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Special Education Opinion

Finding the Right Reading Program

By Al Moore — October 12, 2011 6 min read
Reading tutor Al Moore (left) works with a high school freshman in his Alexandria, Va., office. Moore aims to identify effective reading programs for struggling students based on their individual needs.

Learning to read is probably the single most critical skill that a child will acquire in his or her lifetime. Yet we as educators have not fully mastered the art of ensuring that every child learns to read. Having spent nearly a decade treating students with learning disabilities, reading disorders, dyslexia, autism, anxiety, and ADHD, and designing reading interventions that have been used in schools, I recognize there’s no silver bullet to fixing a reading problem.

But I also believe that there are things any teacher can do to select a good reading intervention and get struggling readers started on the path to reading success. Here are a few keys to doing just that:

Clarify What You Mean by “Reading Problem.”

Are you talking about students who can’t figure out the words on the page (fluency), or students who can’t make sense of the material they are reading (comprehension)? If it’s a fluency issue, does the problem stem from an inability to sound out and decode unknown words (phonemic awareness)? Or does the problem seem to be a sluggish reading rate and a poor ability to quickly recall words on sight (graphemic imagery)? If it’s a comprehension issue, is the problem with absorbing the details and making connections (receptive), or with retelling—in writing or orally—that information in a logically connected, organized way (expressive)?

sourcebook inset eng

You probably don’t have all the answers to these questions, and that’s OK. Just asking them at all will help you gain a clearer understanding of the sort of challenges you’re up against— and that’s the first step in choosing a good reading program for your students.

Know the Signs That Can Help Identify the Type of Reading Problem.

If you’re having trouble determining the type of reading deficit your students are experiencing, take a look at the indicators shown in the below chart. Recognizing these signs can give you an early indication of which support strategy will be most effective for your group.

Indicators of Reading Deficits

Indicator >
Consonant or vowel sound errors; poor ability to sound out words; and difficulty with phonetic spelling
Type of reading deficit >
Fluency (Phonemic awareness)

Indicator >
Accurate but slow reading; small sightword base; difficulty spelling; and frequent miscues, substitutions, or omissions
Type of reading deficit >
Fluency (Graphemic Imagery)

Indicator >
Inability to recall details, determine the main idea, make connections, draw conclusions, and understand and execute instructions
Type of reading deficit >
Comprehension (Receptive)

Indicator >
Disorganized recall of details; omission of important details when summarizing; relative strength in multiple-choice format; inconsistent ability to make connections and draw conclusions
Type of reading deficit >
Comprehension (Expressive)

Keep in mind that students can have a single reading deficit or a dual one, where they exhibit a combination of more than one type of reading problem. When this happens, it’s best to target one deficit at a time, rather than attempting to correct everything in one fell swoop.

Find an Assessment-Guided Approach.

An effective reading program includes exercises that target the specific reading deficit that needs improvement. Accordingly, it should start with some sort of diagnostic measure to help you identify that deficit. Ignoring this step is to assume that all reading challenges are the same, and that intervention is simply a matter of figuring out what skills have not been mastered and then re-teaching them.

Good diagnostic measures account for the variant types of reading deficits. For example, the diagnostic can help determine whether there is a fluency and comprehension problem (dual deficit), or a fluency problem that is limiting comprehension (single deficit). A thorough diagnostic measure can also give an indication of whether the cause of the reading deficit is instructional or cognitive in nature. If the cause is instructional, then some factor—a prolonged illness and absence from school, or a previously undiagnosed case of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder—has caused gaps in specific content knowledge. If the reading deficit is cognitive, the problem is caused by the way the brain processes information. In general, cognitive deficits require a more in-depth treatment approach, with a longer duration and greater intervention frequency.

If the reading program doesn’t include an assessment tool, there are some great independent ones available. The Phonological Awareness Test 2 (LinguiSystems), the Wide Range Achievement Test (PAR), and the Woodcock-Johnson are just a few of the tests that can be used in an effective assessment-guided approach.

Look for Cognitive-Based Exercises.

Whether the reading deficit is instructional or cognitive, fluency-based or comprehension-based, it’s a good idea to incorporate cognition exercises into the intervention. Cognition exercises improve reading by strengthening the brain’s ability to process information and function. Interestingly, the cognition exercises you can use to improve reading may not be reading activities at all.

