Reading instruction: Getting it right the first time


Early reading comprehension is essential for later academic success.
Early reading comprehension is essential for later academic success.


In his sweeping 2004 article, Preventing Early Reading Failure, Joseph Torgesen established that the reading skills students acquire in their earliest elementary years are critical predictors of their academic success throughout elementary, middle, and high school. It’s during those early formative years, Torgesen contends, that we need to closely monitor growth and provide the appropriate interventions for struggling students.

Otherwise, it is a virtual certainty that in the upper elementary grades–when students need to read extensively for content–individuals who struggle with decoding will lose motivation and fall academically behind. Torgesen suggests that the way to combat this pitfall is to offer rigorous assessment and instruction to identify children with reading difficulties before the end of first grade.

Some critics assert that we’re trying to teach children to read too early. However, there is a tremendous amount of instruction and skill development that needs to happen by the end of third grade in order for students to be successful later in their academic career across all subjects, not just language arts.

Educators must possess a sense of urgency with respect to instruction in the early elementary years, leveraging the appropriate tools to provide children with a strong skills foundation rather than waiting and responding with extensive remedial instruction years later. It comes down to having a “get it right the first time” approach to reading instruction. Fortunately, many educators are responding to this challenge, and have put a Response to Intervention (RTI) model at the center of their approach to reading instruction.

Implementing RTI, however, is no small task. It’s a comprehensive and seemingly all-consuming effort that incorporates assessment, data collection, data analysis, data teams, and data meetings. It’s probably among a school’s most daunting endeavors. The key to RTI is a closely linked cycle of assessment and instruction, which leads to greater intensity in identifying and teaching the skills in which students are deficient. As Torgesen has recognized, speeding up skill gains is of particular importance in closing the gaps in the early elementary grades. Thus, the RTI cycle of targeting those weaker skills and then responding with intense, individualized instruction will lead to an acceleration of their development.

As I travel the country and visit schools that are examples of good RTI implementation, I notice that they continually hone and improve the process of collecting and analyzing student performance data. Given the challenge at hand in terms of reading instruction and assessment, and bearing in mind the urgency with which we must accomplish foundational skills development, the question becomes: What can we do to streamline the RTI process to operate more efficiently and at a faster pace?

In a 1995 Harvard Business Review article, Disruptive Technologies: Catching the Wave, Joseph Bower and Clayton Christensen discuss how leading companies fail to stay on top of their industries when technologies or markets change. They explain how technology serves as a disruptive force, fueling innovative new approaches to existing challenges and often rendering the old approach obsolete.

Since the mid-1900s, technology has been a disruptive force that causes us to re-examine our processes, ultimately enabling a dramatic acceleration in the sophistication of how we approach meeting our goals. Disruptive technology has resulted in game-changing innovations in manufacturing, communications, computer processing, transportation, and construction, among others.

In 2008, Christensen, along with Michael Horn and Curtis Johnson, applied the theory of disruptive technology to education in their book Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. Just as monolithic companies were passed by when technology became an accelerator of innovation, the education industry failed to innovate through the use of technology.

The authors point out how testing has traditionally pursued two objectives: to determine mastery of skills or knowledge and to compare students with one another. While one can argue that we have adequate types of norm-referenced assessments available, educators today–as the authors assert–do not possess the proper tools to assess skills mastery. Furthermore, these assessments are not typically administered, analyzed, or the resulting recommendations applied in real time. As Christensen, Horn, and Johnson suggest, disruptive technology can be used to link instruction to assessment and provide a customized and individualized learning environment that helps every child master skills.

So how can we, as educators, get reading instruction right the first time? I wholeheartedly believe that disruptive technology offers us the greatest impact in terms of RTI strategies. The interplay between assessment and instruction is at the center of the RTI challenge, and most of the resources required for RTI success are related to our ability to gather, interpret, and apply performance data in our instructional strategies. When technology is used to truly inform instruction–pinpointing the skills on which students are struggling, prescribing the right intervention, and evaluating the effectiveness of that intervention–we will have elevated our ability to execute RTI strategies for the benefit of our students.

Robert McCabe is chief education officer for Lexia Learning.

Sign up for our K-12 newsletter

Newsletter: Innovations in K12 Education
By submitting your information, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.

Want to share a great resource? Let us know at

Comments are closed.

eSchool News uses cookies to improve your experience. Visit our Privacy Policy for more information.