Literacy Success for Struggling Readers: Strategies that Work

The importance of research-based instruction and effective digital tools
By: | Issue: May, 2018 | Web Seminar Digest
May 1, 2018

Without the right intervention tools, it is nearly impossible to turn a struggling reader into a successful reader. But with the right program, combined with effective teaching strategies, extensive gains for struggling readers in comprehension, fluency, and spelling are attainable in any district.

In this web seminar, the principal of an innovative middle school in California’s Vista Unified School District and an education researcher outlined a number of research-based strategies for literacy learning, and demonstrated how LANGUAGE!¬Æ Live, a comprehensive blended learning solution for struggling readers in grades 5 through 12, helps students typically gain two years’ growth in a single year.


Alisa Dorman

V.P. of Research and Product Effectiveness, Voyager Sopris Learning®, Former Executive Director Office of Literacy, Colorado Department of Education

Steven Bailey

Principal, Madison Middle School Vista USD (Calif.)

Alisa Dorman

Educators often ask: Is it too late? Have we missed the opportunity to be responsive? Have we missed the needs of these students in such a way that we can’t advance them? Interestingly enough, research says no, that’s not the case. It is not too late.

Evidence continues to suggest the deficiencies students exhibit most certainly can be remediated. The best way to remediate them is through direct, explicit and systematic instruction at the word-recognition level, and also by directly teaching vocabulary, word parts, word meaning, and the necessary comprehension and thinking strategies. We can make significant progress if we provide a sustained and intensive intervention targeted to students’ individual needs.

I would like to share a high-level overview of one such solution, LANGUAGE!® Live. This program builds on the research that continues to say we know what adolescent readers struggle with, and we know what adolescent readers need: support in word recognition and in vocabulary, fluency and comprehension.

We worked with Dr. Louisa Moats, an author and researcher who helped conceptualize what we could deliver in a blended solution that combines foundational and advanced learning skills with digital and teacher-led instruction to significantly improve reading and writing skills for adolescent students.

This program is very flexible, easy to use, and allows teachers to think about the multiple skills and skill deficiencies students at varied reading levels have, and it allows them to think about supporting those students individually, where they are. We know this type of program is optimal because research continues to tell us that to motivate students, we have to keep them engaged, we have to meet them where they are, and we have to do something accelerated to help close that gap so they can continue through middle school, high school, and on to whatever their post-high school experiences will be.

Steven Bailey: During my 18 years as an educator, I have had the same dilemma. As a high school teacher, I was dealing with struggling readers. As an administrator, I was working with struggling readers at the middle school level. There always was a lack of reading programs, especially after third grade.

At the high school and middle school levels, there were very few reading programs, if any at all. I found that our students who were unable to read, or read at high levels, were our most disengaged students, which caused a host of other issues when it came to behavior and graduating.

Three years ago, I learned about LANGUAGE!¬Æ Live California. It was the first reading program I encountered that went to basic phonemic awareness and was age-appropriate for these students. We had success immediately using it. We were very successful with student engagement, increasing student competence, and at the same time decreasing some undesirable behaviors in the classroom. We expanded to students with disabilities and had the same successes right away. We also saw an increase in students’ reading comprehension, their ability to decode and their ability to grasp basic phonics concepts.

One of the challenges we had was consistency with teachers. First and foremost, you need to have passionate teachers. The programs do not teach students—the teachers do. The other challenge was our transient populations. We had to figure out how to quickly get those students intervention. We found that with LANGUAGE!¬Æ Live the ability to have heterogeneous populations was crucial. We also had to think about pedagogy and how we set up our rooms.

This tool is perfect because it allowed us to truly blend our classrooms, so our teachers have small class sizes and do direct instruction one-on-one, and sometimes in small groups, depending on where students are based on their individual needs. Our next steps will include increased PD opportunities for our participating staff, as well as focusing on some other pedagogical approaches with blended learning and station rotation models to ensure we continue to give that key direct instruction piece, and that we are tailoring it.

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