Barriers to a Successful Reading Program

Why aren't all reading programs experiencing success?​

In New Zealand the primary school reading results across the country have not improved. In our junior schools, where reading is first taught, the number of poor readers continues to increase while the number of top readers continues to decline.

“New Zealand continues to perform well in reading literacy at the senior secondary level, as measured by the PISA reading tasks, but performance has dropped significantly overall since the year 2000”


Across the OECD countries there is a plethora of data highlighting the ongoing lowering literacy rates,  poor comprehension and inability of students to meet the literacy levels of yesteryear.  With millions of dollars being pumped into fixing this problem through research, specialist teachers, special books, alternative literacy programs and professional development why is it that we are not making a difference?

Schoolwide reading programs are not a priority

Having run 100's of workshops over the last 10 years many experienced teachers have not hesitated to tell me there was a time when schools in NZ focused predominantly on reading, writing and maths. Some would argue that reading had pride of place and guided reading was taught to all groups, everyday of the week and it wasn't finished until all students had been seen. 
Now teachers in Hong Kong, Australia and NZ  tell me the guided reading time is limited and typically allocated a time slot from 30-45 minutes depending on the age of the students. Often, at best, it happens 4 times a week and regularly some students are only seen once a week.

We believe this factor alone affects our reading results because teachers and students
just don't get the opportunity to 'put in' the needed reading hours to learn well.

It is not personal, it's systemic.
We all want to blame someone but there isn't one person to blame.  ‘Change’ has become very visible in our daily lives as new replaces old and gadgets and information come and go. Unfortunately the affect of this rapid change and flow of information has infected our schooling systems and ways of teaching. Teachers are working harder than ever and no longer plan a couple of weeks ahead but plan for a whole year and sometimes two as they manoeuver reading, writing, maths and 5 other subjects and their curriculum indicators into their weekly plans. This is done to meet the expectations of the curriculum system.

Our schools now have to cover more, to achieve more and do more for our children. But learning does not occur just because we put it in our plan. Students have not been given extra hard drives to keep up with the abundance of learning expectation and will not learn faster just because we allocated it to happen in 30 minute time slots. Remember we are still running schools from 9am to 3pm but we would guess that the expectations on schools has easily tripled in the last 20 years. These expectations in our systems are not realistic. They are not aligned with rates of learning and the abilities of our students.  So our weak readers are getting worse and the group of good readers is getting smaller.

"No one is born with skill. It is developed
through exercise, through repetition, through a blend of learning and
reflection that's both painstaking and rewarding.  AND IT TAKES TIME."
Twyla Tharp

Our Reading Routines are morphing monsters.
Like our curriculum and our dense learning week, our reading programs are constantly morphing monsters. Our reading routines are now loaded with 'add-ons' and 'add-ins' to fix the problems with poor reading results, ongoing time restraints and expert voices saying 'do this and add in that'. 

Teachers are now dropping shared reading to squish the lessons of grammar, punctuation, expression and higher order thinking into guided reading practice. We now observe teachers turning pages for children,  giving the answers to the questions before the students read, and reading quickly ahead of the students so the students can copy, 'get success' and get done in time. 

Considering the power of a routine is simplicity so everyone knows what will happen next, (ie. to create mental space to focus on learning), the solution of 'fitting everything in' means we have inadvertently corrupted the learning power of good routines by making them complex.

Our routines are now dense and constantly changing to take advantage of 'teaching moments' (opportunities to fit something else in). The squishing effect and speeding up to meet time targets is not

how learning works and certainly is not conducive to a great learning environment.

The effect is students are left confused and switch off because they just don't have the mental space to know what they are learning let alone reflect on that learning.

Schools need a clearly defined Reading Program

Our curriculum document is hard to navigate because the progression from beginning reader to advanced reader is not clearly defined.  The document does not prescribe what teachers should do to teach a child to read but rather guides and makes suggestions. The document leaves it up to the teachers and schools to set the actual methods of teaching delivery. 

So schools and teachers go to experts for advice who in turn impart a range of very useful possibilities.  The experts explain the research and often suggest what is important to add into a reading program, however the do not focus on what to take out. 

This can leave teachers feeling 'like a kid in a candy store' and unable to know what is best because they don't know how to fit it into their already time pressured program. Inevitably the teachers choose a bit of everything, squish in parts of what they have learned and often alter the intent of what the experts taught. They end up with a smorgasbord of tools rather than an easy to follow program.


A picture of happy students with the title - SharpReadings solutions to the problems of poor reading results

The obvious solution to time poor reading programs.


If reading is really important and we really want to improve our reading ability across our student population then surely an obvious solution is to simplify our programs, stabilize our routines and allocate more time to reading. Just make reading a priority above everything else. If we do this we will surely make a difference to our reading literacy and change the lives of our hard working teachers and literacy poor students.

We need to stop squeezing our teachers into smaller and smaller time frames
which force them to teach in ways that are counter to a successful learning process.

