Important elements of effective instruction and special populations

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Important elements of effective instruction

In addition to having a solid foundation in language, teachers must have a passion for teaching language through effective teaching methods (Hattie, 2003)[1]. This section examines some effective teaching practices that apply to reading and writing instruction.

The Importance of Ongoing Professional Development and Coaching:

Research indicates that effective teaching needs to be well supported by professional development and coaching. For example, studies by Bursuck et al. (2004)[2] find that in order for teachers to achieve a level of expertise, professional development needs to be tied directly to classroom practice and should include a careful mixture of hands-on workshops and ongoing on-site coaching. The National Reading Panel, NRP (2000)[3] results showed teachers required instruction in how to explain what they were teaching, how to model their thinking processes aloud, how to encourage student inquiry, and how to keep students engaged.

Overview of research findings on effective instruction

The Importance of Ongoing Professional Development and Coaching:
Research indicates that effective teaching needs to be well supported by professional development and coaching. For example, studies by Bursuck et al. (2004)[2] find that in order for teachers to achieve a level of expertise, professional development needs to be tied directly to classroom practice and should include a careful mixture of hands-on workshops and ongoing on-site coaching. The National Reading Panel, NRP (2000)[3] results showed teachers required instruction in how to explain what they were teaching, how to model their thinking processes aloud, how to encourage student inquiry, and how to keep students engaged.

Pressley et al. (2001)[4] describe the elements that should be included in effective instruction: excellent classroom management based on positive reinforcement and cooperation; balanced teaching of skills, literature, and writing; scaffolding and matching of task demands to student competence (e.g., vocabulary level in texts being decodable using the skills the student has learned); encouragement of student; self-regulation (e.g., students actively, through meta-cognitive behaviours, monitor their learning); strong cross-curricular connections (e.g., bringing reading and writing instruction into all subjects); and breaking down lessons into multiple components that are clearly related to one another.

Research indicates that children benefit from tightly structured, well-focused lessons that have an obvious purpose and that are tied to the achievement of clear goals; in the teaching of reading and writing, highly structured, scaffolded, and explicit instructional strategies are powerful tools for motivating children and encouraging them to respond (Armbruster et al., 2003)[5]. Snow, Burns, and Griffin (1998)[6] emphasize in their extensive review of evidence that many reading problems can be prevented if such techniques are used for all children.

Swanson (1999)[7] conducted a review of many intervention studies for children with reading disabilities and identified the instructional components that produced the best effects in student learning. The techniques included sequencing, building of automaticity in basic skills (e.g., repetition-practice-feedback), segmentation of information, scaffolding (e.g., controlling task difficulty), modelling problem-solving steps, presenting cues to prompt strategy use, and directed response and questioning.  The recommendation of Swanson’s review is a combination of direct instruction and instruction in strategy use.

Some of these instruction concepts appear in the next section, in the context of teaching specific reading skills. This section provides background to those concepts for further information and easy reference.

Engagement and motivation (of both teacher and student)

Dale Willows – Role of teachers.

Motivation of both students and teachers is crucial for success in teaching reading and writing skills.

The effective teacher understands and loves language and reading. This knowledge and enthusiasm motivates students. The effective teacher is also explicit and direct and encourages student engagement. Many research findings show that a high level of questioning, coaching, and allowing children to discover and to be actively engaged (e.g., a student-support stance) facilitates reading and writing growth (Taylor, Peterson, Pearson, & Rodriguez, 2002).[8]

The teacher of the mainstream class keeps up an energetic pace, supports new learning and uses modelling, unison response, guided systematic practice, cumulative review, and frequent, systematic error corrections (Carnine, Silbert, Kame’enui, & Tarver, 2004; Simmons, Kame’enui, Coyne, & Chard, 2002)[9][10]. These elements maintain student engagement and motivate them to succeed.

Additional elements in student motivation are connected to the above elements and include: a clearly stated direction to lessons (so that students understand what they are learning and why they are learning it); assignments with time limits; extra support provided to students who need it; a variety of contexts for learning and practice (e.g., computer use, drama); and time for review and discussion following a lesson (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2004).[11]

Guthrie (2001)[12] has extensively researched children’s engagement and motivation in reading. He recommends the following techniques:

  • Create a context
  • Identify a knowledge goal, a purpose, and announce it
  • Provide a brief real-world experience related to the goal
  • Teach cognitive strategies that empower students to succeed in reading the text
  • Assure social collaboration for learning
  • Align evaluation of student work with the instructional context

Systematically delivered, explicit instruction

Research shows that many children need explicit, clear teaching and instructions. Concepts that are not taught in a systematic way (e.g., graduated from easy to more difficult, building upon known patterns to develop knowledge of new ones) can be missed (Foorman, Francis, Fletcher, Schatschneider, & Mehta, 1998; Taylor, Peterson, Pearson, & Rodriguez, 2002).[13][8]

Foorman et al. (1998)[13] found that children receiving “direct code” instruction improved in word reading at a faster rate and had higher word-recognition skills than those receiving implicit code instruction.

Direct code instruction explicitly presents letter-sound correspondences (e.g., explains them directly) and offers opportunities to decode texts written for a particular level with carefully chosen vocabulary that follows the patterns and sounds studied by the students. Implicit code instruction is given while reading a connected text (e.g., discussed as the word occurred in the text, but not in an organized way). The students who can benefit the most from explicit direct code instruction are those with poor awareness of sounds and those who have the largest achievement gaps to close.

