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Intensive, Individualized Interventions for Struggling Readers

U.S. Depertment of Education
Because the cause of adolescents’ difficulties in reading vary, interventions may focus on any of the critical elements of knowledge and skill required for the comprehension of complex texts, including fundamental skills such as phonemic awareness, phonemic decoding, text reading fluency, vocabulary-building strategies, and self-regulated use of reading comprehension strategies.

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Some adolescents need more support to increase literacy skills than regular classroom teachers can provide. Students who are unable to meet grade-level standards in literacy often require supplemental, intensive, and individualized reading intervention to improve their skills. Such interventions are most often provided by reading specialists or teachers who have undergone thorough training to help them understand the program or approach they will use and to deepen their understanding of adolescent struggling readers.

The purpose of intensive interventions is to accelerate literacy development so that students are able to make substantial progress toward accomplishing reading tasks appropriate for their current grade level. Placement in interventions is often a two-step process, beginning with an initial screening assessment to identify those students who need extra help. This step should be followed by assessment with diagnostic tests to provide a profile of literacy strengths and weaknesses.

Because the cause of adolescents’ difficulties in reading may differ from student to student, interventions may focus on any of the critical elements of knowledge and skill required for the comprehension of complex texts. These elements include: fundamental skills such as phonemic awareness, phonemic decoding, and other word analysis skills that support word reading accuracy; text reading fluency; strategies for building vocabulary; strategies for understanding and using the specific textual features that distinguish different genres; and self-regulated use of reading comprehension strategies.

Determining students’ skill levels, helping students learn specific reading strategies, and providing intensive and individualized instruction appear to be especially promising methods for improving the outcomes of struggling readers. For example, students who have difficulty using the skills needed to recognize words need different intervention than do students whose primary deficits are figuring out the meaning of unfamiliar words or comprehension of extended prose.

How to Implement Interventions

Supplemental interventions for struggling readers can offer the learning opportunities that student need to make substantial progress toward grade-level standards. However, because adolescents’ reading needs are varied and complex, schools should first take steps to understand the learning needs they must address.

  1. Although classroom teachers can sometimes pinpoint students’ learning needs by using informal assessment tools or even observation, a more reliable method for identifying struggling readers includes use of an initial screening test or a threshold score on a required reading test and subsequent use of a diagnostic reading test that must be administered, scored, and interpreted by a specialist.

    For some students, formal, individually administered diagnostic assessments are needed; for others with less severe needs group-administered, standardized or criterion-referenced tests can serve as a starting point for determining an appropriate intervention.1 Individually or groupadministered tests provide information that allows the specialist to perform the in-depth diagnosis that is often needed to match intervention approaches to students’ needs.

  2. The identification of students’ learning needs should be followed by the selection of an intervention that provides an explicit instructional focus targeted to meet those needs.

    Such instruction might include varying areas of need and rely on teaching different strategies to meet them. However, the teaching strategies selected should provide students with explicit strategies, techniques, principles, knowledge, or rules that enable them to solve problems and complete tasks independently.2

    Central to the effective use of an intervention is working with students to set goals for improvement, followed by a description of the strategy to be mastered, modeling of the strategy verbal, continued practice and feedback, and generalization of the strategy to other tasks.3 Providing students with learning aids can help them understand the purpose of the lesson, a rationale for the lesson, the learning expectations, and how the content to be taught relates to what they have learned previously and what they may learn in the future.4

    Examples of these include advance organizers to prepare them for reading and activate prior knowledge, graphic organizers or maps to track ideas during reading, and graphic displays that encourage students to make link between what they know and the content about which they are reading.

  3. Even though explicit strategy instruction and various forms of structuring effective strategy instruction show promise, it also seems clear that many struggling readers require more intensive efforts than do students who are performing at or near grade level.5

    The intensiveness of the intervention should be matched to the needs of students who struggle — the greater the instructional need, the more intensive the intervention. Two methods for increasing the intensity of instruction are to provide additional instruction time or to work with students individually or in small groups.

