National Academies Press: OpenBook

Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children (1998)

Chapter: 1. introduction, 1 introduction.

Reading is essential to success in our society. The ability to read is highly valued and important for social and economic advancement. Of course, most children learn to read fairly well. In fact, a small number learn it on their own, with no formal instruction, before school entry (Anbar, 1986; Backman, 1983; Bissex, 1980; Jackson, 1991; Jackson et al., 1988). A larger percentage learn it easily, quickly, and efficiently once exposed to formal instruction.


Parents, educators, community leaders, and researchers identify clear and specific worries concerning how well children are learning to read in this country. The issues they raise are the focus of this report:

1. Large numbers of school-age children, including children from all social classes, have significant difficulties in learning to read.

2. Failure to learn to read adequately for continued school success is much more likely among poor children, among nonwhite

children, and among nonnative speakers of English. Achieving educational equality requires an understanding of why these disparities exist and efforts to redress them.

3. An increasing proportion of children in American schools, particularly in certain school systems, are learning disabled, with most of the children identified as such because of difficulties in learning to read.

4. Even as federal and state governments and local communities invest at higher levels in early childhood education for children with special needs and for those from families living in poverty, these investments are often made without specific planning to address early literacy needs and sustain the investment.

5. A significant federal investment in providing bilingual education programs for nonnative speakers of English has not been matched by attention to the best methods for teaching reading in English to nonnative speakers or to native speakers of nonstandard dialects.

6. The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides accommodations to children and to workers who have reading disabilities. In order to provide full access for the individuals involved, these accommodations should reflect scientific knowledge about the acquisition of reading and the effects of having a reading difficulty.

7. The debate about reading development and reading instruction has been persistent and heated, often obscuring the very real gains in knowledge of the reading process that have occurred.

In this report, we are most concerned with the children in this country whose educational careers are imperiled because they do not read well enough to ensure understanding and to meet the demands of an increasingly competitive economy. Current difficulties in reading largely originate from rising demands for literacy, not from declining absolute levels of literacy (Stedman and Kaestle, 1987). In a technological society, the demands for higher literacy are constantly increasing, creating ever more grievous consequences for those who fall short and contributing to the widening economic disparities in our society (Bronfenbrenner et al., 1996). These economic dispari-

ties often translate into disparities in educational resources, which then have the self-reinforcing effect of further exacerbating economic disparities. Although the gap in reading performance between educational haves and have-nots has shrunk over the last 50 years, it is still unacceptably large, and in recent years it has not shrunk further (National Academy of Education, 1996). These rich-get-richer and poor-get-poorer economic effects compound the difficulties facing educational policy makers, and they must be addressed if we are to confront the full scope of inadequate literacy attainment (see Bronfenbrenner et al., 1996).

Despite the many ways in which American schools have progressed and improved over the last half century (see, for example, Berliner and Biddle, 1995), there is little reason for complacency. Clear and worrisome problems have to do specifically with children's success in learning to read and our ability to teach reading to them. There are many reasons for these educational problems—none of which is simple. These issues and problems led to the initiation of this study and are the focus of this report.

The many children who succeed in reading are in classrooms that display a wide range of possible approaches to instruction. In making recommendations about instruction, one of the challenges facing the committee is the difficult-to-deal-with fact that many children will learn to read in almost any classroom, with almost any instructional emphasis. Nonetheless, some children, in particular children from poor, minority, or non-English-speaking families and children who have innate predispositions for reading difficulties, need the support of high-quality preschool and school environments and of excellent primary instruction to be sure of reading success. We attempt to identify the characteristics of the preschool and school environments that will be effective for such children.

The Challenge of a Technological Society

Although children have been taught to read for many centuries, only in this century—and until recently only in some countries—has there been widespread expectation that literacy skills should be universal. Under current conditions, in many ''literate" societies, 40 to

60 percent of the population have achieved literacy; today in the United States, we expect 100 percent of the population to be literate. Furthermore, the definition of full-fledged literacy has shifted over the last century with increased distribution of technology, with the development of communication across distances, and with the proliferation of large-scale economic enterprises (Kaestle, 1991; Miller, 1988; Weber, 1993). To be employable in the modern economy, high school graduates need to be more than merely literate. They must be able to read challenging material, to perform sophisticated calculations, and to solve problems independently (Murnane and Levy, 1993). The demands are far greater than those placed on the vast majority of schooled literate individuals a quarter-century ago.

Data from the National Education Longitudinal Study and High School and Beyond, the two most comprehensive longitudinal assessments of U.S. students' attitudes and achievements, indicate that, from 1972 through 1994 (the earliest and most recently available data), high school students most often identified two life values as "very important" (see National Center for Educational Statistics, 1995:403). "Finding steady work" was consistently highly valued by over 80 percent of male and female seniors over the 20 years of measurement and was seen as "very important'' by nearly 90 percent of the 1992 seniors—the highest scores on this measure in its 20-year history. "Being successful in work" was also consistently valued as very important by over 80 percent of seniors over the 20-year period and approached 90 percent in 1992.

The pragmatic goals stated by students amount to "get and hold a good job." Who is able to do that? In 1993, the percentage of U.S. citizens age 25 and older who were college graduates and unemployed was 2.6 percent (U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Employment and Unemployment Statistics, quoted in National Center for Education Statistics, 1995:401). By contrast, the unemployment rate for high school graduates with no college was twice as high, 5.4 percent, and for persons with less than a high school education the unemployment rate was 9.8 percent, over three times higher. An October 1994 survey of 1993-1994 high school graduates and dropouts found that fewer than 50 percent of the dropouts were holding

jobs (U.S. Department of Labor, 1995 ; quoted in National Center for Education Statistics, 1995:401).

One researcher found that, controlling for inflation, the mean income of U.S. male high school dropouts ages 25 to 34 has decreased by over 50 percent between 1973 and 1995 (Stringfield, 1995 , 1997). By contrast, the mean incomes of young male high school graduates dropped by about one-third, and those of college graduates by 20 percent in the 1970s and then stabilized. Among the six major demographic groups (males and females who are black, white, or Hispanic), the lowest average income among college graduates was higher than the highest group of high school graduates.

Academic success, as defined by high school graduation, can be predicted with reasonable accuracy by knowing someone's reading skill at the end of grade 3 (for reviews, see Slavin et al., 1994). A person who is not at least a modestly skilled reader by the end of third grade is quite unlikely to graduate from high school. Only a generation ago, this did not matter so much, because the long-term economic effects of not becoming a good reader and not graduating from high school were less severe. Perhaps not surprisingly, when teachers are asked about the most important goal for education, over half of elementary school teachers chose "building basic literacy skills" (National Center for Education Statistics Schools and Staffing Survey, 1990-1991, quoted in National Center for Education Statistics, 1995:31) .

The Special Challenge of Learning to Read English

Learning to read poses real challenges, even to children who will eventually become good readers. Furthermore, although every writing system has its own complexities, English presents a relatively large challenge, even among alphabetic languages. Learning the principles of a syllabic system, like the Japanese katakana, is quite straightforward, since the units represented—syllables—are pronounceable and psychologically real, even to young children. Such systems are, however, feasible only in languages with few possible syllable types; the hiragana syllabary represents spoken Japanese with 46 characters, supplemented with a set of diacritics (Daniels

and Bright, 1996). Spoken English has approximately 5,000 different possible syllables; instead of representing each one with a symbol in the writing system, written English relies on an alphabetic system that represents the parts that make up a spoken syllable, rather than representing the syllable as a unit.

An alphabetic system poses a challenge to the beginning reader, because the units represented graphically by letters of the alphabet are referentially meaningless and phonologically abstract. For example, there are three sounds represented by three letters in the word "but," but each sound alone does not refer to anything, and only the middle sound can really be pronounced in isolation; when we try to say the first or last consonant of the word all by itself, we have to add a vowel to make it a pronounceable entity (see Box 1-1).

Once the learner of written English gets the basic idea that letters represent the small sound units within spoken and heard words, called phonemes, the system has many advantages: a much more limited set of graphemic symbols is needed than in either syllabic (like Japanese) or morphosyllabic (like Chinese) systems; strategies

The study of the structure and form of words in language or a language, including inflection, derivation, and the formation of compounds.

A method of representing spoken language by letters and diacritics, spelling.

The study of speech structure in language (or a particular language) that includes both the patterns of basic speech units (phonemes) and the tacit rules of pronunciation.

A unit of spoken language that can be spoken. In English, a syllable can consist of a vowel sound alone or a vowel sound with one or more consonant sounds preceding and following.

for sounding out unfamiliar strings and spelling novel words are available; and subsequences, such as prefixes and suffixes, are encountered with enough frequency for the reader to recognize them automatically.

Alphabetic systems of writing vary in the degree to which they are designed to represent the surface sounds of words. Some languages, such as Spanish, spell all words as they sound, even though this can cause two closely related words to be spelled very differently. Writing systems that compromise phonological representations in order to reflect morphological information are referred to as deep orthographies. In English, rather than preserving one-letter-to-one-sound correspondences, we preserve the spelling, even if that means a particular letter spells several different sounds. For example, the last letter pronounced "k" in the written word "electric" represents quite different sounds in the words "electricity" and ''electrician," indicating the morphological relation among the words but making the sound-symbol relationships more difficult to fathom.

The deep orthography of English is further complicated by the retention of many historical spellings, despite changes in pronunciation that render the spellings opaque. The "gh" in "night" and "neighborhood" represents a consonant that has long since disappeared from spoken English. The "ph" in "morphology" and "philosophy" is useful in signaling the Greek etymology of those words but represents a complication of the pattern of sound-symbol correspondences that has been abandoned in Spanish, German, and many other languages that also retain Greek-origin vocabulary items. English can present a challenge for a learner who expects to find each letter always linked to just one sound.


Reading problems are found among every group and in every primary classroom, although some children with certain demographic characteristics are at greater risk of reading difficulties than others. Precisely how and why this happens has not been fully understood. In some cases, the sources of these reading difficulties

are relatively clear, such as biological deficits that make the processing of sound-symbol relationships difficult; in other cases, the source is experiential such as poor reading instruction.

Biological Deficits

Neuroscience research on reading has expanded understanding of the reading process (Shaywitz, 1996). For example, researchers have now been able to establish a tentative architecture for the component processes of reading (Shaywitz et al., 1998; Shaywitz, 1996). All reading difficulties, whatever their primary etiology, must express themselves through alterations of the brain systems responsible for word identification and comprehension. Even in disadvantaged or other high-risk populations, many children do learn to read, some easily and others with great difficulty. This suggests that, in all populations, reading ability occurs along a continuum, and biological factors are influenced by, and interact with, a reader's experiences. The findings of an anomalous brain system say little about the possibility for change, for remediation, or for response to treatment. It is well known that, particularly in children, neural systems are plastic and responsive to changed input.

Cognitive studies of reading have identified phonological processing as crucial to skillful reading, and so it seems logical to suspect that poor readers may have phonological processing problems. One line of research has looked at phonological processing problems that can be attributed to the underdevelopment or disruption of specific brain systems.

Genetic factors have also been implicated in some reading disabilities, in studies both of family occurrence (Pennington, 1989; Scarborough, 1989) and of twins (Olson et al., 1994). Differences in brain function and behavior associated with reading difficulty may arise from environmental and/or genetic factors. The relative contributions of these two factors to a deficit in reading (children below the local 10th percentile) have been assessed in readers with normal-range intelligence (above 90 on verbal or performance IQ) and apparent educational opportunity (their first language was English and they had regularly attended schools that were at or above national

norms in reading). This research has provided evidence for strong genetic influences on many of these children's deficits in reading (DeFries and Alarcon, 1996) and in related phonological processes (Olson et al., 1989). Recent DNA studies have found evidence for a link between some cases of reading disability and inheritance of a gene or genes on the short arm of chromosome 6 (Cardon et al., 1994; Grigorenko et al., 1997).

It is important to emphasize that evidence for genetic influence on reading difficulty in the selected population described above does not imply genetic influences on reading differences between groups for which there are confounding environmental differences. Such group differences may include socioeconomic status, English as a second language, and other cultural factors. It is also important to emphasize that evidence for genetic influence and anomalous brain development does not mean that a child is condemned to failure in reading. Brain and behavioral development are always based on the interaction between genetic and environmental influences. The genetic and neurobiological evidence does suggest why learning to read may be particularly difficult for some children and why they may require extraordinary instructional support in reading and related phonological processes.

Instructional Influences

A large number of students who should be capable of reading ably given adequate instruction are not doing so, suggesting that the instruction available to them is not appropriate. As Carroll (1963) noted more than three decades ago, if the instruction provided by a school is ineffective or insufficient, many children will have difficulty learning to read (unless additional instruction is provided in the home or elsewhere).

Reading difficulties that arise when the design of regular classroom curriculum, or its delivery, is flawed are sometimes termed "curriculum casualties" (Gickling and Thompson, 1985; Simmons and Kame'enui, in press). Consider an example from a first-grade classroom in the early part of the school year. Worksheets were being used to practice segmentation and blending of words to facili-

tate word recognition. Each worksheet had a key word, with one part of it designated the "chunk" that was alleged to have the same spelling-sound pattern in other words; these other words were listed on the sheet. One worksheet had the word "love" and the chunk "ove.'' Among the other words listed on the sheet, some did indicate the pattern ("glove," "above," "dove"), but others simply do not work as the sheet suggests they should ("Rover," "stove," and "woven"). In lesson plans and instructional activities, such mistakes occur in the accuracy and clarity of the information being taught.

When this occurs consistently, a substantial proportion of students in the classroom are likely to exhibit low achievement (although some students are likely to progress adequately in spite of the impoverished learning situation). If low-quality instruction is confined to one particular teacher, children's progress may be impeded for the year spent in that classroom, but they may overcome this setback when exposed to more adequate teaching in subsequent years. There is evidence, however, that poor instruction in first grade may have long-term effects. Children who have poor instruction in the first year are more seriously harmed by the bad early learning experience and tend to do poorly in schooling across the years (Pianta, 1990).

In some schools, however, the problem is more pervasive, such that low student achievement is schoolwide and persistent. Sometimes the instructional deficiency can be traced to lack of an appropriate curriculum. More often, a host of conditions occur together to contribute to the risk imposed by poor schooling: low expectations for success on the part of the faculty and administration of the school, which may translate into a slow-paced, undemanding curriculum; teachers who are poorly trained in effective methods for teaching beginning readers; the unavailability of books and other materials; noisy and crowded classrooms; and so forth.

It is regrettable that schools with these detrimental characteristics continue to exist anywhere in the United States; since these schools often exist in low-income areas, where resources for children's out-of-school learning are limited, the effects can be very detrimental to students' probabilities of becoming skilled readers (Kozol, 1991; Puma et al., 1997; Natriello et al., 1990). Attending a

school in which low achievement is pervasive and chronic, in and of itself, clearly places a child at risk for reading difficulty. Even within a school that serves most of its students well, an instructional basis for poor reading achievement is possible. This is almost never considered, however, when a child is referred for evaluation of a suspected reading difficulty. Evidence from case study evaluations of children referred for special education indicate that instructional histories of the children are not seriously considered (Klenk and Palincsar, 1996). Rather, when teachers refer students for special services, the "search for pathology" begins and assessment focused on the child continues until some explanatory factor is unearthed that could account for the observed difficulty in reading (Sarason and Doris, 1979).

In sum, a variety of detrimental school practices may place children at risk for poorer achievement in reading than they might otherwise attain. Interventions geared at improving beginning reading instruction, rehabilitating substandard schools, and ensuring adequate teacher preparation are discussed in subsequent chapters.


A major source of urgency in addressing reading difficulties derives from their distribution in our society. Children from poor families, children of African American and Hispanic descent, and children attending urban schools are at much greater risk of poor reading outcomes than are middle-class, European-American, and suburban children. Studying these demographic disparities can help us identify groups that should be targeted for special prevention efforts. Furthermore, examining the literacy development of children in these higher-risk groups can help us understand something about the course of literacy development and the array of conditions that must be in place to ensure that it proceeds well.

One characteristic of minority populations that has been offered as an explanation for their higher risk of reading difficulties is the use of nonstandard varieties of English or limited proficiency in English. Speaking a nonstandard variety of English can impede the easy acquisition of English literacy by introducing greater deviations

in the representation of sounds, making it hard to develop sound-symbol links. Learning English spelling is challenging enough for speakers of standard mainstream English; these challenges are heightened for some children by a number of phonological and grammatical features of social dialects that make the relation of sound to spelling even more indirect (see Chapter 6).

The number of children who speak other languages and have limited proficiency in English in U.S. schools has risen dramatically over the past two decades and continues to grow. Although the size of the general school population has increased only slightly, the number of students acquiring English as a second language grew by 85 percent nationwide between 1985 and 1992, from fewer than 1.5 million to almost 2.7 million (Goldenberg, 1996). These students now make up approximately 5.5 percent of the population of public school students in the United States; over half (53 percent) of these students are concentrated in grades K-4. Eight percent of kindergarten children speak a native language other than English and are English-language learners (August and Hakuta, 1997).

Non-English-speaking students, like nonstandard dialect speakers, tend to come from low socioeconomic backgrounds and to attend schools with disproportionately high numbers of children in poverty, both of which are known risk factors (see Chapter 4). Hispanic students in the United States, who constitute the largest group of limited-English-proficient students by far, are particularly at risk for reading difficulties. Despite the group's progress in achievement over the past 15 to 20 years, they are about twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to be reading below average for their age. Achievement gaps in all academic areas between whites and Hispanics, whether they are U.S. or foreign born, appear early and persist throughout their school careers (Kao and Tienda, 1995).

One obvious reason for these achievement differences is the language difference itself. Being taught and tested in English would, of course, put students with limited English proficiency at a disadvantage. These children might not have any reading difficulty at all if they were taught and tested in the language in which they are proficient. Indeed, there is evidence from research in bilingual education that learning to read in one's native language—thus offsetting the

obstacle presented by limited proficiency in English—can lead to superior achievement (Legarreta, 1979; Ramirez et al., 1991). This field is highly contentious and politicized, however, and there is a lack of clear consensus about the advantages and disadvantages of academic instruction in the primary language in contrast to early and intensive exposure to English (August and Hakuta, 1997; Rossell and Baker, 1996).

In any event, limited proficiency in English does not, in and of itself, appear to be entirely responsible for the low reading achievement of these students. Even when taught and tested in Spanish, as the theory and practice of bilingual education dictates, many Spanish-speaking Hispanic students in the United States still demonstrate low levels of reading attainment (Escamilla, 1994; Gersten and Woodward, 1995; Goldenberg and Gallimore, 1991; Slavin and Madden, 1995). This suggests that factors other than lack of English proficiency may also contribute to these children's reading difficulties.

One such factor is cultural differences, that is, the mismatch between the schools and the families in definitions of literacy, in teaching practices, and in defined roles for parents versus teachers (e.g., Jacob and Jordan, 1987; Tharp, 1989); these differences can create obstacles to children's learning to read in school. Others contend that primary cultural differences matter far less than do "secondary cultural discontinuities," such as low motivation and low educational aspirations that are the result of discrimination and limited social and economic opportunities for certain minority groups (Ogbu, 1974, 1982). Still others claim that high motivation and educational aspirations can and do coexist with low achievement (e.g., Labov et al., 1968, working in the African American community; Goldenberg and Gallimore, 1995, in the Hispanic community) and that other factors must therefore explain the differential achievement of culturally diverse groups.

Literacy is positively valued by adults in minority communities, and the positive views are often brought to school by young children (Nettles, 1997). Nonetheless, the ways that reading is used by adults and children varies across families from different cultural groups in ways that may influence children's participation in literacy activities

in school, as Heath (1983) found. And adults in some communities may see very few functional roles for literacy, so that they will be unlikely to provide conditions in the home that are conducive to children's acquisition of reading and writing skills (Purcell-Gates, 1991, 1996). The implications of these various views for prevention and intervention efforts are discussed in Part III of this volume.

It is difficult to distinguish the risk associated with minority status and not speaking English from the risk associated with lower socioeconomic status (SES). Studying the differential experiences of children in middle- and lower-class families can illuminate the factors that affect the development of literacy and thus contribute to the design of prevention and intervention efforts.

The most extensive studies of SES differences have been conducted in Britain. Stubbs (1980) found a much lower percentage of poor readers with higher (7.5 percent) than with lower SES (26.9 percent).  Some have suggested that SES differences in reading achievement are actually a result of differences in the quality of schooling; that is, lower-SES children tend to go to inferior schools, and therefore their achievement is lower because of inferior educational opportunities (Cook, 1991). However, a recent study by Alexander and Entwisle (1996) appears to demonstrate that it is during nonschool time—before they start and during the summer months—that low-SES children fall academically behind their higher-SES peers and get progressively further behind. During the school months (at least through elementary school) the rate of progress is virtually identical for high- and low-SES children.

Regardless of the specific explanation, differences in literacy achievement among children as a result of socioeconomic status are pronounced. Thirty years ago Coleman et al. (1966) and Moynihan (1965) reported that the educational deficit of children from low-income families was present at school entry and increased with each year they stayed in school. Evidence of SES differences in reading achievement has continued to accumulate (National Assessment of Educational Progress, 1981, 1995). Reading achievement of children in affluent suburban schools is significantly and consistently higher than that of children in "disadvantaged" urban schools (e.g.,

NAEP, 1994, 1995; White, 1982; Hart and Risley, 1995). An important conceptual distinction was made by White (1982) in a groundbreaking meta-analysis. White discovered that, at the individual level, SES is related to achievement only very modestly. However, at the aggregate level, that is, when measured as a school or community characteristic, the effects of SES are much more pronounced. A low-SES child in a generally moderate or higher-SES school or community is far less at risk than an entire school or community of low-SES children.

The existence of SES differences in reading outcomes offers by itself little information about the specific experiences or activities that influence literacy development at home. Indeed, a look at socioeconomic factors alone can do no more than nominate the elements that differ between middle-class and lower-class homes. Researchers have tried to identify the specific familial interactions that can account for social class differences, as well as describe those interactions around literacy that do occur in low-income homes. For example, Baker et al. (1995) compared opportunities for informal literacy learning among preschoolers in the homes of middle-income and low-income urban families. They found that children from middle-income homes had greater opportunities for informal literacy learning than children of low-income homes. Low-income parents, particularly African-American parents, reported more reading skills practice and homework (e.g., flash cards, letter practice) with their kindergarten-age children than did middle-income parents. Middle-income parents reported only slightly more joint book reading with their children than did low-income families. But these middle-income parents reported more play with print and more independent reading by children. Among the middle-class families in this study, 90 percent reported that their child visited the library at least once a month, whereas only 43 percent of the low-income families reported such visits. The findings of Baker et al. that low-income homes typically do offer opportunities for literacy practice, though perhaps of a different nature from middle-class homes, have been confirmed in ethnographic work by researchers such as Teale (1986), Taylor and Dorsey-Gaines (1988), Taylor and Strickland (1986), Gadsden (1993), Delgado-Gaitan (1990), and Goldenberg et al. (1992).


Charge to the committee.

The Committee on the Prevention of Reading Difficulties in Young Children has conducted a study of the effectiveness of interventions for young children who are at risk of having problems in learning to read. It was carried out at the request of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education Programs and its Office of Educational Research and Improvement (Early Childhood Institute) and the National Institute on Child Health and Human Development (Human Learning and Behavior Branch). The sponsors requested that the study address young children who are at -risk for reading difficulties, within the context of reading acquisition for all children. The scope included children from birth through grade 3, in special and regular education settings. The project had three goals: (1) to comprehend a rich research base; (2) to translate the research findings into advice and guidance for parents, educators, publishers, and others involved in the care and instruction of the young; and (3) to convey this advice to the targeted audiences through a variety of publications, conferences, and other outreach activities. In making its recommendations, the committee has highlighted key research findings that should be integrated into existing and future program interventions to enhance the reading abilities of young children, particularly instruction at the preschool and early elementary levels.

The Committee's Perspective

Our recommendations extend to all children. Of course, we are most worried about children at high risk of developing reading difficulties. However, there is little evidence that children experiencing difficulties learning to read, even those with identifiable learning disabilities, need radically different sorts of supports than children at low risk, although they may need much more intensive support. Childhood environments that support early literacy development and

excellent instruction are important for all children. Excellent instruction is the best intervention for children who demonstrate problems learning to read.

Knowledge about reading derives from work conducted in several disciplines, in laboratory settings as well as in homes, classrooms, and schools, and from a range of methodological perspectives. Reading is studied by ethnographers, sociologists, historians, child developmentalists, neurobiologists, and psycholinguists. Reading has been approached as a matter of cognition, culture, socialization, instruction, and language. The committee that wrote this report embraces all these perspectives—but we acknowledge the difficulty of integrating them into a coherent picture.

The committee agrees that reading is inextricably embedded in educational, social, historical, cultural, and biological realities. These realities determine the meaning of terms like literate as well as limits on access to literacy and its acquisition. Literacy is also essentially developmental, and appropriate forms of participation, instruction, and assessment in literacy for preschoolers differ from those for first graders and also from those for sophisticated critical readers.

Reading as a cognitive and psycholinguistic activity requires the use of form (the written code) to obtain meaning (the message to be understood), within the context of the reader's purpose (for learning, for enjoyment, for insight). In children, one can see a developmental oscillation between these foci: the preschool child who can pretend to read a story she has heard many times is demonstrating an understanding that reading is about content or meaning; the same child as a first grader, having been taught some grapheme-phoneme correspondences, may read the same storybook haltingly, disfluently, by sounding out the words she had earlier memorized, demonstrating an extreme focus on form. The mature, fluent, practiced reader shows more rapid oscillations between form-focused and meaning-focused reading: she can rely on automatic processing of form and focus on meaning until she encounters an unfamiliar pharmaceutical term or a Russian surname, whereupon the processing of meaning is disrupted while the form is decoded.

Groups define the nature as well as the value of literacy in culturally specific ways as well. A full picture of literacy from a cultural

and historical perspective would require an analysis of the distribution of literacy skills, values, and uses across classes and genders as well as religious and social groups; it would require a discussion of the connections between professional, religious, and leisure practices and literacy as defined by those practices. Such a discussion would go far beyond the scope of this report, which focuses on reading and reading difficulties as defined by mainstream opinions in the United States, in particular by U.S. educational institutions at the end of the twentieth century. In that context, employability, citizenship, and participation in the culture require high levels of literacy achievement.

Nature of the Evidence

Our review and summary of the literature are framed by some very basic principles of evidence evaluation. These principles derive from our commitment to the scientific method, which we view not as a strict set of rules but instead as a broad framework defined by some general guidelines. Some of the most important are that (1) science aims for knowledge that is publicly verifiable, (2) science seeks testable theories—not unquestioned edicts, (3) science employs methods of systematic empiricism (see Box 1-2). Science renders knowledge public by such procedures as peer review and such mechanisms as systematic replication (see Box 1-3). Testable theories are those that are potentially falsifiable—that is, defined in such a way that empirical evidence inconsistent with them can in principle be accumulated. It is the willingness to give up or alter a theory in the face of evidence that is one of the most central defining features of the scientific method. All of the conclusions reached in this report

1.a. Relying on or derived from observation or experiment. b. Verifiable or provable by means of observation or experiment.

Systematic replication allows researchers to repeat systematically the conditions and variables that a particular study, program of research, or researcher has reported as worthy of classroom application.

Systematic replication allows researchers to rely on an empirical test of the results of a study instead of a researcher's testimony or report.

are provisional in this important sense: they have empirical consequences that, if proven incorrect, should lead to their alteration.

The methods of systematic empiricism employed in the study of reading difficulties are many and varied. They include case studies, correlational studies, experimental studies, narrative analyses, quasi-experimental studies, interviews and surveys, epidemiological studies, ethnographies, and many others. It is important to understand how the results from studies employing these methods have been used in synthesizing the conclusions of this report.

First, we have utilized the principle of converging evidence. Scientists and those who apply scientific knowledge must often make a judgment about where the preponderance of evidence points. When this is the case, the principle of converging evidence is an important tool, both for evaluating the state of the research evidence and also for deciding how future experiments should be designed. Most areas of science contain competing theories. The extent to which one particular theory can be viewed as uniquely supported by a particular study depends on the extent to which other competing explanations have been ruled out. A particular experimental result is never equally relevant to all competing theoretical explanations. A given experiment may be a very strong test of one or two alternative theories but a weak test of others. Thus, research is highly convergent when a series of experiments consistently support a given theory while collectively eliminating the most important competing explanations. Although no single experiment can rule out all alternative explanations, taken collectively, a series of partially diagnostic studies can

lead to a strong conclusion if the data converge. This aspect of the convergence principle implies that we should expect to see many different methods employed in all areas of educational research. A relative balance among the methodologies used to arrive at a given conclusion is desirable because the various classes of research techniques have different strengths and weaknesses.

Another important context for understanding the present synthesis of research is provided by the concept of synergism between descriptive and hypothesis-testing research methods. Research on a particular problem often proceeds from more exploratory methods (ones unlikely to yield a causal explanation) to methods that allow stronger causal inferences. For example, interest in a particular hypothesis may originally stem from a case study of an unusually successful teacher. Alternately, correlational studies may suggest hypotheses about the characteristics of teachers who are successful. Subsequently, researchers may attempt experiments in which variables identified in the case study or correlation are manipulated in order to isolate a causal relationship. These are common progressions in areas of research in which developing causal models of a phenomenon is the paramount goal. They reflect the basic principle of experimental design that the more a study controls extraneous variables the stronger is the causal inference. A true experiment in controlling all extraneous variables is thus the strongest inferential tool.

Qualitative methods, including case studies of individual learners or teachers, classroom ethnographies, collections of introspective interview data, and so on, are also valuable in producing complementary data when carrying out correlational or experimental studies. Teaching and learning are complex phenomena that can be enhanced or impeded by many factors. Experimental manipulation in the teaching/learning context typically is less ''complete" than in other contexts; in medical research, for example, treatments can be delivered through injections or pills, such that neither the patient nor the clinician knows who gets which treatment, and in ways that do not require that the clinician be specifically skilled in or committed to the success of a particular treatment.

Educational treatments are often delivered by teachers who may enhance or undermine the difference between treatments and controls; thus, having qualitative data on the authenticity of treatment and on the attitudes of the teachers involved is indispensable. Delivering effective instruction occurs in the context of many other factors—the student-teacher relationship, the teacher's capability at maintaining order, the expectations of the students and their parents—that can neither be ignored nor controlled. Accordingly, data about them must be made available. In addition, since even programs that are documented to be effective will be impossible to implement on a wider scale if teachers dislike them, data on teacher beliefs and attitudes will be useful after demonstration of treatment effects as well (see discussion below of external validity).

Furthermore, the notion of a comparison between a treatment group and an untreated control is often a myth when dealing with social treatments. Families who are assigned not to receive some intervention for their children (e.g., Head Start placement, one-on-one tutoring) often seek out alternatives for themselves that approximate or improve on the treatment features. Understanding the dynamic by which they do so, through collecting observational and interview data, can prevent misguided conclusions from studies designed as experiments. Thus, although experimental studies represent the most powerful design for drawing causal inferences, their limitations must be recognized.

Another important distinction in research on reading is that between retrospective and prospective studies. On one hand, retrospective studies start from observed cases of reading difficulties and attempt to generate explanations for the problem. Such studies may involve a comparison group of normal readers, but of course inference from the finding of differences between two groups, one of whom has already developed reading difficulties and one of whom has not, can never be very strong. Studies that involve matching children with reading problems to others at the same level of reading skill (rather than to age mates) address some of these problems but at the cost of introducing other sources of difficulty—comparing two groups of different ages, with different school histories, and different levels of perceived success in school.

Prospective studies, on the other hand, are quite expensive and time consuming, particularly if they include enough participants to ensure a sizable group of children with reading difficulties. They do, however, enable the researcher to trace developmental pathways for participants who are not systematically different from one another at recruitment and thus to draw stronger conclusions about the likely directionality of cause-effect relationships.

As part of the methodological context for this report, we wish to address explicitly a misconception that some readers may have derived from our emphasis on the logic of an experiment as the most powerful justification for a causal conclusion. By such an emphasis, we do not mean to imply that only studies employing true experimental logic are to be used in drawing conclusions. To the contrary, as mentioned previously in our discussion of converging evidence, the results from many different types of investigations are usually weighed to derive a general conclusion, and the basis for the conclusion rests on the convergence observed from the variety of methods used. This is particularly true in the domains of classroom and curriculum research.

For example, it is often (but not always) the case that experimental investigations are high in internal validity but limited in external validity, whereas correlational studies are often high in external validity but low in internal validity. Internal validity concerns whether we can infer a causal effect for a particular variable. The more a study approximates the logic of a true experiment (i.e., includes manipulation, control, and randomization), the more we can make a strong causal inference. The internal validity of qualitative research studies depends, of course, on their capacity to reflect reality adequately and accurately. Procedures for ensuring adequacy of qualitative data include triangulation (comparison of findings from different research perspectives), cross-case analyses, negative case analysis, and so forth. Just as for quantitative studies, our review of qualitative studies has been selective and our conclusions took into account the methodological rigor of each study within its own paradigm.

External validity concerns the generalizability of the conclusion to the population and setting of interest. Internal validity and exter-

nal validity are often traded off across different methodologies. Experimental laboratory investigations are high in internal validity but may not fully address concerns about external validity. Field classroom investigations are often quite high in external validity but, because of the logistical difficulties involved in carrying out such investigations, are often quite low in internal validity. Hence, there is a need to look for a convergence of results—not just consistency across studies conducted with one method. Convergence across different methods increases confidence that the conclusions have both internal and external validity.

A not uncommon misconception is that correlational (i.e., nonexperimental) studies cannot contribute to knowledge. This is false for a number of reasons. First, many scientific hypotheses are stated in terms of correlation or lack of correlation, so that such studies are directly relevant to these hypotheses. Second, although correlation does not imply causation, causation does imply correlation. That is, although a correlational study cannot definitively prove a causal hypothesis, it may rule one out. Third, correlational studies are more useful than they used to be because some of the recently developed complex correlational designs allow for limited causal inferences. The technique of partial correlation, widely used in studies cited in this report, provides a case in point. It makes possible a test of whether a particular third variable is accounting for a relationship.

Perhaps the most important argument for quasi-experimental studies, however, is that some variables (for instance, human malnutrition, physical disabilities) simply cannot be manipulated for ethical reasons. Other variables, such as birth order, sex, and age, are inherently correlational because they cannot be manipulated, and therefore the scientific knowledge concerning them must be based on correlational evidence. Finally, logistical difficulties in carrying out classroom and curriculum research often render impossible the logic of the true experiment. However, this circumstance is not unique to educational or psychological research. Astronomers obviously cannot manipulate the variables affecting the objects they study, yet they are able to arrive at scientifically founded conclusions.

Outline of the Report

In Chapter 2 we present a picture of typical skilled reading and the process by which it develops. We see this as crucial background information for understanding reading difficulties and their prevention.

Part II presents a fuller picture of the children we are addressing in this report. We survey the population of children with reading difficulties in Chapter 3. In Chapter 4 we discuss risk factors that may help identify children who will have problems learning to read.

Part III presents our analysis of preventions and interventions, including instruction. Chapter 5focuses on the preschool years. Chapter 6 discusses prevention and literacy instruction delivered in classrooms in kindergarten and the primary grades. Chapter 7 presents our analysis of organizational factors, at the classroom, school, or district level, that contribute to prevention and intervention for grades 1 through 3. Chapter 8 continues discussion of grades 1 through 3, presenting more targeted intervention efforts to help children who are having reading difficulties.

Part IV presents our discussion of how the information reviewed in the report should be used to change practice. Chapter 9 discusses a variety of domains in which action is needed and obstacles to change in those domains. Chapter 10 presents our recommendations for practice, policy, and research.

While most children learn to read fairly well, there remain many young Americans whose futures are imperiled because they do not read well enough to meet the demands of our competitive, technology-driven society. This book explores the problem within the context of social, historical, cultural, and biological factors.

Recommendations address the identification of groups of children at risk, effective instruction for the preschool and early grades, effective approaches to dialects and bilingualism, the importance of these findings for the professional development of teachers, and gaps that remain in our understanding of how children learn to read. Implications for parents, teachers, schools, communities, the media, and government at all levels are discussed.

The book examines the epidemiology of reading problems and introduces the concepts used by experts in the field. In a clear and readable narrative, word identification, comprehension, and other processes in normal reading development are discussed.

Against the background of normal progress, Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children examines factors that put children at risk of poor reading. It explores in detail how literacy can be fostered from birth through kindergarten and the primary grades, including evaluation of philosophies, systems, and materials commonly used to teach reading.


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Why Millions Of Kids Can't Read And What Better Teaching Can Do About It

From American Public Media

Emily Hanford

read me!

Jack Silva didn't know anything about how children learn to read. What he did know is that a lot of students in his district were struggling.

Silva is the chief academic officer for Bethlehem, Pa., public schools. In 2015, only 56 percent of third-graders were scoring proficient on the state reading test. That year, he set out to do something about that.

"It was really looking yourself in the mirror and saying, 'Which 4 in 10 students don't deserve to learn to read?' " he recalls.

Bethlehem is not an outlier. Across the country, millions of kids are struggling. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 32 percent of fourth-graders and 24 percent of eighth-graders aren't reading at a basic level. Fewer than 40 percent are proficient or advanced.

One excuse that educators have long offered to explain poor reading performance is poverty. In Bethlehem, a small city in Eastern Pennsylvania that was once a booming steel town, there are plenty of poor families. But there are fancy homes in Bethlehem, too, and when Silva examined the reading scores he saw that many students at the wealthier schools weren't reading very well either.

Silva didn't know what to do. To begin with, he didn't know how students in his district were being taught to read. So, he assigned his new director of literacy, Kim Harper, to find out.

The theory is wrong

Harper attended a professional-development day at one of the district's lowest-performing elementary schools. The teachers were talking about how students should attack words in a story. When a child came to a word she didn't know, the teacher would tell her to look at the picture and guess.

The most important thing was for the child to understand the meaning of the story, not the exact words on the page. So, if a kid came to the word "horse" and said "house," the teacher would say, that's wrong. But, Harper recalls, "if the kid said 'pony,' it'd be right because pony and horse mean the same thing."

Harper was shocked. First of all, pony and horse don't mean the same thing. And what does a kid do when there aren't any pictures?

This advice to a beginning reader is based on an influential theory about reading that basically says people use things like context and visual clues to read words. The theory assumes learning to read is a natural process and that with enough exposure to text, kids will figure out how words work.

Yet scientists from around the world have done thousands of studies on how people learn to read and have concluded that theory is wrong.

One big takeaway from all that research is that reading is not natural ; we are not wired to read from birth. People become skilled readers by learning that written text is a code for speech sounds. The primary task for a beginning reader is to crack the code. Even skilled readers rely on decoding .

The Gap Between The Science On Kids And Reading, And How It Is Taught

The Gap Between The Science On Kids And Reading, And How It Is Taught

So when a child comes to a word she doesn't know, her teacher should tell her to look at all the letters in the word and decode it, based on what that child has been taught about how letters and combinations of letters represent speech sounds. There should be no guessing, no "getting the gist of it."

And yet, "this ill-conceived contextual guessing approach to word recognition is enshrined in materials and handbooks used by teachers," wrote Louisa Moats , a prominent reading expert, in a 2017 article.

The contextual guessing approach is what a lot of teachers in Bethlehem had learned in their teacher preparation programs. What they hadn't learned is the science that shows how kids actually learn to read.

"We never looked at brain research," said Jodi Frankelli, Bethlehem's supervisor of early learning. "We had never, ever looked at it. Never."

The educators needed education.

Learning the science of reading

research on reading problems

Traci Millheim tries out a new lesson with her kindergarten class at Lincoln Elementary in Bethlehem, Pa. Emily Hanford/APM Reports hide caption

On a wintry day in early March 2018, a group of mostly first- and second-grade teachers was sitting in rows in a conference room at the Bethlehem school district headquarters. Mary Doe Donecker, an educational consultant from an organization called Step-by-Step Learning, stood at the front of the room, calling out words:

"Tell me the first sound you hear in 'Eunice'?"

"Youuu ... " the teachers responded.

Nope. "/Y/, /y/, before you get to the /oo/," Donecker explained. "How about "Charlotte?"

This was a class on the science of reading. The Bethlehem district has invested approximately $3 million since 2015 on training, materials and support to help its early elementary teachers and principals learn the science of how reading works and how children should be taught.

In the class, teachers spent a lot of time going over the sound structure of the English language.

Since the starting point for reading is sound, it's critical for teachers to have a deep understanding of this. But research shows they don't . Michelle Bosak, who teaches English as a second language in Bethlehem, said that when she was in college learning to be a teacher, she was taught almost nothing about how kids learn to read.

"It was very broad classes, vague classes and like a children's literature class," she said. "I did not feel prepared to teach children how to read."

Bosak was among the first group of teachers in Bethlehem to attend the new, science-based classes, which were presented as a series over the course of a year. For many teachers, the classes were as much about unlearning old ideas about reading — like that contextual-guessing idea — as they were about learning new things.

First-grade teacher Candy Maldonado thought she was teaching her students what they needed to know about letters and sounds.

"We did a letter a week," she remembers. "So, if the letter was 'A,' we read books about 'A,' we ate things with 'A,' we found things with 'A.' "

But that was pretty much it. She didn't think getting into the details of how words are made up of sounds, and how letters represent those sounds, mattered that much.

The main goal was to expose kids to lots of text and get them excited about reading. She had no idea how kids learn to read. It was just that — somehow — they do: "Almost like it's automatic."

Maldonado had been a teacher for more than a decade. Her first reaction after learning about the reading science was shock: Why wasn't I taught this? Then guilt: What about all the kids I've been teaching all these years?

Bethlehem school leaders adopted a motto to help with those feelings: "When we know better, we do better."

"My kids are successful, and happy, and believe in themselves"

research on reading problems

Cristina Scholl, first-grade teacher at Lincoln Elementary, uses a curriculum that mixes teacher-directed whole-class phonics lessons with small-group activities. Emily Hanford/APM Reports hide caption

Cristina Scholl, first-grade teacher at Lincoln Elementary, uses a curriculum that mixes teacher-directed whole-class phonics lessons with small-group activities.

In a kindergarten class at Bethlehem's Calypso Elementary School in March 2018, veteran teacher Lyn Venable gathered a group of six students at a small, U-shaped table.

"We're going to start doing something today that we have not done before," she told the children. "This is brand spanking new."

The children were writing a report about a pet they wanted. They had to write down three things that pet could do.

A little boy named Quinn spelled the word "bark" incorrectly. He wrote "boc." Spelling errors are like a window into what's going on in a child's brain when he is learning to read. Venable prompted him to sound out the entire word.

"What's the first sound?" Venable asked him.

"Buh," said Quinn.

"We got that one. That's 'b.' Now what's the next sound?"

