Decades of reading research have led to sophisticated scientific evidence about effective reading instruction. In their best-evidence synthesis on effective reading programs for elementary school children, Slavin et al. (2009a, 2009b) concluded “what matters for student achievement are approaches that fundamentally change what teachers and students do together every day” (p. 1453). But what is it that teachers and students do together every day that needs to be changed? What does business-as-usual (BAU) reading instruction look like, and how different is it from evidence-based reading interventions? Gaining insight into both the content and the structure of BAU reading instruction is important because (a) it helps us interpret and understand findings from randomized controlled trials in which control groups receive BAU reading instruction, and (b) it can reveal which principles of good reading instruction are systematically neglected by teachers. Thus, investigating BAU can help to identify key topics that should be addressed in research, teacher education, and professional development.
Reading instruction always takes place in a specific cultural context and depends on the respective educational system. In this study, we conducted observations in German 2nd grade classrooms. In particular, we focused on whether BAU includes instructional elements that have shown to positively influence reading competence, and we investigated whether and how these evidence-based elements cluster into a meaningful structure. In the following, we first highlight the sub-skills that should be promoted in schools because they comprise the construct of reading literacy; then, we present some general criteria for describing the content of BAU reading instruction. Finally, we provide information on some key evidence-based elements and summarize findings on the status quo of reading instruction in primary school.
Reading literacy is defined as “the ability to understand and use those written language forms required by society and/or valued by the individual. Readers can construct meaning from texts in a variety of forms. They read to learn, to participate in communities of readers in school and everyday life, and for enjoyment” (Mullis et al., 2017). This definition illustrates that reading literacy encompasses numerous sub-skills. While some precursor skills (e.g., phonological awareness) are acquired as early as kindergarten (Carroll et al., 2003), reading instruction in school typically begins with letter knowledge (Bremerich-Vos et al., 2012). Once grapheme-phoneme correspondence is established, young readers must engage in accurate and automatic decoding of words, learn to read at a sufficient pace, and use different reading strategies to eventually gain a deep understanding of a text (e.g., Perfetti et al., 2005). Simultaneously, they also need to make inferences from the written content to produce a coherent mental representation of the text (van Dijk & Kintsch, 1983). These different aspects of reading—accurate reading, fluent reading and reading comprehension—are interdependent: Once students can decode words automatically, they can read more fluently. High reading fluency, in turn, allows them to focus on comprehending the entire text due to released cognitive resources (Wolf & Katzir-Cohen, 2001).
Thus, these performance-related sub-skills of decoding, reading accuracy, reading fluency, and reading comprehension should be fostered in primary school; further, they are complemented by other elements of reading literacy that should also be encouraged. For instance, when planning and implementing reading instruction, teachers should also consider motivational constructs, such as students’ reading motivation (Guthrie et al., 2007), self-efficacy (Bandura, 2013) or academic self-concept (Marsh, 1993), as all three have been found to be positively related to reading achievement (Chapman & Tunmer, 1997; Hebbecker et al., 2019; Retelsdorf et al., 2014; Schiefele et al., 2012; Schunk, 2003). Another aspect to consider is that students differ significantly in their competency of the various sub-skills (Mullis et al., 2017; OECD, 2019), usually making it necessary to differentiate instruction for different students or groups of students.
Taken together, reading literacy is multifaceted and highly complex. Teachers face the enormous challenge of not only knowing and understanding all sub-skills involved in reading but also knowing which methods to use to best support the reading development of students with varying levels of proficiency (Cunningham et al., 2009; Joshi et al., 2009).
General aspects of reading instruction
Teachers can design reading instruction using a large variety of methods and materials and can encourage students to engage in reading in various ways. For instance, instruction can be teacher centered, where the teacher acts as a lecturer by presenting information and expecting students to passively receive knowledge or learn skills. Moreover, the teacher can read aloud to students while providing additional explanations and demonstrate the use of strategies. In contrast, students may work on reading-related exercises by themselves or with other students (e.g., with a partner or in a group) and be supported by the teacher as they complete the exercises. Further, students can engage in silent reading, read aloud to other students or become involved in a combination of reading and writing.
Teacher-selected materials may be self-constructed or drawn from books, reading cases placed in the classroom, or specific programs that include multiple types of content (e.g., continuous or discontinuous texts). In addition, teachers can use supplemental learning software as well as (self-)assessments for students. While many different ways to teach reading are available, research points to certain evidence-based instructional approaches that have been shown to foster reading literacy (e.g., Mullis et al., 2003; NICHD, 2000; Slavin et al., 2009a,2009b). In the following, we review some elements of the empirically evaluated reading instruction methods that have been shown to affect reading outcomes.