A clear description of the characteristics of systematic phonics instruction comes from the FCRR (2008)[14]:

  • Teacher integrates systematic phonics instruction as part of the total reading program
  • Teacher allows for practice of the phonics in words, sentences, reading, and writing
  • Teacher maintains consistency in the sequence of presentation of the sound relationships
  • Teacher is flexible and engaged, making the learning experience an engaging one for students
  • Teacher ensures that children understand the purpose of learning letter sounds and that they are able to apply these skills accurately and fluently in their daily reading and writing activities
  • Teacher provides instruction in an entertaining, vibrant, creative, and meaningful manner

Synthetic instruction and analytic instruction

Systematic instruction using synthetic and analytic approaches presents language in a logical structured sequence so that students can learn patterns. Synthetic instruction presents the parts of the language (e.g., sounds typically associated with individual letters: “a”, ‘f”, “d”, and those associated with letter combinations: “ng,” th”) followed by how they come together to form a whole (e.g., words with these sounds, such as “fang”). Analytic instruction presents the whole word and teaches how it can be broken down into its component parts (e.g., into roots, prefixes and suffixes). Bowey (2006)[15] reviewed empirical research results and strongly recommended the use of systematic synthetic instruction when teaching early reading. The teacher needs to introduce students to the common sound-letter correspondences as a “key” to the code, and then the students can learn more complex correspondences independently.

Multisensory instruction

The use of multisensory methods makes links between the visual (what we see), auditory (what we hear), and kinesthetic-tactile (what we feel); this provides students with three pathways for learning sound, letters, and letter formation (Henry, 2000)[16]. These pathways are taught together (e.g., learning a new letter or pattern, carefully tracing it with correct and consistent strokes to form the letter, as in the curve of “d” before the stick, and pronouncing the corresponding sound). Henry (2003)[17] found that these techniques, used in special interventions for students with dyslexia, enhance memory and learning; these techniques are not only beneficial for students with dyslexia, but also for all children learning the foundation skills for reading.


The importance of using scaffolding in teaching reading skills cannot be overstated. Teachers should start from what the children know to give them direction, purpose, and understanding, and then lead them to explore new aspects of learning. The following are examples of scaffolding activities in reading.

  • Pre-reading scaffolding: relating the reading to students’ lives; motivating; activating and building background knowledge; providing text-specific knowledge; pre-teaching vocabulary; pre-teaching concepts; pre-questioning; guiding in prediction and direction-setting strategies.
  • Scaffolding during reading: reading aloud to students; supporting student success with reading efforts using decodable texts; having students read aloud.
  • Post-reading scaffolding: questioning; discussing; and engaging in writing, drama, artistic activities, and non-verbal activities, and in making connections to self, to world, and to other texts.

(Adapted form Clark & Graves, 2005)[18]

Teaching meta-cognitive strategies / modelling thinking

Research shows that systematic direct instruction of meta-cognitive strategies significantly improves students’ comprehension of text and understanding of new vocabulary (Boulware-Gooden, Carreker, Thornhill, & Joshi, 2007; National Reading Panel, 2000).[19][3]

Many competent readers (including many teachers) are not aware that that they are using metacognitive skills; they engage in these strategic behaviours because they have proven, over time, to be useful (Pressley & McCormick, 1995)[20]. Examples of meta-cognitive skills are thinking as you read (e.g., “How can I use this information?”), making a summary of what you have read, looking back over the text to locate information, or re-reading sections.

Teachers need to become conscious of their automatic meta-cognitive strategies in order to model how they think about reading to their students. Students will learn by consciously following and practicing the steps of the strategies teachers have modelled in order to decode words, to understand new vocabulary, to comprehend text, and to develop writing.

Teachers can model reading strategies to students by thinking out loud. For example, a teacher could say, “I forget what the boy did next in the story. Let’s go back and re-read that part to find out.” The efforts are aimed at giving students the tools they need to develop into independent and self-regulated learners.

Reciprocal teaching

The aim of reciprocal teaching (RT) is to have students apply the information that they have been taught. The essential elements of RT as described by Palincsar and Brown (1984)[21] are the instruction and the application of thinking skills or comprehension monitoring strategies (e.g., predicting, questioning, clarifying, and summarizing).

After the teacher models reading strategies, students are given the opportunity to practice. Students must assume responsibility and use these skills independently; they are then required to teach new material to other students in small groups. Teachers gradually fade their modelling of the strategies and give greater control to the students. Providing students with opportunities to practice, question, and reflect promotes independent student learning.

The importance of starting early – Kindergarten

Janette Pelletier - Importance of literacy rich Kindergarten.

Results from longitudinal and experimental studies strongly argue for providing reading readiness skills instruction early (Dion, Morgan, Fuchs, & Fuchs, 2004)[22]. Developing core skills quickly is essential to learning; children who enter Grade 1 or Grade 2 without these skills are often considered at risk for reading failure. This makes Kindergarten a critical year in a child’s preparation for reading. 


Sandy Chen is a Kindergarten teacher and she knows that in her new Kindergarten class, her students have different needs, strengths, and weaknesses. One of her
students, Matthew, seems to struggle in many class activities. He cannot identify rhyming words, does not know any children’s songs, and when holding a book, it is clear that he does not understand that words are read from left to right. Sandy realizes that, unfortunately, Matthew has had little to no exposure to books or libraries. As a teacher, Sandy knows the importance of providing a language rich environment and knows the positive effect it has on children. Along with providing exposure to books, what can she do to make up for the time Matthew has lost?

When a child needs extra help, what is the most effective way to prepare readiness for reading?

Typical Kindergarten day

Print in the Kindergarten class needs to be at the children’s eye level, with low bookshelves and labels on objects.

Kindergarten should be an intentionally literature-rich experience with print all around, frequent story readings by the teacher, and many books in the classroom. The major goal in Kindergarten should be to facilitate a child’s exposure to reading and writing. Many children have already had such exposure at home. However, not all children will have had these experiences and those with little exposure are considered to be at-risk when they enter Kindergarten (Cunningham & Allington, 2007).[23]

University Lab School – Print at children’s level.

Although current practice may require that language activities be taught in one continuous block, research indicates that in Kindergarten, 90 minutes should be spent on activities related to language and that these 90 minutes are best divided into small chunks throughout the day (Cunningham & Allington, 2007)[23]. Print awareness, phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, letter knowledge, and beginning phonics, as well as listening to and talking about stories, looking at print, and writing (often using inventive spelling) are very important parts of the Kindergarten day.

While children listen to the teacher read aloud, they are exposed to a larger vocabulary of words not commonly found in speech. For example, the word “happy” in speech might be elaborated as “thrilled” or “gleeful” in written text. Written language contains more abstract language and complex grammar, for example, passive phrases or decontextualized language (e.g., referring to people, places, and aspects that are not visible to the reader or listener).

Kindergarten is a wonderful opportunity to instill in children a love of reading. By having many stories read to them and being surrounded by literature, children can see reading as an enjoyable and important activity and will be eager to learn how to master the skill themselves.

What have I learned about effective instruction techniques?


It is critical that students be assessed upon entering school, and continue to be frequently assessed in their early years as they learn to read. Assessment is vital in order to identify problems in reading development as early as possible.

An initial assessment provides a baseline from which to measure progress. Informal assessments completed regularly and frequently throughout the year allow the teacher to address students’ individual needs with extra assistance or through a change in instruction method. Assessment can be embedded into instruction. A well-planned literacy classroom provides the teacher with many opportunities to observe and assess students through direct observation as they read and respond to a variety of texts. Such formative assessments provide an ongoing picture of the acquisition of reading skills and serve as a guide to the teacher in planning and implementing classroom instruction based upon current student needs. Assessment results thus serve to strengthen teaching and learning (Desrochers & Glickman, 2007).[24]

Researchers have made significant strides in their ability to accurately and reliably assess early literacy skills (Coyne & Harn, 2006).[25]

Alain Desrochers - Assessment.

a) Screening: This is a brief test designed to assess an individual student in order to identify a need for extra help or intervention. Early screening is important as a formative assessment of the students in the class to establish who needs help and to target teaching efforts.

Several basic skills (e.g., knowledge of letters, phonological awareness, oral vocabulary, and object naming speed) are known predictors of future reading performance (Desrochers, Cormier, & Thompson, 2005; Schatschneider, Fletcher, Francis, Carlson, & Foorman, 2004)[26][27]. A screening of a child’s ability in these areas can help to identify children at risk for reading failure (Desrochers & Glickman, 2007).[24]

Alain Desrochers – Reading Assessments for Directing Intervention Programs.

Alain Desrochers – Optimal Timing for Conducting Reading Assessments.

Alain Desrochers – Explaining the Assessment of Phonological Awareness.

b) Progress monitoring: Typically, this type of assessment checks a student’s reading skills based on the school curriculum. Progress monitoring, using curriculum-based assessment, relies on quick probes (e.g., short assessments that can take less than a minute to perform) to measure various aspects of oral reading fluency. If the student shows progress on these tests of fluency, research has demonstrated that he or she will also make progress in other skills that are more subjective and take longer to measure (e.g., reading comprehension, vocabulary) (adapted from University of Oregon Center on Teaching and Learning, 2008)[28]. Curriculum-based measurement is quick to administer and student performance using these tools is correlated with performance on high-stakes tests (see the many references that support this claim on the website of the National Center on Student Progress Monitoring at Most curriculum-based measures of oral reading fluency are similar to running records that are commonly used by teachers; the differences are that the probes are highly sensitive to instructional change and are calibrated against year-end curriculum expectations so that student progress throughout the year is easily observed.

Progress monitoring probes are standardized, individually administered tests that monitor the development of pre-reading as well as reading skills. For example, probes tracking fluency of phonological awareness skills, letter knowledge, and decoding fluency are given in Kindergarten, while passage reading fluency is more common in higher grades.

Resources on assessment

View video links to the University of Oregon’s information on The Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS).

The following online resources provide information on a range of assessment tools:

Intervention Central

This site, compiled by J. Wright, psychologist, leads to many other sources and offers free tools and resources. For example, this website includes a page of links for Curriculum-Based Measurement (CBM), an assessment tool developed by Lynn Fuchs and being studied for its ability to assess the effectiveness of instructional interventions in applied settings:

National Center on Student Progress Monitoring,
U.S. Office of Special Education Programs includes a web library of research articles on assessment.

Reading Assessment Database (RAD):
Summary Chart of Early Reading Assessments for K-2. Available from SEDL (2008) at

This searchable database compares assessment tools, with a chart summarizing the early reading assessment tools for Kindergarten through Grade 2.

c) Standardized, diagnostic tests: These tests may be comprehensive, covering many cognitive abilities (Woodcock, McGrew, & Macher, 2001: Woodcock Reading Mastery Tests)[29] or specific (e.g., Wagner, Torgesen, & Rashotte, 1999: Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing)[30]. Some of these tests are used for screening. They are utilized in order to develop a profile of the child’s strengths and weaknesses and are administered by trained personnel.

What have I learned about assessment?

Intervention: what to do if the student needs extra assistance

It is important to recognize early on that some students need extra assistance and practice; some may need a different instructional approach if they do not understand a concept the first time it is taught. Research shows that student learning is improved if instruction is matched to student capabilities (Pressley, 2007).[31]

If assessment results indicate a need for intervention and assistance above the mainstream class instruction, higher tiers of increasingly more intensive intervention are considered (Response to Intervention, RTI, Vaughn & Klingner, 2007)[32]. Often schools use three tiers:

  • Tier 1 refers to mainstream high-quality, effective, evidence-based instruction, provided to all students; it is of benefit to all students and goes beyond the regular instruction.
  • Tier 2 refers to additional instruction provided to those students identified through screening as requiring extra assistance; it is most effectively offered through differentiated instruction (described below) within the regular classroom.
  • Tier 3 refers to more intensive instruction provided to a small group of students or to individual students, those students whose response to Tier 2 intervention was not adequate; it usually involves taking the student out of the classroom for work with a specialist.

Monique Brodeur – The Importance of Instruction Based Upon Research-Based Methods.

Monique Brodeur – Taking a Balanced Approach to Teaching Literacy.

Monique Brodeur – Effects of Taking a Balanced Approach to Teaching Literacy .