Quinn knew the meaning of "bark." What he needed to figure out was how each sound in the word is represented by letters.

Venable, who has been teaching elementary school for more than two decades, says she used to think reading would just kind of "fall together" for kids if they were exposed to enough print. Now, because of the science of reading training, she knows better.

"My kids are successful, and happy, and believe in themselves," she said. "I don't have a single child in my room that has that look on their face like, 'I can't do this.' "

At the end of each school year, the Bethlehem school district gives kindergartners a test to assess early reading skills.

In 2015, before the new training began, more than half of the kindergartners in the district tested below the benchmark score, meaning most of them were heading into first grade at risk of reading failure. At the end of the 2018 school year, after the science-based training, 84 percent of kindergartners met or exceeded the benchmark score. At three schools, it was 100 percent.

Silva says he is thrilled with the results, but cautious. He is eager to see how the kindergartners do when they get to the state reading test in third grade.

"We may have hit a home run in the first inning. But there's a lot of game left here," he says.

Emily Hanford is a senior correspondent for APM Reports, the documentary and investigative reporting group at American Public Media. She is the producer of the audio documentary Hard Words, from which this story is adapted.

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Reading interventions for struggling readers in the upper elementary grades: a synthesis of 20 years of research

Jeanne wanzek.

Florida State University, School of Teacher Education and Florida Center for Reading Research, C234B Psychology, 1107 Call St., P.O. Box 306-4304, Tallahassee, FL 32306, USA

Jade Wexler

The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX, USA

Sharon Vaughn

Stephen ciullo.

A synthesis of the extant research on reading interventions for students with reading difficulties and disabilities in fourth and fifth grade (ages 9–11) is presented. Thirteen studies with treatment/comparison study designs and eleven single group or single subject studies were located and synthesized. Findings from the 24 studies revealed high effects for comprehension interventions on researcher-developed comprehension measures. Word recognition interventions yielded small to moderate effects on a range of reading outcomes. Few studies were located implementing vocabulary and multi-component interventions.


Considerable research conducted over the past 30 years provides extensive knowledge regarding early intervention for young readers with reading difficulties ( Blachman et al., 2004 ; Denton, Fletcher, Anthony, & Francis, 2006 ; Felton, 1993 ; Fletcher, Lyon, Fuchs, & Barnes, 2007 ; Jenkins & O’Connor, 2002 ; Lovett et al., 2000 ; Mathes et al., 2005 ; McMaster, Fuchs, Fuchs, & Compton, 2005 ; Torgesen et al., 1999 ; Vellutino et al., 1996 ). These reports indicate that the highest student effects result when explicit, systematic instruction is provided in both foundation skills such as phonological awareness and phonics as well as higher level reading tasks, such as fluency, with increased attention to word meaning and understanding text ( National Reading Panel, 2000 ). Incorporating these elements of instruction has been associated with reducing the incidence of reading difficulties ( Torgesen, 2000 ).

In addition, recent syntheses have examined the efficacy of methods to improve reading outcomes for older students with reading difficulties that persist into grades 4–12 ( Edmonds et al., 2009 ; Kamil et al., 2008 ; Scammacca et al., 2007 ; Torgesen et al., 2007 ). These reports indicate positive reading outcomes for older students when providing explicit instruction in (a) word study strategies to decode words, (b) word meanings and strategies for deriving the meanings of unknown words, and (c) comprehension strategy instruction. These findings hold specifically for students with reading difficulties ( Edmonds et al., 2009 ) and learning disabilities ( Scammacca et al., 2007 ) as well. Furthermore, recent reviews indicate that providing ample opportunities to practice and receive corrective feedback during instruction are associated with improved academic outcomes ( Hattie & Timperley, 2007 ; Shute, 2008 ).

Thus, the necessary components of effective reading instruction have been identified and synthesized for students in the younger grades (K-3) who struggle with reading acquisition, and the groundwork has been laid for research regarding effective reading intervention for students who struggle to read and comprehend in the secondary grades. Although a few studies in the previous syntheses of reading instruction for older readers have included students in grades 4–5, the findings largely reflect studies conducted with students in grades 6–12. Typically, there is an underlying assumption that 4th and 5th grade students are more similar to secondary students than elementary students. Kamil et al. (2008) best explained this assumption in a recently published Institute of Education Sciences practice guide document, “The panel purposefully included students in 4th and 5th grades within the realm of adolescents because their instructional needs related to literacy have more in common with those of students in middle and high school than they do with students in early elementary grades” (p. 1).

While there is some evidence from the previous syntheses that upper elementary students in grades 4–5 can benefit from the same interventions designed to meet the needs of students in grades 6–12, the findings for students in the upper elementary grades (4th–5th) have not previously been disaggregated and the recommended practices have been based mainly on studies conducted with students in grades 6–12. Furthermore, a synthesis focusing on reading interventions for students in grades 4 and 5 has not previously been conducted.

Teaching reading in the upper elementary grades: the unique needs of teachers

Unfortunately, despite our knowledge regarding effective instruction for young readers in the early elementary grades, it is estimated that 69% of fourth grade students cannot read at proficient levels with 36% of the fourth grade population unable to read at or above basic levels of understanding ( National Center for Educational Statistics, 2005 ). In the upper elementary grades, a shift from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” typically occurs. Thus, in addition to expectations that students have adequately mastered the basic reading skills such as decoding accurately and fluently, there are also expectations that students understand word meanings and are able to read text with comprehension ( Chall, 1983 ). The focus on these comprehension skills may be difficult for struggling readers who may still be learning to accurately and fluently decode grade level text. In addition, as early as fourth grade, students are presented with the supplementary challenge of transitioning from reading and understanding narrative text to reading and understanding content area expository text ( Grigg, Daane, Jin, & Campbell, 2003 ).

With the decreased emphasis on learning to read in the upper elementary grades, students who do not read proficiently by the end of the early elementary grades (K-3) may face serious consequences. Chall and Jacobs (1983) noted that many low income third graders reading at grade level experience a sudden drop in normative reading scores by the fourth grade, referring to this phenomenon as the “fourth grade slump”, indicating not that students go “backwards” in reading, but instead that they fail to thrive and cannot meet grade level expectations. The increased demands placed on students beginning in fourth grade may cause a slowing of reading growth relative to expected growth for some students who previously seemed on track in their reading growth. Teachers must be able to detect when a student is not thriving and intervene before the gap widens even more. Therefore, upper elementary teachers are often faced with the challenge of providing intervention not only for students with previously identified reading difficulties that have not been adequately remediated, but also students whose reading difficulties have manifested in the upper elementary grades.

Additionally, the trajectory of a young person’s academic success begins in the elementary grades, making it even more crucial to find ways to intervene and remediate deficits that persist into the upper elementary grades. When students experience a lack of success starting in elementary school, they may begin to disengage from school and be more inclined to drop out in the future ( Dynarski et al., 2008 ). It is necessary to determine appropriate methods to intervene with students in the upper elementary years before they reach the secondary grades and are then faced with a multitude of additional academic and social challenges.

Rationale and research question

We conducted this synthesis to examine the effects of reading interventions for students with reading difficulties and disabilities in the upper elementary grades including students in grades 4–5. The findings are expected to contribute to the research and practice knowledge regarding interventions for students who struggle with reading beyond third grade. We addressed the following research question: How effective are reading interventions on reading outcomes for students with reading difficulties and disabilities in fourth and fifth grade?

Selection of studies

Studies were identified through a two-step process. First, we conducted an electronic search of ERIC and PsychInfo for studies published in the last 20 years (1988–2007). Key disability search terms and roots ( reading difficult *, disab *, dyslex *, special education ) were used in combination with key reading terms and roots ( reading, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehen *) to capture relevant articles. Second, we conducted a hand search of nine major journals (Exceptional Children, Journal of Educational Psychology, Journal of Learning Disabilities, Journal of Special Education, Learning Disabilities Quarterly, Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, Reading and Writing, Remedial and Special Education, and Scientific Studies of Reading) from 2006 through 2007 to ensure that all recently published studies meeting criteria were identified.

A total of 24 studies met selection criteria for the synthesis. Studies were selected based on the following criteria:

  • More than 50% of the participants in the study were enrolled in 4th or 5th grade, or were 9–11 years old. Studies with less than 50% of the participants in 4th/5th grade were included if data were disaggregated for the 4th/5th grade population.
  • Participants were struggling readers. Struggling readers were defined as low achievers, students with unidentified reading difficulties, dyslexia, and/or with reading, learning or speech/language disabilities. Studies also were included if disaggregated data were provided for struggling readers regardless of the characteristics of other students in the study.
  • The interventions targeted reading instruction and articles were published in English.
  • Reading intervention was provided for 15 sessions or more to ensure students with reading difficulties and disabilities received a sustained intervention prior to measurement of outcomes.
  • A reading intervention including word study, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, or a combination of these was provided as part of school programming. Home teaching, clinic, or camp programs were excluded.
  • The research design was treatment-comparison, single-group, or single-subject.
  • Reading or reading related outcomes were measured.

Coding procedures

An extensive coding document was developed and used to organize essential information about each study. The code sheet was based on code sheets used in previous research ( Edmonds et al. 2009 ; Vaughn et al. 2003 ) as well as the What Works Clearinghouse Design and Implementation Assessment Device ( Institute of Education Sciences, 2003 ).

The pertinent information coded included the following: (a) participants, (b) methodology, (c) intervention and comparison information, (d) clarity of causal inference, (e) measures, and (f) findings. There were 3 coders for the articles. Interrater reliability was established by having each coder independently code a single article. Responses from each coder were used to calculate the percentage of agreement (i.e., agreements divided by agreements plus disagreements). Interrater reliability was calculated separately for each codesheet category (e.g., participants, design, etc.). An interrater agreement of 90% or above was achieved for each category (range 90–100%). Each study was then independently coded by 2 raters. If disagreements occurred, meetings were held to discuss the coding with final judgments reached by consensus.

Effect size calculation

In order to provide additional quantitative information for this systematic review of the literature, effect sizes were calculated where data were available. For studies with treatment and comparison groups, effect sizes were calculated adjusting for pre-test differences using a procedure by Bryant and Wortman (1984) . The quantity of the pretest treatment mean minus the pretest comparison mean was divided by the quantity of the pretest comparison standard deviation. This quantity was subtracted from the quantity of the posttest treatment mean minus the posttest comparison mean divided by the posttest comparison standard deviation. Thirteen of the 24 studies in this synthesis used a treatment/comparison design (9 experimental and 4 quasi-experimental). Data for calculation of effect sizes were available in 10 of these 13 studies.

Experimental and quasi-experimental studies

Nine experimental studies ( Mason, 2004 ; Mathes & Fuchs, 1993 ; Miranda, Villaescusa, & Vidal-Abarca, 1997 ; O’Connor et al., 2002 ; O’Connor, White, & Swanson, 2007 ; Therrien, Wickstrom, & Jones, 2006 ; Takala, 2006 ; Torgesen et al., 2001 ; Xin & Rieth, 2001 ) and four quasi-experimental studies ( Das, Mishra, & Pool, 1995 [Study 1 and 2]; Das-Smaal, Klapwijk, & van der Leij, 1996 ; Lederer, 2000 ) examined reading interventions for students with reading difficulties and disabilities in the fourth and fifth grade. Summaries of the study characteristics and findings are presented in Tables ​ Tables1 1 and ​ and2. 2 . We present the effects of these studies by the type of intervention that was implemented in the study (e.g., word recognition, fluency).

Summary of study characteristics

Study Grade/ageDurationImplementerDesign
Vocabulary and comprehension
2 SR5th18, 30 min sessionsResearchersSingle subject
25 LD4th–6th 15–17, 45 min sessionsResearcherQuasi-experimental
32 SR (2 LD)5th11–15, 20 min sessionsResearcherExperimental
9 SR (2 LD)4th18 + sessionsResearcherSingle subject
60 LD5th–6th 20, 50 min sessionsResearcherExperimental
5 LI4th–5th16, 45 min sessionsTeachersSingle subject
16 SLI4th15, 45–90 min sessionsTeacher & ResearcherExperimental
  )2 LD10–11 years5, 40 min sessionsTeacherSingle subject
76 LD4th–6th 18, 30 min sessionsTeachersExperimental
3 LD10–11 years21 sessionsTeacher & ResearcherSingle subject
67 LD4th–6th 30, 25–40 min sessionsTeachersExperimental
37 SR (16 LD)2nd, 4th ~42, 15 min sessionsResearchersExperimental
Word recognition
10 LD4th–5th30–37, 15 min sessionsTeacherSingle subject
  : Study 151 RD8–11 years 15, 50–60 min sessionsResearchersQuasi-experimental
  : Study 251 RD8–11 years 15, 50–60 min sessionsResearchersQuasi-experimental
33 RD9–10 years16, 30 min sessionsResearchersQuasi-experimental
  : Study 13 LD4th23–27 sessionsResearcherSingle subject
  : Study 22 LD4th12–17 sessionsResearcherSingle subject
  : Experimental 210 RD10–11 years12–20 hSchool support staffSingle group
3 SR4th11–25, 15 min sessionsResearcherSingle group
60 LD8–10 years 80, 50 min sessionsResearchersExperimental
10 RD9–11 yearsmean of 23.4 hResearcherSingle subject
46 SR (25 LD)3rd–5th ~65, 30 min sessionsResearcherExperimental
30 SR (16 LD)4th–8th 50, 10–15 min sessionsResearchersExperimental

SR Struggling readers; LD learning disabilities; RD reading; disabilities; LI language impaired; SLI speech/language impaired

Summary of study findings

Vocabulary and comprehension
Comprehension questions (RD)Baseline
• : Teacher modeling of question generating,
summarizing, clarifying, and predicting with text followed by student application
in partners in resource room. Generalization prompting provided for homeroom
reading and social studies settings
• : Questioning, summarizing, predicting, and clarifying
taught then used in collaborative groups with social studies text
Answering Questionsns
Question generationT > C ( < .05)
• : Typical social studies instructionSummary composition
• : Nine
comprehension strategies taught with self-regulation strategies for use before,
during, and after reading text with practice in pairs
Main idea1.881.08
Oral retell quality1.59.82
• : Strategies for question asking taught. Question
asking practiced in collaborative groups after silent reading
Oral retell information1.25.72
Oral retell main ideas1.11.94
Written retell quality.09na
Written retell information.63na
Written retell main ideas.33na
Baseline MeansPosttest Means
• +
: TWA as described in , plus a strategy for writing essays
Oral Retell Quality.89–1.333.11–4.33
Oral Retell Information3.47–4.339.33–10.17
Written Retell Quality1.00–1.673.47–4.44
Written Retell Information3.44–5.0811.67–22.67
T1 vs. CF-UT2 vs. CF-U
• : 5 questions taught for regulating work. Activating
knowledge, previewing, questioning, clarifying, and mapping also taught
Main Idea1.932.351.371.95
• : T1 plus training in giving
positive attributes
• : No training
Pretest (8 total)Posttest (8 total)
• : Main idea, paraphrasing, self-questioning, and predicting/
activating knowledge taught along with self-evaluation. Teachers read the text
Listening Comp. Questions1–64.5–8
Reading Comp. Questions2–65–8
• : Prediction, clarification, questioning, and summarizing
strategies taught with whole group
• : Typical instruction
• : Taught story elements and story mapping procedureComp. Questions Correct (RD)4–96–107–10
• : Taught self-questioning and answering procedure
• : Assessment only
• : Videos and class discussion used to teach content
Word Definitions.64.53
Sentence Cloze.51.16
• : Dictionaries and class discussion used to teach
content vocabulary
Passage Comprehension.02−.04
• : Student read passage without helpWords Correct Passage55–7058–8055–7369–92
• : Student read word list with audiotapeWords Correct List34–4545–5846–5840–62
• : Student followed along in passage with
WCPM Passage12–2711–469–3015–59
WCPM List4–115–247–266–18
T1 vs. CT2 vs. C
• : Peer tutoring with text reading orally continuouslyCRAB Words Correct.16.12
• : Peer tutoring with text read 3xCRAB Questions Correct.07.20
• . Typical school instructionCRAB Mazes Correct−.14−.09
T1 vs. CT2 vs. C
• : Students read each page 3 timesGORT 4 Fluency.52.57
• : Students read text continuouslyGORT 4 Comprehension.67.92
• : Typical school instructionWRMT Word ID.66.41
WRMT WA.57.61
WRMT PC.83.75
Word recognition
Sight Words Acquired (RD)40–79 words
• : Students worked in partners to teach/practice
new sight words, taking turns as the tutor
: Study 1WRMT Word ID.57

: Sequencing, categorization, matching, and sound blending
were practiced through global (without words) and bridging (with words) tasks
: Study 2T1 vs. CT2 vs. C
WRMT Word ID−.24.10
WRMT WA.44.58
• . Study 1 T students. No further intervention
• : Computer-based program for detecting multiletter
units within words with feedback on speed and accuracy
Trained Unit RTT > C ( <.05)
Trained Unit Accuracyns
• : Computer-based program similar to T but with mathematical
exercises provided
Untrained Unit RTT > C ( < .05)
Untrained Unit Accuracyns
Word RTns
Word Accuracyns
Flash PseudowordsT > C (p < .05)
: Study 1 T1T2
• : Practice each word 1xWord Reading13–14 words13–14 words
• : Practice incorrect words 5xTraining Time per Word33.8–40.3 s57.2–71.3 s
: Study 2 T1T2
• : 3 practice trials with 1 response per wordWord Reading13–23 words12–21 words
• : 3 practice trials with 5 responses per wordTraining Time per Word45.3–52.2 s89.1–98.1 s
Gillon and Dodd, Experiment 2, 1997PretestPosttest
• : Segmenting, manipulating, and
blending sounds in syllables and integration to print
NARA Accuracy (AE)7.2–9.88.6–11.6
NARA Comp. (AE)7.1–10.67.8–12.3
Reading Time for Trained Words
All three students decreased reading time from
 pretest to posttest. 5 week follow-up showed an
 increase in time from the posttest, but still below
 pretest levels
• : Words presented with computer pronunciation. Words then
reappear with onset highlighted and pronounced followed by highlighting and
pronounciation of each sound of onset. Student then reads word
• : Same as T1 but student pronounced onset and graphemes
T1 vs. T2F-U 1F-U 2
• : PA, encoding, and decoding taught
with articulatory cues. Reading decodable text and questioning included
WRMT WA.91.59.36
WRMT Word ID−.09.11−.03
• T2 (Embedded Phonics): Phonemic decoding and encoding taught. Reading
in trade books, writing sentences with new words, and fluency of word reading
WRMT PC−.12.05−.26
TOWRE PDE.16.16.38
TOWRE SWE−.09.19.13
GORT-III Accuracy.50.56.42
GORT-III Rate.44.24.18
GORT-III Comp..46.67.54
CELF Total.33.30.38
CTOPP Elision−.17−.17−.48
KTEA Spelling−.58.16−.09
Developmental Spelling−.35.45.16
• : Phonics instruction including basic advanced code and
multisyllabic word reading
Phoneme Manipulation1–65–10
Code Knowledge22–5060–96
NARA (SS)74–8870–101
Vernon Spelling Test (SS)75–8774–93
T1 vs. CT2 vs. C
• : PA, phonics, reading text, fluency, and
comprehension taught with text at students’ reading level
CBM Segmenting1.561.25
WRMT Word ID1.161.07
• : T1 with text from general classWRMT WA2.001.49
• : Typical school instructionWRMT Comp.1.391.46
ARI Comprehension1.871.76
• : Student reread the passage
2-4x to meet fluency criterion, then answered questions with scaffolding
• : No treatment

T, Treatment; RD, Researcher-developed; WCPM, words correct per minute; C, comparison/control group; WRMT, Woodcock Reading Mastery Test–Revised; Word ID, word identification; WA, word attack; PC, passage comprehension; RT, response time; ns, non-significant; LAC, Lindamood Auditory Conceptualization Test; NARA, Neale Analysis of Reading Ability; AE, age equivalent; Comp., comprehension; F-U, Follow-up; na, not applicable; CRAB, Comprehensive Reading Assessment Battery; CBM, Curriculum-Based Measure; ARI, Analytical Reading Inventory; GORT-4, Gray Oral Reading Tests 4th Ed.; DIBELS, Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills; ORF, oral reading fluency; WJ-III, Woodcock Johnson III: BRC, Broad Reading Cluster; TOWRE, Test of Word Reading Efficiency; GORT-III, Gray Oral Reading Test 3rd Ed.; CELF, Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals; LAC, Lindamood Auditory Conceptualization Test; PDE, phonetic decoding efficiency; SWE, sight word efficiency; CTOPP, Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing; KTEA, Kaufman Test of Educational Achievement; SS, standard score

Vocabulary and comprehension

Five studies implemented interventions with a focus on comprehension skills and strategies ( Lederer, 2000 ; Mason, 2004 ; Miranda et al., 1997 ; Takala, 2006 ; Xin & Rieth, 2001 ). All of these studies measured outcomes with researcher-developed measures that measured the specific skills taught in the intervention; no norm-referenced measures were administered. In one experimental study, Mason compared the effects of a self-regulated strategy (Think before you reading, think While reading, think After reading [TWA]) to a second treatment of reciprocal questioning for students with both reading difficulties and disabilities. There was no business as usual or typical instruction control group. Students in the TWA intervention were taught to think about the author’s purpose, think about what they already know, and think about what they want to learn prior to reading. During reading, students were taught to think about their reading speed, linking knowledge, and rereading sections. Finally, students developed the main idea for each paragraph and summarized the information after reading. In the reciprocal questioning condition, students were taught to generate questions for the teacher about the passage read as well as answer questions about the text from the teacher. Effects were higher at posttest for the TWA intervention on researcher-developed measures assessing main ideas, summarizing, and retell (mean ES = .99). Effects in favor of TWA were similar when measures were administered 3 weeks following intervention (mean ES = .90).

