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College of Education > News and Publications > News: 2009 > Innovative Early Reading Strategy Helps K–2 At-Risk Students

Innovative Early Reading Strategy Helps K–2 At-Risk Students

RAILS instruction model for improving reading

by Joe Savrock (April 2009)

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Children who are at risk of reading failure can benefit from an innovative instruction model that offers a balanced approach between whole language and phonics.

The model, Reading and Integrated Literacy Strategies (RAILS), is an early intervention program developed by a team of Penn State researchers.

RAILS is designed to reduce or prevent reading problems. It promises to improve the reading abilities of low-achieving elementary school students and can help prevent the eventual placement of children in special education classrooms.

“One of the reasons students end up in special education is that they are not learning how to read in regular education classrooms,” notes Robert Stevens, associate professor of educational psychology and head of the research group that developed the RAILS program. This is borne out in a 2002 report by the President’s Commission of Excellence In Special Education, which reveals a startling statistic: Of nearly 3 million children identified as having specific learning disabilities, 80 percent are there simply because they haven’t learned how to read.

Co-investigators of the RAILS project are Penn State faculty member Peggy Van Meter, former graduate students Joanna Garner and Cindy Bochna, current graduate student Nicholas Warcholak, and former faculty member Tracey Hall.

The researchers implemented RAILS for a four-year period at three high-poverty, low-achieving elementary schools in a small city in central Pennsylvania. The administrators of that school district had initially approached the Penn State researchers in hopes of finding a solution to an ongoing reading problem. With funding from the U.S. Department of Education, the researchers developed the RAILS model.

RAILS provides children in grades K–2 with a second reading period each day to supplement an earlier 60–90 minute reading period. The second reading period is designed to give the students time for additional practice on what was taught in the morning session, thus enhancing their retention of newly learned skills and vocabulary.

The model integrates instruction in three basic building blocks—phonics, vocabulary development, and comprehension. The key, say Stevens and his colleagues, is balance and integration among these three building blocks. 

For example, a kindergarten class may learn the “H” sound (phonics), then practice the sound with the "A" and "T" sounds to build the word "hat." Then the teacher may talk about other “H” words and what they mean (vocabulary). Following that, the teacher reads a story about hats (comprehension).

RAILS was shown to be an effective intervention for primary grade reading. Subsequent standardized tests revealed higher reading achievement scores among students who had participated. Children in kindergarten, first grade, and second grade who had spent 1–2 years in the RAILS program significantly outperformed those in non-RAILS classes on measures of reading comprehension, vocabulary, reading fluency, and word attack skills.

The study was published in a recent issue of the Journal of Education for Students Placed At Risk (vol. 13, no. 4, 2008). The study adds to the evidence that integrated reading instruction can produce higher reading achievement for at-risk primary grade children.

RAILS was utilized in both regular and special education classrooms because, as Stevens notes, “to examine only special education settings would be to ignore a potential source of the problem.”