Working with What Works: Effective Reading Interventions for Adolescents

Janice A. Dole, Naomi M. Watkins, Kerry A. Herman

Dr. Rudd has recently approached her English teachers, Martha, Jeff and Melissa, about literacy in their middle school. Dr. Rudd has been reading about the crisis in adolescent literacy and realizes that the school needs to add an intervention class for students who struggle with reading. Although the school has a special education teacher, currently there is no infrastructure set up in the building to help struggling readers who are not special education students. So Dr. Rudd and her English teachers decide to set up a class to assist the many struggling readers and writers who fall through the cracks.

Dr. Rudd feels that a strong literacy intervention must be in place as the foundation for the class. Martha, Jeff and Melissa agree, but where do they find such an intervention? All publishers claim that their materials are "research-based." All publishers claim their materials work.

Up until a few years ago, there was no place to find the most effective literacy interventions for adolescents. Recently this has changed. In 2002 the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) was set up by the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences ( The purpose of the website is "to be a central and trusted source of scientific evidence for what works in education" (U. S. Department of Education, 2013a, para. 2). The site has a special section on Adolescent Literacy that consists of reports, practice guides, and other publications based on rigorous external evaluations of the current research.

Recently the WWC completed the evaluation of 14 literacy interventions for adolescents according to the strength of the research base supporting them, resulting in intervention reports on all 14. (These reports are available at The WWC defines intervention reports as "a summary of findings of the highest quality research on a given program, practice or policy in education. The WWC searches for all research studies on an intervention, reviews each against evidence standards, and summarizes the findings of those that meet standards" (WWC, 2013b, glossary).

The WWC defines research studies as reports of a specific intervention on a specific sample of students, schools, or districts, along with a set of outcomes showing the results of that intervention. Studies must show that a specific intervention, such as a commercial supplementary reading program, actually causes literacy achievement to improve. In these studies participants are most often randomly assigned to experimental and control groups. These studies are considered the "gold standard," and they meet the WWC's strongest standard of evidence. Descriptions of qualitative research, such as an analysis of student samples of written work or a description of a particular instructional approach, are not included in these intervention reports. The research must show that an intervention is the cause of improvement in reading achievement.

The website reported that no studies meeting the WWC standards for evidence of effectiveness were found for two of the 14 interventions for struggling adolescent readers. Studies evaluating another three of the programs found mixed results or no discernable evidence for effectiveness. But there were seven programs for which the WWC found "evidence of positive or potentially positive effects." 

On its website the WWC reports only research results for the interventions. It does not report any rationale, description, characteristics, or cost of the interventions. So based on the WWC website, one knows nothing about the programs; one knows only about their effectiveness.

We report information here on program rationale and descriptions, characteristics, and approximate cost of the seven interventions for adolescents for which the WWC has found the best evidence of effectiveness. WWC defined interventions as "programs (such as whole school reform), products (such as a textbook or curriculum), practices (such as mixed-age grouping), or policies (such as class size reduction)" (U. S. Department of Education, 2013, Frequently Asked Questions, para. 1). Interventions are presented in alphabetical order to avoid implying that one program or practice is better than another. We also include a table summarizing each intervention. We hope this article assists administrators, literacy coaches, and teachers at the middle and secondary levels in making critical decisions about which programs, practices, and materials to use to assist teachers as they work to improve the literacy skills of their struggling adolescent readers.

Fast ForWord®

Program Description

A computer-based reading program, Fast ForWord® is designed to strengthen "memory, attention, processing rate, and sequencing" (Scientific Learning Product, 2013, para. 4), including reading comprehension, vocabulary, fluency, and memory. The program, intended for struggling students, includes both a Language and Literacy series and a Reading series, with the capability of adapting the difficulty of the content based on students' individual responses, thus ensuring that material and tasks are appropriately challenging. The Language and Literacy series focuses on improving the listening accuracy, phonological awareness, and knowledge of language structures of students who are two or more years below grade level. Exercises aim to increase the speed at which students can recognize changes in sounds and can identify and distinguish phonemes and syllables. The Reading series focuses on increasing processing efficiency and building reading skills. Exercises focus on developing skills in constructing and organizing fiction and nonfiction, teaching comprehension strategies, and building accuracy and fluency in spelling, decoding, and phonemic analysis (Scientific Learning Product, 2013, Support Existing Curriculum, para. 2). Both series include age-appropriate exercises, characters, and artwork.

