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October 1, 2007
Vol. 65
No. 2

Delivering What Urban Readers Need

How should teachers meaningfully respond to students who start school lacking foundational skills? With early, explicit, and culturally sensitive teaching of reading basics.

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Akeem, a 6-year-old African American student, sat in a time-out in his kindergarten classroom while the rest of his classmates listened to the teacher read a book aloud. Moments before, as the class engaged in its daily ritual to reinforce basic literacy skills, Akeem had balked. He refused to say the names and sounds of letters and, instead, started a fight with the student sitting next to him.
Time-out during reading group was nothing new to Akeem or several of his classmates—and is a scenario familiar to many other urban students who read below grade level. Frustrated with their repeated failure, they act out. Yet, sadly, the kind of classroom management used in Akeem's classroom—all too common in urban schools—separates low-performing students from the literacy instruction they need. What kind of instruction and classroom strategies do students like Akeem need to avoid the vicious cycle of repeated failure?

An Acute Problem

Reading difficulty is particularly acute in schools serving students from minority and economically disadvantaged households. Learners from low-income families or minority backgrounds are less likely to speak standard English (Talbert-Johnson, 2004), and many enter kindergarten without the preliteracy experiences and oral language skills needed for early classroom learning (National Center for Education Statistics, 2001). More than 50 percent of urban learners are substantially deficient in reading; for urban African American and Hispanic learners, the rates approach 70 percent (Bursuck & Damer, 2007).
The importance of identifying urban learners who are at risk for reading problems early cannot be overstated. Reading is a survival skill, and the failure to read during the elementary school years reduces a person's chances of success in school and life.
Educators often emphasize creating “literacy-rich” environments in which children learn to read as a result of being exposed to and enjoying the written word. The problem for underperforming readers is that these indirect approaches are predicated on a set of readiness skills that most of these students lack.
We agree with Bursuck and Damer (2007) that specialized interventions should begin early and should include direct instruction in prereading skills. To prevent long-term reading failure among students who come to school already behind in basic skills and experiences, teachers should include these three characteristics in their classroom design: (1) early identification of children at risk of reading failure; (2) explicit, intensive, and systematic instruction on core prereading and reading skills; and (3) continued support beyond initial instruction. In our research, we have seen that teachers who center their literacy teaching on these three elements bring about successful reading experiences for struggling urban children.

Strategies for Urban Readers

We have found that the following strategies enable teachers to intervene early in ways that reach urban students with reading problems: balanced reading instruction; early identification of at-risk learners; supplemental instruction through 2nd grade; active student responding; small-group instruction; regular monitoring of reading achievement; peer-mediated activities; positive, nonexclusionary classroom management practices; and parental involvement. All these strategies can, and should, be applied in culturally responsive ways. Some would argue that these are simply examples of good teaching. We contend that culturally responsive instruction is good teaching, but these strategies are too often absent from the classrooms of culturally and linguistically diverse urban learners who need them most.

Provide Balanced Reading Instruction

In observing teachers and urban learners, we have formed some opinions about what makes good reading instruction for most urban students. The debate over the right way to teach reading has been the source of intense battles: Proponents of phonics-centered programs emphasize the importance of explicit, systematic instruction in learning to read, whereas whole-language proponents believe that reading is a context-driven process. We agree with findings from the National Reading Panel (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000) that teachers should adopt a “balanced” reading approach, with instruction in phonemic awareness, alphabetic understanding, and automaticity with the code forming the framework of beginning reading instruction.
Good reading instruction is explicit, intensive, and systematic. Such instruction is beneficial for all learners, but it is nonnegotiable for students at risk for reading failure. Byexplicit instruction we mean teaching specific reading skills that help students acquire the knowledge to decode print—skills that low-income urban learners don't always acquire through incidental learning. Intensive instruction gives students more learning opportunities through increased repetition of previously learned skills. Good intensive instruction techniques, such as active student responding (Heward, 2006), are not meaningless drills that “kill” learning, but carefully planned activities that elicit responding until a student masters the skill. By systematic instruction we mean the sequencing of instruction so that each skill builds on the one previously taught. Students need to become skilled in decoding, word knowledge, oral reading, and comprehension to become proficient readers, and these skills should be taught logically and systematically.

