by Dr. Carrie Thomas Beck, Director of Literacy, CORE
Almost 30 years ago, I had the opportunity to work with a student I will never forget. The year was 1993 and I was a new middle school teacher in a large district in the Midwest. I was a special education teacher, providing support to students identified as having learning disabilities in grades 6–8. The student, whom I will call Dan, was a 7th grader assigned to my caseload. Dan was a bright student who was identified as having a specific learning disability (SLD) in the area of reading and received speech and language services. He was a nonreader when I met him.
I was fortunate enough to have been trained in Direct Instruction in my master’s program at the University of Wisconsin. I had just graduated from this program three years prior. I was also fortunate to have access to Corrective Reading materials in my building. I started the year by administering the placement test for Corrective Reading to all the students I worked with. Dan placed in Level A, the lowest level of the program with lessons that went all the way back to the pre-primer reading level. There was one other student who placed in Level A so I grouped the two boys together and met with them daily to teach the lessons.
Those of you who are familiar with Level A of Corrective Reading know that the lessons begin by teaching letter-sound associations for letters such as m, a, and t. We also worked on phonological awareness activities, basic CVC word reading, and sound dictation that turned to spelling words, and eventually moved to reading decodable sentences and short stories. Day after day as I taught, I watched Dan with his nose down in the book and finger intently pointing to sounds and words. Dan was sounding out and successfully decoding words—even redirecting the other student in his group to stay on task! It was very apparent to me that for the first time in his school career, Dan was learning to decode and was becoming a reader. Dan was also very cognizant of the fact that he was learning to read and was highly motivated to complete his daily lessons.
At the end of the year, I remember standing in the doorway of Dan’s homeroom, observing a social studies period. His classroom teacher was calling on students to read aloud from their social studies text. While I watched, Dan enthusiastically raised his hand to volunteer to read from the grade-level text and did so successfully and without hesitation when called on. I remember being blown away in that moment by the progress Dan had made over the course of the school year—and by his confidence to raise his hand to read in his mainstream class. We held his annual IEP meeting a few weeks later, reviewing the tremendous progress he had made in the area of reading and setting new goals. The speech and language pathologist approached me after the meeting with a big smile on her face and told me, “Well, I guess he was finally ready.”
I must have looked aghast, as she asked me if she had said something wrong. As a young teacher, I did not have the assurance or confidence to explain to her that Dan “was ready” to learn to read back in kindergarten but was clearly never taught. I can’t remember my exact reply, but this exchange has been ingrained in my memory ever since. I found it tragic that the school system had not provided the explicit, systematic reading instruction that Dan needed early on in his education and that he had gone all those years as a nonreader.
Supporting older students with word reading difficulties has been an area of interest throughout my career. I have always had a soft spot for working with adolescents. Although the focus of my work since the early 1990s has been on literacy acquisition in grades K–3, the experiences early in my career involved teaching students at risk of academic failure in a high school outside Chicago, acting as a resource room teacher for students with learning disabilities in grades 4–6 in rural Wisconsin, and becoming a middle school special education teacher where I worked with Dan. Based on both my teaching experiences and the large body of reading research generated over the past 50 years, I live by the following guiding principles:
1. Provide early intervention rather than wait until a student “is ready” to learn to read.
The research tells us that most reading difficulties can be prevented with effective core instruction in the early grades. Providing additional Tier 2 preventive instruction early on for students at risk for reading difficulties will bolster these efforts. Dr. David Kilpatrick perfectly explains what it means to “be ready” for reading.
“Being ready for word-level reading means having the letter-sound knowledge and phonological awareness skills needed to acquire and apply the alphabetic principle. Without explicit instruction in these skills, most at-risk students will not spontaneously become ready to read.” (Kilpatrick, 2015, p. 250)
I highly recommend that you listen to or read the transcript of the recent CORE podcast “Living and Succeeding with Dyslexia: A Conversation with Dr. Keyon Anderson.” After years as a failing student, Keyon finally was provided with the reading instruction he needed to soar academically in high school and go on to earn a Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership. When Keyon’s mother expressed concern regarding his progress early on in elementary school, she was told by professionals that he would grow out of it. Keyon was a freshman in high school reading at about a 2nd-grade level before he was given the help he needed. His high school special education teacher utilized the Lindamood-Bell program to build the phonological awareness and letter-sound knowledge Keyon needed to become a successful reader. It is our job as educators to promote reading readiness. We do that by systematically and explicitly teaching letter-sound correspondences and phonological awareness when students enter kindergarten (or ideally, beginning in preschool).
2. Diagnostic assessment is key.
To best meet the needs of older students who read significantly below grade level, we need to consider the student’s level of reading skills and identified strengths and weaknesses rather than focus solely on age or grade level to determine the content of the intervention. The intervention must match the student’s needs. In many cases, intervention will require going back to the beginning, focusing on foundational skills, as was the case with Dan and with Keyon. Administering diagnostic assessments will allow teachers to determine a student’s exact skill level to plan accordingly. See my article in the Winter 2020 issue of the CORE Academic Quarterly entitled “Is It Ever Too Late to Teach an Older Struggling Reader? Using Diagnostic Assessment to Determine Appropriate Intervention” for specific guidance on how to utilize assessment to design intervention that meets the needs of adolescents.
3. Implement evidence-based, intensive intervention to address skill gaps in older students who are reading significantly below grade level.
In December, Dr. Monica Ng, my colleague from Pivot Learning, and I had the opportunity to sit down with Linda Diamond, the now retired cofounder of CORE and author of the Teaching Reading Sourcebook, to solicit her advice on how to improve outcomes for adolescents with word reading difficulties. In this interview, Linda pointed out that overcoming large skill gaps takes time—often more than a period a day and more than a single year—but that it is not too late for a student to learn to read proficiently in middle or high school. To close skill gaps, teachers need to utilize materials that systematically, explicitly, and cumulatively teach all necessary literacy components based on student need. See Linda’s Tip Sheet for characteristics of intensive intervention that works for older students as well as intervention that does not work. Linda also identifies examples of commercially available intervention curricula that can work.
Kilpatrick, D. (2015). Essentials of assessing, preventing, and overcoming reading difficulties. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons.