill levels.
  • Including instruction on both foundational reading skills and reading comprehension. Several states now have legislation requiring instruction in phonics, phonological awareness, and other foundational reading skills in the primary grades. According to rigorous evidence from multiple randomized controlled trials, effective instruction in these skill areas is essential for reading success (Foorman et al., 2016). However, national experts agree that effective schools and teachers also offer instruction in vocabulary and comprehension beginning in kindergarten and continuing throughout the primary grades (Foorman et al., 2016).

    For more information about the recommendations of national experts on instructional practices in foundational reading skills and reading comprehension, see these What Works Clearinghouse practice guides: Foundational Skills to Support Reading for Understanding in Kindergarten Through 3rd Grade and Improving Reading Comprehension in Kindergarten through 3rd Grade.
  • Being systematic and explicit. Based on experimental evidence, primary students who have received systematic and explicit instruction in phonics or phonological awareness experience more growth in reading than those who have not (Ehri et al., 2001; Foorman et al., 1998). Offering systematic and explicit instruction in these domains will be more important than ever in the 2021/22 academic year to help students accelerate growth.

    The adjectives systematic and explicit are commonly used in discussion of literacy instruction. But what do they mean exactly? Systematic phonics instruction uses an ordered, carefully defined sequence of letter-sound relationships and spelling patterns. Explicit instruction involves teacher modeling and then scaffolded practice around a specified learning objective with a measurable learning outcome. During explicit instruction, teachers offer clear directions and frequent, timely corrective feedback to students as needed.

    To learn more about systematic and explicit instruction in phonics and phonological awareness, check out this short video from REL Midwest designed for use in professional learning communities or professional development. The content in this video draws from the What Works Clearinghouse practice guide Foundational Skills to Support Reading for Understanding in Kindergarten Through 3rd Grade.

Step 3: Intervene promptly to support students who need extra assistance and monitor progress regularly

Some educators take a “wait-and-see” approach to determine whether struggling students will outgrow reading difficulties. Experts, however, have concluded that students have the best chance at overcoming reading difficulties when schools intervene promptly with evidence-based interventions (Gersten et al., 2008). To learn more about this recommendation, check out this short video by REL Midwest for use in professional development and the What Works Clearinghouse practice guide Assisting Students Struggling with Reading: Response to Intervention (RtI) and Multi-Tier Intervention in the Primary Grades.

In fall 2021, teachers may find that far greater numbers of students than in years past are identified by universal screeners as needing intervention. School leaders may want to consider how to enhance their Tier 1 instruction to make it more effective, such as by using the strategies discussed above, while also assessing their capacity to serve students through Tier 2 and 3 interventions. There is rigorous, experimental evidence that providing intensive, systematic instruction on foundational reading skills in small groups between three to five times a week for 20 to 40 minutes can help students get back on track in reading (Gersten et al., 2008). However, interventions may not be effective if the teacher or interventionist does not have the capacity to implement them with fidelity. For a detailed description of how schools can plan for success, see the implementation guidance from the Center on Multi-Tiered System of Supports.

Effective small-group and one-on-one interventions in reading in primary grades will do the following:

  • Supplement—rather than supplant—Tier 1 instruction. All students still need to be present during Tier 1 instruction, and experts recommend that interventions take place outside of the Tier 1 reading block (Gersten et al., 2008).
  • Be informed by systematic decisions in the context of a data-based individualization process. Experts recommend using the seven dimensions of the Taxonomy of Intervention Intensity to evaluate and select validated interventions that work for students (Fuchs, Fuchs & Malone, 2018). Some students may only require a booster, such as small-group reading instruction aimed at building foundational reading skills for a limited number of weeks; other students who do not progress during small-group interventions may require more intensive one-on-one support (Gersten et al., 2008). Ongoing data collection and analysis will be key to determine the intensity of interventions required (Fuchs, Fuchs & Malone, 2018). For more information about the Taxonomy of Intervention Intensity and how to use it, check out this infographic [1,754 KB PDF icon] and training modules from the National Center on Intensive Intervention.

Closing thoughts

Teachers, coaches, and administrators face many challenges when school resumes in person this fall, especially after more than a year of interrupted schooling. By implementing these three concrete steps, educators will provide a strong foundation for accelerating reading growth for students in the early grades.


Ehri, L. C., Nunes, S. R., Stahl, S. A., & Willows, D. M. (2001). Systematic phonics instruction helps students learn to read: Evidence from the National Reading Panel’s meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 71(3), 393–447. [248 KB PDF icon]

Foorman, B., Beyler, N., Borradaile, K., Coyne, M., Denton, C. A., Dimino, J., Furgeson, J., Hayes, L., Henke, J., Justice, L., Keating, B., Lewis, W., Sattar, S., Streke, A., Wagner, R., & Wissel, S. (2016). Foundational skills to support reading for understanding in kindergarten through 3rd grade (NCEE 2016-4008). U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE).

Foorman, B. R., Francis, D. J., Fletcher, J. M., Schatschneider, C., & Mehta, P. (1998). The role of instruction in learning to read: Preventing reading failure in at-risk children. Journal of Educational Psychology, 90(1), 37–55.

Fuchs, L. S., Fuchs, D., & Malone, A. S. (2018). The taxonomy of intervention intensity. Teaching Exceptional Children, 50(4), 194–202.

Gersten, R., Compton, D., Connor, C.M., Dimino, J., Santoro, L., Linan-Thompson, S., and Tilly, W.D. (2008). Assisting students struggling with reading: Response to Intervention and multi-tier intervention for reading in the primary grades (NCEE 2009-4045). U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE).

Shanahan, T., Callison, K., Carriere, C., Duke, N. K., Pearson, P. D., Schatschneider, C., & Torgesen, J. (2010). Improving reading comprehension in kindergarten through 3rd grade (NCEE 2010-4038). U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE).

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Author information

Jill Bowdon Staff Picture

Jill Bowdon, Ph.D.

Senior Researcher | REL Midwest


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