Learn the facts about the Reading First Initiative.

What is Reading First?

Basically, Reading First is a state grant program. The cornerstone of the Bush administration’s new education legislation (see the third question for more details), Reading First was created to encourage the use of scientifically based research as the foundation for K–3 reading instruction. As an incentive for schools, Reading First has $900 million in state grants. States are only eligible for this money if they can demonstrate how they plan to help their local educational agencies improve reading instruction and student achievement using reading instruction and assessment built on scientifically based research. The goal is to have every student reading at grade level or above by third grade.

How is Reading First funding distributed?

The dissemination of Reading First funding is a multi-level process:

Federal governmentarrowState plan arrowLocal district/school arrowYour classroom

First, each state applies for Reading First money by submitting a detailed proposal of the way it intends to spend the funding. If successful, states can receive funds for a 6-year period. States with approved applications must use a portion of their funds to organize a professional development program for all K–3 teachers and to provide ongoing, focused technical assistance to local schools for improving reading instruction.

The bulk of the funds awarded to each state will go to districts and schools to meet students’ instructional needs. These local educational agencies compete for funds in state-run competitions. States must give priority to districts with high rates of poverty and reading failure; the U.S. Department of Education suggests that states should also consider giving priority to local educational agencies that can provide evidence of past success with instruction based on scientifically based reading research, as well as districts and schools that can demonstrate leadership and commitment to improving reading achievement.

Once funds reach the local level, their allocation is more flexible than at the state level — as long as the individual district or school continues to follow Reading First standards. Up to 3.5% of local Reading First funding can be reserved for planning and administration; the rest can be used for assessments, reading materials, or other forms of ongoing support to improve reading instruction.

What is the No Child Left Behind Act, and how does Reading First fit in?

The most sweeping education reform bill in 35 years, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) asks schools to describe success in terms of student accomplishment. The act is built on President Bush’s four basic education reform principles: stronger accountability for results, increased flexibility and local control, expanded options for parents, and an emphasis on teaching methods that have been proven to work.

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s policy guidance for the initiative, “Reading First is the academic cornerstone of No Child Left Behind.” It supports NCLB’s goals of improving student achievement and implementing teaching methods proven to be effective.

What does Reading First say about effective reading instruction?

Reading First draws on scientifically based reading research that has identified five essential components of reading instruction:

1.) Phonemic Awareness
2.) Phonics
3.) Fluency
4.) Vocabulary
5.) Comprehension

Because research shows that children need to master these five areas in order to become successful readers, programs funded under Reading First must demonstrate their capacity to comprehensively and effectively address all five elements. (For further information on these components — along with expert advice on instruction, ready-to-go activities, model lessons, and more — take a look at our growing Best Practices section.)

These components must also be integrated into what the U.S. Department of Education calls “a coherent instructional design.” This design must include:

  • Explicit instructional strategies that address students’ specific strengths and weaknesses
  • Coordinated instructional sequences
  • Ample practice opportunities and aligned student materials
  • Ideally, the design would also involve:
  • Targeted, scientifically based instructional strategies as appropriate
  • The allocation of time, including a protected, uninterrupted block of time for reading instruction of more than 90 minutes per day
  • Assessment strategies for diagnosing student needs and measuring progress
  • A professional development plan that ensures teachers have the skills and support necessary to implement the program effectively and to meet the reading needs of individual students

All these requirements may sound daunting to you as a teacher, but remember that Reading First is a state grant program, so you’re not alone in figuring out how best to implement effective reading instruction — your state has a stake in helping you out, and the U.S. Department of Education even offers to assist states in designing statewide plans. Plus, there is already support in place for meeting NCLB and Reading First guidelines; to start, you can take a look at Scholastic’s NCLB support.

Why should teachers care about Reading First even if they’re not at Reading First schools?

The heart of the Reading First initiative is the conviction that scientific research should inform reading instruction. Regardless of how you feel about the specific requirements and process of Reading First and No Child Left Behind, it’s important to recognize that students are helped when the results of legitimate educational research are incorporated into instruction. That’s because each student’s learning experience is a complex process; the more resources that teachers can draw from during instruction, the better the chances that they will be able to help their students in meaningful ways.

In addition, it’s always a good idea for educators to keep up with current education legislation and research, even if the legislation and research do not directly affect their curriculum. The more aware you are of the current educational climate, the better you can serve your students.

From a more practical perspective, following Reading First’s standards can also help you and your school meet your state’s Adequate Yearly Progress goals. Under NCLB, each state must establish these standards and test student progress towards them every year. Because one of the main tenets of NCLB is greater accountability, each school’s yearly test results are available to the public, and if a school repeatedly fails to meet state standards, it will be penalized.

For additional information on NCLB, Reading First, and reading research and legislation, click here.