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How Long Does it Take to Get 95% of Students Reading at Grade Level?

Article Summary: 

This is an update to a previous article, in which I examined the common claim that 95% of children learn how to rule. The original claim can be traced back to a 2009 literature review by Joseph Torgesen. In this literature review, Dr. Torgesen examined 6 reading intervention studies and took the percentage of students who failed to reach grade level in each study and multiplied that percentage by the failure rate of the general population (18%). Dr. Torgesen then used this figure as an estimate of what would happen if the entire population had received the same instruction. His results suggested that 96% of students could read, so long as all struggling readers were provided with a minimum of 80 hours of small group reading instruction. While Torgesen’s original analysis can be seen in the below chart, for the purposes of this article we re-calculated his results, by separating out the effects of systematic phonics instruction, vs balanced literacy instruction. We also slightly modified the inclusion criteria of this review, in order to increase the accuracy of the analysis. 

Torgesen 1999.png

While the above results, from Torgesen 2009, are largely cited as being the original source, for the claim that 95% of students could learn to read on grade level, it seems that Torgesen was in part inspired by Patricia Mathes and Carolyn Denton who wrote a similar paper in 2002. The results, of which can be seen below. 

Mathes 2002.png

The Mathes literature review seemed to suggest that 97.73% of students could learn to read on grade level, provided they had a minimum of 80 hours of tier 3 reading instruction. 


Current Literature Limitations:

There are a couple of limitations that need to be considered when discussing the above research. First, most reading studies don’t look at percentages in this way, because the percentage of students at grade level is not a particularly scientific metric. Indeed, as the percentage of students at grade level has to be defined by an arbitrary cutoff point, it by definition cannot be used to properly measure the full impact of an intervention. Therefore, few experimental studies even consider this metric. That said, we shouldn’t be ignoring this question, for two reasons. First, it’s the metric most educators will best understand. Second, public policy in education is often based on attempts to get a specific percentage of students to grade level. 


Not all of the studies in these two literature reviews used the same metric for defining failure. While most of these studies used the 30th percentile on a norm referenced assessment, as the marker of at grade level, some of these studies used the criterion based grade references of the Woodcock Johnson assessment, and other studies used the metric of responder vs non-responder. This means that some of the studies, likely should have been excluded from the original literature review. 


Most of these studies were comparing a systematic phonics approach to a balanced literacy approach. It appears to us that, Torgesen and Mathes took the mean result of both groups, but in every single study the systematic phonics group did better. This means that if we want to use the Torgesen study to represent what is possible, under a structured literacy approach the 95% number is likely deflated. 


Torgesen and Mathes used 18% as the estimated national struggling reader rate. However, according to the NAEP 37% of students are currently struggling readers. It is popular on social media, for reform advocates to use the Torgesen finding to suggest that 95% of students should be able to reach the proficient benchmark on the NAEP assessment. However, the marker used as reading at grade level in these studies would more closely resemble the benchmark for basic on the NAEP assessment. As the proficient benchmark is roughly the 50th percentile and the basic benchmark is roughly the 25th percentile. (NAEP, 2023). Therefore a more fair goal based on the Torgesen review would be to get 95% of students to the basic benchmark. In order to correct for some of these limitations, we replicated the analysis of Torgesen 2009 and Mathes 2002, while modifying the methods and inclusion criteria. .



In order to replicate the two prior literature reviews, we used the same calculation method. However, we first removed all studies that used non-responder vs responder as the benchmark of success. We also separated out the results of the balanced literacy control groups to better estimate the impact of tier 3 structured literacy instruction, for an extended period of time. While there is no universally accepted definition of balanced literacy instruction. Programs that use this label, typically embed phonics instruction, within word reading and passage reading instruction, opposed to teaching it separately. Balanced literacy programs also usually encourage MSV cueing instruction, as alternatives to just decoding instruction. Balanced literacy programs typically make use of leveled or basal readers, not controlled texts. Lastly, most balanced literacy programs use a less restrictive scope and sequence for grapheme phoneme correspondences. 


It should be noted that four of the original studies did not appear to be published in peer-reviewed journals. We excluded these studies, as we could not properly verify what instruction or success looked like in these papers. That said, in our search for the studies included in the original literature reviews, we found two studies, conducted by the original authors, on this topic, published after the date of the original literature reviews: Mathes 2005 and Torgesen 2010. We included both studies in our analysis. 



Torgesen Re-analysis.png
Torgesen Re-Analysis 2.png


These results would seem to suggest that 97.5% of students can read on grade level, provided 3 conditions are met: 

  1. Struggling readers are provided a minimum of 80 hours of tier 3 instruction 

  2. The tier 3 instruction provided includes systematic phonics instruction

  3. At least 82% of students in the school could already read above the 30th percentile. 

Of course, this means that tier 1 instruction and class sizes also have to be structured in such a way that 82% of students can learn how to read, without tier 3 instruction. 