Monique Brodeur – Screening and Progress Monitoring for Disadvantaged Children.

For the Tier 2 intervention, there are many options for help within the regular classroom, including allowing extra practice time and providing additional instruction and further assistance to students in need. The following examples are given by the FCRR (2008)[14]:

  • Kindergarten: 10 minutes of daily practice in letter sounds, oral blending, and phoneme segmentation.
  • Grade 1: 30 minutes of daily practice in new and reviewed letter-sound combinations, decodable words, sight words, and reading decodable text.
  • Grade 2: 30 minutes of extra practice reading stories already covered in class, plus fluency building instruction employing a re-reading strategy.

Response to intervention: the percentage of students needing each tier

Peer assisted learning strategies (PALS)

For ideas on instruction see Differentiated reading instruction: Small group alternative lesson structures for all students(Kosanovich, Ladinsky, Nelson, & Torgeson, n.d.)[33]

PALS is an option for offering extra practice for students (Dion, Morgan, Fuchs, & Fuchs, 2004)[22]. PALS involves peer tutoring in which the students who have stronger reading skills work with students who have weaker reading skills. For example, Grade 1 students are paired to practice and master skills such as phonological awareness, letter-sound correspondence, decoding, sight-word recognition, and fluent text reading. These activities are structured so that there is role reciprocity, frequent verbal interactions and feedback between the stronger and the weaker readers. The pairing is based on the teacher’s informal assessment of abilities (Dion et al., 2004).[22]

The What Works Clearinghouse (2007)[34] considers the extent of evidence for PALS to be small in the improvement of reading achievement, but recognizes that there are positive effects. The reading activity must be geared to the level of the students. For example, Fuchs & Fuchs (2007)[35] found that Grade 1 reading comprehension in pairs was not successful; some students had underdeveloped word skills that limited their reading comprehension. However, PALS has the advantage of being a no cost, immediate intervention that is carried out in the regular classroom; the gains from PALS are not restricted to low-achieving readers, but are seen in readers at all skill levels.

Differentiated instruction

University Lab School – Differentiated Instruction.

Matching instruction to the needs of different students through differentiated instruction within the regular classroom is another method of low-cost intervention. The FCRR (2008)[14] recommends differentiated instruction as a method of intervention, planned and delivered with precision in small flexible ability groups of students, and taking place in the regular classroom.

Differentiated instruction involves organizing the classroom into small groups in order to teach skills based on students’ needs. An integrated array of increasingly individualized, intensive, and effective interventions is provided within the classroom. This offers students opportunities for assisted reading practice, re-reading, and extra help.

The article Differentiated Instruction for Writing from Reading Rockets describes how teachers can use differentiated instruction for writing.

Careful monitoring of student progress is needed to adjust teaching to students’ needs. For example, to teach phonics, the teacher must have background knowledge that includes alternative ways for teaching phonics skills when children have difficulty.

Not only does differentiated instruction provide students with appropriate instruction for their individual needs, but it also controls the costs associated with special education. With differentiated instruction, children receive direct and explicit instruction in the early stages of reading skill acquisition, followed by implicit and independent activities when they have acquired basic skills.

What have I learned about methods of intervention?

Formats or contexts to use for instructing skills

University Lab School Kindergarten – Using shared reading as a context for writing and vocabulary building.

In teaching reading, various contexts or formats (e.g., ways of arranging the lesson) are frequently used. Two common contexts used to teach reading skills are referred to as “shared reading” and “guided reading”. These are considered formats or contexts in which to teach the reading skills, however, they are not methods of instruction.

Shared and guided reading are contexts not merely for teaching children advanced skills (e.g., comprehension), but also for the foundation skills (e.g., decoding).

Shared Reading

In Kindergarten, the teacher may want to read a story aloud to children and, with a finger, follow along with the words as the students listen and watch. Evans, Williamson, and Pursoo (2008)[36] found that if the teacher pointed to the words as he or she read aloud, the children’s print recognition improved as they watched. The students should not be asked to “read” the story aloud with the teacher because, as Hu (2005)[37] points out, for this to be a true reading experience, the students would need to have the tools to “decode” the words they are reading. The use of shared reading can be a way of having the children listen to and watch the story more actively as the teacher reads.

The “big book” used in this context should be carefully chosen with a format and text that fits the goal of instruction. For example, teachers may want to select a book that illustrates rhyming words or that discusses decoding strategies. Teachers can also discuss how a book is organized within this context (e.g., table of contents, title page, index, glossary).

In Kindergarten and Grade 1, shared reading could be used as a context for a lesson on phonological awareness through big print rhymes, songs, and words with patterns. Several types of books can be useful for teaching decoding skills in shared reading contexts.

Try using:
  • Rhythmic books (e.g., “Goodnight Moon”)
  • Two-part books (e.g., “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do You See?”)
  • Cumulative books (e.g., “The House that Jack Built”)
  • Repetitive books (e.g., “The Three Little Pigs”)

The shared reading context could be “dialogic” reading (e.g., reading and engaging in dialogue). This does not necessarily involve using a “big” book; a regular reading aloud context can be used. The lesson through “dialogue” can include modelling meta-cognitive strategies, exposing students to vocabulary they cannot yet decode, discussing words, and involving students in thinking about the story (Gormley & Ruhl, 2005)[38]. Dialogic reading is discussed further in the section on parental involvement. See the Dialogic Reading Section

University Lab School Kindergarten – Using shared reading as a context for developing writing.

Guided Reading

Guided reading is typically used in classrooms to discuss meaning at the comprehension level rather than building on specific foundation word analysis skills. It can be a means of showing students the strategies for searching text for meaning and achieving comprehension. However, at a beginning reader level, it is the decoding skills that need to be practiced. Focus in this important practice needs to be placed on sounding out decodable words. The FCRR (2008)[14] states that many of the “levelled books” currently used in guided reading lessons do not provide good support for instruction that emphasizes explicit development of foundation skills for reading.

