Is Empower Reading Evidence-Based?
Empower Reading is a very popular literacy intervention program in Canada. The literacy program is sold to schools as a literacy intervention program for students who are dyslexic or significantly behind in their reading levels. As the program is very popular in Canada, I wanted to review the efficacy of the program. Indeed even a quick google search of the program, will lead you to raving reviews that tout how well researched and evidence-based the program is.
As long time readers/Listeners know my first step in reviewing any program, or pedagogy is to search for a meta-analysis; however to the best of my knowledge no such meta-analysis exists. I then decided I would do my own meta-analysis. I searched every education journal/database that I have access to and could not find a single experiment done on the topic. However, as the program is touted as very well researched, I thought maybe I was missing something. So I reached out to my university’s librarian and asked for help in locating research. The librarian was also unable to locate any experimental research on the topic. I then reached out to the agency which sells the program, and they said they would be happy to send me some research. However, that was several months ago, and I have not heard back.
Eventually, I was able to locate one relevant study of the topic done in 2017 by Lovett, Et al. The study was not an RCT study; however, it produced very impressive results and had a sufficient sample size of 117 grade 1-3 students. The study was 125 hours long and produced a mean ES of .82. This suggests that Empower Reading may be evidence-based; however, one study is never enough to make determinations of efficacy and more research needs to be done, in order to call Empower Reading evidence-based.
Through Google, I was able to also come across three case studies done, in coordination with school boards using the program. I considered adding to my research based on these studies; however, I decided against it for several reasons. The studies in question did not use control groups, did not collect meaningful statistical data, and were sponsored by the creators of the program.
Ultimately, I realized that Empower Reading is not evidence-based, it’s research based. Meaning that while Empower Reading does not have strong experimental evidence supporting its efficacy, the program itself is based on well researched principles. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Many education programs do not have direct evidence, in relation to their efficacy, simply because no one has done the research yet. This being said, I do think when talking about the program’s efficacy, it needs to be established that any claims of Empower Reading being a high yield strategy is based on theoretical and anecdotal evidence, only.
While we cannot deterministically review the efficacy of Empower Reading from an experimental basis, we can evaluate it based on the efficacy of the principles it uses. According to the website, the program teaches spelling, decoding, and reading comprehension using the following strategies:
Balanced and flexible teaching approaches and methodologies
Explicit teaching of skills and knowledge needed for decoding and comprehension of different types of text
Delivery of instruction at different paces to meet individual student and group needs
A ‘self-talk’ dialogue and an organizational structure that support students to become independent readers
Modelling by the teacher of how students can become an expert reader
Many activities to practice and solidify the skills and strategies being taught
Retraining of unproductive attitudes and beliefs about success and failure
Looking at this list I can identify several factors that have strong evidence supporting their efficacy. The program makes use of an individualized curriculum, which according to my 2019 secondary meta-analysis has the highest effect size of any teaching intervention studied with meta-analysis, with an effect size (ES) of 2.35. The program uses direct instruction, which according to Hattie’s latest work has an ES of .57. The program includes phonics, which Hattie has found an ES of .58. The program uses meta-cognition strategies, which according to Hattie has an ES of .58. Lastly the program uses the direct instruction of spelling which according to a meta-analysis by Graham et al, has an ES of .79. Overall, the Empower Reading program employs many strategies that are very high yield according to the current evidence and while I cannot say the program is evidence-based, I think it is highly likely that Empower Reading is a good reading instruction program.
Final Grade: B+
1 High quality study showing an ES of <.70
Written by Nate Joseph
Last Edited 2022-01-25
Lovett, M. W., Frijters, J. C., Wolf, M., Steinbach, K. A., Sevcik, R. A., & Morris, R. D. (2017). Early intervention for children at risk for reading disabilities: The impact of grade at intervention and individual differences on intervention outcomes. Journal of Educational Psychology, 109(7), 889-914. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/edu0000181
J, Hattie. (2021). Visible Learning Metax. Retrieved from <https://www.visiblelearningmetax.com/>.
Graham, Steve, and Michael Hebert. Writing to Read: Evidence for How Writing Can Improve. Carnegie Corporation Time to Act Report. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education, 2010. Print.
NRP. (2010). National Reading Panel. Teaching Children to Read. An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research On Reading and Its Implications for Reading. Retrieved from < https://www.nichd.nih.gov/sites/default/files/publications/pubs/nrp/Documents/report.pdf>.
Steenbergen-Hu, S. 2016 meta-analysis
Sick Kids Hospital. (2022). Empower Reading. Retrieved from <https://www.sickkids.ca/en/learning/empower-reading/>.