SharpReading - Our Methodology and Research

SharpReading is the product of 20 years of practical experience and research with students and teachers by Hilton Ayrey and Brian Parker. This includes classroom teaching at many levels of the school, their work as tutors at the New Zealand Graduate School of Education (an internationally recognised teacher training organisation in Christchurch) and for the last twelve years, running their own literacy consultancy, in-school and online, to support and train hundreds of teachers worldwide. 

The following information outlines the origins of their approach to reading instruction and the research that has influenced their thinking.

A Well Researched Reading Program

Our action research meant 100s of classroom trials and consultations with teachers and experts.  Our courses are the foundation training of beginning teachers at the highly successful New Zealand Graduate School of Education (NZGSE).

Working with Teachers in New Zealand and Australia

Working with Teachers in New Zealand and Australia


The New Zealand Graduate School of Education (NZGSE) is is where SharpReading was born and raised.  A quality teacher training provider, NZGSE's reading program was initially developed by Hilton Ayrey (SharpReading Director) back in 2000.  It was created to respond to the needs of the beginning teachers who required an easy to learn, well defined reading approach. 10 years later, after Brian Parker (SharpReading Director) had joined the NZGSE team the SharpReading program had been rigorously trialed and tested with 1000s of students.

Michael Pressley

Michael Pressley's research over a lifetime has been the backbone of our theoretical understanding of how children learn to read. 

Pressely's insight into an abundance of reading methods reinforced our instincts; to be clear, ensure student success and avoid student overload.

“In general, the conscious processing that is excellent reading begins before reading, continues during reading, and persists after reading.”  - Pressley


Working with teachers, beginners and experienced as well as literacy specialists and reading experts like Yolanda Soryl, has meant that we have grown to truly know that there are many ways to teach reading.  There is no one way to teach reading that will suit all students let alone individual teaching styles. 

However 20 years of listening, teaching, reflecting and evaluating means we are very confident that what we offer is exceptional teaching knowledge.

The Impact of Michael Pressley

A lot of SharpReading's initial study of the reading process relied heavily on the work of Michael Pressley, in particular his book 'Reading Instruction that Works: A Case Study for Balanced Teaching'.  This confirmed and guided a lot of the work we had been doing with beginning teachers. The challenge was to equip these trainees with simple and effective reading routines to maximise time spent with levelled reading groups.  Pressley proved to be the best source from which to base our approach.

“When a reader slowly analyses a word into component sounds and blends them, a great deal of capacity is consumed with little left over for comprehension of the word let alone understanding the overall meaning of the sentence.” (Pressley 2015)

Michael Pressley ”Reading Instruction that works: A case for balanced teaching” (2015 4th edition)

With this in mind, our initial guided reading routine (The 5 Bits) provides a structured routine that builds success and confidence for the beginning reader.  By front loading the message that is on the page through careful discussion, we free the learner up to experience success with deciphering the squiggles on the page. Each of the 5 Bits (practice actions) that occur on each page give the learner the opportunity for success. They are not overloaded with unrealistic expectations. 

"As students master the 'constrained' skills involved in decoding, their reading becomes more fluent, which frees them to use more of their cognitive resources for the complex 'unconstrained' task of working out text meaning."

New Zealand Ministry of Education 2017

To help manage the cognitive load in reading, teachers are very aware of the need to level and group students and use levelled texts in order to manage the challenge and attain learner success. We take this one step further by presenting teachers with a developmental progression that is set in stages (1-6) and insist that they recognise the importance of the order of these stages. We start with the decoding stage.  

"Even if we keep in mind the caveat that reading is more than word recognition, ... the active processing of sentences and paragraphs cannot occur unless the reader can recognize individual words reliably and efficiently. That is why learning to decode is so important. " Pressley, 2006, page 52

At each stage we use reading routines that focus on different aspects of reading as students develop their reading ability.  We start with a routine for decoding (our Stages 1&2) and then move to one for constructing meaning (our Stage 3). From Stage 3 we scaffold more strategies to develop depth to thinking (our Stages 4-6) until we end up with readers who can independently operate high order critical thinking about text as they are reading. We focus on students gaining fluency with reading strategies in a staged, layered process and are very careful not to overload students by expecting too much too soon.

“The goal with comprehension strategy instruction ... is to teach students to take over their own reading and thinking….once the strategies have been introduced, the teacher’s role in the conversation is limited to prompting students to be active in deciding how they might process the text.”  Pressley 2015

Teaching a strategy and allowing students to practice until they are fluent with using that strategy is essentially how our reading progression moves from one stage to the next.  The Stage 3, '5 Steps Routine' that uses the retell strategy “I think that means…" is not changed until students show some mastery with their ability to unpack sentences. This takes time but gives students and teachers mental space to practice and make visible progress - they know where to focus their energy. For the teacher, they quickly realise this means they can not do the thinking for the students.  They have to allow students the opportunities to practise, to make errors and learn. They generate a new habit of teaching, to work hard at 'prompting' for better use of a strategy.

