Practicing Effective Instruction:

The Exemplary Center for Reading Instruction Approach

The Exemplary Center for Reading Instruction (ECRI) instructs teachers in the effective and efficient use of classroom time.  The Center is built upon the belief that most, if not all, students can learn to read and write successfully if they are properly taught.  Unfortunately, my years of experience as an educator indicated that too often students were not learning these basic skills.  Such failures prompted ECRI to undertake an extensive research agenda designed to identify instructional strategies that facilitate students’ acquisition of basic language skills.  These “effective” teaching procedures have subsequently been incorporated into a total language arts program that has, in turn, been taught to preservice and inservice teachers nationwide.

The purpose of this three-part article will be threefold.  First, the guiding principles upon which ECRI is founded will be delineated.  Second, the basic steps for incorporating ECRI instructional strategies into existing language arts programs will be discussed.  Finally, data regarding the effectiveness of ECRI with regular, special, as well as compensatory education students, will be reviewed.  These data are important because they not only document significant increases in student achievement levels, but they also include unsolicited testimonial support from practitioners.

Guiding Principles

ECRI provides instruction for teachers to teach reading, oral language, spelling, comprehension, study skills, literature, creative writing, and other activities in a highly structured, systematic pattern that ensures mastery.  ECRI is not a substitute for existing reading/language materials.  Instead, it is designed to supplement current basic/literature instruction by providing teachers with strategies that more actively engage their students in learning tasks and provide them with substantially more opportunities to practice what they are being taught.

Through a series of early research studies, ECRI found that student learning was enhanced when:  (a) pupils were provided with sufficient amounts of quality instructional time; (b) teachers positively reinforced their students to increase oral reading speed and accuracy; (c) students were taught to respond accurately to specific teacher directives; (d) teachers expected and required high levels of student mastery; and (e) teachers increased the amount of time spent instructing, checking student responses, and using praise statements.  What follows is a brief description of early research projects that provide the basis for ECRI instructional practices.

Quality Instructional Time

Early in its research efforts, ECRI found that the amount of instructional time provided in reading was highly correlated with student achievement.  This was true as long as the amount of time provided was “quality” time.  That is, instructional time had to be spent on basic skills instruction, such as word recognition, comprehension, and study.  In comparison first-grade classrooms where students spent more time using traditional instructional activities, achievement levels were lower.  The major implication from these initial efforts was that increasing instructional time alone was not enough.  A more critical facet involved what teachers and students were doing with that time.

Teachers’ Use of Positive Reinforcement

In other early investigations it was found that students responded well during instruction and more rapidly if teachers assumed some responsibility for student motivation.  Data from these studies, as well as years of subsequent practical experience, have demonstrated the necessity for incorporating substantial amounts of positive reinforcement into instruction.

Eliciting Overt, Accurate, and Rapid Responses

Early informal observations of low-performing/low-achieving students indicated that these pupils rarely responded orally in class.  In one 3-day observation period, low-achieving students in a first-grade classroom did not respond orally once.  Yet, at the same time, the classroom teacher obtained an average of 35 correct responses from higher performing students.  Similarly, low-achieving students produced no written products over the same period, whereas their higher performing classmates were averaging 1½ to 2½ written responses per minute in their workbooks.

Teachers seemed unable to obtain observable responses from some of their students.  ECRI recognized that unless students respond, they will not learn.  Instruction for teachers on how to obtain responses from typically non-responding or low-responding learners commenced.

Following initial teacher training in ECRI techniques, data showed in a comparative study that, on the average, ECRI students responded three times more than their non-ECRI counterparts, and significant reading achievement differences favored ECRI classrooms.  ECRI students were also making four to five times fewer errors than their fellow students enrolled in non-ECRI classes.

Another comparative investigation found that ECRI students were receiving substantially more opportunities to respond in reading class than their non-ECRI counterparts.  It was noted that ECRI students’ opportunity to respond time ranged from 95% to 99% of their reading period, whereas non-ECRI pupils were given only 20% to 50% of their reading time in which to respond.