Care is needed to select texts that are integrated into the sequential development of phonics and spelling instruction. Guided reading texts should be selected based on the students’ ability to decode the text. Children should be able to decode the text with 90 to 95 percent accuracy; a decoding level of less than 90 percent is considered to be a frustrational level for students (Kimbell-Lopez, 2003).[39]

As above, guided reading provides a context for learning, but is not the lesson. The actual teaching of decoding skills, particularly to students who are struggling and have fundamental knowledge gaps, requires focused and systematic instruction, which is difficult to carry out in the context of guided reading (FCRR, 2008).[14]

University Lab School – Guided reading as a context for decoding words.

The North Vancouver School District 44 has developed a program called Reading 44, which, with ongoing professional development, illustrates how to use guided reading as a context for helping readers.

View video clips that illustrate how the teacher uses guided reading to help older students search for meaning in the text.

Computer-assisted learning

Resource: Children's learning in a digital world (Willoughby & Wood, 2008)[40].

Computer technology can assist teachers in reading instruction by providing students with opportunities for individual practice and increasing their interest. It should be noted that computers are intended to assist and supplement teaching and not to replace it. Blok, Oostdam, Otter, and Overmaat (2002)[41] found that computer-assisted instruction helped in supporting the development of early reading skills in beginning readers. However, they agreed with the implications presented in the National Reading Panel report (2000)[3] that the use of computers with literacy instruction requires further exploration.

Eileen Wood – Computers as a Tool for Teaching.

Computers offer a change of pace from regular teacher-led or group instruction. Kamil, Intrator, and Kim (2000)[42] found that computer-assisted learning promotes intrinsic motivation, primarily if the program allows the student to customize his or her work and choose to work at a more challenging level. Another study by Gambrell (2006)[43] showed that the Internet can also be motivating for early readers because it offers a large variety of texts to read. Technology in the classroom provides an opportunity for student engagement and an “electronic scaffolding” to learning (McKenna, 1998).[44]

Computer-assisted reading and writing programs are interactive and allow students to progress at their own pace; students can also work with these programs individually or in a group. Computer programs typically provide immediate feedback about whether or not the student’s answer is correct. If the answer is not correct, the program should show the student how to correctly answer the question, and may also show why the answer is correct and the others are incorrect. Computer-assisted instruction moves at the students’ pace, and usually does not move ahead until they have mastered the skill (see The Access Center, 2008b).[45]

Eileen Wood – Experimentally-Tested Reading and Writing Programs

Eileen Wood – Technology-Supported Learning in the Classroom.

Jacqueline Specht – Computers for Peer-Collaborative Learning

Jacqueline Specht – Computers for Monitoring Individual Learning Needs.

Dalton and Strangman (2006) warn that online literacy tools and electronic reading and writing programs are not “one size fits all” and they should be carefully selected. Carefully selected computer programs can give students additional practice in skills such as phonological awareness, phonics, spelling, vocabulary, and fluency. Children can experience growth in the skills targeted by the programs (Lonigan et al., 2003)[46]. Rineking, Labbo, & McKenna (2000)[47] found that computer programs that expose students to new vocabulary can have a positive effect on students’ reading confidence in attempting to pronounce challenging words.

Go to the ABRACADABRA website for background information on the program.

Rob Savage – The Development of the ABRACADABRA Literacy Program.

Rob Savage – Who and What is ABRACADABRA For?

Rob Savage – Research Basis for ABRACADABRA Program

Rob Savage – Differentiated Instruction Using ABRACADABRA

Rob Savage – Feedback on Effectiveness of ABRACADABRA

The formal use of computers in instructing early reading in elementary classrooms has been well researched and explored in the development of DVD-ROM based software (e.g., Alphie’s Alley) and a web-based software (e.g., ABRACADABRA) through the Centre for the Study of Learning and Performance (CSLP) at Concordia University (Abrami, Savage, Wade, Hipps, & Lopez, 2008)[48]. They are highly interactive and take a balanced reading approach. The ABRACADABRA program also offers professional development training for teachers, research-based literacy activities, digital stories, assessment capabilities, and a communication tool.

View a video clip on how to use Alphie’s Alley in teamwork activities in the classroom

What have I learned about how to use contexts for teaching reading and writing?

Parental and guardian involvement: developing a good home-school relationship

For ideas to give parents see: Put reading first: Helping your child learn to read, a parent guide, preschool through Grade 3. By The Partnership for Reading.

Parents and teachers may look at a young child’s learning from different perspectives. However, they share the common goal of wanting to provide that child with the best possible education. Mutual respect and communication between teachers and families gives a voice to both parties and provides the kind of care and education that will help the child thrive. Today’s family members and caregivers have many responsibilities and time constraints. It takes extra effort on the part of both teachers and parents to build strong partnerships that will benefit the child.

Matt Anderson is a new Kindergarten teacher and is having a hard time keeping up with all the demands as a first-year teacher. When he expressed this concern to his peers, they suggested getting parents involved. He took their advice and contacted several parents of students in his class. Happily, they were all willing to help. Matt’s stress has been reduced and the learning levels in his classroom have risen, the children seem to be “getting it” faster.

There is another reason why Matt asked parents to come in and help. While the parents are helping in the classroom, they are also learning how to support their
own children effectively, even when they are not in the classroom. Matt knows that parents can be effective teachers, and even more effective when they know ways to support literacy.

The students whose parents learned how to be more involved in literacy education learned more easily and moved ahead through the stages of literacy more quickly.

How would you communicate with the parents and guardians of your students?

Evidence that parent/guardian involvement is effective

Janette Pelletier – Role of parents.

