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Scripted curriculum: is it a prescription for success?

Imagine walking down the halls of your school and hearing the same sentences read, the same questions asked, and the same teacher comments coming from each classroom. "Impossible," you say to yourself. "This could not possibly be happening." But it is. This scenario is becoming more and more commonplace throughout schools in the United States as scripted curriculum materials are implemented more widely. In 2001, one in every eight schools in California used Open Court, a scripted reading program (Posnick-Goodwin, 2002). Nationwide, 1,551 elementary schools in 48 states use Success for All, another scripted reading program (Dudley-Marling & Murphy, 2001). Scripted curriculum materials are instructional materials that have been commercially prepared and require the teacher to read from a script while delivering the lesson (Moustafa & Land, 2002). Scripted materials reflect a focus on explicit, direct, systematic skills instruction and are touted as a method to boost sagging standardized test scores and narrow the achievement gap between children growing up in poverty and those who are more affluent (Coles, 2002).

It is important for teachers to understand the politics of the scripted curriculum, as well as who profits, its basic structure, current research as to its effectiveness, and concerns about its effect on students as well as teachers.


The goal of the education system in the United States has long been to provide an effective public education for all children in order that they may realize their full potential. Precisely how this is to be achieved, however, is the subject of a great deal of debate.

In April 1999, the National Reading Panel (NRP), based on its review of 100,000 studies of how children learn to read, provided a guide for scientifically based reading instruction (cited in Coles, 2002). Those numbers are a little misleading, however. The NRP began by looking at 100,000 studies on reading that had been conducted since 1966. It then established criteria that limited the studies to those relating to instructional material that the panel decided, ahead of time, represented key areas of good reading instruction. The field was further narrowed to studies that had been conducted "scientifically"; that is, using only quantitative data. When all was said and done, the 100,000 studies had been pruned to 52 studies of phonemic awareness, 38 studies of phonics, 14 studies of reading fluency, and 203 studies related to comprehension instruction (Coles, 2002). After examination of the aforementioned 307 studies, the NRP concluded that the most effective course of reading instruction included explicit and systematic instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics (Metcalf, 2002)--that is, the scripted curriculum.

One week after becoming president, George W. Bush sent Congress an education reform bill that referred to the NRP's research findings; he promised to eliminate reading inequalities and ensure that all children would read at grade level by the time they reached the 3rd grade. This would be achieved through the use of scientifically based reading instruction. These education reforms became law when the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was passed in 2002.

The Reading First initiative, the portion of NCLB that applies to reading instruction, provides funding to schools on the condition that they adopt "scientifically based" reading programs. The "scientifically based" (quantitative) research by the NRP that resulted in the funding for "scientifically based" reading programs by Reading First is the basis for the scripted reading curriculum. Programs qualifying as scientifically based are those that incorporate explicit and systematic instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Two such highly scripted and very profitable curriculum programs are Open Court and Success for All (SFA).


The Reading First initiative provides an enormous amount of taxpayer dollars to states in the form of grants. States then dispense the money to individual school districts in the form of subgrants. For example, Oklahoma received a multi-year Reading First grant in 2003 that provided $12.5 million to schools implementing scientifically based reading programs (The National Right to Read Foundation, 2003) in its first year. Over the next six years, Oklahoma will receive a total of $82 million to further implement these programs. Taking into account that 49 other states will also receive federal funds to implement scientifically based reading programs, it stands to reason that the companies publishing these programs will make a resounding profit. In the third quarter of 2003, SRA/ McGraw-Hill, which publishes Open Court, one of the most frequently used scripted reading programs, posted an increased net income of $14.1 million (5.1 percent) over the same period in the previous year (McGraw-Hill Newswire, 2003). Success for All (SFA), another highly scripted reading curriculum, published by a nonprofit foundation, has flourished into a $45 million-a-year business (Mathews, 2000).

Scripted curriculum materials are a costly solution for school districts that are having difficulty raising their students' academic achievement.


Students in high poverty areas have a much higher likelihood of being taught in schools using a scripted curriculum than those living in more affluent school districts. Schools in which more than 50 percent of all students are on free or reduced-price lunches qualify for Title I funds from the federal government. Currently, Title I regulations specify that "all participating schools must use program funds to implement a comprehensive school reform program that employs proven methods and strategies based on scientifically based research" (Comprehensive School Reform Program, n.d., p. 2). In essence, these regulations prescribe the use of scripted curriculum materials because these are the only ones that qualify as being scientifically based. Schools that do not receive Title I funds (i.e., those located, in general, in more affluent areas) are free to spend their district's funds on the curriculum of their choice.