The necessity for accuracy in students’ responses was also identified.  Students who made fewer errors in initial learning experiences were more accurate in making fine discriminations in later learning of complex relationships.  Unstable and/or inconsistent judgments were consistently found for pupils who had made many errors on earlier learning tasks.  Students who had learned with many errors similarly displayed greater variability in their rate of responding.  The use of modeling, prompting, and errorless practice procedures in teaching vocabulary, however, proved to be effective in remediating these problems.

Another study demonstrated that increases in response rate need not occur at the expense of student accuracy.  A group of low-achieving and initially low-responding students were effectively taught to significantly increase their response rates.  Results indicated that not only could these children accomplish this, but that there did not appear to be a limit or ceiling to their oral response rates.

Expectations of High Mastery Levels

ECRI staff quickly recognized the importance of having all students attain a high level of accuracy before proceeding to more difficult subject matter.  Initial efforts to determine specific levels of mastery were examined through a series of retention studies.  A variety of investigations sought answers to the question:  What level of mastery will yield 95% or better retention at a 16-week follow-up?

It was found, for example, that expecting 100% mastery for correctly reading a word list aloud three times consecutively yielded no greater retention than reading the list once with a 100% accuracy.  It was reported further, however, that reducing mastery expectations for reading and spelling aloud to 85% accuracy significantly decreased students’ percentage of retention to below 50%.  Establishing expectations of 100% mastery for oral reading and spelling of new words and providing more opportunities to respond orally and in writing eliminated many of the inaccuracies found earlier in students’ oral reading.

In several investigations it was obvious that student achievement levels were enhanced under mastery conditions.  Over the course of a 3-year experimental study, it was found that students in ECRI classes at four separate and disparate sites attained significantly higher achievement levels than control students enrolled in traditional classroom settings.  Ethnic origin, sex, and IQ scores were not factors in determining these student achievement outcomes.  Furthermore, very little or no decreases in student achievement were found in a subsequent follow-up assessment the next academic year.

In a study examining the effects of ECRI’s mastery expectations on students’ writing ability, it was reported that the number of (a) words written, (b) independent and dependent clauses used, and (c) sentences generated were significantly greater in ECRI students’ written products than in control students’ writing.  Similarly, ECRI students used (a) a significantly greater variety of sentence patterns, (b) increased word length, and (c) more accurate writing mechanics.

Increase of Particular Teaching Behaviors

In an attempt to examine the effects of specific teaching behaviors upon subsequent student achievement, teachers were observed both before and during training in the use of ECRI’s teaching techniques.  It was found that after ECRI seminars, teachers’ rate of teaching increased; teachers’ checking of student answers showed a similar increase; and there was a substantial increase in teachers’ use of praise.

Additional studies were concerned with the efficiency of classroom instruction.  Of particular interest were questions such as, Is each teaching task performed with the greatest efficiency?  and Is each teaching act and pupil response as brief and effective as it can be?

These concerns and the desire to disseminate effectively ECRI’s techniques led to the development of instructional directives (dialogues or scripts) for teachers to follow as they teach.  The directives provide a high frequency of teacher and pupil interaction and enhance the replication of ECRI s teaching strategies.

ECRI was particularly concerned with maximizing instructional time.  A major goal involved having teachers ask questions as succinctly as possible.  How can a question take less time to ask?  One way is for students to anticipate the question before the teacher asks it.  Students learn to answer without the question being verbalized by the teacher.  This makes teaching time much more efficient.  In ECRI classrooms, teacher directives serve such a purpose.  Students learn to anticipate requests and respond as quickly as possible to them.  The result is an instructional exchange in which teachers use predictable directives and students respond accurately.

Developing a Training Program

After having identified particular teacher behaviors that were reliably associated with improved pupil performance, ECRI personnel developed a training program that effectively teaches these skills to teachers who can continue to use their same basic reading materials as well as existing organizational and staffing patterns.  Keeping instructional content familiar for practicing teachers while altering only their instructional strategies makes the transition into ECRI instruction much easier.

To assure mastery for all students, specific skills instruction and a supervised practice time are required.

Skills Instruction

Skills instruction, which lasts approximately 20 to 30 minutes per day, is the instructional component of ECRI during which “new” skills (e.g., vocabulary, comprehension, study skills, and writing) are introduced.  These activities are teacher-directed to ensure that all students within each small skills group respond correctly.  Instruction is introduced in a three-step process (i.e., (a) demonstration, (b) prompt, and (c) practice).  Students typically respond orally and in unison following initial teacher directives.