Although there have been several conflicting reviews on parent involvement, most studies show that it is associated with positive gains in student achievement (Bempechat, 1992; Zellman & Waterman, 1998)[49][50]. Many studies suggest that parents of elementary school aged children can help them learn to read and can provide a nurturing environment that promotes literacy development (Fan & Chen, 2001; Gest, Freeman, Domitrovich, & Welsh, 2004; Mullis, Mullis, Corneille, Ritchson, & Sullender, 2004; Sénéchal & LeFevre, 2002).[51][52][53][54]

"Children cannot become literate alone […] Although most parents recognize that they are their children’s first teachers, some consider literacy to be something children develop in school." (McVicker, 2007)[55]

A study by Bus (2001) showed that parents’ attitudes towards reading affect their children; when parents find reading enjoyable, their children are also likely to have an interest in reading.

SEDL (2008)[56] reviewed several articles and programs and found overwhelming evidence that parent involvement makes a positive difference in children’s academic achievement. When parents talk to their children about school, expect them to do well, help them plan for college, and make sure that out-of-school activities are constructive, their children perform better in school (Henderson & Mapp, 2002).[57]

Sénéchal and LeFevre (2002)[54] showed that reading to a child both at home and at school results in the child having a larger vocabulary and better reading comprehension by Grade 3. Bailey (2006)[58] examined students who were economically at-risk but who were successful early readers in order to determine factors that influence their early reading success. The conclusion was that for this specific group, frequent parent reading influenced the children’s early reading.

Importance of training parents

Sénéchal[59](2006) conducted a meta-analytic study for National Institute for Literacy (NIFL) and found that training parents to teach their child specific reading skills can result in a significant improvement in children’s reading performance. Toomey (1993)[60] found that reading programs that involved “explicit parent training” (e.g., involving proper modelling and guided practice) were the most successful in improving reading performance.

What can teachers do?

SEDL (2008)[56] identifies several research-based methods and strategies that teachers can implement to support parent involvement, as listed below. Note that many of the tips focus on positive interactions between both parties.

  • Recognize that all parents, regardless of income, education, or cultural background, are involved in their children’s learning and want their children to succeed.
  • Design programs that will support families to guide their child’s learning.
  • Link efforts to engage families, whether based at school or in the community, in student learning.
  • Focus efforts on engaging families and community members, to develop trusting and respectful relationships.
  • Embrace a philosophy of partnership and mutual respect and be willing to share power with families. Make sure that all parties understand that the responsibility for children’s educational development is a collaborative enterprise.

Maintaining a relationship with the parent(s)/guardian(s) of students can be effective in many ways. Some teachers provide weekly newsletters to parents to inform them of class events (e.g., via paper or email), other teachers have made handouts for parents with sample home activities they can complete to enrich their child’s educational experience. Newsletters can also include suggested texts to read with their child to support literacy development. This information encourages parents to accept the challenge of supporting their child’s emerging literacy through home activities (McVicker, 2007)[55]. The following is an example of an appropriate newsletter for parents of Kindergarten students.

The Reading Newsletter!

Dear Parents and Guardians,

Did you know that reading with your child at home will increase his or her ability to read and understand text that he or she encounters at school?

Here are a few tips for when you are reading with your child:
  • Pause in between phrases and allow time to reflect on the material.
  • Let your child “tell” the story, even if he or she is not reading what is written.
  • Be involved in a conversation while reading the story; ask your child open-ended “What” questions. Ask anything to which you can to get more than a one-word answer.
  • Have your child predict what will happen.

Give these strategies a try!

(Adapted from FCRR, 2008)[14]

Dialogic reading

Dialogic reading involves encouraging a dialogue as a story is read by pausing during the reading, referring to illustrations, and evoking a conversation about the book, letters, and pictures. This is an effective reading strategy for both teachers and parents.

Whitehurst, Arnold, Epstein, and Angell (1994)[61] found that “dialogic reading” (e.g., making reading a form of dialogue or two-way conversation) is an effective reading strategy for early readers since it engages the child in thinking about the story as it is read. The strategy can be even more effective if parents involve their children in dialogic reading at home. Evidence shows that parents who ask clarifying and thought-provoking questions as they read have children who ask more questions, talk more, and participate more frequently in conversation (DeTemple, 2001).[62]

The American Library Association (2007)[63] encourages asking “what questions” while reading with children (e.g., point to a tree and ask, “What is this?” or “What colour is this?”). Parents and teachers are encouraged to praise correct responses, and provide support when needed. Once the simple “what questions” have been exhausted, asking the child open-ended questions is recommended (e.g., “What do you see on this page?” or “What’s going on in this picture?”). It is recommended that parents and teachers ask questions that facilitate longer answers, rather than simple questions that require a one-word response.

What have I learned about the role of parents and about how to involve parents?

Summary of effective reading and writing instruction

This section emphasized the importance of effective instruction in reading and writing. One essential element is the motivation and engagement of the teacher, which fosters the same positive response in students. A second key element to effective instruction is that it should be systematic and explicit. Important aspects of instruction include the use of scaffolding, modelling good meta-cognitive strategies, and the use of a variety of methods such as reciprocal teaching. Another critical element to effective instruction is the use of regular assessment, including screening and progress monitoring. Once assessments are completed and students in need of extra help are identified, another important element to effective instruction is the knowledge of how to implement a successful intervention. In addition, the teacher must differentiate the instruction method and intervention plan so that it is the most beneficial for each student. Finally, an effective teacher recognizes the importance of involving the parents and creates a strong partnership leading to optimal learning for each child.

Special populations

Canadian teachers encounter great diversity of learners in their classrooms. Below, three such populations are discussed: English language learners (ELL), learners from low socio-economic status (SES), and learners with reading impairments (such as dyslexia).

Do these groups have special needs for learning reading and writing? The following sections present research findings about the needs of these populations, and discuss implications for classroom practice.

English language learners

Researchers in North America have conducted extensive research on English language learners (ELL). In this resource kit, the focus will be on the Canadian research as the makeup of ELL students in Canada is very different from that in the United States, where a large proportion of ELL are Hispanic. According to the 2006 Statistics Canada census, the five most common languages spoken by Canadians aged birth to 19 whose first language is other than English or French are Chinese, Punjabi, Spanish, Italian, and Arabic (Statistics Canada, 2006).[64]

Esther Geva – Differentiating Between Similar-Sounding Phonemes (Parts of Words).

