by Peter Afflerbach
University of Maryland
April 17, 2013
The Reading Instruction Provided Readers of Differing Reading Abilities
Richard L. Allington
The Elementary School Journal, Vol. 83, No. 5 (May, 1983) (pp. 548-559)
I first read this article 3 decades years ago—when I was a rookie elementary reading teacher—and the important message it carries has stayed with me. I return to it every few years, providing myself with the opportunity to see how it has influenced my thinking and practice. And reminding me of how careful and caring research matters. If you're interested in experiencing how a 30-year-old article can speak to today's classroom practice, this is the read for you.
The article focuses on differential treatment of readers, and examines the question, “Might the type and focus of reading instruction provided to struggling readers have unintended consequences?” Allington examines the allocation of instructional time given to readers in different reading ability groups, and then examines the instructional emphases within those groups. The study includes a review of relevant research literature, combined with classroom observations and teacher interviews.
Looking across of range of studies, including many of his own empirical efforts, Allington found a range of consistent differences between the instruction provided to good versus struggling readers. For example:
- engagement (good readers are observed to be on-task significantly more often than struggling readers),
- emphasis (good readers receive more emphasis on the meaning of the texts they read while struggling readers' instruction emphasizes cracking the code and skills),
- type of reading (oral for the struggling and silent for the good),
- the number and types interruptions (that's right, teachers let the errors of good readers pass but almost always interrupt struggling readers to correct their errors), and, perhaps most important, the sheer number of words read per day (good readers read, on average, three times the number of words read by struggling readers).
Allington’s major point, anticipated by his related (and famously titled) article “If they don’t read much, how they ever gonna get good,” was that struggling readers may remain struggling readers because of the instruction they receive, and how they are treated in reading classrooms. If struggling readers are not provided significant amounts of additional time to read, it is almost impossible for them to join the ranks of their successful classmates. And, the focus of instruction can sometimes hinder reading development, especially when remedial reading instruction does not include opportunities for struggling readers to experience success in reading real texts.
My recollection of reading the article for the first time includes the fact that it challenged how I thought about reading instruction. It forced me to rethink what was behind the challenges my students experienced in their reading development. This article still has the power to help us reflect on practice.
The article examines the different treatment that struggling and accomplished readers receive, concluding with a cautionary tale. If we believe that a reading problem exists within the child, we may give our best efforts to address that problem (or problems). These efforts will be focused on matching instruction to the student’s indicated needs. But, what if the real obstacle is not a skill deficit but not enough time and opportunity to actually read meaningful text? What if we focus only on cognitive strategy and skill, while ignoring the student’s self-concept as a reader? How can children who are behind their peers ever catch up, when the instructional environment in our schools gives high achievers more opportunity to do real reading than low achievers.
Allington forces us to focus on the critical interactions of students, teachers, and curriculum, and finds that particular instructional practices, however well intentioned, may have the effect of widening the achievement gap. The struggling readers he observed received considerable amounts of reading instruction, but their opportunities to read intact texts, worthwhile stories, and meaningful writing were severely restricted.
For those of you who believe in the power of student affect, Allington documents the prevalence of skills instruction and corresponding lack of attention to student motivation and engagement. This anticipates the exciting research of the last decade, research that demonstrates that engagement and authentic reading are necessary for students’ ongoing success with reading. Membership in the low reading group can quickly depress students’ self-efficacy, sense of self as a reader, and the belief that one can succeed in reading.
Allington’s article from 3 decades ago deserves our attention today. Why read it? It challenges us to reflect on all manner of curriculum and instruction that is intended to foster students’ reading development. It may lead to an insight about instruction and the impact of different curriculum for our educational haves and have-nots. It will reaffirm your commitment to providing accessible and interesting books and remind you that affective growth is as important as cognitive growth. The article, in some senses, was ahead of its time. Give it a read and find out how current it is.
Reader response is welcomed. Email your comments to LRP@reading.org