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Volume 41, No. 2, December 2004

An Interview with Joe Torgesen: Reading Instruction with Sense and Sensibility
Nile Stanley

Joseph Torgesen is a Distinguished Research Professor of Psychology and Education at Florida State University. Dr. Torgesen is nationally known for research on both the prevention and remediation of reading difficulties in young children as well as work on assessment of phonological awareness and reading. As Director of the Florida Center for Reading Research http://www.fcrr.org/ he helps to provide leadership to the Reading First initiative in Florida. He is the author of numerous articles, book chapters, books, and tests related to reading and learning disabilities. He serves on six professional editorial boards and has received numerous awards including the Samuel A. Kirk Award for exemplary research publications from the Division of Learning Disabilities of the Council for Exceptional Children. For the last 15 years, he has been part of the effort supported by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to learn more about the nature of reading disabilities and ways to prevent and remediate reading problems in children. For example, Torgesens co-authored book with P. Mathes, A Basic Guide to Understanding, Assessing, and Teaching Phonological Awareness, published in 2000 by PRO-ED publishers, has been very influential upon early reading assessment and instructional practices.

"Respect for our profession will only increase as we become more effective in dealing with the instructional needs of all students. We [Reading First] are simply asking teachers to follow instructional protocols that have a basis in scientific evidence about reading growth and reading instruction." Joe Torgesen

Stanley:  At the Tampa Reads site you are quoted as saying When teaching a bright child how to read, it doesnt really matter which reading approach to use.  However, if you are trying to teach children with below average reading skills, you must teach using explicit phonics instruction if significant progress is ever going to be made.  This means that we need to teach the sounds of words and letters first period. ( ) 

Isnt recommending all struggling readers receive phonics instruction a one size fits all approach? Shouldnt instruction depend on diagnosing the childs individual needs? Isnt there a danger in too much phonics instruction?

Torgesen: If I were allowed to rephrase the quote attributed to me at the Tampa Reads site, I would prefer something like this, Children who enter school with strong abilities and good preparation in the areas required for learning to read can learn to read well in classrooms that use a relatively broad variety of instructional approaches. However, children who enter school less well prepared for learning to read, or who have various kinds of learning difficulties, need instructional approaches that are more explicit and systematic.  These children may need explicit and systematic instruction in a variety of areas, including phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension strategies. 

I did not mean to single out phonics as the only area in need of explicit instruction for many children, and I agree completely that instruction needs to be responsively adapted to the needs of individual students. In point of fact, there are many students in Florida who enter school either poorly prepared by their preschool language experience, or with disabilities in the phonological language domain, that will require some period of explicit and careful instruction in phonics in order to become accurate and fluent readers by third grade.

By the same token, what we have learned about the development of vocabulary (knowledge of the meanings of words) in young children suggests that there will be many other children who require careful and systematic instruction in vocabulary knowledge before they will be able to proficiently comprehend the complex text they will encounter on the FCAT in third grade. The approach we are advocating is straightforward: students who struggle to acquire critical early reading skills profit most from instruction that is direct, systematic, and carefully tailored to their needs.

With children who enter school at risk for reading difficulties, we cannot make assumptions about what they already know, nor can we assume that they will be able to figure out our complex alphabetic writing system on their own. We must carefully teach them everything they need to know to become good readers, and that requires systematic and explicit instruction, lots of carefully engineered and monitored practice, and the opportunity to apply their gradually emerging reading skills to meaningful and motivating reading and writing experiences.

Stanley:  In a recent interview for FRQ, Jonathon Kozol, author of Savage Inequalities, said that the debate about phonics instruction is really a political tactic he called the gifted evasion of the central point. Kozol said that politicians often like to change the subject to what reading methods to use instead of solving the real issue of providing equal education access for poor children. How do you respond to his comments and his body of work?

Torgesen:  Kozol has clearly sensitized his readers to the inequalities of the educational system that are attributable to poverty and cultural differences. I think this is a valuable contribution, and it is the responsibility of all educators and politicians to work toward correcting those inequalities. However, I dont agree that a discussion of reading methods for poor and/or minority students is misdirected simply because it does not encompass a full discussion of all the reasons why poor and minority students often to not achieve proficiency in reading. Use of improper instructional methods can be one of the reasons why students do not achieve reading proficiency, but it is almost never the only reason. However, this does not mean that it is not productive to focus on improved instructional methods as one of the ways to improve the performance of poor and minority students in reading.

We have clearly learned a great deal in the last 20 years about how children learn to read, what makes learning to read difficult for many students, and how to teach students who struggle in learning to read, and we have a responsibility to see that our new knowledge in these areas is applied for the benefit of all students. It seems to me that we have a particular responsibility to do all we can to increase the quality of instruction provided to our poor and minority students who frequently come to school with delayed development in the oral language and print related skills and knowledge that are so critical to early reading success.

