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Teaching reading in secondary schools: Some theoretical and practical issues.

Teaching reading in secondary schools: Some theoretical and practical issues.


Dr Kerry Hempenstall, Senior Industry Fellow, School of Education, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.

What is known about the reading difficulties experienced by a proportion of students entering secondary school (20-30% according to the National Reading Panel, 2000)?

What does it take to make a difference to their literacy at this relatively late stage in their schooling?

Though there is less known about effective reading intervention for older students, the research does provide us with some pointers. For a fuller description of this research, see Older students’ literacy problems (updated 2017)

How far behind might these student be?

The best way to find out is by screening all intake Year 7 students – either in their feeder schools late in their Year 6 or early in Year 7. It is a little more work to catch them late in Year 6, but it allows more time for intervention planning. Ideally, choose a test that has either a decoding or a word reading subtest. There are many such tests available, and obviously choosing an assessment that allows for group testing is more time-efficient.

Can research provide answers? Is there much research on secondary students' reading?

“Although research specific to adolescent literacy is not as extensive as research on beginning reading (Boulay, Goodson, Frye, Blocklin, & Price, 2015; Herrera, Truckenmiller, & Foorman, 2016; National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000; Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998), there is a strong and growing consensus that if what we currently know about literacy instruction for adolescents were more broadly applied in practice, there is “little doubt that levels of adolescent literacy would improve” (p. 1, Torgesen et al., 2007). A recent quantitative synthesis of reading programs for adolescents found 33 studies published between 1970 and 2007 involving 39,000 students (Slavin, Cheung, Groff, & Lake, 2008).” (p. 38-39)  

Fien, H., Anderson, D., Nelson, N.J., Kennedy, P., Baker, S.K., & Stoolmiller, M. (2018). Examining the impact and school-level predictors of impact variability of an 8th grade reading intervention on at-risk students’ reading achievement. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 33(1), 37–50.

Some relevant research

“The struggling readers in this study were multiple grade levels (3–7 years) behind their typically developing peers in reading ability. Results of both group and individual analyses indicate these older struggling readers can be remediated and for some, gains of two, three, four, or more years can be accomplished with only 1 year of instruction.” (p.588)

Calhoon, M. B., & Prescher, Y. (2013). Individual and group sensitivity to remedial reading program design: Examining reading gains across three middle school reading projects. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 26, 565-592.

 “Students from the 10th and 90th percentiles differ by grade equivalents equal to their grade (i.e., 6 grade difference at the end of 6th grade)”. (Biemiller, personal communication, August 1, 2002) Professor Andrew Biemiller, Institute of Child Study, University of Toronto.

 What comes after screening?

Having completed a screening, it then remains to decide what resources in terms of teachers, aides etc you can commit, and how many periods you can allocate. You then need to make a cut-off point, usually selecting the most needy students for an intervention. You might expect 20-30% of your intake to be in need of help with literacy.

This approach, of course, ignores the cohort of struggling students already enrolled in your school. This creates the dilemma of how to expend resources – on your current students or future students. This is a difficult value decision. The older the student the more difficult the progress, but they are your students right now – whatever year they are in. However, if you focus on your intake students, you can hope to alter their trajectory through the secondary careers. If this occurs, there is a benefit to administration and teachers through the increased academic competence of this cohort over the ensuing years and the lessened demands on the school’s resources of school failure, disciple issues, and early school leaving.

So, where to start?

The most obvious problem that struggling readers are likely to display in class is in their comprehension of subject texts. However, that does not necessarily imply that comprehension should be the main focus of intervention.

First, these problems did not arise suddenly at entry to secondary school. They could have been identified and attended to at or around primary school entry. However, this hasn’t occurred, and it is often not until around Year 4 that the earlier problems are brought into stark relief. Texts become more complex, both in word structure and in vocabulary in this period, and the students who had previously struggled (but it was hoped, would have had an educational growth spurt by now) are now clearly well below the minimum expected reading levels needed to cope with a secondary curriculum.

Second, the comprehension problem is usually contingent upon an underlying decoding and fluency delay. If only comprehension is addressed, progress will be minimal – because getting the words off the page fluently is a pre-requisite to comprehension.

We need to decide whether our scant resources should emphasise decoding or comprehension

 Some relevant research

“Phonological decoding made a significant unique contribution to reading comprehension for the eighth/ninth-grade group, to spelling for the fourth/fifth- and eighth/ninth-grade groups, and to the decoding rate and accuracy measures for all three groups, with only three exceptions”.

Nagy, W., Berninger, V.W., & Abbott, R.D. (2006). Contributions of morphology beyond phonology to literacy outcomes of upper elementary and middle-school students. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98(1), 134-147.


“In 90% of cases, the source of reading comprehension problems is poor word recognition skills (Oakhill & Garnham, 1988).”

Stuart, M. (1995). Prediction and qualitative assessment of five and six-year-old children's reading: A longitudinal study. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 65, 287-296.


“Research suggests that teaching children to read words quickly and accurately can also increase their reading comprehension (Tan & Nicholson, 1997). The theory behind fast and accurate word reading is that good readers are very good at reading words. They have over-learned this skill through much reading practice. As a result, like skilled musicians and athletes, they have developed automaticity, as a result of many hours of word reading practice. What this means is that they have over-learned word reading skills to the point where they require little or no mental effort. As a result, they are able to put all their mental energies into reading for meaning.”

G. B. Thompson & T. Nicholson (Eds.) (1998). Learning to read: Beyond phonics and whole language. New York: Teachers College Press.


 “The vast majority of school-age struggling readers experience word-level reading difficulties (Fletcher et al., 2002; Torgesen, 2002). This “bottleneck” at the word level is thought to be particularly disruptive because it not only impacts word identification but also other aspects of reading, including fluency and comprehension (LaBerge & Samuels, 1974). According to Torgesen (2002), one of the most important discoveries about reading difficulties over the past 20 years is the relationship found between phonological processing and word-level reading. Most students with reading problems, both those who are diagnosed with dyslexia and those who are characterized as “garden variety” poor readers, have phonological processing difficulties that underlie their word reading problems (Stanovich, 1988)” (p.179).

Nelson, J.M., Lindstrom, J.H., Lindstrom, W., & Denis, D. (2012): The structure of phonological processing and its relationship to basic reading. Exceptionality: A Special Education Journal, 20(3), 179-196.


“Without accurate decoding skills, these youngsters’ performance will deteriorate rapidly in the middle elementary grades, when greatly increased demands are made on comprehension and on the ability to recognise a large number of unfamiliar words (Chall, 1983; Mason, 1992)”.

Spear-Swerling, L., & Sternberg, R.J. (1994). The road not taken. An integrative theoretical model of reading disability. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 27(2), 91-103.


"National longitudinal studies show that approximately 75% of those with reading problems in third grade still experience reading difficulties in the ninth grade (Francis, Shaywitz, Stuebing, Shaywitz, & Fletcher 1996; Shaywitz, Holahan, & Shaywitz, 1992). Students who experience reading difficulties in the early grades often suffer what has been called the "Matthew Effects" (Stanovich, 1986), a gap between good and poor readers that widens through the grades. Mikulecky (1990), for example, found that a group of secondary students two or more years behind their peers in reading ability were differentially affected by their tendency to avoid reading. These students read very little during or outside of school. Over the two-year period of the study, their reading comprehension performance actually declined."

Mikulecky, L. J. (1990). Stopping summer learning loss among at-risk youth. Journal of Reading, 33(7), 516-521.


“There is therefore a significant gap in the evidence base from RCT’s [randomised controlled trials] concerning the efficacy of language comprehension intervention. Clarke, Snowling, Truelove, and Hulme (2010) demonstrated using an RCT the effectiveness of an oral language intervention (comprising strategy use, vocabulary, figurative language and spoken narrative) in improving the reading comprehension skills of primary school students. To date such an approach has not been evaluated using an RCT in secondary schools.” (p.125)

Paul, S-A.S., & Clarke, P.J. (2016). A systematic review of reading interventions for secondary school students. International Journal of Educational Research, 79, 116–127.


What does it take to intervene effectively with older students? Intensity is a key element. That is, half-hearted efforts won’t work


Some relevant research

“Evidence from high-quality studies (Kamil et al., 2008) also indicates there is strong support for the assertion that explicit instruction is a necessary foundation for reading interventions with struggling adolescent readers (e.g., Duffy et al., 1987; Fuchs et al., 1997; Herrera et al., 2016; Klingner, Vaughn, & Schumm, 1998; Schumaker & Deshler, 1992). Explicit and systematic instruction involves a series of sequenced instructional steps that include: (a) teachers explaining and modeling strategy use, (b) teachers guiding students in using the strategy or strategies (i.e., guided practice), and (c) students demonstrating their ability to use the strategies independently under the supervision of the teacher (Gersten, Fuchs, Williams, & Baker, 2001; Kamil et al., 2008). The power of explicit instruction cuts across multiple content areas as a method for providing effective reading instruction for adolescent readers (and younger readers), as it can be used to teach word-level reading, reading fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension (Biancarosa & Snow, 2006; Kamil et al., 2008; Scammacca et al., 2007; Torgesen, et al., 2007).” (p. 39)  

Fien, H., Anderson, D., Nelson, N.J., Kennedy, P., Baker, S.K., & Stoolmiller, M. (2018). Examining the impact and school-level predictors of impact variability of an 8th grade reading intervention on at-risk students’ reading achievement. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 33(1), 37–50.

“Although it is unlikely that these students will make accelerated progress without intensive interventions, there is evidence that secondary students may experience improved reading outcomes when provided explicit reading intervention with adequate time and intensity for reading instruction (Archer, Gleason, & Vachon, 2003; Torgesen et al., 2001)” (p.932).

Vaughn, S., Wanzek, J., Wexler, J., Barth, A.E., Cirino, P.T., Fletcher, J.M., Romain, M.A., Denton, C.A., Roberts, G., & Francis, D.J. (2010). The relative effects of group size on reading progress of older students with reading difficulties. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 23(8), 931-956.

“Impressive and unexpected were the large gains made in comprehension by students in the Additive modality, insofar as they receive relatively few hours of explicit comprehension instruction (12–13 h.) in comparison to the other modalities (24–39 h). The theoretical underpinnings of the Additive modality are that reading is hierarchical and that automaticity of lower level skills (decoding, spelling) allows cognitive efforts to then be allocated to attaining higher level skills (fluency, comprehension; LaBerge & Samuels, 1974; Reynolds, 2000, Samuels & Kamil, 1984). Clearly, the changes brought about by other aspects of instruction (front loading of phonics instruction, followed by the addition of spelling instruction, followed by the addition of fluency instruction) laid the groundwork for comprehension gains, without having to supply a great deal of explicit comprehension instruction. These older struggling readers were able to master decoding, spelling, and fluency, before comprehension was even introduced into instruction, enabling them to more fully understand strategy instruction and achieve comprehension gains with very little explicit comprehension strategy instruction. These results strongly suggest that it may not be how many hours of instruction for each component that is important, but instead when those hours are incorporated into organization of instruction, that matters most” (p.587).

Calhoon, M. B., & Prescher, Y. (2013). Individual and group sensitivity to remedial reading program design: Examining reading gains across three middle school reading projects. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 26, 565-592.

“Questions have sometimes been raised about the extent to which reading skills of struggling adolescents can be remediated and whether the money spent on such interventions is justified in light of the degree of benefit attained (Vaughn et al., 2010, 2011, 2012). Adolescents who have already gone through years of reading instruction and still lag behind their same age peers are a very heterogeneous group in their reading abilities. Through the use of both group and individual differences analysis we were able to gain a more complete and finely-tuned picture of how these struggling readers respond to treatment. The struggling readers in this study were multiple grade levels (3–7 years) behind their typically developing peers in reading ability. Results of both group and individual analyses indicate these older struggling readers can be remediated and for some, gains of two, three, four, or more years can be accomplished with only 1 year of instruction. While two to three years of gain for students who are four to six years behind by no means closes the achievement gap, these findings are encouraging in providing information on which modality of instruction closes the achievement gap best. ... Most compelling from the current analyses are results directly investigating the differences between three modalities (Alternating, Integrated, Additive) of instruction. Outcomes showed clearly that modality of instruction can matter considerably for these older struggling readers. The differences in gains clearly demonstrate that the Additive modality, with its sequential addition of each component (isolated phonological decoding instruction, followed by addition of spelling instruction, followed by addition of fluency instruction, and finally the addition of comprehension instruction [see Table 1]) is potentially the best modality for remediating reading skills (decoding, spelling, fluency, comprehension) in older struggling readers, of the three approaches that were compared in this research. These students show that they are highly sensitivity to the scheduling of the components and the amounts of instructional time per component; this is an important finding for the development and refinement of reading programs for struggling adolescent readers. While more research still needs to be conducted in this area, this study lends credence to the different requirements this unique population of students may need in order to close the achievement gap in acquiring adequate reading skills” (p.588-9).

Calhoon, M. B., & Prescher, Y. (2013). Individual and group sensitivity to remedial reading program design: Examining reading gains across three middle school reading projects. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 26, 565-592.


“Findings also indicate that a significant acceleration of reading outcomes for seventh- and eighth-graders from high-poverty schools is unlikely to result from a 50 min daily class. Instead, the findings indicate, achieving this outcome will require more comprehensive models including more extensive intervention (e.g., more time, even smaller groups), interventions that are longer in duration (multiple years), and interventions that vary in emphasis based on specific students’ needs (e.g., increased focus on comprehension or word study)” (p.931).

Vaughn, S., Wanzek, J., Wexler, J., Barth, A.E., Cirino, P.T., Fletcher, J.M., Romain, M.A., Denton, C.A., Roberts, G., & Francis, D.J. (2010). The relative effects of group size on reading progress of older students with reading difficulties. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 23(8), 931-956.


“Increasingly intense interventions. Perhaps the most important distinction among tiers is the intensity of instruction associated with each tier. Instructional intensity, while a term that is commonly understood by educators, merits some discussion in the RTI context. Often educators view increased intensity as something that can be accomplished “primarily by increasing instructional time or reducing size of the instructional group, or doing both” (Torgesen, 2005, p. 3). Mellard (2009) suggests that schools evaluate 10 distinct variables that may be adjusted to increase instructional intensity. These variables include three dosage-related elements (minutes of instruction, frequency, and duration), as well as instructional group size, immediacy of corrective feedback, the mastery requirements of the content, the number of response opportunities, the number of transitions among contents or classes, the specificity and focus of curricular goals, and instructor specialty and skills.

Dosage: Instructional Minutes, Frequency, and Duration

Dosage of intervention is a very fundamental construct of instruction that directly relates to opportunities for learning. Students need sufficient learning opportunities to acquire and practice curricular knowledge, skills, and abilities. To increase instructional intensity by varying dosage, teachers may change three key time-related variables: (1) the instructional minutes given to each student (i.e., minutes per lesson); (2) the frequency of the instruction (i.e., tutoring sessions per week); and/or (3) duration of the instruction (i.e., number of weeks). In an RTI framework, we expect to see increases in some or all of these time elements as an indication of increasingintensity from a lower tier to a higher, more intense tier” (p. 219).

Mellard, D., McKnight, M., & Jordan, J. (2010). RTI tier structures and instructional intensity. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 25(4), 217–225.


Can’t we simply invest in computer aided instruction (CAI) to address the issues?

Some relevant research


“ … the types of supplementary computer-assisted instruction programs that have dominated the classroom use of education technology in the past few decades are not producing educationally meaningful effects in reading for K-12 students.”

Cheung, A.C.K., & Slavin, R.A. (2012). How features of educational technology applications affect student reading outcomes: A meta-analysis. Educational Research Review, 7(3), 198-215.


“Khan and Gorard (2012) reported that previous studies have failed to demonstrate the effectiveness of computer based instruction as a means of improving reading skills. Taken together the evidence suggests that CAI should not be relied on to produce gains in reading ability in secondary school aged students and that in some circumstances using these programmes may have a negative impact on student’s progress (Gorard &Taylor, 2004). An avenue for future intervention design could be to combine computer administered tasks with face-to-face instruction.” (p.124-125)

Paul, S-A.S., & Clarke, P.J. (2016). A systematic review of reading interventions for secondary school students. International Journal of Educational Research, 79, 116–127.


“Averaging across all 12 studies of technology applications without extra time, the mean effect size was +0.06.” (p.25)

Baye, A., Lake, C., Inns, A. & Slavin, R. E. (2017, August). Effective reading programs for secondary students. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University, Center for Research and Reform in Education. Retrieved from

How can we teach reading in secondary schools? We're not trained!

So, your plan is to assist these students arriving at school without the basic skills in literacy needed to make sense of the secondary curriculum. However, few teachers in secondary schools have training or experience in teaching reading. So, what to do?

First, ensure that any program you select has a solid evidence support base. Time is of the essence, and you can’t afford to expend precious school resources, and eat into the struggling students’ valuable time without reasonable expectations that the outcomes are worth the cost and effort.

Second, consider a program in which the curriculum comes with a careful set of instructions – that is, it has sufficient specificity to enable a teacher untrained in literacy instruction to successfully implement. These are not the only programs with supporting evidence, but they represent the approach with which I’ve had long experience as a teacher and educational psychologist. Additionally, there are few programs displaying anything like the same degree of carefully constructed curricula and methods of curriculum presentation.

My experience in providing such a program in secondary schools is that the Direct Instruction series on reading, spelling, writing, and language meet the above two criteria. The lessons have been carefully written, revised, field-trialled, and are scripted, so the program’s teacher need not be a reading teacher.


Some relevant research

“Increasing the likelihood of teachers implementing research-based strategies in authentic school settings is a major goal of education leaders. Likewise, decreasing the variability of instruction practices and increasing fidelity of implementation to models of instruction and intervention is particularly difficult (Gersten, Chard, & Baker, 2000; Gresham, MacMillan, Beebe-Frankenberger, & Bocian, 2000). To address these issues in the context of ECRI, we developed highly specified lesson plans and teaching routines to support standard implementation of instruction and intervention materials. Our goal was to increase the level of specificity to ensure that teachers provided students with explicit and, when appropriate, intensive instructional supports (i.e., in the context of both Tier 1 and Tier 2). These routines provided clear expectations to teachers for what content to cover during instruction and intervention lessons and highly specified guidance for explicit and engaging teacher- student interactions. Akin to the Checklist Manifesto (Gawande, 2009), the goal of the specified routines was to increase the degree to which practitioners implement evidence- based practices with fidelity and integrity. The approach of using highly specified instruction and intervention routines can also be used as a tool for coaches and school leaders to define and measure implementation fidelity and to provide subsequent implementation goals for teachers. It is important to note that school based personnel (rather than researchers) delivered both the Tier 1 portion and the Tier 2 portions of the model. Having school personnel as implementers, notably a unique feature of this study, increases the external validity of the study’s results. The study findings also have potential implications for publishers and developers of core reading programs and tier 2 interventions. First, in our opinion, the degree of specificity and guidance provided to teachers for delivering explicit instruction in current reading programs is lacking. Many programs do not provide enough explicit, scaffolded instruction or practice opportunities for learners at risk of reading difficulty (Gersten, 1999). Second, core program and intervention developers and publishers should strive to align instruction and intervention materials to ensure struggling students are delivered a robust and coherent tiered support plan.” (p.617)

Fien, H., Smith, J. L. M., Smolkowski, K., Baker, S. K., Nelson, N. J., & Chaparro, E. A. (2015). An examination of the efficacy of a multitiered intervention on early reading outcomes for first grade students at risk for reading difficulties. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 48(6), 602–621.


As for the DI evidence base, see Reviews supporting Direct Instruction Program Effectiveness

and also

 Stockard, J., Wood, T.W., Coughlin, C., & Khoury, C.R. (2018). The effectiveness of Direct Instruction curricula: A meta-analysis of a half century of research. Review of Educational Research, On Line First. Retrieved from

and studies specifically on the Corrective Reading program: Corrective Reading program

See also my study with mid-upper primary students: Corrective Reading Decoding: An evaluation


So, what are the hurdles to successful intervention?

There is little doubt that the failure to establish reading skills early leads to a cascading skill deficit that pervades all curriculum areas eventually. Additionally, the deleterious effects on motivation can so severe for some students as to be largely intractable. Further, the years of employing inadequate reading strategies can produce a strong resistance to the modifications of style necessary for literacy progress. The modifications themselves tend to slow the reading rate initially, and also require markedly increased attention to graphemic detail - both of these changes can irritate students sufficiently to reduce their serious cooperation. A group of poor readers will almost inevitably contain a higher than average proportion of students with "interesting" behaviours - making teaching just that little bit more challenging. Additionally, the years of little exposure to print compared with their reading-facile peers can leave these students with a vocabulary insufficient to cope with the complexity of language in secondary school texts.

“Students who have consecutive failing experiences look at failure and success quite differently than their proficient counterparts, and as a result, do not recognize when and how their strategies are effective or ineffective (Walker, 2003). Many students with LD do not believe there is a stable relationship between their behavior and learning outcomes; rather, they believe that learning outcomes are out of their control (Pintrich & Schunk, 1996). In addition, students with LD are more likely than their same-age peers to have low academic self-efficacy, to believe their learning capacity is nonmalleable, and to interpret their previously unsuccessful efforts for learning as an indicator of what they are able to learn (Baird, Scott, Dearing, & Hamill, 2009).” (Berkeley & Larsen, 2018, p.2)  

Berkeley, S., & Larsen, A. (2018). Fostering self-regulation of students with learning disabilities: Insights from 30 years of reading comprehension intervention research. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 00(0), 1–12.

There are many compelling reasons for early intervention, neatly described by Stanovich (1986) as the Matthew Effects (The Rich get Richer, and the Poor get Poorer). Despite the potential impact of early intervention on the incidence of older poor readers, we have now and will probably always have a cohort of students whose progress is jeopardised by reading difficulty. Questions arise, such as, what is the optimum focus for intervention; and can intervention be successful?

It is the understanding of the alphabetic principle that allows students to decipher novel words. Using the alphabetic principle as a cipher represents what Perfetti (1991) calls a productive process in contrast to the very limited process of memorising words. Share (1995) sees this phonological recoding process as critical to the development of skilled reading, and describes it as being "... a self-teaching mechanism, enabling the learner to acquire the detailed orthographic representations necessary for rapid, autonomous, visual word recognition" (p. 152). This point is also critically important in designing effective programs for older students. Tempting as it may be to attempt simply to teach the recognition of important whole words to older struggling readers because the phonic strategies seem so ‘babyish’, one cannot bypass the ‘sounding-out’ stage. It is a necessary step on the path to automatic whole word recognition. It is only by practising these steps that ‘word pictures’ arise. An interesting study by Shankweiler, Lundquist, Dreyer, and Dickinson (1996) provides evidence for the location of the fundamental problem areas and provides an intervention focus. “Even among experienced readers individual differences in comprehension of text reflect efficiency of phonological processing at the word level (p.267).

Can intervention be successful, given the circumstances militating against such an outcome? There is not a great deal of published empirical evidence at this level. In the RMIT Psychology Clinic, we have used the McGraw Hill series called Corrective Reading very successfully.

We have trained teachers, aides, and parents to implement the programs. As the programs are self-contained, there is no requirement for the person presenting the program be a reading teacher. Ensuring, program fidelity is very important - in the Clinic we provide initial training, monitor the presenters during the program, employ additional daily progress checks, and ensure all mastery tests are completed. Given these caveats, the Corrective Reading program is measurably and noticeably effective in most circumstances, whether presented by teachers in groups (of up to 15 students) or by parents or aides individually. There is no quick fix however - gains, in my experience are of the order of 18 months in the 3 months or so it optimally takes to complete 65 lessons. An 18 month gain in a Year 7 student formerly reading at a Grade 3 level is impressive, but insufficient to presume the student can subsequently continue progressing unaided. The programs are sequential, so given there is a commitment to daily lessons, continuous progress will occur as more advanced levels are introduced. The effects do not appear to be transient or related to novelty.

In the numerous evaluations I have completed over many years, I have noted that gains have often been maintained, and progress continues while programs are in operation. In my doctoral thesis which involved providing one level of the CRP to 134 mid to upper primary school students, and comparing the outcome with 72 waitlist students, a very large effect size of 1.34 on Word Attack (Woodcock) was noted for the experimental group and an effect size of only 0.15 for the non-intervention group. A few students who continued with a second level of the program achieved a similarly large effect size of 1.63 from the end of the first level to the conclusion of the second level.

