(Part 2 of a three part series)

Under No Child Left Behind, America had no strategy for teaching beginning reading that anyone could articulate or achieve. Common Core State Standards can now correct that problem by adopting a Spiral Staircase model for beginning reading. In Part 1 of this series we explored the failure of the 1997 National Reading Panel’s “five big ideas” to be integrated into a model of literacy. Even today no one can explain the “Isolated Skills Floating in Space” model adopted by No Child Left Behind and punctuated by ten years of reading failures. Now Common Core State Standards and a Spiral Staircase model provide hope for grade-level reading proficiency, guidance for educators, potential for better funding and publishing policy, and possibility for achieving rigorous standards.

NCLB: The Right Requirements Need a Workable Model

In spite of its failures, No Child Left Behind did establish four appropriate requirements for a successful model:  

  • 1)      The model should  be highly consistent with standards-based education,
  • 2)      Have measurable goals,
  • 3)      Include regular standards assessments, and
  • 4)      Build assessment systems that track the achievement of all students against a common set of high instructional standards.

In a successful model teachers would monitor which standards students have or have not met to improve student outcomes, but the standards must be based on a continuum of development-based strategies—not “five big amorphous ideas.” Common Core State Standards enables educators to apply the NCLB requirements to standards of mastery that spiral upward increasing in complexity from grade to grade, but the journey to reading proficiency must begin with the first step, learning to read.

The Spiral Staircase beginning reading model presented below has potential for not only accomplishing NCLB requirements but for accomplishing additional desirable goals:

  • The new model would allow us to abandon over reliance on costly and time consuming publisher/commercial driven tests where teaching to the test currently has the tail wagging the dog.
  • The new model would empower teachers who know how to teach reading to conduct daily classroom-based assessments to inform their instruction and guide their teaching.
  • The new model would save time and money, and be more reliable and effective for informing instruction than publisher/commercial driven assessments.
  • The new model would put good teaching up front and cut back on test preparation time.
  • The new model would replace teaching-to-the-test with teaching an integrated reading, writing, spelling, listening, and speaking curriculum.

Reading Proficiency by the End of 1st Grade

Any reading proficiency model has to focus on reading beginning in preschool. Instead of reading tests which focus on retaining poor preforming 3rd graders, a workable model should reflect what every good teacher of beginning reading knows, that the expected move from “beginning reading” to automatic, independent, “proficient reading,” begins before children enter kindergarten and happens by the end of 1st grade. It is during preschool, kindergarten, and 1st grade that students move from learning to read to reading to learn.  

The Spiral Staircase model presented below is based on a continuum of development-based strategies and emanates from a rich body of developmental data that informs instruction such as the 1998 study, Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children. (Snow, C.E., Burns, S. M., & Griffin, P. (Eds.).Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press).


Each of the five colors depicting spiraling steps shows how reading, writing, sounds and spelling advance in five phases from no reading at the bottom to proficient reading at the top of the staircase. Five research-based phases of early word learning, spelling, and writing are presented; with blue representing Phase 0, green representing Phase 1, red representing Phase 2, magenta representing Phase 3, and yellow representing Phase 4. Each phase is associated with integrated development-based strategies for reading, writing, and sounds & spelling.

The left side of the chart shows how these phases track through the grades in the first years of a child’s education. Appropriate strategies for reading, writing, and sounds & spelling are taught in each phase building on what is already learned, adding new skills and strategies at the right time, and spiraling upward.

Successful teachers of beginning reading will recognize the phase-like progression of development-based skills and strategies represented in the following chart. (This chart is simplified and abbreviated to give the layperson reader an example of the gist of strategic phase development for two areas of beginning reading.)


A particular strength of this model is that it reflects much of what well-trained, successful teachers of beginning reading are already doing, such the appropriate use of leveled text for guided reading in kindergarten and 1st grade. Proponents of this model value what we already know about teaching beginning reading as well as the rich research-base that preceded it.

Hope for the Future

The new Common Core State Standards which are currently driving education reform give us hope, but CCSS must adopt a Spiral Staircase model and give readers a strong start. If students are to handle rigorous grade-level texts as CCSS requires, they should be proficient readers by the end of first grade or receive the intense early intervention they need to move upward.

Hope for the future includes working with parents to insure that kids enter kindergarten ready for success with reading. A successful future depends upon funding early education in preschool and full-day kindergarten. A smart plan would insure that children experience their first two years of public schooling with a qualified well-trained reading teacher. Additionally, we have to intensify efforts for early intervention for children who are struggling with reading in kindergarten and first grade. While many of recommendations just cited received emphasis over the past ten years with No Child Left Behind and its Reading First spinoff, both NCLB and Reading First used the flawed Isolated Skills Floating Around in Space model when the Spiral Staircase model was needed.

Turning Things Around

Here are five specific steps for moving forward:

  • Embrace a Spiral Staircase model with Common Core State Standards
  • Embrace early education and reading at home
  • Encourage corporate and charitable sponsorship of early learning
  • Engage parents from birth
  • Support preschool and full-day kindergarten
  • Place well-trained reading teachers in kindergarten and grade one
  • Insist upon early intervention
  • Embrace new technologies for early education

A learning journey must start somewhere and end somewhere. The journey to grade-level reading proficiency starts at the bottom of a spiral staircase and ends at the top.

Part 3 in this three part series shows specifics if how the Spiral Staircase Model works.

Fountas, I. C.  & Pinnel, G. S.  (1997), Guided Reading: Good First Teaching for All Children. Portsmouth, NH: Heineman.

Snow, C.E., Burns, S. M., & Griffin, P. (Eds.). (1998) Preventing Reading

Difficulties in Young Children. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Dr. J. Richard Gentry is the author of Raising Confident Readers, How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write–From Baby to Age 7. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn and find out more information about his work on his website.

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