Reading Instruction That Works: The Case for Balanced Teaching (4th edition)

reviewed by Wendy Cavendish & Jennifer F. Samson - October 21, 2015

coverTitle: Reading Instruction That Works: The Case for Balanced Teaching (4th edition)
Author(s): Michael Pressley, Richard L. Allington
Publisher: Guilford Press, New York
ISBN: 1462516807, Pages: 487, Year: 2014
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Within education, few controversies have pervasively influenced theory, research, practice, and policy in the way that the reading wars have (Kim, 2008; Pearson, 2004). This controversy resulted from researchers’ dichotomous views on how to remediate reading. In one corner are meaning-based or whole language literacy instruction endorsers, and in the other corner are the skills-based or bottom-up proponents. The divide between whole-language and code-based methods is deep and remains to this day (Davis, 2014). Pressley and Allington serve as tour guides in this well-travelled land of pedagogical reading methods, pulling essential knowledge and research findings together and presenting it to the reader in an informative and accessible manner. This book is written for those seeking the history of and research behind reading, which makes it suitable for teacher educators, graduate students, and reading specialists. Written with a specific focus on adopting a balanced reading approach, this text gives individuals on any sides of the debate the benefit of learning more about the “other side.”

In this text, Pressley and Allington provide a comprehensive history of the reading debate, including an easily digestible overview of the field encompassing history, theory, research, and practice. Specifically, in Chapter 1, the authors discuss primary theorists’ and researchers’ contribution to knowledge in the field. The authors are intentional about listing practical evidence-based strategies for teaching reading, and the summaries and concluding reflections that follow each chapter are particularly useful.

Having research and practice synthesized across all components of reading in one volume is rare. Being able to share this with teacher candidates who are expected to teach reading is invaluable. Inevitably, teachers will find themselves subject to pedagogical fads and curricular mandates dictating how and what they should teach (Davis, 2014). Some districts favor meaning-based approaches and others might lean towards skills-based strategies. Many administrators adopt instructional policies that take a one-size-fits-all approach that helps some and fails others. The authors insist that not all pedagogical approaches work for all students and explain why and what to do about it. The real challenge in teaching reading is not whether to adopt a meaning- or skills-based approach, but rather what to do for students who need more targeted instruction to address a particular subskill area. Pressley and Allington consider the research on struggling readers in Chapter 3 and review the research and methods for these subskill areas of building word recognition, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension in Chapters 5, 6, 7, & 9 respectively.

The authors discuss research in these areas with both breadth and depth and establish their credibility by reporting on their own scholarship and the research of others with copious citations They thoroughly acknowledge the merits of research using one method over another based on student need, but also point out the shortcomings. For example, the authors make a critical point in Chapter 9 that the purpose of transactional strategy instruction is that students choose which strategies to use for specific reading tasks. Major reports, such as one from the National Reading Panel, are also described with a critical lens. This report is critiqued for excluding writing, literature, and motivation in its narrow methodological and conceptual review of research. Pressley and Allington juxtapose the two approaches and argue for a balanced approach to bridge the divide between meaning-based and skills-based reading instruction.

What is particularly helpful in Reading Instruction that Works is the descriptions in Chapter 8 of actual teachers who have achieved some success in teaching students to read in the primary grades by being balanced literacy instructors who flexibly adjust to the needs of their students and utilize both meaning- and skills-based instructional techniques. However, one critique is the need for greater emphasis on research and practice of culturally responsive instruction in reading and the needs of English language learners, given the diversity of the U.S. K12 student population.

In the final two chapters, Pressley and Allington address topics that are essential for moving the field forward. In Chapter 10, the authors discuss the importance of motivation and note that older students require more motivational supports to stay engaged, an area that needs further attention in the field. A balanced approach in reading instruction has the potential to motivate and support adolescent readers who lack a systematic approach to accessing both the code and meaning embedded within texts. Missing in this chapter, however, is any consideration of the role of technology in enhancing reading motivation. Given the widespread use of digital literacy methods in school settings and the burgeoning research on technology-enhanced reading motivation and performance (e.g., Edyburn, 2007; Gunter, 2012), this is an area that warrants inclusion in discussions of reading motivation for struggling readers.

In the final chapter, the authors summarize their work and identify areas in need of additional research (e.g., teacher education, language of instruction, and middle/high schools). They also include a refreshingly frank list of “Ten Dumb and Dangerous Claims About Reading Instruction” followed by a summary of Pressley’s comments at a 1995 National Reading Conference that could generate rich discussions among individuals focused on improving reading. In his comments, he uses a metaphor to urge representatives from both sides of the debate to seek “improvement of the players, with every kid getting the help she or he needs” (p. 451) and make every player a winner. Overall, this insightful book on the history and development of a balanced approach to reading instruction serves as an excellent resource for teachers, teacher educators, and researchers of reading methods.


Davis Jr, O. L. (2014). When will the phonics police come knocking? In G. Reid, J. Soler, & J. Wearmouth, Contextualising Difficulties in Literacy Development: Exploring Politics, Culture, Ethnicity and Ethics (pp. 8386). London: RoutledgeFalmer.

Edyburn, D. L. (2007). Technology-enhanced reading performance: Defining a research

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Flippo, R. F. (1999). Redefining the reading wars: The war against reading

researchers. Educational Leadership, 57(2), 3841.

Gunter, G. A. (2012). Digital book talk: Creating a community of avid readers, one video at

a time. Computers in the Schools, 29(1-2), 135156.

Kim, J. S. (2008). Research and the reading wars. The Phi Delta Kappan, 89(5), 372380.

Pearson, P. D. (2004). The reading wars. Educational Policy, 18(1), 216252.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 21, 2015 ID Number: 18161, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 10:54:14 PM

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