The teacher teaches skills in advance of the student in each skills group who is at the highest level of mastery and reviews back to the student who is at the lowest level.  This enables students to move in their materials as rapidly as they can without waiting for any other student.

ECRI teachers typically use eight methods for introducing new words: (a) sight, (b) context, (c) phonics, (d) word structure 1 (adding a word part to a base word without changing the base word), (e) word structure 2 (combining words without a change in either word), (f) word structure 3 (changing the base word and adding a word part), (g) word structure 4 (combining words with changes occurring in the words), and (h) word structure 5 (reading the syllables).  Students learn how words differ in English and how they are structured and used.   The words and sentences in which they appear dictate the method of instruction rather than a teacher deciding how they are to be taught.

Teachers also learn to teach letter names so students can spell words and talk about letters.  They teach sounds so words can be taught by the phonics and syllabication methods.  Teachers follow prescribed steps as they teach new words so that a variety of activities are used to teach students about the words.  For example, students are taught to discriminate between newly acquired and previously learned words.  They are taught to listen to and distinguish likenesses and differences in sounds and letters.

Comprehension skills are taught during skills time.  These skills are typically divided into four levels:  (a) literal, (b) interpretative (c) critical, and (d) creative.  These four levels are subsequently broken down into more than a hundred skills which are taught at each grade level with increasingly more difficult selections.

At the literal level, students are taught to recognize the author’s expressed meaning.  Reference is made specifically to the author’s words.  At the interpretative level, the student is taught to add meaning to the author’s text.  At the critical level, students are taught to become critics or judges of what has been written.  Finally, at the creative level, students learn to leave the text, extend it, or “put themselves into” what they have read.  One of the differences between the interpretative and creative levels of comprehension is that at the interpretative level readers add the meaning the author intended for them to add, while at the creative level they incorporate their own reflections.

Students participating in ECRI are also introduced to important study skills during this time.  Study skills such as selecting a topic and main idea, evaluating the relevancy of sentences, organizing information into levels of importance, following written and verbal directions, alphabetizing, locating information and using reference materials, reading graphic aids, and surveying books and chapters are also taught at each grade level.

Literature skills such as recognizing specific genre, mood, tone, and style are also taught during skills instruction.

Additional language arts skills such as the correct usage of grammatical structures and additional procedures for improving students’ writing skills are introduced throughout the school year during skills time.

The belief that teaching reading skills is a means to an end (more effective communication) and not an end in itself is emphasized in the ECRI approach.  Similarly, it is stressed that expressive language skills are more important than receptive skills in communicating with others because many classroom teachers focus on receptive skills (listening and reading) at the expense of expressive skills (speaking and writing).  It is recognized, however, that effective reading skills help a learner to write and speak.  Those who practice ECRI believe that providing time for students to develop their own expressive skills is so important that completing work-sheets, for example, has no place in the classroom.  Organizing classrooms so students write and discuss daily is a critical ECRI teacher behavior.  The teaching of language skills in ECRI is integrated as a means of saving time, and it has a multiplier effect on learning language.  For that reason, students learn to spell and write words they have read in their reading/literature series.

ECRI teachers always model the skills before students are required to use the skills themselves.  The students, however, are ultimately required to demonstrate mastery of these skills.  To provide sufficient opportunities for attaining such mastery, students spend approximately twice as long in practice time.

Practice Time

A period of time during which students learn to use the skills that were introduced in skills instruction is critical to students’ success.  In ECRI it is recommended that practice time is twice as long (i.e., 40 to 60 minutes) as skills instruction.  Typically, during practice time in ECRI classrooms, students work independently of each other but are under constant teacher supervision and guidance.

The teacher engages in three primary activities during practice time:  (a) conferencing individually with students (checking on their progress toward mastery), (b) giving mastery tests, and (c) holding small group discussions.

Individual student conferences provide teachers with the opportunity to move about the classroom while simultaneously evaluating students’ work products.  Feedback regarding the accuracy, quantity, and neatness of individual students’ work can be provided at this time.  Reteaching occurs if needed.  Specific recommendations for improvement can also be provided.  Thus, individual conferences provide both teacher and student with information that is formative in nature.

