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How is Friends on the Block (FOTB) both Aligned with the Science AND Innovative?

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

The Friends on the Block (FOTB) early literacy program was designed by researchers and teachers. We highly value the research process. When I went to graduate school, my goal was to learn more about how to teach reading. Although I certainly learned more about teaching reading, I also learned to love research. Over the years, my appreciation for research has only grown. My colleagues and I developed FOTB based on the best research available, but we also designed new cutting-edge features that make it special, particularly our student reading books and learning games. Friends on the Block is consistent with the “science of reading” and “structured literacy,” some current terms being used now that describe the extensive research base on reading development and instruction. Before I explain a little about how we do this, I want to encourage you to please ask if you notice anything about our program that makes you wonder whether it is consistent with research or why we designed it that way. Please ask us! We are happy to explain our rationale and research support. We also are continuing to conduct research on the program and seeking ways to make it even more meaningful, effective, efficient, and friendly.

Aligned with the Science

We developed FOTB and conducted initial studies with the support of an IES Development grant awarded to researchers at Southern Methodist University. Research on FOTB is continuing as in 2020 we received another IES research grant to conduct a large-scale randomized control trial.

As we designed the program, we used practices that had strong research evidence, including evidence-based practices for all early readers (see the What Works Clearinghouse Practice Guide on foundational reading skills) and for struggling readers and those with disabilities (see Coyne, Zipoli, & Ruby, 2006).

  • We provide explicit instruction through modeling with many examples for students and support for teachers.

  • We follow a systematic, carefully organized scope and sequence that times the presentation of multiple skills so they are easily integrated and applied in our student books.

  • We incorporate a wide variety of scaffolds or supports, within our books and in our lessons. These gradually fade as students no longer need these supports.

  • A key feature of the program is its intensity, in that it provides ample practice opportunities for all students. There are plenty of student books so they can practice new skills and build automaticity through cumulative review of common words and phonics patterns.

  • Our flexible organization makes it easy for teachers to choose learning games to target specific skills their students need to practice.

  • The lessons provide detailed support for teachers about how to provide immediate corrective feedback during all parts of the lesson.

  • We include quick and simple informal assessments to help you see how your students are doing so you can quickly and easily decide when to move to the next level in the program and select the learning games that would be the best practice for your students. The program is also aligned with other assessments developed through research that are commonly used in schools today.

We targeted the needs of students with the most intensive needs, specifically students with intellectual and developmental disabilities who consistently perform more poorly in the area of reading than any other disability (Wei, Blackorby, & Schiller, 2011). If you'd like to know more about our approach and how it supports students with very intensive needs (i.e., ID) you may be interested in watching a lecture I gave recently at Georgia State University.

For more information about research related to Friends on the Block, see our website. You'll see information there about the students who participated in our research, as well as citations for articles and other descriptions of our research.


Now I'll highlight just a few of the innovations from FOTB by telling you about our student books and learning games. Our student books really are the heart of our program because we wrote them specifically for the program and have organized the lessons around them. We describe the books as multi-criteria because we considered a number of different criteria or factors when we were designing them, including decodability, repetition of high-frequency words, and natural sounding, meaningful sentences. Our learning games are also special and provide fun and critical practice on key skills.

One of our goals is to make our program meaningful. We worked particularly hard to integrate word recognition and meaning as we know good readers make connections between print and meaning. We carefully selected and sequenced target words that are common in early spoken language and in early reading material. For example, in our first level, students begin learning the target words: a, do, I, like, not, want. These words can be combined into sentences when you add a picture word: I do not want a banana (we use a picture under the banana for a temporary scaffold). Another example is that we teach the short vowel "u" sound, /uuu/, early in our sequence. We teach it early because then we can include the words fun, run, and sun -- all very useful words when you are writing stories for young readers. The sequence of target words and phonics skills is an important support to help students not only learn common words, but also more easily understand what they are reading. Another feature of our books is what we call helper text, which is text read by a teacher or other helper. With helper text, we can tell more interesting and cohesive stories very early and students develop both listening and reading comprehension. The sequence of words, the helper text, and a small number of picture words all make it possible for students to read meaningful and interesting books very early. With teacher support, students begin reading a book in the very first lesson. See our website for more details and examples.

A second goal is to be both effective and efficient. One way we do this is by combining effective techniques within a flexible system. Students move through the levels at their own pace and teachers select learning games for the lessons that target the skills particular students need to practice. Another way we do this is through the over 100 learning games in the program, during which students are provided with intensive, focused practice to promote accuracy and automaticity.

A third goal is to be friendly. By this, we mean the program is both fun for students and easy-to use. Students enjoy the stories, especially getting to know the characters as the same group of friends who live on the same block appear in multiple books. The learning games make it easy for students to practice a lot and have fun while doing it. Teachers appreciate the straightforward routines, specific teacher guides, and how-to-videos.

Final Words

I hope you will explore FOTB through our website and FREE membership and see for yourself how we implement research-based and innovative practices. As I said at the beginning of this blog, if you notice something about our program that doesn't seem consistent with research or you would like to know more about our rationale, please ask! There is a lot we know from research but there is also a lot we don't know and even two programs with strong research may differ from one another. FOTB is committed to growing and answering new questions through our research.

Check back each Friday as we strive to do our part to help everyone learn to read, regardless of circumstance or disability. I sincerely hope you will send us questions.

What's next? The next blog will describe how to tell if a student is behind in reading and whether or not you should be concerned.


Coyne, M. D., Zipoli Jr., R. P., & Ruby, M. F. (2006). Beginning Reading Instruction for Students at Risk for Reading Disabilities: What, How, and When. Intervention in School and Clinic, 41, 161-168.

Wei X, Blackorby J, Schiller E. (2011) Growth in Reading Achievement of Students with Disabilities, Ages 7 to 17. Exceptional Children, 78(1):89-106. doi:10.1177/001440291107800106

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