Michael Pressley - Short Biography
Michael Pressley (Mike) was awarded the title of University Distinguished Professor of Michigan State University, the highest academic honor within the university. Mike was a prolific author and his research led to balanced approaches to reading research instruction and assessment, to greater understanding of the cognitive processes underlying reading comprehension, and to policies and practices in education that have improved reading achievement of children in elementary schools in America and around the world.

Action Research

The first 10 years of SharpReading's use was developed within the walls of The New Zealand Graduate School of Education (NZGSE).  NZGSE is a registered teachers college in Christchurch, New Zealand and has been operating since 1996 and has been using SharpReading's expertise since 2001.  

SharpReading's initial challenge was to train beginning teachers quickly. NZGSE training focuses on reading from day one because it is thought that the teaching of reading is one of the hardest and most complex subjects to teach.  Trainees are expected to assess and teach reading in their first week with real students (one on one), in real classrooms. This is a very confronting learning process.

Our response was to provide quick and powerful tools to provide a jump start to teaching reading and this forced us to be crystal clear about what we expected.  We developed teaching scripts, a step by step process to deliver a guided reading routine and this enabled trainees to successfully run reading lessons in a wide range of settings across the primary year levels.  

With a clear, structure process in place our trainees were able to teach with confidence.  With this confidence came the cognitive freedom to monitor and guide the performance of their students.

Our present day teaching routines did not happen overnight. For 10 years SharpReading refined their reading routines with 100s of beginning teachers (all university graduates) until SharpReading became an independent business in 2010. NZGSE still uses the SharpReading approach. However we now work closely with a wide range of experienced teachers and SharpReading Trainers in classrooms around New Zealand and Australia, continuing to refine our routines and training processes. 

One of the main tenets of NZGSE is that trainees must show evidence that they improved the reading skills of their students. If they don't, they do not get to graduate.  This incredibly high expectation is why NZGSE graduates are highly sought after in New Zealand and around the world and is a reflection of the quality of the institution and the importance of SharpReading's approaches. 

This expectation continues to pervade our teaching and learning philosophy.  Please click here to view our data page showing whole school improvement in reading in New Zealand and Australia.

Explicit Instruction

"Effective and explicit instruction can be viewed as providing a series of instructional supports or scaffolds, first through the logical selection and sequencing of content, and then by breaking down that content into manageable instructional units based on students’ cognitive capabilities (e.g., working memory capacity, attention, and prior knowledge).

Instructional delivery is characterized by clear descriptions and demonstrations of a skill, followed by supported practice and timely feedback. Initial practice is carried out with high levels of teacher involvement; however, once student success is evident, the teacher’s support is systematically withdrawn, and the students move toward independent performance."
"Effective and Efficient Teaching” by Anita L Archer & Charles A Hughes

This lines up with our concept of scaffolding a new strategy -  the gradual release of responsibility as students take on the practice and develop confidence with that strategy. 

Explicit Teaching (Explain, Model, Guided Practice of a strategy) is followed by a separate routine which promotes the opportunity for the all important (and often neglected) Independent Practice, until fluency is achieved.

Our point of difference may be seen in our emphasis on this Independent Practice. For us this is the all important phase in acquiring a new skill where the learner is given the freedom to 'have a go', take risks, make mistakes and problem solve solutions under the watchful eye of the teacher BUT without the threat of continually being corrected.

In the Junior School (Decoding Strategy Instruction) we label phonics instruction and Big Book / Shared Reading as Explicit Teaching, while ‘Guided Reading’ with the SharpReading '5 Bits' routine provides the Independent Practice.

In this Independent Practice, the student is confronted by an authentic reading experience where they have the chance to piece together all the strategies they have been taught to read the text. The teacher's primary role is to observe whether there is transference of these skills into this reading opportunity without undue interference (teachable moments). If a deficit is observed then this becomes the object of further explicit teaching at a later time.

For the Middle and Upper Primary (Comprehension Strategy Instruction) 
we suggest the same differentiation in instruction - Explicit Teaching (where new comprehension strategies are introduced and taught) and Independent Practice (The 5 Steps Routine) where now there is the chance to practise the mental fluency and flexibility of thinking required of the truly active reader WHILE they are reading. 

Cognitive Load Theory - the case for measured instruction

"The implications of working memory limitations on instructional design can hardly be overestimated. Anything beyond the simplest cognitive activities appear to overwhelm working memory. Prima facie, any instructional design that flouts or merely ignores working memory limitations inevitably is deficient."

Cognitive load theory emerged from the work of educational psychologist John Sweller and colleagues in the 1980s and 1990s (see especially Sweller 1988,1999). Cognitive load theory indicates that when teaching students new content and skills, teachers need to be mindful of the expectation they are placing on the working memory of the learner.  

This is one of the key requirements we have for the teachers we work with - they must be able to monitor the engagement of their students and carefully manage their cognitive load. Even when they are operating within the developmental progression we have provided (our 6 stages) the teacher should always be looking to hold the students in that 'hard fun' zone where the very best learning occurs.

Developing this teacher skill is one of the keys to the successful, confident, motivated readers that emerge from SharpReading.


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