Overall these results suggest that providing struggling readers with sufficient tier 3 instructional time, is more important than the type of instruction given. This helps to explain some of the resistance to evidence-based practices demonstrated by proponents of balanced literacy and structured literacy. As these results do suggest that students receiving sufficient tier 3 balanced literacy instruction can make substantial progress. However, it should be noted that in every study reviewed, the systematic phonics group outperformed the balanced literacy group. And while these differences may look small when extrapolated to a national level, they can make substantial differences for individual students. On average 13% more struggling readers reached grade level in the structured literacy groups than did the balanced literacy groups. While these differences might not be immediately noticeable to a teacher, they could represent millions of more students learning how to read, when applied globally to English speaking countries. 



This analysis has not been peer reviewed. The studies selected for this analysis, were based on the inclusion criterion of previous researchers and no systematic search was conducted. Only a small number of studies were included within this analysis and it is thus underpowered. The percentage of students at grade level is based on an arbitrary cutoff point and is therefore inherently less scientific/valid than an effect size measurement. Both the balanced literacy studies and the structured literacy studies showed positive results. However, there were no longitudinal studies included, this is problematic, as there is some evidence that balanced literacy interventions might show negative benefits, when compared to a control group over the long term (CRESP 2022, Schmitt 2004, Askew 2002 & Askew 2004). . 


Summary of Studies Included in all three Literature Reviews:

Mathes 2002: Study A

In this study, groups of three students received 80 hours of pullout instruction to improve reading skills. The intervention reduced the rate of struggling readers by 15% in the school, and only 3% of students were still below the 30th percentile at the end of the study. According to Torgesen’s formula, the nationwide success rate was 99.95%. Unfortunately, the original paper does not appear to have been published and the type of instruction/measurement could not be identified. 


Mathes 2002: Study B

After receiving 80 hours of pullout instruction in groups of three, only 12% of students were still below the 30th percentile, reducing the rate of struggling readers in the school by 15.84%. The nationwide success rate, according to Torgesen’s formula, was 97.80%. 16% of students who received enhanced core instruction alone were still below the 30th percentile by the end of the study. Unfortunately, the original paper does not appear to have been published and the type of instruction/measurement could not be identified. 


Mathes 2005:

298 struggling grade 1 readers were randomly assigned to one of three groups. In the first group students were placed into a classroom, in which the teacher was provided additional training to provide evidence-based instruction. In the intervention groups, students were placed in groups of 3 and received 100 hours of additional instruction. At the end of the study 1% of students in the systematic phonics group were still below the 30th percentile on the woodcock Johnson assessment, comparatively 7% of students in the balanced literacy group were still below the 30th percentile. If we use Torgesen’s formula for the results of the systematic phonics group, we get a national success rate of 99.82%


Allor 2002: 

Students reading below the 25th percentile received 35-55 hours of peer tutoring instruction. At the end of the intervention, the rate of struggling readers in the school decreased by 13.14%, with only 27% of students still below the 25th percentile. The nationwide success rate, according to Torgesen’s formula, was 95.14%. This study was excluded from the quantitative analysis of this article, because it used a different definition of struggling reader.


Foorman 1998:

Did not look at the percentage of students that failed to reach grade level, but rather the percentage of non-responders, we therefore excluded this study.


Brown 1990:

Conducted an RCT, with 48 grade 1 and 2 students, comparing a structured literacy intervention with a balanced literacy intervention. On average 15.25% of students in the structured literacy group failed to read on grade level according to the Woodcock Johnson standards, by the end of the study. Comparatively, 25.75% of students in the balanced literacy group failed to read on grade level, by the same standards. The intervention duration, intensity, and frequency was not recorded. Pre-test scores were also not recorded. Success rate, based on Torgesen’s formula, would be 97.12%.



Vellutino 1996:

Was a presentation and not a published paper. The paper was published in 2005, with Dr. Scanlon as the lead author. We could not gain access to the original presentation. 


Scanlon 2005: 

1373 Kindergarten children were screened. Students scoring at or below the 30th percentile on the Letter Identification subtest were identified as being at risk of experiencing early reading difficulties and became the target group for the kindergarten aspect of the study (33% struggling rate). Students were randomly assigned to a treatment group or control group. Teacher training consisted of a 5-day workshop followed by bimonthly group meetings and one-to-one supervision meetings that occurred every 6 to 8 weeks. The kindergarten intervention program was provided from mid-October until early June and included tier 3 instruction provided twice per week in a small-group setting (three children with one teacher). Each session was 30 min long. Each session consisted of three or four parts in which the teacher focused on literacy skills: reading to and with the children, promoting phonemic awareness, developing letter name and letter-sound knowledge, and writing. In the Kindergarten control group students receive BAU instruction. 

