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Can 95% of Children Learn to Read?

Over the years, I have on numerous occasions seen the claim that 95% of students can learn how to read proficiently, so long as they are provided adequate tier 1/2 instruction. Truthfully, it has always stuck out to me as a strange figure, for three reasons. First, most academic research does not typically use percentages in this sort of manner. Second, I often see this figure unaccompanied by a citation. And third, it seems low; I find it hard to believe that 5% of students just cannot learn how to read. That said, I have never really looked into the claim, because the general purpose of citing this figure seems to be to encourage evidence-based practices for reading instruction and this seems like a positive goal. That said, I recently saw some skepticism of the idea, based on the belief that the number is too high and that 95% of students cannot learn how to read. For this figure to have scientific validity, it would need experimental research demonstrating it to be true. Ideally, I would want to see multiple large scale studies, due to the universality of the claim. Intrigued by the discussion, I put out a public call on twitter asking if anyone had a citation for the figure. To my pleasant surprise, I was sent dozens of comments and direct messages, with links to studies and papers on the topic. 


Some of the citations I was sent were policy papers, by authors and institutions that used this claim. However, these papers were not experimental and usually cited popular Science of Reading books, not experimental research. There was also, interestingly, one research paper sent to me from the 1980s, that made the claim, but did not cite any evidence to support it. So it appears that this claim has been in circulation for a long time. The most common source listed for this claim seemed to be Louisa Moats, who has written about this rule on numerous occasions. However, she does not claim that 95% of students can reach grade level, based on just core instruction, but rather in totality. Louisa Moats cites 4 sources in support for this rule. In Kilpatrick's book Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties;  a 2009  paper by Lim, et al. on students with Down Syndrome; a 2005 paper by Mathes, et al, examining the rate of risk reduction for struggling reading, with intensive intervention instruction, and a literature review of risk reduction, by Joseph Torgersen. In my opinion, the last two citations provide some experimental evidence to support this claim.


The 2005, Mathes et al. paper  examined the impact of intensive reading intervention, in grade 1, on the rate of risk reduction for struggling reading. In this study classroom instruction teachers received additional instruction and struggling readers received an additional 42 hours of instruction, in small groups of 3 students. The sample included 206 studies. The study found that with this model 97% of students could read on grade level, within that school population. Mathes et al. also cited two other experimental papers that examined this issue: Mathes 2002 and Torgesen 2003. Both of these papers examined the rate of risk reduction with intensive intervention instruction in grade 1, for struggling readers. The two papers together on average showed a success rate of 96.5%. The Mathes study seemed to suggest support for the idea that 95% of students can reach grade level expectations. However, not based on only core instruction. As the students in the treatment group received 42 hours of extra instruction. 


The 2009 Joseph Torgesen paper was a literature review on risk reduction rates. He analyzed intervention studies and took the percentage of students who failed to reach grade level as defined by the 30th percentile, and multiplied that by the average rate of struggling readers in the US at the time (18%), to estimate how effective that intervention would be in preventing struggling readers if applied nationwide. The results of this analysis can be seen here:

The Torgersen study seems to provide some concrete, experimental support for the 95% rule. However, these findings were based on an average of 137 hours of additional intervention instruction and not based on core instruction studies. Moreover, the students in these studies had on average a teacher to student ratio of 2.83. So the paper can not be used to give credence to the idea that 95% of students can read on grade level with strong core instruction or tier 2 instruction, but rather with tier 3 instruction. 


Dr. Jan Hasbrouck has a phenomenal bibliography on this topic. Within her bibliography, I was able to find an additional experimental paper, not previously mentioned in Torgersens or Mathes reviews. Stephanie Al Otaiba and Douglas Fuchs conducted a 2 year long study on this topic in 2006. They looked at the effects of giving 104 struggling readers a structured literacy intervention, in grades kindergarten and 1. At the end of the first year of instruction 7.05% of students were coded as non-responders However, by year 2, only 2.5% of the grade 1 students who had received the initial treatment, were still considered struggling readers, suggesting a longitudinal success rate of 97.5%.


I used the three additional papers that I found, not included in Torgesen’s 2009 systematic review to add to his analysis. In order to do this, I recalculated the success rate, based on Torgesen’s struggling reader rate of 18%. Redoing this analysis I found the same success rate of 96%, as can be seen below.

It seems that there is some experimental research demonstrating support for the idea that 96% of students can reach grade level reading expectations, if there is proper reading intervention support provided within the school. However, I do see three limitations, with this research. First, these results were based on the base rate of struggling readers being 18%. We do have states and nations with much higher struggling reader rates than this. According to the IRIS center of Vanderbilt University, 25% of students in the USA currently read below grade level. If I update the struggling reader rate to 25% for my above analysis, the success rate drops to 94.4%. Second, the Torgesen review did not include sample sizes. So I am unclear if the samples were sufficient to properly test this question. Third, only one of these studies was longitudinal.


This all said, it does seem there is some level of support for 96% being a benchmark goal, for reading proficiency rates. While some might argue, this is too high, I worry it's too low, as it is clearly possible to achieve better than 96%. For example, in the Torgesen 2003 paper, 98.4% of students were able to read at grade level. When I asked for research on this topic, I was given an anecdote about a school using EBLI that went from 87% proficiency rates to 100%, within a matter of years. Well this is just an anecdote. I do think 100% proficiency is -in many cases- possible and should always be the goal. 

Written by Nathaniel Hansford

Last Edited 2023-02-26



Al Otaiba, S., & Fuchs, D. (2006). Who Are the Young Children for Whom Best Practices in Reading Are Ineffective? An Experimental and Longitudinal Study. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 39(5), 414–431.


J, Hasbrouck. (2022). My Conclusions for Reading Research.


Lim, Lisa & Arciuli, Joanne & Munro, Natalie & Cupples, Linda. (2019). Using the MULTILIT literacy instruction program with children who have Down syndrome. Reading and Writing. 32. 10.1007/s11145-019-09945-8.


Mathes, Patricia & Denton, Carolyn & Fletcher, Jack & Anthony, Jason & Francis, David & Schatschneider, Christopher. (2005). The effects of theoretically different instruction and student characteristics on the skills of struggling readers. Reading Research Quarterly International Reading Association. 40. 148-182. 10.1598/RRQ.40.2.2.


Peabody College of Education and Human Development. (n.d.). Tiered instruction. Vanderbilt University. Retrieved from,of%20instruction%20in%20each%20school.


Torgesen, J. (2009). Preventing Early Reading Failure and its Devastating Downward Spiral. National Centre for Learning Disabilities.

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