Academic Quarterly

Reading Expert Winter 2020

Is It Ever Too Late to Teach an Older Struggling Reader? Using Diagnostic Assessment to Determine Appropriate Intervention

No one would argue that reading is the most important skill taught in school. Reading is needed for all academic subjects: language arts, science, social studies, math and other specialized courses. Learning to read not only plays a critical role in students’ success in school, but in life beyond. So why do we find teachers so often give up on directly addressing the reading needs of older struggling readers and focus instead solely on providing accommodations?

Unfortunately, there are large numbers of adolescent students in our country who cannot read proficiently. The latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data ( released in 2019 indicates that 4th and 8thgrade reading scores continue to be low. Only 35% of 4th graders and 34% of 8th graders scored at or above proficient on this national assessment. Perhaps even more alarming is that 34% of 4th graders and 27% of 8th graders in the country are reading below basic as measured by the NAEP. This is far too many students who could potentially exit the K-12 educational system without acquiring strong reading skills.

So is it ever too late to teach an older student how to read? Research strongly suggests, no. We have known for a long time that it is possible to normalize the reading skills of a large percentage of weak readers (Foorman & Al Otaiba, 2009) and that large gains are possible in students of all ages and levels of severity (e.g., Simos et al., 2002; Torgesen et. al., 2001; Torgesen et. al., 1999). What often becomes the challenge is knowing what and how to intervene with older students.

Foorman and Torgesen (2001) point out that the components of effective reading instruction are the same whether the focus is on prevention or intervention. These components include phonemic awareness, phonemic decoding skills, fluency in word recognition and text processing, construction of meaning, vocabulary, spelling, and writing. More recent analysis of reading research by Kilpatrick (2015) has highlighted the importance of phonemic awareness as playing a central role in developing a student’s sight vocabulary. Kilpatrick argues that the basic phonological awareness skills of blending and segmenting are critical for phonic decoding, but more advanced phonemic awareness is needed for students to turn unfamiliar written words into instantly accessible sight words (i.e., orthographic mapping).

Through his reanalysis of reading intervention studies, Kilpatrick (2015) identified three key elements to a successful intervention:

  1. Eliminating phonological awareness deficits and teaching phonemic awareness to the advanced level.
  2. Teaching and reinforcing phonics skills and phonic decoding.
  3. Providing ample opportunities for students to apply these developing skills to reading connected text.

Many secondary teachers recognize the importance of intervention that reinforces phonics skills and provides practice opportunities for students to read connected text, but may not realize the critical role that phonological awareness plays for skilled reading – at all ages. Kilpatrick, in a recent webinar presented for CORE titled “Why Phonemic Proficiency is Necessary for All Readers” (, identified several common misunderstandings about the role of phoneme skills and phonics in reading. These misunderstandings include:

  • Many children do not need phonics.
  • Phonemic awareness only relates to early learning of CVC (consonant vowel consonant) words.
  • Phonemic awareness is not involved in sight-word acquisition.
  • Phoneme and phonics skills are not thought to be worth training after first grade.
  • If students don’t develop phoneme and phonics skills by second grade, they never will.

In fact, the opposite is true. If the goal is skilled, fluent reading, phoneme awareness and phonics skills are necessary components of instruction. These foundational skills are a critical component of early reading instruction and just as critical for reading intervention with struggling readers at any age. Moreover, Kilpatrick points out that students with the phonological-core deficit do not learn phonological skills naturally on their own. They need to be directly taught.

Teachers need to assess phonemic awareness and phonic skills when designing reading intervention for older struggling readers. In grades 4-12, diagnostic assessment can help identify specific skill gaps that are the cause of reading difficulty. These skill gaps will vary by student. Diagnostic measures are most often used after screening or progress monitoring data identifies students who are not responding to instructional support.

Assessment with older students often starts broadly and then becomes more discrete to pinpoint particular reading subskills that might cause reading difficulty. The Diagnostic Plan for Students in Grades 4-12 from CORE’s Assessing Reading: Multiple Measures provides a roadmap for such assessment. A simplified version of the plan is provided below.

To complete the diagnostic assessment, a teacher begins by administering a measure of reading comprehension. This could be a brief measure like a maze comprehension test. The teacher then has a decision point. If the student scores at grade level, no further assessment is needed and the student continues to work on grade-level curriculum. If the student scores low on the test of comprehension, the teacher administers an oral reading fluency assessment. The teacher then moves to the next decision point. If a student scores at grade level on the measure of oral reading fluency, the teacher can rule out word reading difficulties as the source of the reading comprehension problems and focus on addressing other factors related to reading comprehension (e.g., building background knowledge, vocabulary, etc.). If the student scores low on oral reading fluency, additional assessment is needed. Specifically, the teacher goes on to administer a phonics survey, and if the results warrant it, a measure of phonemic awareness. (See flow chart for specific steps and decision points.)

In practice, assessment of older students often stops with the oral reading fluency measure. A common scenario is for teachers to provide intervention based solely on the results of an oral reading fluency measure. In other words, if a student scores low on oral reading fluency, provide a fluency intervention. This intervention plan assumes the student has acquired phonic decoding and phonemic awareness skills. Low scores on the oral reading fluency measure indicate a problem, but more assessment is needed to determine the exact nature of the problem. As Kilpatrick (2015) points out, “there is no evidence in the research literature to suggest that fluency represents its own problem unrelated to other aspects of reading” (p. 218). The figure below shows the skills that contribute to building reading fluency. A deficit in any of these skills can affect a student’s reading fluency.

Route to Reading FluencyTo best meet the needs of older, struggling readers, teachers need to complete a comprehensive diagnostic assessment. The assessment must include measures of the skills that contribute to reading success. For all readers, young or old, these skills include phonological awareness and phonic decoding. It is never too late to teach a secondary student how to read. Following a diagnostic plan for assessment will help teachers determine the most appropriate intervention aligned with student skill gaps. Older students who score far below benchmark on screening and/or progress monitoring assessments will need extended, intensive instruction in small groups. If the intervention is based on the student’s assessment data and includes the foundational skills of phonemic awareness and phonic decoding if indicated by the data, older students can and do become skilled readers.


Foorman, B., & Al Otaiba, S. (2009). Reading remediation: State of the art. In K. Pugh & P. McCardle (Eds.), How children learn to read: Current issues and new directions in the integration of cognition, neurobiology and genetics of reading and dyslexia research and practice (pp. 257-274). New York, NY: Psychology Press.

Foorman, B. R., & Torgesen, J.K. (2001). Critical elements of classroom and small-group instruction promote reading success in all children. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 16(4), 203-212.

Kilpatrick, D. A. (2015). The essentials of assessing, preventing, and overcoming reading difficulties. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Simos, P. G., Fletcher, J. M., Bergman, E., Breier, J. I., Foorman, B. R., Castillo, E., M., Davis, R. N., Fitzgerald, M., Papanicolau, A. C. (2002). Dyslexia-specific brain activation profile becomes normal following successful remedial training. Neurology, 58, 1203-1213.

Torgesen, J. K., Alexander, A. W., Wagner, R. K., Rashotte, C. A., Voeller, K. K. S., & Conway, T. (2001).  Intensive remedial instruction for children with severe reading disabilities: Immediate and long-term outcomes from two instructional approaches. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 34(1), 33-58, 78.

Torgesen, J. K., Wagner, R. K., Rashotte, C. A., Rose, E., Lindamood, P., Conway, T., & Garvan, C. (1999). Preventing reading failure in young children with phonological processing disabilities: Group and individual responses to instruction. Journal of Educational Psychology, 91, 579-593.


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