Literacy curricula and interventions

Strategy overview

  • Building a strong foundation: Evidence-based literacy curricula and interventions help students build the skills they need to read and write at grade level. Foundational skills, like basic writing, vocabulary, and reading fluency, are often the focus of early literacy, which is typically implemented between pre-kindergarten and third grade. As students get older, the focus shifts to reading comprehension, analysis, and exposure to complex ideas.

  • Learning to read: Literacy curricula and interventions for students in grades K-3 focus on building the skills they need to read fluently and with comprehension. Reading by the end of third grade marks a critical transition point in a child’s development: literacy skills are necessary for nearly all subjects in fourth grade and later. As a result, high-intensity interventions take on particular importance in a student’s earlier years. Many literacy interventions for younger students are delivered in small groups or one-on-one settings and may also emphasize parental engagement (i.e. reading with a child at home).

  • Reading to learn: As students advance to middle and high school, reading becomes a key skill for all types of learning. Literacy curricula and interventions, therefore, focus on exposing students to more complex ideas and themes (for instance, by assigning varied text types, like biographies, poetry, and fiction) and encouraging analysis. Evidence-based writing interventions, which are particularly common for high school students, help students apply their reading and analytical skills.

  • Selecting a curriculum to fit student, school needs: Evidence-based reading curricula vary significantly in terms of scope and scale. Some are core curricula, serving as the foundation for all literacy learning throughout the school year for an entire grade; others are short-term interventions, which can be delivered either grade-wide or for a subset of students. Curricula can also be supplemented with evidence-based practices that support literacy development, like small group classes and peer tutoring.

  • Training teachers: Many evidence-based curricula and interventions include significant training before the school year for the teachers who will deliver the model. Such training allows teachers to familiarize themselves with broader subject areas (i.e. grammar) and the specific model before engaging with students. This is often supplemented by periodic professional development workshops that help teachers make class- and student-specific adaptations as the school year progresses.

  • Accelerating student learning: An increasingly common approach to supplementing a core curriculum is through high-dosage tutoring programs, which provide intensive learning for individual students or small groups. High-dosage tutoring — which has proven effective for students of all ages and across content areas — is most impactful when integrated into the standard school day and delivered to the students who are most behind their classmates in academic progress.

Issue Areas
K-12 education
Target Population
All school-aged children
Key Stakeholders
District or School Leadership, Instructional Coaches/Content Leaders, Teachers, Nonprofit Partners, Families, Program Evaluation Team

What evidence supports this strategy?

Meta-analyses of rigorous studies of reading curricula and interventions found statistically significant, positive effects for students of different ages, English language learners, and students with disabilities.

  • A 2020 meta-analysis measuring the impact of reading interventions on students in grades 1-3 found a significant increase for a range of reading outcomes, particularly comprehension.

  • A 2020 meta-analysis of integrated literacy and content-area instruction in grades K-5 found positive, significant effects on vocabulary and reading comprehension.

  • A 2020 meta-analysis on language comprehension interventions for students in grades K-5 found significant positive effects on reading and listening comprehension; the effects also indicated positive outcomes for English language learners.

  • A 2017 meta-analysis and research synthesis of small group reading interventions for students with reading difficulties found significant positive effects for students of all ages in areas including vocabulary, reading comprehension, and phonics; effects were largest for elementary students.

  • A 2021 research synthesis found that high-dosage tutoring dramatically improved student performance in math and literacy, with students recovering between 3-15 months of learning and advancing an average of 16 percentile points on standardized tests.

Is this strategy right for my community?

Implementing effective literacy interventions and curricula has been shown to improve outcomes predictive of upward mobility. These outcomes, identified by the Urban Institute, are effective public education and preparation for college.

City and county leaders can assess local conditions for each of these outcomes using the metrics below, identified by the Urban Institute. This assessment can be used to determine whether this strategy is appropriate for their community. (Note: these metrics are a starting point for self-assessment and are not intended to be comprehensive.)

All cities and counties with populations over 75,000 can receive a customized data sheet here.

  • Measuring the effectiveness of public education in your community: Examine the average per-grade change in English Language Arts achievement between the third and eighth grades. These data are available from Stanford University’s Education Data Archive.

  • Measuring preparation for college in your community: Examine the share of 19- and 20-year-olds with a high school degree. These data are available from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

Best practices in implementation

  • Prioritize curricula with a strong teacher training component: Many curricula and related interventions provide robust training for teachers to deliver the model, along with ongoing professional development, and, in some cases, a credential. Ensuring that selected curricula have sufficient training programming and materials will better position teachers to effectively deliver the model with fidelity.

  • Incorporate relevant, culturally responsive themes: Many literacy curricula and interventions offer significant opportunities to expose students to new ideas through reading and writing. When identifying particular curricula and interventions for implementation, prioritize those that offer culturally relevant materials and lessons or provide a framework through which schools and teachers can adapt lessons to do so themselves.

  • Deliver the curriculum with a high degree of fidelity: Evidence-based curricula are often designed to be delivered under specific conditions; only certain programs are particularly adaptable to a range of implementation styles. Carefully evaluate student needs and ensure the curriculum can be delivered with fidelity, including frequency (i.e. daily), length (yearlong, quarterly, etc.), and scale (individual students, small groups, classwide).

  • Align curricula selection to student, school needs and state standards: With the proliferation of evidence-based reading curricula available, school districts have the opportunity to be highly selective. Prior to evaluating curricula, conduct a needs assessment to understand what types of features a curriculum should include, such as specialized programming for students with disabilities or English Language Learners. Curricula should also be scored against ESSA and any other relevant standards to ensure sufficient alignment.

  • Leverage high-dosage tutoring: For some students, evidence-based curricula should be supplemented with learning recovery programming and practices. To accelerate student learning in reading across all grade levels, launch a high-dosage tutoring program. Effective tutoring generally requires dedicated staff, who should have the capacity to tutor individuals or small groups of students at least three times per week; use of data management tools; and dedicated school time to align lessons and materials with classroom content and curricula.

Evidence-based examples

Provides books to high-poverty elementary schools for students to read over three consecutive summers
Elementary and middle school success
Intensive learning for individual students or small groups to supplement school curriculum 
Elementary and middle school success High school graduation
Supplementary, small-group activity designed to help struggling readers reach grade-level competency
Elementary and middle school success
Curriculum providing a sequence of phonics, reading, and spelling activities
Elementary and middle school success
Peer tutoring program where students work in pairs on reading activities designed to improve reading accuracy, fluency, and comprehension
Elementary and middle school success
First-grade literacy intervention supplementing class instruction
Elementary and middle school success
Phonics-based tutoring program for students grades K–3 with below-average reading skills
Elementary and middle school success
Literacy program for struggling readers two or more years below grade level
Elementary and middle school success
Supplemental curriculum designed for preschoolers and kindergarteners having trouble with reading
Elementary and middle school success Kindergarten readiness
School-wide reform model integrating curriculum, school culture, family, and community supports
Elementary and middle school success