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Effective Reading Programs for Middle and High Schools: A Best Evidence Synthesis

International Literacy Association

Many reading programs claim to boost student performance, but how is that measured? Johns Hopkins University examined more than 200 published studies to create this quick guide to programs.

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What reading programs have been proven to help middle and high school students to succeed? To find out, this review summarizes evidence on four types of programs designed to improve the reading achievement of students in grades 6-12:

  • Reading Curricula (Curr), such as LANGUAGE!, McDougal Littel, and other standard and alternative textbooks.
  • Computer-Assisted Instruction (CAI), such as Jostens/Compass Learning, and Accelerated Reader.
  • Instructional Process Programs (IP), such as cooperative learning, strategy instruction, and other approaches primarily intended to change teachers’ instructional methods rather than curriculum or textbooks.
  • Combined CAI and Instructional Process Models (CAI + IP) such as READ 180 and Voyager Passport.

Key findings

Overall, 36 experimental-control comparisons met the inclusion criterion, of which 7 used random assignment to treatments. No studies of reading curricula qualified, but there were 8 studies of CAI, 16 of instructional process programs, 10 of combined CAI and instructional process programs, and 2 of combined curriculum and instructional process programs. Effect sizes were averaged across studies, weighted by sample size.

  • Computer-Assisted Instruction (CAI). Studies of CAI find minimal achievement outcomes. Mean weighted effect size across 8 studies: +0.10.
  • Instructional Process Strategies (IP). The largest number of high-quality studies evaluated instructional process programs, especially forms of cooperative learning (ES= +0.28 in 7 studies). Mean weighted effect size across 14 studies: +0.21.
  • Combined CAI and Instructional Process Programs (CAI + IP). Positive effects were found for READ 180. Mean weighted effect size across 9 studies: +0.22.
  • Combined Curriculum and Instructional Process Programs (Curr + IP). A randomized study of REACH found an effect size of 0.00, and the same study found an effect size of +0.17 for RISE.

See the full report: Effective Reading Programs for Middle and High Schools: A Best-Evidence Synthesis.

Program ratings

Listed below are currently available programs, grouped by strength of effectiveness. Within each group, programs are listed alphabetically. The type for each program corresponds to the categories above (e.g., IP = Instructional Process Strategies).

Strong evidence of effectiveness


Moderate evidence of effectiveness

Program Type Description


(Formerly Jostens, Compass Learning)

CAI Provides an extensive set of assessments which place students in an individualized instructional sequence. Students then work individually on exercises designed to fill in gaps in their skills.
The Reading Edge(opens in a new window) IP Uses a cooperative learning structure that groups students for reading instruction according to their reading level across grades and classes.
READ 180(opens in a new window) CAI + IP An intervention program that addresses individual needs of students through differentiated instruction, adaptive and instructional software, high-interest literature, and direct instruction in reading, writing, and vocabulary skills.
Student Team Reading(opens in a new window) IP, Cooperative Learning A cooperative learning program in which students work in four or five member teams to help one another build reading skills.

Limited evidence of effectiveness

Program Type Description
Accelerated Reader(opens in a new window) CAI A supplemental program that assesses students’ reading levels using a computer, which then prints out suggestions for reading materials at students’ level.
Benchmark Detectives(opens in a new window) IP, Strategy A form of strategy instruction that teaches students to use known words to decode unknown words, to use context as a check for making sense, to chunk words into meaningful units, and to be flexible in applying known word parts.
PALS(opens in a new window) IP,Cooperative Learning A cooperative learning program in which students work in pairs, taking turns reading aloud to one another and engaging in summarization and prediction activities.
RISE Curr + IP An intervention guided by the philosophy that teachers, given time, resources, and strong professional development support, can create effective curriculum that is engaging and provides remediation for struggling adolescent readers.
Strategy Intervention Model(opens in a new window) IP, Strategy A method in which low-achieving secondary students are taught metacognitive reading strategies, especially paraphrasing, to help them comprehend text.
Talent Development Middle School(opens in a new window) IP, CSR A program which focuses on classic books, more high-level questions, and additional background information for students.
Voyager Passport(opens in a new window) CAI + IP A program with whole-group instruction, flexible small-group activities, and partner practice that engages students with DVDs, online learning activities, and other instructional strategies focused on comprehension, vocabulary, fluency, and writing.