Top 5 components of a great Reading Program

There are many ways to teach reading and many great programs and approaches.  After training 1000s of teachers and sitting in 100s of classrooms around the world we do believe a great reading program should at least have the following components:

A Clear Reading Progression

All teachers need a clear Reading Progression. A plan, or a map of how to guide students from a decoder (a beginner reader) through the construction of meaning (comprehension)  and onto critical thinking ( an advanced reader). 

Simple, Clear Reading Routines

Routines must be easy to replicate throughout a school. Teachers need explicit training, teacher scripts to follow and guidance (via video models) that show them how to teach the routines.  Abstract descriptions need to sit behind clear paint by numbers instruction to take out the guess work that teachers are constantly subjected to.
Go to GUIDED READING COURSES to get a sneak preview of how our reading routines work.

Picture of a book to represent a reading routine
reading routine

A Standard Approach

We know one size does not fit all but lets at least agree to include the following in ALL reading programs.  No exceptions

  • A Phonics program (teaching letters / sounds and how to put them together).
  • Shared Reading  (teaching grammar, punctuation and strategies to read) and 
  • Guided Reading  (student practice of reading in a leveled group).

Teaching Resources

Leveled stories (fiction and non-fiction), phonics cards, big books, reading activities, a school library and systems to manage the easy distribution and use of these resources.


Data Collection and assessment must be able to happen daily not just at the end of the year.  We need a methodical, manageable approach to measuring a students' reading ability on a daily basis so we can ensure they are engaged, learning and meeting with reading success. This assessment needs to be embedded inside our reading routines.

The right level of challenge

Bypass the complaints and generate learning success
By far the most common complaint is "the kids are bored" and "the stories and articles are not interesting, dated or just not good enough."  Considering the texts are leveled and limited in length it stands to reason the stories are not going to be startling literary reads.  However it has always been this way and we imagine it will continue to be like this because leveled books have limitations.

So lets not blame the books but look at why the students are saying they are bored and not staying engaged.

Learners of all ages essentially are motivated by the same thing - the buzz of success and the feeling that they did it by themselves.   This means students need a challenge to overcome and an environment in which they can overcome that challenge.  Learning to read is not an exception.  It is a constant challenge, one leveled book at a time.  When done well this means each time a child reads they ARE challenged, get through the challenge, get reading success and feel successful - by themselves.  We don't do it for them!

It's not the book, it's the way the book is presented
So the issue is rarely the content of the book - a boring story.  It is more likely to be the level of the book or the way the book is presented in a reading routine and the management of the level of the challenge. The teacher has to make sure the book is not too easy, or too hard, but the right level of challenge for the student to be able to overcome the challenge and feel success. 

  • Too hard - student gives up and says "I'm bored"
  • Too easy - student doesn't get sufficient challenge and says "I'm bored"
  • Just right - student feels good and says "that was fun, see you tomorrow"

Beware of the side effects when using short-cuts

A natural response to time poor situations is to get clever and find short cuts or faster ways to do something. Teachers are not new to this type of thinking and actually are very creative.  They have to be if they are going to manage a class of 25 - 30 students. However some of the shortcuts that make reading programs more efficient can also generate some unexpected side effects.


  • talk faster
    • P - saves time and can help to keep students engaged.
    • SE - some students miss instructions, get confused and switch off.
  • give the hard questions to the ‘smart’ kids
    • P - gives an appropriate challenge to those kids.
    • SE - the 'other kids' learn they are not smart enough.
    • SE - the smart kids get smarter at the expense of the 'other kids'.
  • give the easy questions to the ‘other’ kids'
    • P - the 'other kids' get a manageable challenge.
    • SE - the 'other kids' get low level practice.
    • SE - the 'other kids' learn they don't have to read just wait for the question.
  • give the answers beforehand.
    • P - saves time and sets kids up for success.
    • SE - students disengage because the teacher removed the challenge.
  • make one short story last a whole week
    • P - saves preparation time
    • SE - students get bored and don't get enough mileage (reading practice)
  • shorten the time allocation for the last two groups in a group rotation
    • P - teacher finishes all groups in the time allocated
    • SE - some students don't get enough time to process, practice and get success.
  • drop shared reading and squish your shared reading approaches into your guided reading
    • P - saves time by not doing shared reading
    • SE - students get totally overloaded, confused and say they are bored.
    • SE - students don't get properly taught the skills to read which leads to a drop in success.

Written by Brian Parker - Director, SharpReading

DipT Secondary DipT Primary, Dip FA, Cambridge CTEFLA

Brian trained as a high school art and art history teacher back in 1990, retrained as an English as a second language teacher in Japan before settling into teaching the 'little guys' when he trained to become a primary school teacher at the New Zealand Graduate School of Education in 2000. 

For the past 10 years Brian has worked with Hilton Ayrey and other experts in education to refine teaching routines, specifically in reading literacy,  and run 100s of workshops, webinars and in-school training programs in New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong and Shanghai.


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