Book Review:
What Really Matters for Struggling Readers: Designing Research-Based Programs
by Richard Allington

Reviewed by Nancy Witherell

What Really Matters for Struggling Readers: Designing Research-Based Programs (Longman, 2001) is an accessible yet information-packed book that provides abundant insight into current research, classroom practices, and current political movements in education in the United States. The reader will find not only overviews of research-based interventions for struggling readers, but also a variety of concrete ideas for implementation.

In the first chapter, Allington explains the impetus for his book, commenting that "much of the rhetoric and policy making that surrounds current efforts at 'reforming' American reading instruction is misguided" (p. 2). Allington elaborates on this point through a critique of the Reading Excellence Act (REA) and its criteria for selecting research studies and, as a result, instruction, strategies, and programs. He questions the ready public acceptance of the REA findings, noting that the 1998 NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) scores indicate the highest nationwide reading achievement level in 30 years (p. 4).


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In the second chapter, Allington emphasizes the need for more in-school reading, noting evidence indicating that increased reading volume raises the level of reading proficiency (p. 24). He thus argues that any successful restructuring of reading comprehension instruction must include increased reading volume, and he offers some practical and creative solutions for generating the necessary uninterrupted blocks of time during the school day.

Chapter 3 focuses on the materials used for reading instruction, emphasizing the importance of "just right" books for children. Allington offers his own method for assessing student-reading materials and discusses various approaches and commercial programs for leveling books and evaluating readability. The details he provides in this section merit careful reading. In terms of practical advice, Allington provides helpful ideas for organizing book rooms and classrooms, stressing the importance of having an ample variety and supply of level-appropriate reading materials.

In the fourth chapter, Allington deals somewhat noncommittally with the topic of reading fluency. Although he offers a lengthy argument for taking reading rate into consideration, ultimately he backs off and warns us not to get too focused on fluency. His argument supporting attention to reading fluency is based on sound logic: Since fluency increases reading volume and reading volume increases reading proficiency, a fluent reader can become proficient more quickly. Readers seeking ways to build students' fluency will learn about numerous strategies based on the use of different grouping structures.

The topic for Chapter 5 is "thoughtful literacy," defined by Allington as the ability to think about the ideas, events, and characters in the text, beyond just recalling details. Allington draws the following conclusions from the research on effective comprehension instruction:

(a) Instruction that highlights strategy development can significantly improve reading comprehension (although only a handful of strategies are successful).

(b) Teachers can learn to provide this type of instruction.

(c) Students need time to master these strategies.

Again, Allington provides practical advice for pursuing these goals through a series of observations and vignettes.

In the sixth chapter, Allington explores prospects for improving instruction for struggling readers. He identifies four key elements to the change process, based on his survey of research-based interventions: support for teachers' professional growth, smaller classes, access to appropriate instructional materials, and blocks of uninterrupted instructional time. To better serve struggling readers he recommends redesigning reader support programs. He offers several solutions to the need for increased instructional time: add a second daily reading lesson, extend the school day, take advantage of summer school, and accelerate literacy development. Regarding the final element, Allington cautions that reading support should not focus purely on the early grades, because substantial gains can also be made in the upper grades, where students have access to intensive, expert instruction.

Allington concludes the book by reiterating his central intent: to provoke thought about what a century of research has revealed about effective reading instruction. In commenting that he hopes his readers now have sufficient evidence to challenge the bureaucracies, he again reveals his underlying political agenda.

What Really Matters for Struggling Readers: Designing Research-Based Programs is well worth reading as Allington offers a fresh view on some very old topics. Some readers may wonder at the lack of attention to phonics and phonemic awareness. Allington notes that this was intentional, given that this topic is extensively covered in Pat Cunningham's Phonics They Use (Longman, 2000), as well as in many other sources.

In conclusion, Allington can rest assured that he has achieved his hope of giving readers information to fight the bureaucracies. Through effective implementation and teaching, the ideas and suggestions in this book could very well lead educators into focusing more on "what really matters" in the teaching and learning of struggling readers.

About the Reviewer

Nancy Witherell is an Associate Professor for the Department of Elementary and Early Childhood Education at Bridgewater State College in Massachussetts, USA. She can be reached at (508) 531-2397; or

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Citation: Witherell, N. (2001, July/August). Book review: What Really Matters for Struggling Readers. Reading Online, 5(1). Available:

Reading Online,
Posted July/August 2001
© 2001 International Reading Association, Inc.   ISSN 1096-1232