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The Case for Early Reading Intervention

Updated on May 10, 2015

An Overview Of The Problem

Every student can learn to read, but not all students learn to read the same way. Some children require extra time, additional practice, and more specified instruction. Such students are usually labeled “at risk” or “struggling” readers. For them, each letter sound must be taught. They need help with many areas including how to blend the sounds together and how to read fluently.

As Richards and Leafstedt state:

Therefore, teachers of struggling readers must not just be able to teach reading, they also must know how to teach a struggling reader to read. They must understand the intricacies of the skills needed to learn to read, how to assess them, how to teach them, and how to break them down into simpler parts. In addition, they must do all of this quickly; when working with struggling readers, time is of the essence. Struggling readers are not learning as quickly as their peers and therefore need more practice. Teachers must use effective, efficient strategies to help these students meet their learning goals.

A Look At The Research

Years of collaboration and research with my mother, Dorothy Strickland of Rutgers University, indicates that the cycle of failure often starts early in a child's school career. Children who encounter problems in the beginning stages of learning to read fall farther and farther behind their peers. Longitudinal studies reveal that there is a 90 % chance a child who is a poor reader of the end of grade 1 will remain a poor reader at the end of grade 4. As they move through the grades, poor readers are apt to experience continued failure and defeat, which may account for the tendency of low -achieving students to drop out of school.

"Early intervention allows students to get help before reading problems become entrenched and complicated by self-concept issues, writes Patricia G. Mathes. "It can impact how children think, how they learn, and who they are, changing the lives of tens of millions."

Recommended Reading

This text is designed to help teachers understand and implement evidence based practice in early reading intervention.  This new resource effectively explains what to teach and how to teach struggling readers in the classroom.
This text is designed to help teachers understand and implement evidence based practice in early reading intervention. This new resource effectively explains what to teach and how to teach struggling readers in the classroom. | Source

There Is No Substitute

Another compelling reason to promote early intervention is that supplementary remedial programs such as those funded by Title 1 and "replacement" programs the substitute for regular in-class instruction have had mixed results (Johnston, Allington, & Afflerbach, 1985). Some argue that such programs cause classroom teachers to rely too much on special help and neglect their responsibility toward less able students. Others suggest that where these programs exist, instruction within and outside the classroom are often at odds with one another. Supplemental programs appear to work the best when there is a strong compatible instructional program in the regular classroom. Regardless of the supplemental help offered, however, more attention needs to be given to incorporating the best prevention intervention procedures into regular classroom instructional practice (Allington & Walmsley, 1995).

An Assessment of Early Steps: A Program for Early Intervention of Reading Problems

In a 2011 study, Santa and Høien examined issues related to selecting and evaluating early intervention programs for first graders at serious risk for failing in reading acquisition.

The program evaluated is Early Steps, an intervention with one-to-one tutoring and with particular emphasis on story reading, writing, and phonological skills. Four neighborhood schools were selected to participate in the study—two experimental and two control schools. The 49 children came from lower- to middle-class Caucasian families with similar socioeconomic backgrounds. The design of the study includes pre-, post-, and retention assessments of an experimental and a control group. Various tests were used to assess spelling performance, word recognition, nonword reading, and reading comprehension.

According to the authors, the results at the end of Grade 1 and at the beginning of Grade 2 indicate that the experimental group performed statistically significantly better than the control group on all variables assessed.

In particular, the children with the lowest pretest levels, the very high-risk children, benefit most from the intervention. Their improvement approaches the average performance level after an intervention period of 8 months. We presume that the substantial progress among high-risk children reflects the importance of a balanced approach to beginning reading and the power of the Early Steps program to increase the phonological and word study skills among those children most at risk in this domain.

Greater Expectations

Increased demands to make every child a reader by the end of the primary grades have also spurred early intervention efforts. National, state, and local schools reform movements have raised expectations of what young learners should know and be able to do, and they specify the grade levels at which children should be able to reach these goals. Standards have been raised for all students regardless of who they are, where they live, their linguistic backgrounds, and whether or not they have learning disabilities. The gradual trend away from long-term remedial programs at all levels and the growing emphasis on early intervention, presentation, and good "first teaching" have made the early grades a key focus of reform.

Affects on Student Self Esteem

Those who have turned their attention too early intervention state that it is ultimately less costly then years of remediation, less costly than retention, and less costly to students' self-esteem (Barnett, 1998). Removing the onus on self-esteem may be the most compelling reason to institute early intervention: teachers in remedial programs often observe the students who feel they are failures frequently give up and stop trying to learn despite instructional opportunities.

At this point, it seems fair to state that even though the press for early intervention is a worthy effort, later intervention remains a viable solution for some students who were not given adequate help during the early grades. Krashen and McQuillan (1998) argue that people can and do become good readers later, by reading a lot about whatever interests them. They suggest that the repeated act of reading itself makes them good readers. This isa good point. But poor readers are often caught in a catch-22: poor readers find reading difficult and unrewarding and so they avoid reading: reading is what makes good readers, but poor readers find reading difficult and unrewarding. Krashen and McQuillan caution that their arguments for late intervention or not arguments against early intervention but rather are offered to counteract the dogma of "once a poor reader, always a poor reader" (p. 409)..

Successful Programs

Numerous early intervention programs that target struggling readers and writers have been introduced successfully into school literacy programs (Pikulski, 1994). Analyses of these programs suggest some principles over instructions that may be helpful to struggling readers in the regular classroom. They also suggest ways in which external programs and regular classroom instruction might be more compatible in order to support the struggling reader better. Regardless of the help children receive through social programs, ongoing attention to these learners in the regular classroom remains key to any attempt at early intervention.

Help For All Learners

There is a critical need for educators to addresses what teachers of young children should know about helping the struggling reader and writer within the regular classroom. This area of emphasis includes:

  • What is known about development of successful beginning readers and writers.
  • Factors that militate against success in learning to read and write
  • What is known about successful intervention programs, and the application to teaching and learning in the regular classroom

Many literacy experts place particular emphasis on children who are experiencing difficulty learning to read and write, but the background and specific strategies that encompass this dialogue can help improve instructional program for all learners.


Allington, R.L., & Walmsley, S.A. (Eds.). (1995). No quick fix. New York: Teachers College Press.

Barnett, W.S. (1998). Long term effects on cognitive development and school success. In W. S. Barnett & S.S. Boocock (Eds.), Early care and education for children in poverty (pp. 11-44). Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Johnston, P.A., Allington, R.L., & Afflerbach, P. (1985). The congruence of classroom and remedial reading instruction. Elementary School Journal, 85, 465-478.

Juel, C. (1988, April). Learning to read and write: a longitudinal study of fifty four children from first through fouth grade. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, LA.

Krashen, S., & McQuillian, J. (1998). The case for late intervention: once a good reader, always a good reader. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

(2015) The Case for Early Intervention in Reading. McGraw Hill Education

Mathes , P.G. (2015). Title of article.Title of McGraw-Hill Education Online. Retrieved from

Pikulski, J. (1994). Preventing reading failure: A review of five effective programs. Reading Teacher, 48, 30-39

Santa, C.M. & Høien , T. (2011) An Assessment of Early Steps: A Program for Early Intervention of Reading Problems Carol M. Reading Research Quarterly, 34, 54–79

Stanovich, K.E. (1986). Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 21, 360-407.


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