As noted, two of the most widely used scripted reading curriculum programs are Open Court and Success for All. Both deliver explicit, systematic instruction by way of a script the teacher is required to follow in the areas of phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Open Court and SFA share certain characteristics. Both publishers advocate grouping students by reading level during the reading portion of the lesson. Both programs are available in English as well as Spanish and are available for a wide range of age and grade levels. Open Court is available for students ranging from Pre-K to 6th grade and SFA is available for students ranging from Pre-K to 8th grade.

Depending on the teacher's familiarity with either the Open Court or SFA material and the students' abilities, up to three hours of class time every day may be needed to cover the lesson script, thus leading to a significant narrowing of the curriculum. In a survey conducted in the fall of 2003 by the Council for Basic Education, principals reported that their schools currently spent 37 percent less time teaching civics and 35 percent less time teaching geography than they had previously (Perkins-Cough, 2004). Other principals surveyed for this study reported that their schools spent 29 percent less time teaching languages and 36 percent less time teaching the arts than they had in the past (Perkins-Cough, 2004). Given that many schools have already curtailed children's exposure to geography, civics, languages, and art, one must question if these subjects would be completely eliminated following the implementation of a scripted curriculum.


Positive Research Findings

One study in an urban Title I school (no geographic information was given) compared the word recognition, reading comprehension, vocabulary growth, and spelling achievement of three groups of 1st- and 2nd-grade students. They were taught using one of three methods: Open Court, the district's standard curriculum, and less direct instruction embedded in a connected text (Foorman, Fletcher, Francis, Schatschneider, & Mehta, 1998). The latter approach emphasized the teacher-as-facilitator, children's active construction of meaning using learning centers, and portfolio assessment. Achievement test scores at the end of the year indicated that the children who had used Open Court approached the national average in their decoding skills (43rd percentile) and passage comprehension (45th percentile). The group using the district's standard curriculum scored in the 27th percentile for decoding skills and the 33rd percentile for passage comprehension. The group using less direct instruction embedded in the text scored in the 29th percentile for word decoding and the 35th percentile for passage comprehension. Spelling skills were not significantly different for any of the groups.

On first impression, it appears that the performance of students taught using Open Court clearly exceeded that of students taught using different methods. However, even though the 285 students in this study were randomly grouped by age, gender, and ethnicity, no mention is made of the students' ability levels prior to their assignment to a group. Without knowing the ability levels of the participants and ensuring that they were evenly distributed among all three groups, it would be difficult to attribute performance increases to a particular instructional method.

In a study conducted in Memphis, Tennessee, students from eight SFA schools were matched with students in statistically similar non-SFA schools. After two years of SFA instruction, the students in the SFA schools performed significantly better than their comparison groups on measurements of reading, language, science, and social studies (Slavin & Madden, 2001). In Baltimore, where SFA actually began, a longitudinal study conducted from 1987-93 comparing Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills (CTBS) scores of students in the five original SFA schools to students in five control schools indicated that SFA students' scores exceeded those of students in the control group at each grade level (Slavin & Madden, 2001).

It must be noted that subsequent researchers disagreed with these findings. Pogrow (2002) notes that only students who had been in the same school for five years were included in this study and that almost no special education students were included. In other words, the group of students that reflected the greatest gain from SFA was not representative of the population as a whole. He further notes that when the same data were reevaluated, this time including all students who were assessed, students' reading levels ranked, on average, three years below grade level by the time they got to 6th grade. SFA has since been dropped by the Baltimore city school district.

Negative Research Findings

A study of 2nd- through 5th-grade students in California comparing the Stanford Achievement Test, Ninth Edition (SAT 9) scores of children in urban schools using Open Court to students in comparable schools using non-scripted materials found no evidence that Open Court fosters higher reading achievement (Moustafa & Land, 2002). In an all-grade comparison study of SAT 9 scores, 28 percent of the students in non-scripted programs were in the bottom quartile, compared to 57 percent of the students using Open Court. The researchers found that 72 percent of the students from non-scripted programs scored above the bottom quartile, compared to only 43 percent of the students taught using Open Court.

A study comparing the standardized test scores of Title I elementary school students using SFA to the scores of students in comparable Title I schools using a different reading program found that, over a three-year period, students in non-SFA schools experienced an average gain of 17 percent in the reading proficiency section, compared to an average gain of 8.5 percent in the reading proficiency of students in schools using the SFA reading curriculum (Greenlee & Bruner, 2001).

