[Spelling Progress Bulletin, Summer 1983, pp3,4]
[Emmett Betts: see Anthology, Bulletins.]

Individualized Reading: Pupil Achievement,

by Emmett A. Betts, Ph.D.

Through individual conferences and group discussions, each pupil makes up his mind regarding why he wants to read; that is, he sets up fairly clean-cut purposes for reading about rockets or some other area of science, about adventures on the high seas or in the far West, etc. Then he considers types of materials, e.g., reference books or fiction - which will serve his purposes. This consideration of motivation (e.g., purposes) gives the pupil a "set" for a profitable reading or study; it gives him a rudder so that he will not flounder or float aimlessly. It also serves as a compass for more effective self-direction.

As a part of the preparation, the teacher uses a set of graded instructional materials - e.g., basic readers - to estimate the pupil's reading level and his specific needs. But, equally important, she gently and adroitly uses positive suggestion and explains her findings to bring the pupil face-to-face with reality regarding his achievement and needs.

Reading Levels.

During this individual conference, the teacher emphasizes not only the child's immediate independent reading level but also the specific skills (e.g., a spelling pattern or outline form) which he needs to learn in order to read at a higher level. At no time does she make him aware of finger pointing, lip movements, and other symptoms of distress when he attempts to read above his independent reading level. For the pupil, the emphasis is on skills and relaxation. However, the teacher uses both symptoms and skill needs in estimating the pupil's reading level.

To Teach or Not to Teach.

By the very nature of the plan - one teacher, one pupil - individualized reading is done at the pupil's independent reading level rather than at his teaching, or instructional, level. At this independent level, the pupil can be comfortable in his reading and free from signs of distress when he has a "breather" between each unknown word or each new idea.

After the pupils have become quite versatile and independent in the use of letter and syllable phonics and basic thinking abilities, they can cope with no more than one new word in 100 words of reading. Before that time, they can deal successfully with no more than one new word in 200 words of reading. How soon a pupil achieves this relative independence depends upon the teacher's skill and knowledge, the adequacy of the program of skill development, and the pupil's aptitude for reading.

One of the first instructional jobs is easily discharged by estimating the pupil's reading level. A second instructional job is the estimate of interest and skill needs. This second task is not a formidable one when the teacher has access to and knows how to use informal inventories. A third instructional job is to teach each child so that at the end of each reading period he can state definitely and concisely "what I learned today." Nothing succeeds like success when the child can pin-point his own successes, but the teacher PLANS to help each child to improve every day.

Every pupil in the class needs to be taught. That is, he needs teacher guidance to mature his interests, to make automatic use of phonic skills, and to think how to think in different types of reading situations.

When any pupil - the high achiever or the low achiever - is neglected or "rejected," he is handicapped in his reading by inefficiencies both great and small. A high achiever, for example, is often "rejected" by teachers who merely "let him read" or "send him to the library." On the other hand, a low achiever may have mental limitations, emotional handicaps, visual skill deficiencies, hearing impairments, or very little aptitude for written language - thereby presenting different needs. Then, too, pupils in that great middle group may be stumbling along, in need of attention to a variety of needs.

At its worst, individualized reading may be each pupil struggling along in a book below, at, or above his independent reading level. This situation, of course, is another form of busy work which develops undesirable habits, gives the pupil false security, embeds lip movement and other undesirable behavior, defeats legitimate interests, encourages inefficient letter-by-letter word attack, and so on. It is the kind of practice that makes perfect a myriad of bad habits. It is teaching with the accent on the negative - that takes the pupil in the wrong direction.

Planning to Teach.

At its best, individualized reading is a heads-up situation in which the pupil has his own purposes and the teacher knows what they are and how to guide him in achieving them. By PLANNING, the teacher has each pupil in a book or other material that (1) he can read at his independent reading level and that (2) serves his purposes and, therefore, is interesting.

Furthermore, the teacher plans to teach at strategic times during the reading period. First, at some time during the reading periods, from five to ten or more new materials are displayed, commented upon, or recommended to the class. These materials may be a new issue of My Weekly Reader, a poem or collection of poems, an article in an encyclopedia, a section of a world almanac, an article in Science Newsletter or Popular Science, a new series of science or history textbooks, an anthology, a series of basic of supplementary readers, or trade books. The purpose of this presentation, please note, is to extend or enrich pupil interests.

Second, the teacher schedules some time during each period to guide the pupil in his selection of materials that read. Instead of taking the edge off the ultimate goal of self-selection, this guidance, especially in the beginning, helps the pupil to meet reality head-on and, therefore, to develop a more nearly adequate self-concept. Some pupils need easy materials, sometimes far below their grade levels, because they are immature in both reading drills and interests. Others may need materials far above their grade level because they are mature in both reading skills and interests. A few may need materials at a high interest level but with a low readability level because their interests are more mature than their reading skills. To these and other pupils, the teacher needs to bring the best of her professional competence. This is not the point in the reading period for a hands off, or lazy faires, policy.