Evidence-based elements of reading instruction
Among the best-known and effective approaches for promoting reading literacy are Success for All (Slavin et al., 2009a, 2009b), Reciprocal Teaching (Palinscar & Brown, 1984), Concept-oriented Reading Instruction (CORI; Guthrie et al., 2004) and Peer-assisted Learning Strategies (PALS; Fuchs et al., 1997). In all these programs, teachers explicitly teach students to apply reading strategies. Further, all these programs include approaches that are student centered instead of teacher centered, and all of them apply cooperative learning settings. Thereby, once teachers have introduced effective reading strategies, students learn to monitor both their own and their peers’ reading process. Numerous literature reviews and meta-analyses provide support for the effectiveness of these instructional practices. For instance, Slavin et al. (2009a, 2009b) as well as the National Reading Panel (NICHD, 2000) also summarized and recommended approaches that include repeatedly reading aloud, using reading strategies, and providing tasks that can be implemented in cooperative settings. Overall, research suggests that several instructional approaches, which have shown to effectively foster student achievement should be incorporated and reading instruction be differentiated according to students’ needs.
In addition, cooperative approaches involve the possibility of employing different approaches for different levels of reading proficiency and adapting instruction to students’ needs, which is necessary due to the large heterogeneity in primary schools. To make accurate decisions on how to differentiate instruction, empirical research suggests that teachers need reliable and valid information on students’ reading achievement and reading progress, as the continuous use of assessment data positively impacts reading achievement (Stecker et al., 2005).
In the early school years, reading instruction should foster skills such as reading accuracy, reading fluency, and reading comprehension. An effective approach to foster reading accuracy is phonics instruction, in which the main goal is to teach children how graphemes (i.e., letters) are linked to phonemes (i.e., sounds), such as by teaching students to convert letters into sounds (NICHD, 2000). Accuracy of reading can also be efficiently promoted by syllable-based reading, for example by underlining or clapping syllables (Müller et al., 2017, 2020).
Reading fluency can be fostered by methods that encourage students to read aloud (NICHD, 2000). Two such well-evaluated methods are repeated reading and paired reading. In repeated reading, students work in pairs and take turns reading short texts aloud until they reach a sufficient level of fluency (Samuels, 1979); such improvements in reading fluency were highlighted in Therrien’s (2004) meta-analysis. In paired reading, which also increases reading fluency (Topping & Lindsay, 1992), students simultaneously read aloud to each other. Further, dyadic partner work allows less fluent readers to be paired with more fluent readers. Overall, repeatedly or simultaneously reading aloud helps students decode words quickly and automatically, which releases cognitive resources to be used for text comprehension.
Once students have gained a sufficient level of reading accuracy and reading fluency, they should learn to apply comprehension strategies, like underlining important content, generating questions in response to a text, and predicting what might happen next in a story (NICHD, 2000). By explicitly and directly teaching these strategies (e.g., by modeling, thinking aloud, and offering guided practice), teachers can encourage their students to reflect on what they are reading and can monitor their comprehension of texts (Block & Lacina, 2009; Duffy, 2002; Fuchs et al., 1997). Subsequently, teachers can withdraw their direct support in a step-by-step manner, thereby allowing students to engage in self-regulated reading.
In addition to providing cognitive reading strategies, teachers should also encourage students to use metacognitive strategies that aim to have students associate thoughts with the written content (e.g., by activating their prior knowledge; NICHD, 2000). For instance, teachers can encourage students to set their own goals, use a training plan, and evaluate their own reading process. Importantly, teachers can promote the use of such metacognitive strategies directly via classroom instruction (Paris et al., 1984); this has been shown to increase students’ reading comprehension (Boulware-Gooden et al., 2007).
Lastly, instructional approaches can also be aimed at increasing primary school students’ reading motivation; such approaches include optimizing student choice, providing support for student collaboration, and setting goals (Wigfield et al., 2014). In addition, reading motivation and reading achievement can be strongly affected by feedback, as both motivation and achievement have been shown to increase when students receive regular feedback on their reading progress (Hattie & Timperley, 2007).
