Richard Allington on Doing Right by Struggling Readers

Richard Allington on Doing Right by Struggling Readers

“The good news is that we now have an essential research base demonstrating that virtually every child could be reading on grade level by the end of first grade,” says Richard Allington (University of Tennessee/Knoxville) in this powerful article in The Reading Teacher. “Now the question we face is this: Will we use what we know to solve the problems faced by the children who struggle to become readers?... [T]he time has come to recognize that struggling readers still exist largely because of us.” 

Why are so many students failing to read? First, Allington says, the National Reading Panel’s 2000 report put too much emphasis on systematic phonics, decodable texts, and nonsense words. To be sure, decoding is a key part of beginning reading, but there is no one right way to teach it, and teachers need to be adaptable to reach all students. As for “decodable nonwords”, Allington says, “Children can be taught to pronounce nonsense words, but this should not be confused with teaching them something useful as developing readers.”

Second, implementing commercial basal reading programs took precedence over effective teaching practices – even though research shows that basals are quite ineffective, especially for low-SES children. Worksheets and isolated lessons targeting specific skill deficits are particularly low-impact. 

Third, struggling readers are too often working with paraprofessionals rather than with expert teachers. In addition, too few primary-grade teachers are well trained in effective methods. Students who are having difficulty reading need to be with the elite of the teaching profession.

Fourth, struggling readers are often asked to read texts that are too difficult, versus the high-success texts that will accelerate their reading growth and confidence. Reading at the frustration level is counterproductive.

Fifth, students don’t spend nearly enough time silently reading texts they select themselves. Research shows that silent, self-selected reading is a powerful driver of improvement.

Sixth, struggling readers spend much more time than proficient peers sitting through round-robin reading and filling out worksheets, both of which have been shown to be low-gain activities. “If we want to foster reading development, then we must design lessons that provide the opportunities for struggling readers to actually read,” says Allington. 

What is to be done? Flipping each of these ineffective practices results in a far stronger reading program with these qualities:

  • Using a balanced, eclectic approach to decoding linked to writing and comprehension (and no time spent on nonsense words);
  • Using high-quality children’s literature and activities versus basals;
  • Putting resources into training all primary teachers in effective approaches and eliminating paraprofessionals from instructional roles;
  • Matching struggling students with texts that they can read with at least 98 percent word recognition accuracy and 90 percent comprehension;
  • Maximizing silent reading of texts that students select themselves – during school hours and in the evenings, weekends, and vacations, especially the summer; struggling readers should leave school each day with at least one book they can read and that they want to read;
  • Using effective teaching practices that get all students involved in reading and writing as much as possible; struggling readers should read and write more each day than proficient readers, says Allington.

How can school districts afford these changes? “Eliminating money wasted on things that don’t really matter seems the most logical place to begin our effort to teach all children to read,” says Allington. That includes workbooks, test prep materials, instructional paraprofessionals, and computer-based programs. “[I]t remains up to us, the educators, to alter our schools and our budgets so that every child becomes a real reader,” he concludes. “I hope we are up to the challenge.”

“What Really Matters When Working with Struggling Readers” by Richard Allington in The Reading Teacher, April 2013 (Vol. 66, #7, p. 520-530),; Allington can be reached at

From the Marshall Memo #483


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