Students may spend from 30-100 minutes a day, five days a week, for 4-16 weeks working through the program at their own pace, listening on head phones at a computer. Research examined by the WWC showed that this computer-based program produced favorable results in fluency and comprehension for adolescents (U. S. Department of Education, 2007).

Implementation & Cost

Scientific Learning, Inc. provides on-site consulting, web-based training, and professional development to schools and districts. The program also provides progress monitoring of individual students and groups of students. A single license for Fast ForWord for Language is $900. A discount for multiple licenses is available. However, a single license for Fast ForWord for Reading is $500 with no multiple discount option (U. S. Department of Education, 2007, Cost, para. 1). More information can be found at http:/

Project CRISS®

Program Description

"Helping teachers teach and students learn" is the motto for the professional development program for teachers known as CRISS® (Creating Independence through Student-owned Strategies) (Project CRISS, 2010). Designed for implementation in Grades 3-12, CRISS® is based on research findings from the areas of cognitive and social learning, as well as from brain research. Foundational concepts and beliefs central to Project CRISS® include (1) the importance of metacognition and the role that it plays in student learning, (2) the recognition of the student as being highly active and not passive during the reading process, and  (3) the significance of prior knowledge in text comprehension (U. S. Department of Education, 2010a). Students are taught a variety of comprehension strategies, such as questioning and summarizing, through the processes of teacher modeling and guided practice. The ultimate goals are two-fold: (1) students' independent and strategic application of strategies to enhance comprehension and (2) students' understanding and self-awareness of their own learning process.

Essentially the project advocates a change in overall teaching style, rather than a change in curriculum, as a means to improve reading, writing, and overall student learning. Therefore, CRISS® can be integrated into the existing curriculum, including content areas such as science and social studies, thus eliminating the need to purchase additional student materials. Positive effects have been shown for Project CRISS® for comprehension (U. S. Department of Education, 2010a).

Implementation and Cost

Two levels of professional development are available for those interested in the implementation of Project CRISS®. The cost for Level 1, which includes 12-24 hours of training and prepares teachers to implement the principles and strategies of CRISS® into their own classrooms, ranges from $50-$200 per participant. Level 2, which includes 28 hours of professional development and prepares experienced CRISS® teachers to become certified trainers, costs $250-$700 per participant (U. S. Department of Education, 2010a). Additional information can be found at

READ 180

Program Description

READ 180 is a comprehensive intensive reading intervention program designed to increase the abilities of struggling readers in elementary through high school. Instruction is aimed at improving students' decoding, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension, as well as writing. The cornerstone of the READ 180 program is implementation of a daily 90-minute instructional block based on an instructional model comprised of four segments. The block begins with a 20-minute whole-group teacher-directed lesson, followed by three 20-minute small-group rotations: one is teacher led, a second is technology based, and the third includes modeled and independent reading. Each block ends with a 10-minute whole-group discussion.         

Through the use of teacher-directed instruction, interactive instructional software, and independent reading, teachers are able to meet the individual needs of their students. Student progress reports, based on the results of built-in assessments, are generated through the READ 180 software component, thus allowing teachers to continuously adjust instruction based on student performance. Positive effects have been found for READ 180 in comprehension as well as general literacy achievement (U. S. Department of Education, 2009a).

Implementation and Cost

Scholastic will meet with school district representatives to develop a professional development plan tailored for the district needs. The cost of READ 180 depends on the level of implementation. For current pricing information, please contact Scholastic at

Reading Apprenticeship®

Program Description

Reading Apprenticeship®, an instructional approach used in content-area middle and high school classrooms, focuses on developing students' skills and knowledge to improve their engagement, fluency, and comprehension with content-area texts and materials. This approach emphasizes teachers as being expert discipline-based readers, placing them in the role of both model and guide for students. It aims to make reading processes and knowledge visible for students and teachers by involving both in "metacognitive conversations—conversations about the thinking processes students and teachers engage in as they read" (WestEd, Reading Apprenticeship Framework, para. 4).

The Reading Apprenticeship® framework also incorporates four interacting dimensions of the classroom that support reading: social, personal, cognitive, and knowledge building. These dimensions are woven throughout the conversations and extensive reading included in the approach. The approach also encourages teachers to develop classroom routines for building students' literacy skills in the content areas. Research examined by WWC showed that this instructional approach produced favorable results in comprehension for adolescents (U. S. Department of Education, 2010b).