    The most practical method for increasing instructional intensity for smaller numbers of struggling readers is to provide supplemental small group instruction, usually for extended periods of time or as a distinct pull-out class. Within these small groups, teachers can more readily monitor student progress and help students learn the particular strategies that will help them attain grade-level reading skills. All the studies that informed this recommendation offered interventions that provided more intensive instruction for struggling readers through smaller classes, increased time for learning, or both.

  4. Additionally, intensive interventions might involve repeated reading, provision of adjunct questions to scaffold comprehension, and questioning for understanding to improve the reading outcomes of adolescents.6
  5. These strategies can be offered in small group intervention sessions. Although not as interventions per se, these strategies also serve the needs of poorly prepared readers when adopted for use in contentarea classrooms.

Potential Roadblocks and Solutions

  1. Some middle and high schools may not have the specialized personnel, time, and resources to conduct efficient screening assessments for students to identify their reading needs.

    Timely and proper screening, diagnosis, and treatment of the source of struggling readers’ difficulties are central to the success of an intervention strategy. Teacher recommendations can be the motivation for initiating assignment to an intervention, but it is more likely that students will be identified through a screening test or data analysis of reading tests to identify scores falling below a specific threshold. In some cases students might have an individualized education plan that contains information about previous testing.

    For the most seriously disabled readers, however, it is crucial that the major source of the students’ reading difficulties be identified so that interventions can be targeted to the most critical areas. Previous results from standardized tests can be used as a baseline to determine which students are reading below grade level. If such data are unavailable, regular middle and high school teachers can administer group screening tests that will indicate which students may be having reading problems. After students with severe reading difficulties are identified, further testing is usually needed. This testing should be administered and interpreted by reading specialists or special education teachers with advanced knowledge of reading difficulties.

    Finding the resources to administer and interpret these various formal and informal assessments can be a challenge. We suggest that educators consider reallocating resources to carry out timely assessments and avoid far more serious future costs to the system, such as retentions in grade, and costs to individual students, including dropping out of school.

    Acquiring appropriate intervention materials, equipment, and programs; training teachers in use of the interventions; and allocating space for instruction of individuals and small groups also pose challenges in many schools. But the importance of addressing and remediating students’ deficits in reading cannot be underestimated. The resources can come from programs such as Title I and other supplemental state and local funding sources, or professional development initiatives can be supported by Title II dollars.

    Business partnerships, private grants, and other parent and community- based fundraising initiatives may also help augment existing resources. Finally, establishing strong administration and faculty support to make literacy a schoolwide priority will certainly help raise awareness about the importance of supporting these efforts and will garner greater commitment to make the needed alterations to schedules and resources.

  2. Many middle and high school content-area teachers, in areas such as science, math, and social studies, do not possess the information or skills needed to teach reading and do not believe that it is their job to teach reading strategies.

    To compound this problem, the typical departmental structure of secondary schools combined with the lack of regular communication among teachers across departments can lead to a lack of coordination across the curricula. Contentarea teachers should not be responsible for carrying out intensive interventions for struggling readers.

    However, content-area teachers can be taught to use strategies designed to make content-area texts more accessible to all students, including those who struggle with literacy. Professional development sessions that provide clear, easy-to-understand information about the extent of the reading difficulties that students experience and about the steps that all teachers can take to address students’ problems emphasize that a school faculty as a whole has responsibilities for meeting the needs of all students. Professional development, which needs to acknowledge the demands of all content areas, can include the modeling and reinforcement of effective strategies to increase students’ abilities to comprehend their textbooks and other resource materials.

    Content-area teachers can use teaching aids and devices that will help struggling readers better understand and remember the content they are teaching. For instance, graphic organizers, organizing themes, and guided discussions can help students understand and master the curriculum content. If schoolwide coordination is achieved through professional development, common planning periods, and informal opportunities for teachers to collaborate and communicate across the content areas, teachers can more easily provide mutually reinforcing reading opportunities to better prepare students to meet identified standards in all areas. Ideally, content-area teachers should work with language arts teachers, literacy specialists, and other content-area teachers to provide coherent and consistent instruction that enables students to succeed in reading across the curriculum.

Kamil, M. L., Borman, G. D., Dole, J., Kral, C. C., Salinger, T., and Torgesen, J. (2008). Improving adolescent literacy: Effective classroom and intervention practices: A Practice Guide (NCEE #2008-4027). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from