Its important to understand that I would not limit our discussion of quality in early reading instruction to the contrast between explicit and systematic instruction vs. instruction that is not as direct or explicit (or that leaves more for the student to figure out on his/her own), but would also hope that we can improve the motivational and affective aspects of the classrooms within which we work. Effective teachers are highly motivational in their interactions with students, and teachers that are not as effective at engaging students interest and motivation for reading or learning to read typically are not as successful as they might otherwise be. And, this will be particularly true for students who find reading difficult because they have to work harder at learning to read than do other students.

Stanley: The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and Reading First Initiative (RFI) are government sponsored initiatives to hold states, school districts, and teachers accountable for the information that students learn. What have been NCLBs and RFIs positive and negative effects upon reading instruction and achievement? What still needs to be done?

Torgesen: First, it is important to note that the Reading First Initiative involves much, much more than holding states, school districts, and teachers accountable for how well students learn. In Florida, for example, the RFI has provided and will continue to provide an enormous amount of professional development for teachers, principals, and reading coaches. It has placed a reading coach in every Reading First school whose main responsibility is helping teachers acquire and implement increasingly effective instructional skills. It has also trained thousands of individuals in Reading First districts to administer valid and reliable screening and progress monitoring tests that can be used to guide instruction and focus intensive interventions where they are most needed. It has also provided a data management system (The Florida Progress Monitoring and Reporting Network) (FPMRN) that puts timely and informative reports about student progress in reading in the hands of teachers, principals, coaches, and district staff. Through Reading First in Florida, districts and schools also have available objective reports developed at the Florida Center for Reading Research that describe the quality, as well as the research support for, many of the reading programs and intervention materials that publishers are selling to Floridas schools.

Its also very important to understand that Reading First is a six-year project, and that last year was the first year of implementation of the initiative in Florida. One of the smart things about Reading First is that it is a six year project, reflecting what we know about the difficulties involved in producing real and lasting educational improvements that effect large numbers of students in many classrooms. Although we are just entering our second year of implementation we are very impressed with what has been accomplished so far.

A survey last year of all the Reading First principals in Florida indicated that most of them felt that the professional development provided thus far had been helpful to their teachers, and they also expressed appreciation for the new level of information about student progress in reading that was being provided through the Reading First assessment plan and the FPMRN. Further, most indicated that they appreciated having a new, comprehensive core reading program in their school to serve as a scaffold and support to their teachers in helping them deliver the kind of instruction their students needed. It is interesting to note that, although principals expressed appreciation for the amount of data they now had available about the progress of individual students, they also expressed concern about the amount of time required to administer the assessments involved. The state has worked this summer to provide some streamlining to the assessment requirements for Reading First schools, and we hope that they will be easier for schools to manage in the coming year.

I dont think that Reading First has had any systematically negative effects on the quality of instruction provided in Reading First schools; although that does not mean that everything is as it should be in these schools. There is still an enormous amount of work to do in helping principals understand and manage their complex role as instructional leaders, and we have a ways to go in understanding and effectively implementing the challenging role of reading coach. Further, we know that not all teachers in these schools have the skills they need to provide effective classroom instruction, and we are working on ways to help schools develop and manage more intensive and effective interventions for their students who struggle the most.

Stanley: Richard Allington, author of Big Brother and the national reading curriculum: How ideology triumphed evidence (2002) and others have been critical of evidence-based instruction. Is the growing fear of some educators warranted that reading mandates are ineffective, too political, and economically driven? Is the research about teaching children to read being misrepresented?

Torgesen: Reading mandates will be ineffective if they are focused on the wrong dimensions and if they are ineffectively led and implemented. Although, as I mentioned earlier, Reading First is not focused on improving all the things that influence achievement in poor and minority students, it is focused on many of the most important ones. For example, one goal of Reading First in Florida is to increase the capacity of every K-3 teacher in Reading First schools to provide systematic and explicit instruction in the areas of knowledge and skill that have been shown to be critical to the attainment of reading proficiency by the end of third grade. We are trying to do this through a multi-faceted effort that involves Reading Academies, on-site professional development through coaching, school-based learning communities, and the provision of high quality comprehensive core reading programs. Professional teacher educators from the University of Central Florida are responsible for many of these professional development efforts, and they are doing their best to insure that research findings on effective teaching are serving as the basis for all the training that is provided.