Implementation & Cost

Due to the nature of this instructional approach, WestEd offers extensive and intensive professional development to districts and schools. The Leadership Institute in Reading Apprenticeship® is a two-part, eight-day training workshop. The cost of Reading Apprenticeship® depends on the length of the training, but ranges from $15,000 for two days of training for up to 40 people to $50,000 for seven days of training. Additional information can be found at

Reading Mastery

Program Description

Published by SRA/McGraw-Hill, Reading Mastery is a direct instruction reading program designed to meet the needs of students up through Grade 6. Originally published under the name DISTAR (Direct Instruction System for Teaching Arithmetic and Reading), the Reading Mastery program can be used in several instructional capacities. Based on the results of program assessments, students are grouped by reading level. Lessons are scripted and designed to be fast paced and interactive, with the duration of a typical lesson being between 30 and 45 minutes. Instruction is delivered in a systematic and explicit fashion, incorporating the use of teacher modeling and guided practice followed by individual practice. Early lessons focus on letter recognition and letter-sound correspondence and then progress to word reading, including lessons for blending and segmenting. Later lessons focus on the development of fluency and vocabulary, as well as comprehension.

Also included in the Reading Mastery program is a continuous monitoring component. Potentially positive effects were found for Reading Mastery in the area of fluency (U. S. Department of Education, 2006).

Implementation and Cost

SRA/McGraw-Hill offers a variety of consultant-led professional development opportunities. In addition, supplemental training materials such as CDs and videos are available. The cost of student materials associated with the implementation of Reading Mastery ranges from $200-$300 per student and includes textbooks, workbooks, and test books. At the onset of implementation a one-time purchase for a full set of teaching materials is required. The cost range for these materials is $650-$1,000 per grade level. Additional costs related to professional development may be incurred. Prices regarding additional costs may be found at the company's website:

Reading Plus®

Program Description

The goal of Reading Plus® is to provide individualized silent reading practice to students from third grade through college. This computer-based program is designed to improve students' silent reading fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary. Students take two assessments prior to beginning their individualized program. Once they are assessed, each 45-minute session includes a warm-up, silent reading, and activities that focus on visual and perceptive skill building, vocabulary and contextual analysis, and comprehension skill building through explicit instruction. The silent reading portion of the lesson is structured to provide students with modeling and guidance. The program adjusts the level of difficulty based on students' needs and tracks 25 comprehension strategies. Research examined by the WWC showed that this computer-based program produced favorable results in comprehension for adolescents (U. S. Department of Education, 2010c).

Implementation & Cost

Taylor Associates provides implementation support, differentiated activities, assessments, progress-monitoring tools, and supplemental offline activities that can be used in the classroom. Teachers are also provided with guidelines for small and whole group instruction based on students' progress with the program. The price of the program is based on the number of participating students, ranging from $15-30 a student. Additional information can be found at


Program Description

This computer-based supplemental reading instruction program for students in K-8 provides tailored instruction at students' various levels in the areas of phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, and print concepts. Pearson Education provides two programs of courses: (1) Foundations, which seeks to help students develop and maintain reading skills, and (2) Exploreware, which provides open-ended instruction and develops analytical skills. Students begin with an initial placement assessment, which identifies their starting point in the program; then they work at their own pace. The program addresses multiple learning modalities and thus uses many game-like formats to engage students. Additionally, the program utilizes middle-school-aged "hosts" to provide short instructional segments and has students select an avatar to act as a peer-coach.

The program analyzes students' skill development and assigns them specifics of the program based on their individual needs, periodically checking students' mastery of previously taught material. Research examined by the WWC showed that this computer-based program produced favorable results in comprehension and general literacy for adolescents (U. S. Department of Education, 2009b).

Implementation & Cost

Pearson Education provides multiple professional development options to help teachers implement SuccessMaker® in the classroom, including on-site, on-demand, and virtual instruction. Progress monitoring is also included in the program. The price of the program varies depending on the level of implementation. More information can be found at


A successful literacy intervention program begins and ends with excellent teachers and high quality literacy instruction. No program or professional development approach can take the place of high quality literacy teachers. However, excellent literacy teachers need support and assistance planning, implementing, and evaluating their intervention. We hope that this article can help adolescent literacy teachers select and use the most effective programs on the market. To do otherwise is to do a disservice to teachers as well as students.

Janice Dole is a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology, and the Director of the Utah Center for Reading and Literacy at the University of Utah. Jan is the President of the Utah Council of the International Reading Association.

Naomi M. Watkins teaches literacy pedagogy courses in the Department of Teacher Education in the Los Angeles area at the University of La Verne.

Kerry A. Herman is a graduate student and a graduate teaching assistant in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Utah.


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