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Why Some Students Have Difficulty Reading

Students may be struggling with word study, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension — or even motivation. It’s key to figure out where students are with their literacy skills, what kinds of support they need, and to see them as individuals.


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In its well-known 2000 report, the National Reading Panel described five key "building blocks" of literacy: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.

Over the last two decades, these building blocks have become much more familiar in the education world. Nowadays, many teachers take it for granted that any decent reading program should touch on all five.

The concepts in the NRP report reflect Gough and Tumner’s Simple View of Reading (Gough & Tumner, 1986) and Scarborough’s Reading Rope (2001).


The Simple View of Reading

The Simple View and studies supporting it show that a student’s reading comprehension (RC) can be predicted once you have determined the student’s decoding skills and oral language comprehension (LC) abilities. It’s important to note that D and LC are not added together to predict RC. They are multiplied. The Simple View formula makes clear that students cannot become proficient in reading comprehension until both their decoding skills and their language comprehension abilities are strong. 

Simple View of Reading

Scarborough’s Reading Rope

Hollis Scarborough’s Reading Rope (2001) digs in a little more deeply. By identifying the multiple components of oral language comprehension and word recognition, Dr. Scarborough demonstrates the complexity of helping students become skilled readers.

Scarborough reading rope diagram

Becoming proficient readers

As a student masters both oral language comprehension and word recognition, they are ready to intertwine them with “automaticity” toward becoming proficient readers.

The 2000 National Reading Panel report had young students in mind when it came up with its five building blocks. For struggling adolescent readers, the priorities are sometimes different. Nearly all adolescents, even those who read at a low level, have at least some ability to sound out words. If they help with the basic mechanics of reading, they tend to be better served by what’s known as “word study,” which is slightly more advanced than phonics instruction.1

As the Center on Instruction suggests in the 2008 publication, Effective Instruction for Adolescent Struggling Readers , when it comes to struggling adolescent readers, the NRP’s five “building blocks” of literacy should be adapted for adolescents as follows:

Grades K-3 

  • Phonemic Awareness
  • Phonics
  • Fluency
  • Vocabulary
  • Comprehension

Grades 4-12 

  • Word Study
  • Fluency
  • Vocabulary
  • Comprehension
  • Motivation

What you can do in the classroom

Which of these elements should you emphasize in your school or classroom?

That depends on what you find out when you assess your students’ reading skills. For instance, you might discover that some of your students need help in all five areas, others struggle mainly with motivation, others read fluently without comprehending what they’re reading, and others would be served best by an extra emphasis on vocabulary.

Struggling readers shouldn’t be lumped together in a single, catch-all remedial class. Instead, through assessment, we can discern what kinds of support students need and, to the extent possible, treat them as individuals. When planning special reading classes, tutoring services, after-school programs, or other assistance, it helps to be flexible and to resist the temptation to assemble these elements into a one-size-fits-all reading intervention.

Researchers have found that struggling adolescent readers tend to be easily frustrated by reading assignments and extremely disengaged from their schoolwork. In fact, disengagement is such a common problem, and addressing it is so critical to literacy development, that motivation has to be treated as one of the field’s central concerns. The caution here is that the behavior of students who are unmotivated students’ may in some cases be a sign of underlying issues with executive function or dyslexia.

Duke and Cartwright (2021) in their article, The Science of Reading Progresses: Communicating Advances Beyond the Simple View of Reading  provide a comprehensive look at how the Simple View of Reading has evolved and provide a discussion of executive function.