All students must also complete specific mastery tests during practice time.  Once these summative evaluations are successfully completed, students are allowed to move to the next skill level.  The use of individual mastery tests allows students to progress at their own rate, while simultaneously ensuring that no one moves ahead until they are adequately prepared.

Small group discussions constitute the third major activity of practice time.  Students from the same reading group usually meet with the teacher to discuss the literature they had previously read.  This activity provides an opportunity for students to interact with one another and “put into words” what they have read.  In addition, since all students are typically required to participate and discuss some facet of a particular story, a built-in accountability system exists.  Specific rules (e.g., “speak one at a time” and “listen to what everyone says”) are reviewed before discussion groups begin, and one student usually summarizes what was said before the group disperses.

Backup Skills Time

Backup skills time is the third component of ECRI instruction.  This time period, which typically lasts 20-30 minutes, is devoted to instruction in the following areas:  (a) penmanship, (b) proofing through dictation, and (c) spelling.  Backup time provides students with the opportunity to learn those skills that are prerequisites for effective reading and writing.

Penmanship instruction is an integral part of ECRI instruction.  Visual discrimination, memory, and recall are developed during this time.  Students are taught to discriminate between letters that are perfectly spaced, written in correct sequence, and accurate in relationship to the lines on the paper.  Initially, students are taught using specific teacher directives, such as, “describe,” “name,” “trace,” and “complete,” and use special lined paper to print or write accurately their letters and words.  Time is also provided for students to write creatively every day, usually in their writing notebooks.

Children also learn to write and sequence information through teacher dictation, which develops auditory sequential memory.  Teachers dictate individual sentences (which increase in length, quantity, and difficulty during the school year) for each instructional group.  Students are then required to write and “proof and correct” their products against the teacher’s samples.

Spelling comprises the last major activity of backup skills time.  Daily spelling instruction, which reinforces auditory and visual memory as well as motor skills, occurs during this time.  Students learn to spell the same words they were taught earlier in reading.

In summary, ECRI is an 80- to 120-minute total language arts program.  Using a highly structured, demonstration-prompt-practice format, students learn not only “what” to do, but also “how” to do it.  By using instructional directives, easily remembered classroom routines, and systematic record-keeping procedures, teachers who practice ECRI principles can greatly reduce the amount of time it takes students to learn specific skills.  Furthermore, the use of small-group unison responding formats and highly structured practice time routines provides sufficient opportunities for all students to complete their mastery tests.

Summary of Data of Effectiveness

Early Studies (1971-1982)

The effectiveness of ECRI instruction has been examined in a variety of district and school settings with regular, special, and compensatory education students.

The original ECRI project was validated over a 3-year period (1971-1974) with more than 700 students enrolled in four Utah school districts.  As a result of ECRI, first graders were reading at a 3.8 grade level; second graders were averaging from the 95th to the 99th percentile; and Title 1 pupils made 1.4 to 3.2 years’ gain for each year of instruction (U.S. Department of Education, undated).

Sloan (1979) analyzed data of three ECRI experimental Navajo boarding schools in the Shiprock Agency with a “no treatment” school that represented a fairly typical profile of achievement.  The ECRI students substantially improved in their standardized reading test performance.  In fact, with the exception of one group, every class of fourth through seventh graders using ECRI met and/or exceeded expected growth levels (U.S. Department of Education, undated).

Linn’s report (1980) from California described results from his school’s Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills assessment.  Scores for students enrolled in ECRI classrooms for five years were all 1½ years above grade level.  Even after the first year using ECRI:

the median child–in first grade–improved in reading by 3.8 years.  Not one single child was below grade level.

