The University of Iowa

Is It the Materials or the Instruction That Make For a Good Reading Program?

Teacher with reading program materials in front of class

Does the reading curriculum program teachers will be using allow for explicit, systematic instruction and differentiation? If not, research findings suggest student performance will suffer.


Posted on: August 31, 2021

In April of 2020 while the world was consumed with the COVID-19 pandemic, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a landmark decision on a case dealing with education brought by Detroit public school students. In essence, the students argued that the poor education they were receiving denied them the ability to read, and the justices held that literacy was a Constitutional right because it was essential to citizens’ participation in our democracy (Gary B. v. Whitmer, 2020). There were a number of conditions that were cited as contributing to the Detroit schools’ denial of this right. However, one of the student plaintiffs, Jamarria Hall, stated that “the saddest thing of all was really the resources that they had, like, being in a class where there’s 34 students, but there’s only six textbooks” (Turner, 2020). In the original civil complaint, the students said those textbooks were outdated, beyond repair, and unreadable in places. In addition, the teachers charged with using them were described as inexperienced in the subject matter (Gary B. v. Snyder, 2016).

For many years, educators and policymakers have expressed concern about persistent gaps in literacy performance demonstrated by students of color, English learners, those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and students in special education (National Center for Education Statistics, 2019). Often, these students are concentrated in communities much like Detroit. These concerns over achievement gaps have led to policies or other instructional reform efforts to ensure all students have equal opportunities to learn to read. This has included requiring or encouraging schools to adopt a comprehensive core literacy curriculum (McGill-Franzen et al., 2006). But can the literacy curricular materials can make a sufficient difference for students?

Whether as part of a school reform process or a routine adoption cycle, districts often grapple with questions concerning which reading program is better or which materials will be easier for teachers to implement. This post offers some considerations for districts involved in choosing a reading program or redesigning their core literacy block.

Comprehensive Core Literacy Curriculum

Modern commercial reading programs contain much more than sets of books. They include content as well as the recommended ways to organize, teach, practice, and differentiate that content across multiple grade levels. Nevertheless, core programs can vary considerably in their alignment to the evidence base derived from reading research (Pilonieta, 2010; Reutzel et al., 2014). For example, some programs are designed to match students to a level of reading material and deliver all instruction implicitly within the context of that literature. On the other hand, some programs are designed to deliver explicit and systematic instruction in foundational skills along with strategies for comprehending text.

Studies that directly compared these two types of curricular programs have found better performance among students receiving explicit, systematic instruction (Denton et al., 2014; Robinson et al., 2016). In other words, it is not the materials alone that make a program effective, but the kinds of instructional practices those materials facilitate delivering (Slavin et al., 2009).

Core Literacy Instruction

Although some parts of core reading programs will be taught to the whole class, it is important that programs also provide materials for delivering instruction in small groups where it is more feasible for teachers to meet the needs of students with diverse abilities (Connor et al., 2013). Forming and teaching small groups of students with similar abilities is more likely to equalize children’s opportunities to become successful readers (Steenbergen-Hu et al., 2016) compared to merely providing books at a different level (Lupo et al., 2019). However, teachers need a great deal of support to learn how to improve differentiation using the abundance of materials within a comprehensive core literacy curriculum (Coyne et al., 2016). Support can take the following forms:

  • focusing on specific practices and components of instruction
  • providing clear steps to follow
  • making tools and resources available
  • having external and internal coaching and professional development
  • attending to fidelity of implementation

Improving outcomes for students who are not yet proficient readers requires a combination of high-quality materials and effective instructional practices. The “Supplemental Information for Teachers” below provides guidelines for reviewing core literacy programs, including criteria for both content and delivery of instruction. It can take time for substantive change to happen in classrooms and schools, but it is a critical investment worth making. Without it, some students will continue to be denied the fundamental right to literacy.

Supplemental Information for Teachers

A Consumer’s Guide to Analyzing a Core Reading Program Grades K-3: A critical Elements Analysis

Deborah C. Simmons, Ph.D., and Edward J. Kame’enui, Ph.D.

Center on Teaching and Learning, College of Education, University of Oregon

This guide contains a series of recommendations and procedures for analyzing critical elements of reading programs.

What to Consider if You’re Adopting a New ELA/Literacy Curriculum

Student Achievement Partners

Referencing the experience and expertise of other educators who have gone through the process, this blog post offers guidance for those that are adopting a new reading curriculum.


Connor, C. M., Morrison, F. J., Fisherman, B., Crowe, E. C., Al Otaiba, S., & Schatschneider, C. (2013). A longitudinal cluster-randomized controlled study on the accumulating effects of individualized literacy instruction on students’ reading from first through third grade. Psychological Science, 24, 1408–1419.   

Coyne, M. D., Oldham, A., Leonard, K., Burns, D., & Gage, N. (2016). Delving into the details: Implementing multi-tiered K-3 reading supports in high priority schools. In B. Foorman (Ed.), Challenges and solutions to implementing effective reading intervention in schools. New directions in child and adolescent development, Number 154 (pp. 67–85). Wiley.

Denton, C. A., Fletcher, J. M., Taylor, W. P., Barth, A. E., & Vaughn, S. (2014). An experimental evaluation of guided reading and explicit interventions for primary-grade students at-risk for reading difficulties. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 7, 268–293.

Gary B. v. Snyder (2016).

Gary B. v. Whitmer (2020).

Lupo, S. M., Tortorelli, L., Invernizzi, M., Ryoo, J. H., & Strong, J. Z. (2019). An exploration of text difficulty and knowledge support on adolescents’ comprehension. Reading Research Quarterly, 54, 457–479.

McGill-Franzen, A., Zmach, C., Solic, K., & Zeig, J. L. (2006). The confluence of two policy mandates: Core reading programs and 3rd-grade retention in Florida. The Elementary School Journal, 107, 67–91.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2019). Explore results for the 2019 NAEP reading assessment. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

Pilonieta, P. (2010). Instruction of research-based comprehension strategies in basal reading programs. Reading Psychology, 31, 150–175. 

Reutzel, D. R., Child, A., Jones, C. D., & Clark, S. K. (2014). Explicit instruction in core reading programs. The Elementary School Journal, 114, 406–430. 

Robinson, L., Lambert, M. C., Towner, J., & Caros, J. (2016). A comparison of direct instruction and balanced literacy: An evaluative comparison for a Pacific Northwest rural school district. Reading Improvement, 53, 147–164.

Slavin, R. E., Lake, C., Chambers,  B., Cheung, A., & Davis, S. (2009). Effective reading programs for the upper elementary grades: A best-evidence synthesis. Review of Educational Research, 79, 1391–1466.

Steenbergen-Hu, S., Makel, M. C., & Olszewski-Kubilius, P. (2016). What one hundred years of research says about the effects of ability grouping and acceleration on K-12 students’ academic achievement: Findings of two second-order meta-analyses. Review of Educational Research, 86, 849–899.

Turner, C. (2020, April 27). Court rules Detroit students have constitutional right to an education. NPR News.