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March 1, 2004
Vol. 61
No. 6

Continuing the Discussion / Reply to Lyon and Colleagues

  • too many children do not have access to reading instruction of sufficient quality and intensity, and
  • good evidence indicates that when those children are provided with more and better reading instruction, their achievement improves.
  • what constitutes “average reading levels,” and
  • the impact of tutoring versus group interventions.
I'll focus on the issues of disagreement here.
Average reading level. I contend that most people—including Presidents, legislators, journalists, school board members, and parents—interpret “average reading level” as something akin to achieving grade-level proficiency. I selected the 45th percentile as representing such proficiency, considering the error variance in achievement tests. Dr. Lyon and his colleagues define it psychometrically, as achieving at or above the 25th percentile. In neither of the two “best case” National Institute of Child Health and Human Development studies that I discuss in the article did half of the students achieve at or above the 45th percentile. The same is true in the more recent studies offered in Lyon and colleagues' response.
Performing at the 27th percentile on a state reading proficiency test, a performance that Dr. Lyon and colleagues have labeled “average reading achievement,” puts a student at substantial risk of being retained, sent to summer school, or being referred to the special education committee for identification as a student with disabilities.
I used the 45th percentile as my measure of “average” because that performance puts students close to grade level. It also makes them unlikely candidates for retention, summer school, or special education referral. Such students can read grade-level books and benefit from grade-level instruction.
Expert tutoring. As for tutoring, recent and more rigorous reanalyses of the National Reading Panel database conducted by members of that panel (Ehri, Nunes, Stahl, & Willows, 2001) and by an independent research team (Camilli, Vargas, & Yurecko, 2003) both report effect sizes for tutoring that are substantially larger than either small-group or whole-class systematic phonics instruction. These findings are consistent with a large body of evidence on the advantages of expert, intensive tutoring for accelerating reading development (for example, Morris, Tyner, & Perney, 2000; Pinnell, Lyons, Deford, Bryk, & Seltzer, 1994; Shanahan, 1998; Wasik & Slavin, 1993). Even the Institute of Education Sciences (2003) has named tutoring as an intervention with “gold standard” research evidence.
Instructional reforms that help students improve their reading from the 13th percentile to the 25th or 34th percentile are surely essential and obviously worthwhile. But such interventions fall short of the more difficult challenge of helping students achieve grade-level standards and ensuring that they are not left behind. The goal of all students reading on grade level will only be achieved with an expansion of expert tutoring, which has repeatedly been shown to be the most effective intervention. But that will require much more funding than anyone has imagined.

Camilli, G., Vargas, S., & Yurecko, M. (2003). Teaching children to read: The fragile link between science and federal education policy. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 11(15). Available:

Ehri, L. C., Nunes, S. R., Stahl, S. A., & Willows, D. (2001). Systematic phonics instruction helps students learn to read: Evidence from the National Reading Panel's meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 71(3), 393–447.

Institute of Education Sciences. (2003). Identifying and implementing educational practices supported by rigorous evidence. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. Available:

Morris, D., Tyner, B., & Perney, J. (2000). Early steps: Replicating the effects of a first-grade reading intervention program. Journal of Educational Psychology, 92(4), 681–693.

Pinnell, G. S., Lyons, C. A., Deford, D. E., Bryk, A. S., & Seltzer, M. (1994). Comparing instructional models for the literacy education of high-risk first graders. Reading Research Quarterly, 29(1), 8–39.

Shanahan, T. (1998). On the effectiveness and limitations of tutoring. In P. D. Pearson & A. Iran-Nejad (Eds.), Review of research in education (Vol. 23, pp. 217–234). Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.

Wasik, B. A., & Slavin, R. E. (1993). Preventing early reading failure with one-to-one tutoring: A review of five programs. Reading Research Quarterly, 28(2), 178–200.

Richard L. Allington has contributed educational leadership.

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