There is also very consistent research support for the idea that progress monitoring of student development in critical reading skills leads to better reading outcomes. In Florida, we have developed a very comprehensive assessment and reporting network that provides a truly amazing amount of information to teachers about their students, and to principals about every K-3 student in the school. Of course, it is a very large and ongoing training effort to insure that this new level of information about student progress is used effectively in guiding instruction. Finally, we are working on many different ways to improve the intensity and focus of the interventions in reading that are provided to struggling readers. The focus of these interventions is based on a powerfully converging body of evidence on the importance of broad and deep vocabulary to reading, on the importance of active use of comprehension strategies to improve understanding, and on the vital role that early acquisition of efficient phonemic decoding skills plays in the long-term development of reading fluency and accuracy.

If these efforts fail to produce real improvement in reading outcomes within Reading First schools, it seems to me that they will most likely fail because of a lack of will to stay focused and a lack of will to do the work required to make the necessary improvements. We may find as we move forward that other things will be required to sustain the improvements made in Reading First, and that additional areas of concern and needed improvement will emerge, but as a first effort toward implementing the big ideas that have emerged from scientific research on reading and reading instruction, Im very pleased with the beginning we have made thus far.

I know that there are many smart and experienced people, such as Dick Allington that have expressed concern about what they perceive as a relatively rigid and narrow interpretation of the last three decades worth of reading research as it is being implemented in the Reading First initiative. I also understand that there is always a danger, when things are done on a very large scale, and when government provides a new level of top down direction, that there will be local distortions and errors of judgment as broad policy is implemented. I also acknowledge that Reading First does not, and cannot, address every conceivable useful finding from scientific research on reading. However, I am convinced of four important things that provide motivation for my initial and continued involvement in Reading First in Florida: 1) there is a clear and urgent need for improvement in instructional practices and reading support systems in schools that serve a preponderance of poor and minority students; 2) we have, indeed, learned a few major lessons about reading instruction in the last 30 years that need to be more consistently applied in these schools; 3) there is a clear need for more effective organizational structures and leadership in these schools as it impacts the delivery of instruction to our struggling readers; and, 4) the major elements of the Reading First plan we have developed are a reasonable reflection of many of the most important discoveries we have made about how to improve reading outcomes in young children.

I would invite critics such as Dick Allington and others to energetically seek ways to contribute their considerable expertise to the effort we are currently making in this country, rather than simply taking potshots at the parts of the effort they disagree with. It may be personally challenging to participate in an initiative that has some points of emphasis that might be personally disagreeable, but the effort is sufficiently complex and wide ranging that there is a potential role for everyone with real expertise to contribute. We need lots of help from professors, teachers, and other professionals who know how to do things well in the area of reading instruction and school management, and I would invite all who have something to contribute to do so. The effort to positively improve the effort through the contribution of additional knowledge and expertise seems likely to be more effective for children in the long run than standing at the side and raising concerns about what is not being done.

Stanley: The Rand report suggested that the National Reading Panel (NRP) report has created an unintended, over emphasis on primary grades reading issues. How can we jumpstart disseminating specific recommendations for improving comprehension in the content areas and thwart the infamous fourth grade slump in reading achievement?

Torgesen: I dont think that we are overemphasizing primary grades reading issues at present, because I regard efforts to prevent the emergence of reading difficulties as the key to our long term success in improving reading outcomes at the end of high school. When children do not become accurate readers in first grade or fluent readers by third grade, they miss out on literally thousands of opportunities every year to add to their verbal knowledge networks (vocabulary), to their knowledge of many content domains, and to their ability to think in more sophisticated ways about the content of what they are reading. It is exceedingly difficult to make up for these lost learning opportunities if they extend many years beyond first grade, given the way the demand for these skills continues to accelerate after third grade. In addition to the effects of delayed development of reading skill on cognitive development, children who struggle in reading through the middle of elementary school frequently lose interest in reading and in school because it is not a place they can experience many rewards for their efforts.

While I acknowledge that we have immediate and pressing needs for improved literacy instruction in grades 4-12, I also hope that we do not lose sight of the fact that, until we dramatically improve our reading instruction and outcomes in grades (K-3), we have little hope of making significant improvements in the percentages of proficient readers we have in our high schools.

Now, what can we do to jumpstart changes in grades 4-12 that will lead to long-term improvements in the growth of literacy after grade 3? I think we need to focus on three things. First, every school (late elementary, middle, high school) needs the capacity to provide intensive reading instruction to its lowest performing students. Students who cannot yet read text accurately and fluently need specific help in this area to give them more skills and better access to text. Many students may also need fairly intensive instruction in a basic set of core reading comprehension strategies and reasoning skills to allow them to make more sense of the increasingly complex and varied text they encounter after third grade.

