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  • Writer's pictureDr. Weston Johnson

UFLI: No Silver Bullet for Reading Challenges

Updated: May 9

The Minnesota Department of Education, in collaboration with the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement (CAREI) at the University of Minnesota, has recently evaluated several reading programs. Among the approved programs is UFLI Foundations for Grades K-2 from the University of Florida Literacy Institute (UFLI). To be an approved program, it needed to meet the rigorous criteria established by CAREI; okay, slightly modified, less rigorous criteria than initial established by CAREI, but rigorous, nonetheless. Despite its approval, it's important to understand that UFLI is no silver bullet for reading challenges; no program is.


Foundational Skills Addressed by UFLI Foundations:

  • Letter Knowledge

  • Phonemic Awareness

  • Grapheme-Phoneme Correspondences

  • Decoding and Encoding

  • Irregular Word Reading

  • Connected Text Reading and Writing


While I acknowledge that the curriculum review process mandates a significant research basis for approved programs, this is precisely where my concerns arise. The emphasis on such criteria often prioritizes compliance over genuinely assessing whether a program can meet the substantive educational needs of students. In other words, the process can become more about ticking boxes. This approach risks valuing procedural adherence at the expense of real effectiveness, potentially stifling innovation and diminishing educational quality.


In a study of UFLI Foundations (link), WestEd provides useful evidence of the effectiveness of the foundational reading program. This was a quasi-experimental design study with K-1 students using DIBELS® 8th Edition pretest and posttest scores. Based on the posttest scores, UFLI students performed higher (defined by large effect sizes). Wow! Everyone in the research community becomes ecstatic. However, let’s take a closer look at what the outcomes were.


UFLI Data Breakdown:

  • UFLI Kindergarten Mean Posttest Score. The mean posttest score for kindergarten UFLI students was 421. The DIBELS® kindergarten target is 420. Making an assumption of normal distribution and the difference between a score of 421 and 420, about 50% in the UFLI group met proficiency targets.

  • UFLI Kindergarten Standard Deviation. The kindergarten standard deviation for the control was 24.4 and UFLI was 32.1. This can be a potential concern since it shows that students are becoming more diverse, scores are more spread out. For practical purposes, this creates challenges for differentiated instruction as groups become more diverse and can result in disproportionate responses to the treatment.

  • UFLI Grade 1 Mean Posttest Score. The mean posttest score for kindergarten UFLI students was 440. The DIBELS® Grade 1 target is 442. Making an assumption of normal distribution and the difference between a score of 440 and 442, about 50% in the UFLI group met proficiency targets.

  • UFLI Kindergarten Standard Deviation. The kindergarten standard deviation for the control was 22.0 and UFLI was 29.9. This can be a potential concern since it shows that students are becoming more diverse; scores are more spread out. For practical purposes, this creates challenges for differentiated instruction as groups become more diverse and can result in disproportionate responses to the treatment.


Questions to Ponder:

  • Is our end goal to achieve 50% of students meeting reading proficiency?

  • Do we want student scores to be more disproportionate?


UFLI has demonstrated improved outcomes compared to the control group. While such findings might be deemed 'good enough' in academic research circles, relying solely on this evidence might lead administrators to prematurely adopt UFLI or incorrectly assume that buying it will solve their reading problems. However, we should critically assess whether these improvements truly meet our broader educational goals for student reading proficiency. It's crucial to examine whether the gains observed are educationally meaningful, ensuring they translate into genuine achievement of desired outcomes.


UFLI is a potentially useful tool that aligns with research-based indicators of effective reading programs, but relying solely on such programs without a deeper understanding of its actual impact on diverse student populations could be misleading. Schools might adopt it believing it alone sufficiently addresses reading challenges, which could prevent more comprehensive and nuanced approaches to literacy education. UFLI is only 15-20 minutes of a 120-minute reading block which should include about 40-50 minutes of foundational reading instruction. UFLI is no silver bullet to address reading challenges.



Students Reading
Students Reading

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