The Best-Kept Secret is the Teacher
By Richard L. Allington, Ph.D.
In a world of high stakes testing, educators can feel overwhelmed by demands that they produce impressive results. Preparing for the test, too often, becomes the objective rather than delivering high quality, child-focused instruction. Contrary to popular practice, test preparation activities are a terrible way to attempt to raise reading achievement test scores (Guthrie, 2002). It is, in fact, effective teaching that will most reliably lead to better scores.
We do know, however, that test prep products can be profitable. Workbooks and other pre-packaged products sold to deliver student achievement gains have become quite popular. Glovin and Evans (2006) report that testing activities generated 37.7% of test publishers’ profits, while test prep materials generated 63.3% of their profits! So test prep is big business, but that business is profit generation, not improving test scores. Schools seem generally misguided in the belief that generous time allocated to test preparation will somehow improve test scores.
What we know, or should know, however, is that there exists not a single study demonstrating such gains. In fact, it seems that when teachers have spent more than 2 or 3 hours in a year working on test prep, students’ scores improved less than if the time had been spent on quality instruction, instead.
In the 2 or 3 hours of test prep that might be defended, the focus should be on familiarizing students with the test and answer sheet formats, introduction of a strategy that has students checking, at least once every page to ensure they just filled in the bubble associated with the right question, and perhaps, a few other test taking strategies, especially on timed tests. Such strategies include skipping over items that you don’t get right away and returning to them if there is time available. But teaching this without teaching a strategy for ensuring students also skip over the corresponding bubble can be disastrous-- both when the student attempts to go back and answer the skipped item and when the test is scored by a computer.
Of course the best way to improve reading achievement is with high quality reading lessons. High-quality lessons are never one-size-fits-all lessons. Nor are they lessons where everyone reads the same text and completes the same low-level worksheet or workbook page. In fact, high-quality reading lessons rarely feature worksheets at all.
Recently, we learned that the effectiveness of the teacher was 2 to 3 times more important than class size in determining who earned high reading achievement scores (Nye, Konstantopoulos & Hedges, 2004). In other words, while both state and local school districts have worked to reduce class size the Nye, et al, study found a far better investment would have been to allocate all the money spent on class size reduction to professional development to improve how teachers deliver reading instruction.
Similarly, Scanlon and her colleagues (2010) found that providing K-1 classroom teachers with powerful professional development to better assist their struggling readers was more successful at helping those readers improve than was providing expert tutorial support for struggling readers! This is similar to what McGill-Franzen and her colleagues (1999) reported more than a decade ago. Yet, in the last decade we have seen an enormous expansion of time and funds allocated for test preparation but a decrease in the dollars spent on professional development.
We’ve seen the research that shows us clearly how effective instruction looks. I have referenced in earlier articles an emphasis on the six Ts as an excellent starting point. Studies show that effective teachers utilize:
1) Time- in such a way that students spend significantly more time actually reading and writing in ways that employ their full thought processes, rather than filling out worksheets, copying definitions or completing test prep workbooks.
2) Text- leveled and differentiated, so that students are reading at a level that is successful for them most of the time, rather than having all students in the same text.
3) Teaching- so that they actively instruct learners by modeling reading strategies, rather than just assigning and assessing what students do.
4) Talk- that is more conversational and questions that are more open-ended, to elicit higher-order thinking and student engagement, rather than questions with a single, correct answer.
5) Tasks- that have students reading large amounts, even whole books, and writing projects that might encompass multiple days, rather than quick assignments with little student choice, since choice is conducive to student motivation and achievement.
6) Testing- that rewards effort and improvement of individual students, rather than emphasizing achievement compared with classmates.
These practices are consistent with higher student test scores; in the same studies, less effective teachers tended to rely on test prep and to net lower student test results (Allington, 2002).
Maybe it seems just too simple to think that teacher instructional quality is the lever for raising student reading achievement. Maybe it’s is just too difficult for school administrators to create professional development plans that foster increased teacher expertise in teaching reading. Perhaps the sales reps that parlay test preparation materials on schools are just too convincing. Perhaps too few school folks have any idea what the research actually says. My hunch is that it is all of these factors plus the longstanding hope for some “quick fix” to the struggling reader problems.
There is no quick fix, as the What Works Clearinghouse (WhatWorks.ed.gov) has so amply demonstrated. They note that only one of the 153 reading programs on which they examined the research had any evidence it improved reading achievement. One. That program was Reading Recovery and what makes Reading Recovery different from the other 152 reading programs is that it is primarily a year-long, targeted professional development program for fostering teacher expertise in teaching reading to struggling first grade students.
In the end schools will have to choose how they plan to raise student reading levels. But if what I’ve observed over the past decade is any indication, then most schools will still have struggling readers in 2021, a decade from now because school folks continue to spend substantial amounts of money mostly on approaches that have never been demonstrated to improve test scores. However, in the current accountability climate it will become clearer that it is largely teachers who create children identified as having a learning disability and only more expert teachers who can alter that outcome (Allington, 2012).
Allington, R. (2002). What I’ve Learned About Effective Reading Instruction. Phi Delta Kappa, June 2002, 740-747.
Allington, R. L. (2012). What really matters for struggling readers: Designing research-based programs. (3rd ed.). Boston: Pearson-Allyn-Bacon.
Glovin, D., & Evans, D. (2006). How test companies fail your kids. Bloomberg Markets (December), 127-138.
Guthrie, J. T. (2002). Preparing students for high-stakes test taking in reading. In A. Farstrup & S. J. Samuels (Eds.), What research has to say about reading instruction. (pp. 370-391). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
McGill-Franzen, A., Allington, R. L., Yokoi, L., & Brooks, G. (1999). Putting books in the classroom seems necessary but not sufficient. Journal of Educational Research, 93(2), 67-74.
Nye, B., Konstantopoulos, S., & Hedges, L. V. (2004). How large are teacher effects? Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 26(3), 237-257.
Scanlon, D. M., Gelzheiser, L. M., R, V. F., Schatschneider, C., & Sweeney, J. M. (2010). Reducing the incidence of early reading difficulties: Professional development for classroom teachers versus direct interventions for children. In P. H. Johnston (Ed.), RTI in literacy - Responsive and comprehensive. NEWARK, DE: International Reading Association.
Dr. Richard Allington is a professor of education at the University of Tennessee. He is a past president of the International Reading Association and of the National Reading Conference. He has written extensively on best practices in reading instruction, including What Really Matters for Struggling Readers, What Really Matters in Response to Intervention and Classrooms that Work: They Can All Read and Write. Dr. Allington is an inductee of the IRA’s Reading Hall of Fame, one of the highest honors in the field of literacy.
To explore Dr. Allington’s published work, click here:
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