Third, the teacher PLANS to be available to help pupils during their silent reading and study activities. At this point, however, she depends upon the pupil's awareness of his needs. This dependence on the pupil has its hazards, but it is worth the gamble, especially when the teacher follows up during the personal conference period. At these times during the silent reading and/or study, the teacher TEACHES the pupil to apply previous learnings, with the full knowledge that application of skills is equally as important as the first teaching of them.

Fourth, the teacher PLANS to TEACH during the personal conference period those skills and abilities which cannot be taught more effectively in need groups. This planning calls for the sequential development of skills through informal activities and the use of textbooks, including study books.

The personal conference is no time for superficial chitchatting about a story, but it is a time to come to close grips with specific skills and abilities. It is the time when the pupil has the thrill of learning a new skill or reviewing others because he feels the need for it.

Fifth, the teacher PLANS to TEACH new skills and to review others in group situations. This teaching is usually done in need groups. However, here are some points of reality which cannot be side-stepped:

a. Word perception skills and thinking abilities can be used automatically in a reading situation if the need for them is identified in that type of situation and if they are developed in a meaningful reading situation.

b. Skills and abilities are developed sequentially. For example, the child is taught to hear the syllables of spoken words before examining the written words for those syllables; he is taught to classify and index ideas before attempting to learn how to do a two-point outline, etc.

c. Skills and abilities are developed through materials that are readable for the pupil; therefore, attempting to teach a whole class or a highly heterogeneous group at one time is worse than nonsense. A need group at anytime is necessarily a group at approximately the same reading level; that is, teaching, or instructional, reading level.


In the days when progressive education was a fad, the child-centered classroom was emphasized. Some teachers made good use of the concept while others used it to cover up unplanned and ineffective use of time and materials. At one time, a foe of progressive education reported one child as saying, "Do I have to do what I want to do today?"

Individualized reading, too, can lull teachers into a hypnotic sleep. For example, self-selection of reading materials (1) without pupil and teacher preparation and (2) without teacher guidance can lead to aimless, ineffective, slovenly, and unproductive reading. There is no magic in the term individualized reading. Miracles of learning are not performed when this plan of providing for individual differences is adopted.

Any scholar can attest to the fact that learning requires careful planning, a full measure of effort, and considered evaluation. Likewise, any scholar in the psychology or pedagogy of reading knows that "just plain reading" is a part of reading instruction but it is not the whole answer. They know that real gains in pupil achievement - both high achievers and low achievers - are made only through the planned, systematic teaching of skills.

The Power of Skill.

Skilled development is the backbone of any reading program that helps the child mature in his interests. Without skills, the pupil cannot satisfy his personal needs through reading. In this sense, skills are a means to an end: permanent and worthwhile interests in reading. Skillful reading requires the judicious selection of previously learned skills. When the teaching of word perception skills and thinking is put on a sentimental, haphazard, catch-as-catch-can basis, interests are shriveled and dwarfed.

It is good teaching that makes the pupil increasingly independent in his reading-self-directing. It is good teaching that begins with the pupil's immediate, worthwhile interests but does not stop there. It is good teaching to give the pupil on-the-spot help with words and ideas when he needs it. But the foundation of good teaching is that complex of interest, word perception skills and thinking abilities which is beamed sequentially and cumulatively.

Effective teaching involves hard work based on careful planning. This strategy and effective use of tactics requires professional competence, including teachers and the authors of instructional materials. At no time is a professional man's job to be delegated to a boy. When the time comes for a decision regarding what shall be taught, when it shall be taught, and how it shall be taught, the professionally competent teacher does NOT ask the advice of a pupil, under the illusion or delusion that the practice is somehow GOOD because it is PERMISSIVE.

Here is a "for instance," Freddie has made progress in beginning reading but he asks for help on the word like. He is self-motivated, and is encouraged by the teacher to ask for help. But Freddie only knows that the word like is a stranger to him. On the other hand, the teacher may find that he doesn't know or can't apply the final e vowel rule. In this case, Freddie has a specific need and the teacher classified that need to give him help. But the teacher KNOWS that Freddie needs to do more than memorize a rule in order to apply a phonic skill. She knows he must hear the long i sound and say the sound before comparing it with other known final e words with long i sounds. This is why the teacher is paid to instruct Freddie, the learner.

Of course, the teacher is deeply concerned with the pupil's motivation to learn new skills. For this reason, she makes doubly sure that Freddie understands how the development of listening and phonic skills will help him with his immediate problem. In the process of helping him learn his new skill, she lets him solo (apply the skill) on other new words to which the phonic skill applies, thereby giving him a feeling of how serviceable that skill will be in the future.

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