Identify Those At Risk

To be culturally responsive—to respond compassionately—urban educators need to be keenly aware of the fact that many low-income children enter school already behind their more affluent peers. Teachers must embrace their responsibility to help students acquire a solid foundation for school success, recognizing that there is a relatively brief window of opportunity to do so. Ideally, students with risk markers for reading deficiency would be identified and provided quality interventions in preschool. Many large school systems are beginning to recognize this fact and are offering preschool programs. All teachers, however, especially primary grade teachers, should provide intensive interventions to students who clearly need them, at least through 2nd grade.
Teachers in urban elementary schools should conduct skill-specific assessments to gauge students' skill levels in phonemic awareness and letter knowledge, variables considered important in identifying the risk of reading failure. Assessment measures such as the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Literacy Skills (Good & Kaminski, 2002) and the Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing (Wagner, Torgesen, & Rashotte, 1999) can screen for students who need more intensive instruction in basic literacy skills.
In our studies (Musti-Rao & Cartledge, in press), we assessed students in an urban early elementary classroom for reading risk markers. We found that a sizable part of the class had risk markers. We provided supplemental instruction over three years to students who showed reading risks in kindergarten, using the Early Reading Intervention program, a scripted curriculum that gives intensive, systematic instruction in phonemic awareness (Simmons & Kame'enui, 2003). When we assessed students at the end of the second year of the study, 40 percent of students who had been identified as at-risk readers (and received supplemental help) were now reading at an age-appropriate level; students who received this intervention in other years of our study showed similar gains. Whereas 28 percent of readers who did not receive supplemental help had regressed in reading skills by the end of the school year, only 7 percent of the early-identified at-risk readers had regressed.

Provide Supplemental Instruction

Clearly, early identification must be accompanied by supplemental instruction if students at risk for reading failure are to succeed. Evidence-based, supplementary reading programs that emphasize phonemic awareness and alphabetic principles must be part of every urban school reading curriculum from kindergarten through 2nd grade. School systems would be wise to invest in research-validated commercial curriculums. An emphasis on supplemental basic instruction should not rule out teaching with good literature and teaching for comprehension and higher-order thinking skills. Rather, through intensive basic instruction, struggling readers will develop the underlying skills that enable them to perform at these higher levels.
Supporting urban learners also requires that teachers adopt culturally responsive curriculums that go beyond describing superficial differences among cultures (Garcia & Ortiz, 2006). Teachers need to connect instruction as much as possible with each student's culture, ethnicity, and personal experience. One highly recommended way to do so in reading programs is through multicultural literature. Students should read many books that reflect their own culture as well as others' cultures. Urban learners who are immersed in literature that explicitly connects to the experiences of urban and ethnic communities display greater interest in reading and higher achievement.

Encourage Active Student Responding

Research shows a positive relationship between students' active engagement with learning tasks and their academic achievement. Active student response refers to any observable response students make during a lesson. A wide variety of instructional practices—for example, having students orally produce letter sounds after a teacher has modeled those sounds—can qualify as rich in active student responding. If designed well, active student responding can also be culturally responsive. A. Wade Boykin asserts that activities that incorporate movement and what he callsverve (the tendency to engage in more than one action simultaneously) create particularly effective learning environments for African American students (Boykin, Tyler, Watkins-Lewis, & Kizzie, 2006). Lambert, Cartledge, Lo, and Heward (2006) found high levels of academic responding and lower levels of disruptive behavior in urban learners when students held up response cards to display their answers. Peer tutoring is another focused teaching activity that is high in student response. Choral responding activities can be especially effective in learning letters, sounds, words, and reading connected text.

Teach Within Small Groups

Even with a strong core curriculum, some urban readers will not respond to whole-group instruction and will need additional reading instruction. By teaching students within small groups, educators can provide instruction differentiated according to students' abilities. Teachers should group urban students in their classes by their level of skill in reading or prereading tasks. Instruction in small groups—in addition to regular classroom instruction—provides opportunities for increased academic responding and student engagement. Teachers can vary the intensity of support depending on which reading skills—if any—need strengthening. Such specialized instruction should be reserved for students with reading deficits.
We recommend that schools prepare teacher assistants to help students in small groups strengthen their reading skills. Using assistants in this capacity frees up the classroom teacher to work with other students. In our three-year study of urban elementary students (Musti-Rao & Cartledge, in press), we had instructional assistants and graduate students teach phonemic and phonological skills to kindergarten and 1st grade students. Students received small-group instruction three to five times each week for 20 to 30 minutes for four and one-half months (or seven months in the study's third year, in which only students still reading below grade level received the instruction).
Instructional assistants participated in formal training sessions lasting between two and six hours and using training materials provided by the Early Reading Intervention program. In the sessions, we modeled lessons and coached assistants through practice lessons. The assistants delivered high-quality instruction, and students who received this small-group instruction performed significantly higher on reading assessments than students in the control group.

Monitor Student Learning

To teach effectively, we must continually monitor student learning and skill maintenance. Teachers should not only require students to respond frequently during instruction, but also make regular probes to determine how well each reader is progressing. We recommend that teachers develop schedules to assess students regularly. Low-performing students should be assessed weekly, and high-performing readers, monthly. If the teacher observes little or no progress after several weeks, he or she should change the instructional strategy.

