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Improving K-5 Literacy Outcomes

In the following report, Hanover Research reviews effective strategies for improving literacy outcomes for students in Grades K through 5. The report begins with an overview of instructional strategies found in the literature to boost literacy achievement. It concludes with a discussion of specific interventions found to be effective at improving reading outcomes in elementary school students.


Research has demonstrated the importance of early literacy outcomes for a wide range of long‐term outcomes, including high school graduation, and experts assert the importance of ensuring all students learn to read by Grade 3. The following report presents instructional strategies and interventions to support literacy development in elementary school students. The report includes three sections:

  • Section I presents an overview of the research supporting the importance of early literacy and benchmarks for literacy in elementary school.
  • Section II reviews research on effective instructional practices for improving elementary school literacy outcomes.
  • Section III reviews 17 literacy interventions deemed effective by the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC). The Independent Reading Level Assessment (IRLA) is also discussed.


  • The research identifies several instructional strategies as having a beneficial impact on elementary‐level literacy outcomes. Particularly effective practices include introducing phonemic awareness and phonics instruction early on in elementary school; explicitly teaching reading comprehension strategies as students begin to read independently; and making the context for literacy instruction motivational and engaging for  learners. Several  other  strategies (vocabulary instruction, guided oral reading, focused discussions of text, and selection of texts that support comprehension development) may be effective but are not as robustly supported by a research base.
  • Phonemic awareness and phonics instruction are identified as effective strategies for improving literacy outcomes in students, particularly those in kindergarten and Grade 1. The National Reading Panel reviewed 52 studies of phonemic awareness instruction, where children are taught to recognize and use sounds that comprise words. It found that this instructional approach improved literacy outcomes for students, especially those in kindergarten. The Panel reviewed 38 studies of phonics instruction the application of phonemic knowledge to reading, spelling, and understanding words – and found that it produced positive effects on literacy development, particularly when it began in kindergarten or Grade 1.
  • The evidence suggests that engaging and motivating reading and literacy instruction can positively impact literacy outcomes for students in Grades K through 5. The What Works Clearinghouse reviewed 14 studies that examined this recommendation, 10 of which found that motivating and engaging instruction can improve students’ reading comprehension. Specific recommendations for instruction include explaining the purpose of each lesson; highlighting the utility of various comprehension strategies; empowering each student to work towards becoming a successful reader; and choosing engaging texts to deliver comprehension instruction.
  • Many, if not all of the findings presented above are  relevant  and  applicable strategies for supporting literacy  development  for  learners  with  low socioeconomic statuses (SES). Research indicates that low‐SES learners enter school with literacy skills that are less developed than their mid‐ and high‐SES  peers. Therefore, it may be important to identify and support struggling readers early in their school careers. However,  the strategies employed  to improve literacy outcomes for middle‐ and high‐SES students do not necessarily differ significantly from those used to low‐SES learners. Phonics, comprehension strategy,  and engaging instruction are effective strategies for low‐SES students.
  • While English Language Learners may benefit from some of the general instructional strategies presented above, many may need instructional support targeted to non‐native English speakers. The What Works Clearinghouse applied its stringent evidence criteria to research on this subject and identified four instructional strategies particularly useful for improving literacy outcomes for ELLs in elementary school. These include: explicit academic vocabulary instruction; integration of language instruction into content‐area instruction; providing ample opportunities for writing practices; and assigning struggling readers to targeted interventions in a timely manner.
  • The What Works Clearinghouse identified 17 instructional interventions to  be effective for improving literacy outcomes in K‐5 students. In general, interventions focus on developing phonological awareness and the strategies needed for reading comprehension. These basic aspects are present in interventions at all grade and ability levels, although they are modified to suit the specific knowledge and skills appropriate for each grade.
  • Research may indicate that the Independent Reading Level Assessment Framework (IRLA) has a positive impact on literacy outcomes, but results should be interpreted with caution as IRLA‐related research does not appear to meet rigorous research standards, such as those used by the What Works Clearinghouse.


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