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 programs, which are typically implemented between pre-kindergarten and third grade. As students get older, the focus shifts to reading comprehension, analysis, and exposure to complex ideas.

  • Tiered instruction to fit student and school needs: Interventions vary significantly in terms of scope and scale, frequently delineated into tiers. Tier I instruction tends to be core curricula that serve as the learning foundation throughout the school year for an entire grade. Interventions in Tiers II and III take the form of individual or small group interventions focused on addressing gaps for students who have not met grade-level benchmarks. Tiers II and III interventions may follow the same curriculum but differ in the intensity of delivery. Smaller group sizes, greater focus on skill gaps, and/or more time can increase the intensity of intervention.

  • Accelerating student learning: An increasingly common approach to supplementing a core curriculum is through the delivery of Tier II and III interventions, colloquially referred to as 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 students who need support in grade-level attainment.

  • 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.

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

Before making investments in literacy curricula and interventions, city and county leaders should ensure this strategy addresses local needs.

The Urban Institute and Mathematica have developed indicator frameworks to help local leaders assess conditions related to upward mobility, identify barriers, and guide investments to address these challenges. These indicator frameworks can serve as a starting point for self-assessment, not as a comprehensive evaluation, and should be complemented by other forms of local knowledge.

The Urban Institute's Upward Mobility Framework identifies a set of key local conditions that shape communities’ ability to advance upward mobility and racial equity. Local leaders can use the Upward Mobility Framework to better understand the factors that improve upward mobility and prioritize areas of focus. Data reports for cities and counties can be created here.

Several indicators in the Upward Mobility Framework may be improved with investments in high-quality literacy curricula and interventions. To measure these indicators and determine if investments in this strategy could help, examine the following:

Mathematica's Education-to-Workforce (E-W) Indicator Framework helps local leaders identify the data that matter most in helping students and young adults succeed. Local leaders can use the E-W framework to better understand education and workforce conditions in their communities and to identify strategies that can improve outcomes in these areas.

Several indicators in the E-W Framework may be improved with investments in high-quality literacy curricula and interventions. To measure these indicators and determine if investments in this strategy could help, examine the following:

  • 6th grade on track: Percentage of students in grade 6 with passing grades in language arts and math, attendance of 90 percent or higher, and no in- or out-of-school suspensions or expulsions.

  • 8th grade on track: Percentage of students in grade 8 with a GPA of 2.5 or higher, no Ds or Fs in language arts or math, attendance of 96 percent or higher, and no in- or out-of-school suspensions or expulsions.

  • 9th grade on track: Percentage of students in grade 9 with a GPA of 3.0 or higher, no Ds or Fs in language arts or math, attendance of 96 percent or higher, and no in- or out-of-school suspensions or expulsions.

  • Math and reading proficiency in grade 3: Percentage of students in grade 3 who meet grade-level standards in reading/language arts and math as measured by state standardized tests.

  • Math and reading proficiency in grade 8: Percentage of students in grade 8 who meet grade-level standards in reading/language arts and math as measured by state standardized tests.

  • Math and reading proficiency in high school: Percentage of tested students who meet grade-level standards in reading/language arts and math, as measured by state standardized tests.

  • Integrate literacy skills with content-rich instruction: Preliminary research shows that the use of content-rich reading materials may support the development of literacy skills. When designing Tier I literacy curricula, teachers should collaborate to align curricula of language arts (LA), social studies, and science class so that narrative texts selected for LA and informational texts used to deliver knowledge in science and social studies are complementary.

  • Intensive interventions taught 30 minutes per day; at least 3 days per week: While some interventions in Tiers II and III are delivered during a portion of the normal LA period, many take place during elective or designated intervention periods during the school day. Intensive interventions like high-dosage tutoring have been shown to have the best results when delivered in-person during the normal school day for at least thirty minutes per day and, at minimum, three days per week, although many high-quality programs are delivered daily. Experts note that effectiveness of interventions drops quickly when attendance is inconsistent, so maintaining attendance rates should be a high priority.

  • Individualized instruction in earliest grades: Expert opinion advises that one-on-one instruction is critical to yielding the best outcomes for grades K-3. In later elementary and middle school, small groups may be utilized, however group sizes should be kept smaller than five students per instructor.

