No One Best Way to Teach Reading

by Phyllis Dorsey, M.Ed.; West Point Public Schools

In January 2001, President Bush sent to Congress his No Child Left Behind (NCLB) plan for comprehensive educational reform. NCLB seeks to close the achievement gap between disadvantaged, minority, limited-English proficient students, and students with disabilities compared with their peers. In order to meet this challenge, schools must demonstrate that all children are succeeding. Because there is no single "right way" for all children to learn, schools must employ a variety of instructional approaches, strategies, and materials.

Since reading is the foundation for all learning, a fundamental responsibility of schools is to teach students to read. Providing effective reading instruction requires great expertise, indeed, "Teaching reading IS rocket science" (Moats, 1999, p. 1). This complex process calls upon teachers to:

  • Determine students' instructional levels by identifying students' prerequisite knowledge and skills

  • Use these data to establish appropriate instructional goals and objectives

  • Differentiate instruction by designing multi faceted lessons that synthesize elements of various approaches to reading

  • Select a variety of appropriate instructional materials

  • Assess student progress and adjust instruction appropriately.

While instruction must be systematic and explicit, there is no one best approach to teaching all children to read. Rather, the goal is to integrate elements of various approaches in a way that allows all students to derive meaning from text. Thus, effective reading instruction includes a balance of several key elements.

The components of a comprehensive reading program are briefly described below.

Phonemic Awareness

Definition: Phonemic awareness is the ability to recognize and manipulate the smallest sounds in the spoken language.

Instruction: Teachers should use many activities to build phonemic awareness, including manipulating, identifying, sorting, blending, and segmenting sounds.

Phonics instruction

Definition: Phonics is the relationship between letters and sounds in the spoken language.

Instruction: Phonics instruction should be systematic and explicit. "Direct teaching of the letter-sound relationships in a clearly defined sequence is most effective." (Armbruster, Lehr, & Osborn, 2001, p. 13).

Fluency instruction

Definition: Fluency is the ability to read text accurately and quickly.

Instruction: Effective techniques for developing fluency include the teacher modeling fluent reading and asking students to reread passages orally, coaching them as they read.

Vocabulary instruction

Definition: Vocabulary refers to word meaning.

Instruction: Vocabulary development includes oral language development, read alouds by adults, and opportunities for students to read frequently on their independent reading level.

Comprehension instruction

Definition: Comprehension is defined as gaining meaning from written text.

Instruction: Using graphic organizers, questioning techniques, story structure, and summarizing helps students make sense of the text they are reading.

No Child Left Behind focuses our attention on struggling subgroups in an effort to help every child achieve academic proficiency. Students who cannot read will be left behind in a world that is largely based on text. "If no steps are taken to compensate for reading deficiencies a reading disability will persist through life" (Armbruster, et al., 2001). Wise educators responsible for planning these "steps" to prevent reading disabilities recognize that no one philosophical approach or reading program will ever meet the needs of all students. Teaching a student to read is a complex process and a serious responsibility. In brief, educators who accurately assess students' instructional needs and design instructional lessons that blend the best elements of several approaches ARE "rocket scientists" of reading.


Armbruster, B.B., Lehr, F., & Osborn, J. (2001). Put reading first: The research building blocks for teaching children to read. Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy.

Moats, L. (1999). Teaching reading is rocket science: What expert teachers of reading should know and be able to do. Washington, DC: American Federation of Teachers. AFL.CIO. (Item No. 372).

Date: November/December 2002