Status quo of reading instruction
Many international observational studies have investigated the content of BAU reading instruction, specifically for students with learning disabilities. In two literature reviews on the topic, the general quality of reading instruction was assessed to be low (Vaughn et al., 2002), and evidence-based elements were not found to be frequently used (McKenna et al., 2015). In another study, Suárez et al. (2018) conducted observations of whole general education classrooms in Spain and found that fewer than half of the instructional approaches used by the observed teachers were recommended by the NICHD (2000). Similarly, Schumm et al. (2000) conducted teacher interviews as well as classroom observations in the US for 29 3rd-grade teachers and found that teachers generally did not differentiate instruction according to students’ needs; instead, they implemented whole-classroom instruction for all students, even in largely heterogeneous classrooms. Another observational study of 20 US-American 2nd-grade teachers and their classrooms conducted by Ness (2011) partly contradicted these findings; they found that on average, teachers incorporated reading strategy instruction 28.9% of the time. For instance, in 7% of the observed instances, students made predictions about what could happen in a story; in 4.3% of instances, students summarized texts.
Further evidence on reading instruction can be found in international large-scale assessments. For example, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) revealed that teachers of English-speaking countries (e.g., England, Scotland, and New Zealand) reported to form homogeneous student groups more often than teachers of other European countries (e.g., Germany, Greece, and Italy; Mullis et al., 2003). Teachers in German schools reported that they mainly implement reading instruction that is teacher centered and focuses on the whole class rather than pairing or grouping students according to their needs (Mullis et al., 2003). Surprisingly, results of non-western countries are contradictory and do not fully coincide with evidence-based practices in western countries. For instance, in the Russian Federation or the United Arab Emirates, the PIRLS revealed that letting students read silently was associated with better PIRLS results (Marôco, 2021). In Singapore, the amount of time teachers spent on reading instruction was found to be negatively related to students’ reading achievement.
In Germany, teachers reported that they tend to use a variety of organizational approaches during reading instruction (e.g., teacher-centered and student-centered approaches), and they reported using a computer for reading instruction considerably more (for a longer average duration) than in most other European countries (Tarelli et al., 2012). Also, according to the PIRLS, few teachers reported explicitly teaching students when and how to use reading strategies; this is a central part of the curriculum in Germany. In addition, the PIRLS used student and teacher questionnaires to assess how often teachers implement other features that have been shown to positively influence students’ learning growth (e.g., structured instruction and activities that are cognitively activating); the results indicate that teachers do not employ evidence-based elements on a regular basis. Furthermore, the results of the PIRLS revealed that teachers in Germany implement explicit reading instruction for about 90 h per school year, whereas the international mean is about 160 h.
Apart from these large-scale assessments using teacher self-reports, only a few other systematic observational studies have assessed reading instruction in Germany. In one study study, Kleinbub (2010) videotaped reading instruction in 41 classrooms and revealed that 4th-grade teachers in Germany mainly instructed their students to find information that was explicitly stated in texts but did not encourage them to make inferences or to use metacognitive strategies. Another observational study by Lotz (2016) who videotaped reading instruction revealed that students do not often engage in tasks that are cognitively activating.
Further insights into BAU reading instruction in Germany would be gained from intervention studies in which control groups receive no special support. However, while the treatment integrity of interventions has often been assessed, such studies tend to omit information on what happened during business-as-usual reading instruction in the control groups or the wait-list groups (e.g., Müller et al., 2020; Peters et al., 2021; Schünemann et al., 2013).
Purpose and research questions
Overall, studies report that teachers tend to implement teacher-centered reading instruction and do not differentiate instruction according to students’ needs (e.g., Mullis et al., 2003). Furthermore, results indicate that evidence-based elements to foster reading competence are only rarely implemented in BAU reading instruction (Kleinbub, 2010). Particularly in Germany, however, not much research has been conducted that addresses these concerns. The few studies that have focused specifically on BAU reading instruction have small sample sizes and often included higher primary school grades.
Thus, we aimed to investigate what constitutes BAU reading instruction and to what extent it can be described as evidence based. Knowledge on these issues is important to better qualify effects of intervention studies in which BAU reading instruction serves as the reference control condition (Century & Cassata, 2016). Moreover, such knowledge can serve as a basis for teachers’ professional development. Our main methodological approach was classroom observation (Hoffman et al., 2011), and we used teachers’ self-reports to help interpret the observational findings. In addition, we aimed to analyze whether teachers tend to combine certain evidence-based elements in BAU reading instruction; thus, we investigated whether there are certain clusters of different evidence-based elements. We addressed these exploratory questions for reading instruction in 2nd grade of general primary school in Germany.
Our specific research questions (RQs) were as follows:
What general aspects does BAU reading instruction encompass?
To what extent does BAU reading instruction encompass evidence-based elements?
What clusters of different evidence-based elements to foster reading competence can be identified in BAU reading instruction?