Killing Off 'Zombie' Interventions: The Need to Root Out Ineffective Instructional Strategies

 As districts move to full adoption of RTI, they must ensure that interventions used to address student academic and behavioral issues are evidence-based. Schools, therefore, should have a process in place to identify effective Tier 1 (classroom) intervention ideas that have strong empirical support and to get those ideas into the hands of teachers who serve as RTI ‘first responders’ (Fuchs & Deschler, 2007).


But even as research uncovers new effective intervention techniques, it also sometimes reveals an unwelcome surprise--that specific classroom interventions currently in wide use actually are ineffective or can even make student problems worse. Despite evidence suggesting that certain instructional or intervention strategies are harmful, however, schools often still cling stubbornly to those practices. Such discredited practices can be thought of as ‘zombie’ interventions—despite clear and compelling research arguing against their use, they resist eradication and linger on in classrooms all over the country.
Round-robin reading is one example of a zombie intervention that still thrives in some elementary schools despite a lack of research support. In this practice, the teacher overseeing a small reading group assigns each student in turn to read a section of the reading book aloud. Round-robin reading is intended to provide students with fluent modeling of reading, and opportunities to practice oral reading with performance feedback. However, this strategy actually has serious limitations (Ash, Kuhn, & Walpole, 2009). Round-robin reading can result in poor modeling, as the students who take turns reading aloud are often themselves not fluent readers. Additionally, the practice is inefficient, as students spend most of their time passively listening to their peers read rather than being actively engaged in their own reading. And finally, children who are poor readers may find the requirement that they read aloud in front of peers to be an aversive experience, one that can undermine their enjoyment of reading as an activity. Alternative fluency-building strategies such as Paired Reading (Topping, 1987) are far better methods than round-robin to accomplish the goal of promoting reading fluency with greater efficiency  and without the potential negative impact on student attitudes toward reading.
A second example of a zombie instructional practice that continues a twilight life in many schools despite having been discredited is formal stand-alone grammar instruction. A recent meta-analysis of effective writing instructional techniques reveals that classroom writing instruction that is focused primarily on “explicit and systematic teaching of the parts of speech and structure of sentences” (Graham & Perin, 2007; p. 21) has a negative impact on student writing performance. Research suggests (Graham & Perin, 2007) that teachers can better promote an understanding of grammar and sentence structure through an approach such as Sentence Combining (Saddler, 2005; Strong, 1986) that is matched to student skills and involves active academic engagement.
No discussion of zombie instructional strategies would be complete without addressing the over-reliance on large-group lecture as a means for instructional delivery in middle and high schools across the country. While lecture format continues to have a place in classroom instruction, it is best used in a sparing and balanced manner consistent with up-to-date, evidence-based practices. Current research into the elements of effective instruction suggests that teachers should incorporate a mix of methods in their instructional toolkit—including but not limited to lecture format. All teaching methods used should be appropriately matched to student academic abilities and needs; involve the explicit teaching and modeling of skills; ensure an adequate rate of success with the academic tasks to motivate students and positively shape their learning; require a high degree of active student engagement rather than passive listening; and provide timely performance feedback (Burns, VanDerHeyden & Boice, 2008). Classroom lecture moves into the realm of zombie instruction when this approach is overused and employed without regard for the wide range of academic needs present in the classroom.
In their rush to promote use of evidence-based instructional practices under RTI, then, schools should not forget that research cuts both ways. It can illuminate new approaches to effectively teach struggling learners. But research also sometimes reveals instructional or intervention strategies that should be reformed or eliminated altogether. Despite the fact that educators may have developed a sentimental attachment to such outmoded practices, schools should provide the appropriate support to help these teachers to discard them and adopt more effective instructional tools. Otherwise, these obsolete, zombie methods of instruction and intervention threaten to linger on far past their expected termination date to continue to drag down student performance.


  • Ash, G. E., Kuhn, M. R., & Walpole, S. (2009). Analyzing “inconsistencies” in practice: Teachers' continued use of round robin reading. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 25, 87-103.
  • Burns, M. K., VanDerHeyden, A. M., & Boice, C. H. (2008). Best practices in intensive academic interventions. In A. Thomas & J. Grimes (Eds.), Best practices in school psychology V (pp.1151-1162). Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.
  • Fuchs, D., & Deshler, D. D. (2007). What we need to know about responsiveness to intervention (and shouldn’t be afraid to ask). Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 22(2),129–136.
  • Graham, S., & Perin, D. (2007). Writing next: Effective strategies to improve writing of adolescents in middle and high schools. Carnegie Corporation of New York. Retrieved from
  • Saddler, B. (2005). Sentence combining: A sentence-level writing intervention. The Reading Teacher, 58, 468-471.
  • Strong, W. (1986). Creative approaches to sentence combining. Urbana, OL: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skill & National Council of Teachers of English.
  • Topping, K. (1987). Paired reading: A powerful technique for parent use. Reading Teacher, 40, 608-614.