Insufficient evidence

Reading Apprenticeship
Xtreme Reading
Talent Development High School

No qualifying studies

100 Book Challenge ABD’s of Reading Academy of Reading
Achieve 3000 Achieving Maximum Potential Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID)
AfterSchool KidzLit Alphabetic Phonics America’s Choice-Ramp Up Literacy
AMP Reading System Barton Reading & Spelling System Be a Better Reader
BOLD Boys Town Reading Curriculum Breaking the Code
Bridges to Literacy Caught Reading Charlesbridge Reading Fluency
Classworks Compass Learning (current version) Comprehension Upgrade
Concept-Oriented Reading Instruction (CORI) Corrective Reading CRISS / Project CRISS
Cross-Aged Literacy Program Direct Instruction Disciplinary Literacy
Electronic Bookshelf Essential Learning Systems™ Exemplary Center for Reading Instruction (ECRI)
Failure Free Reading Fast ForWord Fast Track Reading
First Steps Fluent Reader Glass-Analysis method
Glencoe Great Leaps Harcourt
HOSTS Houghton Mifflin IMPACT
IndiVisual Reading InStep Readers Intensive Reading Strategies Instruction (IRSI) Model
Intensive Supplemental Reading Jamestown Education Junior Great Books
Kaplan SpellRead Knowledge Box K-W-L strategy
LANGUAGE! Learning Experience Approach Learning Upgrade
Lexia Strategies for Older Students Like to Read Lindamood-Bell
LitART Literacy First Literacy Seminar
MacMillan McDougal-Littell McRAT
Merit Software Multicultural Reading and Thinking My Reading Coach
On Ramp Approach Open Book Anywhere Open Court
Pathway Project Phonics for Reading Phono-Graphix
PLATO Prentice Hall Literature Project Read
Puente Questioning the Author QuickReads-Secondary
Quicktionary Reading Pen II Ramp-Up Literacy Rave-O
ReadAbout Read Naturally Read Now
The Reader’s Choice The Reader’s Journey Reading in the Content Areas
Reading Horizons Reading Is FAME Reading Power in the Content Areas
Reading Plus Reading with Purpose Reciprocal Teaching
REWARDS Rosetta Stone Literacy Saxon Phonics
Scaffolded Reading Experience Scott Foresman Second Chance at Literacy Learning
Second Chance Reading Slingerland Soar to Success
Soliloquy Reading Assistant Sound Sheets Spell Read P.A.T.
Spalding Method Strategic Literacy Initiative SuccessMaker
Supported Literacy Approach Text mapping strategy Thinking Reader
Thinking Works Transactional Strategies Instruction Vocabulary Improvement Program
Voyager TimeWarp Plus Wilson Reading System Wisconsin Design for Reading Skills Development (WDRSD)
Write to Learn

Review methods

An exhaustive search considered more than 300 published and unpublished articles. It included those that met the following criteria:

  • Schools or classrooms using each program had to be compared to randomly assigned or well-matched control groups.
  • Study duration had to be at least 12 weeks.
  • Outcome measures had to be assessments of the reading content being taught in all classes. Almost all are standardized test, or state assessments.
  • The review placed particular emphasis on studies in which schools, teachers, or students were assigned at random to experimental or control groups.

Program ratings basis

Programs were rated according to the overall strength of the evidence supporting their effects on reading achievement. “Effect size” (ES) is the proportion of a standard deviation by which a treatment group exceeds a control group. Large studies are those involving a total of at least 10 classes or 250 students. The categories are as follows:

  • Strong Evidence of Effectiveness: At least one large randomized or randomized quasi-experimental study, plus at least one additional study of any qualifying design, with a collective sample size of 500 students and an overall weighted mean effect size of at least +.20.
  • Moderate Evidence of Effectiveness: Two large studies of any qualifying design or multiple smaller studies with a collective sample size of 500 students, with a median effect size of at least +0.20.
  • Limited Evidence of Effectiveness: At least one qualifying study with statistically significant differences and effect size of +0.10 or more.
  • Insufficient Evidence of Effectiveness: Studies show no significant differences.
  • No Qualifying Studies: No studies met inclusion standards.
Publication Date:
Reading Research Quarterly