So, where to start? Comprehension, decoding and fluency, spelling, writing? Each is important, but few schools have the resources to address these areas simultaneously. So, what focus will provide the most bang for your buck?

As indicated earlier there is evidence that decoding with fluency is pre-requisite to future academic success, including success in the other potential foci. It accords with my experience that most helpful is an initial emphasis on decoding, with intervention ideally supplied at entry to secondary school for those students screened as at-risk late in Year 6 or early in Year 7.


What are the features of the Corrective Reading program?


How is it different to other instructional programs?

The Corrective Reading: Decoding program combines phonics and phonemic awareness instruction. The Direct Instruction model is highly structured and teacher directed. In terms of responsibility for learning outcomes, it emphasises the role of the teacher. The model is in direct contrast to child-centred, discovery approaches in which student responsibility for learning is paramount. There is a priority on the efficient use of time - maximizing the time students spend engaged in the learning activities. The most obvious difference is that DI lessons are scripted. In a traditional reading program, the teacher is given few guidelines on how to present the material. For example, when teaching reading comprehension the teacher might be told, "Discuss the concept of main idea". Loose guidelines such as this leave tremendous latitude concerning what the teacher actually says and does. It is very easy for teachers to unknowingly change the wording used to teach essential skills or concepts leading to ambiguity, thus making it especially difficult for some students to learn. Teachers may use vocabulary that is too sophisticated for some students, leaving success only to those who can understand the language. In a DI lesson, what the teacher says is actually printed out on the page. The students' responses are also printed out on the page. Teacher wording is thereby controlled, making it easier for students to learn.

DI programs are also different from other programs because they have been researched and tested to prove that they work. There are very big differences between DI and most curriculum materials. They are scripted so that the presenter does not need to be knowledgeable about teaching reading. They cover a lot of curriculum material in a short time because lessons are rapid-paced and because errors are kept to a minimum through careful sequencing of the steps.

So, in a secondary school, who should do the teaching? Typically, the first thought is that one or more of the English teachers should take on the role, or if the school has a special ed trained person, then it might be she/he. However, English teachers should not be the only staff to be considered. One of the best DI teachers I worked with was a maths teacher. The style of teaching does not sit comfortably with some teachers, while others do not have the level of classroom management skill that produces the strongest educational outcomes for students.

The Corrective Reading Program (CRP)

The CRP is a remedial reading program designed for students in Year 3 and above. It comprises two strands. Decoding and Comprehension, and within these strands are a number of levels. The Decoding strand has 4 levels (A, B1, B2, C) corresponding to the students’ decoding capacity assessed with a placement test. Its content and instructional methods are consistent with the findings of the National Reading Panel.

 The Corrective Reading Decoding Program has been evaluated on many occasions (the 1978, 1988, 1999, 2008 editions), though its effects on phonological processes have not yet been a focus. Most analyses have emphasised word recognition and reading comprehension as outcome variables, and results for a wide range of poor readers have been strong. Studies have noted positive outcomes for learning disabled students (Holdsworth, 1984; Lloyd, Epstein, & Cullinan, 1981; Maggs & Murdoch, 1979), intellectually disabled students (Polloway & Epstein, 1986; Polloway, Epstein, Polloway, Patton, & Bell, 1986), maladjusted boys (Thorne, 1978), with secondary students (Campbell, 1983; Gregory, Hackney, & Gregory, 1982a; Gregory, Hackney, & Gregory, 1982b; Sommers, 1995), with adults (Herr, 1989), and with gifted students (Noon & Maggs, 1980).

Although it is designed for classroom use with groups, it is also possible to involve parent volunteers or teacher aides in providing individual assistance when a group is not possible, or when a particular student requires a 1:1 approach. Its scripted design allows those without a background in literacy to become competent teachers of literacy.



The Decoding placement test is administered prior to the program and consists of several passages of prose, the rate of accuracy of reading determining the program level for any given student. The test is designed to assess ability at the word level. The story text is not amenable to contextual strategies, and the assessment criteria of rate and accuracy make it difficult for other than skilled decoders to pass unscathed. In the author’s experience it is capable of making the accurate discrimination necessary to place students in any of the 4 levels (A, B1, B2, C), or to detect those whose skills are above or below the entry criteria. Used informally as a posttest measure it frequently has demonstrated that the student would now be correctly placed at the next higher level. This implies that the assessment device is closely related to the specified program objectives.

The placement test also ensures that student groups are relatively homogeneous in their decoding ability, and that they are neither over-challenged by the level of difficulty of the program, nor already competent at that level. The test is administered individually, and takes about five to ten minutes. Detailed instructions are provided in the manual for administration and scoring.

In school settings, the assigned reading group teacher often performs the initial intake screening, and the placement test. Typically, the screening sample is derived from class teacher reports of students in the upper primary school whose reading progress had been of concern. This teacher-identified group is then assessed with the placement test.

The possible outcomes of such assessments are:

  1. the child’s current decoding skill levels are below those of the lowest level of the program (Level A), and would be best addressed with a beginning reading program.
  2. the child is appropriate for placement in one of the four program levels, or
  3. the child has already mastered the decoding skills taught at each level, and any reading deficits are probably not in the area of decoding.

Depending on the range of Year levels included in the assessment cohort, it is possible that, meeting all the students’ needs would require the provision of several of the levels, most frequently Levels A and B1. Schools then decide which group or groups they are able to provide with a program. In some cases schools decide to provide one program as a pilot, and plan subsequent programs after evaluating the first. This is a reasonable decision, but means that some of the identified students will not receive (immediate) assistance.

Program Design

There are two major features evident in the Decoding strand of the Corrective Reading Program (CRP). They are the emphasis on decoding skills (phonics) and the Direct Instruction approach to teaching the phonics content. It includes work on both isolated words and connected sentences, but its major emphasis is at the level of word structure. It is made clear to students that the decoding of novel words involves careful word analysis rather than partial cue or contextual guessing. Students are continually prompted to take account of all letters in a word, and become sensitised to common (and often problematic) letter groupings, for example, those beginning with combinations st, bl, sl, fl, pl, sw, cl, tr, dr; or ending with nt, nd, st, ts, mp, ps, cks, ls, ms, th, er, ing, ers, y. The sentences provided are constructed in a manner which allows few clues for contextual guessing, but provides ample opportunities to practise what has been learned in the teacher-presented word-attack segment of the lesson.

Lessons are designed to be provided in groups of up to 15 students; however, 10 is a more manageable number given the initial lack experience of the teachers with the program, and the observation that in most groups of poor readers there are usually several students difficult to motivate, and maintain on task. This first hurdle is difficult for teachers used to a less directive model of teaching. Lessons are scripted, and most teachers report requiring at least 20 lessons before reasonable comfort with the approach is achieved. Teacher support is valuable in the early stages to assist in this skill development, and to preclude teacher initiated program changes which may jeopardise program success.

The program designers claim that the program combines the benefits of 1:1 tutoring with the effectiveness of group instruction. This is achieved by the use of choral responses from the students prompted by various signals (a new skill for most teachers). Not only must teachers follow a script, but they must be able to reliably signal students when to respond, and then pay attention to each student’s response in order to select the appropriate corrective procedure. The results of this monitoring process help determine lesson pacing by controlling the amount of repetition necessary for mastery. The larger the group, the more difficult it is to continuously monitor every student’s progress - thus smaller group sizes are helpful for novice program presenters. As teachers’ reliance on the script diminishes, and as their signalling improves, so their adroitness at student monitoring improves and they are better able to manage larger groups.

The issues of behaviour management usually looms larger in secondary than primary schools. Participation in the reading program involves parent, but not student, consent. That is, students are not usually volunteers. Most schools considered the needs of the students too important to allow students the right of veto. To help motivate students whose history has made reading a non-preferred activity, the program includes a reinforcement strategy, via a points system for each lesson segment. Most schools perceived the advantage of this system and incorporate it successfully into their plan. The potential for program disruption by a few disillusioned students is an additional reason for beginning with smaller group sizes.

Lessons typically range from 45 minutes to one hour, dependent on the efficiency of teacher lesson pacing, and group size. Typically pacing improves with experience, but initially some teachers were unable to complete a whole lesson in the time allotted. Program design specifies an optimum schedule of five lessons each week. This level of intensity has been found important for students with reading problems, as they tend to have difficulty retaining new skills and knowledge in this domain. For this reason, there is strong emphasis on massed practice for mastery, and spaced practice for retention. If lesson frequency falls too low, retention may be jeopardised - leading to a general progress deceleration. However, not all schools are able to timetable five lessons per week, and even those which do so may find competing events sometimes forced class cancellation. The less ideal arrangement is 4 lessons/week.

The Level A program focuses attention on word structure through reviewing letter sound correspondence, and regular rhyming, blending and segmenting activities. It relates these phonemic awareness activities to the written word by initially emphasising regularly spelled words decomposable by using these skills. When this phonic approach is accepted by students as a viable (even valuable) strategy, common irregular words are introduced. In the authors’ view this sequence is important to prevent the jettisoning of the generative decoding strategies because of their apparent inconsistent results if irregulars are initially encountered at the high rate common in authentic literature.

The following skills are taught in Decoding A:

Letter/sound identification; sounding-out (segmenting) orally presented words, and then saying them fast (blending); decoding words of varying degrees of irregularity; reading whole words the fast way; reading short groups of words; sentence reading; spelling. Related skills such as matching letters, and common letter groupings (such as ing, word completion (for example, rhyming), and symbol scanning are included on the student worksheets.

The basic objective in Decoding A is to teach students that there are regularly spelled words, words that are pronounced by blending the sounds of the letters in them. Once students understand that the identification of a word is related to its spelling, irregularly spelled words, such as said and what, are introduced. These words are spelled one way but pronounced in a different, irregular way. The sentence-reading exercises give students practice in reading words that are presented within a context. Usually students who qualify for this program do not understand what decoding is. This problem is magnified when they try to read sentences. Usually, their sentence-reading strategy involves guessing based on the syntax or the position of words within the sentence. For instance, they guess that the first word is the. The objective of the sentence-reading activities is to retrain students in how to read words in sentences.

The typical Decoding B1 lesson is divided into four major parts: Word-attack skills. Group story-reading. Individual reading checkouts. Workbook activities

Word-attack skills take up about 10 minutes of the period. Students practice pronouncing words, identifying the sounds of letters or letter combinations, and reading isolated words composed of sounds and sound combinations that have been learned by the students. Students earn points for performance in the word-attack portion of the lesson.

Group story-reading follows immediately after word-attack skills. This part of the lesson takes approximately 15 to 20 minutes. Students take turns reading aloud from their student book (storybook). Students who are not reading follow along. The stories are divided into parts. If the group reads a part within the error limit, the teacher presents specified comprehension questions for the part.

Individual reading checkouts follow the group story-reading and take about 10 minutes. Assigned pairs of students read two passages. The first is from the lesson just read by the group; the second is from preceding lesson. Each member of the pair first reads the passage from the current story, then the passage from the preceding lesson. A student can earn points for both passages. Points for the first passage are earned if the student must read the passage within a specified rate criterion and also a specified error criterion. (For instance, the student must read 85 words in one minute, with no more than two errors).

Workbook activities are presented as the last part of the lesson. Some of these activities are teacher-directed and are very important to the students’ skill development. During lessons 1 through 5, students read only isolated sentences (totalling about 75-100 words). The stories begin on lesson 6 and continue on each lesson. Their length increases from about 200 words to 700 by lesson 60.

Students receive practice in comprehension skills with the following activities:

  • Orally answering questions about each part of the story after reading the part within an error limit.
  • Writing answers to a variety of comprehension items that require call of story events, sequencing, and characters

The daily oral reading checkouts provide each student with a lot of practice in reading connected sentences. Because the student work in pairs, the entire checkout doesn’t take very long, about 10 minutes for both checkouts help students gradually develop acceptable reading rates (from 55 words per minute at the beginning of the program to 90 words per minute at the end).

The workbook activities are carefully integrated with the word-attack activities and with the stories that the students read. From lesson to lesson, there is a careful development of skills in the workbook. It is considered very important for the students to do the workbook activities as part of each lesson. Each worksheet is one page. The different activities provide students with practice in writing sounds copying, answering comprehension questions, spelling and transforming words. Many of the activities deal with word details because these are the details the problem reader tends to ignore.

Facts about the Problem Reader

Adapted from: Corrective Reading Series Guide

Engelmann, S., Hanner, S., & Johnson, G. (1999). Corrective Reading-Series Guide. Columbus, OH, SRA/McGraw Hill.

 The Corrective Reading program series is designed to change the behaviour of the problem reader, The specific decoding tendencies of the problem reader suggest what a program must do to be effective in changing this student's behaviour.

  • The problem reader makes frequent word identification errors.
  • The student makes a higher percentage of mistakes when reading connected sentences than when reading words in word lists.
  • Often the student reads words correctly in word lists and misidentifies the same words when they are embedded in connected sentences.
  • The specific mistakes the reader makes include word omissions, word additional confusion of high‑frequency words (such as what and that, of and for, and and the).
  • The student also reads synonyms (saying pretty for beautiful).
  • The student often guesses at words, basing the guess on the word beginning or ending. And the student is consistently inconsistent, making a mistake on one word in a sentence and then making a different mistake when re‑reading the sentence.
  • The student doesn't seem to understand the relationship between the arrangement of letters in a word and the pronunciation of the word.
  • Often the student is confused about the "word meaning" (a fact suggested by "synonym reading," "opposite reading," and word guessing). The strategy seems to be based on rules the student has been taught.
  • The problem reader follows such advice as: Look at the beginning of the word and take a guess; Think of what the word might mean, and Look at the general shape of the word. The result is a complicated strategy that is often backwards: The student seems to think that to read a word one must first understand the word, then select the spoken word that corresponds to that understanding.
  • Although the problem reader may use a strategy that is meaning based, the reader is often preempted from comprehending passages. The reason is that the student doesn't read a passage with the degree of accuracy needed to understand what the passage actually says. (Omitting the word not from one sentence changes the meaning dramatically.)
  • Furthermore, the student's reading rate is often inadequate, making it difficult for the student to remember the various details of the passage, even if they were decoded accurately. Often the problem reader doesn't have an effective reading

 The student receives daily practice in oral reading, with immediate feedback.

(Only through oral reading can we discover what the student is actually reading.)

The student reads word lists with information about how to pronounce various letter combinations (such as th and or). The student also reads sentences and passages composed of words that have been taught. The sentences and passages are designed so they are relatively easy if the student approaches words as entities that are to be analyzed according to the arrangement of letters, but difficult if the student guesses oh the basis of the context or syntax of the sentence. (The sentences are designed so that guesses often lead to mis-identification of the word.)

The mastery tests and checkouts in the series assure that the student observes progress in reading rate and reading accuracy. The series presents comprehension items in a way that demonstrates the relationship between what is decoded and how it is to be understood. Initially, the comprehension activities are deliberately separated from the decoding activities so that the student's misconceptions about reading are not exaggerated. The comprehension activities, however, show the student that what is read is to be understood.

Finally, the series addresses the problem reader's poor self‑image. The series is designed so the student can succeed on real reading tasks. Furthermore, a point system that is based on realistic performance goals assures that the reader who tries will succeed and will receive reinforcement for improved performance.

In summary, the series uses a two‑pronged approach. Each level teaches effective reading skills to replace the student's ineffective approach to reading. Each level also contains an effective management system that turns students on to reading. This turn‑on is not achieved by "seducing" the reader with entertaining topics but by rewarding the reader for steady improvement in reading performance. The approach WORKS.

Finally, the poor reader is not a highly motivated student. For this student, reading has been punishing. The student often professes indifference: "I don't care if I can read or not." But the student's behaviour gives strong suggestions that the student cares a great deal. The student's ineffective reading strategies and negative attitudes about reading become more ingrained as the reader gets older. To overcome them requires a very careful program, one that systematically replaces the strategies with new ones and that provides lots and lots of practice.

The problems

An effective corrective reading program must address the specific needs of the problem reader.

  1. The learner must learn to look at the order of letters in a word and learn that this order suggests the general pronunciation of the word. Furthermore, the student must learn that the game is simple: First figure out how the letters suggest one should say the word. Then see if the word you say is one that you recognize, one that has meaning. (Note that this strategy is basically the opposite of the one the typical problem reader uses.)
  2. The problem reader must receive practice in reading connected sentences that are composed of words that have been taught in isolation. Merely because the student reads words in lists does not imply transfer to written sentences.
  3. The student must receive strong reinforcement for working on reading because the task is very difficult and frustrating for the student. The student has received a great deal of evidence that reading is a puzzle that can't seem to be solved.
  4. Finally, the student must receive practice in reading a variety of passages. If the student practices reading only narrative passages, the student will not "automatically" transfer the reading skills to textbooks, articles, or other forms of expository writing. Therefore, different styles must be introduced.

The Corrective Reading decoding programs are successful with problem readers because they provide the careful integration, the practice, and the management details that the problem reader needs to succeed.


Decoding A

Who it’s for

Decoding A is appropriate for extremely poor readers in the second half of grade 3 through high school who virtually lack decoding skills.  These students read so inaccurately and haltingly that they are prevented from comprehending what they read. For Level A grade level reading is probably around the lower first grade level. One can expect students to gain a year level in decoding for each 60 -70 lessons (around 12 weeks) of a given program level. This implies a strong acceleration, as these students must have been progressing at a rate of much less than one year gain per year of instruction.

What is taught

The following skills are taught in Decoding A.

  • Identifying the sounds of letters.
  • Sounding out words that are presented orally and then saying them fast.
  • Decoding irregularly spelled words.
  • Reading words “the fast way”.
  • Reading short selections
  • Reading sentences
  • Spelling.

Related skills such as matching, word completion (for example, rhyming), and symbol scanning are included on the student worksheets.

The basic objective in Decoding A is to teach students that there are regularly spelled words, words that are pronounced by blending the sounds of the letters in them.  Once students understand that the identification of a word is related to its spelling, irregularly spelled words, such as said and what, are introduced.  These words are spelled one way but pronounced in different, irregular” way.

The sentence-reading exercises give students practice in reading words that are presented within a context.  Usually students who qualify for this program do not understand what decoding is.  This problem is magnified when they try to read sentences.  Usually, their sentence-reading strategy involves guessing based on the syntax or the position of words within the sentence.  For instance, they guess that the first word is the.

The objective of the sentence-reading activities is to retrain students in how to read words in sentences.  Although work on isolated words (in lists) teaches word-attack skills, practice in reading sentences ensures that students apply these skills.

 Outcome behaviour

Upon completion of Decoding A, students should be able to do the following activities.

  • Read sentences, such as She was a master at planting trees. These sentences are composed primarily of regularly spelled words (containing as many as six sounds).
  • Read short selections, such as the following:

Ten men got in a truck.

They went to the creek and set up a tent.

How can ten men fit in the tent?

They can not.

Six men will sleep under a tree.

  • Read common irregular words such as what, was, do, said, to, of, and you with only infrequent errors.
  • Read words that begin with difficult letter combinations such as st, bl, sl, fl, pl, sw, cl, tr, dr.
  • Read words that end with difficult letter combinations such as nt, nd, st, ts, mp, ps, cks, ls, ms, th, er, ing, ers, y.
  • Pronounce commonly confused words parts such as the k sound in trick, the e sound in set, the s ending sound in mats, runs, and munches.
  • Spell simple words that have a clear sound-symbol relationship, including words that contain th, wh, sh, ch, and various other letter combinations.
  • Independently perform on various simple activities, such as matching sounds and completing words with missing letters.

Other activities are independent.  The workbook activities take about 10 minutes.  Students earn points by staying within an error limit for errors on the worksheet for the lesson.

The following activities are included in word-attack skills.

  • Pronouncing words with consonant blends (slam, cast, flip), orally constructing words with endings (adding ed to show to pronounce showed), and identifying the component sounds of orally presented words.
  • Identifying the long and short sounds of the vowels o, e, a, and I.
  • Identifying the sounds of consonants.
  • Identifying the sounds of letter combinations (th, ee, sh, or, ol, ch, wh, ing, er, oo, ea, oa, ai, ou, ar, oul, ir, igh, al) and reading words with those combinations.
  • Reading lists of regularly spelled words, such as mat and trip, and irregularly spelled words, such as what and said.
  • Reading words that contain difficult consonant blends (drop, splash, slip).
  • Reading words with endings (dropping, rested)
  • Reading silent-e words (save, times, hoped).
  • Reading compound words (herself, anybody).

Practicing patterns drills that demonstrate consistent phonic relationships (big, bag, beg, bug).

DECODING B1 Who it’s for

Decoding B1 is appropriate for most problem readers in grades 4 through 12.  They guess at words.  They have trouble reading words like what, that, a, and the when the words appear in a sentence context.  They add or omit words.  They often read synonyms for printed words and are generally inconsistent in their reading behaviour (reading a word correctly one time and missing it the next time). For Level B1 students - their grade level reading is probably around the beginning of second year level. One can expect students to gain a year level in decoding for each 60 -70 lessons (around 12 weeks) of a given program level. This implies a strong acceleration, as these students must have been progressing at a rate of much less than one year gain per year of instruction.

What is taught

The typical Decoding B1 lesson is divided into four major parts.

  1. Word-attack skills
  2. Group story-reading
  3. Individual reading checkouts
  4. Workbook activities

 Word-attack skills take up about 10 minutes of the period.  Students practice pronouncing words, identifying the sounds of letters or letter combinations, and reading isolated words composed of sounds and sound combinations that have been learned by the students.  Students earn points for performance in the word-attack portion of the lesson.

Group story-reading follows immediately after word-attack skills.  This part of the lesson takes approximately 15 to 20 minutes.  Students take turns reading aloud from their student book (storybook).  Students who are not reading follow along.  The stories are divided into parts.  If the group reads a part within the error limit, the teacher presents specified comprehension questions for the part.

Individual reading checkouts follow the group story-reading and take about 10 minutes.  Assigned pairs of students read two passages.  The first is from the lesson just read by the group; the second is from preceding lesson.  Each member of the pair first reads the passage from the current story, then the passage from the preceding lesson.  A student can earn points for both passages.  Points for the first passage are earned if the student must read the passage within a specified rate criterion and also a specified error criterion.  (For instance, the student must read 85 words in one minute, with no more than two errors).

 Workbook activities are presented as the last part of the lesson.  Some of these activities are teacher-directed and are very important to the students’ skill development.

Although the content “distracts” the reader, for the reader to read with acceptable accuracy.

During lessons 1 through 5, students read only isolated sentences (totaling about 75-100 words).  The stories begin on lesson 6 and continue on each lesson.  Their length increases from about 200 words to 700 by lesson 60.

Students receive practice in comprehension skills with the following activities:

  • Orally answering questions about each part of the story after reading the part within an error limit.
  • Writing answers to a variety of comprehension items that require call of story events, sequencing, and characters

The daily oral reading checkouts provide each student with a lot of practice in reading connected sentences.  Because the student work in pairs, the entire checkout doesn’t take very long, about 10 minutes for both checkouts help students gradually develop acceptable reading rates (from 55 words per minute at the beginning of the program to 90 words per minute at the end).

The workbook activities are carefully integrated with the word-attack activities and with the stories that the students read.  From lesson to lesson, there is a careful development of skills in the workbook.  It is very important for the students to do the workbook activities as part of each lesson.

Each worksheet is one page.  The different activities provide students with practice in writing sounds copying, answering comprehension questions, spelling and transforming words.  Many of the activities deal with word details because these are the details the problem reader tends to ignore.

Outcome behaviour

Upon completion of Decoding B1, students’ progress can be seen in both improved accuracy and improved rate.  Following is one part of the story lesson 60.  Students can read this passage with 99 percent accuracy and at a minimum rate of 90 words per minute.

The sentences in this program are designed so that there is low probability of guessing a word correctly.  If students guess the next word in a sentence on the basis of the preceding words, they most likely will be wrong.  The low probability feature provides students with consistent evidence that guessing is not effective.  A guess equals a mistake; therefore, students quickly abandon the guessing approach and use the decoding skills being taught.

The story-reading exercises give students practice in decoding material similar to what they will encounter at the beginning of Decoding B1 and in answering comprehension questions about what they have read.

The stories in Decoding B1 increase in length, difficulty, and interest.  All stories are composed of words that have been taught in the series or words that the students can already read.  After new  words and word types are introduced in the word-attack activities, the words are incorporated in stories.  Furthermore, the introduction of words in stories is cumulative, which means that once words have been introduced, they recur in the stories.