Esther Geva – Differentiating Between Similar-Sounding Phonemes (for ESL Children).

Esther Geva – Negative Transfer of Language Elements.

Esther Geva – Complex Nature of Vocabulary Acquisition.

Esther Geva – Role of Teacher in Providing Extra Help.

Esther Geva – Learning Disability in Addition to ESL.

Esther Geva – Benefits of Foreign First Language for Acquisition of English.

Study findings and implications for practice

Janette Pelletier and Esther Geva.

  • In a recent study by Geva and Yaghoub Zadeh (2006)[65], Grade 2 English as a second language (ESL) and English as a first language (EL1) children resembled each other on word and text reading efficiency. With the exception of English-language oral proficiency skills, EL1 and ESL profiles were highly similar. The group of children with poor decoding skills consisted of the same percentage of EL1 and of ESL students.
  • Large numbers of ESL and EL1 students followed from Kindergarten through Grades 2, 3, and 4 in three separate longitudinal studies showed few differences in decoding ability by Grade 4. The Grade 4 word reading ability was predicted by the same Kindergarten tasks for both language groups. Moreover, EL1 and ESL learners showed the same range of abilities. This suggests that early identification models for EL1 speakers are also appropriate and beneficial for ESL students (Lesaux & Siegel, 2003; Lesaux, Rupp, & Siegel, 2007; Lipka & Siegel, 2007).[66][67][68]
  • For ESL students, letter identification and phonological processing were the most significant predictors of Grade 3 reading ability. The implications of this finding are that letter knowledge, phonemic awareness, and alphabetic principle are significant factors for success in reading (Lipka & Siegel, 2007).[68]
  • Similar proportions of ESL and EL1 speakers are classified as poor readers. Both groups demonstrate difficulties with phonological awareness and working memory. These findings suggest that underlying processing deficits, such as cognitive-linguistic development, are the primary issue for students experiencing word-level difficulties (August & Shanahan, 2006).[69]
  • When young ESL students are having problems in developing reading efficiency, even with simple materials, this should not be automatically attributed to their lack of oral language proficiency. They may benefit from an intervention that focuses on efficient word-recognition skills (Geva & Yaghoub Zadeh, 2006).[65]
  • Although ESL students perform as well as EL1 students in the foundation skills of decoding and word reading, they do not perform as well on provincial exams. They may not have the same level of vocabulary or the same level of linguistic knowledge (e.g., knowledge of English language). They may need extra assistance in the oral and higher level skills such as oral vocabulary building, grammar, and comprehension. The amount and type of help required may depend on their language background.

Learners from low socio-economic status

Many children from low socio-economic status (SES) enter school lacking the experience needed to prepare them for reading and writing.

Study findings and implications for practice

  • Among low SES children, nurturing reading by the prime caregiver makes a significant contribution to a growth in their reading achievement (Merlo, Bowman, & Barnett, 2007)[70]. This study indicates the importance of teachers’ establishing a relationship with parents. Communication between parents and teachers can help parents to understand how they can nurture their child’s reading at home (see above section "Parental and guardian involvement: developing a good home-school relationship").
  • A study of reading skills that followed 1,108 students in 30 schools in one North Vancouver school district from Kindergarten through Grade 5 showed the advantages of an early literacy support program. The students coming from low SES receiving the early literacy support not only improved in reading ability but also in overall educational achievement (D’Angiulli, Siegel, & Maggi, 2004).[71]
  • A model of instruction designed to prevent reading problems was studied in schools with large numbers of children from low SES backgrounds. Screening on entry, noticing areas of difficulty, and bringing students up to speed with extra support often prevented a need for more intensive intervention (Bursuck et al., 2004).[2]

Learners with reading impairments

The focus of this resource is teaching reading to typically achieving students, and identifying at-risk students and intervening early.

Study findings and implications for practice

  • Early identification and effective intervention with high quality instruction can prevent reading disabilities; therefore, the need to label a child as reading disabled is eliminated (Mathes & Denton, 2002; Lesaux & Siegel, 2003).[72][66]
  • Studies of children with reading difficulties are consistent in suggesting that reading problems in some poor readers may be caused primarily by phonological deficits (Vellutino et al., 1996)[73]. However, other cognitive deficits may also be present.
  • The ability to connect language sounds to print letters is essential for reading success. Lack of both phonemic and phonological awareness, as well as poor single word naming fluency, are all indicators that the child is at high risk for a decoding impairment (Lovett & Barron, 2006; Hoeft et al., 2007).[74][75]


Dyslexia is a specific type of language-based learning disability that is the most common cause of reading and writing difficulty. It is an inherited condition that is neurological in origin and that affects individuals throughout their lives. Dyslexia hinders the acquisition of reading and writing skills (e.g., learning the alphabet). The following statement of International Dyslexia Association (2008) agrees with study findings (Mathes & Denton, 2002; Lesaux & Siegel, 2003):

If children who are dyslexic get effective phonological training in Kindergarten and Grade 1, they will have significantly fewer problems in learning to read at grade level than children who are not identified or helped until Grade 3.

There are several misconceptions about dyslexia:
  • Dyslexia is not a result of low intelligence. Learning aptitude is normal and often high; achievement lags behind.
  • The problem is not behavioural, psychological, motivational, or social. However, problems in these areas may develop as side effects to language difficulties.
  • It is not due to a developmental or physical disability.
  • Students with dyslexia do not “see backward.” The common reversal of letters (e.g., “b” and “d”) is based on the lack of connection of speech to letters.
    (Based on information from The International Dyslexia Association Ontario Branch, 2008)

Possible signs of dyslexia may be noticed as early as the preschool years. A teacher may also notice difficulties early in the school year. The following is a list of some possible signs of dyslexia.

Oral language

  • Delayed spoken language
  • Misinterpretation of language that is heard
  • Lack of awareness of different sounds in words and rhymes
  • Difficulty in organizing thoughts

Linda Siegel – What It Means to Have Dyslexia.

