A Targeted Approach to Interventions for Struggling Readers

Reading may be the single most important skill for children to learn, as it’s a portal to the world of knowledge. Despite major efforts to help improve literacy levels, the percentage of struggling readers has barely decreased over the last decade. One of the ways many schools seek to improve literacy growth is by adding reading intervention programs to existing literacy curricula. The main purpose of reading intervention is to improve students’ reading by helping increase their decoding, fluency, comprehension or vocabulary. In our work and research within Minnesota Center for Reading Research (MCRR), we’ve taken a close look at how to best use reading interventions for positive student outcomes.

What have we found? The more accurately teachers and reading specialists can define the student’s challenge, the more effective the intervention. This means we specifically target our intervention to the broad category such as decoding (breaking down the unknown words by using knowledge of letters, sounds and patterns) or fluency (reading quickly, with ease). We can’t take a “one size fits all” approach to reading intervention. We must ask which child requires additional help, what are the individual needs, and then use that information to target a solution. While this is surprisingly a novel idea for many educators, we’ve conducted research on the topic for more than 15 years.

This current MCRR reading report examines whether the instructional level for reading (meaning 93% to 97% of words are known/read correctly) should be used to target interventions. The instructional level is the level at which a teacher “stretches” the student in his thinking and reading. The independent level, on the other hand, is the level at which the child can read easily and with pleasure.

Our report found that applying the Instructional Hierarchy and the instructional level provide a good framework to target academic interventions. Positive outcomes resulted when students read at the instructional level, including enhanced reading fluency, comprehension and time on task. According to research by Haring and Eaton on their Instructional Hierarchy, interventions should be targeted based on four phases—or stages—of learning:

Phase 1: Acquisition of new skills, characterized by slow and inaccurate performance. A student in this phase would require high modeling and ready feedback with the goal of improving accuracy.

Phase 2: Proficiency, after a student becomes accurate but is working slowly. This student responds to repetition and over-learning with the goal to increase the student’s speed of response.

Phase 3: Generalization, meaning the student is accurate and fluent but now needs to generalize newly learned information to different settings, to use the skill in a wide possible range of settings.

Phase 4: Adaptation, in that the student can adapt, or modify, the skill to fit new tasks or situations.

The instructional level could be a useful gauge to determine whether a student is ready to move from the Acquisition Phase to the Proficiency Phase. Accuracy is an important variable in the Instructional Hierarchy. Level of accuracy, rather than speed of response, is a better indicator for which of the first two phases students are at in their learning. Two students may have a similar speed of response, but will need differing interventions based on their level of accuracy. For example, the student with low accuracy needs an intervention that targets more accurate responding, while the student with higher accuracy requires an intervention that focuses on speed of correct response, which is the Proficiency Phase.

With proper feedback from teachers and lots of practice, students become more fluent, accurate and confident. It’s important for teachers and reading instructors to begin by identifying the student’s learning phase or stage, so the team can select teaching tools and ideas that will be successfully matched to the student’s needs.

Looking for an Intervention resource?
Schools and teachers can download our Intervention Protocols for the five key factors. This guide includes helpful tips and recommendations such as the order to teach sounds, selecting which words to teach and the benefits of read-aloud experiences for young children.

We’d love to hear your ideas on how you’ve made a difference for struggling readers in your classroom!

–Matt Burns and Lori Helman, Co-Directors of the Minnesota Center for Reading Research (MCRR)

Learn more about our literacy research on the MCRR reading reports page.

Lori Helman

About the Author

Lori Helman, Ph.D.

  • MCRR Co-Director
  • College of Education and Human Development (CEHD)
  • Curriculum and Instruction
  • University of Minnesota
  • Associate professor of literacy education
Matthew Burns

About the Author

Matthew Burns, Ph.D.

  • MCRR Co-Director
  • College of Education and Human Development (CEHD)
  • Educational Psychology
  • University of Minnesota
  • Professor of educational psychology

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