Miranda et al. (1997) also compared the relative effects of two interventions with a comprehension focus, self-instruction and self-instruction plus attribution training, to a control group that did not receive either of the interventions. Students with learning disabilities were identified for participation in the interventions. Self-instruction included training and practice in strategies for activating previous knowledge, previewing text, self-questioning, clarifying unknown words, and mapping main ideas. Students were also taught a general self-instruction procedure to follow when completing a reading task (i.e., Stop, Think and Decide, Check, Confirm, Evaluate). The self-instruction plus attribution condition consisted of all the elements in the self-instruction condition plus teacher modeling and student practice using positive attributions in relation to their work. As a result of the time spent on attribution training this treatment group spent less time on the comprehension skills and strategies. Students in the self-instruction condition outperformed students in the control condition at posttest on researcher-developed measures assessing main ideas, recall, and cloze (mean ES = 3.46). Students in the self-instruction plus attribution training also outperformed the control group on the posttest measures (mean ES = 2.63). Two months following the completion of intervention the same measures were administered with mean effect sizes of 1.98 and 2.09 for the self-instruction group and the self-instruction plus attribution training group respectively.

A third experimental study investigated student understanding of text with a focus on teaching target vocabulary words in two conditions ( Xin & Rieth, 2001 ). Students with learning disabilities in both conditions read the same passages, were taught the same target vocabulary words to aid understanding of the passage, and completed the same comprehension activities. However, one group received video-assisted instruction, watching chapters of a videodisc with content related to the topic and including the target words while the second group received instruction using only printed texts. The video instruction group outperformed the nonvideo group on researcher-developed measures of word definitions and cloze using the vocabulary words taught during instruction (mean ES = .58). There were no differences between the groups on a researcher-developed measure of comprehension on the content taught in the interventions (ES = .02). Follow-up measures were administered 2 weeks following intervention with effects: (a) maintained in favor of the video instruction group for word definitions (ES = .53), (b) decreased for sentence cloze with the target words (ES = .16), and (c) consistent to the posttest for passage comprehension (ES = −.04).

The final two studies examined reciprocal teaching as an intervention for students with disabilities ( Lederer, 2000 ; Takala, 2006 ). Lederer implemented reciprocal teaching in social studies instruction for students with learning disabilities in inclusive classrooms while Takala investigated the intervention for students with language and reading disabilities in special education classrooms in Finland. Neither study provided disaggregated data for the student participants meeting criteria for this synthesis that would allow for calculation of effect sizes. However, Lederer ran analyses on disaggregated data for the students with learning disabilities and reported no significant differences between the treatment and control groups on researcher-developed comprehension measures of answering questions and generating questions. Students with learning disabilities in the treatment group significantly outperformed students in the control group on composing summaries ( p < .05). Takala reported no significant differences between pretest and posttest scores for students with disabilities on researcher-developed measures of selecting the best title and main idea, and generating a question.

Two experimental studies implemented interventions with a focus on fluency instruction ( Mathes & Fuchs, 1993 ; O’Connor et al., 2007 ). Both studies examined treatment conditions using repeated reading of text or sustained/continuous reading of text along with a control condition. Mathes and Fuchs implemented the intervention with classwide peer-mediated instruction in special education resource rooms. Students with reading difficulties and disabilities in the O’Connor et al. study met one-on-one with an adult listener. In both studies, the number of minutes spent reading text was kept constant, with 9 min. of reading in the Mathes and Fuchs study (as well as 9 min. of listening to a peer) three times a week for 10 weeks, and 15 min of reading for the O’Connor et al. study implemented three times a week for 14 weeks. However, in the repeated reading condition of each study students reread the passages three times each. In the sustained or continuous reading conditions the students continuously read the text without repeating. In each condition either peers (Mathes & Fuchs) or the adult (O’Connor et al.) corrected errors during reading.

In the Mathes and Fuchs (1993) study, effects were low for the treatment conditions in comparison to the control condition across measures of fluency and comprehension (repeated reading mean ES = .08; sustained/continuous reading mean ES = .03). In contrast, higher effect sizes were found for both treatment conditions in the O’Connor et al. (2007) study across norm-referenced measures of fluency, word reading, and comprehension (repeated reading mean ES = .71; sustained/continuous reading mean ES = .69).

Word recognition

Four studies focused on word reading instruction as an intervention ( Das et al., 1995 [Study 1 and Study 2]; Das-Smaal et al., 1996 ; Torgesen et al., 2001 ). In an experimental study, Torgesen et al. examined two treatment conditions for students with learning disabilities that differed in the extent of instruction in phonemic awareness and phonemic decoding skills. No control group was included in the design of this study. In the auditory discrimination in depth (ADD) condition students spent approximately 95% of the lesson working with sounds and individual words including introduction to individual phonemes, practice reading and spelling individual words regular words and instruction of irregular words. Students then practiced reading with decodable text. Alternatively, the students in the embedded phonics (EP) condition spent about 50% of the instructional time on sounds and individual words and 50% in connected text activities. Explicit instruction was provided in phonics and reading/spelling words along with ample opportunities for students to practice reading connected text using trade books and basals. The students were introduced to sounds and practiced reading and spelling regular and irregular words. The students practiced reading with trade books and the basal and wrote sentences containing words from their sight word lists. A number of standardized measures were administered at posttest, 1 year follow-up, and 2 year follow-up to assess phonological awareness, word reading, comprehension, fluency, spelling, and expressive and receptive language (see Table 2 for measures). A mean effect size of .16 on these norm-referenced measures was found at posttest in favor of the ADD group. These effect sizes increased for the ADD group at 1 year (mean ES = .29), and for the 2 year follow-up were consistent with posttest (mean ES = .13).

In two studies conducted by Das et al. (1995) , the Planning, Attention, Simultaneous, and Successive Remedial Program (PREP) was implemented for students with reading disabilities. Study 1 examined the full program including global (strategies such as rehearsal, categorization, and prediction for successive or simultaneous processing) and bridging (extending these strategies to word identification) components. In Study 2, one group of students received intervention in the global components only and, thus, practiced the strategies without words (e.g., sequencing geometric shapes) while a second group received intervention in the bridging components only and, thus, practiced the strategies only with words and text (e.g., sequencing letters to form a word and then reading the word). A control group in Study 1 became the treatment groups in Study 2 while the treatment group in Study 1 became the control group in Study 2. Thus, all students in Study 2 had received some form of PREP (global, bridging, or previously instructed combined program). In Study 1, students receiving PREP outperformed students in the no treatment control group on the word attack and word identification subtests of the Woodcock Reading Mastery Test (mean ES = .70). In Study 2, effect sizes on the same measures favored the global (mean ES = .10) and bridging (mean ES = .34) groups over the control group of students who had previously received the combined PREP program in Study 1.

The study by Das-Smaal et al. (1996) implemented a computer-based program for students to practice detecting multi-letter units in words in Dutch. Students assigned to the control group received computer-based training in mathematical exercises similar to the cognitive and motor exercises of the training program provided to the treatment group. Posttest measures assessed student accuracy and speed on the computer tasks, detecting units that were trained and untrained, and reading real and pseudowords. The treatment group performed significantly better than the control group on reaction time for detecting units and reading pseudowords ( p < .05). No significant differences were reported on the accuracy of detecting units or reading real words. No norm-referenced measures were administered.


Two experimental studies examined the effects of a multi-component intervention for students with reading difficulties and disabilities ( O’Connor et al., 2002 ; Therrien et al., 2006 ). O’Connor et al. included phoneme awareness, word recognition and spelling, fluency, and comprehension in a 30 min, one-on-one intervention. Students were randomly assigned to receive this treatment with text matched to their reading level (reading level matched), receive the treatment using text from the classroom (classroom matched), or a control condition. Both treatment conditions outperformed the control condition on norm-referenced measures of phonemic awareness, word reading, comprehension, and fluency (reading level matched mean ES = 1.56; classroom matched mean ES = 1.26).

Therrien et al. (2006) incorporated fluency and comprehension components in 10–15 min one-on-one intervention. Students in the treatment condition read a new passage 2–4 times with feedback to reach a pre-established number of correct words per minute. This fluency instruction was followed by scaffolded assistance answering factual, inferential, and story structure questions. The treatment group demonstrated higher effects in comparison to the no-treatment control group in oral reading fluency (ES = .44) and general reading achievement as measured by the Broad Reading scale of the Woodcock-Johnson Achievement Test III (ES = .37).

Single group and single subject studies

Eleven studies examined the effects of reading interventions for single groups or individual students with reading difficulties and disabilities by examining student improvement ( Bruce & Chan, 1991 ; Butler, 1999 ; Daly & Martens, 1994 ; Ferkis, Belfiore, & Skinner, 1997 [Study 1 and 2]; Gillon & Dodd, 1997 ; Mason, Snyder, Sukhram, & Kedem, 2006 ; Rich & Blake, 1994 ; Taylor, Alber, & Walker, 2002 ; Thaler, Ebner, Wimmer, & Landerl, 2004 ; Wright & Mullan, 2006 ). We describe these studies and their outcomes by intervention type.


Four single subject studies implemented interventions with a comprehension focus ( Bruce & Chan, 1991 ; Mason et al., 2006 ; Rich & Blake, 1994 ; Taylor et al., 2002 ). Following up on the experimental study of the self-regulated strategy TWA described earlier, Mason et al. implemented a single subject study of the TWA reading strategy instruction combined with PLANS (Pick goals, List ways to meet goals, And, make Notes and Sequence notes) writing strategy instruction. Three instructional groups of 3 students each were included in the study. Participants with both reading difficulties and disabilities were included. Reading outcome measures consisted of oral and written retells of expository science or social studies passages. Students were scored according to the number of information units included in the retell as well as the quality of the retell. Quality was rated on a 7-point scale (0 points to 6 points) researcher-developed scale based on the student capturing the main ideas of the passage in the retell. Mean increases in information units from baseline to postinstruction ranged from 5.34–5.86 for oral retell and 8.23–18.87 for written retell across the three instructional groups. Mean increases in quality scores ranged from 2.17 to 3.00 for oral retell and 2.47–3.00 for written retell.

Rich and Blake (1994) also implemented a comprehension intervention that included instruction in self-regulated learning. Students with language/learning disabilities received instruction in identifying main ideas, self-questioning, and paraphrasing with the teacher reading the expository text. During the intervention, students kept daily journals evaluating their cognitive and affective behaviors. Reading outcomes were measured with expository passages excerpted by the researchers from informal reading inventories and students responded to 8 questions about each passage. The authors report that all 5 students made improvements from the pretest to the posttest in listening comprehension with scores on the outcome measure ranging from 56–100% (2 students below 75% on posttest). Four of the students also improved from pretest to posttest in reading comprehension with scores ranging from 63–100% on the posttest measure (1 student below 75% on posttest).

However, Bruce and Chan examined reciprocal teaching in the resource room as well as techniques for assisting students with reading difficulties in generalizing strategies learned to the general education classroom. Student’s total comprehension scores on measures that included main ideas and passage details increased to 75–90% accuracy (with average baseline levels ranging from 16–20%). However, no unprompted transfer of skills was reported and student levels were lower in the transfer phase than in the resource room instructional phase.

Taylor et al. implemented an alternating treatments design to examine the effects of story mapping, self-questioning, and no intervention for individual students with learning disabilities. The accuracy of students’ responses during each phase of instruction was collected. Two of the students in this study met criteria for inclusion for this synthesis. One student, Joseph, demonstrated slightly higher comprehension scores in the self questioning and story mapping conditions over the no intervention phase. The second student, Michelle, had some overlap in scores between the no intervention and intervention phases initially with scores improving further during the intervention phases. Accuracy was high for both students in each of the intervention conditions (80.9 and 86.4% for Joseph and Michele in story mapping; 88.2 and 94.6% for Joseph and Michele in self-questioning).

One fluency intervention with students with learning disabilities utilized a single subject study ( Daly & Martens, 1994 ). A multi-element design was used to compare student accuracy and fluency under 3 pre-reading conditions: (1) subject passage preview with the student doing a first read of the passage without help from the teacher, (2) taped words with the student reading a word list of words from the passage along with an audio tape speeded at 80 words per minute, or (3) listening passage preview with the subject following along in the text while listening to the passage read on audiotape. Following each of these prereading conditions, the student read the passage for assessment. The largest increases for oral reading accuracy and fluency were seen under the listening passage preview. However, no discernible differences between baseline and the three conditions could be seen on word list reading.

Word reading

Six single group or single subject studies examined student outcomes from interventions focusing on word reading instruction ( Butler, 1999 ; Ferkis et al., 1997 [Study 1 and 2]; Gillon & Dodd, 1997 ; Thaler et al., 2004 ; Wright & Mullan, 2006 ). Four of the studies incorporated training in sight word reading: students practicing reading unknown words to mastery with a peer (Butler), an adult (Ferkis Study 1 and 2), or a computer (Thaler et al.). Butler reported an increase in word reading on words taught from 50–79% for students with reading disabilities. Similarly, Ferkis et al. reported students with learning disabilities mastered 12–14 words taught in each condition of Study 1 and 2, with one student obtaining mastery of 21–23 words taught during the intervention phases. Study 1 consisted of 2 conditions, one with 1 correct response per word required in each training session and a second condition requiring 5 correct responses per word during training. Study 2 continued with similar conditions to Study 1 except that students practiced the set of words three times. No discernible differences in the number of words learned based on the number of repeated responses required during training in either Study 1 or Study 2 were noted. Thaler et al. measured the reading time on trained words following intervention for students with reading difficulties and found that students showed decreases in reading time for the words following intervention. The students who pretested with higher reading times made the most gains in decreasing their reading times.

Two of the word reading interventions taught phonological skills to students with reading disabilities and measured students’ phonological awareness, reading accuracy, and comprehension using standardized measures of general skills in these areas ( Gillon & Dodd, 1997 ; Wright & Mullan, 2006 ). All students made gains in each area from pretest to posttest. The largest gains appeared on the phonological measures for both studies.

The primary purpose of this research synthesis was to determine the effectiveness of reading intervention for students in the upper elementary grades (fourth and fifth grade) on reading outcomes. We prioritized this grade group because previous syntheses have examined extensively the effectiveness of reading practices for students in grades K-3 (e.g., McCardle & Chhabra, 2004 ) and more recently reading interventions for older students (e.g., Edmonds et al., 2009 ; Scammacca et al., 2007 ) leaving many upper elementary teachers unclear about how these findings apply to their instruction. In addition, considerable evidence suggests that student’s reading comprehension takes a negative turn in the upper elementary grades, often referred to as the “fourth grade slump” ( Chall & Jacobs, 2003 ), and determining research-based practices for intervening is important.

Overall, the number of experimental studies available for analysis was relatively few ( n = 9) and represented a range of treatment foci that included comprehension, word reading, fluency, vocabulary, and two that were multi-component addressing multiple elements of reading. The largest number of experimental studies ( n = 5) addressed reading comprehension or vocabulary development and all of these studies used researcher-developed measures to address outcomes. We think it is encouraging that the majority of outcomes for the comprehension and vocabulary treatments yielded effects that were moderate to large in size. However, it is typical for researcher-developed measures to yield higher effect sizes ( Swanson, Hoskyn, & Lee, 1999 ). This provides support for the influence of vocabulary and comprehension interventions on improving students’ understanding of text. However, the confidence in these findings would be more robust if the studies had not relied solely on researcher-developed measures. For vocabulary treatments, it is common that researcher-developed measures are used to tap the extent to which students learn the vocabulary words taught ( Scammacca et al., 2007 ). The rationale is that most vocabulary interventions are not perceived as being powerful enough to influence more broadly acquisition of untaught vocabulary which is what would be measured on more normative vocabulary measures (Scammacca et al.). The use of researcher-developed measures for comprehension is less necessary and it would be expected that researchers would use norm-referenced measures either solely or in combination with researcher-developed measures to assess the effects of treatment. Considering these caveats, we have learned from both the experimental studies and single-subject studies that for upper elementary students, comprehension practices that provided opportunities for students to preview text and connect with their knowledge, use self-questioning and self-regulating practices while reading, and summarize what they are learning were associated with moderate to high outcomes. It may be that these practices enhance the language functioning of target students with reading comprehension problems, many of whom are likely to also demonstrate low language ( Nation, Clarke, Marshall, & Durand, 2004 ). These findings are in line with a previous research syntheses on reading comprehension outcomes with older students ( Edmonds et al., 2009 ; Scammacca et al., 2007 ).

Two of the studies addressed fluency in which repeated reading of text was compared with continuous reading. The amount of time students read the text was held constant but in one treatment condition students read the text only one time and continuously (sustained/continuous treatment) and in the other condition the text was read three times (repeated reading). Findings in one of the studies ( Mathes & Fuchs, 1993 ) yielded very low effects for both treatment conditions using peers, whereas in the second study ( O’Connor et al., 2007 ) moderate to large effects for fluency and comprehension resulted when students were paired with adults. Because these two studies do not provide converging outcomes for students with reading difficulties and disabilities, we would suggest that teachers integrate both repeated reading and continuous reading into their interventions and monitor students’ progress to determine effectiveness. Also, it appears as though an adult or very able reader as a model is associated with improved fluency outcomes ( Daly & Martens, 1994 ).

Word study interventions that assisted students in learning to map the sounds of language to letters and words were associated with small to moderate effects for fourth and fifth graders. In contrast to the comprehension interventions that may have inflated effects due to the administration of researcher-developed outcome measures, the three word recognition studies providing data for effect size calculation administered norm-referenced measures at posttest. The Edmonds et al. (2009) meta-analysis examining interventions for secondary students with reading difficulties also revealed that reading comprehension outcomes were positively affected by word study treatments; however as with the current studies, the results were small to moderate. These findings are similar to previous research that suggests for many students oral language proficiency as well as phonological knowledge relates to their course of reading development ( Nation & Snowling, 2004 ).

It also likely that many students with reading difficulties or disabilities in fourth and fifth grade may continue to have word recognition difficulties; whereas other students suffering from the “fourth grade slump” may struggle more specifically with the increased vocabulary and understanding the variety of complex texts in the content areas. Thus, a word recognition treatment may have a greater effect for students who continue to struggle with word recognition. None of the studies synthesized has examined differential effects for students participating in the interventions based on level of reading, but investigation in this area may help further explain effects.

Only two studies in this synthesis examined multi-component reading interventions. The findings of these two studies revealed that treatments that included two or more components of reading (e.g., word study and comprehension) were associated with moderate to large effects. The value of multi-component interventions for older students was confirmed in three syntheses examining the effects of treatments with secondary students ( Kamil et al., 2008 ; Scammacca et al., 2007 ; Torgesen et al., 2007 ). Our interpretation of these findings is that older students may benefit when interventions focus on more than one element of reading. However, given the very small number of multi-component studies for students in grades 4–5 as well as the range of effects reported, additional research is needed to confirm the positive effects for multi-component interventions.

Summary of implications and further research

This synthesis of research for students with reading difficulties and disabilities in the upper elementary grades suggests: (a) instruction in comprehension strategies for application before, during, and after reading produces increased comprehension outcomes on researcher-developed measures, (b) mixed results for fluency interventions, (c) limited evidence (one study) for the effects of vocabulary instruction, and (d) multi-component interventions demonstrate promise for increasing student outcomes on a variety of measures. Fourth graders who struggle with reading can demonstrate a range of distinctive patterns of performance that contribute to their low reading comprehension difficulties and represent variation in performance on word identification, phonemic awareness, comprehension, vocabulary, rate of reading and expression ( Buly & Valencia, 2002 ). Future research may implement interventions that consider the type of reading comprehension problem and mapping interventions to specific comprehension problems.

Based on the current research, we also conclude that further research is needed to examine the effects of comprehension interventions on broad comprehension outcomes with standardized measures. Furthermore, we located only one vocabulary study and two multi-component studies for students with reading difficulties in the upper elementary grades. While previous syntheses have reported large effects for vocabulary interventions for secondary readers ( Kamil et al., 2008 ; Scammacca et al., 2007 ) and moderate effects for multi-component interventions ( Edmonds et al., 2009 ; Scammacca et al., 2007 ), additional work is needed to determine the effects of these interventions for upper elementary students.

E.D. Hirsch (2003) states, “We’re finding that even though the vast majority of our youngest readers can manage simple texts, many students-particularly those from low-income families-struggle when it comes time in grade four to tackle more academic texts.” (p. 10). This synthesis was designed to reveal those instructional practices that research documents are associated with improved outcomes for upper elementary students with reading difficulties. While this synthesis, like many in education, is only as good as the extant research, we believe that the findings from this report provide initial guidance to teachers and educators about practices that they can integrate into their interventions.

Contributor Information

Jeanne Wanzek, Florida State University, School of Teacher Education and Florida Center for Reading Research, C234B Psychology, 1107 Call St., P.O. Box 306-4304, Tallahassee, FL 32306, USA.

Jade Wexler, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX, USA.

Sharon Vaughn, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX, USA.

Stephen Ciullo, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX, USA.

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International study concludes reading literacy on the rise

research on reading problems

Reading literacy is on the rise internationally – in 2016, 96 percent of fourth graders from over 60 education systems achieved above the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) 2016 low international benchmark. This is one of the key findings of a report released today by the International Association for Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris.

To show how large-scale assessments, such as PIRLS, can contribute to achieving the education goal of the United Nations Sustainable Development Agenda, UNESCO and IEA have also released a joint booklet “Measuring SDG 4: how PIRLS can help”.

Conducted by IEA, PIRLS provides internationally comparative data and trends in the reading achievement of fourth graders from more than 60 education systems. In 2016, the scope of PIRLS was extended to include ePIRLS – an innovative assessment of online reading. The ePIRLS assessment concluded that good readers have an advantage in digital literacy skills, with 50% of students deemed good to excellent readers reaching the PIRLS high international benchmark.

An early start in reading literacy has lasting benefits, with students who had attended pre-primary school for three years or more reporting higher average scores. Supportive home environments, where parents often engage their children in early literacy activities, are also associated with higher achievement scores.

In 2016, female students outperformed their male counterparts in 48 countries and dependent territories by an average of 19 points. Such disaggregated data can inform progress toward Education 2030 target 4.5, which calls to “leave no one behind”.

Finally, the report indicated that safe and well-resourced learning environments with qualified teachers are associated with higher achievement scores. PIRLS 2016 identified a positive trend in school safety, with teachers from 16 countries and dependent territories reporting that schools have become safer and more orderly since 2011.

The UNESCO-IEA booklet also launched as part of today’s international PIRLS 2016 release, provides some examples to demonstrate how the achievement and background data collected by PIRLS can help inform national policies in education and learning, and measure progress toward Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 targets in Education.  

SDG4 targets analysed in the booklet include target 4.1 on primary education, 4.2 on early childhood development, 4.4 on skills for work, 4.5 on gender equality and inclusion, 4.a on effective learning environments and 4.c on teachers.

Download the UNESCO-IEA joint booklet

Download the PIRLS and ePIRLS 2016 International Reports

Download the detailed factsheet on the 2016 findings and discover how PIRLS can help monitor SDG4 targets

About PIRLS: IEA’s Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) is an international assessment of reading comprehension that has reported trends in student achievement every five years since 2001. The study represents the worldwide standard for measurement of students’ reading comprehension at grade 4. ePIRLS is an innovative computer-based assessment of online informational reading. Learn more

About IEA: The International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), headquartered in Amsterdam, is an independent, international cooperative of national research institutions and governmental research agencies. It conducts large-scale comparative studies of educational achievement and other aspects of education, with the aim of gaining an in-depth understanding of the effects of policies and practices within and across systems of education. Learn more

For more information on PIRLS, contact:

Anna Kaehne Public information officer IEA &#97;&#46;&#107;&#97;&#101;&#104;&#110;&#101;&#64;&#105;&#101;&#97;&#46;&#110;&#108; +49 (0)4 048 500 663

Clare Sharkey Press officer UNESCO &#99;&#46;&#115;&#104;&#97;&#114;&#107;&#101;&#121;&#64;&#117;&#110;&#101;&#115;&#99;&#111;&#46;&#111;&#114;&#103; +33 (0)1 45 68 04 31

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Psychology: Research and Review

  • Open access
  • Published: 20 March 2021

Identification of struggling readers or at risk of reading difficulties with one-minute fluency measures

  • Maíra Anelli Martins   ORCID: 1 , 2 , 3 &
  • Simone Aparecida Capellini 2 , 3 , 4  

Psicologia: Reflexão e Crítica volume  34 , Article number:  10 ( 2021 ) Cite this article

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To identify readers who are struggling or at risk of reading difficulties, reference standards in oral reading fluency (ORF) are used to conduct an assessment that is based on a widely reported method known as curriculum-based measurement (CBM), which itself is based on 1-min fluency measures. The purpose of this study was to evaluate students’ ORF (with a 1-min fluency measure) to characterize their fluency and to determine references of appropriate development in reading at the 50th percentile.

For this study, a database of readings made available by the Learning Studies Research Laboratory was used. This database consisted of 365 readings by elementary-school students from the third to fifth grades in two cities in the interior of the state of São Paulo from two different public school systems that use the same teaching methodology. The data consisted of digital audio recordings of the passage “The Umbrella” (text suitable for schooling levels) of the Protocol for Assessment of Reading Comprehension procedure. For this procedure, three steps were performed: step 1—listening to the 365 readings and assessing the scores for the number of words read correctly per minute; step 2—the calculation of the mean and percentiles for each grade; and step 3—the adaptation of the reference table to indicate students eligible to receive reading fluency intervention.

Third-year students who correctly read 86 or more words per minute, fourth-year students who correctly read 104 or more words per minute, and fifth-year students who correctly read 117 or more words per minute were considered students who had made adequate progress in reading.

It was possible to classify students based on the 1-min fluency measures, with reference intervals of words read correctly per minute per school year (for the third, fourth, and fifth years) for those who were making adequate progress in reading and reference intervals for those who were considered readers who were struggling or at risk of reading difficulties.

Little research has been conducted in Brazil on measures to assess reading fluency (Gentilini et al, 2020 ; Andrade, Celeste, & Alves, 2019 ; Moutinho, 2016 ; Pacheco & Santos, 2017 ; Peres & Mousinho, 2017 ), and a search for research on reading fluency in official documents of the Brazilian Ministry of Education (Martins, 2018 ) also reveals that such measures are not a type of assessment that is widely known or applied by teachers within the classroom. Nonetheless, research has continually indicated the importance of developing oral reading fluency (ORF; reading with appropriate rate, accuracy, and prosody) as a vital and necessary skill for the overall development of proficient reading (Machado, Santos, & Cruz, 2019 ; Rasinski & Young, 2017 ).

In addition to the lack of Brazilian research widely exploring this theme, the low performance data of Brazilian students in reading indicates that these students also face difficulties in learning this highly complex activity, including the many who do not become proficient, effective readers. It is noted that this is a recurring problem that affects students and, consequently, concerns educators. As is clear from the evaluations conducted throughout the national territory (large-scale evaluations), the problem has continued throughout the years and affects even the regions with the best educational indexes or socioeconomic status.

Measures assessment of reading oral fluency

The method widely publicized as curriculum-based measurement (CBM) is a curriculum-based progress-monitoring method for measuring growth in specific areas of basic knowledge and skills and assessing the effects of instructional programs (response to intervention). Curriculum-based assessment, as a longstanding assessment practice asserting that learning assessments should be based on what has been taught, has become popular in the field of special education. Thus, the CBM method is described as curriculum-based, as it is used within the context of the school curriculum (Deno, 1985 ).

The CBM method proposes simple measures for the assessment of academic competence that can be applied quickly by teachers. These measures help provide an overview of each student’s academic development; furthermore, when these simple measures are applied systematically over time, they can be used to track a student’s potential difficulties (Fuchs, 2017 ).

For example, to identify struggling readers, reference standards for ORF are used, which, based on the CBM assessment method initially proposed by Deno ( 1985 ), enable reading analysis in just 1 min (e.g., the number of words read correctly per minute–WCPM). The most widely used assessment of ORF, which focuses on two of the three components of fluency (rate and accuracy), simply requires the student to read a grade-appropriate passage, which they have not seen previously, for 1 min. At the end of 1 min, errors are subtracted from the total words read, and then the WCPM score is calculated (Hasbrouck & Tindal, 2006 ).

Thus, the method was developed to create procedures for measuring progressive development in a simple, reliable, and valid way. These procedures enable teachers to frequently and repeatedly measure students’ progress in basic reading, spelling, writing, and expression skills (Rasinski, 2004 ).

Regarding reading fluency assessment, it is recommended that the scoring of the number of words read correctly per minute (WCPM) and the number of words read incorrectly per minute (WIPM) be performed with three passages of the same difficulty level to then calculate the mean score. Thus, the WCPM measure can serve to screen for academically at-risk students, assign placement in remedial and special education programs, monitor student progress, improve teaching programs, and predict performance in high-risk assessments (Hasbrouck & Tindal, 2006 ; Rasinski, 2004 ).

A series of discussions began in the last decade in Brazil on the question of the “wait to fail to act” model, which highlighted the importance of the early identification of learning difficulties. There are also discussions about the broadening of knowledge about the advantages of early identification and scientific evidence-based assessment and screening methods (Almeida, Piza, Toledo, Cardoso, & Miranda, 2016 ; Batista & Pestun, 2019 ; Brito, Seabra, & Macedo, 2018 ; Justi & Cunha, 2016 ; Mayeda, Navatta, & Miotto, 2018 ; Nicolau & Navas, 2015 ; Palles da Silva & Guaresi, 2019 ; Rodrigues & Ciasca, 2016 ; Silva & Capellini, 2017 ; Silva & Capellini, 2019a ; Silva & Crenitte, 2016 ).

According to Elliott, Huai and Roach ( 2007 ), several factors contribute to the prevalence of the “wait to fail to act” model, such as the fact that educators understand that there is a certain heterogeneity of development and learning among students and seek to allow appropriate time for this development. By doing so, they are also allowing students a fair chance of progressing without early determination of the problem. Another factor for the prevalence of this action model is the fact that few large-scale screening instruments are time efficient and technically simple for teachers to apply.

In the Brazilian literature, early screening instruments are recent and focus primarily on metalinguistic skills, such as the “Early Identification and Reading Problems Protocol” (Capellini, César, & Germano, 2017 ), the “Evaluation of Cognitive-Language Skills Protocol: Professional and Teacher’s Book” (Capellini, Smythe, Silva, 2017 ) and the “Protocol for Cognitive-Language Skills Assessment of Students in Early Literacy” (Silva & Capellini, 2019b ). These instruments assess skills considered predictive of literacy, such as reading and writing skills; arithmetic; auditory and visual processing; metalinguistic skills; and processing speed with the rapid automatic naming test. Some tests evaluate mathematical logical reasoning, for example, the “Cognitive-Language Skills Assessment Protocol.”

Likewise, there has been a movement in Brazilian research in recent years to describe the importance of reading fluency measures, especially those related to using a chronometer for timing as measures for screening difficulties, in addition to the development of instruments to assist in this assessment. Alves et al. ( 2019 ) described such issues in the most recent publication of the LEPIC® software, which proposes a semiautomatic and instantaneous reading fluency analysis to assess and assist in diagnostics or to monitor reading skills. This analysis focuses on the importance of evaluating parameter fluency, which may include indicators of reading problems such as dyslexia. Another instrument recently developed by Brazilian researchers is a collection of passages in sequential order according to difficulty level and suitable for elementary-school students from the first through fourth grades, called the “Reading Fluency Performance Assessment” (Martins & Capellini, 2018 ).

Additionally, on 22 February 2018, the More Literacy Program (PMAlfa) was created via MEC Ordinance No. 142, a strategy by the Ministry of Education that aims to strengthen and support school units in the process of increasing the literacy of elementary-school students enrolled in the first and second grades; the program fulfills the criteria established in the Common National Curriculum Base (CNCB). The objective of the program is to perform reading, writing, and math evaluations. For the first time, a formal program of the Brazilian government will evaluate the fluency and accuracy in the reading ability of students in the second grade of elementary school. The assessment is performed individually and uses a proprietary application suitable for smartphones or tablets.

However, despite efforts to create adequate assessment procedures for ORF, research into the characterization of ORF in this population is still incipient. Pacheco and Santos ( 2017 ), for example, evaluated three groups of readers in relation to reading fluency who were classified into three groups: group I–second-grade readers with little reading experience and expectation of low reading fluency; group II–second-year high school readers with the expectation of having slightly more reading experience and moderate fluency; and group III–readers with a higher education level. However, the relatively small sample consisted of 12 participants (four participants in each group), and the reading rate was evaluated by using the number of words read compared to the total reading time measured in seconds, considering a total reading time of 180 s (3 min).

In another study (Moutinho, 2016 ), 46 sixth-grade students from public and private schools were evaluated by measuring the WCPM in 1 min from three different passages. However, the article focused on describing the accuracy errors, i.e., the number and type of WIPM, while data for the WCPM are not presented. Other researchers evaluated 55 students from the third to the seventh grades with the number of words per minute, reading four different types of passages, and analyzing student performance in each (Dellisa & Navas, 2013 ).

Some researchers have also conducted reading fluency assessment with elementary students, as in a study that evaluated 32 students in ninth grade and calculated the speed of words read per minute (using the formula of total number of words from the passage, divided by the time in seconds spent to complete the reading, and multiplied by 60) (Komeno, Ávila, Cintra, & Schoen, 2015 ). Furthermore, in another recent study, researchers characterized the ORF by 232 middle-grade students from the sixth to the ninth grades from public and private education. The study provided an estimate of the expected values for each grade surveyed by reading an easy passage based on the 1-min oral fluency assessment, with scores for words read per minute and WCPM (Andrade et al., 2019 ).

While only a small number of studies for elementary and middle students exist, even fewer studies evaluate reading fluency in high school students or adults. One research study evaluated 88 students in the second grade of high school. The CBM method was followed by selecting a passage compatible with students’ age and grade and comprising subjects corresponding to the basic curriculum studied in the classroom. Students read three different passages, lasting 1 min each, for the subsequent calculation of the number of WCPM (Oliveira, Amaral, & Picanço, 2013 ). Only one study evaluating reading fluency in adults was found, in which the sample consisted of 30 adolescents and adults who were evaluated by measuring the number of words per minute (Peres & Mousinho, 2017 ).

The assessment of ORF conducted through WCPM scores presents 30 years of validation research indicating that this is a valid and reliable measure that reflects a student's overall performance in reading development during the first years after literacy (Morris et al., 2017a , b ; Tindal, 2017 ; Valencia et al., 2010 ). Reading fluency benchmarks have been used both for screening and for monitoring reading development, and research in these fields seeks to answer questions such as “How is student performance compared to their peers?” and “Who are the students struggling with reading?” This practice of frequent assessment enables early intervention and the planning of activities that focus on the skills already acquired and those that still require further attention.

Benchmarks in ORF have been established by American researchers and collected from a range of students, from those identified as talented or otherwise exceptionally skilled to those diagnosed with reading disabilities, such as dyslexia. The largest sample of the ORF benchmark was collected from schools and districts in 23 states in the USA for over 4 years. Based on their vast experience in interpreting ORF data, it was established that a score of 10 words above or below the 50th percentile should be interpreted as an expected score, meaning that students are making satisfactory reading progress (Hasbrouck & Tindal, 2006 ).

Given the implications that ORF benchmarks would have for Brazilian education, a study to determine a fluency reference through appropriate assessment material would be of great relevance. This benchmarking considers the indication of a median score (50th percentile), with scores of 10 words above or below this median indicating students who have made appropriate reading progress, to assist in assessment and to create parameters for selecting students for interventional programs who are struggling readers or at risk for developing difficulties in reading proficiency later.

The purpose of this study was to evaluate the ORF of students from the third to the fifth grades (with a 1-min fluency measure) to characterize their fluency and determine references of appropriate development in reading at the 50th percentile and those below this reference.

This is a quantitative, descriptive-explanatory study. The dependent variable is a 1-min fluency measure. The independent variable is student grade.

General procedures and database

This study was approved by the Ethics Committee of the Faculdade de Filosofia e Ciências of Sao Paulo State University–UNESP-Campus de Marília-SP under protocol 2.550.190–CAAE 50201915.9.0000.5406.

For this study, a database of readings made available by the Investigation Learning Disabilities Laboratory (in Portuguese: Laboratório de Investigação dos Desvios da Aprendizagem–LIDA), registered by a research group of the National Counsel of Technological and Scientific Development (CNPq), called “Language, Learning, Education,” was used. All information related to the sample of students comprising our database was made available by the members of this group.

The readings database made available consists of 365 readings from elementary-school students from the third to the fifth grades in two cities in the interior of the state of São Paulo (in a medium- and a small-sized Brazilian city, Southeast Region of Brazil) from two different public school systems with the same teaching methodology. In the city of Marília-SP, there are 51 schools with regular elementary education in urban locations, in basic education, with 2221 students enrolled in the third year, 2119 students enrolled in the fourth year and 2033 students enrolled in the fifth year according to the School Census/(Instituto Nacional de Estudos e Pesquisas Educacionais Anísio Teixeira – INEP, 2018 ).

In the city of Garça-SP, there are 14 schools with regular elementary education in urban locations, in basic education, with 478 students enrolled in the third year, 436 students enrolled in the fourth year and 401 students enrolled in the fifth year according to the School Census/(Instituto Nacional de Estudos e Pesquisas Educacionais Anísio Teixeira – INEP, 2018 ). The schools were selected through convenience sampling (simple convenience sample). The students participating in the studies did not have a history of repeating grades; they were monolinguals and native speakers of Brazilian Portuguese. The data were digital recordings of participants reading the passage “The Umbrella” (text suitable for schooling levels) from the procedure “Protocol for Assessment of Reading Comprehension” (Cunha & Capellini, 2014 ).

Of the 365 readings, 98 were third-grade students (48.9% female), 130 were fourth-grade students (49.2% female), and 137 were fifth-grade students (51.8% female) (participants were elementary-school students ranging from 7 to 11 years old).

According to the latest results published (Instituto Nacional de Estudos e Pesquisas Educacionais Anísio Teixeira, 2015-2017 ) by the Socioeconomic Level Indicator (Inse) of basic education schools in Brazil, developed by the National Institute of Educational Studies and Research Anísio Teixeira (Inep), in the Basic Education Assessment Directorate (Daeb), the schools from which the analyzed data were obtained have an average Inse (absolute value 58.46 and 57.47), with an average rating (group 5).

The inclusion and exclusion criteria used by the laboratory researchers in the data collection of the reading audio bank are described. The inclusion criteria for the sample selection were as follows: informed consent form signed by the parents or guardians for the students; students with no history of neurological or psychiatric illnesses, uncorrected auditory and visual impairments, and cognitive performance within normal, according to the description at the school records and teachers’ reports. The exclusion criteria for the sample selection were the presence of genetic or neurological syndromes in the students, students who did not present a satisfactory reading domain level for the observation of the variable proposed in the study, and students who presented recording errors in their respective audio files.

Specific instruments and procedures

The passage used was “The Umbrella” (history appropriate for the educational level) from the procedure “Reading Comprehension Assessment Protocol” (Cunha & Capellini, 2014 ). The choice for using this protocol occurred due to its careful assessment and development, since its issues were built from the rules for the psychometric tool development described by The Federal Council of Psychology. The Council is an official body that studies and establishes criteria and rules in Brazil for the construction of evaluation tools that ensures their accuracy and validity, and defines, as reliable procedures, those whose accuracy is understood as their level of consistency and their ability to reach the objectives for which they were built as their validity.

The protocol consists of four passages, two narratives, and two expository narratives. A medium-length (297 words) narrative passage was chosen. The choice of a passage with a narrative gender protocol occurred because the students had been more commonly exposed to such passages since childhood and throughout the education process, which would simplify the fluency evaluation and avoid the interference of any cultural issues of the passage in the reading results of the students of different schooling levels.

The choice of protocol also occurred because it presents passages that were selected to reach students from the third, fourth and fifth grades at representatively similar levels of difficulty for all school years, making it possible to apply a single passage in all school years.

Although the procedure is an instrument for assessing reading comprehension, due to the objectives of this study, only the reading recordings were used to assess fluency, while the multiple-choice questions were not applied.

The equipment used in the recordings was a Karsect microphone headset, which was unidirectional since the microphone picks up sounds with greater intensity and orients towards where it is directed, reducing the intensity of the external noise. The microphone was connected to an HP notebook with an Intel Pentium processor, 3 GB memory, and a 32-bit operating system. Recordings were made with an original HP software application and were saved as .wav files.

The collections were carried out by the researchers of the mentioned research group, following the guidelines for individual application. Each reading of the entire passage was recorded, taking an average of 5 min total for each individual recording session in spaces reserved for the researchers in the schools during class hours.

To analyze the readings on digital media, the following steps were planned and performed:

Step 1 : The rate was scored by listening to 365 digital recordings and assessing the WCPM scores, which was performed according to the reading error classification used by Begeny, Capellini, and Martins ( 2018 ) and by other researchers (Valencia et al., 2010 ). In this approach, the types of errors that are marked as WIPM are mispronounced words, words substituted with others, words omitted, words read out of order, addition or omission of word endings, and hesitation (words on which the student paused more than 3 s, after which he or she is told the word, and it is marked as incorrect. If necessary, the student is told to continue with the next word).

The following items indicate all situations that are marked as WCPM: words pronounced correctly, self-corrections, words decoded slowly but ultimately read correctly, repeated words, words mispronounced due to dialect or regional differences, and words inserted. To quantify errors, scoring rules are also proposed for certain situations: lines or multiple words omitted; when one or more lines are not read (four or more omitted words in sequence), they are not considered errors, although those words are excluded from the WCPM (such that this rule is applied whenever a student skips four or more words within a sentence). If the student skips one, two, or three consecutive words, each word should be counted as an error (WIPM). Regarding hyphenated words that can exist independently, each morpheme separated by a hyphen counts as an individual word if the two parts exist independently when the hyphen is removed, such as “Guarda-chuva ” [Umbrella in Portuguese] (counts as two words but is only marked incorrect when the student misreads), as opposed to the word “ anglo-China ” (considered as one word, regardless of which or both are misread).

Step 2 : The data thus obtained were tabulated and processed with Microsoft Excel® 2010. Data were analyzed through descriptive statistics (mean, standard deviation, and percentiles). Percentiles 5, 10, 25, 50, 75, 90, and 95 were calculated for each grade. Stratifying these percentiles helps to understand the different levels of difficulty that students may present.