For instance, there’s a neat little card game called On the Dot that can be used as a cognitive exercise. The game improves visual perception and spatial reasoning—both of which are cognitive processes—by having players stack and align the images on semi-transparent cards. This sort of activity can strengthen visual acuity, which helps to reduce the number of reading substitutions (miscues) and line skips a student makes.

Many off-the-shelf programs include cognition exercises. For example, Seeing Stars, Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes’ fluency program, asks students to visualize real and nonsense words and then transpose, add, delete, or substitute letters to make new words. This helps students practice maintaining a strong, stable mental image of an orthographic pattern—so strong that they can manipulate it and still recall it afterward.

If a program does not include a cognitive component, you can do cognition exercises or activities with your class and reap the benefits. For example, the game Guess Who also stimulates cognition and helps with comprehension. The objective of the game is to guess your opponent’s character by asking questions about the character’s looks and eliminating those that don’t fit the description. For students who struggle with comprehension or listening to and following directions, Guess Who reinforces auditory processing, short term memory, and decision-making. With increasing ability in these areas, students can more easily connect details in a passage, get the big picture, and recall information. Memory, the card game in which you have to flip over and match identical pictures, is another example. Practicing the identification and recall of visual images helps to strengthen those same processes in identifying and recalling letters and letter patterns.

Reading Programs

WILSON Reading System
Deficits Addressed: Fluency, Comprehension
Features: Multi-sensory program; leveled library for controlled student reading; individualized materials; includes a program assessment

Deficits Addressed: Fluency
Features: Visual-based instruction; reinforces segmentation, blending, and phonemic awareness

Seeing Stars, Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes
Deficits Addressed: Fluency
Features: Singular emphasis on fluency; leveled materials and workbooks; multi-sensory feedback; good for students needing intensive intervention; includes cognitive exercises

The Lindamood Phoneme Sequencing Program (LiPS), Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes
Deficits Addressed: Fluency (phonemic)
Features: Strong emphasis on phonics; leveled materials and workbooks; multi-sensory feedback; good for students needing intensive intervention; includes cognitive exercises

Visualizing and Verbalizing (V/V), Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes
Deficits Addressed: Comprehension
Features: Singular emphasis on comprehension; leveled workbooks; multi-sensory feedback; good for students needing intensive intervention; includes cognitive exercises

Fast ForWord Literacy
Deficits Addressed: Fluency, Comprehension
Features: Computer-based instruction; user-adaptive software; tracking and reporting features; primary and secondary instructional delineations; includes cognitive exercises

Reading Horizons
Deficits Addressed: Fluency
Features: Systematic instruction; visual marking methodology for reinforcement; reading software available on computer; teacher-friendly tools to facilitate classroom use

Cognitive Reading Strategies
Deficits Addressed: Fluency, Comprehension
Features: Combined decoding, comprehension, and writing strategies; program assessment and cognitive exercises included

Without the proper emphasis on cognition, we assume by default that students primarily need to hear the information again. And that’s essentially all that’s done in some cases: a re-telling of the same information, perhaps in a more interesting way or with an improved support plan. Dynamic instruction is important. A systematic support plan is important as well. But if the cause of the reading deficit is cognitive, then the emphasis must be on implementing cognition exercises that will stimulate the brain to engage and process the concepts in a new manner. Without it, we fool ourselves about the effectiveness of our strategies and fail to maximize the potential of our students. We become like the instructor who replies to his pupil’s confusion not by providing further insight and clarity, but by repeating his initial explanation in a louder voice.

If you need to supplement an intervention program with more cognition exercises, a great place to find activities is Marbles: The Brain Store. Marbles has a variety of cognitive games, activities, and software that can strengthen processing skills. Look for activities that stimulate visual or auditory memory, processing speed, visual or auditory attention, decision speed, or auditory discrimination, as these are cognitive processes that undergird strong reading skills.

Select an Appropriate Research-Based Reading Program That Brings Together Elements of Strong Reading Intervention.

If you’re still not sure what kinds of reading programs I’m referring to, some examples are provided in the accompanying chart. Keep in mind that these programs can be expensive and that some require more extensive professional development than others.

Choosing a good program is about fit. It is better to identify student need and match a program from there than it is to choose a program just because it has cognition exercises and an assessment-guided approach. Remember, you’re not searching for the perfect program—you’re searching for the perfect program for your students. Hopefully these tips will help you do just that.

A version of this article appeared in the October 13, 2011 edition of Teacher PD Sourcebook as Finding the RIGHT Reading Program


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