  • Regular, ongoing monitoring of student progress: High-quality programs routinely assess student literacy, such as at the beginning, middle and end of the school year to identify gaps in literacy attainment against grade-level benchmarks. Assessment results should then be used to identify students who need support and tailor intervention curricula to their specific needs. Subsequently, teachers can administer progress checks as short as one-minute every week to each student receiving services until they meet grade-level benchmarks three times in a row and are no longer in need of Tier II or III support.

  • Delivered by trained, compensated instructors: High-quality literacy interventions may be delivered by teachers, trained tutors, special educators, or other staff. Importantly, evaluations of several program models have found that interventions outside of core classroom instruction remain effective even when delivered by instructors that do not have a formal teacher certification. High-quality programs tend to seek tutors or instructors who can demonstrate literacy skills-related content knowledge, relational skills, and an ability to follow the intervention protocol. High-quality programs provide significant synchronous training for instructors and tutors prior to the start of a school year, during regular professional development sessions, in addition to real-time coaching.

  • Ongoing evaluation of virtual interventions: While many evaluations confirm the results of interventions delivered in-person, initial results from interventions delivered virtually via a live video conference between the instructor and students indicate that for older students, virtual tutoring or programs may be comparable in effectiveness. Ongoing evaluations are currently working to confirm these findings.

  • Use data to identify which students may need support: Many high-quality interventions rely on academic data, including grades and assessments, to identify which students are academically at-risk and may benefit from intervention. Doing so reduces the risk that unintentional biases on the part of teachers or other school staff will come into play when identifying students who may need support.

  • Utilize an asset-based approach to multilingualism: When delivering reading support services to students who speak multiple languages, experts advise delivering literacy interventions in a single language that is dominant–typically the one the child speaks at home–while also utilizing language mixing to leverage both languages and foster understanding. The use of culturally-relevant materials as well as visual aids and audio content has also been shown to support increased literacy among multilingual students. Experts note that a focus on reading in the student’s dominant language first can help them increase their reading level in other languages as well.

  • Hire instructors who reflect the students’ communities: Research suggests that students benefit from receiving instruction from teachers, tutors, or other staff who come from similar communities or cultural backgrounds. Programs should prioritize recruiting instructors who possess cultural competency that allows them to understand the experiences and circumstances of the students they serve.

  • Be mindful of digital fluency and technology access: Some interventions, like asynchronous, online tutoring programs, can exacerbate equity gaps because they are more likely to be used by highly-resourced students who have access to technology and caregivers with digital fluency. Educators should consider methods for increasing access for all students by making technology available to students via the school library or loan programs, among other methods.

  • Teachers: Language arts teachers and special education teachers are crucial in identifying curricular needs, administering initial assessments, and supporting the overall learning of students. Experts note that intensive interventions like high dosage tutoring tend to be most successful where there is teacher buy-in and interventions are viewed as supporting teachers in achieving their goals versus replacing them. Teacher support may also help in cases where the teachers union must approve changes to workload or expectations.

  • Site coordinators and other school staff: Site coordinators play a particularly essential role in implementing interventions that require coordinating student schedules, providing building access for external partners, organizing tutors, and other operational activities. These activities take significant time, and experts caution that without dedicated staff who are responsible for them, interventions are less likely to succeed.

  • District leadership and principals: In many districts, decision-making authority related to curricula and the implementation of other interventions lies with district leadership. They have the ability to allocate district funding and approve partnerships with external program providers. They also may advocate to leaders in high levels of government for increased funding or support for needed interventions. Principals can play a critical role by allocating school-level resources, like support staff and discretionary funds, to high dosage tutoring or other tier I and III interventions.

  • Community-based or external education partners: In many cases, schools may bring in third party organizations to implement interventions like high-dosage tutoring. These partners may bring crucial expertise and capacity needed to implement interventions and can become critical collaborators in shaping the school’s approach to literacy.

  • State legislators and other government officials: Elected or appointed officials can support literacy-related interventions by elevating literacy as a policy priority and advocating for public funding for evidence-based interventions. Officials within the state Department of Education may also have the ability to influence funding or curricular decisions related to state standards.

  • Foster strong partnerships within schools: There should be a high degree of collaboration between teachers, tutors, administrators, and instructional coaches to ensure that curricula and interventions are delivered with fidelity and students receive coordinated support. This multi-stakeholder collaboration can also drive logistical decisions, like identifying optimal times for students to be pulled from class for tutoring.

  • Engage teachers to align curricula selection to student needs and state standards: Prior to selecting curricula, conduct a needs assessment to understand what types of features a curriculum should include, such as specialized programming for students with diverse needs or English Language Learners.

  • Equip teachers and tutors to deliver curricula with fidelity: 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 educators are sufficiently trained, supported by coaching, and well-versed in curricula materials will ensure greater implementation fidelity, a key factor in increasing impact.

  • Partner with teacher colleges and higher education institutions to recruit instructors: Many high-quality programs have reported success in recruiting tutors or other instructors for high-dosage tutoring by partnering with higher education institutions to hire aspiring teachers, school counselors, social workers, or other aligned professions.

  • Equip teachers with measurement tools: Evidence-based practices that can support literacy development include progress monitoring (tracking individual student performance against curriculum-specific benchmarks) and error analysis (documenting and reviewing individual errors to identify student- and class-wide trends). By equipping teachers with validated measurement tools and dedicated work time for measurement and analysis activities, they can better refine instruction.

  • Literacy assessment and progress monitoring: Students tend to be identified as in need of support via an assessment of student literacy in areas such as letter sounds, decoding, comprehension, vocabulary, and content knowledge. The same assessments may be used to measure progress. Most programs pair a series of formal assessments–typically at the beginning, middle points, and end of the school year–with brief, informal skills checks on a weekly basis. Formal assessments can be used to identify students in need of support, while the more frequent informal checks can help uncover sticking points in the curricula and help instructors tailor their focus with a particular student.

  • Fidelity of intervention delivery: High-quality programs frequently conduct ‘fidelity checks’, wherein program administrators or instructional coaches observe instructors to ensure that interventions are delivered in accordance with protocol.

  • Attendance: Students attending programming and arriving on time can be an important indicator of the accessibility of an intervention and how successfully it engages students.

  • Need for ongoing intervention: Ideally, Tier II and III interventions are designed to bring a student to grade-level, enabling them to engage with the core instruction with the rest of their class. The degree of student response to the intervention may be an indicator that the intervention is not being delivered with fidelity, that there may have been a mismatch between student needs and the intervention, or that the student’s learning needs require more intensive support.

  • Grades: Possible indicators of effectiveness are class grades or other measures of student performance, which may improve over the course of participating in an intervention.

  • Tutor or instructor hiring and attrition: Experts note that instructor vacancy rates and attrition of tutors can be an indicator of various aspects of program health, including adequacy of training and site culture.

  • Incidence of behavioral issues: Experts note that sometimes behavioral issues during class are a result of a student not understanding classroom instruction or not feeling confident. Teachers may notice that behavioral incidents decrease when students receive necessary academic supports.

Evidence-based examples

Provides books to high-poverty elementary schools for students to read over three consecutive summers
Elementary and middle school success
A classroom-based digital literacy program for children in prekindergarten through sixth grade.
Kindergarten readiness 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

Results for America would like to thank the following contributors who lent their expertise to the creation of this resource:

  • Dr. Kim Dadisman: Kim Dadisman is the Associate Director of Policy for J-PAL North America. In this role she works with researchers, policymakers and J-PAL staff to disseminate evidence from randomized evaluations and promote evidence-informed policy on effective strategies to improve outcomes for those experiencing poverty in North America. Kim also leads J-PAL North America's efforts to expand evidence-based tutoring to tens of thousands of low-income students across the United States. These efforts have resulted in legislative changes that have allocated hundreds of millions of dollars to tutoring.
  • Dr. Clare Hagen Alvarado: Claire Hagen Alvarado is the Executive Director of Literacy First, an outreach program of the University of Texas that teaches reading to young children through high-impact tutoring. Previously, Claire taught reading to multilingual learners at the elementary, middle and high school levels. She served as the Language Arts Supervisor for the Austin Independent School District and then earned her Education Leadership Doctorate from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.