Step 3 : The reference table was adjusted for the selection of students eligible to receive reading fluency interventions or programs. For this, the minimum reference threshold was the 25th percentile, and the maximum reference limit was the 50th percentile. The reference to the 25th percentile represents an approximate limit on the minimum level of ORF that a student should present to benefit from a fluency program. This reference was developed through years of research and related interventions (Begeny et al., 2018 ; Field, Begeny, & Kim, 2019 ).

Thus, it was determined that in the present research, WCPM intervals (maximum and minimum limits) would be established to select students who were not making adequate reading progress based on the ORF standard published by Hasbrouck and Tindal ( 2006 ).

The results regarding the reading fluency assessment measure as a procedure for selecting struggling readers or at risk of developing reading difficulties (grades 3 to 5) are summarized in Tables 1 and 2 .

From the data presented in Table 1 , students in the third year who read 86 or more WCPM, in the fourth year who read 104 or more WCPM, and in the fifth year who read 117 or more WCPM are considered students who are making adequate progress in reading. As shown in Table 1 , the lower the student scored beneath the 25th percentile, the more difficulties with reading the student will present, and the higher the student scored above the 50th percentile, the better the student’s performance.

Considering the standards proposed by Hasbrouck and Tindal ( 2006 , p. 639), in which students who read more than 10 WCPM above the 50th percentile present appropriate reading progress (unless there are other indicators for concern), the WCPM was established for Brazilian students (Table 2 ).

The reference intervals were calculated from the readings by the 365 students, considering that those who presented a WCPM score between the 25th and 50th percentiles did not make satisfactory progress in their reading fluency and taking the 25th percentile as the minimum reference limit and the 50th percentile as the maximum reference limit (Table 2 ). Students with WCPM scores at the 25th percentile or below are unlikely to benefit from a fluency-based intervention because they likely need assistance with decoding, phonics, and/or phonemic awareness.

Measures such as the number of WCPM offer numerous advantages for use in the context of ORF assessment. This measure has already been proven to be valid and is a quick and simple measure; it can be easily implemented in educators’ routines, either within the school routine or with professionals in their clinics. The reliability coefficient of this study could not be used if the test used because a single item test was used (number of words read correctly). If used as a screening measure for students at risk of reading difficulties, it should be performed by teachers from the third grade, since it is from this series that all students are expected to have passed the literacy phase and to move from the phase of learning to read to the phase of reading to learn. Consequently, within just a few hours, a teacher can evaluate their entire class because the assessment is performed quickly, which would also enable frequent assessments, which would, in turn, enable the monitoring of students’ progress in their fluency (Hasbrouck & Tindal, 2006 ; Rasinski, 2004 ; Rasinski & Young, 2017 ).

For reference values, the data obtained in this study served to identify students who were making adequate reading progress and those who could benefit from a fluency program. Among the academic skills considered central to reading success, fluency reveals not only its importance in assessing and screening key components but also in intervention response strategies and models for absorbing the demand encountered after the screening and early identification of reading difficulties (Kostewicz et al., 2016 ).

Considering the Brazilian studies on the characterization of ORF, we note that despite their small number (Andrade et al., 2019 ; Dellisa & Navas, 2013 ; Komeno et al., 2015 ; Moutinho, 2016 ; Oliveira et al., 2013 ; Pacheco & Santos, 2017 ; Peres & Mousinho, 2017 ), the results help to predict and compare student performance. It is necessary to advance the description of the results to create fluency references so that they can be used to screen for students with general reading difficulties, according to each region of the country. It is emphasized that due to the continental dimensions of the Brazilian national territory, there are considerable cultural and educational differences among regions.

Therefore, the method of assessing a measure of ORF in given passages can be used to assess student progress in reading fluency competence; to predict and compare students’ performance with peers or benchmarks (since their performance is compared over time) as well as conduct individual assessments; set annual goals; assess the effectiveness of intervention programs; develop standards for the class, school, and/or region; identify students at risk of dyslexia or in need of further intervention; and serve as the initial source of data collection in the response-to-intervention model (Mendonça & Martins, 2014 ).


There are public policy problems that involve this issue of early identification in Brazil, as there are no projects or actions directed at absorbing the demand of learning disabilities within the school itself. This difficulty makes the implementation of a screening process for early identification more difficult, since once these students with difficulties have been identified, there is a corresponding need for interventions, such as intervention response models together with the need for a complete structural and practical change within the classroom to modify the deeply rooted tradition of “waiting to fail to take action” (Elliott et al., 2007 ). However, as observed in a recent program created by the Ministry of Education (More Literacy Program–PMAlfa), new ways of implementing the screening of reading difficulties and continuing teacher education to ensure that they master the methodologies for progress monitoring and evaluation of student performance are beginning to appear.

It is also important to underscore that recent research has focused on the development of instruments and materials suitable for this type of evaluation and progress-monitoring, such as passages that are appropriate for the grade level and classified according to their difficulty, that not only allow the modification of the “waiting to fail to act” tradition but also allow suitable fluency assessment applications with materials that not only accelerate but also facilitate evaluation (such as software and applications) (Alves et al., 2019 ). This approach also means that three passages of the same level of difficulty can be offered (as a collection of sequential passages) to the students for assessment (Martins & Capellini, 2018 ), with sets of three passages to be applied throughout the school year to facilitate the monitoring of student progress.

Despite its limitations, this study extended the literature (Andrade et al., 2019 ; Dellisa & Navas, 2013 ; Komeno et al., 2015 ; Moutinho, 2016 ; Oliveira et al., 2013 ; Pacheco & Santos, 2017 ; Peres & Mousinho, 2017 ) as part of the research movement to obtain ORF subsidiary reference data for professionals in the health-education interface. However, it is necessary to note that one limitation of this study is the number of samples used. To complement this study and other Brazilian research in this context, new research is needed that increases the number and the representativeness of the sample of Brazilian readers who struggle.

From this study, it was possible to evaluate and characterize the reading fluency of Brazilian students. It was also possible to establish reference intervals for the assessment of ORF, which can be used to screen struggling readers or students at risk who present or may develop reading difficulties.

Therefore, similar research should be carried out and expanded to create measurement parameters related to ORF, which will help teachers make decisions about which paths need to be constructed or improved to assist those students who are presenting difficulty in this learning process.

Availability of data and materials

The datasets used and/or analyzed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.


Curriculum-based measurement

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Words read correctly per minute

Words read incorrectly per minute

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The authors would like to thank the members of the Investigation Learning Disabilities Laboratory (LIDA) of Sao Paulo State University-UNESP for making available reading data in digital audios.

Results of this publication funding PhD by the first author by the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development-CNPq.

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MAM designed and executed the study, performed the data collection, and wrote the paper and final revision of the manuscript. SAC designed the study, assisted with the data analyses, critically reviewed the theoretical content, and revised the paper. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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  • Struggling readers
  • Universal screening
  • Academic screening
  • Academic difficulties
  • Reading research

research on reading problems

Unpacking the science of reading – what the research says

Unpacking the science of reading – what the research says

There has been a lot of media coverage recently on the science of reading. But what does the evidence say? In their new paper on the topic, ACER Senior Research Fellow, Greta Rollo, and ACER Research Fellow Dr Kellie Picker, from the Effective Practice in Education team synthesise evidence reviews conducted by ACER researchers that unpack the science of reading.

In this 3-part series, Greta and Kellie will explain each of the components that make up the science of reading and share implications for teaching. This first article provides an overview of the 6 key components of the science of reading.

What is the science of reading?

The science of reading is generally used as a catch all expression for the body of research that helps teachers understand what students need to be taught to become effective readers. It is a multi-disciplinary body of research and knowledge from education, linguistics, cognitive psychology, special education, and neuroscience. This article unpacks the 6 key components that make up the science of reading which include:

  • Oral language
  • Vocabulary (and morphology)
  • Reading comprehension
  • Phonemic awareness (part of phonological awareness)

For a more detailed discussion please see ACER’s recent paper Unpacking the science of reading research .

These ‘Big 6’ components of the science of reading are inter-related and have different roles at different times in the development of early reading skills. Some, such as phonemic awareness and phonics are somewhat constrained skills. They are largely mastered by the time the child starts reading independently for meaning. Others, such as oral language, vocabulary and comprehension, require deep conceptual development and are unconstrained, which means they can continue to develop for the rest of the child’s life (Turner et al., 2018).

Constrained skills

Phonemic awareness is ‘ the ability to break down and manipulate the individual sounds in spoken language.’ (Stark et al., 2015) . It is part of phonological awareness, which addresses wider spoken language and larger chunks of speech (for example, syllables) . Phonemic awareness includes segmenting words into sounds. It includes blending sounds into words and articulating sounds sequentially to say a word. At its most sophisticated it refers to manipulation of phonemes – deletion, addition and swapping sounds from words to make new words. Phonemic awareness is important for reading development because it supports understanding of the alphabetic principle and orthographic mapping, critical parts of phonics.

Phonics involves combining knowledge of English phonemes (phonemic awareness) with knowledge of English letters (graphemes) to decode words (Rohl, 2000). There are 2 key parts to phonics – the alphabetic principle and word reading by decoding. The alphabetic principle requires mastery of all letter-sound relationships. Combining these skills to learn to decode allows students to read most words they typically encounter. Decoding skills in turn are critical to orthographic mapping, the process whereby students map decoded words and parts of words like morphemes to their current interpretation of their meaning, which supports their reading of irregular words.

Fluency requires accurate reading aloud with appropriate attention to phrasing, intonation and punctuation. Monitoring the development of fluency requires consideration of accuracy and speed, and prosody. Accuracy means reading words correctly. Speed is simply how quickly words are read. Prosody is the use of expression, intonation and phrasing that enhances meaning when reading and is highly correlated with reading comprehension. A students’ reading accuracy and speed can be recorded together in the number of correct words read per minute (CWPM), or their Oral Reading Fluency Assessment (ORFA).

Unconstrained skills

Oral language proficiency underpins communication and learning. This is especially evident in the early stages of learning to read. Research has demonstrated that children with larger oral vocabularies displayed greater reading and mathematics achievement, increased behavioural self-regulation and fewer externalising and internalising problems at school-entry. There is also a strong reciprocal relationship between oral language development and reading development including the obvious links between oral language development and the next Big 6 skill, vocabulary.

A student’s vocabulary is all the words they understand. A rich vocabulary is essential in developing reading comprehension because students must understand the meaning of almost all words in a text to accurately interpret its meaning. A deep and broad vocabulary can drive the development of reading comprehension. A more abundant vocabulary leads to a more comprehensive understanding of ideas, which may in turn enrich reading experiences. Vocabulary instruction must include morphology – the study of morphemes, the smallest meaningful units of a language. These morphemes can be joined together to create specific meanings. Knowing more about morphemes and having a bigger vocabulary supports the development of reading comprehension.

Reading comprehension involves an active process of making, constructing, or deciphering the meaning of a text. It involves elements of decoding, working out meaning, evaluating and imagining. The process draws upon the learner’s existing background knowledge and understanding, text–processing strategies and capabilities, and relies on the integration of all of the previously mentioned skills from the Big 6. At its most sophisticated, reading comprehension involves making inferences, critical analysis and applying knowledge of text types and social and cultural resources to evaluate or interpret a text.

Stay tuned: In the next article, Greta and Kellie will delve into phonemic awareness, phonics and fluency in greater detail.

Related reading:

Kellie Pickier and Greta Rollo have also published an online visual resource, Unpacking the science of reading , that explains the Big 6 pillars of learning to read. You can read it here .


Rohl, M. (2000). Programs and strategies used by teachers to support primary students with difficulties in learning literacy. Australian Journal of Learning Disabilities, 5(2), 17–22.

Rollo, G., & Picker, K. (2024). Unpacking the science of reading research. Australian Council for Educational Research .

Stark, H., Snow, P. C., Eadie, P. A., & Goldfeld, S. R. (2015). Language and reading instruction in early years’ classrooms: The knowledge and self-rated ability of Australian teachers. Annals of Dyslexia, 66, 28–54.

Turner, R., Adams, R., Schwantner, U., Cloney, D., Scoular, C., Anderson, P., Daraganov, A., Jackson, J., Knowles, S., O’Connor, G., Munro-Smith, P., Zoumboulis, S., & Rogers, P. (2018). Development of reporting scales for reading and mathematics: A report describing the process for building the UIS Reporting Scales. Australian Council for Educational Research.

Related articles

Expert Q&A: Phonics and early reading instruction

How Science of Reading Research Affirms the Impact of Waterford’s Evidence-Based Reading Intervention Program

By andy minshew.

  • December 7, 2023

In connection with the Science of Reading Virtual Summit , is sharing an article series exploring the science behind how students learn to read and what administrators can do to guide school and classroom strategies.

Sign up for the free summit to learn research-based strategies from early education experts, including Julie Christensen, Vice President of Curriculum at Waterford. Plus, find upcoming and on-demand video series led by early education experts through the Webinar Library , featuring topics chosen with administrators in mind, like:

  • Impactful Family Engagement Made Easy
  • Understanding the Six Literacy Strands
  • Improving Student Outcomes with Professional Services

Learning to read is seemingly effortless for only a small percentage of students–around 5%, according to Julie Christensen, Vice President of Curriculum at Waterford, in a recent webinar . The vast majority of students need systematic and explicit instruction to build reading proficiency. Investing in early childhood literacy programs –from PreK to second grade–is essential not only as a support for academic achievement but to provide students with the skills that will allow reading to be a lifelong tool for learning.

That’s why choosing research-based programs for core, supplemental, and intervention instruction is so important. Curriculum built on the science of reading helps students develop literacy skills in ways that align with how the brain learns , helping students learn most effectively and most efficiently. The most successful reading programs are those both driven by the science of reading and proven by peer-reviewed research.

With over forty years of experience creating accessible and high-quality learning content, Waterford’s early reading curriculum is aligned with the science of reading . It is also backed by third-party research that demonstrates Waterford’s effectiveness in helping students develop strong, lasting literacy skills. Read on to learn more about the proven impact of Waterford’s evidence-based reading programs and how you can use them as part of your school’s explicit, systematic approach to literacy instruction.

How Waterford Evaluates Early Reading Curriculum Efficacy

Waterford conducts regular third-party research studies to evaluate the effectiveness of the early reading curriculum. Over the past ten years, Waterford has conducted fifty-three studies–thirty-two of which are peer-reviewed, or evaluated by a board of researchers not affiliated with the organization.

A large and diverse sample size is key to designing studies with accurate measurements. Of utmost importance is making sure a wide variety of young learners are represented in these studies. In studies conducted over the past ten years, Waterford has evaluated 76,300 young learners using the early reading program either at home or school, including those who are:

  • Experiencing socioeconomic disadvantage
  • Receiving special education services
  • Speaking more than one language at home

When possible, Waterford studies also include randomized control groups in studies, with the only difference between the control and intervention groups being the curriculum they engage with. The students’ randomized group assignment helps ensure that differences in reading development observed between the groups are due to their curriculum and not any external factors.

An ESSA-Approved Reading Intervention Program with Significant Effect Size

Across all Waterford studies evaluating early literacy programs over the past ten years, students exhibit an average reading effect size of 0.47. This is nearly twice as large as the effect size criterion of 0.25, which is the cutoff that is widely considered to indicate a meaningful impact on student learning. Overall, this means that Waterford’s reading curriculum is shown to effectively build and strengthen reading skills.

The What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) , run by the U.S. Department of Education, evaluates and ranks early learning studies to provide educators with unbiased evaluations as they make decisions for their schools. After evaluating a 2016 ETI study of Waterford Upstart , an early literacy program for PreK studies, the WWC designated it as meeting ESSA Tier 1 standards.

ESSA Tier 1 is the highest possible ranking that an early learning program can meet according to WWC standards. It is only given to high-quality randomized control experimental studies that show statistically significant positive effects. Alongside the ESSA Tier 1 ranking, the WWC also assigned Waterford Upstart an Improvement Index of 14, which recognizes its significant and effective impact on early literacy.

A Reading Intervention Program Aligned with Standards and Certified by Experts

Waterford’s early learning programs are adaptive, meeting learners where they currently are and providing scaffolding that helps learners gain proficiency in key reading skills. As students progress through the program, they continually encounter new skills and practice existing ones to become fluent readers. This makes Waterford Early Reading an accessible intervention program for students , especially as they receive extra support in skills identified as areas for growth.

Because of this adaptability, experts at the following organizations have certified Waterford programs as effective resources:

  • The WiDA Educational Consortium
  • CASE: The Council of Administrators of Special Education
  • CAR: Certified Autism Resource, given by The International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards

The WiDA Educational Consortium CASE: The Council of Administrators of Special Education CAR: Certified Autism Resource, given by The International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards

Waterford programs also align with the PreK-2 state standards for all fifty states and dozens of early education organizations across the country, including:

  • KRA: Kindergarten Readiness Assessment
  • Common Core: State Standards Initiative
  • Core Knowledge

Interested to see how your educational standards align with Waterford programs? Follow the link here to view Waterford PreK-2 correlations relevant to your state or district.

This article is the second in a two-part series on the research and impact of Waterford programs. To read part one, which explores the alignment between Waterford programs and the science of reading, visit How the Science of Reading Informs Waterford Curriculum .

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The impact of school closures during the covid-19 pandemic on reading fluency among second grade students: socioeconomic and gender perspectives.

Shelley Shaul

  • Edmond J. Safra Brain Research Center for the Studies of Learning Disabilities, Department of Learning Disabilities, University of Haifa, Haifa, Israel

Introduction: The acquisition of reading skills is a crucial milestone in early education, with formal instruction and practice playing pivotal roles. The outbreak of COVID-19 led to widespread school closures and a shift to remote learning.

Methods: This study aimed to investigate the effects of school closures on reading acquisition and fluency among a large sample of second-grade children, considering socioeconomic status (SES) and gender differences. In 2019, a cohort of 2228 second-grade students from 34 schools was assessed for word reading fluency and comprehension. In 2020, during the pandemic, 765 students from a subsample of 20 original schools were re-evaluated using the same measures. The study also collected school-related data.

Results: The findings from the entire sample indicated no significant differences in fluency and comprehension scores between children in the second grade in 2019 and 2020. However, a significant interaction emerged when analyzing low SES versus high SES children. Children from low SES backgrounds exhibited notably lower reading scores after a year of remote learning due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Moreover, the disparity in reading scores between low SES and high SES children nearly doubled in 2020. Gender differences were also detected.

Discussion: These results underscore the impact of remote learning during the COVID-19 crisis on exacerbating gaps in reading fluency and comprehension between children from high and low SES backgrounds. The implications of these findings highlight the critical role of in-person schooling and targeted support for disadvantaged students, especially during pivotal stages of reading development.

1 Introduction

The global outbreak of COVID-19 in early 2020 prompted widespread school closures across many countries, including Israel, resulting in a significant shift toward remote learning ( Kuhfeld et al., 2020 ; Lake and Dusseault, 2020 ; United Nations, 2020 ). This unprecedented situation led to changes in the educational landscape, with students adapting to shortened school days delivered through technological platforms ( Hall et al., 2020 ; Kuhfeld et al., 2020 ). Moreover, parents took on a more prominent role in delivering the curriculum in many instances ( Reimer et al., 2021 ).

A fundamental milestone in early elementary education is the acquisition of reading skills. The process of learning to read involves substantial formal instruction and practice ( Stanovich and West, 1989 ). However, the adverse impact of COVID-19 on reading acquisition was particularly pronounced among disadvantaged children who faced unequal access to educational resources ( UNESCO, 2020 ). This disparity is a significant concern, particularly with studies highlighting potential “Matthew Effect” dynamics during the pandemic, where existing gaps in reading ability between children from different socioeconomic backgrounds could be further exacerbated ( García-Muiña et al., 2021 ). The “Matthew Effect” concept underscores how initial advantages can magnify disparities over time ( Stanovich, 1986 ), which, in the context of reading, could suggest that children from lower socioeconomic status backgrounds might fall behind even more in their reading development. Furthermore, parents of elementary school children reported a reduction in learning-related activities during COVID-19 closures ( Andrew et al., 2020 ), potentially compounding challenges for struggling readers.

The second grade is a pivotal stage where children transition from decoding-based reading strategies to more fluent and accurate reading ( Chall, 1983 ; Bar-Kochva, 2013 ). Although studies on the impact of COVID-19 closures on reading have emerged, many have focused on later stages of elementary school (from 3rd grade onwards; Kuhfeld et al., 2020 ; Engzell et al., 2021 ; Kaffenberger, 2021 ; Relyea et al., 2023 ). Few large-scale studies have addressed the effects of COVID-19 school closures on reading development during earlier foundational stages ( Ardington et al., 2021 ). The Israeli Ministry of Education’s expert panel highlighted the need to investigate and comprehend gaps arising from COVID-19, particularly in early childhood, and emphasized the importance of empirical studies based on validated tools conducted at multiple time points ( Kesner Baruch et al., 2021 ).

This study aims to address a gap in the literature by examining reading acquisition among a substantial sample of Hebrew-speaking second-grade children—an age group that has received less attention during the early elementary years. Specifically, we investigate the trajectory of fluency development among children of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds over a year, encompassing both pre-COVID-19 conditions and the subsequent year, within the same district.