In grade 1 students were randomly assigned to one of three treatments: business as usual; or a balanced literacy group, where approximately 15 min of each session was spent reading and rereading texts, and approximately 5 min were spent on each of the other lesson components; Or the phonics group, in which 15 min of each session was spent on instruction and practice of phonologically based skills, and approximately 5 min were devoted to each of the other components. The BL and Phonics interventions were offered by the same teacher. Each teacher involved in the project was assigned to work with four to eight children, half in each of the treatment conditions. BAU instruction ranged from small group intervention work to Reading Recovery. 

At the end of the study 9.7% of  treated students were reading far below grade level after 1 year and 8% of students were reading far below grade level after 2 years. However, they do not include the percentage of students at grade level. Consequently, we couldn’t extrapolate a specific figure from this study, but we can extrapolate a possible estimate of 52% less struggling readers, within 2 years of intensive 1 on 1 reading intervention. We could also loosely apply this to Torgesen’s formula to calculate a success rate of 98.26%. The definition of struggling reader for this study was not consistent enough, with the other studies analyzed in this review and was therefore excluded. 


Torgesen 1999:

One hundred eighty children were screened into the study, based on “the lowest combined scores on the letter naming task and the phoneme elision task, and who had an estimated Verbal Intelligence score above 75, were selected for the study. Because so few of the 413 children who received the second screening tests were able to identify number names correctly, there was not an exclusionary criterion based on the serial naming task”. Children were randomly assigned within school to one of four groups: no-treatment control, regular classroom support, balanced literacy intervention, or systematic phonics instruction. 

Students in the last two groups were provided with 88 hr of one-to-one instruction beginning the second semester of kindergarten and extending through 2nd grade. At the start of the study 28.76% of students in the school were identified as struggling readers for participation. At the end of the study an average of 27% of students in the systematic phonics group were still far below grade level, compared to 40.66% of students in the balanced literacy group. This leads to a failure rate, for the population of 7.76% Or a success rate of 92.23%. The rate of struggling readers was reduced by 22.72% within 1 year of intervention, based on the Woodcock-Johnson Assessment. 


Torgesen, Rashotte & Wagner, 2010:

“The sample of students used in this study was built up from two cohorts of students attending first grade in three elementary schools. In each of two successive years, all first grade students were screened at the beginning of the school year using a test of letter-sound knowledge to identify those students most at risk to develop reading problems. Over the two years in which these procedures were followed, they resulted in the selection of 112 first graders from a pool of 812 total first graders in these schools.” The study therefore had a sample struggling reader rate of 13.79%. 


“In both years in which interventions were provided, children were randomly assigned within schools to one of three groups: Read Write and Type (RWT), Lindamood Phoneme Sequencing Program for Reading, Spelling, and Speech (LIPS) [systematic phonics], and a treatment-as-usual control group.” “From October through May, children in both groups were taught in groups of three by teachers that were specially recruited and trained for this study. The children received four, 50-minute sessions per week over the course of the year for an average of 80.4 hours for the RWT group and 84.3 hours for the LIPS group. Approximately 75% of the students received their intervention instruction outside of the regularly scheduled reading block. The rest of the students were pulled from the classroom when the students broke into small groups for individualized instruction. None of the students were pulled out of the classroom when students were receiving reading instruction from their classroom teachers as a whole class.”


“Children assigned to the Control condition received no instruction by our teachers although many of these children received special support from either their classroom teachers during the small group instructional time in the reading block or from resource personnel in their schools.”


“The classroom reading curriculum in two of the three schools was Open Court's Collections for Young Scholars (Open Court Reading, 1995). One school did not use a standard core reading curriculum, but instead permitted teachers to employ a variety of materials for reading instruction according to their own choice.” In the systematic phonics intervention group, an average of 12.13% of students were identified as being still below the 30th, percentile at the end of the intervention, on the Woodcock Johnson Reading test, comparatively in the balanced literacy group 34.58% were still below the 30th percentile. This leads to a nationwide success rate of 97.82% for the systematic phonics group and 93.78% for the whole language group according to Torgesen’s formula. Within the study sample the percentage of students who received systematic phonics reading below grade level dropped by 11.78% within 80 hours of instruction. 


Torgesen & Rashotte 2003:

Not publicly available. 

Written by Nathaniel Hansford and Joshua King

Contributed to and sponsored by Dr. Rachel Schechter of LXD Research

Last Edited 2023-05-07

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