Linda Siegel – Causes of Dyslexia.


  • Difficulty learning connection between sounds and letters
  • Difficulty separating out words into sounds
  • Slow and inaccurate reading (confusion of visibly similar words)
  • Poor reading comprehension
Go to the Deciphering Dyslexia website created by British Columbia’s Knowledge Network


  • Poor organization of ideas
  • Poor spelling (reversals of words such as “tip” for “pit”; confusion of small words such as “at” and “to”)
  • Poor letter formation and spatial organization (reversals of letters such as “d” for “b”)

(Adapted from The International Dyslexia Association Ontario Branch, 2008)

The following is the definition of dyslexia adopted in 2002 by the International Dyslexia Association and by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD):

"Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge."

With proper diagnosis, appropriate instruction, and much support and practice, many of these problems can be overcome. This will influence the child’s success in school and later on in life.

Most students with dyslexia have problems identifying separate speech sounds within a word as well as learning how letters represent sounds. These skills are key foundations for learning to read and write; therefore, early identification of problems through assessment as well as early intervention are critical. Inadequate word identification is due to poor decoding skills, which in turn may be a result of lack of phonological skills (Vellutino, Fletcher, Snowling, & Scanlon, 2004). Early screening assessments will indicate whether the child is at risk for reading failure and in need of additional intervention; however, at the beginning of Grade 1, it is difficult to identify whether reading difficulties are due to a specific deficit or simply lack of exposure to print. Regardless of the child’s starting point, all students can benefit from high quality instruction focused on phonics. An end of year assessment will show the usefulness of these teaching methods and can identify whether a more focused intervention is needed.

Structured, systematic, and explicit teaching, with structured practice and immediate, corrective feedback is important in teaching all students, and is especially important in teaching students with dyslexia. For example, students with dyslexia need to be taught the sound-letter relationship of all words, and often confuse “sight” words (e.g., “at, the”). These students need more practice and instruction in the correct,  step-by-step formation of letters (e.g., the stick first and then the curve for the “b” and the curve first and the stick for the “d”). In other words, dyslexia is not due to either lack of intelligence or desire to learn; with appropriate teaching methods, students with dyslexia can learn.

Techniques used in special interventions for students with dyslexia can benefit almost all children learning the foundation skills for reading (Henry, 2003). In these special interventions, teaching is multisensory, using visual, auditory, and kinesthetic-tactile approaches to link sound, letters, and letter formation. As shown earlier in this kit (see Connecting Sounds to Print), research has found that teaching sounds and letters in language simultaneously achieves better results. This research is reinforced by the successes of the multisensory approach.

Such findings have important implications for regular classroom reading instruction.

What have I learned about teaching reading and writing to special populations?

French immersion students

Teachers should be aware of the existence of French immersion programs in Canada. A large group of English-speaking students in Canada is studying French as a second language in these programs. These students are learning to read and write in a second language and might need further assistance.

Study findings and implications for practice

Most studies of French immersion students have been completed in parts of Canada where the dominant language is not French. Some areas of Canada have a predominance of French (e.g., Quebec and New Brunswick); in those areas, French immersion students have ambient exposure (e.g., street signs, conversations) outside of the school environment, which affects their learning to read French in school. This difference in exposure means conclusions from research into French immersion cannot be generalized to the whole country.

Fred Genesee – French/English Immersion and Impact on Language Acquisition.

  • English-speaking French immersion students continue to demonstrate levels of reading and writing ability in English that are at their grade level and are comparable to those of English-speaking students in regular programs. As for their reading and writing ability in French, the lack of background knowledge, oral vocabulary and knowledge of language structure in French limits immersion students. Evidence from studies of students having difficulty in reading (Rousseau, 1999; Bournot-Trites, 2004) indicates that effective interventions for second language learners with reading difficulties will incorporate many of the best practices of interventions for first language readers with difficulty. However, it is likely that second language readers will have additional challenges associated with their incomplete acquisition of, and limited exposure to, the second language.
  • Students who are likely to have difficulty learning to read will have this difficulty in both a first or second language. This implies that students who might be at risk for reading impairment in French could be identified using available assessments and predictors in English (Genesee, 2007; MacCoubrey, Wade-Woolley, Klinger, & Kirby, 2004).

Fred Genesee – Decoding and Comprehension in French and English.

Fred Genesee – Language Development in French-English Bilinguals.

Fred Genesee – Support for the Transfer of Skills From First Language to Second Language.

Further research is being completed on whether English-speaking children who are at risk for reading difficulties are disadvantaged by learning to read first in French.

What have I learned about fluency and how to teach it?

Summary of reading and writing needs in special populations

This section has discussed briefly some of the special populations of learners that many teachers will encounter in their career. This includes students who are English language learners, students who come from a family with lower socioeconomic status, and students with reading impairments. These groups of children need to be identified early and receive appropriate interventions in order to target the unique needs of each child. Finally, teachers of students learning to read and write in French immersion programs need to be aware that these students have the same challenges as any other students when it comes to reading and writing.

Implications for practice

Recent trends among education professionals and researchers support a mixture of approaches to reading instruction. Education professionals have suggested that an effective combination of approaches should include emphasis on phonics skills, exposure to literature, opportunities to practice, and frequent use of writing activities.

Important themes

  • Becoming a knowledgeable and informed teacher
  • Providing quality instruction
  • Identifying at-risk students immediately and implementing effective interventions or providing extra assistance
  • Providing differentiated instruction in small groups
  • Emphasizing balanced techniques; teaching foundation skills explicitly and systematically
  • Providing multiple pathways to learning the foundation skills
  • Engaging students so that they enjoy reading for life

We encourage you to reflect upon what you have learned and what this means for your teaching.

Ask yourself about the next steps for you:

Having read the research in this resource, what will I do next?
What should I change or try in my teaching?
How will I apply this knowledge in my classroom?


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