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Reading Intervention: How to Beat the Odds

Shocking: Less than one-third of America’s high school students are able to read or write at grade level. Even more sobering: Fewer than one-in-six low-income students have these essential skills (Perie et al., 2005). In high-poverty urban high schools, only half of incoming ninth-graders are able to read at the sixth/seventh-grade levels (Balfanz et al., 2002). Overwhelming: Only one-of-six students entering middle school two or more grade levels behind reading skills ever achieve grade or age level reading ability.

What Has Not Worked

Ignoring the Problem: Some educators have mistakenly believed that because students learn at different rates, students will “catch up” in their reading as they become developmentally ready. We can’t afford to place our heads in the sand with this approach.

Wishful Thinking: Some educators have mistakenly believed that students will “catch up” in their reading when they are exposed to the “right” reading materials. “If only we could find an author or genre at Johnny’s level, he would teach himself to read.” Johnny needs much more than appropriate reading materials and self-motivation.

Reading Modeling: Some educators have mistakenly believed that if parents and teachers read enough to their children/students, they will “catch up” to grade level reading. Reading is all about content, but it is also all about skills. Remedial reading students do not learn to read by the process of osmosis.

Survival Skills: Some educators have mistakenly believed that once students master basic reading skills, say those traditionally learned by the end of third grade, they need no more “learning to read” instruction. So, the focus on “reading to learn” becomes hodgepodge survival skills which won’t equip students to read secondary grade level content.

“Canned” Reading Programs: Some educators have mistakenly believed that a “canned” teacher-proof reading program will be able to “catch up” remedial readers at the upper elementary, middle school, or high school levels. As the predominant means of remediating reading deficiences, has this approach worked? No.

What Can Work

Student-based Reading Instruction: Students who are reading below grade-level are the “highest risk students” in any school. Their special needs are not limited to reading difficulties. Low self-esteem, depression, and “acting-out” behavioral patterns are common. Responding to the whole child is a key ingredient in improving reading ability. See Social and Emotional Problems Related to Dyslexia.

Assessment-based Reading Instruction: Standards-based tests may provide a rough indicator of students with severe reading problems. However, when used as a sorting method to form “reading ability” classes, this mis-application of data does more harm then good. Proper diagnostic screening assessments are essential tools to ensure proper placement and remediation.

Teacher-based Reading Instruction: The most important variable in successful reading intervention is the teacher. The teacher must be placed in the key decision-making role, and not be made subservient to a “canned” curriculum that dictates what and how to teach. As a reading specialist, I have constantly had to push and prod administrators and district curricular specialists to support teachers in this role as the key decision-makers. All too often, well-intentioned administrators and curricular specialists have de-valued teacher professionalism. Despite the claims of reading intervention publishers and salespeople, there is no “teacher-proof” reading remediation. This being said, secondary teachers (usually English-language arts teachers by default) usually have little instructional reading background and have probably only taken one or two post-graduate reading strategies courses. True enough, but teaching professionals are expert learners and are motivated because they want their students to succeed.

Collaborative Commitment: Both administrators and teachers must avoid creating self-fulfilling prophecies. All too often, new teachers are selected to teach reading intervention courses. Rarely does a veteran teacher step up and demand to teach a reading intervention course. Only the “best and brightest” will ensure success of a reading intervention program.

Differentiated Instruction: The reading intervention teacher has to commit to the concept and practice of differentiated instruction. Each secondary student has different reading issues and will learn at different paces. Both content (the what) and the methods of instruction (the how) need to be adjusted to the needs of the students. These needs must be determined by teacher judgment of relevant diagnostic and formative assessments and not by the dictates of the “canned” curriculum. Any curriculum that does not afford the teacher with the flexibility to differentiate instruction will guarantee failure.

Flexibly Structured Reading Instruction: The structure of a successful reading intervention program must match this pedagogical approach to ensure success. If we are serious about improving the odds (one-in-six) of success for our “highest risk” students, course schedules must be built around the needs of students, enabling in and out transfers of remedial reading students to accommodate their needs. The needs of these students must be afforded the highest priorities to ensure success. Optimally, the reading intervention should be compensatory and not reductive. The goal should be to “catch up” and “keep up” these students. Substituting a remedial reading class for a student’s English-language arts class may do more harm than good.

As we move in the direction of affirming teacher professionalism with the evolving RtI process, we are beginning to emphasize a collaborative approach to determine how to best meet student needs. Here’s hoping that we reduce the odds of failure and increase the odds of success for these deserving students.

Intervention Program Science of Reading

The Science of Reading Intervention Program

Pennington Publishing provides two reading intervention program options for ages eight–adult. The Teaching Reading Strategies (Intervention Program) is a full-year, 55 minutes per day program which includes both word recognition and language comprehension instructional resources (Google slides and print). The word recognition components feature the easy-to-teach, interactive 5 Daily Google Slide Activities: 1. Phonemic Awareness and Morphology 2. Blending, Segmenting, and Spelling 3. Sounds and Spelling Independent Practice 4. Heart Words Independent Practice 5. The Sam and Friends Phonics Books–decodables 1ith comprehension and word fluency practice for older readers. The program also includes sound boxes and personal sound walls for weekly review.  The language comprehension components feature comprehensive vocabulary, reading fluency, reading comprehension, spelling, writing and syntax, syllabication, reading strategies, and game card lessons, worksheets, and activities. Word Recognition × Language Comprehension = Skillful Reading: The Simple View of Reading and the National Reading Panel Big 5.

If you only have time for a half-year (or 30 minutes per day) program, the The Science of Reading Intervention Program features the 5 Daily Google Slide Activities, plus the sound boxes and personal word walls for an effective word recognition program.


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  1. Jae Simmons
    September 16th, 2010 at 07:07 | #1

    I find it interesting that a publishing company, who is so interested in helping readers, is very quick to blame “some educators” and not offer free resources. In the state of Oklahoma,our funds are so miniscule, that we don’t have the money to purchase textbooks and workbooks in most districts. We would, however, graciously accept your donation to assist us in helping readers be successful.

  2. September 16th, 2010 at 08:29 | #2


    Please check out the plethora of free resources at http://www.penningtonpublishing.com. Constructive criticism can serve a purpose.

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