The U.S. faces a dire problem with early reading instruction in schools. Students’ reading abilities at the end of the third grade strongly predict later academic success, and foundational reading skills must not be allowed to fall by the wayside. Students who are not proficient readers by that stage are four times less likely than their proficient peers to graduate high school, and represent 63 percent of all students who do not graduate, according to a 2012 report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

An earlier report by the foundation entitled Early Warning: Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters explains that through the third grade, students are still learning how to read, whereas in the fourth grade and beyond, students begin “reading to learn,” using reading as a tool to acquire knowledge in other subjects and engage in critical thinking within a broader curriculum.

When students do not learn to read by that point, they miss out on a great deal of subsequent learning. Furthermore, students who do fall behind in third grade are statistically unlikely to catch up: three quarters of students who are poor readers in third grade will remain poor readers in high school.

Outcomes like these are what led Dr. Jerry Zimmermann and Dr. Carolyn Brown to bring to reading pedagogy a robust theoretical and practical solution from cognitive science.

Within the past thirty years, the wife and husband team have co-founded three companies, including Foundations in Learning, which provides screening, diagnostic, and intervention solutions to detect and remedy literacy deficits in elementary and middle school students. Their scientifically-based intervention solution, Access Code, hones in on the precise knowledge and skills struggling readers lack when they fall behind in reading after third grade.

To understand what makes Access Code stand out, it is important to understand past decades’ trends in teaching reading and where those trends are more linked to teaching methodology than to findings in learning science.

For many years, an approach to teaching reading known as “whole language” or more recently “balanced literacy” was the predominant reading education model. This approach de-emphasized explicit phonics instruction irrespective of the importance of phonics instruction identified by the National Reading Panel Report, which was instantiated as policy in the No Child Left Behind era.

EdWeek reports that nearly two decades of research demonstrated a need for students to receive “daily, explicit, systematic phonics instruction in the early grades.” Yet, phonics instruction never took proper hold in Pre-K-3 classrooms as the standard for reading instruction.

A recent New York Times Op-Ed faults education colleges for overlooking research on best practices and failing to prepare teachers to teach the next generation of readers. In any case, students who have not acquired reading proficiency in the early grades will later need targeted intervention that will remedy the skills they lack, which are often related to the phonics and decoding they were never explicitly taught.

As Zimmermann points out, both whole language and phonics-driven approaches, may indeed work for some students, but this does not mean they will work for all.

“There’s considerable discussion about how to get teachers and educators comfortable that these methods may work for a number of kids, many of whom are ready to learn” he said. “But there are a lot of students for whom neither of these methods will be effective – not when they are learning for the first time, or later, when they enter remediation.  They need these basic skills, and they need them to become automatic as quickly as possible. They need an effective means to get there.”

Both the content and structure of the Access Code intervention solution are designed to remedy the deficits in the knowledge and use of foundational skills many students never master before third grade. The goal of the scope and sequence of Access Code is to develop students’ automaticity of word recognition– the ability to immediately and effortlessly decode words across contexts– so they can begin to improve their higher-order reading skills.

“Our focus over the last decade has been to scientifically develop and test a means to identify the construct of automaticity and to provide an effective means for students to develop decoding knowledge so they can become automatic word recognizers,” Dr. Brown said. “The development of automaticity is a critical precursor to fluency.  And that construct is the invisible thing that happens for some students while it just never clicks for others.”

Students who never fully develop automaticity struggle with reading because their cognitive load is so overburdened by decoding individual words, that “they can’t get to fluency and reading for comprehension” according to Dr. Brown. After grade three, when students are expected to acquire and apply information from texts, they may begin to have difficulty in all subjects in school.

The underlying learning model of Access Code employs a varied practice model from cognitive science that is designed to help students acquire critical phonics knowledge in a way that they can automatically use it. The varied practice model has been demonstrated to be more effective than a mastery-oriented, block-practice approach in developing generalization and application of skills.

“What we did in terms of making it usable for early reading was to develop a scope and sequence for teaching phonics that didn’t take a linear approach, but rather allowed students to contrast different sounds and letter combinations to enhance the students’ ability to actually retain and use that information” Dr. Brown explained. “The system allows them to efficiently extract the regularities and irregularities of the phonics code.”

In other words, rather than having students practice a single skill at a time when they use the tool, only moving on to the next isolated skill after they have mastered the first, students will practice several carefully selected skills during each of the sessions which are designed to help them integrate and retain what they have learned.

To bring their approach to the classroom, Dr. Brown and Dr. Zimmermann used technology to streamline the instructional process and do the heavy lifting in terms of varied practice sequencing and differentiation for each student.

“We exploited not only a learning model, we realized that the easiest way to personalize the learning for each student’s specific needs, was to use technology,” Dr. Brown said.

Still, Access Code is a blended approach, so while the online tool provides support with developing automaticity of word recognition, Brown says that “the teacher is able in small group or even whole group instruction to take it to another level of varied practice. The teacher is the coach who personally facilitates the journey through additional practice that brings reading to life. This blended model not only helps new skills stick, it creates the emotional-social context with a teacher-coach that is essential for learning.”

Both Dr. Brown and Dr. Zimmermann emphasize the importance for early learners to feel that there is someone who cares about their learning. A program can never take the place of a caring teacher.

To learn more about how you can support struggling readers with Access Code or read about the work of Dr. Carolyn Brown and Dr. Jerry Zimmermann, at Foundations in Learning, visit

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