The syntax and structure of the stories are designed for the problem decoder and are designed to correct the mistake s the reader typically makes.  Early stories are “low interest” stories because the poor reader must concentrate on a new game - looking at words and identifying the, without guessing.  With higher interest stories, the reader becomes preoccupied with the content of the story and reverts to habitual, inappropriate decoding strategies, which means that errors increase greatly.  Later in the program, after students have practiced the game of accurate decoding, the stories become more interesting. appropriate strategies are now strong enough

Jean was trying to think of everything that had happened just before the drams went to sleep.  She remembered how she had been running with the drams biting her.  She ran and fell into a hole in the floor.  She remembered getting out of the hole and running again.

But were the drams biting her then?  “Think, think.”

“No,” Jean said to herself.  “I don’t remember being bitten after I fell into the hole.  Something must have happened before I fell into the hole.”

Jean Tried to think of everything that happened before she fell into the hole.  She looked at the beach.  More drams were marching closer to the barracks.  They were marching over the sleeping drams.   “Bzzzzzzzzzzzz.”

DECODING B2 Who it's for


Decoding B2 is appropriate for students in grades 4 through 12 who have some decoding problems, who do not read at an adequate rate, who still tend to confuse words with similar spellings, and who tend to make word-guessing mistakes.

What is taught:

Decoding B2 follows the same format as Decoding B1. Each lesson is divided into four major parts.

  1. 1. Word-attack skills
  2. 2. Group story-reading
  3. 3. Individual reading checkouts
  4. 4. Workbook activities

The following activities are included in word-attack skills.

  • Identifying the sounds of letter combinations (tch, ir, ur, er, wa, oi, ce, ci, tion, ea, ge, gi, kn) and reading words with those combinations
  • Reading lists of regularly spelled words, such as risks, and irregularly spelled words, such as league
  • Reading words that contain difficult consonant blends (flip, drop, splash)
  • Reading words with endings (dropping, rested)
  • Reading silent-e words (fine, taped)
  • Reading compound words (greenhouse)
  • Practicing pattern drills that demonstrate consistent phonic relationships (sigh, sight, night, fight, flight)

The stories in Decoding B2 increase in length, difficulty, and interest. All stories are composed of words that have been taught in Decoding B2 or words that the students can already read. The syntax and structure of the stories are designed for the problem decoder and are designed to correct the mistakes the reader typically makes. Story length increases from about 500 words to nearly 900 words by lesson 65.

Students receive practice in comprehension skills by orally answering questions about each part of the story after reading the part within an error limit and writing answers to a variety of comprehension items that require recall of story events, sequencing, and characters.

The daily oral reading checkouts help students develop both accuracy and reading rates (from 90 words per minute at the beginning of the program to 120 words per minute at the end).

The workbook activities are carefully integrated with the word-attack activities and with the stories that the students read. IT IS VERY IMPORTANT FOR THE STUDENTS TO DO THE WORKBOOK ACTIVITIES AS PART OF EACH LESSON.

Outcome behavior

Upon completion of Decoding B2, students' progress can be seen in both improved accuracy and improved rate. Following is one part of the story from lesson 53. Students can read this passage with 99 percent accuracy and at a minimum rate of 115 words per minute.

"No," Jean said to herself. "I don't remember being bitten after I fell into the hole. Something must have happened before I fell into the hole."

Jean tried to think of everything that happened before she fell into the hole. She looked at the beach. More drams were marching closer to the barracks. They were marching over the sleeping drams. "Bzzzzzzzzzzz."

Tony's hands were sore. His back was sore. So were his legs. He was beginning to realize that Salt had been right when he'd said that the real work was just beginning. For the past three hours, Tony had hauled rocks from the pile. At first the pile had been about two meters high. Now it was only about half a meter high.

Tony bent down and grabbed another rock. When he picked it up, he saw something below it. "Hey, Rosa," he said. "What's that?" Rosa tossed a rock into the underbrush. Then she wiped the sweat from her eyes. She bent down and looked where Tony was pointing. "It looks like a knife handle," Rosa said. "I'll pull it out."

Decoding C: Skills Applications

The fourth and most advanced level of the decoding programs in SRA's Corrective Reading series is Decoding C Skill Applications. This program is designed to teach advanced word-attack skills. The basic thrust of the program is to help students develop the skills necessary to decode a wide variety of words and to handle different sentence constructions as they appear in many kinds of reading materials.

By completing Decoding B2, students have become far more accurate decoders. However, poor decoders have practised faulty decoding strategies-guessing on the basis of word beginnings, context, syntax, and so on-for many years. Usually, the habits built up during this period are not neutralized through only 1 school year of work. Although in 1 year students acquire the basis of a new strategy, they need continued practice in using word-attack skills to firmly establish the newly formed accuracy habits. And the students need more than to merely practice the word attack and story-reading skills presented in Decoding B1 and B2. In those programs,. the vocabulary and syntax of the fictional selections are highly controlled. Students are not confronted with either the vocabulary or the sentence forms that appear in textbooks. The passive voice, the use of parenthetical (non restrictive) clauses, the longer multi-clause sentences, and similar constructions are deliberately avoided in Decoding B1 and B2.

One goal of Decoding C is to fill the gap between tightly controlled syntax and vocabulary presentations and presentations typically encountered in traditional reading materials.

Another goal is to present the meaning of words frequently encountered in text materials. Vocabulary exercises are presented so students will be introduced to new words before reading them. Many of the more than 600 words included in the vocabulary exercises are words students have already encountered; however, students frequently have only a vague or incorrect notion of their meaning. .

Another goal is to provide reinforcement of a broad variety of comprehension question types. The types include literal comprehension, vocabulary, new information facts, and inferential reading.

Another goal of Decoding C is to help students apply the decoding skills taught in the program to reading material encountered outside the program. Because the procedures used in Corrective Reading instruction are unique, students sometimes fail to realize that the skills are applicable to material outside the program. After all, for years these students have not been able to handle material in various subject areas successfully. Unless they receive pointed demonstrations that undermine the 1-can't-do-this attitude, students may continue to read successfully in the Corrective Reading group and still not apply these skills to other reading situations. Decoding C demonstrates how to apply new skills to reading newspapers, magazines, and textbooks.

The final goal of this program is to decrease students' dependence on highly structured presentations and to place greater emphasis on their independent, self-initiated work. Students contribute subject-matter ideas for the reading material that comes from outside the program. Then they select word-attack words from this outside material. Although students continue to receive adequate repetition of words in the word-attack portion of the lesson, the teacher's role as guide is generally reduced.

In summary, Decoding C bridges the gap between a carefully controlled and directed presentation and an independent one in which vocabulary and syntax have not been screened. The program exposes students to new vocabulary words and new kinds of comprehension items. Oral reading practice continues throughout the program to provide the teacher with a means of assessing students' reading accuracy. The scope of the reading material expands as students progress through the program, and the amount of silent reading and independent work increases. Students who are carefully taught will complete the program with decoding skills that will allow them to read a variety of fictional and expository materials.

 Who it’s for.

Decoding C is designed for relatively poor readers in grades 3 through 12. The program is appropriate for students who understand English and whose scores on the Corrective Reading placement test indicate that they belong in the program.

Decoding C is not appropriate for students who do not speak any English, or whose grasp of English is quite weak.

Extensive use of Decoding C has demonstrated that the program works effectively with students who traditionally would be identified as learning disabled, educationally handicapped, or perceptually handicapped. As long as students demonstrate the skill level necessary to enter the program, they may be placed in the program.

Finally, students who meet the rate and accuracy criteria at the end of Decoding B2 qualify for this program. There is no need to re-administer the placement test to these students unless the test is used as a criterion-referenced mastery measure.

What is taught

The skills taught in Decoding C are word attack, selection reading, and comprehension.

The following activities are included in Word Attack Exercises.

  • A review of words containing sound combinations such as th, oa, ea, ai, ou, ar, ir, er, ur, igh, oi, tion, c(e,), g(e,i)
  • Introduction of the sound combinations ure, aw, au, tial, cial
  • Introduction of the meaning of more than 400 vocabulary words
  • Introduction of the meaning of the affixes ex, ly, un, re, dis, pre, tri, sub, less, ness, able
  • Practice in reading words containing the various sound combinations and affixes
  • Practice in writing complex words as root words plus affixes

The following activities provide practice in selection-reading skills.

  • Reading selections that give specific factual information on a particular topic
  • Reading selections that are fictional
  • Reading selections that contain a high percentage of new words
  • Reading selections from magazines, newspapers, and other sources

The following activities provide practice in comprehension skills.

  • Answering orally presented comprehension questions about the selections that are read
  • Writing answers to a variety of comprehension questions, including both literal and inferential items

The materials

The materials for Decoding C consist of this Teacher's Guide, two Teacher Presentation Books with answers for the student Workbook, a non-consumable Student Book, and a consumable student Workbook.

This guide contains basic information about the program and specific information for presenting exercises and correcting mistakes. The Guide also includes a copy of the Decoding Placement Rest (Appendix A), a Scope and Sequence Chart (Appendix B), a list of Behavioural Objectives (Appendix C), an alphabetical Glossary of Defined Words (Appendix D), and a Skills Profile Chart (Appendix E).

Teacher Presentation Book C1 covers Lessons 1-60; Book C2 covers Lessons 61-125. Both books contain a glossary of defined words. The Teacher Presentation Books contain a script for each lesson. Scripts specify what you say and do and how students are to respond. This blue type indicates what you say. (This type indicates what you do.) This italic type shows the students' response.


What are the limits of instructional influence on student progress?

The instructional emphasis expressed in the Corrective Reading program does not preclude an acknowledgment that causes of failure can reside within the individual, but allows for the possibility of resolving problems by manipulating instruction regardless of the source of the difficulty. There are a number of elements within the Direct Instruction programs that may have the effect of enhancing student progress. For example, the within-program attention to student responses allows for the identification of difficulties at the time they occur, rather than at the program’s conclusion.

In particular, the program requirements for repeating tasks until mastery is achieved, of monitoring each student’s responses and their daily rate and accuracy checks - should be examined when considering any student’s failure to progress as assessed by the phonological processing measures. The mastery tests provided for the program (at mid-point and conclusion) also provide a safeguard against a student’s failure remaining unobserved throughout the program. Even motivational/attentional variations are addressable through the incentive program integral to the Corrective Reading program.

It may be that there are treatment resisters in most groups, and their identification is dependent upon teacher monitoring skills, and teachers’ preparedness to follow the program’s guidelines in this regard. It is possible that variation in these teacher/program interactions may be an important focus for future research in reducing the problem of student failure to progress.

There are several safeguards against failure addressed by the program. One involves information provided to teachers on how best to react to any incorrect student responses detected during the lesson. There are clear scripted correction procedures specific to different tasks, designed to redirect students to the appropriate response. It typically involves an instantaneous correction sequence in which the teacher models the correct response, leads the student through the correct response, and finally tests the student for the correct response.

Teachers are exhorted at the conclusion of most teaching routines to repeat until firm. This is designed to provide additional practice when errors are noted, the practice intended to reduce error incidence in the future. If errors are continually made by the same one or two students, the teacher is faced with a dilemma - to slow the pace of the lesson, provide more practice of each task for the entire class, or, to continue at the pace comfortable to most of the class, and hope that the stragglers at least derive some benefit.

A more humane, though resource expensive option is to coopt an aide or parent volunteer to pre-teach each lesson prior to the regular group lesson. This allows for individually appropriate pacing, tailored to the student’s need, and allows the student to continue a rate of progress in concert with his peers during the group session. Usually this double-teaming has the effect of supporting the student in the critical early stages of foundation skill development, improving the student’s adaptation to the program structure, and increasing the student’s confidence to respond with the group. In the author’s experience, and in the outcomes for several students in his doctoral study, a short burst of this added assistance allows for successful return to reliance on the group instruction alone.

Another instructional decision point occurs when most of the group makes an incorrect response. In this case, the teacher should examine instructional variables - faulty (perhaps ambiguous) presentation, overly rapid lesson pacing, and, the presence or absence of pre-skills necessary for correct responding during the current task.

The major issue arising from the foregoing discussion is the emphasis on instructional considerations in any attempts to increase the breadth of a program’s success. Both the early detection of problems (monitoring) and the planned response to detected problems should be critical foci in such attempts. As the Corrective Reading program was carefully designed to allow continuous monitoring of student progress, a failure to present the curriculum in the prescribed manner (if the deviations are deleterious) should become readily apparent. Some of the deviations noted by the author in schools merely comprise unnecessarily verbose explanations, or interesting but largely irrelevant excursions into other topics. These minor deviations may detract from the elegance of the design, thus reducing efficiency, but they are unlikely to jeopardise outcomes for students.

Other departures from the prescribed program such as omitting some elements, for example, timed reading checkouts, individual turn-taking, or specific tasks, may have a significant effect on the average group progress (if the departures are severe). Alternatively, the modifications may interfere with the progress of some (probably the most vulnerable) students, for it is the most vulnerable students who adapt least easily to ambiguous or incomplete instructional sequences. The early detection of difficulties in any given student is critical to the achievement of broadband success.

The program designers argue that the Corrective Reading program is an individual program, but presented in a group format. For this efficiency to succeed, the teacher must observe each student’s responses by first ensuring that choral responding is precise, thus enabling the detection and teacher correction of incorrect responses. The teacher also requires well-developed powers of observation to systematically attend to each response of each student. The extent to which teachers can do this successfully depends upon several factors, such as hearing acuity, ability and determination to ensure their students achieve truly choral responding, and the group size. The teachers’ manual recommends group sizes of 12 or less for Level A, and 15 or less for Level B. In the author’s experience, inexperienced Direct Instruction teachers should reduce the number to below 10 until they become more skilled. The vigilance provided by teachers regarding student response is a major defence against any student’s failure in the program. Given that there can be students who do not progress as hoped, this may be an area in which additional training and monitoring of teachers should be a priority.

Thus, several elements of program fidelity appear critical. In a cumulative curriculum, it is essential that all tasks are mastered if students (especially the vulnerable) are to progress. The inbuilt continuous progress evaluation is valuable in detecting quickly individual or group difficulty at any point. It is through these program features that problems of progress resistance can be addressed, and hence students spared the fate of participating in an ineffectual educational process.

Though not viable currently, according to the research described earlier, in the longer term, it may be that individual programming enabling appropriate and immediate response to student difficulty can more precisely be delivered through the use of computer-based methods in conjunction with voice recognition software. In such a scheme, variations in student learning rates could be effectively and efficiently compensated for through differential presentation rates, error correction, and massed and spaced practice. Student responses could then determine the lesson structure that would, in turn, be capable of adjustment as the needs of the student alter. In the meantime, it should be noted that, as opposed to relying on access to computer programs as instructional agents, there is acknowledged benefit in including such activities in the practice phase of learning.


Other program characteristics and effectiveness

There is a consensus that the earlier the intervention for at-risk learners the more rapid and widespread is the success; however, in secondary schools, the students have already experienced some years of reading failure, and the habit of employing ineffective strategies for reading is firmly ingrained. The effects of resistance born of failure can form obstacles to progress at least as difficult to overcome as the original source of the reading difficulty. For this reason, the Corrective Reading program includes a motivational system based on assigning points for maintaining speed and error limits. Teachers’ comments suggest that this element of the program should not be underestimated in making judgements about which are the program’s most effective elements. Numerous positive comments have been made about the student enjoyment and increased on-task behaviour attributable to the points system. Additionally, the system has helped to capture the cooperation of many students initially negative about being involved in the program.

One difficulty evident in much of the reading research involves ensuring students transfer their newly developed knowledge and skills to the task of everyday reading. For this to occur, the students need to notice that the new strategies are superior to the old (in which available strategies may be confined to using context cues and initial letters, for example). If the program uses uncontrolled (also called authentic) text, it is likely to be more difficult for students to effectively use their knowledge, and they may not appreciate the long term benefits of careful word analysis. The Corrective Reading stories used in daily reading are carefully constructed to be decoded using word attack strategies (though not predictable from context cues), and by using the individually taught sight-words. This provides students with a supportive reading environment that allows for success when the decoding strategies are used, and practice, so that the decoded words gradually become recognisable as wholes.

An element contributing to the impressive gains no doubt involves the time and intensity of the intervention. Longer interventions allow for greater content coverage and adequate practice, though of course there is no guarantee that all intervention designs specifically incorporate such effective teaching characteristics.

Program intensity involves a combination of lesson length, lesson density, and lesson frequency. Lesson length for the Corrective Reading programs was about 50-60 minutes. This period allows for a reasonable content coverage in each session and for the integration of new knowledge into the existing structure. As the programs involve a cumulative sub-skills approach to reading - the introduction of new skills, the practice of recently acquired skills and the amalgamation of these with the already-established core - requires careful lesson planning and sufficient time for this amalgamation to occur. Program density involves the extent to which students are actively engaged in learning during the lesson time. Various concepts such as time on task, academic engaged time, and academic learning time have been employed to address the issue of student engagement. An observational study by Allington, Stuetzel, Shake, and Lamarche (1986) noted that typically only about one third of the time allocated to remedial reading instruction was actually spent in direct reading activities, the rest consumed by management issues, waiting, transition, and absence from the room. One way of promoting student engagement is to plan for overt responses. When students are producing overt responses it is apparent that students are participating, and their learning can be monitored. The additional advantage of overt responses involves the opportunity to provide corrective feedback.

Another element of lesson density involves the proportion of correct to incorrect responses. Students who struggle with reading require high rates of success if they are to adopt new strategies, transfer new skills across tasks, and persevere with the new strategies. Teachers in this study have commented on the high success rates achieved daily through careful lesson design, and student placement at the appropriate program level. The author once counted 300 responses from a student in a 10 minute word attack segment of a Corrective Reading program lesson. This represents a very high intensity of participation; additionally, the success rate was very high, above 90%.

Lesson frequency appears to be important, perhaps because of the need for spaced practice of newly mastered skills. It has been noted that students, particularly those at-risk, readily forget what they have learned when lesson frequency is too low. If this occurs, additional time is spent in relearning rather than in incorporation activities. Frustration and disengagement are the possible negative outcome of under-scheduling. The program guidelines recommend five lessons per week, although this may not achieved by all schools. Most schools allow for five sessions per week, but almost inevitably other priorities intrude. These usually involve activities such as school swimming programs and other sports, visiting guests and excursions. Often a period of school holidays (either 2 or 6 weeks) interrupts the lesson sequence. The effect of variable frequency impacts most notably on the students most at-risk. They are the students most likely to lose hard-won gains through forgetting.

The total contact hours are also relevant. Each level of the Corrective Reading program entails about 50 hours of instruction.


Program Fidelity

Teacher Training

The Direct Instruction model as explicated in the massive Follow Through experiment paid significant attention to the issue of fidelity of implementation. The designers’ examination of implementation research had found moderate to high correlations between student outcome and degree of adherence to prescribed procedures (Engelmann, Becker, Carnine, & Gersten, 1988). The training program for their teachers involved several elements: presenting the rationale, demonstrating technique, providing practice and feedback in response to teacher performance, and, observing real classes - weekly for the first four months, then fortnightly. That process may take a year overall, with the level of complexity of the skills to be introduced increasing over that period. In examining the training modules it is evident that the model of teacher training adopted by the designers involves the same direct instruction principles as underlie the student skill development programs.

In the design of the delivery system, the focus was on those teacher behaviours that resulted in optimum student achievement. This concern for detail mirrored the designers’ approach to field testing instructional routines also. In that process, theoretical principles of instructional design drove the initial development of content, but it was multiple-setting field testing that determined the final design. For example, the Corrective Reading program (Level B Decoding) underwent nine revisions before publication (Hanner & Engelmann, 1984).

Engelmann (1988) argues that the average teacher would need to practise an exercise in a reading program at least a dozen times before the fluent orchestration of component presentation and correction skills is attained. These skills involve comfortable and facile use of the specified teacher wording, using lesson pacing appropriate to the example and to the student group, using signals in an unambiguous and natural manner, and providing adequate (but not excessive) reinforcement. In his view, this practice and associated feedback should not take place in the classroom but in less complex settings such as “dummy” runs with colleagues, etc. Such practice is considered important as a beneficial precursor (though not sufficient) to the transfer of training to the real world of the classroom. Engelmann’s experience has been that, without safeguards, less than 30% of the skills practised (outside the classroom) will be evident subsequently in classrooms. Thus, the provision of in vivo coaching was found to be especially important for the acquisition of skill. This is unsurprising given the increased salience of observing a model performance in one’s own classroom. Glang and Gersten (1987) commented on the value for teachers in seeing how their own students responded to the expert instructional techniques presented by the visiting supervisor. Unfortunately, this level of support is rarely available in our educational settings.

 There is research evidence that interventions are more likely to be effective if the school buys in to initial teacher training in the selected program along with subsequent coaching. It has been observed that DI teachers may take several years to reach a level of expertise that produces the optimal student outcomes.

“The vast majority of the studies demonstrating positive or potentially positive effects also involved ongoing support or coaching for instructors, who were most likely to be typically hired school staff. Importantly, eight of the 12 studies observed small to moderate effects on a high-stakes assessment, such as a state accountability measure. It is also important to note that the Herrera et al. (2016) review summarized research findings from all studies of adolescent literacy interventions that met review criteria, which includes studies planned and conducted by researchers to test the effects of particular interventions under ideal conditions, as opposed to only studies that are implemented under naturalistic conditions (i.e., those in which districts select the programs and practices they will implement, even if the evaluation is conducted through support from an external evaluator, as is the case in the current study). In reviews of studies of literacy interventions where districts and schools select and implement interventions, even fewer studies demonstrate positive or potentially positive effects on student literacy outcomes. For instance, a recent review of the Striving Readers grant program, in which 16 school districts were paired with an external evaluator to study the effects of district-selected and district-implemented literacy interventions, identified only three interventions that resulted in positive or potentially positive effects on a literacy-related outcome, although effect sizes were small, ranging from 0.0 to 0.21 (Boulay et al., 2015).” (p. 39)  

Fien, H., Anderson, D., Nelson, N.J., Kennedy, P., Baker, S.K., & Stoolmiller, M. (2018). Examining the impact and school-level predictors of impact variability of an 8th grade reading intervention on at-risk students’ reading achievement. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 33(1), 37–50.


Within Program Controls

In most schools it has not been possible to provide the intensity and duration of teacher-training recommended by the authors. It has been noted in other studies that program fidelity can be a major issue in the success of an intervention. Schneider, Kuspert, Ruth, Vise, and Marx (in press) found that whilst differences in focus and duration (time allotted daily and overall program length) had a significant effect on outcome; so did the degree of pre-program and within-program teacher training have an influence on the degree of success experienced by students.

A major difference in implementing the Corrective Reading program compared to most experimenter-developed curricula involves the extent of within-program control of curriculum and delivery. The programs used in this study are very prescriptive - the teacher making few judgements about curriculum issues. The content and delivery are scripted, and the teachers’ role is relatively transparent. The teachers’ skill revolves around classroom management, task presentation, and response monitoring (making decisions about the degree of repetition needed, or the need for error correction).

By contrast, some less prescriptive approaches allow for significant variation among teachers, whose expertise in teaching is assumed. This assumption may not be justified as studies by Lindamood (1993) and Moats (1994b) have shown. A significant proportion of teachers do not themselves have good phonemic awareness, and hence may be expected to have difficulty in both teaching phonological skills, and monitoring their development. In addition, teacher training institutions have been criticised for under-emphasising the importance of language structure, failing to provide a good knowledge base in this area for their graduates. The call for renewed emphasis on phonics in initial reading instruction may well fall on “deaf” ears!

Thus, one source of variation in “loose” programs may involve limitations due to the under-developed teaching abilities of some teachers. Another source in programs that provide only general lesson plans (or even less structured, topic areas), is the variation in the manner in which different teachers may choose to present the curriculum - the degree of teacher directed vs. self directed learning, the amount of massed and spaced practice, the error correction opportunities, for example. Such variables are known to impact on student outcomes, and variation at this level can be confounded with the effects of program content.