1.1 Reading fluency development

Reading fluency is a critical skill characterized by the ability to read with automaticity, speed, accuracy, proper expression, and appropriate phrasing ( National Reading Panel (US), 2000 ). As reading fluency advances, the cognitive load associated with decoding decreases, allowing more cognitive resources to be allocated to comprehending the text’s meaning ( Wolf and Katzir-Cohen, 2001 ; Perfetti, 2007 ; Stevens et al., 2017 ). The progression of oral reading fluency typically takes place between the second and third grades, persistently evolving throughout the elementary years ( Chall, 1983 ). Early elementary oral reading fluency contributes to proficient silent reading, which becomes crucial in later elementary school ( Price et al., 2016 ). Numerous studies across diverse languages underscore the significance of reading fluency, revealing its predictive role in reading comprehension, the ultimate goal of reading ( Klauda and Guthrie, 2008 ; Kim et al., 2010 ; Stevens et al., 2017 ; Nevo et al., 2020 ).

Assessing reading fluency frequently involves measuring the accurate pronunciation of words within a restricted timeframe. For instance, the Test of Word Reading Efficiency (TOWRE) evaluates the ability to pronounce printed words both accurately and fluently, reflecting the comprehension of the read words ( Torgeson et al., 1999 ; Fuchs et al., 2001 ; Good et al., 2001 ). Proficient automatic sight-word reading is fundamental for fluid and natural text comprehension ( Miller and Schwanenflugel, 2008 ; Kuhn et al., 2010 ). Thus, tests gaging the number of correctly read words within a given duration serve as valuable tools for identifying potential reading difficulties ( Valencia et al., 2010 ). Research underscores that during early grades, reading fluency significantly contributes to comprehension, a principle that is particularly pronounced in second-grade readers ( Fuchs et al., 2001 ; Valencia et al., 2010 ). Reading in context demands the activation of semantics, as readers simultaneously process words while aiming to extract textual meaning ( Katzir et al., 2006 ). Consequently, the amalgamation of syntactic rules and semantic structures is essential for constructing cohesive units of ideas. Insufficient automation at lower processing levels (letters or words) could impede processing at higher levels (sentences or texts; Logan, 1997 ).

This study’s focus is on Hebrew-speaking children, with Hebrew characterized as an Abjad writing system. An Abjad writing system predominantly consists of consonantal representation with sporadic and incomplete vowel representation ( Eviatar and Share, 2013 ). Hebrew is available in two forms: pointed (shallow orthography) and unpointed (deep orthography). Early reading acquisition in first grade revolves around shallow pointed Hebrew, allowing for rapid association between letters and sounds due to comprehensive phonological cues ( Share and Levin, 1999 ; Shany et al., 2012 ). As such, most children become skilled decoders by the end of first grade, heightening the importance of speed and fluency ( Lipka et al., 2016 ). The progression to partially pointed texts, particularly in second and third grades, exposes readers to lexico-morpho-orthographic knowledge utilization ( Shany et al., 2012 ).

In nurturing reading fluency in first and second graders, the recommendation is for students to engage in daily reading aloud and silent practice, utilizing materials tailored to their level of competence ( National Reading Panel (US), 2000 ; The Israeli Ministry of Education, 2014 ). The shift to remote instruction is believed to have potentially hindered teachers’ ability to facilitate ample reading fluency practice opportunities.

1.2 The challenges of remotely teaching literacy to diverse learners

The abrupt shift to remote learning during the pandemic posed significant challenges for educators, particularly in teaching literacy to young children. These learners, who had not yet become independent readers, faced obstacles in navigating technological tools independently ( Sucena et al., 2022 ). As literacy development heavily relies on face-to-face interaction, the transition to remote learning presented hurdles in providing the necessary constant feedback and personalized attention required for learning to read and write ( Relyea et al., 2023 ).

Teachers were thrust into an unfamiliar landscape, requiring them to adapt and innovate in the realm of online instruction with limited prior experience. This shift was especially arduous for educators in the early elementary grades ( Giovannella et al., 2020 ; Kruszewska et al., 2020 ; Letzel et al., 2020 ; Dotan et al., 2021 ). A study in Israel conducted by Dotan et al. (2021) among first- and second-grade teachers revealed their struggles in remote teaching, including challenges in fostering reading fluency and comprehension, addressing the needs of struggling readers, and assessing literacy skills remotely. Beyond curriculum adaptation, teachers also encountered difficulties in teaching diverse learners. Notably, the digital divide was exacerbated by socioeconomic status (SES) disparities, with 75% of low-SES school teachers reporting unequal access to computers among their students, compared to 46% in middle-high SES schools ( Dotan et al., 2021 ).

Despite the hurdles, some positive outcomes were observed due to school closures. The increased involvement of parents in providing home support during remote learning potentially contributed to emotional and academic advancements ( Immerfall, 2020 ). Nonetheless, the prevailing sentiment from research indicates learning loss resulting from school absences ( Kuhfeld et al., 2020 ; Engzell et al., 2021 ; OECD, 2023 ).

In evaluating the pandemic’s impact on learning, the term “unfinished learning” becomes relevant—a concept encompassing missed instruction due to school closures ( Lambert and Sassone, 2020 ; The National Authority for Measurement and Evaluation in Education, 2023 ). Notably, this term does not imply a permanent deficit; instead, with proper support, students can attain the necessary mastery.

Additionally, the term “vulnerable children” takes on significance in this context, especially concerning children from low SES backgrounds. Their vulnerability extends to economic hardships, limited access to resources, reduced support, and heightened stress at home ( Drane et al., 2020 ; Masters et al., 2020 ). The literature review reinforces the imperative to attend to these vulnerable learners, particularly those from low SES backgrounds who are at risk of accumulating academic gaps, especially in reading, during the COVID-19 period ( Kaffenberger, 2021 ; Relyea et al., 2023 ).

In conclusion, the challenges of remotely teaching literacy to diverse learners during the pandemic were multifaceted. Teachers navigated the complexities of adapting to online instruction, while students faced barriers in receiving the personalized attention necessary for literacy development. The unequal access to technology further exacerbated disparities, with vulnerable learners from low SES backgrounds at greater risk of falling behind. Despite the potential benefits of home support, learning loss remained a prevalent concern. The educational community’s focus on addressing these challenges is essential for fostering equitable learning outcomes and supporting vulnerable children’s academic growth.

Several studies have attempted to estimate the extent of learning gaps resulting from school closures, drawing insights from previous instances of learning loss during periods like summer vacations or crises. Bao et al. (2020) predicted that kindergarten children in the United States would experience an average loss of 31% in their reading ability gained in 2020. Kuhfeld et al. (2020) expanded on this by demonstrating that third- to seventh-grade students could lose around 35% of their reading gains during the COVID-19 period compared to a typical school year. Furthermore, the impact was more pronounced among students with low socioeconomic status (SES). In their predictions about school achievement variability during the pandemic, they estimated a reading score decrease of 1.2 times lower than typical year scores ( Kuhfeld et al., 2020 ). Hevia et al. (2022) examined 10-15-year-old readers and indicated that the younger readers, as well as those with low SES, showed the greatest learning loss in reading during the COVID-19 pandemic.

An interesting recent meta-analysis review ( Betthäuser et al., 2023 ) identified 42 studies from 15 countries on learning progress among primary and secondary school children during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was found that students experienced a loss of approximately 35% of a school year’s learning. On average, the learning advancement of school-aged children was significantly reduced during the pandemic. Furthermore, the review implies that the pandemic has intensified educational disparities among children from diverse SES, which have been found before the pandemic.

This trend receives support from research on regular periods, such as the summer vacation, during which the learning loss of children from low socioeconomic backgrounds is significantly more substantial than that of those from moderate to high socioeconomic backgrounds (e.g., Burkam et al., 2004 ; Downey et al., 2004 ; Kim and White, 2008 ; Allington et al., 2010 ).

A simulation study conducted across seven low- and middle-income countries by Kaffenberger (2021) projected that a school closure lasting one-third of a regular year during third grade could lead to a year-long loss in learning until tenth grade, disproportionately affecting students in lower-income countries.

These trends have been found not only in reading but also in mathematical abilities, Blaskó et al. (2022) sought to assess the potential impact of pandemic-related learning losses in mathematics across 22 European countries, surveying 4,400 4th graders. Their study was based on data from an international achievement survey conducted before the pandemic, namely the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study 2019. The findings revealed significant disparities among European countries regarding the availability of essential distance-learning resources, parental backgrounds, and school differences. These discrepancies in country standings are likely attributed to both the affluence of and inequalities within the respective countries, which, in turn, can impact the effect of learning loss.

A recent study conducted in the US by Relyea et al. (2023) found that the average reading achievement gain during the 2020–2021 school year was lower compared to the 2018–2019 school year. The observed effect sizes for learning loss were 0.54, 0.27, and 0.28 standard deviations for grades 3, 4, and 5, respectively. Similar gaps in reading skills were detected among second-grade students in South Africa ( Ardington et al., 2021 ). This study compared reading skills of students assessed before (2019) and during the pandemic (2020), revealing a reading gap ranging from 57 to 70% for English-speaking second graders.

A study focused on fifth-grade students in Germany, employing real-time assessments through a reading comprehension task in 2020 after school closures, highlighted a learning loss of 11–17% compared to previous measurements ( Schult et al., 2022 ).

A recent systematic review ( Panagouli et al., 2021 ), synthesizing data from 42 studies primarily conducted in Europe, Asia, and America, investigates the impact of online learning and modified educational methods on school-aged students during the COVID-19 pandemic. The review encompasses students aged 8 to 22 and revealed varied effects: The most prominent trend indicated that students experienced learning loss, especially in math and reading, though some benefited. Younger students and those with neurodevelopmental disorders or special education needs faced greater challenges. Additionally, parents reported similar trends, observing declines in their children’s performance, though some noted benefits from online learning. Teachers mainly reported academic gaps, particularly in mathematics and reading. Despite challenges, younger students showed enthusiasm for interactive learning materials, suggesting their positive effects should be considered.

Furthermore, a meta-analysis of 18 studies ( König and Frey, 2022 ) mainly from the United States and Europe (predominantly Germany and the Netherlands), assessed the impact of COVID-19-related school closures on student achievement. The analysis showed a negative effect, with a weekly learning loss of −0.022. It also tentatively suggested that younger primary school students were more adversely affected compared to older students, possibly due to their lower self-regulated learning capabilities and the vital role of teacher scaffolding in regular instruction. The analysis suggested that remote learning was more effective in later lockdown phases than initially, possibly due to the familiarity gained with established online learning apps.

A study spanning from third to ninth grade in Switzerland investigated the impact of COVID-19-related school closures and the effectiveness of in-person versus distance learning in math and language ( Tomasik et al., 2021 ). It was found that while older students could somewhat offset the effects of school closures, younger students faced significant challenges. Learning progress for younger children not only slowed down, potentially affecting future development, but also became more varied. While a small group of primary school students benefited from closures, others experienced severe declines in performance. These children are at risk of falling behind academically, emphasizing the importance of addressing their needs.

These studies collectively underscore the pervasive impact of COVID-19-induced school closures on students’ reading skills, transcending socioeconomic, cultural, and linguistic boundaries. Overall, these findings emphasize that the pandemic’s repercussions on reading development have been particularly detrimental for children from low-SES backgrounds. Consequently, students returned to school with substantial and divergent learning gaps, necessitating targeted efforts from educators to address and mitigate these disparities. Notably, learning losses were more pronounced among students from less educated and low SES households ( Engzell et al., 2021 ; Kaffenberger, 2021 ; Betthäuser et al., 2023 ; Relyea et al., 2023 ).

1.3 Reading and gender

Gender constitutes another significant contextual factor within the realm of children’s reading development. Despite standardized literacy instruction in classrooms, disparities in reading achievement between boys and girls have been consistently observed. Numerous studies have consistently highlighted noteworthy gender differences in reading achievement across the entire spectrum of reading abilities within educational settings ( Chatterji, 2006 ; Mullis et al., 2007 ; Logan and Johnston, 2010 ; Robinson and Lubienski, 2011 ; Reardon et al., 2019 ).

Remarkably, girls consistently outperform boys in reading achievement ( Chatterji, 2006 ; Mullis et al., 2007 ; Logan and Johnston, 2010 ; Robinson and Lubienski, 2011 ; Katzir et al., 2018 ; Reardon et al., 2019 ), and these gender differences do not display a marked declining trend across elementary or secondary schooling ( Reardon et al., 2019 ; Reilly et al., 2019 ). Additionally, substantial gender imbalances exist in poor reading, with boys being disproportionately represented ( Reilly et al., 2019 ). Notably, prior empirical evidence ( Coles and Hall, 2002 ; Mullis et al., 2007 ) consistently indicates that girls report higher reading frequency compared to boys. Gender-linked disparities in reading frequency may indeed influence variations in reading performance.

Support for gender differences can be found in the latest PISA report, in which girls outperformed boys in reading by an average of 24 points across OECD countries, indicating a universal gender gap. Among low performers, boys outnumbered girls, constituting 31% compared to 22% in reading proficiency. Conversely, among top performers, girls slightly outnumbered boys, with 8% versus 6% on average across OECD nations. In Israel, ranked 30th out of 81 countries, girls achieved a mean reading score of 486, surpassing boys by 24 points (462). While girls’ literacy achievements declined compared to previous years, boys showed improvement. Despite this narrowing trend, the gender gap still favors girls in reading proficiency. The gender gap scenario in Israel closely mirrors the OECD average. The Israeli Ministry of Education emphasized, based on the PISA 2022 findings, that the gender gaps in reading proficiency translate to nearly a year of schooling.

While gender effects in remote learning have primarily been explored among older students, limited research has delved into gender-specific effects on young learners during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some studies suggest that females tend to exhibit greater adaptability to collaborative and technology-based instruction, while others find that males often display a higher comfort level with the technical aspects of remote learning platforms ( Jones et al., 2021 ).

It is vital to underscore that most existing studies have focused on older children rather than those in the early stages of elementary school, where reading acquisition begins. As such, this present study emphasizes reading acquisition among second-grade students, aiming to bridge a gap in the literature pertaining to reading development during COVID-19. This research particularly targets children from diverse backgrounds at this pivotal stage. Furthermore, the study’s focus extends to examining whether gender-related differences manifest differently among boys and girls.

Research Questions:

1. What is the effect of COVID-19 on second-grade children’s reading fluency, and is there an interaction between COVID-19, SES, and gender on reading fluency?

2. What is the effect of COVID-19 on second-grade children’s comprehension fluency, and is there an interaction between COVID-19, SES, and gender on comprehension fluency?

2.1 Participants

The study included primary school students from the Israeli public education system, all Hebrew speaking children with typical IQs, encompassing various socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds in the southern region of Israel. The participants’ age range was between seven and 8 years old, with a relatively equal distribution of boys (49%) and girls (51%). None of the children in the sample exhibited significant neurological difficulties. The division of children into SES groups was based on the Ministry of Education’s scoring system for schools, utilizing neighborhood and parental demographic information including education and income. A total of 20 schools were examined at both time points with 5% of the schools representing high SES, 55% medium SES and 40% of the schools from low SES. A comprehensive overview of sociodemographic characteristics is presented in Table 1 .

Table 1 . Sociodemographic characteristics of the sample.

2.2 Measures

2.2.1 reading fluency.

Word reading fluency was assessed using the TOWRE test ( Katzir et al., 2012 , based on Torgeson et al., 1999 ). Administered individually, participants were tasked with orally reading 80 single words as swiftly and accurately as possible within a 45-s timeframe. The words were progressively ordered in terms of complexity. Scores were computed based on the number of correct words read in 45 s and the error percentage. The internal consistency reliability (α) of this assessment was 0.95.

2.2.2 Comprehension fluency

A group-administered task was employed to evaluate semantic comprehension fluency ( Yinon and Shaul, 2017 , based on Hutzler and Wimmer, 2004 ). This task consisted of 21 sentences spanning a range of everyday topics. Participants were required to read each sentence and promptly indicate whether it was semantically accurate or erroneous, all within a two-minute timeframe. The scores were calculated based on the number of accurately marked sentences within 2 min and the error percentage. The internal consistency reliability (α) for this task was 0.93.

2.3 Procedure

The necessary approvals were secured from the Ministry of Education and the relevant university’s ethics committee prior to data collection. All assessments were individually administered to participants in a designated quiet room within the school premises. Each assessment session lasted approximately 10 min. During the initial year of the study (October 2019), 1,460 children from 20 schools underwent testing. In the subsequent year (October 2020), 815 children were tested from the same 20 schools. All assessments were conducted individually during school hours in a controlled environment.

3.1 First research question: the effect of COVID-19, SES and gender on reading fluency

To answer the first research question regarding the combined effect of COVID-19, SES, and gender on reading fluency, a univariate analysis of covariance (ANCOVA) was run with COVID-19, SES, and gender as independent variables, reading fluency as the dependent variable, and school as a covariate variable. The descriptive statistics of the word reading fluency is presented in Table 2 . The analysis revealed no main effect of COVID-19 or gender, F’s < 1. The main effect of SES was significant, F (2, 1988) = 39.15, p  < 0.001, η 2  = 0.04, indicating that participants in the Low SES schools ( m  = 21.75, SE = 0.45) had lower reading fluency compared to medium SES ( m  = 25.67, SD = 0.35; p  < 0.001) which were lower than the High SES ( m  = 31.64, SE = 1.32; p  < 0.05). There were significant differences between all the different SES in reading fluency ( p  < 0.001).

Table 2 . Mean and (SD) of word reading fluency in the among the different SES groups and gender in both years of the study.

The interaction between COVID-19 and SES was significant, F(2, 1988) = 3.99, p  < 0.05, η 2  = 0.01. Post-hoc analyses revealed that the negative effect of COVID-19 existed only in low SES schools, F (1, 761) = 6.89, p  < 0.01, η 2  = 0.01. Low SES Participants in year 2 (post-COVID-19) had lower reading fluency ( m  = 20.56, SD = 0.64) than year 1 participants (pre-COVID-19; m  = 22.66, SD = 0.47). There was no effect of COVID-19 on medium SES, F (1, 1,371) = 2.14, p  = 0.14, nor High SES ( F  < 1). See Figure 1 .

Figure 1 . Word-reading fluency among the different SES levels in both years.

In addition, the interaction between COVID-19 and gender was significant, F (1, 1988) = 3.82, p  = 0.05, η 2  = 0.00. Post-hoc analyses revealed a marginally significant effect of gender on reading fluency in year 1, in year 1, F (1, 1,455) = 3.36, p  = 0.07, η 2  = 0.00, indicating that females’ reading fluency ( m  = 24.04) was slightly lower than that of males’ ( m  = 25.08, SD = 10.48). In year 2, there the performance of females was higher than the males.

The interaction between SES and gender, as well as the triple interaction between COVID-19, SES, and gender, were insignificant (F’s < 1).

Following this ANCOVA analysis, another ANCOVA analysis was run without school as a covariate variable. This analysis yielded similar trends: a significant main effect of SES, F (2, 1989) = 24.54, p  < 0.001, η 2  = 0.02, and interaction of COVID-19 and SES, F(2, 1989) = 3.99, p < 0.01, η 2  = 0.01; a marginally significant interaction between COVID-19 and gender, F (1, 1989) = 3.82, p  = 0.05, η 2  = 0.00; and the insignificant effects were the main effects of gender and COVID-19, and the interactions of SES × COVID-19, and SES × COVID-19 × gender (all F’s < 1).

3.2 Second research question: the effect of COVID-19, SES and gender comprehension fluency

To address the second research question concerning the combined impact of COVID-19, SES, and gender on comprehension fluency, two similar univariate analyses of covariance (ANCOVAs) were conducted with COVID-19, SES, and gender as independent variables, comprehension fluency as the dependent variable, and with and without school as a covariate variable. The descriptive statistics of the reading comprehension fluency is presented in Table 3 . The analysis that included school as a covariate variable revealed a significant main effect of SES, F (2, 1958) = 14.46, p  < 0.001, η 2  = 0.02, indicating that participants in low SES schools ( m  = 5.82, SE = 0.17) had lower reading fluency compared to medium SES ( m  = 7.00, SD = 0.13; p  < 0.001) and high SES ( m  = 7.21 SD = 0.51). There were no differences in comprehension fluency between high SES and medium ( p  = 0.66) ( Figure 2 ). This analysis did not indicate main effects of COVID-19, F (1, 1958) = 2.58, p  = 0.11, or gender, F  < 1. An examination of the interactions indicated that all interactions were insignificant: COVID-19 × gender, F(1, 1958) = 1.87, p  = 0.17; and COVID-19 × SES, gender × SES, and COVID-19 × gender × SES, all F’s < 1.

Table 3 . Mean and (SD) of reading comprehension fluency in the among the different SES groups and gender in both years of the study.

The ANCOVA analysis that was run without school as a covariate variable yielded similar trends: a significant main effect of SES, F (2, 1959) = 13.71, p  < 0.001, η 2  = 0.01. All other effects were insignificant: the main effects of COVID-19 m, F (1,1959) = 2.51, p  = 0.11, and gender F < 1, and the interactions of COVID-19 x gender, F(1,1959) = 2.02, p  = 0.16, SES × COVID-19, SES X gender, and SES × COVID-19 × gender (all F’s < 1).

Figure 2 . Comprehension fluency among the different SES levels in both years.

4 Discussion

The acquisition of reading skills stands as a crucial milestone in early elementary education, a complex process that requires significant hours of formal teaching and practice ( Stanovich and West, 1989 ). Against this backdrop, this study aimed to scrutinize the impact of Coronavirus-related school closures on the development of reading fluency and comprehension among second-grade students. Additionally, it aimed to assess the differential impact of COVID-19 on reading skills among second-grade students with varying socioeconomic backgrounds and to explore potential gender differences. This research was spurred by the dearth of comprehensive large-scale studies employing validated reading assessment tools across distinct time periods among children of the same age ( Kesner Baruch et al., 2021 ). The examination of students from the same schools across both pre-pandemic and face-to-face learning periods allowed for a robust evaluation of the gaps in reading acquisition during the COVID-19 era among second-grade learners.

This study explored the influence of COVID-19 on reading and comprehension fluency in second-grade children. The assessment utilized measures of reading fluency for single words (TOWRE; Katzir et al., 2012 , based on Torgeson et al., 1999 ) and comprehension fluency at the sentence level (semantics; Yinon and Shaul, 2017 , based on Hutzler and Wimmer, 2004 ) in two distinct time frames among the second-grade cohort. The measurements occurred both before the onset of Coronavirus-related closures and after their resumption of face-to-face learning. Notably, the two groups of students were drawn from the same schools, exposed to the same educators and curriculum, with the sample adjusted for varying SES levels.

Surprisingly, the results demonstrated no significant disparities in reading fluency between second-grade students assessed before the pandemic in 2019 and those evaluated after the closures in 2020. A plausible explanation for the absence of discrepancies in fluency between these periods pertains to the characteristics of Hebrew orthography. The initial phases of reading acquisition in first grade encompass learning shallow pointed Hebrew, which facilitates the rapid assimilation of the correspondence between letters and sounds due to the provision of comprehensive phonological information ( Share and Levin, 1999 ). As a result, most children become proficient decoders by the end of first grade ( Lipka et al., 2016 ). Crucially, the two cohorts of second-grade students in this study had already acquired these foundational decoding skills during their first-grade year, preceding the pandemic’s advent. This suggests that while remote learning took place during their second-grade year, it did not notably impact the overall fluency and comprehension of these second graders as a whole.

When examining the SES effect, which focused on the differential effects of COVID-19 on reading among second-grade students of varied socioeconomic backgrounds, the study unearthed a significant SES impact on both word-reading fluency and comprehension at the sentence level. The findings highlighted that lower SES corresponded to lower reading and comprehension fluency. Moreover, a noteworthy interaction emerged specifically for reading fluency, rather than comprehension fluency, among students from diverse SES backgrounds. This interaction stemmed from a considerable decline in word-reading fluency and comprehension fluency within children from low SES during the pandemic, in contrast to their higher SES counterparts.

This decline is notable given the widely established SES-based disparities in reading fluency and comprehension ( Burkam et al., 2004 ; Christodoulou et al., 2017 ). The pandemic exacerbated these gaps, revealing that children from low SES backgrounds faced substantial challenges during remote learning, potentially due to limited access to digital resources, reduced parental support, and heightened familial stress. The substantial decrease in reading fluency and comprehension abilities among low-SES children underscores the urgent need for targeted interventions to mitigate the amplified disparities brought about by the pandemic.

To conclude, the study contributes to our understanding of the ramifications of COVID-19-induced school closures on reading acquisition. The investigation suggests that the impact on reading skills might be mediated by prior decoding proficiency and underlines the significance of mitigating socioeconomic disparities. The findings underscore the urgency of tailored educational support to bridge the gaps that have emerged during the pandemic, particularly among students from low-SES backgrounds.

The observed widening gap in reading fluency and comprehension between children of low SES and those of medium-high SES during 2020 underscores a significant concern within the educational landscape ( Burkam et al., 2004 ; Christodoulou et al., 2017 ). This finding highlights a pressing need for understanding the factors contributing to this phenomenon in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Several plausible explanations for this widening disparity emerge from the current study’s findings.

One conceivable explanation for the increased gap is rooted in the altered learning environment precipitated by school closures due to the pandemic. The significant reduction in the school day’s duration, coupled with the reliance on digital learning platforms for curriculum delivery, has had varying consequences for different student populations ( Hall et al., 2020 ; Kuhfeld et al., 2020 ). Notably, the majority of second-grade children lack the autonomy required for effective engagement with digital tools, necessitating greater parental involvement. However, parents from low SES backgrounds, who might face financial concerns and time constraints, may have struggled to provide the necessary support for their children’s remote learning ( Giovannella et al., 2020 ; Kruszewska et al., 2020 ; Letzel et al., 2020 ). This lack of adequate support could potentially contribute to the observed widening gap.

Furthermore, households with low SES often face challenges related to digital access and availability ( UNESCO, 2020 ). Reports from teachers in low-SES schools corroborate this, revealing that many students lacked access to computers during remote learning ( Dotan et al., 2021 ). This digital divide could have amplified the gap in reading fluency and comprehension skills, as students without access to digital tools were likely further marginalized during remote learning.

The confluence of these factors, coupled with the abrupt transition to remote learning, might have compounded the challenges faced by students from low SES backgrounds. This combined effect likely contributed to the significant decline in reading fluency and comprehension abilities among these students. This explanation finds reinforcement in a study by Domingue et al. (2021) that revealed the impact of SES on oral reading fluency growth during the COVID-19 period, where low SES students experienced a decline compared to the previous year.

Interestingly, during the pandemic, reading comprehension fluency improved among children of medium-high SES. This could be attributed to the comprehensive support these students received at home, allowing them to capitalize on one-on-one learning opportunities with parents or older siblings. This observation emphasizes the advantages of tailored support in affluent households.

In addition, while no significant gender differences were found in general, an unexpected effect of the pandemic was observed on boys. Previous literature has highlighted gendered experiences in education, with girls often encouraged more to read and boys receiving more opportunities for computing ( Eccles et al., 1993 ). The pandemic-induced shift to remote learning could have impacted boys’ confidence and interest in computing-related learning, thereby affecting their academic performance. Conversely, the superior reading proficiency exhibited by girls on average ( Logan and Johnston, 2010 ) and their affinity for reading could have helped them adapt better to self-regulated, computer-based learning.

The findings underscore the significance of addressing the “Matthew effect” ( Stanovich, 1986 ) in the context of the pandemic-induced disparities. The trajectory of reading skill development may exacerbate differences over time, warranting strategic efforts to narrow these gaps. It is crucial to consider the varied impact of remote learning on different student populations and their unique challenges.

This study has several limitations, although there was a large diverse sample from different SES there were no boys in the high SES group and therefore gender differences were examined only in the medium and low SES groups. In addition, all the children were Hebrew speaking children thus the effect of school closure was not examined among bilingual children or children from different minorities, future studies should examine the long-term effect of the COVID and school closure among different types of population, and at various ages to examine the effect at different stages of reading. Furthermore, only one aspect of comprehension was examined which may limit our understanding of the effect of COVID and school closure, this topic should be further examined as well.

In conclusion, the study highlights the importance of targeted interventions to address the widening gaps exacerbated by the pandemic, particularly among students from low SES backgrounds, as well as gender differences. The repercussions of learning loss and increased stress and anxiety during the pandemic cannot be ignored. Educators and policymakers must channel resources and efforts toward supporting these vulnerable populations to ensure equitable academic outcomes. An exploration of the pandemic’s impact on diverse populations will be integral to comprehending its full educational implications.

Data availability statement

The raw data supporting the conclusions of this article will be made available by the authors, without undue reservation.

Ethics statement

The studies involving humans were approved by Ethics Committee University of Haifa Faculty of Education Chief scientist ministry of Education Israel. The studies were conducted in accordance with the local legislation and institutional requirements. Written informed consent for participation in this study was provided by the participants’ legal guardians/next of kin.

Author contributions

SS: Writing – original draft, Methodology, Investigation, Formal analysis, Conceptualization. OL: Writing – review & editing, Methodology, Conceptualization. DT-C: Writing – original draft, Methodology. AB: Writing – review & editing, Data curation. SD: Writing – review & editing, Data curation.

The author(s) declare financial support was received for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article. This study was founded by the chief scientist of the ministry of education, Israel.


We would like to thank the Edmond J. Safra Foundation for their generous support and Tami Katzir for her helpful insights. In addition, great appreciation is conveyed to the students and teachers who participated in the present study.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

Publisher’s note

All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article, or claim that may be made by its manufacturer, is not guaranteed or endorsed by the publisher.

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Keywords: COVID-19 pandemic, reading acquisition, reading fluency, comprehension, socioeconomic status, gender differences

Citation: Shaul S, Lipka O, Tal-Cohen D, Bufman A and Dotan S (2024) The impact of school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic on reading fluency among second grade students: socioeconomic and gender perspectives. Front. Psychol . 15:1289145. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2024.1289145

Received: 05 September 2023; Accepted: 20 June 2024; Published: 05 July 2024.

Reviewed by:

Copyright © 2024 Shaul, Lipka, Tal-Cohen, Bufman and Dotan. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY) . The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Shelley Shaul, [email protected]

Disclaimer: All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article or claim that may be made by its manufacturer is not guaranteed or endorsed by the publisher.

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‘Visionary’ study finds inflammation, evidence of Covid virus years after infection

Isabella Cueto

By Isabella Cueto July 3, 2024

Nucleocapsid of the novel coronavirus in green and the virus's spike protein in blue shown across animal tissues represented in red — in the lab coverage from STAT

R emember when we thought Covid was a two-week illness? So does Michael Peluso, assistant professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. 

He recalls the rush to study acute Covid infection, and the crush of resulting papers. But Peluso, an HIV researcher, knew what his team excelled at: following people over the long term. 


So they adapted their HIV research infrastructure to study Covid patients. The LIINC program, short for “Long-term Impact of Infection with Novel Coronavirus,” started in San Francisco at the very beginning of the pandemic. By April 2020, the team was already seeing patients come in with lingering illness and effects of Covid — in those early days still unnamed and unpublicized as long Covid. They planned to follow people’s progress for three months after they were infected with the virus.

By the fall, the investigators had rewritten their plans. Some people’s symptoms were so persistent, Peluso realized they had to follow patients for longer. Research published Wednesday in Science Translational Medicine builds on years of that data. In some cases, the team followed patients up to 900 days, making it one of the longest studies of long Covid (most studies launched in 2021 or 2022, including the NIH-funded RECOVER program).

Investigators found long-lasting immune activation months and even years after infection. And, even more concerning, they report what looked like lingering SARS-CoV-2 virus in participants’ guts. Even those who’d had Covid but no continuing symptoms had different results than those who’d never been infected. 

Related: Listen: Why Long Covid can feel scarier than a gun to the head

The team’s big idea — hypothesizing in early 2020 that, contrary to the popular narrative, Covid would last in the body — was “visionary,” long Covid researcher Ziyad Al-Aly said. “A lot of people don’t think like that.” Al-Aly was not involved with the study, but has published other long-term studies of Covid patients. He is chief of research and development at the VA Saint Louis Healthcare System. 

The research makes use of novel technology developed by the paper’s senior authors, Henry Vanbrocklin, professor in the department of radiology at UCSF, and associate professor of medicine Timothy Henrich. They figured out in the last several years they could use an antibody that bound to HIV’s code protein as a guide to see viral reservoirs. The HIV antibody, labeled with radioactive isotopes, could be tracked with imaging as it moved through the body and migrated to infected tissues. 

There were no antibodies to latch onto early in the coronavirus pandemic. Vanbrocklin instead used a chemical agent, called F-AraG, that binds to activated T cells — immune cells that flood into infected tissues. They injected F-AraG into patients, and into a scan they went. 

Tissues full of activated T cells glowed in the resulting image. Researchers found more glowing sites of immune activation in people who had been infected with Covid than in those who had not, including: the brain stem, spinal cord, cardiopulmonary tissues, bone marrow, upper pharynx, chest lymph nodes, and gut wall. 

In people with long Covid symptoms, like brain fog and fatigue, the study found the gut wall and spinal cord lit up more than in other participants. People with continuing pulmonary symptoms showed greater immune activation in their lungs. Gut biopsies in five participants revealed what appears to be persistent virus, said Peluso, who is part of the LongCovid Research Consortium of the PolyBio Research Foundation (which helped fund the study). 

Related: ‘Concern is real’ about long Covid’s impact on Americans and disability claims, report says

“The data are striking,” said Akiko Iwasaki, a professor of immunobiology and long Covid researcher at Yale University. Iwasaki was not involved in the study but is also part of PolyBio’s long Covid research group. 

Researchers used pre-pandemic scans as a control group, “the cleanest comparison that there is, before anybody on the planet could’ve possibly had this virus,” Peluso said. There were 30 participants in total (24 who’d had Covid, and six controls). Uninfected participants showed some T cell activation, but it showed up in parts of the body that help clear inflammation, like the kidney and liver. In the post-Covid group, immune activation was widespread, even in those who report that they are back to their normal health. 

The data don’t explain what exactly T cells are reacting to. As Iwasaki noted, activated T cells can be responding to persistent SARS-CoV-2 antigens or autoantigens found in people with autoimmune disease. The immune response could also be to antigens coming from other pathogens, like the common Epstein-Barr Virus. This piece requires more study, she said. 

In the gut, the researchers found what they think is RNA that encodes the virus’s signature spike protein. Other studies have found similar pieces of virus in autopsies, or within a couple of months after infection. Peluso’s work suggests the virus may stay in the body much longer — up to years after infection.

The researchers don’t know if what they’re seeing is “fossilized” leftover virus or active, productive virus. But they found double-stranded RNA in the guts of some patients who underwent biopsy. That should technically only be there if a virus is still alive, going through its life cycle, Peluso said. 

Related: Long Covid research gets a big-time funding boost

Scientists and patient advocates have been suspicious for a while of the gut reservoir post-Covid. This new data may add fuel to the idea that SARS-CoV-2 stays in some people’s guts for a long time and could actually be driving long Covid. Or, on the other hand, it could mean our immune response is failing to clear the virus and leaving behind little pieces (which might not be harmful). There are still a lot of questions, Peluso admitted. But the paper undermines the paradigm that declares Covid infection disappears after two weeks, and long Covid is just residual damage. 

The findings also suggest a need for more aggressive evaluation of immunomodulating therapies, and treatments that target leftover virus. 

Most researchers hunting for a long Covid biomarker have turned to the blood or small pieces of tissue as surrogates for what’s happening inside a patient. With the new imaging technique, Peluso and his team can see a full person on their screen — a patient’s phantom figure and gauzy organs covered in splotches of light. “It’s really striking,” he said. “‘Oh, my goodness, this is happening in someone’s spinal cord, or their GI tract, or their heart wall, or their lungs.’” 

For patients like Ezra Spier, a member of the LIINC cohort who’s had imaging done after the period captured in this latest study, the experience was validating. Finally, the life-changing experience of long Covid had become visible. “ I can now see with my own eyes the kind of dysfunction going on throughout my own body,” said Spier, who created a website for long Covid patients to more easily find clinical trials near them. 

Most participants had been infected with a pre-Omicron variant of the virus, and one person had repeat infections throughout the study period. Two participants had been hospitalized during their initial bout of Covid, but neither one received intensive care. A half-dozen patients in the study reported zero long Covid symptoms, but still showed elevated levels of immune activation. 

Related: Could long Covid’s signs of immune dysregulation in the blood lead to a diagnostic test?

The paper does not explain what the sites of infection mean for symptoms, and immune activation in a particular organ doesn’t correspond to symptoms (for example, a gut full of T cells doesn’t necessarily match with GI problems). More studies are needed to figure out what the glowing spots mean for patients’ experience of long Covid. 

And the scans don’t work as a diagnostic. In other words, patients shouldn’t rush to San Francisco (Peluso’s group only accepts study participants from the area). The imaging technique isn’t available to the general public, either. F-AraG is still being studied in this context.

But Peluso and Vanbrocklin said imaging could be a major tool in figuring out long Covid. They’ve expanded their research program to do imaging on about 50 additional patients. They are also scanning people before and after they receive different long Covid clinical trial interventions to see if there’s a change in immune activity.

About the Author Reprints

Isabella cueto.

Chronic Disease Reporter

Isabella Cueto covers the leading causes of death and disability: chronic diseases. Her focus includes autoimmune conditions and diseases of the lungs, kidneys, liver (and more). She writes about intriguing research, the promises and pitfalls of treatment, and what can be done about the burden of disease.

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From Judges to Justices: Keeping Executive Power in Check Is an Ancient Problem

From Judges to Justices: Keeping Executive Power in Check Is an Ancient Problem

In the Bible, ancient Israel wrestled with how to restrain corrupt rulers. A modern-day version of that political question went before the US Supreme Court, which ruled Monday on when a president can be prosecuted for criminal behavior.

The case revolved around former president Donald Trump’s attempts to interfere with the 2020 election results. Ultimately, the Court decided that presidents have absolute immunity for official acts related to core constitutional duties while in office and presumptive immunity for official acts that don’t fall under core powers, but cannot be granted immunity for private acts.

Some evangelicals have expressed disappointment in Trump’s actions and support for the resulting criminal charges, saying they are eager to hold their executives to higher ethical standards, especially if they claim Christ. Trump supporters, though, have seen the efforts to prosecute him as unjust and politically motivated.

While Trump and his backers viewed the Court as siding with the former president, reactions were mixed among his opponents. Some were concerned about putting leaders “above the law,” while others saw the lack of immunity for unofficial acts as a significant check on executive power.

Daniel Darling, who is director of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Land Center for Cultural Engagement and has been critical of Trump, said reactions to the decision were perhaps overblown.

“Despite the screaming, the Court has strengthened democracy,” he wrote on X. “Trump has to prove his election-meddling was part of official acts. The government has to prove they weren’t. The court seems to lean in the direction that they weren’t.”

Some evangelical critics of Trump have relied on biblical appeals that Trump’s actions undermined the rule of law, making him unable to govern. Foremost among them is David French, a New York Times columnist, who wrote in response to the decision that “the court might say that presidents aren’t above the law, but in reality, it established an extraordinarily broad zone of absolute immunity for presidents.”

He added that this immunity, combined with the president’s ability to deploy troops, even on American soil under the Insurrection Act, would have “dangerous potential implications.”

The historic ruling in Donald J. Trump v. United States returned the case back to the trial court for more analysis on which of Trump’s actions were official before making a judgment about moving forward with a trial.

While the case on the surface deals with weighty legal matters of contemporary politics, one legal expert said the questions around the rule of law at the heart of the case are the same controversies that biblical figures wrestled with in the Old Testament.

“Much of the Old Testament are stories of kings abusing their power,” Robert Cochran, professor emeritus at Pepperdine’s Caruso School of Law and coeditor of a 2013 InterVarsity Press book, Law and the Bible , told CT.

He pointed to the story of King Ahab, who coveted a vineyard owned by a man named Naboth. Naboth refused to sell. So Queen Jezebel had him killed, and Ahab took the vineyard.

Prior to Israel installing a king, the nation suffered from the opposite problem of general lawlessness. The Book of Judges explored the need for someone to be in charge, due to chaos caused by human sin, and the concern that human-held power is liable to corruption.

Cochran pointed to the last five chapters of Judges, where people unrestrained by the rule of law committed rapes, mass murders, kidnappings, and forced marriages (Judges 17–21).

“At the end of each story appears the refrain ‘In those days Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes,’” Cochran said, citing Judges 21:25 (NLT). “The implication is clear: Israel needs a strong executive to enforce the law.”

But establishing a king did not fix ancient Israel’s problems either.

Donald Trump’s case puts this same tension on display, Cochran said. “Both sides are arguing that the other side will abuse power if not restrained. .… We need a rule that will enable presidents to govern effectively, but one under which they will not abuse their power.”

Special counsel Jack Smith, who secured an indictment from a grand jury on four felony charges against Trump in the case, has made the argument throughout the proceedings that blanket immunity would make presidents unanswerable to the rule of law.

Smith accused Trump of conspiring to subvert the will of millions of American citizens and attempting to violate the peaceful transfer of power through election interference.

Meanwhile, Trump’s legal team argued that unless presidents have far-reaching immunity, they are vulnerable to prosecutions by politically motivated bad actors once they leave office.

The decision means the lower court will determine whether Trump’s actions that are at the heart of the trial were official or unofficial and whether Smith can move forward in prosecuting Trump for the latter. It likely means some allegations Smith had made against Trump, which involved communications between Trump and Justice Department officials, won’t be grounds for prosecution.

The Supreme Court majority said the decision was not a power grab for the executive branch: “The President enjoys no immunity for his unofficial acts, and not everything the President does is official. The President is not above the law.”

The minority saw things differently. “The President is now a king above the law,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a strongly worded dissent.

Trump celebrated the outcome on his social media network, Truth Social, writing in all capital letters: “BIG WIN FOR OUR CONSTITUTION AND DEMOCRACY. PROUD TO BE AN AMERICAN!”

His supporters also applauded the ruling.

“Today the Supreme Court decided on what a majority of Americans already knew—that the DOJ was weaponized against Trump,” Sen. James Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican and former Southern Baptist pastor, wrote on social media. “No candidate or party should be attacked by their political opponents.”

Critics remained skeptical. Napp Nazworth, director of the American Values Coalition and former politics editor for The Christian Post said the decision “could’ve been worse.” But he questioned the ruling overall.

“Is a coup attempt an official act? This seems to be an open question for a majority of the court,” he wrote on Threads. A Never Trumper, Nazworth has long held that Trump would have a corrosive impact on the public witness of the church.

The decision today makes it extremely unlikely that Trump will face a trial before voters head to the polls in November.

Legal scholars predicted that, should Trump win the presidency a second time, it’s unlikely the case will proceed further.

“If Trump were to be reelected and this case is still out there, it is highly likely that he would take one of several paths to getting the Justice Department to dismiss the case,” George Mason University law professor Ilya Somin told CT. He also noted a standing Justice Department policy against prosecuting sitting presidents. In addition, there’s the open question of whether Trump would pardon himself.

“There’s other ways that you could do it,” Somin added. “But I think the bottom line is that he would find some way to put an end to the case.”

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From Judges to Justices: Keeping Executive Power ...


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