Closing the Gap: Overcoming Reading Challenges

Strategies for helping struggling readers to succeed
By: | Issue: November, 2017 | Web Seminar Digest
September 28, 2017

When students can make sense of words, then they learn, grow and succeed. But getting to this point can be a struggle when students need to overcome reading challenges. Studies have shown that if students learn strategies for unlocking multisyllabic words and academic vocabulary with fluency and confidence, then they will achieve long-term results.

In this web seminar, presenters explored some research-based strategies that are effective with all struggling readers, whether they are English language learners, students with reading disabilities, or students who have simply fallen behind. Presenters also discussed how student achievement has improved dramatically in their districts with the help of a short-term intervention solution called REWARDS®, which helps students to learn new skills and build confidence all the way to graduation.

Anita Archer

Literacy instruction expert, author and consultant

Heidi Beverine-Curry

Special Education Literacy Coach

West Genesee School District (N.Y.)

Diane Vautrot

Special Education Coordinator

Gilmer County Charter School System (Ga.)

Anita Archer: The best place to overcome reading challenges is in kindergarten, first, second and third grade, with the strongest reading program possible so that students are able to read accurately and fluently by the time they finish third grade.

But that’s not reality. According the 2015 NAEP scores, the percentage of children who are at or above proficiency in fourth grade is 36 percent. For eighth-grade students it’s 34 percent. Eleventh grade shows almost no significant difference: 37 percent proficient. Those numbers are not acceptable to any of us.

Research also shows that with great intentionality, great effort and intentional instruction, absolutely we can make a difference.

Word-level reading is reading words like “reconstruction” “hydroelectric” “unconventionality”—multisyllabic words. Many struggling readers in fourth grade and above can read single-syllable words letter by letter, sound by sound, but when it comes to multisyllabic, these students have no approach at all. If they go sound by sound, they never get the word.

One study estimated that every year from fifth grade on, students encounter 10,000 words in print that they’ve never seen before. We can’t teach all 10,000 words, but we can teach students how to put words into decodable chunks. If I have a ninth-grader who reads at third-grade level, I must give the student a strategy for breaking down the word into decodable chunks so that they can read the type of words found in ninth-grade reading material.

Vocabulary is highly related to reading comprehension. If you can’t read the words and you don’t know the meaning of the words, that will hamper your comprehension. So any intervention we do with older students needs to include a focus on vocabulary—not just the pronunciation of the words, but also the meaning.

They should also be reading some complex text, and we should ask text-dependent questions. That does have an impact on comprehension in the future, not just in that text.

Heidi Beverine-Curry: We want all of our students to love reading and writing, but loving it isn’t enough. We have learned that the best way to achieve the goal of loving reading and writing is for teachers to have expert knowledge in evidence-based approaches to instruction. We want to build fluency and increase comprehension. This instruction is systematic, it’s explicit, it is based in the scientific research on how students learn to read. We don’t just mean in the primary grades—we mean all the way up through grade 12. We are always learning how to read new words.

REWARDS is a program that is intended for students in grades 4 and up, and it focuses mostly on those multisyllabic words. It addresses phonics, orthography, morphology, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension, and it is effective.

In our district, we knew that we needed to change our Core 5 programming to make sure that it was more aligned to scientific research, and to make sure that we were getting children that systematic, explicit instruction they need, at the word level in early years. But what were we going to do in the meantime? Our special education and reading intervention teachers were using a systematic approach, but then once kids would learn all of the six syllable types or get good at single-syllable word decoding, they would sometimes struggle to apply that knowledge to multisyllabic words. So after some searching around, we selected REWARDS Intermediate as a way to extend the learning of those students. And those students absolutely experienced success.

Our teachers have found REWARDS to be incredibly useful in terms of helping students gain confidence and proficiency and automaticity with multisyllabic words. That results in a greater ability to more accurately read their content-level text, and to learn from that text, instead of it being so laborious to get words off the page that there’s no cognitive energy left over for comprehension and critical thinking.

Diane Vautrot: In 2011 we had special education students coming to high school as non-readers or very low readers. Our students hated to read and write, and they hated to be put in front of a computer for any type of reading intervention or writing intervention. Many of our students were so defeated by the time they got to high school, they’d given up.

So we began a reading initiative for students with disabilities. I started out with two goals: to improve the reading competency levels of students with disabilities, and to enhance teacher knowledge of effective instructional strategies for struggling readers. We did not concern ourselves with years of trying to see a bottom-up effect; we just took the bull by the horns and addressed it ourselves.

The cornerstone of our project was the REWARDS program, combined with the relationships and trust we built in these children who were totally beaten down and had no hope for reading. We had a lot of work to do there. Once the kids realized that we cared about them, that we weren’t going to let them fail, then they opened up and started working and they fell in love with the program.

REWARDS works, and we have six years of data to prove it. It’s easy to implement. Students succeed quickly and their confidence soars. It’s inexpensive. It’s based on evidence-based practices. It’s designed for direct instruction from the teacher. Our graduation rate for students with disabilities has risen from 36.5 to 86.2 percent, and has maintained at that level for the last three years. Students report they are now finally able to read, and that’s life-changing.

I could share story after story about how students will say how using REWARDS actually has changed their lives—that they were destined to be high school dropouts and are now in college. It’s just an amazing thing.

To watch this web seminar in its entirety, please visit: