“I STARTED WORKING ON IT as kind of a little sideline,” Barbara R. Foorman says. “But now it’s the major thing we do. And there is nothing else in the country like it or as accurate as it is.”

“It” is the Texas Primary Reading Inventory (TPRI), which was developed by the 51-year-old Foorman and her colleagues at the Center for Academic and Reading Skills at the University of Texas—Houston Health Science Center. It was introduced during the past school year and, in a revised and improved version, will be in use in 89 percent of the state’s school districts beginning this fall. It is a sort of test whose methodology is complicated and technical, but whose purposes are simple: to identify the kids in kindergarten and the first and second grades who are going to have difficulty learning to read, and to determine exactly where those difficulties lie.

The TPRI is the culmination of Foorman’s many years of hard work as a scientist. She is a precise, neat, confident woman who is so at home in the world of statistics and education jargon that she laughs and has to stop herself when they crop up naturally as she talks. A St. Louis native, she graduated from Harvard University with a master’s degree in teaching and got her Ph.D. in education from the University of California at Berkeley. In 1978 she accepted a teaching position at the University of Houston, thinking she would stay for only a year or two. But she met a man and married him, had a child, and liked Houston enough that she still finds herself there two decades later. Just two years ago she left U of H to help found the Center for Academic and Reading Skills, where she is the director.

There and elsewhere, in the course of researching how it is that people manage to read, she discovered a discouraging fact. “There seems to be a time to learn to read,” she explains, “and that time is no later than eight years old, in other words first and second grade. If a child doesn’t learn by then, it’s almost impossible for him ever to read really well.” But she also realized something more encouraging: A little extra effort in helping children in the early grades who are having reading problems will almost always bring them up to a reasonable level of facility that stays with them all through school. But how could a teacher recognize quickly which kids had problems, and how could he or she determine what those problems were? The traditional ways to answer those questions required lengthy testing, which took too much time or cost too much money—or both. Foorman, however, figured out that for children in kindergarten, just two indicators could predict later success or failure in reading with near-perfect accuracy: the ability to recognize certain letter sounds and the ability to recognize segments of sounds or, in the language of reading researchers, phonemic awareness.

Those indicators became the basis for the TPRI, which works like this: To assess a kindergarten student, the teacher has a list of ten letters that the student must name and give the sound of, as well as a list of eight words that the teacher speaks in segments of sounds—for instance, ch-at or f-i-sh—to see if the student can blend the sounds together and recognize the word. If the student answers correctly, the testing is complete. If not, there is a protocol of other similar tests to determine where the difficulties lie. Perhaps the student has trouble detecting initial sounds, or final sounds, or linking a letter to the sound of the letter, or a similar problem. After the testing, the teacher knows which students need extra help and precisely where they need help. TPRI materials also include activities, such as tasks detecting initial and final sounds, that are directed at improving specific faults. The assessments for first- and second-grade students are slightly different but follow the same pattern.

For a reading program to be effective, the teacher must devote some time each day to teaching individual children rather than the whole class. In classes of 22, with only 2 or 3 who need special help, that can be done. But in many classes, 18 of 22 may need special help. In that class the teacher can’t do it alone. “Ultimately,” Foorman says, “we are going to argue for more money for early training. We want to change the emphasis in the schools from retention to prevention and early intervention.”

That change will be necessary if Texas is to meet its goal of having all children reading at their grade level by grade three. If we do make that goal, and there is no reason why we shouldn’t, much of the credit will go to the TPRI—and, by extension, to Barbara Foorman.