The level of prescription in the Direct Instruction programs is valuable in reducing, though not eliminating, teacher differences. It has been noted that there is usually reasonable consistency of results across different schools in the sense that the effects tend to be described as large by most schools. This suggests that the designers’ intent of reducing the impact of teacher differences has been achieved to some extent. This is a non-trivial finding as the requirement of training in some programs has been a significant added cost to be considered in conjunction with program effectiveness. For example, in the Foorman et al. (1997) studies, teacher training involved between 30 and 90 hours initially, and subsequent twice monthly lesson observation.

It is possible that an increased level of initial training and subsequent monitoring of teacher presentation skills can increase student achievement levels. It is also possible that as teachers become more experienced their effectiveness increases. However, the reported improvements evoked by teachers who are inexperienced in the program are educationally and educationally significant at the current low levels of support, an important finding in the real world of inadequate funding. Pressley and Beard El-Dinary (1997) make the point that designers cannot afford to be too precious when their excellent results are not replicated because schools fail to exactly duplicate the procedures used in the evaluation studies. An important research question for any offered program is the degree to which it is robust to changes in its content or delivery across a range of settings.


Where to for these students?

An issue for schools is whether to continue upon completion of one program level for any given group. Some schools consider that all needy children should have an opportunity to participate; whereas, others prefer to follow the same cohort through several levels. The issue is a vexed one when resources are insufficient to meet the longer term needs of all the students. Felton (1993) made the point that, for disabled learners, several years of Direct Instruction may be necessary before they are able to make adequate progress in reading without requiring additional educational assistance. This is particularly so for secondary students who have a long history of failure, and whose reading problems have impaired their vocabulary development compared to that of their peers.

One measure which may assist schools in determining which students should be in the continuers group involves consideration of reading volume. The students who participate in the program are likely to have done much less reading than their more facile peers, and evidence as to any increase in the volume of reading undertaken by the students may be valuable. Stanovich (1986) pointed to the effect of volume of reading on reading progress, and it may be that a mediating variable between program conclusion and the need for further intervention resides in the amount of reading subsequently performed. The likelihood of students reverting to poor reading strategies is unknown, but could be a hazard when an intervention does not include a longitudinal component. It is possible for students to develop strong word attack strategies and to make progress in reading generally, but for such skills to have little or no impact on day to day reading, or to lose their impact after program completion.

It is for this reason that the continuous within-program tests of rate and accuracy should be important elements in the overall evaluation of program success. There are clear behavioural objectives to be achieved by the end of the program. For example, by the end of Level A students are expected to be reading the daily stories and regular mastery tests at a rate of 60 words per minute at a specified error rate, and for Level B1, 90 words per minute. It is not possible to meet those speed and accuracy criteria if the reader adopts contextual cues, partial word cues, or word shape analysis strategies. Thus, the program does prompt the practice of effective reading strategies. These may be strengthened by within-school and home-based programs designed to promote and monitor increased reading volume in the post-program period. Regular subsequent assessment could be used to ascertain the degree to which student progress in reading can be achieved independently for any given student. Some students may have reached the independence level (self-teaching) described by Share (1995); whereas the progress of other students may stall, indicating the need for a further program level at the least.

Allington, R. L., Stuetzel, H., Shake, M., & Lamarche, S. (1986). What is remedial reading? A descriptive study. Reading Research and Instruction, 26(1), 15-30.

Engelmann, S., Becker, W. C., Carnine, D., & Gersten, R. (1988). The Direct Instruction Follow Through model: Design and outcomes. Education and Treatment of Children, 11(4), 303-317.

Hanner, S., & Engelmann, S. (1984, May). Learner verification for the Corrective Reading Program. AADI Newsletter, 3-5.

Engelmann, S. (1988). The logic and facts of effective supervision. Education & Treatment of Children, 11(4), 328-340.

Foorman, B., Francis, D., Beeler, T., Winikates, D., & Fletcher, J. (1997). Early interventions for children with reading problems: Study designs and preliminary findings. Learning Disabilities: A Multidisciplinary Journal, 8, 63-71.

Glang, A., & Gersten, R. (1987, Winter). Coaching teachers. Direct Instruction News, pp. 1, 4, 5, 7.

Pressley, M. & Beard El-Dinary, P. (1997). What we know about translating comprehension-strategies instruction research into practice, Journal of Learning Disabilities, 30, 486-488.

Schneider, W., Kuspert, P., Roth, E., & Vise, M. (1997). Short and long term effects of training phonological awareness in kindergarten: Evidence from two German studies. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 66, 311-340.

Share, D. L. (1995). Phonological recoding and self-teaching: Sine qua non of reading acquisition. Cognition, 55, 151-218.


A useful resource: Corrective Reading program - Parent/Tutor Information Sheet

  • Read the instructions about how the program is designed and how to present the program
  • Read Lesson 1 several times until you are reasonably confident about presenting it smoothly
  • For practice, present Lesson 1 to a colleague or your partner; trying to present it smoothly
  • Remember the importance of sticking closely to the scripts every lesson
  • Discuss the points system, and whether it’s helpful in this situation.
  • Note which segments are unnecessary in 1:1 format, because they were designed to facilitate group instruction
  • Remember importance of doing “endings buildup” correctly. That is, use a format that is erasable - whiteboard, blackboard, overhead transparency overlaid on a paper page (not ink on a page - the erasure of part of a word is important to direct attention to the similarities between different words
  • Remember the need to instantly correct all errors (except during the timed reading), don’t wait for your child to self-correct
  • Remember to practise the various Correction Procedures
  • Note the requirement to return to the first word in a line, column or sentence following an error. Remember to “repeat until firm”
  • Remember that discomfort is normal for the new presenters (parents and teachers often need 20 lessons to feel comfortable)
  • In a one-to-one setting signals are usually unnecessary - usually used only if a child is inclined to consistently respond too slowly
  • Remember the value of reasonably rapid pacing of lessons
  • Remember the rationale for the focus on sound combinations, especially in the middle of words - they are the most difficult decoding skills to master
  • Remember the “Reading Checkouts”, and particularly the timed checkout (which is always on yesterday’s story)
  • Fill in the Corrective Reading Program data sheet that enables you to maintain records of progress for discussion with clinician during the program
  • Don’t forget the mid-program (L. 35) and end-of-program (L.65) Mastery Tests


One secondary school’s experience with Corrective Reading:

This latter experience involved the period from 1983 until 1988 in a semi-rural Melbourne secondary school at which the author was the consulting educational psychologist.  Over a number of years, the school had been concerned at the prevalence of reading problems throughout the school.  The school was at the time officially designated as a disadvantaged school, for reasons of low socioeconomic status, high unemployment, and a significant population of Koori students.

In 1979, the Progressive Achievement Test of reading comprehension was administered to Year 7 students at the high school.  Compared to an expected value of 23% (stanine 1-3), 43% of Year 7 students were below the State average.  This finding galvanised the school into taking remedial action, and from 1983-1988 the school offered the Corrective Reading Program to Year 7 (and at times also to Year 8) students with severe reading problems.  The author trained and monitored teachers, and performed evaluations each year including the Woodcock Tests of Reading Mastery, and parent, teacher, and student questionnaires.

Results (student outcomes) were consistently impressive over that period, but not without travail as secondary aged students can be difficult to motivate.  In addition, some staff believed that it should not be necessary to teach such basic skills in a secondary school.  As the existence of the reading group relied upon the other English teachers agreeing to have larger classes (about three or four additional students per class) to allow for a small remedial group (15 students maximum), it was often a struggle to obtain the agreement to continue the program each year.  Nor was it usually easy to convince a secondary English teacher untrained in reading instruction to volunteer for the task, with its consequent imposition of regular visits and advice from the educational psychologist. 

Effects of implementation in primary schools

Partly because of these hurdles, but also for reasons of humaneness to struggling students, it was decided that the same interventions could be provided earlier in the students’ careers more easily, and to greater effect.  In the years 1986-1989, the same or similar programs were introduced at local feeder primary schools.  It was hoped that by earlier intervention the number of students entering the high school with severe reading problems would be reduced.  This approach was quite fruitful as progressively fewer students from those feeder schools reached secondary school with extreme levels of reading difficulty.  Although the process of convincing then assisting a number of schools (rather than only one) to provide the intervention was more complex and time consuming, nevertheless the outcomes were especially pleasing.

Of particular interest at that time was the effect on students’ measured comprehension skills (assessed via the Progressive Achievement Test at the end of Year 6) of a strongly focussed decoding program.  In other words when the students’ decoding deficit was addressed, they were able to bring their existing oral comprehension skill to the reading task, a strategy not previously available to them.  Additionally, the students’ phonemic awareness ability as applied to the written word (assessed by the Word Attack subtest of the Woodcock Tests of Reading Mastery) also indicated excellent gains, usually exceeding the number of months needed to present the program.

In 1986, there were 26 students whose reading problems were sufficient to place them at serious risk in the secondary school, and they participated in the Direct Instruction reading groups. In 1987 there were 20 such students, in 1988 there were 14 such students, and in 1989 there were 5 such students.  During this period enrolments in Year 7 remained relatively stable, yet the numbers of at-risk students were consistently falling as the students who had participated in the Corrective Reading Program at the feeder schools arrived at the secondary school.

In 1989, 12% of Year 7 students were below the state average in reading, comparing more than favourably with the expected value of 23%.  Compared with the figure ten years earlier (43%), this was a very pleasing result for the secondary school, and also for the feeder schools.  The other figures for 1989 were: 62% of Year 7 students within the State average (expected value 54%), and 26% of Year 7 students above the State average (expected value 23%).  Unfortunately the secondary school’s response to the program’s success was to drop all remedial programming from the timetable, rather than to extend the at-risk students’ skills in reading, or in other curriculum areas.

The effects on phonological processes of the Corrective Reading Program as noted in the pseudoword decoding task of the Woodcock Tests of Reading Mastery were of particular interest because of the pre-eminence given to these skills in the current research literature.

Pseudo-word decoding, (is) an indicator of phonological recoding ability, and potent predictor of reading ability at all levels. (Stanovich, 1988).

The outcomes were consistent across a number of years, involving several teachers, and also appeared to support a dose-response relationship, in the sense that progress continued as long as instruction did.  As can be seen in the accompanying charts there is significant improvement in each year that the program results were available, and those students involved in more than one program continued to improve.

In the years 1985-6, and 1986-7 two cohorts of students completed Decoding Level B (140 lessons in the earlier 1978 version), followed by Decoding Level C (140 lessons) in Year 8.  The continued success over a two year period renders explanations based on Hawthorne (novelty) effects implausible.


Interestingly, with the 1986-7 group it was possible to examine the effects of treatment, employing a non-equivalent group quasi-experimental design, as there were sufficient school resources to provide for teaching Decoding Level B to two groups in Year 7.  Both groups (13 students) were selected according to the placement test, and thus were similar in their reading skills.  There was an average Word Attack score difference of 4 months, and gains were similar for each group during 1986, as shown by the almost parallel gain slopes.  The groups were provided with similar programs and schedules, but by different teachers.  In 1987 only one group was able to continue on to Decoding Level C, as school resources were insufficient to allow program duplication.  The teacher who was assigned to take a group in 1987 elected to continue with the group she had taught the previous year, and the remaining group became the control group.

Cooke and Campbell (1979) describe the trend line crossover evident in this comparison as “Outcome 5” (p. 111).  They consider the only plausible interpretation of this interaction pattern is the presence of an experimental effect, indicated by the lower scoring pretest group surpassing the initially higher scoring control group.  They do not consider regression effects can account for such a difference.  The results of visual inspection of the gains of the two groups strongly suggest a conclusion that the Corrective Reading Program is an effective program, and capable of inducing sustained change even over long periods of an intervention, and with populations considered resistant to reading improvement.


Lest you think that resolving the literacy concerns of struggling students in secondary school is easy:

The difficulty involved in catchup.

Below is a graphical representation of what is known as learning trajectory. Graphing allows visualising what happens when students make progress over time in a given domain, for example, reading development. The average student is seen to make about a year’s progress for each year of instruction. The slope of the line is an indicator of the rate of this progress. In reality, of course, this is an over-simplification. However, it is a useful device when considering the complexities of catchup.



In the first graph, we note that at the end of grade 1 the student’s achievement in reading (grade 1 level) corresponds to that expected after the year of instruction. By the end of grade 7 the progress has been more or less constant, and the attainment corresponds to grade 7. The angle of the line (the slope) in this graph represents an average rate of progress, and the trajectory is 1:1. It takes 7 years to make 7 years progress.

A student who makes more rapid progress would have a steeper slope, with a trajectory greater than 1:1. For example, a student reading at a grade 10 level in grade 7 would have a trajectory of 10:7.

In the second graph, we see that from the start a student is making consistently slower progress. After 7 years the student’s attainment is about a grade 4 standard. The slope in this graph represents a below average rate of progress, and the trajectory is 4:7. It takes 7 years to make 4 years progress. In many cases, progress of the struggling student is better represented by a curve rather than a straight line.

In the third graph, we see the two graphs superimposed and the schooling extended to grade 10. Here we see represented the challenge in starting an intervention after the early years. If the student is to catch up in reading by grade 10, the slope of progress must be dramatically increased. In the next 3 years, the student must make 6 years progress. This would represent two years progress for each year of instruction. The trajectory from grade 7 to grade 10 would be 2:1. This is a steeper slope than even the rapidly progressing students have accomplished. Remember too that the rapidly progressing student continues to do so (assuming motivation is maintained) because the skills and domain knowledge preceding the current learning challenge have been entrenched and automatized over the years through practice. These develop as a consequence of reading volume (both instructional and for pleasure), and include vocabulary growth, a higher developed sense of syntax, and conceptual/world knowledge. The difference in reading volume between even the average reader (50th percentile) and the struggling reader (10th percentile) is of the order of 15 times (Anderson, Wilson, & Fielding, 1988).

These lower order components of learning are now automatic for the rapidly progressing students, allowing them to focus only on the new challenge. By contrast, the student with a history of learning struggles hasn’t fully internalised those earlier skills and knowledge systems. So, many of the new challenges faced by the student require regularly reviewing those earlier components that are taken for granted even by his average progress peers.

There is also the impact of long-term failure on the student’s sense of self-efficacy and motivation. See these pages Literacy and mental health; Literacy and behaviour for an extended coverage of the behavioural and mental health issues that may impede catchup.

This may partly explain the disappointing findings from some of the research into the progress made by students whose early struggles have not been addressed until late in elementary or early high school. In the literacy domain, the research has pointed to the possibility of reasonable success in addressing a student’s decoding skills, although the instructional intensity of interventions needed (even when evidence-based approaches are employed) is all too rarely achieved. Even so, catch-up in reading fluency and reading comprehension has proved more elusive (Spencer & Manis, 2010).

So, you need to provide instruction that will have your struggling readers learn at a more rapid pace than the high progress readers have been able to achieve over their career. Is that realistic? Yes, because, for the most part, few students ever receive the full power that exemplary instruction can supply. So, you need a superbly constructed curriculum that is presented regularly with efficient use of instructional time. This has been described as increasing academic learning time (ALT).

“A high level of ALT exists when: 1) students are covering important (tested/evaluated) content; 2) students are on-task most of the class period; and 3) students are successful in most of the assignments they complete (Carroll, 1963). … Students engaged in learning for as little as 38% of a typical school day. Observed distractions were inefficient classroom management, time spent in maintaining discipline, ineffective instructional techniques, and inappropriate curriculum, and that only 38 % of a typical school day was allocated to engaged learning (Aronson, Zimmerman, & Carlos, 1999).” (Mulholland  & Cepello, 2006, p. 63-4)

So, there is room to streamline and supercharge instruction. However, it is likely that long-term, intensive, multi-component evidence-based interventions are required by most of these students, and the increased  time and resources needed to achieve this is a serious challenge to the school system (Vaughn et al., 2011; Wanzek, Wexler, Vaughn, & Ciullo, 2010).

The above graphs are simplifications of what occurs. In fact, most readers’ progress is not linear, but rather has both rises and plateaux. For many struggling readers even a fall may be evidenced, for reasons described above.

Some relevant research

“A major goal of Tier 2 or secondary intervention is to allow the majority of students with learning (e.g., reading) difficulties to attain grade-level expectations. If students with below-grade- level performance are to catch up with normally developing students, their rate of growth must be accelerated; simply learning at an average rate will only maintain the deficit. Thus, Tier 2 interventions must be intensive enough to not only improve students’ performance, but to actually enable students with learning difficulties to progress at rates that are faster than the learning rates of average students. At the same time, these interventions must be feasible for teachers to implement and sustain” (p.433).

Vaughn, S., Denton, C. A., & Fletcher, J. M. (2010). Why intensive interventions are necessary for students with severe reading difficulties. Psychology in the Schools, 47(5), 432–444.

“Older struggling readers fall into a wide range of developmental levels, presenting a unique set of circumstances not found in younger more homogeneous beginning readers (Biancarosa & Snow, 2004). These struggling adolescents readers generally belong to one of two categories, those provided with little or poor early reading instruction or those possibly provided with good early reading instruction, yet for unknown reasons were unable to acquire reading skills (Roberts, Torgesen, Boardman, & Sammacca, 2008). Additionally within these two categories, older struggling readers are extremely heterogeneous and complex in their remediation needs (Nation, Snowling, & Clarke, 2007; Torgesen et al., 2007)” (p.566).

Calhoon, M. B., & Prescher, Y. (2013). Individual and group sensitivity to remedial reading program design: Examining reading gains across three middle school reading projects. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 26, 565-592.

Further thoughts on catch-up

In considering the provision of additional instruction to older struggling students, catch up is a laudable goal. However, the longer a student has been falling behind, the less likely a school can provide the intensity of instruction required to even make headway against his average achieving peers. So, the task of elevating a year 1 student to the average range in, say, reading is much less demanding than attempting to do so for a third grade student. Beyond that, the difficulty does not increase in a simple linear progression, but much more severely.

The process has some of the characteristics of compound debt, a situation that arises when a debt cannot be fully serviced, and so the capital upon which the interest rate is calculated is rising rather than falling. Thus, a student who makes less than average progress in his first year accumulates a debt. If, through intervention, he makes average progress in his second year, he will remain behind because he is moving from a lower base than his peers. However, it is more likely that his progress in second year (assuming no intervention) will also fall below the average rate, and he is now even further behind because he has been unable to fully service his debt. His skill-capital, upon which progress depends in his third year, has now fallen further behind. He is beginning to experience an inability to make sense of average classroom instruction because of this deficit. He will lose touch with the curriculum, no matter how hard he tries. In a double whammy, it is likely that his resilience has been sorely tested over the preceding years, and now his efforts are diminishing – and his progress slows even further. Meanwhile, his peers have built upon their skill-capital, classroom instruction is pitched at a level they can understand. Further, their sense of self-efficacy has been enhanced by success, and they provide the effort to achieve. During these three years they have been engaged in lots of reading, and their vocabulary and knowledge store have kept pace with grade level expectations. The struggler has been able to gain little from text, his vocabulary and knowledge store have not kept pace, and his capacity to follow the language of classroom instruction is impaired.

The longer this process occurs, the greater the compounded loss and the more difficult is effective intervention. So, by the times our student has reached high school, the Matthew Effect (see What are these Matthew Effects?) have made life very difficult for him.

As indicated earlier, few secondary schools have the will, the knowledge, or the resources needed to provide anything like catch up for these students. Research has yet to provide more than ballpark estimations as to what might be required to create even a measurable acceleration in literacy skills, such as reading (decoding fluency and comprehension), vocabulary, writing, spelling, mathematics – without even considering the resulting loss of time taken from participation in the normal secondary curriculum.

Despite having noted the hurdles for secondary school interventions with struggling students and, in particular, the unlikelihood of complete catch-up, the above information is best read as a reality check, but not as grounds for despair and doing nothing.

Who can say what long-term outcome might derive from an intervention, even when it doesn’t produce major documented short term change? I’ve known students for whom the empirical outcomes were moderate, but whose subjective experiences were quite different. For example, it was often expressed by the participants that this was the first time in their life that learning to read made sense to them, and that they could now appreciate that it is possible to do it. Further, they no longer believed that they were dumb. Sometimes, a small step can have consequences that lead to major steps in the future – and these major steps may not have eventuated without the initial successful small steps evoked by the reading program. I've seen attitudinal shifts in previously disheartened students who couldn't seem to lift themselves towards higher achievement. This sometimes occurs when even moderate gains are achieved, so catchup may not have been achieved by the intervention, but the changed demeanour of the student may enable a concerted longer term effort on his part that is ultimately rewarding.

Of course, a preventative step could also be contemplated by a secondary school, as occurred in the case study I mentioned earlier. That is to work with feeder schools to ensure that similar interventions are provided prior to secondary schooling. Progress is much more readily obtained the earlier is the screening and program provision.

Some relevant research

“This survey showed the difficulty of closing students’ gaps in the middle years (from 4th to 8th grade). Fewer than 10%” of far off track students (more than one standard deviation below benchmark in 4th grade) caught up in the four years to 8th grade. Between 8th grade and 12th grade only 6% of those far off track students in 8th grade reached benchmark by 12th grade”.

Dougherty, C. (2014). Catching up to college and career readiness: The challenge is greater for at-risk students. ACT Research & Policy, May 2014. 1-12. Retrieved from Catching up to college and career readiness


“A child with a reading disability who is not identified early may require as many as 150 – 300 hours of intensive instruction (at least 90 minutes a day for most school days over a 1 – 3 year period) if he is going to close the reading gap… between himself and his peers. And, of course, the longer identification and effective reading instruction is delayed, the longer the child will require to catch up” (p.259)

Shaywitz, S. (2003). Overcoming dyslexia: A new and complete science-based program for reading problems at any level. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

In reality, making a huge difference is a monumental task taking a great deal of time

So, Corrective Reading: Decoding is a worthy program for struggling secondary students, and for adults for that matter. It should be clear, however, that there is more to be done if a dramatic and enduring effect is expected.

“While the null effects are disappointing, they are not entirely surprising when we examine the level of intensity of the interventions that schools delivered to students with protracted reading difficulties in the middle grades. For example, many of the interventions determined to be effective in reviews of adolescent literacy interventions involved support for teachers to implement the intervention, whereas the current study evaluated districts’ existing intervention practices and did not provide teachers with coaching or professional development. Additionally, the interventions in the Striving Readers evaluation (Boulay et al., 2015) that were shown to be effective for improving reading achievement were typically delivered for 90 minutes per day, five days per week, whereas reading interventions schools selected and implemented in the current study were administered for 47 minutes per day, 4.3 days per week. … A final implication for practice of this study involves the level of intensity that is necessary for solving such intractable issues as improving adolescent reading achievement. Although the evidence base is converging on the level of intensity that should be brought to bear to improve reading outcomes for older readers, and the schools and districts involved in the current study indicated they were acutely aware of the level of intensity necessary for reading interventions to be efficacious in the middle grades, they chose to implement intervention plans that fell quite short of the these evidence based recommendations (Boulay et al., 2015; Herrera et al., 2016). As evidenced by the few studies of adolescent reading interventions that have improved reading achievement for students in middle school, the intensity required to turn the dial on student outcome is substantial. In addition, districts seeking to improve adolescent literacy outcomes should consider matching interventions to student need, using interventions that employ explicit instruction, and providing ongoing support for teachers to implement interventions.” (p. 46, 48)  

Fien, H., Anderson, D., Nelson, N.J., Kennedy, P., Baker, S.K., & Stoolmiller, M. (2018). Examining the impact and school-level predictors of impact variability of an 8th grade reading intervention on at-risk students’ reading achievement. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 33(1), 37–50.

