Reading Instruction that Works: The Case for Balanced Teaching (2nd edition)

reviewed by Mike Currier - 2003

coverTitle: Reading Instruction that Works: The Case for Balanced Teaching (2nd edition)
Author(s): Michael Pressley
Publisher: Guilford Press, New York
ISBN: 1572307331, Pages: 378, Year: 2002
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This book is more than a compilation of lectures presented by an astute-thinking reading educator.  Duty took me beyond Dr. Pressley’s impressive introduction of himself and his interesting vita to realize that this was going to be a fascinating read.  Sure, I could put the book down whenever I needed to, but I was always anxious to pick it up and pan for more nuggets of solidly presented research and information.


Reading Instruction that Works is not a textbook for a graduate reading education course, nor is it a book that practicing elementary educators will likely be attracted to read, although they ought to – not enough recipes for guaranteed success.  It is, instead, a valuable resource of significant information and viewpoints about the nature of the reading act, the essential aspects of learning to read and of not learning to read, and the processes needed to transform reading education in our elementary schools today.  Pressley addresses, full-face, the debate between whole language reading and skills-based instruction.  He does so with the flair of a Little League baseball umpire calling a game where his own child is one of the pitchers, but you can’t tell on which team his child is playing.  He accomplishes this in such a way that a parent of a child on neither team would ever have the opportunity to yell or scream at the ump.


The subtitle of “The Case for Balanced Teaching” comes from his desire to use the positive aspects of whole language and skills-based reading education that are demonstrated to be effective and necessary, based on sound research data and results.  He accomplishes this without any hint of compromise or from the view of a third-party arbitrator.  I do not recall him using the term eclectic either.  Pressley gives a clear-cut case for a blend of the two warring fields by the way he stresses the concept of balanced teaching.


Dr. Pressley presents his viewpoints not from the mind of a reading pedagogy expert, but from the more advantageous eye of a child development and learning expert.  Although there are plenty of references regarding the detailed aspects of classroom reading instruction, I enjoyed the text primarily because of the predominant emphasis of information and recommendations from the child-as-a learner’s point of view.  Piaget would have been proud of the developmental psychologist, Dr. Pressley.


Although packed with heavy, serious concepts and more research than most dissertations ever would contain, the book is an easy read because of its organization; each chapter utilizes cognitive organizers, detailed rationale for each topic, easy-to-digest research results, well-placed and concise summaries, real-life, useful data, benchmark school studies and illustrative teacher case reports, and concluding reflections.  His references are convincing in scope and substance.  Every chapter could easily be expanded into an entire book on each topic.  A recommendation: read the chapter summaries first, hard to find as they may be, even though they are not at the beginning of each chapter where they ought to be.


The first chapter, “Whole Language,” is an impressive summation of what whole language is and is not.  It covers a comfortable spectrum of both extreme whole language and the moderate positions on it as well.  Impressive research references abound in each segment of his presentation.  The same can be said for the second chapter on “Skilled Reading,” or the anti-Whole Language approach.  These two chapters would be an essential read for those who missed the debate or who did not understand what all the fussing and yelling was about.  Pressley puts everything in its proper perspective.


Every parent ought to read his third chapter on “Children Who Experience Problems in Learning to Read,” which focuses on biologically determined dyslexia and other forms of poor reading.  If this were to happen, there would be far, far fewer children tagged with the dyslexia label.


Dr. Pressley’s background in developmental psychology is strongly evidenced by his chapters on “Before Reading Instruction Begins” and “Expert Primary-Level Teaching of Literacy.”  Here, his expertise shines.  His presentations on Vygotsky’s theories are comfortably easy to understand; read Pressley before you read Vygotsky, and you will have a better chance of understanding the latter.  His detailed presentation on emergent literacy and implications for instruction are convincing.  P lugs for commercial programs and materials are minimal, and his discussion of Reading Recovery® and other name-based instructional approaches are tastefully treated without giving a sense of arm-twisting bias.


The chapter on “The Need for Increased Comprehension Instruction” is treated with a more fervent battle cry.  His complaint that explicit comprehension instruction is rarely observed in classrooms across the country is underscored with research gleanings of effective attributes of successful comprehension instruction classrooms.  He presents several convincing benchmark school studies and specific programmatic citations to build his case for restructuring effective classroom comprehension instruction.  P ractitioners would not feel that Pressley was shaking his finger at them, but they would have a strong sense that he is clearly telling them what needs to be done to get out of the doghouse.


Although a classroom teacher who was not well-read on the latest research and front-line, innovative approaches to reading instruction (i.e., Mosaic of Thought, 1997) would receive a better-than-Reader’s Digest synopsis of many, current reading reformation movements, Pressley makes no bones about the critical need for wide-sweeping reform of the knowledge base of today’s teachers.  Dr. Pressley does an impressive job of utilizing research results in both interesting and useful ways throughout the book. 


Yes, the book is a straightforward easy read, and Pressley successfully covers all the bases, but I regret that more illustrations, visual organizers, charts, tables, and lists were not used.  This can be forgiven, though, by the fact that he does not wax professorially and overwhelm the reader with jabber-wocky jargon and philosophical rantings.  He is modest in taking little credit for many of the positions given in the book, and he shares credit for his writing with several of his collegial presenters and researchers.  College professors and doctoral students would do well to consume the book.  Every elementary classroom educator and curriculum guru should read it, but I doubt they would want to because Dr. Pressley resists giving a definitive recipe for reading instruction success, nor does he offer any handouts with his compilation of “do-it-this-way” presentations that every teacher enjoys.


I guess the lucky person to get the most out of the book would be a reading education grad student who is in need of a one-volume, cramming survey to prepare him/herself for comps.




Keene, E.O. and Zimmerman, Z.  (1997).  Mosaic of Thought:  Teaching Comprehension in a Reader's Workshop.  Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 105 Number 1, 2003, p. 24-27 ID Number: 10931, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 8:26:20 AM

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