California Achievement Test data sent to the Utah Department of Education on compensatory and special education students attending ECRI’s Reading Clinic revealed:  (a) oral reading gains ranging from 1.2 to 6.4 years (x = 2.6), (b) comprehension improvements ranging from 1.2 to 5.2 years (x = 2.4), and (c) vocabulary gains averaging 2.6 years (range:  1.1 to 7.7).  These gains followed 7 months of ECRI instruction.  Similarly, as part of the Chapter I testing program in an Ohio school district, Stanford Early School Achievement Test (Level II) scores attained prior to and immediately following the implementation of ECRI were examined.  An analysis of the pre- and post-tests indicated the average achievement gain prior to implementation was approximately 16.70 (the upper range of that expected for Chapter 1 programs).  Gains reported after only 1 year of ECRI instruction, however, more than doubled these previous levels (i.e., 37.73).  Similar achievement gains were reported for Chapter 1 students enrolled in Ogden City School District, UT (Garner, 1975).  Students enrolled in fourth through sixth grade made 1.7 to 3.2 years’ gain during 7 months of ECRI instruction.

At a school in eastern Utah comprised primarily of Native Americans, first-grade students at the end of the first year of teachers implementing ECRI, scored at a 2.3 grade level (Hartvigsen, 1972).  This was approximately 1 month higher than the district average, and 2 months higher than two of four comparison Caucasian schools.  Kindergarten pupils’ mean score was 1.4.  For the previous 6 years of district testing, achievement scores of students enrolled in the Native American schools typically ranged from 1.1 to 1.3 years below their Caucasian counterparts.

Substantial achievement gains were found with secondary students experiencing reading difficulties.  Vaux (1979) reported from Arkansas that learning disabled high school students averaged 4½ years’ growth during a single year of ECRI instruction.  Average achievement gains of 2.5 years for each year of instruction were similarly reported for secondary students enrolled in an industrial school in Utah (Bates, 1976).

Finally, the effects of ECRI were also shown to have an impact on the placement of students into higher level reading programs.  Typically, as ECRI is installed into school systems, the first students to experience immediate success are those previously considered to be in “high ability” levels.  Unfortunately, experience has taught us that frequently many students are underplaced.  That is, they are typically placed into materials that are “at” or “below” grade level.  Rarely are students allowed to work from materials that are “above” their current grade placement.  A study by Keene (1982) in Lisbon, Maine, allowed us to examine what happened to placement practices once ECRI instruction began.

Prior to the implementation of ECRI instruction, very few students were being placed in so-called “higher” reading levels.  Following the implementation of ECRI, however, it was not unusual to find over half of all students working out of readers that were above their current grade placement.  According to Keene:

Reading instruction (prior to ECRI) provided limited opportunities for students to be instructed beyond one instructional level above their grade placement.  We expected most students to be on or below grade level and that is where we found them.  Today, there are often five levels of reading texts in any one classroom with an average of 90% of the class reading texts “at” or “above” grade level.

Studies:  1985-1990

Studies during the late eighty’s included regular and special education and special needs (Title I, bilingual, remedial) students.


A primary source of evidence of the effectiveness of the ECRI approach with regular education students was gained through a study conducted by the Morgan County, TN, public schools during the 1988-89 school year at grades 2-7.  In this district four schools used the ECRI approach, while a fifth school retained its existing commercial reading program and acted as a comparison.  Students were pretested in the spring of 1988 with the Stanford Achievement Test and posttested in the spring of 1989 after one year of instruction.  When the data were treated with a repeated measures ANOVA, significant F ratios (interactions) were seen for all but one comparison.

All ECRI groups (grades 2-7) recorded significant (p<.0000), positive mean gains in both reading comprehension and vocabulary ranging from 7.55 to 14.10 NCEs and averaging 10.02 NCEs for comprehension and 8.80 NCEs for vocabulary.  All comparison group gains, with the single exception of sixth-grade vocabulary, were non-significant or negative.

Regular education reading data from further studies in Oceanside, CA, Honolulu, HI, Grand Island, NE, Killeen, TX, Victorville, CA, and Lexington, SC (conducted by adopting schools) show that all 30 classes at all grade levels recorded significant positive (p<.01) NCE growth.  Gains ranged from +28.63 for a class of first-grade students to +4.09 for 83 tenth-graders.  The average gain across all studies exceeded 8.5 NCEs.