“How Malleable are Reading Skills at this Age Among Students with this Degree of Difficulty? A second potential explanation for the lack of differential results for reading comprehension outcomes points to the diminished malleability of reading comprehension in comparison to word-level reading skills in late elementary grades and beyond. This interpretation disregards the observed standard score gains as artifacts of measurement error or regression to the mean, and posits that the failure to find between groups differences is because the targeted construct (reading comprehension) demonstrates limited malleability and it is unrealistic to expect robust growth in interventions dosages that are measured in hours rather than years. Standardized mean differences for annual growth in reading achievement diminish dramatically as students progress from early elementary grades into late elementary and beyond (Lipsey et al., 2012; Scammacca, Fall, & Roberts, 2015aa). This phenomenon is most likely due to changes in the reading task over time. In earlier grades, text complexity is limited; constrained word level skills are highly predictive of reading comprehension (Schulte et al., 2016). In later grades, the broader constructs of language and background knowledge are increasingly predictive of reading comprehension (Ahmed et al., 2016; Catts, Adlof, & Weismer, 2006). Thus, to improve reading comprehension in late elementary and secondary grades, it may be necessary to affect the relatively unconstrained constructs of language and background knowledge—a difficult task in under 40 hours of intervention per year. Perhaps the results of this study and others that fail to find robust differential effects in reading comprehension indicate that the task of remediating persistent reading comprehension deficits in late elementary and secondary school will require interventions of greater duration and dosage than previously studied. … This growing body of literature affirms one key takeaway: there is no silver bullet to remediate years of difficulty in reading. With this reality in mind, practitioners should work to avoid isolated, piecemeal intervention strategies. Successful intervention programs will require high-quality, long term interventions in which effects cumulate across years (Fletcher &Wagner, 2014). Similarly, researchers should redouble efforts to maximize the effects of interventions, to identify causal mechanisms, and to study interventions of greater intensity and duration than are typically studied.” (p.33, 35)

Miciak, K., Roberts, G., Taylor, W.P., Solis, M., Ahmed, Y., Vaughn, S., & Fletcher, J.M. (2018). The effects of one versus two years of intensive reading intervention implemented with late elementary struggling readers. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 33(1), 24–36.

So, to have the level of effects we'd like, additional related programs will be needed. As the students in Corrective Reading will have become used to the DI model of instruction, they will feel more comfortable participating in another program that already feels comfortable in its style of presentation and participation. For example, to aid reading comprehension, I’ve found the sister program Corrective Reading: Comprehension has also been helpful. As with the Decoding series, the Comprehension program has three levels with placement tests determining the appropriate level.

To further aid literacy achievement (improving spelling further aids reading and writing progress) Spelling Through Morphographs is very effective. For information, see: Spelling through Morphographs

See also Spelling Mastery and Spelling through Morphographs

See also Feel like a spell? for more research findings on teaching spelling.

Why include spelling instruction if reading is the main area of concern?

“Graham and Santangelo (2014) investigated the impact of spelling instruction on reading, writing, and spelling outcomes for students with and without disabilities in grades K through 12. Formal spelling instruction improved spelling outcomes when compared to no instruction or incidental instruction (ES = 0.54) and positively impacted reading performance (ES = 0.44). Similar results were found by Weiser and Mathes (2011) in their synthesis of the impact of encoding instruction (i.e., directly teaching students how to spell phoneme-grapheme correspondences in writing and with manipulatives) on reading and spelling outcomes for at-risk elementary students and older students with LD who read below a third-grade level. Encoding instruction was found to increase students’ knowledge of the alphabetic principle, development of phonemic awareness, and growth of reading and spelling skills. Wanzek et al. (2006) synthesized the literature from 1995 to 2003 involving reading and spelling interventions and their impact on spelling outcomes for students with LD in grades K through 12. Studies that used explicit instructional methods and incorporated multiple opportunities for practice and immediate corrective feedback led to the largest increases in spelling achievement. Williams, Walker, Vaughn, and Wanzek (2017) replicated and extended the Wanzek et al. (2006) synthesis to include studies from 2004 to 2014. Again, interventions that included explicit instruction or self-correction strategies improved spelling outcomes for words directly taught in the interventions (Williams et al., 2017). ... The results from the aforementioned reviews and meta-analyses emphasize not only how spelling deficits impact students’ reading and writing performance, but also the importance of teaching spelling to improve spelling, reading, and writing outcomes.” (p. 291, 2)

Williams, K. J.; Walker, M. A.; Vaughn, S.; & Wanzek, J. (2017). A synthesis of reading and spelling interventions and their effects on spelling outcomes for students with learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 50(3), 286-297.

Why include writing instruction if reading is the main area of concern?

“Spelling and writing are incorporated in some reading interventions because the skills associated with successful reading—such as phonological knowledge, text structure knowledge, and reasoning—also play a role in spelling and writing (Abbott & Berninger, 1993; Graham, Harris, & Chorzempa, 2002; Wanzek et al., 2006) (p.166).

Wanzek, J., Vaughn, S., Scammacca, N.K., Metz, K., Murray, C.S., Roberts, G., & Danielson, L. (2013). Extensive reading interventions for students with reading difficulties after Grade 3. Review of Educational Research 8(2), 163-195.

To aid writing skills directly, Expressive Writing and Essentials for Writing are two programs I’ve found valuable for this student group.

So, addressing literacy issues in secondary school is challenging, but with the right commitment to evidence-based programs and intensive instruction, worthwhile benefits can accrue to students who would otherwise languish in their classes, feel like failures, and be prey to early school leaving and the attendant consequences in employment and participation in society. Good luck.

What does systematic instruction mean?

What does systematic instruction mean? Kerry Hempenstall, 

Senior Industry Fellow, School of Education, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.

Sep 2017

We frequently read in research papers, and increasingly in education policies, that a systematic approach to instruction usually produces superior learning outcomes when compared to unsystematic approaches (Clark, Kirschner, & Sweller, 2012). This seems particularly to be the case when introducing new skills and knowledge to students and for those who tend towards slow progress in academic learning.

Systematic is sometimes paired with the term explicit. So, how do they differ? Their meanings often overlap, but explicit is usually understood to mean that the teacher takes centre stage and the student learning is controlled by the teacher’s curriculum and teaching behaviour. Implicit is usually reserved for instruction that is student-directed. So, implicit usually refers to a discovery, constructivist, or minimal guidance model. In this implicit model, the teacher plays a lesser, guiding role, sometimes referred to as the guide-on-the-side, while the students take greater responsibility for their own learning from the outset.

It should be noted that in the USA, explicit has another meaning as it applies to reading instruction. It is often used as a synonym for the term synthetic phonics - the latter is more commonly employed in Great Britain and Australia to refer to a specific model of reading instruction that emphasises the structure of the language - teaching letter-sound relationships and blending as the key entry skills for beginning readers. In this paper, the intended meaning is that conveyed in the previous paragraph.

Is it possible to be systematic without being explicit? In some respect, perhaps, in that a teacher might specify a comprehensive curriculum that covers the topic adequately, and in a logical sequence, though the responsibility for managing that curriculum is passed to the student. So, the curriculum could be systematic though the instruction would not be – except for those students adept at designing their own instructional sequences.

Is it possible to be explicit without being systematic? Yes, certainly. Consider a teacher-directed classroom in which the teacher provides the majority of the curriculum, but teaches off the top of his head. There is no particular pre-planning based upon what works, rather the mood of the day drives what he attempts to teach. So, what is taught is taught with clarity, but the jumbled up nature of the curriculum sequence makes it difficult for students to comprehend how a given topic relates to other associated topics in, say, a skill sequence.

In terms or reading instruction, the discrepancy between systematic and unsystematic approaches was most sharply delineated in the debate over the supporters of the whole language approach to reading compared with those who asserted that an early focus on the alphabetic principle was a necessary component of effective beginning reading approaches. A necessary element in the whole language approach was that students should be provided solely with attractive and meaningful story books to enable them to develop their reading prowess. As we shall see, the central tenet of whole language that meaning is paramount, and books must not be skill-based precluded systematic instruction.

“Purist whole language teachers have never felt comfortable with demonstrating to students the manner in which words are composed of sounds. They were exhorted in their training not to examine words at other than the level of their meaning, that is, to avoid an examination of how words are constructed. Teachers who accepted this restriction took meaning-centredness to extremes - an example of ideology precluding effectiveness. Other whole language teachers, who could not accept such an extreme view, might include some references to alliteration or rhymes during a story. "Did you notice that "cat" and "mat" end with the same sound?" Sadly, for struggling students such well-intentioned clues are neither explicit enough, nor are they likely to occur with sufficient frequency to have any beneficial impact. This spur-of-the-moment approach is sometimes called embedded or incidental phonics because teachers are restricted to using only the opportunities for intra-word teaching provided within any given story.

Many students have great difficulty in appreciating individual sound-spelling relationships if their only opportunities to master them occur at variable intervals and solely within a story context. In a children’s story, the primary emphasis is on understanding its meaning not on word structure, so restricting to story reading activities any opportunities to focus on word parts is ineffective and even counter-productive.

At-risk students require careful systematic instruction in individual letter-sound correspondences, and developing them requires teachers to explicitly isolate the phoneme from the word, for example, This letter has the sound "mmm". At-risk students also need ample practice of these sounds in isolation from stories if they are to build a memory of each sound-symbol relationship.

It is necessary to teach about 40-50 such associations, and to provide stories in which these associations are beneficial to gaining meaning. Herein lies another problem for whole language purists. A fascination with authentic texts precludes the use of stories that are constructed using only the words that a student can currently decode - the very ones that will build students' confidence in the decoding strategies that they have been taught. Flooding beginners with stories that do not follow the sound-symbol convention (sometimes called inconsiderate text) does no favours for struggling students. It reduces confidence that the decoding process is a worthwhile strategy with which to persevere, and it encourages them to guess from story context (a notoriously inaccurate strategy) or even from the associated pictures.

The more recent response of the formerly no phonics protagonists is "We do phonics in context." However, this model also implies that it is valuable to inter-mix a sound-spelling emphasis simultaneously with comprehension activities. In the early years of schooling, students' oral comprehension is vastly superior to their written comprehension. Children enter school knowing the meanings of thousands of words, but it is some years before their written vocabulary matches their oral comprehension. Both written and oral language development are appropriate emphases for instruction, but given the wide initial disparity between their development, it is more effective to address them separately. Thus, the use of teacher-read stories is an excellent vehicle for improving oral comprehension, and allows for a level of language complexity that students could not attain if the stories were presented in written form.

Meanwhile, the students' relatively undeveloped decoding skill requires simpler text to allow the development of the competence and confidence needed for the ultimate objective - equivalent oral/written comprehension proficiency. Those arguing that the two are inextricable confuse process with objective, and they compromise the development of both oral and written language.”

Hempenstall, K. (1999). Stop, children, what’s that sound? The Australian, Nov 8, p.21.

(with apologies to Buffalo Springfield)

Some quotes on systematic teaching of phonics

“Systematic phonics-based instruction methods are based on the assumption of incrementally building a solid baseline of alphabetic knowledge in order to further support the building of an orthographic lexicon through the self-teaching mechanism. Explicit incremental instruction provides children with a systematic guidance through this phase of mastering the alphabetic principle. Simultaneously, the development of the self-teaching mechanism of word decoding is optimally triggered. During incremental phonics instruction, a small set of grapheme– phoneme correspondences is first presented to the children who practice them by reading words and short sentences comprising trained graphemes. After an intensive training with this first set of graphemes, subsequent sets of new graphemes are incrementally added to the baseline set. Every time a set of new graphemes is added, the full set of graphemes is repeatedly practiced in words and sentences to give children the opportunity to apply and consolidate all grapheme–phoneme correspondence and blend rules that have been acquired (see Ellis & Ralph, 2000). This controlled environment of learning to read provides an opportunity for children to practice conversion rules and blend skills without being bothered by unknown graphemes and orthographic units that they have not been taught yet.” (p.1530-1531)

Schaars, M.M.H., Segers, E., & Verhoeven, L. (2017). Word decoding development in incremental phonics instruction in a transparent orthography. Reading and Writing, 30, 1529–1550.

 “The common factor in [systematic] approaches is that prespecified sets of phonic elements such as simple grapheme–phoneme correspondences and onset and rimes are taught sequentially. For instance, in the PHAB/DI program (Phonological Analysis and Blending/Direct Instruction) that focuses on remediation of basic phonological analysis and blending deficits, letter sounds are introduced in a prespecified, systematic order (Lovett et al., 2000). All sounds are taught and reviewed in a cumulative manner to ensure that children will retain individual letter sounds. Skills like sound segmentation and blending are taught to a clear standard of mastery. The Orton-Gillingham method (Gillingham & Stillman, as cited in Foorman et al., 1997) is characterized by a similar systematic and step-by-step approach. The method starts by reading and writing sounds in isolation. Subsequently, individual sounds are blended into syllables and words. The phonics elements, such as consonants, vowels, digraphs, blends, and diphthongs, are taught in an orderly fashion. When simple elements are mastered, more complex elements such as syllables and affixes are introduced. Simultaneously, previously trained elements are reviewed until automaticity has been reached. … In whole-language approaches, it is believed that children will learn language (oral and written) best if it is learned for authentic purposes (Stahl, 1999). It is assumed that exposure to a literate environment is sufficient to make children read (Goodman & Goodman, as cited in Stahl & Miller, 1989), and phonics is taught unsystematically and only if the need arises.” (p.319)

de Graaff, S., Bosman, A.M.T., Hasselman, F., & Verhoeven, L. (2009). Benefits of systematic phonics instruction. Scientific Studies of Reading, 13(4), 318-333.

“Systematic Instruction: A carefully planned sequence for instruction, similar to a builder’s blueprint for a house characterizes systematic instruction. A blueprint is carefully thought out and designed before building materials are gathered and construction begins. As stated by Adams (2001, p. 74) The goal of systematic instruction is one of maximizing the likelihood that whenever children are asked to learn something new, they already possess the appropriate prior knowledge and understandings to see its value and to learn it efficiently. The plan for instruction that is systematic is carefully thought out, builds upon prior learning, is strategic building from simple to complex, and is designed before activities and lessons are planned. Instruction is across the five components (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension”.

Colorado Department of Education. (2017). Elements comprising the Colorado Literacy Framework: IV. Purposeful, direct, explicit, and systematic instruction. Retrieved from

“Systematic phonics instruction typically involves explicitly teaching students a prespecified set of letter sound relations and having students read text that provides practice using these relations to decode words. Instruction lacking an emphasis on phonics instruction does not teach letter-sound relations systematically and selects text for children according to other principles. The latter form of instruction includes whole word programs, whole language programs, and some basal reader programs. The meta-analyses were conducted to answer several questions about the impact of systematic phonics instruction on growth in reading when compared to instruction that does not emphasize phonics. Findings provided strong evidence substantiating the impact of systematic phonics instruction on learning to read.” (p.2-84)

National Reading Panel. (April, 2000). Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

“Systematic implies that there is attention paid to the detail of the teaching process. Instruction will usually be teacher-directed, based on a logical analysis of the skills required and their optimal sequence. At its most systematic, it will probably involve massed and spaced practice of those skills (sometimes in isolation and in text), corrective feedback of errors, and continuous evaluation of progress.

In contrast, incidental instruction shifts the responsibility for making use of phonic cues from the teacher to the student. It assumes that students will develop a self-sustaining, natural, unique reading style that integrates the use of contextual and graphophonic cues without any preordained teaching sequence, but dependent upon opportunity arising from the passages being read. … The aim of phonics teaching in a code-emphasis program is to make explicit to students the alphabetic principle. When teachers simply point out word parts to students in the context of authentic literature as the situation arises, the limitations of such incidental analytic phonics are most apparent for at-risk students. This is the group on whom the failure of incidental analytic phonics to be sufficiently explicit and unambiguous impacts most heavily.” (p.11)

Hempenstall, K. (2016). Read about it: Scientific evidence for effective teaching of reading. CIS Research Report 11. Sydney: The Centre for Independent Studies. Jennifer Buckingham (Editor). Retrieved from

“Most compelling from the current analyses are results directly investigating the differences between three modalities (Alternating, Integrated, Additive) of instruction. Outcomes showed clearly that modality of instruction can matter considerably for these older struggling readers. The differences in gains clearly demonstrate that the Additive modality, with its sequential addition of each component (isolated phonological decoding instruction, followed by addition of spelling instruction, followed by addition of fluency instruction, and finally the addition of comprehension instruction [see Table 1]) is potentially the best modality for remediating reading skills (decoding, spelling, fluency, comprehension) in older struggling readers, of the three approaches that were compared in this research. These students show that they are highly sensitivity to the scheduling of the components and the amounts of instructional time per component; this is an important finding for the development and refinement of reading programs for struggling adolescent readers. While more research still needs to be conducted in this area, this study lends credence to the different requirements this unique population of students may need in order to close the achievement gap in acquiring adequate reading skills” (p.588-9).

Calhoon, M. B., & Petscher, Y. (2013). Individual and group sensitivity to remedial reading program design: Examining reading gains across three middle school reading projects. Reading and Writing, 26(4), 565-592.

“In sum, this experiment investigated the behavioral and neural consequences of different methods of reading instruction for learning to read single words in alphabetic writing systems, in the case where oral vocabulary is relatively secure. Under these circumstances, our findings suggest that interventions aiming to improve the accuracy of reading aloud and/or comprehension in the early stages of learning should focus on the systematicities present in print-to-sound relationships, rather than attempting to teach direct access to the meanings of whole written words. Alongside broader oral language teaching, this means embracing phonics-based methods of reading instruction, and rejecting multicuing or balanced literacy approaches which, our results suggest, may hinder the discovery of spelling–sound relationships essential for reading aloud and comprehension.” (p.22)

Taylor, J. S. H., Davis, M. H., & Rastle, K. (2017, April 20). Comparing and validating methods of reading instruction using behavioural and neural findings in an artificial orthography. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication.

“Descriptive studies have typically focused on lesson-to-text match (LTTM): the match between the instruction of phonics elements in teacher guides and the words in student texts (Stein et al., 1999). Such a focus began with Chall’s (1967/1983) analyses of four first-grade reading programs: two code emphasis and two meaning emphasis. Chall observed that the teacher guides of the meaning-emphasis basal programs included phonics instruction; however, the phonics elements taught did not systematically match the words in students’ texts as they did in the code emphasis programs. For each of the four decades following Chall’s (1967/1983) work, researchers have analyzed and compared LTTM in meaning- and code-emphasis first-grade reading programs, and, as a result, shifts in various copyrights are evident. In reading programs copyrighted in the 1970s, Beck and McCaslin (1978) reported that patterns of LTTM had not changed from those reported by Chall (1967/1983) and noted that the analysis of two reading interventions  code-emphasis programs provided a higher “potential for accuracy” when decoding words, whereas the LTTM of meaning-emphasis programs did not. Four copyrighted programs of the 1980s were analyzed by Meyer et al. (1987), who noted that meaning-emphasis programs continued to have low LTTM. Three out of four of the programs analyzed were meaning-emphasis, and their LTTM was less than 10%. Stein et al. (1999) found that decodable texts and lessons mandated for adoption in California and Texas in the 1990s featured LTTMs similar to the meaning-based programs analyzed by Beck and McCaslin (1978).” (p.483-484)

Murray, M. S., Munger, K. A., & Hiebert, E. H. (2014). An analysis of two reading intervention programs: How do the words, texts, and programs compare? Elementary School Journal, 114, 479-500.

“What is Systematic Phonics Instruction? Phonics is a method of instruction that teaches students correspondences between graphemes in written language and phonemes in spokenlanguage and how to use these correspondences to read and spell words. Phonics instruction is systematic w hen all the major grapheme-phoneme correspondences are taught and they are covered in a clearly defined sequence. This includes short and long vowels as well as vowel and consonant digraphs such as oi, ea, sh, th. Also it may include blends of letter-sounds that form larger subunits in words such as onsets and rimes.…When phonics instruction is introduced after students have already acquired some reading skill, it may be more difficult to step in and influence how they read, because it requires changing students' habits. For example, to improve their accuracy, students may need to suppress the habit of guessing words based on context and minimal letter cues, to slow down, and to examine spellings of words more fully when they read them. Findings suggest that using phonics instruction to remediate reading problems may be harder than using phonics at the earliest point to prevent reading difficulties. … Systematic phonics programs might exhibit the very best instructional features. However, if they are not carried out by a knowledgeable teacher, their likelihood of success is diminished. Teachers must understand how to implement a phonics program effectively, how to plan lessons and make sure they are carried out. Teachers must hold expectations about the effects of their instruction on students. They must understand what students should know and be able to do better as a result of their teaching. To verify that their instruction is working, teachers need to use informal testing to monitor students' progress toward the expected accomplishments. Teachers need to understand how to enrich instruction for students who don't get it, and how to scaffold lessons to eliminate their problems. The job of teaching reading effectively to classrooms of students requires a high degree of professional competence indeed.” (p.2, 8, 16)

Ehri, L.C. (2003). Systematic phonics instruction: Findings of the National Reading Panel. Paper presented at the invitational seminar organised by the Standards and Effectiveness Unit, Department for Education and Skills, British Government (London, England, March 17, 2003). Retrieved from

“Moreover, wrote Gersten et al. (1986), this instruction "must contain clearly articulated [learning] strategies" (p. 19): a step-by-step process involving teaching to mastery, a procedure for error correction, a deliberate progression from teacher-directed to student-directed work, systematic practice, and cumulative review (cf. Gersten et al., 1986).” (p.285).

Kearns, D. M., & Fuchs, D. (2013). Does cognitively focused instruction improve the academic performance of low-achieving students? Exceptional Children, 79(3), 263-290.

“Engelmann is meticulous about designing programs that teach to mastery. Each DI curriculum is a staircase, each lesson a step. Each step comprises at most 15% new material and 85% reinforcement of things already taught. The effect is to impart “a systematic trickle of new information” that accelerates learning but at no point inundates the learner with too much too fast. Content is arranged in strands that extend across several lessons; each lesson ex- tends several strands. Everything learned is applied over and over and in different contexts. Seemingly isolated skills are taught and combined with other skills to teach more complex skills. Some DI programs take six weeks to complete and some take six years, but all are designed to make learning as error-free and free of gaps as possible. Engelmann creates placement tests so sensitive they tell teachers not only which grade level but which lesson the learner should start in a program (i.e., the one in which the learner can do at least 70% of the tasks correctly on the first try). He also creates mastery tests after every five to ten lessons so that teachers can make informed and timely decisions about what to do next—whether to go on to the next lesson, re-teach students A and B some things, or jump student C ahead in the program.

He field-tests programs prior to publication to see how much and what kind of practice students need to master specific concepts and relationships, and he revises the programs as needed to make sure they get it. Practice makes permanent; perfect practice makes perfect. How students get their practice matters as much as how much practice they get. Engelmann pioneered the Model—Lead—Test technique: demonstrate a task, do it with the students, observe them as they do it alone. If they make a mistake, correct immediately and succinctly. (Delayed feedback doesn’t work very well because students forget.) Correcting is in fact the hardest skill for teachers to master, but it’s among the most important. “A correction procedure that makes sense to the learner is the coin of the realm,” Engelmann says.

DI programs help teachers with corrections in three ways: Content is carefully arranged so that when a student errs, the mistake can be corrected by re-teaching something taught earlier in the program. Tasks are explicit and specific enough to be correctable. And different correction procedures, though they obviously can’t be scripted, are specified for a range of errors. For instance: never repeat a wrong answer before giving the right one—it reinforces the confusion. When correcting a decodable word, don’t say the word—ask the student to try sounding it out again. When correcting a sound, say the right sound and have the student repeat it. Student errors should not be seen as problems, but as valuable information, Engelmann says. ‘They tell you exactly what you need to teach at any given moment to bring your students to mastery, so that testing and teaching become the same package.’” (p.26-7)

Barbash, S. (2012). Clear Teaching. Education Consumers Foundation. Retrieved from

“Key findings from extensive meta-analytic syntheses of evidence-based reading research – many of which are cited in this review – consistently indicate that since systematic, explicit phonics approaches are significantly more effective than nonsystematic approaches for children with and without reading difficulties, it is vital that children should initially be provided with direct instruction in phonics as an essential part of a comprehensive and integrated reading program that includes meaning-centred approaches” (p.11).

National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy (2005). Teaching reading - A review of the evidence-based research literature on approaches to the teaching of literacy, particularly those that are effective in assisting students with reading difficulties. Australian Government: Department of Education, Science and Training. Retrieved from

“Explicit instruction is a systematic instructional approach that includes a set of delivery and design procedures derived from effective schools research merged with behavior analysis (Hall, 2002). Instructional design refers to the way in which information in a particular domain (e.g., phonemic awareness, reading, mathematics) is selected, prioritized, sequenced, organized, and scheduled for instruction within a highly orchestrated series of lessons and materials that make up a course of study (Simmons & Kame’enui, 1998). According to Smith and Ragan (1993), instructional design refers to the ‘‘systematic process of translating principles of learning and instruction into plans for instructional materials and activities’’ (p. 2). Instructional design is concerned with the intricacies of analyzing, selecting, prioritizing, sequencing, and scheduling the communication of information before it is packaged for delivery or implemented. In other words, it is the behind-the-scenes activity that appears as the sequence of objectives, schedule of tasks, components of instructional strategies, amount and kind of review, number of examples, extent of teacher direction, and support explicated in teachers’ guides and lesson plans” (p.145-6).