English Language Learners

Both Open Court and SRA offer program adaptations in Spanish that may be used in Spanish-only, Spanish-English, and English-only classrooms. Literature compiled by Open Court states that the English scores of 2nd-grade students rose in all but four of Sacramento's 60 elementary schools in 1998 (Open Court, 2002). Slavin and Madden (2001), the founders of SFA, cite studies in California and Arizona in which English language learners using SFA scored higher on English reading measures than did comparable students who were using a different curriculum. In contrast, a three-year study of Miami-Dade County schools in Florida found that English language learners who attended SFA schools actually made smaller gains in English language proficiency than did comparable students at schools not using SFA (Pogrow, 2002).


As scripted curriculum materials become more and more commonplace, certain concerns must be addressed. The diverse ethnic and cultural makeup of today's classrooms makes it unlikely that one single curriculum will meet the needs and interests of all students. Curriculum must be flexible so that teachers are able to construct lessons that will be of high interest to their unique group of students, and actively engage them in creating knowledge. Reading aloud scripted lessons that have been created for a generic group is unlikely to accomplish this goal.

Another concern is whether scripted curriculum challenges gifted learners as well as supports those who are struggling. A typical classroom consists of students with a wide spectrum of learning strengths and needs. Classroom teachers are in the best position to identify individual strengths and needs and adjust a curriculum to address them. Again, reading aloud scripted lessons that have been created for a generic group is unlikely to accomplish this goal.

What about the long-term success of students who are read aloud scripted lessons? If the focus of curriculum is on test-driven instruction and rote memorization, will critical-thinking skills and comprehension be overlooked? Students learn when curriculum is relevant to their lives, when it is of personal interest to them, and when they are actively engaged in the pursuit of knowledge.

What about time? If it takes between two to three hours to deliver a script, will science, social studies, art, music, and physical education be eliminated? All of these subject areas contribute to children's overall learning, and their elimination would result in a watered-down educational experience.

What about the teacher? Will teachers be willing to spend their days reading from a script, rather than planning and facilitating lessons that further their students' construction of knowledge? Perhaps teachers with the most experience and education would transfer to school districts that do not use a scripted curriculum, leaving the least experienced teachers to read the script to students with the greatest needs.

These concerns must be addressed in order to determine whether or not the use of a scripted curriculum is truly a prescription for success or a one-size-fits-all approach that does not reflect sound pedagogical practice.


Coles, G. (2002). Learning to read scientifically. Rethinking Schools Online. Retrieved February 2, 2005, from shtml

Comprehensive School Reform Program. (n.d.) Guide to U.S. Department of Education Programs. Retrieved April 3, 2005,

Dudley-Marling, C., & Murphy, S. (2001). Changing the way we think about language arts. Language Arts, 78(6), 574-578.

Foorman, B. R., Fletcher, J. M., Francis, D. J., Schatschneider, C., & Mehta, P. (1998). The role of instruction in learning to read: Preventing reading failure in at-risk children. Journal of Educational Psychology, 90(1), 37-55.

Greenlee, B. J. & Bruner, D. Y. (2001). Effects of Success for All reading programs on reading achievement in Title I schools. Education, 122(1), 177-188.

Mathews, J. (2000, January). Prepackaged school reform. The School Administrator. Retrieved April 2, 2005, from www.

McGraw-Hill Companies. (2003, October). Investors: News releases. Retrieved April 2, 2005, from http://investor.

Metcalf, R. (2002, January). Reading between the lines. The Nation. Retrieved April 2, 2005, from www.thenation. com/docprint.mhtml?i=20020128&s=metcalf

Moustafa, M., & Land, R. E. (2002). The reading achievement of economically disadvantaged children in urban schools using Open Court vs. comparably disadvantaged children using non-scripted reading programs. 2002 Yearbook of the Urban Learning, Teaching, and Research Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association, 44-53.

National Right to Read Foundation, The. (2003, February). Paige announces $12.5 million Reading First grant for Oklahoma children. Retrieved February 6, 2005, from

Open Court. (2002). Programs & Practices. Retrieved on April 3, 2005, from

Perkins-Gough, D. (2004). The eroding curriculum. Educational Leadership, 62(1), 84-85.

Pogrow, S. (2002, February). Success for All is a failure. Phi Delta Kappan, 83(6), 463-468.

Posnick-Goodwin, (2002). Scripted learning: A slap in the face? California Educator, 6(7), 6-16.

Slavin, R. E., & Madden, N. (2001). Research on achievement outcomes of Success for All. Phi Delta Kappan, 82(1), 38-66.

Anita Ede is a doctoral student, College of Education, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater.
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Author:Ede, Anita
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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