Second, content area teachers need to be trained in and encouraged to use instructional strategies such as those developed by the University of Kansas Center for Learning that help to insure that even students with limited reading skills acquire the most essential content information from each course they take. The essential idea here is for teachers to identify the most important ideas in each unit of instruction and then use a variety of content enhancement routines to increase the probability that this content will be mastered by every child in the classroom, not just the most proficient readers. If we employed procedures like these in every late elementary, middle, and high school content class, not only would all students learn better, but the learning of students with lower levels of reading proficiency would also be substantially improved.

Third, we also need to train our content area teachers to help students read more strategically in their content area. Ideally, every content area teacher in a school would teach and reinforce a core of effective reading comprehension strategies that are also taught in intensive instruction to smaller groups of struggling readers. In this way, all students would be supported in the growth of more sophisticated reading strategies while the students who struggle the most would be reinforced and supported in the strategies they learned in their intensive reading class. As children are asked to process and comprehend increasingly complex text after fourth grade, I believe, along with many others, that reading can be increasingly defined as thinking guided by print. If the core of good reading comprehension is good thinking ability and high levels of knowledge, then the job of improving literacy in grades beyond the initial stages of learning to read clearly is a task for all teachers and not just reading specialists.

Stanley: Finally, is there a question about the teaching of reading I didnt ask you would like to address?

Torgesen: I guess one point that might bear some discussion would be the role of comprehensive core reading programs and other published reading materials in supporting and improving the reading instruction provided to students in Reading First schools. The emphasis both within the State of Florida and nationally on the use of core programs to help guide reading instruction has received considerable criticism from individuals who believe that the emphasis on research based programs puts teachers in straight-jackets, dumbs-down reading instruction, and undermines teaching as a profession. They also claim that if teachers are forced to follow a rigidly prescribed or scripted instructional program then the best, most creative teachers will leave the profession. I do not deny that these are potentially valid points of concern. However, I also do not believe that Reading Firsts requirement for schools to adopt a common core comprehensive reading program has to necessarily produce any of the effects these critics are concerned about.

I agree with Barbara Foorman, who in a recent keynote talk at the International Dyslexia Association meetings in Philadelphia indicated that effective schools are ones that consistently have a sensible reading curriculum. What she meant by that was this. Schools need a reading curriculum that provides sufficient support to new or less knowledgeable teachers that they can rely on the materials to help them learn how to provide explicit instruction in critical areas, to orchestrate effective practice, and to align their practice materials with their initial instruction. They also need to have guidance in how to engage students in meaningful assignments and discussions that increase their authentic literacy skills. This sensible curriculum should also allow more experienced teachers to use the wisdom, judgment, and knowledge they have acquired through many years of teaching to deviate from and enhance the core reading program in areas where they can improve on it for their individual students. There is no such thing as a perfect published reading program, nor are all the instructional routines in these programs well adapted to the needs of specific teachers and classrooms. There is always room for enhancement by smart, experienced, and dedicated teachers.

The key here is monitoring student outcomes. If I were a principal in a Reading First school, I would encourage my newer or less effective teachers to learn as much as possible from implementing the comprehensive core program with fidelity, and would monitor their own growth as teachers as well as the reading growth of their students. As they acquired more confidence and knowledge, and suggested reasonable ways to deviate or enhance the curriculum, I would support these initiatives, while at the same time keeping close tabs on the growth of their students. I would worry far less about deviations from the core reading program in teachers whose students performed strongly on the progress monitoring and year end reading assessments than I would for those teachers whose students showed less progress. And, I would encourage my more effective teachers to share their practices with the teachers in my school who were having less success with their students.

We have required Reading First schools to adopt a common comprehensive core reading program in grades K-3 to serve as a scaffold or learning opportunity for many teachers who want to learn how to provide more explicit and systematic instruction to their students.

 Reading First schools typically have many less experienced teachers who can profit from the guidance and support provided by these materials. However, we are also not forgetting the needs of these teachers for broad and deep professional development to give them understanding of why they need to provide certain types of instruction as well as how to do it. A profession is not defined by the rights of its practitioners to practice their profession however they choose. Medicine is a respected profession because doctors, by in large, follow well established protocols for treating illnesses. It is a respected profession because it is reliably effective in dealing with our health problems. There is a lesson here for us in education, I think. Respect for our profession will only increase as we become more effective in dealing with the instructional needs of all students. We are simply asking teachers to follow instructional protocols that have a basis in scientific evidence about reading growth and reading instruction. This should result in increased commonality in many teaching procedures, but there are still lots of room for creativity and personal initiative in dealing with the specific problems of individual students.

Joseph K. Torgesen is Director of the Florida Center for Reading Research and may be reached at fcrr@fcrr.org.