Pollard-Durodola, S.D., & Simmons, D.C. (2009). The role of explicit instruction and instructional design in promoting phonemic awareness development and transfer from Spanish to English. Reading & Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties, 25(2-3), 139-161.

Instructional Confusion 2  - It’s arguable, and certainly in my position, that well designed instructional materials, by well designed I mean taking into account what we know about the code and how difficult it is, how to make it simpler and more transparent in particular stages in learning to read, well designed instructional materials, teachers who know how to support children as they are exposed to those instructional materials and periodic assessments so we know when children are falling behind. Standard packages of materials as preventive strategies may be sufficient to move us substantially ahead in terms of solving this problem. It will not get us the whole way, but it’s going to get us, I think, a long way there. One of the principal problems here is instructional confusion. If we can reduce that confusion we’re going to generate more successes in learning to read.”

Grover (Russ) Whitehurst, Ex-Director (2002-08), Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Source: COTC Interview:

 And for the masochists among us, the view from the dark side:

'The first alternative and preference is - to skip over the puzzling word. The second alternative is to guess what the unknown word might be. And the final and least preferred alternative is to sound the word out. Phonics, in other words, comes last.' (p.66).  

Smith, F. (1979). Reading without nonsense. New York: Teachers College Press.

'Unpredictability is not the exception in English spelling-sound correspondences, it is the rule' (p.152).

Smith, F. (1999). Why systematic phonics and phonemic awareness instruction constitute an educational hazard. Language Arts, 77, 150-155.

“Initial consonants and consonant clusters, used with syntactic and semantic information, usually provide sufficient information for word recognition and reading for meaning. Teaching children to sound out words letter by letter is unnecessary and confusing. In learning phonics children best acquire phonic and related knowledge through rich experiences with using print for real purposes.”

Emmitt, M. (1996). Have I got my head in the sand? - Literacy matters. In 'Keys to life’ Conference proceedings, Early Years of Schooling Conference, Sunday 26 & Monday 27 May 1996, World Congress Centre, Melbourne' pp. 69- 75. Melbourne: Directorate of School Education. [On-Line]. Available:

"Children can develop and use an intuitive knowledge of letter-sound correspondences [without] any phonics instruction [or] without deliberate instruction from adults" (p. 86).

Weaver, C. (1980). Psycholinguistics and reading. Cambridge, MA: Winthrop.

“We cannot teach another person directly; we can only facilitate his learning”.

Rogers, C. (1961). On becoming a person. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

“And so the pedagogy reflected this understanding and the literacy period seemed to be seamless with no distinct lessons on reading skills or spelling drills”.

Cambourne, B. & Turbill, J. (2007). Looking back to look forward: Understanding the present by revisiting the past: An Australian perspective. International Journal of Progressive Education, 3(2), 8-28.

”Whole language advocates frequently assert that the key to learning language well rests in enjoying the learning process. They affirm that because whole language constitutes a more natural way of learning language, students will enjoy learning more and hence learn more”(p.36).

Jeynes, W.H., & Littell, S.W. (2000). A meta-analysis of studies examining the effect of whole language instruction on the literacy of low-SES students. The Elementary School Journal, 101, 21-38.

"Knowledge of reading is developed through the practice of reading, not through anything that is taught at school"

Smith, F. (1973). Psvchology and reading. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

“One of my children learnt to read from cook books, because he loved cooking. … Reading is just like footy or cricket or golf. You learn by doing it.”

Children’s author, Paul Jennings interviewed in Cafarella, J. (2011). Bringing books to life. The Victorian Premiers’ (sic) Reading Challenge. The Age, Sunday June 19.

(It is) … “through using language and hearing others use it in everyday situations--that children learn to talk. Our research has indicated that the same is true of learning to read and write”

National Council of Teachers of English. (1993). Elementary school practices. Retrieved from

"Children must develop reading strategies by and for themselves" (p. 178).

Weaver, C. (1988). Reading process and practice. Exeter, NH: Heinemann.

“Reading print is no more complex than reading faces and other things in the world. Making sense of print can‘t be more complicated than making sense of speech, which begins much earlier” (Smith, 2003, p. 12).

Smith, F. (2003). Unspeakable acts unnatural practices. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

“Children are more likely to make connections between phonics and their reading and writing of texts if they are engaged and involved in making discoveries for themselves” (p.7).

Ministry of Education. (2003, June 2).  Learning to read.  NewZealand Education Gazette, 82(10), 8-10.

 Should you, dear reader, wish to delve deeper into the whole language morass, by all means seek out my two papers on whole language:

Is there an educational role for phonological processes other than phonemic awareness?

Is there an educational role for phonological processes other than phonemic awareness?

Kerry Hempenstall, Senior Industry Fellow, School of Education, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia. 24/3/2017

Education is frequently criticised for remaining insufficiently attentive to the results of scientific research into teaching and learning (Bair & Enomoto, 2013; Carnine, 1995, 2000; Cook et al., 2014; Hempenstall, 1996; National Research Council, 2002: Stanovich & Stanovich, 2003). A defence, raised by some in the profession, has been that it is not immediately evident how the results of experimental studies can be transposed successfully to the classroom, or indeed whether empirical research is even helpful (Fister & Kemp, 1993; Spencer, Detrich, & Slocum, 2012; Weaver, Patterson, Ellis, Zinke, Eastman, & Moustafa, 1997; Zemelman, Daniels, & Bizar, 1999). Besides, the argument continues, there are rarely definitive answers supplied in such research papers. Seemingly, for every study that points one way is another indicating the opposite. However, in recent decades, several high status committees were established in the literacy field by the National Research Council (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998), and by the USA Congress (National Reading Panel, 2000). Recommendations were explicit, based upon a confluence of research findings. Systematically and explicitly teach children to break apart and manipulate the sounds in words (phonemic awareness). These sounds are represented by alphabet letters which can be blended together to form words (phonics). Practise what is learned by reading aloud with feedback (guided oral reading for fluency). Teach reading comprehension strategies (including vocabulary) to guide and improve reading comprehension. This was not an approach strongly evident during the previous period dominated by the Whole Language movement (Hempenstall, 1996; Lyon, 2005).


 Subsequent reviews produced similar findings. For example: USA: National Early Literacy Panel (2008) - Developing early literacy; Australia: Teaching reading: National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy (2005); Great Britain: Rose report Independent review of the teaching of early reading (2006); NZ: Literacy Learning Progressions (2007). Some other similarities include the assumptions: All children can learn - neither biology nor SES determines destiny; the effects of teaching vary from powerful to negligible depending on their features; low progress students are more dependent on effective teaching to achieve benchmarks than are other students; and early detection and intervention is possible, morally imperative, and cheaper.

Partly driven by the impact of unsatisfactory results arising from state and national testing, parent pressure has provoked governments to seek accountability from the education profession for these student outcomes. The resultant reports have had a dramatic, if controversial, effect on the direction of literacy instruction.
 One highlighted area is phonemic awareness – sensitivity to the sound structure of the words we use in speech (Hempenstall, 1997). Its significance as a predictor of reading success and as a possibly causal element in reading development has been recognised in the empirical literature for some time (Adams, 1990; Badian, 1993; Cornwall, 1992; Crowder & Wagner, 1992; Felton & Brown, 1990; Torgesen, 1993; Torgesen, Wagner, & Rashotte, 1994; Wagner & Torgesen, 1987, Wagner, Torgesen, Laughon, Simmons, & Rashotte, 1993; Wagner, Torgesen, & Rashotte, 1994). Marilyn Adams, arguably the most influential researcher over the past thirty years, wrote “To my mind, the discovery and documentation of the importance of phonemic awareness ... is the single most powerful advance in the science and pedagogy of reading this century” (Adams, 1991, p. 392). Whether phonemic awareness is a direct influence on reading, or indirectly so in its role as aiding phonics instruction, or indeed a consequence of learning to read - remains a question yet to be entirely resolved.
“In conclusion, then, our contention is as follows: while it is possible to design and carry out a study which could provide unequivocal evidence that there is a causal link from competence in phonological awareness to success in reading and spelling acquisition, we do not think that such a study exists in the literature. We hope that this review will provide the stimulus for just such a study” (Castles & Coltheart, 2004, p.105).
“Overall, the data suggest that there is little value in training pre-schoolers in either letter forms or sounds in isolation in advance of providing instruction on the links between the two” (Castles, Coltheart, Wilson, Valpied, & Wedgwood, 2009, p. 68).
“There is now evidence from several randomized trials showing that training in phonemic awareness in the context of high-quality phonically based reading instruction is effective in helping to ameliorate children’s word-level reading difficulties (Bowyer-Crane et al., 2008; Hatcher, Hulme, & Ellis, 1994; Hatcher et al., 2006; National Institute for Literacy, 2008; Torgesen et al., 2001, 1999)” (Melby-Lervåg, Lyster, & Hulme, 2012, p.21).
 The phonological basis of our spoken language enables the production and recognition of an enormous number of words through a process of the combination of a few meaningless segments known as consonants and vowels (Liberman, 1997). Similarly, the alphabetic nature of our written language provides a staggering generativity - from a relatively small number of symbols can be produced an extraordinary number of words. This efficiency is only possible because of the language’s phonological underpinnings, and it must be appreciated by every successful beginning reader. Phonemic awareness is a fundamental component of the reader’s comprehension of the alphabetic principle.
The past 20 years have seen a plethora of articles, books and curricula designed to assist teachers to implement the practices emanating from the empirical research on phonemic awareness. However, the impact at the classroom level only gradually became widespread following the strong support in the Report of the National Reading Panel (2000) and the equally strong recommendation in the No Child Left Behind Act, 2001 (US Department of Education, 2002). In Britain, the National Literacy Strategy (1998) first mandated phonemic awareness (and phonics) instruction to all primary schools as a crucial element in reading instruction, and subsequently this support became stronger (Rose, 2006). In Australia, similar findings were announced in the  National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy (2005).
So, phonemic awareness has become mainstream. Indeed, a Google web search in 2004 produced more than 47,000 hits. In 2017, that figure has increased to around 2.4 million hits.
However, there are also other phonological processes – what are educators to make of them?
Phonemic awareness is only one member of a class of phonological processing skills, important in learning to read, that involve the sound-structure of oral language. A second skill implicated in reading progress is speed of lexical retrieval, also known as phonological recoding in lexical access, and less formally, as naming speed. It is usually assessed through tasks that measure the speed with which one can name familiar stimuli, such as colours, letters, numbers or objects grouped together - usually on paper. The task is not one of knowledge assessment – the individual must be able to name the stimuli already. It is a speed test, and is theoretically relevant to reading because it indicates how readily children can gain access to their stores of sounds, sound-sequences, and word meanings (Bowers & Swanson, 1991; Cornwall, 1992; Davis & Spring, 1990). Initial interest was sparked by studies employing the Rapid Automatized Naming test (Denckla & Rudel, 1974, 1976). They noted a correlation between the extent and stability of any naming deficit and the degree of a reading disability. They had discovered a relationship that had the potential to increase knowledge of the fundamentals of the reading process.
Only in the past 20 years has the seminal research of Denckla and Rudel provoke the degree of interest among the educational fraternity that the phonemic awareness research had done - perhaps because it was not clear what the implications might be for the classroom intervention. That deficits in the area of naming speed might present a separate obstacle to reading progress (beyond that resulting from phonological insensitivity) is based partly upon the similarity between the processes involved in the naming tasks and those involved in reading. Both naming speed and sight word reading depend on automatic, rapid symbol retrieval, and Wolf (1991) and Wolf and Bowers (1999) have established a connection between naming speed for letters/numbers and fluent word recognition. Thus, here is a link of apparent significance.
What is involved in speed of naming?
Wolf et al. (2000) consider naming speed to be the culmination of basic perceptual, attentional, articulatory, and lexical-retrieval processes integrated with sophisticated cognitive and linguistic processes. They consider basic processing speed to be a central influence on the efficiency of each of these lower and higher order processes. When reading, one must employ these basic processes to convert print into one of two forms. The first entails a phonological representation constructed through reading-out-loud or through sub-vocalization. The decoding process allows appropriate selection of the word's meaning through access to the phonologically coded lexicon, the brain’s store of meanings that has been developed initially through oral language experience.
In the second option, a visual representation of the printed word enables direct access to the lexicon. This faster system represents the most common strategy employed by skilled readers, but is developed only if the earlier phonologically-based system has been practised sufficiently to enable routine automatic recognition of most words (Adams, 1990). An analogy might be the difference in the recognition speed of a rare stamp among a page of mundane stamps by a novice and an experienced philatelist. The novice must laboriously pore over the stamps, systematically absorbing each feature before accepting or rejecting it. To the expert, the rare stamp appears to leap into visual prominence as the discrimination process proceeds without conscious attention or effort. The critical question involves how a student attains this orthographic stage, and the role of the phonological decoding stage in its attainment (Compton, 2002).


A further option is that both phonological and lexical processing occurs simultaneously in skilled reading, a concept known as PDP (parallel distributed processing):


“According to this model, word reading occurs in three steps: (i) phonological recoding, (ii) visual perception and (iii) semantic representation from the mental lexicon (54). Early in the reading acquisition process, the young reader relies more heavily on the ability to translate letters into corresponding sounds (phonological recoding) and to a lesser extent on the direct orthographic route to derive a meaningful representation of a given word. With practice, the young reader develops a wider lexicon consisting of a ‘bank’ of words that are recognised holistically via the orthographic processor, with phonological recoding reserved for unfamiliar, low frequency or more complicated words. Words that cannot be recoded must be learned via the semantic route (sight words). Thus, the decoding process becomes more automatic (fluent) and accurate, with fewer errors (55). … Neuroimaging support for the PDP model is increasing, illustrating synchronous activation of brain regions related to phonology, orthography and semantics during reading.” (Horowitz-Kraus, & Hutton, 2015, p. 648-9).


It is common in the earliest stages of reading for a student to be partially reliant upon a non-alphabetic visual strategy to identify words. Thus dog may be remembered because of its “tail”, and look by virtue of its “eyes”. However, the student needs to find a unique visual cue for each new word - a strategy doomed to failure as the vocabulary requirements become overwhelming, particularly later in primary school (Freebody & Byrne, 1988; Tunmer & Hoover, 1993). This primitive visual-dominant strategy does not take advantage of the alphabetic principle, and should not be confused with the sophisticated orthographic processing mentioned above. Unfortunately, the teaching technique of basing instruction largely on word frequency rather than word construction (as in initially emphasising memorisation of the 100/200 most common words) may inadvertently promote this moribund strategy (Gaskins, Ehri, Cress, O’Hara, & Donnelly, 1996), especially among struggling students. Another symptom of such processing can be observed when a student correctly reads a word in singular form, but is nonplussed when confronted by its plural. The use of such strategies is associated not only with difficulties in reading, but also with negative reading-related self-perceptions, as early as in Year 1 (Chapman & Tunmer, 2003).

Beginning readers are better served by the sounding-out option rather than by neglecting it in the erroneous anticipation of better progress through attention to alternative (contextual) cues or through a visual memorisation strategy (Compton, 2002; Hempenstall, 2002a; National Reading Panel, 2000). The strategy does require that strong letter-sound associations have been formed, and can be rapidly and effortlessly recalled. Students with slow naming speed may also be slow in identifying the sound of each letter in a written word. If so, they may be unable to maintain the sounds sufficiently long for blending into a known word to occur, and for the consequent gradual establishment of orthographic representations. Without such formation, subsequent reading fluency will be drastically compromised, as thereby will be comprehension (Bowers, Sunseth, & Golden, 1999; Manis, Doi, & Bhadha, 2000). Additionally, their comprehension of that which they have read may be compromised by the extended time taken to complete the sentence.
“Rapid automatized naming refers to the ability to retrieve phonological information from long-term memory (Wagner et al., 1987). When readers decode words, they unconsciously engage in a variety of cognitive processes that are influenced by rapid automatized naming. They must quickly retrieve the phonological codes for the letters from long-term memory, blend the codes together, and search their long-term memory’s internal dictionary in order to make meaning of the combined codes (Wagner et al., 1987). ” (p.180). … Some have categorized rapid automatized naming as a phonological processing ability because it is hypothesized to require accessing of phonological codes (de Jong & van der Leij, 1999; Wagner & Torgesen, 1987; Wagner et al., 1993, 1999b). Wolf, Bowers, and Biddle (2001) argued that rapid automatized naming is too complex to be classified as a phonological processing ability” (p.182). … rapid automatized naming has been shown to account for more variance in text reading fluency (Cornwall, 1992; Young & Bowers, 1995) and reading comprehension (Sprugevica & Hoien, 2004) than has phonological awareness, whereas phonological awareness has been found to account for more variance in word reading than has rapid automatized naming (Wagner et al., 1997)” (Nelson, Lindstrom, Lindstrom, & Denis, 2012, p.192).
There has been some debate about the relationship between phonemic awareness and naming speed. Whereas, Wagner and Torgesen (1987) considered them both a reflection of a unitary phonological process, other research has suggested that each of phonemic awareness and naming speed contributed uniquely to reading development (Badian, 1993; Blachman, 1984; Bowers, 1995; Cornwall, 1992; Felton & Brown, 1990; McBride-Chang & Manis, 1996; Manis et al., 2000; Wolf, Bowers, & Biddle, 2000).
Studies by Torgesen, Wagner and colleagues (Torgesen et al., 1994; Wagner et al., 1993; Wagner et al., 1994) employed multiple measures across a range of phonological processing tasks in their longitudinal and cross-sectional studies. Multiple measures of each construct allow latent variables (representing the common variance among the measures) that are purer, through reduced task specific variance and error variance. Their confirmatory factor analysis revealed five distinct but correlated phonological processing abilities. There were two components of phonemic awareness (phonological analysis and phonological synthesis), phonetic recoding in working memory, and two components of phonological recoding in lexical access.
The two barely correlated abilities comprising phonological recoding in lexical access arose from the type of naming speed tasks employed. The ability involved depended upon whether the presentation was in a serial-trial format or isolated-trial format, that is, whether response-time was to digits (or letters) flashed serially onto a screen, or the time required to name each of a group of digits (or letters) presented together on a card.
The relative significance of the two abilities remains unclear; however, their overall results are consistent with other findings highlighting, at the least, a predictive capacity of naming speed tasks for later reading ability (Al Otaiba, 2001; Bowers, 1995; Bowers & Swanson, 1991; Catts, 1991; Cornwall, 1992; Davis & Spring, 1990; Felton, 1992; Speece, Mills, Ritchey, & Hillman, 2003; Tunmer & Hoover, 1993). For example, the Bowers (1995) study reported that naming speed displayed a strong predictive relationship with reading, and thus could become a useful component of an early identification screening battery. Speece et al. demonstrated how a letter-fluency task in kindergarten was able to reduce the number of false positive cases of predicted problems that occur when solely phonemic awareness screening was performed. Al Otaiba (2001) found that slow letter naming and poor phonological memory were each child characteristics predictive of unresponsiveness to intervention, and hence useful elements in determining the level of support needed by different students at a very early stage of their education.
Given the now well-recognised importance of catching children before they fall (Torgesen, 1998), efforts to predict future membership of the cohort of low progress readers before they have experienced failure has become a major area of investigation. Any variable that can assist in prediction is worthy of further investigation. The identification of those students at greatest risk during their first school year would enable existing and future high quality interventions to be appropriately and accurately targeted, conceivably enabling three out of four of the currently failing 20-30% of students to achieve reading success (Australian Government House of Representatives Enquiry, 1993; Lyon, 2000, cited in Landauer, 2000; Marks & Ainley, 1997).
The interest in naming speed was further piqued through suggestions that it may have causal as well as predictive implications, just as phonemic awareness has been thought to do. Wimmer, Mayringer, and Landerl (2000) found that early slowness in naming was related to subsequently under-developed reading fluency. A further study (Wimmer & Mayringer, 2002) noted that slow naming speed alone (assessed at the commencement of schooling) was associated with subsequent dysfluency in reading, though not with spelling problems. They also noted that students’ spelling weakness followed simultaneous deficits in more than one phonological process. However, these studies did not employ a design capable of demonstrating a causal link.
“Taken together, these findings suggest that what is unique to RAN [rapid autonomic naming] is more important for the prediction of reading fluency than what it shares with either speed of processing, phonological processing, or orthographic processing.” (Georgiou, Parrila, & Papadopoulos, 2016, p.868).
The suggestion of cumulative effects on reading, resulting from phonological weaknesses, has been investigated by Bowers and Wolf (Bowers & Wolf, 1993a; Wolf & Bowers, 1999). They proposed a Double-Deficit hypothesis to account for a role of naming speed deficits, either solely or in concert with phonemic awareness, in hindering reading progress. They consider that these two phonological processes (naming and awareness) are independent, and propose that the two may be responsible for discernibly different symptoms. Some students have difficulty only in phonemic awareness, some only in naming-speed, whereas a third group may display a double-deficit. This third group is considered to comprise the most instructionally resistant students (Wolf et al., 2000), because they are left with fewer compensatory resources than the former groups. In the study by Stage, Abbott, Jenkins, and Berninger (2003) this prediction was clearly supported. All three groups are likely to display comprehension deficits (Bowers & Wolf, 1993b). In Bowers’ (1995) study, the double-deficit group was the most impaired on reading fluency and accuracy in both word and nonsense word reading. A similar finding for second grade students was observed by Manis et al. (2000) and also in a large study by Lovett, Steinbach, and Frijters (2000). Additionally, written expression was identified by Lovett et al. as area of concern for the double-deficit group. However, when intensive phonologically-based instruction was implemented, even the Double Deficit students made progress commensurate with their less disabled single deficit peers. Without such carefully planned intervention, they tend to be the most severely disabled readers, and their difficulties are not relieved by maturation (Lovett et al., 2000; Wiig, Zureich, & Chan, 2000).
Wagner et al. (1997) reported that any influence of naming speed might be age-limited. They argued that rapid naming was a valuable contributor to reading up to about third grade, but not beyond. That finding could be due to the greater importance assigned to comprehension, rather than decoding, in assessed reading progress from about fourth grade. Lovett and Steinbach (1997) argued that phonological intervention should remain the intervention of choice at least up until sixth grade. Several studies (McCray, Vaughn, & Neal, 2001; Shankweiler, Lundquist, Dreyer, & Dickinson, 1996; Shaywitz et al., 1999) extended the influence of phonological processes through adolescence, while still others note that unresolved phonological deficits remain evident in adulthood, and should therefore remain an intervention focus (Greenberg, 1998; Greenberg, Ehri, & Perin, 1997). The relative contributions of naming speed and phonemic awareness to various aspects of reading was investigated by Pennington, Cardoso-Martins, Green, and Lefly (2001). They noted that the contribution of naming was significant, but moderate when compared with that of phonemic awareness. Further, the effect was mostly evident in relation to fluency; whereas, the effects of phonemic awareness were directed towards facility with decoding.
The question of a causal role for naming speed remains open, as the traditional means of establishing causality, through experimental rather than correlational studies, has not been definitively explored. Whether rapid naming capacity is directly amenable to treatment is unclear (Lovett et al., 2000). Though it is an intuitively attractive notion, simply because naming speed deficits appear to compromise reading progress does not necessarily imply that one can improve reading by, for example, providing lots of practice at naming various items quickly. Analogously, knowledge of letter names is highly predictive of future reading progress, yet an emphasis on solely teaching letter names (as opposed to letter sounds) to students at risk has not been shown to be of great benefit to the target students’ reading progress. Letter name knowledge is most likely only a marker, indicative of a range of helpful literacy experiences that a child with such letter name knowledge has already experienced. Learning letter names at school, while helpful, does not replicate all the additional experiences that may comprise the real determinants of a student’s progress. Additionally, a focus on "underlying process variables" (Blachman, 1994) in attempts to resolve reading difficulties has not been very fruitful in the past (Arter & Jenkins, 1979).
Some researchers have argued that rapid naming may not be amenable to intervention (Torgesen, Wagner, & Rashotte, 1994). Even in studies of successful phonologically based intervention, during which students with a double deficit make excellent progress in reading, naming speed may remain low (Miller & Felton, 2001). Others, however, have noted naming speed increases. In a small study involving both good and poor readers, teaching phonemic awareness skills effectively to all the third grade children simultaneously improved their naming ability (Rubin, Rotella, Schwartz, & Bernstein, 1991). Though this study has no direct implications for improved reading, it does support the view of Wagner, Torgesen and colleagues (Torgesen, 1998; Torgesen et al., 1994; Wagner et al., 1993; Wagner et al., 1994) that the five phonological processing variables are related. Some subsequent phonologically-based intervention studies have noted similar naming speed improvements (Hempenstall, 2002b), and this broader issue of obliquely addressing naming speed deficits is considered later. Of course, it is possible that there is a causal link between reading progress and naming speed, but that naming speed is a consequence of improved automaticity wrought by successful reading intervention.
Might there be a deeper, generalised extra-phonological cause that hinders phonological processes such as phonemic awareness and rapid naming? The subservience of several reading-related features, such as naming speed, to speed of general underlying processing is intuitively attractive in a reductionist sense. So, the search for an understanding of general processing speed has attracted interest from researchers (Tallal, 2000). For example, in describing the rationale for the program known as Fast ForWord (Scientific Learning Corporation, 1996), Tallal asserted that some children display difficulties in the processing of any rapidly changing sequential information. In this view, phonological problems are the outward manifestation of an underlying problem (temporal perception) that will also affect other processes, such as in the visual domain. To ameliorate this problem for reading-affected students, she employed acoustically modified (slowed) speech, believing that such speech signal manipulations will ultimately enable the brain to be reconfigured for more rapid processing. The intended outcome is that students will process temporal aspects of speech (such as sound order, gaps between sounds, speech rhythm) more effectively, thereby improving speech perception and language comprehension.
The approach is controversial and the results were at best equivocal. Breznitz and Share (2002) raise doubts about the replicability and interpretations made in the supportive research. In reviewing a number studies on Fast ForWard, Gillam, Frome Loeb, and Friel-Patti (2001) concluded that the reported language improvements for participants were similar to those noted in other more traditional language intervention programs. However, changes in temporal processing did not appear to be an outcome of the program’s intensive application. Further, in their longitudinal study, Share, Jorm, Maclean and Mathews (2002) found that any auditory temporal deficits noted among reading disabled students should not be assigned causal status, a view offered support in an investigation by Chiappe, Stringer, Siegel, and Stanovich (2002). In the Chiappe et al. study, reading-disabled adults did not differ in temporal processing from their normal-reading age peers. When compared with reading-level matched children, they displayed the typical phonological and pseudo-word reading deficits, yet were able to manage the timing tasks more successfully than the children. Finally, they noted that naming speed deficits were not the result of temporal processing deficits – the timing measures contributing nothing to the variance in rapid naming.
In more recent times, few studies found beneficial effects in reading development:
“Results: Meta-analyses indicated that there was no significant effect of Fast ForWord on any outcome measure in comparison to active or untreated control groups. Conclusions: There is no evidence from the analysis carried out that Fast ForWord is effective as a treatment for children’s oral language or reading difficulties” (Strong, Torgerson, Torgerson, & Hulme, 2010, p.224).