Create Peer-Mediated Learning Environments

With one-half of urban students reading below grade level, providing individual tutoring for such students is a logistical challenge. Through peer-mediated instruction, schools can meet this challenge and also provide communal learning arrangements, which some research indicates benefit learners from culturally diverse backgrounds (Boykin, Tyler, Watkins-Lewis, Kizzie, 2006). Peer tutoring is a research-based strategy in which students are trained to deliver instruction to one another. Students can facilitate classmates' development of reading skills through practicing key activities in dyads or small groups. In such environments, students learn to be responsible not only for their own learning, but also for the learning of their peers. Peer-mediated learning activities give students more opportunities to engage with the target reading skills or materials, opportunities they may not often have at home. Moreover, peer tutoring is an enjoyable activity that helps students be more on task and less disruptive in class.
For example, a teacher might pair students to practice letter names and letter sounds for 25 minutes, three days a week. When struggling readers are provided with three layers of instruction—whole-group reading instruction, supplementary small-group reading instruction, and peer tutoring—they more quickly master the basics and move on to blending sounds and reading simple consonant-vowel-consonant words. Al-Hassan (2006) provides a step-by-step guide for implementing peer tutoring in the classroom.

Practice Nonexclusionary Classroom Management

Classroom management practices common in urban schools unintentionally separate failing urban readers from instruction they desperately need. Low-income and culturally diverse learners, especially males, disproportionately experience suspensions and expulsions from the classroom (Skiba, Michael, Nardo, & Peterson, 2002). Thus, students who need explicit reading help often end up with fewer learning opportunities; their learning and behavior problems often worsen in tandem.
Teachers need to identify motivators that will make students want to stay in the classroom and learn rather than disrupt class to avoid engaging in learning activities. Instructional activities should be active and should reflect the learner's skill level, interests, and background. For example, a low-performing student might be assigned to work with a peer or the teacher assistant using a computer program on letter-sound correspondence. As students progress and become more confident, they will participate in class more and act out less.

Help Parents Reinforce Learning

Parents are key to reinforcing children's learning. But some low-income parents or parents of English language learners do not know how to help their children learn specific academic skills. We suggest that teachers evaluate how the parents of each student are involved in their child's education. This will help teachers set realistic goals to increase parent involvement.
We should be prepared to provide parents with explicit directions on how to reinforce their children's reading development. For example, when a student is identified as needing intensive instruction, the teacher might meet with that student's parents to explain the exact skills the instructor plans to teach, how he or she will teach them, and what materials will come home for review. Teachers can show parents how to use home-based practice materials with their child and provide a log book to document the work done at home. Such collaboration sends a message to each student that parents and teachers are working together to foster learning.

Offering Learners Their Best Chance

Students like Akeem are plentiful in urban schools. Teachers can often clearly detail the reading deficiencies of these students, but they remain at a loss to identify appropriate interventions. To be culturally responsive to urban students at risk for reading failure means to provide intervention services as early as possible, target key skills that will lead students to solidly master reading basics, and provide instruction that is intense enough for learners to make genuine gains and take pride in those gains.
The classroom should be a positive place for students—and with the right reading interventions, it can be. Many students will continue to need specialized instruction beyond our best efforts in the early grades. But when resourceful teachers respond early with the kinds of strategies outlined here, we offer struggling urban readers their best chance.

Al-Hassan, S. (2006). Academic proficiency through peer tutoring. In G. Cartledge & Y. Lo (Eds.), Teaching urban learners: Culturally responsive strategies for developing academic and behavioral competence(pp. 63–79). Champaign, IL: Research Press.

Boykin, A. W., Tyler, K. M., Watkins-Lewis, K., & Kizzie, K. (2006). Culture in the sanctioned classroom practices of elementary school teachers serving low-income African American students. Journal of Education for Students Placed At Risk, 11, 161–173.

Bursuck, W. D., & Damer, M. (2007).Reading instruction for students who are at risk or have disabilities. Boston: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon.

Garcia, S. B., & Ortiz, A. A. (2006). Preventing disproportionate representations: Culturally and linguistically responsive prereferral interventions. Teaching Exceptional Children, 38(4), 64–68.

Good, R. H., & Kaminski, R. A. (Eds.). (2002). Dynamic indicators of basic early literacy skills (6th ed.). Eugene, OR: Institute for Development of Educational Achievement.

Heward, W. L. (2006). Exceptional children: An introduction to special education (8th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Lambert, M. C., Cartledge, G., Lo, Y., & Heward, W. L. (2006). Effects of response cards on disruptive behavior and academic responding during math lessons by fourth-grade students in an urban school. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 8, 88–99.

Musti-Rao, S., & Cartledge, G. (in press). Effects of a supplemental early reading intervention with at-risk urban learners.Topics in Early Childhood Special Education.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2001). The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Washington, DC: Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Available:

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read (NIH Publication No. 00-4769). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Simmons, D. C., & Kame'enui, E. J. (2003).Scott Foresman Early Reading Intervention. Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman.

Skiba, R. J., Michael, R. S., Nardo, A. C., & Peterson, R. (2002). The color of discipline: Sources of racial and gender disproportionality in school punishment.The Urban Review, 34(4), 317–342.

Talbert-Johnson, C. (2004). Structural inequities and the achievement gap in urban schools. Education and Urban Society, 37(1), 22–36.

Wagner, R. K., Torgesen, J. K., & Rashotte, C. A. (1999). CTOPP: Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing. Austin, TX: ProEd.

End Notes

1 See for more information on the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Literacy Skills.

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