Data for special needs students – those requiring special reading assistance but not qualifying for special education services – from six ECRI adoption sites in Oceanside, CA, Saluda County, SC, Honolulu, HI, Killeen, TX, and Calexico, CA indicate NCE gains that ranged from 6.41 for a group of fourth- through sixth-grade remedial Spanish students to 27.76 for a group of second-graders in a transitional classroom.  The average gain for these groups exceeded 14 NCEs.  Correlated t-Tests between pre- and post-test means scores were significant (p<.05) for all 16 groups of students.


Data for special education students in Killeen, TX, Oceanside, CA, Sedro-Woolly, WA and Victorville, CA—also exhibited dramatic academic achievement.

NCE gains for the special education groups ranged from 7.30 for a group of eighth-graders to 24.93 for a special class of students at grades 2 through 5.  The average gain for these groups exceeded 10 NCEs.  Correlated t-Tests between pre- and post-test means scores were significant (p<.05) for all 14 groups of students.

Studies: 1991-1996

In the Pickens County, AL, School District, two schools implemented the ECRI program at grades 2-5, while a third school retained its existing program and acted as a comparison.  Using the Stanford Achievement Test, students were pretested in the spring of 1994 and posttested in the spring of 1995 after a year of instruction.  When the data were treated with a repeated measure ANOVA, significant F ratios were found.

Five ECRI groups recorded significant scores in comprehension and total reading, ranging from 4.3 to 8.4 NCEs and averaging a gain of 5.1 NCEs.  All comparison group gains were nonsignificant or negative.

In a Robeson County, NC, school the ECRI second and third grade classes made significant gains on the Stanford Achievement Test.

Means, standard deviations, and gain scores of testing with the Stanford Achievement Test for grades 1 through 8 in a Salt Lake City school indicated significant gains (p<.01) on 23 sub-tests.  NCE gains ranged from +26.4 for a class of second grade students to +7.5 for a class of sixth grade students.  The average gain across all grades and sub-tests exceeded 16 NCEs.

In the Lamar County, AL, School District three schools implemented the ECRI program.  All students were tested in the spring of each year with the Stanford Achievement Test.  Data were obtained for the 1991, 1992, 1993, and 1994 years.  Means, standard deviations, and gain scores were obtained for the Comprehension sub-test for students tested after one, two, and three years in the program.

Gains over a one-year period of time from one spring to the next ranged from 5.2 to 12.7 NCEs with a median gain of 9.5 NCEs.  The students tested over a two-year period of time had a median gain of 8.1 NCEs and ranged from 5.9 to 9.9 NCEs.  The NCE gains after three years ranged from 6.5 to 9.2 with a median gain of 7.85 NCEs.  Significant gains (p<.01) were made on 26 subtests.

Second grade students in the Northwest School District, MI, and Austin Independent School District, TX, were tested in the spring of 1992 and the spring of 1993 with the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.  Means, standard deviations, and gain scores for the Vocabulary and Comprehension sub-tests show significant gains (p<.05) on all tests.  NCE gains ranged from 5.1 to 25.7 and averaged 13.

Significance of Results

Evidence that supports each of the claims of effectiveness has been presented.  In the 1985-1990 and 1991-1996 studies, the combination of a comparison group design with norm-referenced measures and the consistency and size of the gains across more than 200 separate groups and over 4000 students make the data unequivocally supportive of the effectiveness of the ECRI program.

Even in the absence of comparison group data for all the districts, the norm-referenced approach effectively controls for maturation and testing.  Given the consistency of the effects across such a large number of groups, it is unlikely that statistical regression, attrition, or the unique effect of the teacher were operative.

There is no question that the data presented are exemplary.  School and district experiences and data since 1971 have been significant.  These and other data have been reported annually in ECRI’s newsletter The Reader.

ECRI’s focus on individualized instruction and mastery learning and its emphasis on positive reinforcement and high performance expectations set it apart from most programs.  ECRI instruction is powerful and intense.  Once a teacher is comfortable with the instructional style which demands a great deal of change for most teachers, ECRI techniques begin to permeate the classroom and the entire curriculum.  The cumulative effect is an extremely positive environment with learning as its primary focus.

ECRI is indebted to the schools and school districts who conduct standardized testing of their students and supply data for outside agencies to analyze.  ECRI is pleased to send copies of the original data to those of you who wish to have them.  Also, past issues of The Reader are available.