"Fast ForWord Language, the intervention that provided modified speech to address a hypothesized underlying auditory processing deficit, was not more effective at improving general language skills or temporal processing skills than a nonspecific comparison treatment (AE) or specific language intervention comparison treatments (CALI and ILI) that did not contain modified speech stimuli. These findings call into question the temporal processing hypothesis of language impairment and the hypothesized benefits of using acoustically modified speech to improve language skills. The finding that children in the 3 treatment conditions and the active comparison condition made clinically relevant gains on measures of language and temporal auditory processing informs our understanding of the variety of intervention activities that can facilitate development.” (Gillam et al., 2008, p.97)


Perhaps, the more appropriate quest may not involve attempts to directly or indirectly improve naming speed per se, but rather, to focus on instruction designed to improve the reading of children who have problems in rapidly accessing phonological information from their mental lexicon.
Another phonological processing variable: Working memory
Working memory is a short-term holding system that enables the storage and manipulation of small amounts of information needed to complete a task (Baddeley, 1995). Phonetic recoding in working memory has been described as a phonological ability. The beginning reader has to be able to decode a series of graphemes, and temporarily order them in a sound-based store in order to carry out the cognitively expensive task of blending. That capacity is also required to perform blending in a purely oral task. The efficiency with which the storage is performed optimises or diminishes the attentional capacity available for blending and subsequent word-pronunciation, word-comprehension, and sentence-comprehension tasks.
“Phonological memory refers to the ability to maintain phonological information in working memory (Wagner & Torgesen, 1987). It consists of the phonological loop, a two-part storage system of auditory information (Baddeley, 1992). These two parts of the phonological loop work together, with the first part “recording” the last two seconds of phonological information and the second part providing articulatory input and refreshing the information in phonological storage to permit longer retention (Wagner et al., 1999b; see Baddeley, 2007 for a discussion of the phonological loop). An efficient phonological memory system facilitates reading by allowing the allocation of cognitive resources to blending the sounds together to make words rather than needing to employ a strategy to remember the sounds (Baddeley, 1982). (Nelson, Lindstrom, Lindstrom, & Denis, 2012, p. 180)
Gathercole, Willis, and Baddeley (1991) argue that the efficiency of the short-term phonological store is the major determinant of the ease or otherwise of retrieval of a sound sequence from long-term memory. Their study also replicated a previous finding (Gathercole & Baddeley, 1989) that phonological memory skills were significantly associated with vocabulary knowledge in reading. In related vein, the Wagner et al. (1994) longitudinal study found that the rate of development of phonological memory paralleled that of vocabulary development in the first three years of schooling. Thus, it appears to have wide-ranging and extended influence on development. Indeed, Shankweiler and his colleagues (Shankweiler et al., 1995) have proposed that phonological processing limitations can subvert higher order language abilities. As the executive element of working memory relays information through the cognitive system, any lower-order limitations can hinder the growth of syntactic abilities, vocabulary, phonological awareness, reading, and language comprehension.
Wagner and Torgesen (1987), in their review of research, argued that the major memory problem for poor readers is in the coding of items phonetically. For these researchers, the deficit is a specific auditory working memory problem not a general one (Smith-Spark, Fisk, Fawcett, & Nicolson, 2003). Whether encoding or retrieval is the issue, the view that phonetic recoding in working memory is an important element of early reading success has been strongly supported (Catts, 1991; Felton, 1992; Hurford et al., 1993; Lindamood, Bell, & Lindamood, 1992; Shapiro, Nix, & Foster, 1990; Shaywitz, 2003; Webster & Plante, 1992).
The studies of Wagner, Torgesen and colleagues (Wagner et al., 1993; Wagner et al., 1994; Torgesen et al., 1994) used digit span (oral and visual), sentence memory, and a distractor memory task to assess this ability. In contrast, Gathercole et al. (1991) suggest that non-word repetition may be a purer measure of working memory, as it avoids the possibility of using lexical and semantic cues to assist recall. Indeed, the Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing (Wagner, Torgesen, & Rashotte, 1999) employs both in their composite working memory score.
As with phonological coding in lexical access (naming speed), it is not yet apparent how, if at all, weaknesses in this area might be addressed directly. Wagner and colleagues concluded that attempts to improve this skill through memory training or mnemonic strategies have not been fruitful, and are unlikely ever to be so. They raised the interesting possibility that phonetic recoding in working memory may improve in concert with general reading skill improvement. Their longitudinal study (Wagner et al., 1994) failed to find such a trend, although some intervention studies (Bowey, 1996; Hempenstall, 2002b) noted such an outcome. Wagner et al. reported that the rates of development across the phonological processing abilities were somewhat uneven over the first three years of schooling, phonological memory being the slowest of them. There was considerable stability across all the variables over the three years - lending support to the view that the phonological processes are causal to beginning reading, and not ephemeral individual differences soon submerged under the effects of schooling. This is not to argue that reading itself plays no role in enhancing phonological processing - only that it is not a unidirectional role (Wagner et al., 1993).
The other two phonological abilities (those most strongly related to later reading skill) can be considered as special cases of phonemic awareness. They are phonological analysis (or segmentation), and phonological synthesis (or blending). In an explicit phonics approach, the processes of blending (What word do these sounds make when we put them together mmm-aaa-nnn?”), and segmenting (“Sound out this word for me”) are directly taught. It is of little value knowing what are the building blocks of our language’s structure if one does not know how to put those blocks together appropriately to allow the commencement of written communication, or know how to separate the blocks to enable decoding of a letter grouping.
“Phonemic awareness can also be categorised on the basis of how it is being used. Specifically, explicit awareness at the level of the phoneme includes both analytic and synthetic skills (Morais, 1991; Perfetti, Beck, Bell & Hughes, 1987). Analytic skills include phoneme segmentation or the ability to break a word down into constituent sounds. Phoneme synthesis refers to blending or combining sounds together to make a larger segment such as a syllable or word. Importantly, these different phonemic awareness skills may play different causal roles in learning to read (Perfetti et al., 1987; Wagner, Torgesen & Rashotte, 1994). Yet, these skills are seldom considered separately in studies examining the emergence of phonemic awareness, often due to statistical modelling that suggests they load on a unified phonological awareness or processing latent variable (Anthony & Lonigan, 2004; Lonigan et al., 2009; but see Wagner et al., 1994, 1997). It is important to note that, even within such a unified conceptualisation, analytic and synthetic skills are seen to develop along different trajectories, with blending skills developing before segmenting (Anthony et al., 2003; Lonigan et al., 2009)” (Ouellette & Haley, 2013, p.30).
Thus, there is evidence (Torgesen et al., 1992; Yopp, 1992) that synthesis develops earlier than analytic skills. Solomons (1992) and Caravolas and Bruck (1993) consider segmentation quite difficult for children younger than 5 or 6 years, and Bryen and Gerber (1987) suggest that only by age 6 years can 70% of children succeed in phonemic segmentation tasks. Certainly in the Torgesen et al. comparison of two phonemic awareness training programs, blending skills (What word is this: /k/ /a/ /t/?) were more readily taught to first year students than were segmentation skills (Which of these three words begins the same as cat?). Their intervention study highlighted the need to teach both skills given that promotion of decoding is the objective. A further feature of most successful reading programs is their emphasis on directly teaching both blending and segmenting skills within the context of letters (Gustafson, Samuelsson, & Ronnberg, 2000; Spector, 1995). The importance of segmenting and blending as a major instructional focus is made clear in the Ehri et al. (2001) summary of the National Reading Panel’s reading research meta-analysis. Similar findings emanate from the Scottish Clackmannanshire study (Johnston, McGeown, & Watson, 2012; Watson & Johnston, 1998). The Dixon, Stuart, and Masterson (2002) study noted that the capacity to develop detailed orthographic representations (a hallmark of skilled reading) was strongly dependent on students’ first developing strong segmentation skills.
Phonological Representations
“In learning to read, two main processes are described: phonological recoding and word recognition. Phonological recoding enables activation of phonological representations of orally known words from effortful sequential grapheme-phoneme conversion. When written words are familiar, phonological recoding is replaced by the process of word recognition, which is usually described as a rapid and automatic activation of orthographic lexical representations from the parallel processing of letters. Numerous studies with expert readers have provided evidence that the phonological code continues to play a role during word recognition. In contrast, the nature of this phonological activation is different: it is rapid and automatic (Ferrand & Grainger, 1992, 1993; Lukatela, Frost, & Turvey, 1998). An interesting question arises when children read familiar written words; do they activate the phonological code rapidly and automatically during the word recognition process like in expert reading? … Our results do not support this proposition and suggest that the slow and serial phonological recoding is rapidly replaced by an automatic phonological process that enables the rapid and automatic activation of sublexical phonological representations from letters. In contrast, the automatic orthographic process, enabling access to the orthographic lexicon, seems to develop more slowly and to become effective later.” (Sauval, Perre, & Casalis, 2017, p.52, 61).
Perfetti (1991, 1992), supported by Elbro (1996), has argued that low scores on tests of phonological processing reflect problems with the clarity of the representation of spoken words in the reader’s lexicon. This has become known as the phonological distinctness model. When representations of words are unstable (or stable but ill-defined), matching a stimulus word with the correct phonemically stored counterpart is likely to be a slow and error prone process as the child rejects competing phonemically similar, but semantically nonsensical, responses. In normal circumstances, children’s accumulating experience with words leads the representations to become increasingly segmented – finer grained. Initially, the words are stored as undetailed, single-unit representations requiring storage space for each. Experience enables a more economical storage in which words sharing the same sound part can be partly assembled from the shared re-usable components. Gradually, the child becomes more analytic, refining the phonological representation from that of whole words to intra-word parts, such as syllables and eventually, phonemes. A slightly different interpretation of the effect is described by Metsala and Walley (1998) within the lexical restructuring model, although the differences may not have instructional consequences.
These phonological representations of the written word are acquired through phonemic mappings to letters but some degree of awareness that words are constructed of manipulable, meaningless speech segments needs to be present or quickly acquired. If the level of awareness remains shallow and does not penetrate down to the smallest segment (the phoneme), then the representations will not be precisely delineated.
Liberman (1997) argued for the presence of a specialised phonological module in which the clarity of phonological representations determines a child's ability to comprehend and apply the alphabetic principle. In Liberman’s view, an unconscious phonetic module acts upon articulatory gestures rather than upon acoustics. In this perspective, it is the articulatory feedback from the formation and production of sounds, rather than a sensitivity to the sonic value of the sounds themselves that builds links between words and their constituent phonemes. An alternative explanation - that poor performance on phonological tasks is caused by inadequate auditory discrimination of speech sounds has not received strong research support (Cornelissen, Hansen, Bradley, & Stein, 1996; Gibbs, 1996).
If these phonological representations, whether purely sounds-based or kinaesthetic, are imprecise then tasks such as phonological recoding in lexical access and phonological recoding in working memory may also present problems for such students, and there is ample evidence that they do (Gang & Siegel, 2002; Rubin et al., 1991). For example, if the phonological representation of "dog" is poorly encoded or unreliable then the association between the spoken name of the animal and its meaning will be vague. A picture of a dog may quickly evoke its meaning but the phonologically assembled label is slowed because other similar labels (e.g., god, dock, bog) may need to be rejected. Scrolling through a range of possibilities requires more time than accessing a clear uniquely described form, and hence task performance will be slower than for a student with a clear phonological representation.
There remains debate whether the fundamental problem resides in the inaccurate initial encoding of speech or whether the phonological representations for words stored in the lexicon lack adequate aural resolution (Brady, 1997). The use of modern brain imaging techniques helps shed some light upon conflicting foci upon a metalinguistic deficit and its relationship to the phonological module proposed by Liberman (1997) as opposed to a temporal processing deficit in the auditory system, such as that emphasised by Tallal and colleagues (Tallal et al., 1996). Studdert-Kennedy and Mody (1995) and Studdert-Kennedy (2002) argued that the phonological representation explanation better accounts for observed problems than does Tallal’s temporal processing deficits. They consider that for the disabled reader, it is not the temporal order of the tonal stimuli that presents the difficulty, but rather a problem in discriminating between highly similar auditory stimuli. See Eden and Moats (2002) for an early review of this topical area. 


However, more recent studies have failed to find beneficial effects of the intervention (Fast ForWord) based upon the temporal deficit model:


 “Metaanalyses indicated that there was no significant effect of Fast ForWord on any outcome measure in comparison to active or untreated control groups. Conclusions: There is no evidence from the analysis carried out that Fast ForWord is effective as a treatment for children’s oral language or reading difficulties” (Strong, Torgerson, Torgerson, & Hulme, 2010, p.224).

“Phonological representations are the sound-based codes stored in the lexicon for each word (Anthony et al., 2010; Gillon, 2002). It is generally accepted that phonological representations are initially a holistic articulatory gesture associated with the meaning of a word (Maillart et al., 2004; Snowling and Hulme, 1994). The lexical restructuring (Metsala & Walley, 1998) and segmentation (Fowler, 1991) hypotheses suggest that with the rapid increase in vocabulary during the pre-school years, more finely grained phonological representations are developed and stored. As vocabulary continues to develop, so phonological representations become more specific, with lexical items segmented into increasingly smaller units. Precise, well-defined phonological representations are important for distinguishing between similar sounding lexical items, retrieving words and performing phonological awareness tasks (Fowler, 1991). It has been suggested that it may be more difficult to segment and manipulate low quality phonological representations (Elbro et al., 1998). Phonological representations are of interest to both clinicians and researchers alike, as there is evidence to suggest that the establishment of precise and well-defined phonological representations is vital for achieving language competence and later for literacy acquisition (Bishop and Snowling, 2004).” (Claessen & Leitão, 2012, p. 212-214)
Tasks involving short term auditory memory may be difficult for some because the orally presented stimuli are not effortlessly and instantly encoded as unique phonological forms, or alternatively because of deficits in phonological rehearsal capacity (Gang & Siegel, 2002). The process of storage and retrieval is then inefficient, reflected in lower performance. Not every test may be equally able to detect this quality. In digit span forward tests, continuous oral or silent rehearsal may partly compensate for a memory deficit. In a digit span reversed test, this strategy is unavailable and this test format may better reflect the deleterious effects of phonologically inadequate representations. Lindamood (1994) described "comparator function" as a critical variable in reading skill, one in which (for example, in blending) a stimulus or sequence must be retained in working memory whilst part of it is manipulated. Phoneme deletion (one of the most complex of phonological awareness tasks) also requires just this capacity, at least in non-spellers. Those adept at spelling are able to bypass the phonological demands by first visualising the letters and then mentally subtracting a letter or letter grouping. Another form of assessment requires the repetition of orally presented pseudowords. Such tests either have increasing numbers of syllables, for example, burloogugendaplo (Wagner et al., 1999), or increasing numbers of single syllable pseudowords presented in a stream (Gathercole & Adams, 1993).
Ehri (1994) suggests that when alphabetic readers practise reading specific words by phonologically recoding the words, they form access routes for those words into memory. Readers gradually build these access routes by using their knowledge of grapheme-phoneme correspondences to amalgamate letters-in-spellings to phonemes-in-pronunciations of the words. The letters are processed as visual symbols for the phonemes and the sequence of letters is retained in memory as an alphabetic, phonological representation of the word. Empirical support for this view can be found in the Dixon et al. (2002) study in which phoneme segmentation ability was strongly associated with the construction of accurate orthographic representations. Shaywitz (2003) employs the term neural model to describe the inner representation. Neural models may correspond with printed words to a greater or lesser extent; however, after students have read the word accurately a number of times, their neural model forms an exact correspondence with the printed word.
The relatively effortless, automatic, rapid response to text that is the hallmark of skilled reading requires an orthographic lexicon at once comprehensive, and instantly and accurately accessible. Perfetti (1991, 1992) also argued that the development of the orthographic lexicon in reading has its basis in phonological representations, rather than in a visual store of whole words. If one accepts this view, establishing and cementing the connections between word spellings and these phonological representations become crucial instructional elements in orthographic knowledge development.
It is therefore unsurprising that spelling has sometimes been used as a proxy for the quality of phonological representations (Perfetti, 1992). Lindamood (1994) also noted that children who have difficulty in appreciating the sound structure of words tend to be poor spellers. Landerl, Frith, and Wimmer (1996) noted that, in normal readers, coactivation of orthographic knowledge occurs in phonological tasks (that is, knowledge of a word’s spelling is used to make judgements about the sounds in a word), whereas for disabled readers this coactivation is much less evident. They argue that there is only a weak link between the phonological and orthographic representations in reading-disabled students such that hearing a word does not evoke its spelling, and seeing a word fails to bring forth its sound segments. An inability to establish such reliable links has dire consequences for skilled reading and spelling, and may be due to the imprecision with which sounds are encoded in the phonological representation store.
Elbro et al. (1994) suggest that inadequate phonological representations impede the development of sophisticated phonemic awareness and further that it is at the individual phoneme level that this failure of differentiation may occur. Perhaps the most refractory to phonemic awareness training and to phonics instruction are those to whom Elbro et al. refer. If that is so, some argue, then specialised and intensive phoneme awareness instruction may be beneficial. For example, in the Lindamood (1969) program considerable emphasis is devoted to kinaesthetic (in addition to auditory) cues to assist the recognition of and discrimination between phonemes. Hence, children are taught lip and tongue positions and how the breath is used - the purpose being to increase the salience of the sonic differentiation. This is a strategy offered theoretical support by Liberman (1997) through the emphasis on the role of articulatory gesture. There may be students who require such specialised intervention, although as yet there is doubt as to how to identify them. Parsimony suggests that, at least for students beyond beginner age, systematic, synthetic phonics programs should first be attempted (Wagner et al., 1999), with the caveat that close and continuous monitoring of progress occurs. In a large-scale study, a combination of alphabetic instruction combined with phonemic awareness training was more beneficial than either alone (Foorman et al., 2003).
Snowling, Goulandis, and Defty (1996) also argue that slowness in reading development of reading disabled students is due to delayed development of clear phonological representations at the beginning reading stage. Others (e.g., Bruck, 1990, 1992; Shankweiler et al., 1996) have noted that delay may be an inappropriate description, as untreated, such problems remain in evidence through to adulthood. In the self-teaching hypothesis described by Share (1995) and Share & Stanovich (1995), rapid, whole word reading (enabled through direct lexical access) develops through the effects of practice, benefits accumulating each time the phonological coding of words occurs. This sequence (of reliable phonological representations allowing phonological decoding, a skill further promoting direct lexical access) provides both an explanation and an intervention focus to overcome the limits placed on children’s reading development by problems at the level of phonology. This position finds significant support (Apel & Swank, 1999; Ehri, 1995, 1998; Gaskins et al., 1996; Williams, 1991). A study by Monaghan and Ellis (2002) adds weight to the crucial role of clear phonological representations. They noted that forging strong grapheme-phoneme linkages derives from multiple practice opportunities. Strong connections allow effortless translation of written words to meaningful language. The unclear representations hinder the development of these links leading to hesitancy and a failure to appreciate the alphabetic principle.
Recent neuroscience work has suggested an alternative to the classical representational clarity explanation:
“For most researchers in this area, the most parsimonious hypothesis is that dyslexics’ phonological representations are somewhat degraded (i.e., less precise, less well specified, less categorical, and/or noisier). … A new study (Boets et al., 2013) reports that activations of superior temporal regions for speech are normal in dyslexia, although being less well connected to downstream frontal regions. These findings support the hypothesis of a deficit in the access to phonological representations rather than in the representations themselves. … Of course, the most crucial finding, that of normal activations for phonological representations, is a null result and will need to be replicated”. (Ramus, 2014, p. 274-275)
In summary, the theory of phonological representation implies that phonological processes are dependent upon the clarity or accessibility of such representations. If phonological processes improve during an intervention program, is it because of better clarity of representations? Several studies have noted improvements in other phonological processes when phonemic awareness development approaches are adopted.
Intervention Studies
Lovett et al. (1994) noted improved phonological processing skills (both speech and print based) in reading disabled children following an intervention program adapted partly from Direct Instruction phonics programs. The improvements were noted in measures of blending, segmenting, reading and spelling. Foorman, Francis, Beeler, Winikates, and Fletcher (1997) reported a study that compared such a Direct Instruction model to both an incidental phonics method and a Whole Language approach. The students in the Direct Instruction group demonstrated significantly greater gains in word reading, phonological processing and spelling than did either of the other two groups.
Torgesen et al. (1994) studied 244 students from kindergarten through to the second grade, and noted that there were reciprocal effects between letter-sound knowledge and subsequent phonological development of their students. That is, the two areas were mutually supportive. The authors noted the effects of such knowledge were strongest on phonemic awareness, moderate on rapid naming and no discernible effects were observed for phonological memory.
The most common interpretation of such findings is that instructional emphasis on the structure of spoken words increases the quality or accessibility of phonological representations, and such change is represented in improved performance on the other phonological variables. If, as they relate to reading, naming and working memory are reflective of an underlying variable (representation), there may be little value in attempting to influence these two variables through direct training of them.
If these two phonological processes are simply marker variables for representation, their usefulness is not markedly diminished, as they are likely to play an important role in increasing the precision with which prediction of students at-risk can be achieved (Badian, 1994; Hurford, Schauf, Bunce, Blaich, & Moore, 1994). Already, combinations of tests emphasising phonological processes, given prior to reading instruction, have been at least moderately successful in predicting reading progress (Badian; Hurford et al.; Majsterek & Ellenwood, 1995; Scarborough, 1998; Spector, 1992; Stuart, 1995; Torgesen, 1998).
Phonological representations and short term auditory memory
When phoneme oddity is assessed with such tasks as in the Test of Phonological Awareness (TOPA) (Torgesen & Bryant, 1994), memory load is reduced through the provision of pictures to remind students of each of the four words presented. Nevertheless, in order to note which two words (in the end-sound-same subtest) or three words (end-sound-different subtest) share the same final phoneme they must be able to keep the representations active in working memory for sufficient time to note and compare the final phonemes. Hence, it seems likely that phonological working memory plays at least some part in successfully completing the TOPA, and additionally, in the tasks of sequencing and blending important in decoding unfamiliar words, or pseudo-words (Troia, Roth, & Yeni-Komshien, 1996). Swanson and Alexander (1997) in their study of learning disabled readers reported that working memory contributed only 4% to pseudo-word decoding.
Brady (1991) pondered whether there is a threshold phonological working memory capacity necessary for success at such tasks. For children who struggle with tasks requiring phonological awareness, blending, and sequencing, and who also perform poorly on short term memory tasks, the question remains as to the optimum foci for intervention. If it were true that phonological working memory underpins the other tasks, then it could be an intervention target in its own right. During the 1960’s and 1970’s the approach known as the ability training model espoused training memory (along with other presumed underlying processes such as visual perception and motor skills). Despite much research energy expended in this field, results were disappointing (Arter & Jenkins, 1979). Whilst performance on those specifically taught tasks did improve, there was little or no transfer to the reading task.
On the other hand, the literature is replete with examples in which training in phoneme awareness subsequently aided skills crucial for literacy. For example, Gillam and Van Kleeck (1996) reported a study in which pre-school aged children with speech and language disorders improved both in phonemic awareness and phonological working memory following a phonemic awareness training program. Further, they noted that children with poor initial phonological working memory were as responsive to the intervention as were those with better phonological working memory.
These findings provide support for the notion that a better understanding of the structure of words (perhaps producing improved representational clarity or access) has a positive impact across the range of phonological processes. It also suggests that students with an under-developed phonological working memory should not be precluded from participating in phonemic awareness programs or phonics-based instruction. There have been those who have argued for a whole word, visual recognition approach on the faulty assumption that students with limited short term auditory memory are unable to derive benefit from a sounds-based approach. A study by Gang and Siegel (2002) found that sound-symbol association training with primary school reading-disabled students led to improvements in reading and also in phonological memory, effects similarly evident in normally progressing readers. If one accepts the relatively small direct contribution of phonological recoding in working memory (Swanson & Alexander, 1997) towards developing word attack skills, compared with that of phonemic awareness (Bowey, 1996), then instructional emphasis on directly stimulating phonemic awareness, and thereby the clarity of phonological representation, may present a more productive target than attempting to address working memory directly.
How best and most efficiently to stimulate phonemic awareness in all students has been a major question. Some students have no difficulty at all - sometimes arriving at school with such skills already well developed through home-based activities and a ready proclivity. Some, without early experiences but with an ear, quickly discover the logic in spoken and (later) written word construction - whether the rationale is explained or not. Their attention to written word-parts can transfer to word-part exploration in oral language, and you may hear them playing word-construction games, such as Spoonerisms or Pig Latin. Others have their phonological awareness readily stimulated by even the minimal attention to word parts offered in implicit phonics reading programs. Still others have their phonemic awareness stimulated only by the more explicit and systematic phonemic awareness activities often included in synthetic phonics programs (National Reading Panel, 2000).

There are also those who argue that phonemic awareness is not, of itself, the important issue. Their assertion is that learning letter-sounds and the capacity to blend the sounds associated with those letters– embodies all the important phonological skills necessary to initiate successful decoding. “ … if training in phonological awareness is essential for young children learning to read, the analytic phonics programme with phonological awareness training should be more effective than the other two programmes [analytic phonics and synthetic phonics]” (Johnston and Watson, 2004). Within the approach developed for the Clackmannanshire studies, both blending and segmentation are taught simultaneously as the latter plays a strong role in spelling progress, and each of decoding and spelling provide reciprocal support to the other.


The longitudinal studies in Clackmannanshire have provided supporting evidence for this perspective - that synthetic phonics is a superior approach to phonics, and that, for most children, it stimulates phonemic awareness development without the need for a dedicated phonemic awareness program (Johnston & Watson, 2003; Johnston, McGeown, & Watson, 2012).

Note that the interaction of the teacher and curriculum become of increasing importance to student progress when the student’s contribution to phonemic awareness development is minimal. At the most extreme level are those students who do not bring phonemic awareness to the reading task, and who also appear resistant to developing such awareness even when provided with appropriately designed and presented phonics activities. It is those students for whom a dedicated phonemic awareness program, carefully structured and systematically presented, may be particularly beneficial as a precursor or concomitant to intensive and probably extended synthetics phonics teaching. Even then, it seems that to promote generalisation to the reading task, relating the sounds in spoken words to their letter correspondences is important (Foorman et al., 2003; Hatcher, Hulme, & Ellis, 1994, 1995; Schneider, Roth, & Ennemoser, 2000). The National Reading Panel’s phonemic awareness research meta-analysis (National Reading Panel, 2000) noted that a focus on segmenting and blending phonemes produced stronger effects on students’ subsequent reading progress than did teaching three or more phonemic awareness skills. In support, a recent large scale intervention study of almost 5000 kindergarten students in high poverty schools noted the advantages for these students when phonemic awareness instruction is carefully integrated with phonics instruction (Foorman et al., 2003). “What seems to matter are activities where phonemes are blended and segmented in speech, then connected explicitly and systematically to graphemes in print, through phonics instruction” (Foorman et al., p. 317).
 Studies employing sophisticated brain imaging tools (e.g., functional magnetic resonance imaging, positron emission tomography, proton echo-planar spectroscopic imaging) have added to the knowledge about what actually occurs at the cellular level during successful intervention (Barquero, Davis, Cutting, 2014; Richards et al., 1999, 2000; Simos et al., 2007; Waldie, Haigh, Badzakova-Trajkov, & Kirk, 2013). It has been noted that struggling readers tend to have a significant amount of brain activity in Broca's area (an area important for speech) and also within the brain's right hemisphere (Waldie, Haigh, Badzakova-Trajkov, & Kirk, 2013). This is indicative of using less appropriate brain structures for the task – structures better suited to visualisation tasks. The consequence (Richards et al., 1999) is that the poorer readers may expend four to five times as much energy to complete a reading task when compared to good readers. Facile readers display vigorous activity in both the left temporo-parietal and left temporo-occipital areas of the brain (Fletcher et al., 2000). This area enables the association of sounds to words and word parts – the phonological centre. The conversion of print to sound involves the angular gyrus (visual association) linking with the superior temporal gyrus (area for language). Pugh et al. (2002) asserted that the temporo-parietal region is initially crucial in integrating the phonological and orthographic features of text; whereas, the occipito-temporal system becomes important in enabling the effortless fluent word recognition in skilled readers. Subsequent brain research supports this view (Glezera et al., 2016). Some brain function differences are also evident in orally presented phonological tasks, prior to any contact with print, and eventually imaging (should it become simpler, quicker, and cheaper) may be employed as a means of predicting potential reading problems prior to instruction.
Importantly, when the struggling students were taught phonological processing skills (for example, over a 15 two-hour sessions), the brain energy expenditure levels and the locations of relevant brain activities came to resemble those of good readers (Richards et al., 2000). Lyon and Fletcher (2001) reported similar neuro-imaging changes when a 10-year-old student with severe reading disabilities was provided with 60 hours of intensive phonics instruction that also elevated his word-reading ability into the average range.
In a case study involving a student with phonemic awareness and rapid naming difficulties, Miller and Felton (2001) noted strong reading gains when they provided instruction in phonemic awareness, decoding and encoding of single-syllable and multi-syllabic words, automatic recognition of irregular sight words, and fluency in reading decodable text. Of course, these are also among the foci that are helpful in fomenting early reading growth in all students (National Reading Panel, 2000). A valuable aspect of the Miller and Felton study was the recognition that intervention with an older student (seventh grade) may demand high levels of intensity and extended duration (even up to four years duration) to ensure adequate progress.
Unfortunately, efforts too often are prematurely discontinued for those students in greatest need (Torgesen, 1998). Progress may be slow and hard earned, but attention to detail in instruction and vastly increased opportunities for practice can make a great difference to the prognosis. The lesson to be learned from assessment of student’s phonological processing is not simply about identifying learner characteristics to account for lack of progress, but rather to assist the discerning of which students demand of us our cutting-edge best interventions and for how long.
Are there any implications for students whose phonemic awareness is adequate, and who present with only naming speed deficits? Deeney, Wolf, and Goldberg O'Rourke (2001) recommend a focus on phonology, automaticity, and fluency. Wolf, Miller, and Donnelly (2000) have developed a program known as RAVE-O (Retrieval, Automaticity, Vocabulary Elaboration, Orthography) that attempts to address the needs of second and third grade students identified as having phonological processing deficits, in particular, naming speed. The program emphasises the rapid and integrated use of phonological, orthographic and semantic information about words, thereby evoking sufficient fluency in word recognition to support comprehension. The approach is intended to accompany a phonological analysis program - grounding it by tying the phonological analysis to our print conventions. Sound to print is a linkage acknowledged as enabling the strongest gains in reading following phonological programs (Hatcher et al., 1994). Most fluency programs address the issue at the lexical level, through variations of repeated reading activities, wide reading and multiple practice opportunities with text, and these approaches do have research support (Bowers & Newby-Clark, 2002; National Reading Panel, 2000). RAVE-O adds to this word-level emphasis an additional focus on underlying (sublexical) process skills such as speed of left-to-right visual scanning, letter recognition, orthographic pattern recognition and phoneme identification (Wolf et al., 2000).
“Systematically introduced game-like activities stress both accuracy and speed in each reading outcome and in each underlying component skill, such as letter and letter-pattern recognition, auditory discrimination of phonemes, lexical retrieval, and vocabulary growth. Within the component skills, orthographic pattern recognition is particularly emphasized through a specially designed computer game called Speed Wizards (Wolf & Goodman, 1996). ...The RAVE-O program represents one-half of our intervention package, which moves daily from a phonological analysis and blending program based on Lovett's findings (Lovett et al., 1994) to emphases on automaticity in the underlying processes. The major, theoretically based objective is to help children more automatically activate phonological, orthographic, and semantic information about words in order to facilitate fluency in word recognition and comprehension”. (Deeney et al., 2001, p.147)
The embedded beginning reading program is one of the Direct Instruction programs - Reading Mastery I/II Fast Cycle (Engelmann & Bruner, 1988). It is presented for a half hour per day, followed by the RAVE-O activities for a similar period. Early evaluations of the 70-hour program are promising, though additional independent studies are required. The contribution made by the emphasis on processing speed, as opposed to that by the word level focus, has yet to established.
It is well recognised that reading fluency is a vital element in skilled reading (National Reading Panel, 2000). It appears that fluency in the underpinnings, such as phonological processing, may be also significant. "Fluency as represented by accuracy and rate pervades all levels of processing involved in reading, and that fluency on early foundational skills can be used to predict proficiency on subsequent skills in reading" (Good, Simmons, & Kame'enui, 2001, p. 264). They may also represent an important intervention focus – in particular for those students resistant to even well-designed and targeted instruction (Torgesen, Wagner, & Rashotte, 1997).
Binder, Haughton, and Bateman (2002) make the general point that expertise involves unhesitatingly accurate performance not simply accuracy alone. In the Precision Teaching model (Binder, 1988; Binder & Watkins, 1990), teachers schedule daily fluency practice (words correct per minute) and assessment across a range of educational skills, with rate targets being constantly updated. They argue that the overarching benefits from attaining fluency include improved retention and subsequent maintenance of knowledge and skills, improved capacity to focus attention on a task for long periods, and superior capacity to apply that which has been learned to future novel situations. In phonological skills, they suggest targets for blending of 10-12 words per minute; for segmenting, 40-50 sounds /min, and making new words through phoneme substitution 15-20 phonemes per minute. In a similar vein, Kaminski and Good (1998) have established student performance standards to assist in the determination of which students may be at-risk through their DIBELS assessment battery (Good, Kaminski, Laimon, & Johnson, 1992). Among the brief tests are the directly phonological assessments - Phoneme Segmentation Fluency and Phoneme Onset Fluency.
It is worth noting that phonological fluency measures may relate to naming speed measures, but differ in that naming speed measures provide relatively few items (already known to the student) from a given domain that are repeated over and over, usually in a stimulus sheet (for example, six different letters employed in a 50 letter naming task). By contrast, fluency measures usually include more or less completely the whole domain (for example, all the letters of the alphabet). A fluency focus also differs from the sort of intervention established by Tallal and colleagues (Tallal et al., 1996) that attempts to influence auditory processing speed in a general sense.
What are the implications for the education system of these research findings?
The consensus that phonological processes form the cornerstone of initial reading development is well established in the empirical literature, and (in some countries) enshrined in law. However, the impact at the level of the classroom in Australia has not been profound. One can readily gauge the approach to instruction in those schools that provide information to parents such as that below.
School 1: During reading. When your child gets stuck on a word, follow these 4 (sic) steps.
Ask your child to:
1. Guess what the word might be.
2. Look at the picture to help guess what the word might be.
3. Go back to the start of the sentence and re-read it, adding the word you think might make sense.
4. Read to the end of the sentence and check that the word "makes sense".
5. If the word makes sense then check if it "looks right" (could it be that word?).
If the word is still incorrect, tell your child the word and allow him/her to continue reading. It is inappropriate for your child to be directed to "sound out" words, using individual letter sounds, as many words cannot be identified in this manner.
School 2: Teaching your child reading strategies: If your child has difficulty with a word:
Ask your child to look for clues in the pictures
Ask your child to read on or reread the passage and try to fit in a word that makes sense.
Ask your child to look at the first letter to help guess what the word might be.
The problem at a system level is to determine which students require greater or lesser levels of assistance. Assessment of phonological processes can assist in this decision-making. Phonemic awareness screening of young students has been shown to be predictive of future reading success or failure (Badian, 1994; Hurford et al., 1994; Chapman & Tunmer, 2003), at least when standard classroom reading approaches are employed. Not all students who struggle with such tests genuinely require phonemic awareness assistance, but nor are they harmed by it. Besides, the cost of over-inclusiveness is not nearly as serious as that of under-inclusiveness. So, provide phonemic awareness activities in association with letter sounds/names in preschool or kindergarten to all, or at a minimum, to those adjudged as possibly at risk, and be vigilant especially towards those displaying a resistance to skill development. Those few may well require more systematic instruction than that provided by most published phonemic awareness and implicit phonics/balanced reading programs (Snider, 1995). For some design principles, see Chard and Dickson (1999).
It is probably too early to make educational decisions based only upon the research into working memory and naming speed, apart from their potential supporting role in screening assessment. For students who don’t progress quickly under the influence of phonemic awareness activities, or for those with a family history of reading problems, or where other environmental or biological risk factors are evident, there may be value in formal assessment of the other phonological processes. Those students with deficits in more than one area may be more resistant to progress than those with one problem area (Bowers & Wolf, 1993). Such knowledge can sensitise educators to be prepared for intensive systematic assistance (rather than a cursory curriculum addition) over a longer period of time with these students (Torgesen et al., 1994). Torgesen and Burgess (1998) argue that selecting the lowest 20% of students on only phonemic awareness and letter-name knowledge in the first year at school is sufficient to feel confident that all at risk students have been identified. Others have argued that those students with only a deficit in naming speed will not be identified by phonemic awareness screening, yet they are likely to present subsequently with reading fluency and comprehension difficulties if early assistance (both phonological and fluency oriented) is not provided (Deeney et al., 2001; Wolf et al., 2002).
There is some evidence to that working memory assessment may be valuable in predicting early those who may struggle in developing literacy:
“Our results thus clearly reinforce the view that serial order STM plays a key role in the development of decoding abilities. Moreover, they also highlight that the role of this process is not limited to the very beginning of reading instruction, but continues after the first school year and its focus on the basic skills involved in learning to read and spell. This interesting result suggests that although children in the second grade begin to master decoding thanks to improved knowledge of GPC rules, they still rely heavily on order STM when reading nonwords. It also indicates that the measurement of order STM capacity in kindergarten is a consistent predictor of nonword reading ability, which remains robust over this age range. … We observed that order STM capacity assessed in kindergarten was also an independent predictor of nonword spelling abilities 1 and 2 years later, in first and second grade. This result strongly supports the hypothesis that temporary storage of the order of the phonemes is necessary to update the phonological representation as they are successively converted into the respective graphemes in the course of writing (Lervag & Hulme, 2010; Romani et al., 2014).” (Binamé & Poncelet, 2016. p.16)
If there is a common theme throughout the work on phonological processing thus far, it is the centrality of the structure of spoken and written words in the development of literacy for all students. That there may be individual differences in the ease with which children acquire literacy is not new. The research described here, while attempting to locate underlying sources of difficulty, has highlighted the critical role of insistent and well-focussed teaching in precluding and resolving problems in learning to read.

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Illusory Phonics

Illusory phonics: Balanced magic

 Kerry Hempenstall, Senior Industry Fellow, School of Education, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.

Illusory phonics - simply sprinkle a little phonics into your literature-based program and poof! - your program is balanced.

We know from a strong consensus of research that effective programs include phonics (among other components), so it is tempting to conclude that simply adding some phonics to a list of activities in an existing program will supply some vital catalyzing ingredient, strengthening the existing program, and thereby make it research-based. However, program effectiveness is not ensured solely by the presence of a portion of this vital program element. It also depends on the proportions in the final curriculum mix, in the quantity and quality of the elements, and when and how the curriculum is taught.

The proper role of phonics in a literacy program can be compared to a building’s foundation. We understand that stable buildings invariably have foundations. However, foundations may be weak or strong or in-between. It is not the mere presence of a foundation that provides the fundamental strength and stability of a building. It derives from the presence of the correct foundation. The difference between a strong and weak foundation lie in the details of the former’s make-up, such as appropriate concrete composition and the correct grade of reinforcing mesh - evenly laid through the site. A foundation’s preparation is equally critical. Trenches are meticulously prepared to ensure that the poured foundation is correctly sited to support the walls, and of adequate breadth and depth. Also, formwork or scaffolding is employed to provide initial support to any exposed or potential weak points, and to avoid any risk of slump.

The concrete of phonics requires the additional strength of reinforcing mesh if it is to avoid cracking under pressure. Thus, those approaches ensuring that students have or develop sensitivity to the sound structure of spoken words at the time that letter-sound correspondences are presented - have an increased likelihood that the phonics teaching will evoke in students appreciation of the alphabetic principle. Gradually, it will produce a generative strategy to handle the eventual heavy load presented by previously unseen words.

The foundation for a building is formed and poured before any other task, because all the construction that follows is reliant on the integrity of this initial base. If a fundamental element of the foundation is missing, then the structure is inevitably compromised. The building will be unable to attain its anticipated integrity and performance. Indeed it may fail, catastrophically or sequentially, either initially or later in its lifespan.

This foundation is allowed curing time to ensure it sets hard (thereby providing strength) before it is expected to carry a load. If this load is applied too early, the foundation will be weakened or deformed, and the building may not have the strength to handle its own weight much less the additional load of the building’s superstructure itself. So, in explicit phonics students are taught the foundations of spoken and written word structure before attempting to carry the load of reading increasingly sophisticated texts. They are provided with carefully planned, rather than incidental, instructional sequences.

During the curing time in effective synthetic phonics programs, students are supplied with decodable text that does not weigh too heavily upon their fragile load-bearing capacity. However, once they have developed an ability to manage the decodable text comfortably, the new challenges of a variety of text forms and a rapidly escalating number of new words do not threaten their ability to thrive as readers. If young readers are presented with an avalanche of inconsiderate text, they may discontinue the decoding strategy in favour of attractive, short-term, but ultimately catastrophic strategies. These include prediction (guessing) from context, pictures, and initial letters. Unfortunately, students are often encouraged by their teachers to make use of such guesses. Apart from hindering the development of early literacy, these strategies will jeopardise the proper development of lexical skills so necessary to manage the decoding demands of the huge increase in print vocabulary that occurs from mid primary school. Not for nothing is this delayed phenomenon known as the 4th grade slump. Just as the construction of a building’s foundation proceeds according to a standard sequence, so too a systematic phonics approach will attend to the details of instruction as well as to the content - incorporating such techniques as error correction procedures, adequate massed and spaced practice, and daily, short intensive sessions.

In each stage of building, an inspection is carried out to ensure that each element of the critical processes has in fact faithfully been carried out. Though builders grumble about this requirement – after all, they are professionals who know the relevant building regulations – they have learned to accept this requirement. Clients of these builders know that the regulatory scrutiny of building surveyors is necessary to avoid poor workmanship. Exemplary builders, too, accept the need for inspections - as they do not wish their reputations to be sullied by those in an industry who have unacceptably low skill levels or are prone to a lack of care. Similarly, in reading instruction, professional teachers want to know that their input is having a positive effect. Though some rely on intuition to ascertain progress, many teachers appreciate that carefully prepared assessments can be more valid and reliable. These tools help to increase confidence that their teaching is indeed effective as demonstrated by objective instruments. The proposed phonics check is one such tool that provides early information about the success of phonics teaching. This helps preclude the worrying difficulty in intervening effectively at a later date when a lack of student success has produced additional hurdles to catch-up.

Once the foundations have set, a house may be constructed with the confidence that it will able to handle the exceptional loads the environment places upon it over a long period of time. When students have a firm foundation in reading, they have been freed from the limitations on vocabulary development offered by conversation and television. When they can read fluently, recognizing effortlessly most of the words, and applying decoding skills only when necessary on particularly complex text, they have reached the point at which self-teaching occurs. They are now able to accelerate their vocabulary development, depending now upon the amount of reading they choose to do, rather than on the limited number of words able to be taught in school.

Of course, there’s much more to building a house than constructing a firm foundation. A strong foundation does not guarantee that the subsequent house will be habitable and safe. Other components, such as walls and roof also play an important role; however, these other components cannot compensate for an inadequate foundation, and indeed the whole above-ground structure may be rendered unsafe because of this initial failure. So, too, in reading development – a grasp of the alphabetic principle alone does not guarantee success. Other components such as phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension have been shown to be important.

When builders attempt to shore up faulty foundations, the task is difficult, takes a great deal of time, and is compromised at best. When literature-based programs belatedly sprinkle some phonics teaching, the effects are similar to those that eventuate when attempts are made to provide foundations after a home is finished.

More Articles ...

  1. Three students with differing characteristics commence school. How do they fare?
  2. How might protocols and program fidelity of implementation improve instruction?
  3. Phonics instruction: Grapheme to phoneme or phoneme to grapheme?
  4. Direct Instruction: Explicit, systematic, detailed, and complex
  5. Hundreds of quotes from the literacy research
  6. Read About It: Scientific Evidence for Effective Teaching of Reading
  7. Vocabulary/Oral Language/Comprehension: Some research findings (updated July 2017)
  8. Corrective Reading Decoding: An evaluation
  9. Phonemic Awareness: Yea, nay?
  10. Part 1: Whole Language! What was that all about?
  11. Part 2: What whole language writers have had to say about literacy.
  12. KEEPING AN EYE ON READING: Is difficulty with reading a visual problem?
  13. Older students’ literacy problems (updated 2017)
  14. Evidence-based practice in the classroom.
  15. Literacy And Behaviour (updated 2016)
  16. Literacy and mental health (updated 2016)
  17. Reviews supporting Direct Instruction program effectiveness Updated 14/1/2018
  18. The three-cueing system in reading: Will it ever go away?
  19. Content modality or learner modality? Various quotes on learning styles
  20. Can people with an intellectual disability learn to read?
  21. What are these Matthew Effects?
  22. Fluency: Its significance and promotion
  23. Failure to learn: Causes and consequences
  24. A history of disputes about reading instruction
  25. Using the 100 Lessons program to effect change in phonological processing.
  26. Miscue mischief
  27. Literacy assessment based upon the National Reading Panel’s Big Five components
  28. Pages and pages on stages (reading stages, that is).
  29. Seriously good online educational resources
  30. Feel like a spell? Effective spelling instruction (Updated 2017)
  31. Why does Direct Instruction evoke such rancour?
  32. Evidence-based practice: What is it? (updated Aug 2017)

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