Main Body

13 Struggling Readers and Interventions


  • Why do some children struggle to break the code?
  • How common are reading disabilities?
  • What interventions and reading programs exist to help struggling readers?
  • What tools can help teachers to assist strugglers?

Children With Reading Difficulties

Reading and writing are complex practices.  When we read or write, our brains must process language in terms of semantics (the meaning of language), syntax (organizing words into comprehensible sentences), as well as phonological processing (decoding).  Couple those linguistic systems with the context and the purpose for the reading or writing, and it gets very complicated.  It seems that the root of reading difficulty for many children who struggle is in the processing of sounds.  Many students who struggle with literacy have a very underdeveloped sense of phonemic awareness, that is they have trouble identifying, isolating, and manipulating the smallest units of sound in spoken words.  If they struggle with sounds, they will likely struggle with matching letters to sounds as beginning readers too.

Top 10 Things You Should Know about Reading

Read the full article at Reading Rockets: Top 10 Things you Should Know about Reading:

  1. Too many American children don’t read well

  2. An achievement gaps exists

  3. Learning to read is complex

  4. Teachers should teach with the end goal in mind

  5. Kids who struggle usually have problems sounding out words

  6. What happens before school matters a lot

  7. Learning to read is closely tied to learning to talk and listen

  8. Without help, struggling readers continue to struggle

  9. With help, struggling readers can succeed

  10. Teaching kids to read is a team effort

Some kids have a disability that makes reading difficult to learn. Others come to school without the literacy experiences they need to become readers. Some children struggle because they’ve received poor or inadequate reading instruction. When these and other risk factors are identified early, though, many children’s reading difficulties can be prevented.

The Gap Between Good and Poor Readers

There is a huge (30 million words) gap between low and high SES children in the number of words they are exposed to in the first three years of life (Colker, 2014).  The big disparity in vocabulary development puts children from poverty at a disadvantage for literacy learning right from the start of school.  Research has indicated time and again that oral language development directly affects the attainment of reading and writing skills.  By third grade, the gap between strong readers and poor readers continues to widen as the strong become stronger and the weak even weaker.

We know the gap is wide, but there are research-based early literacy initiatives that seek to educate parents and teachers about the benefits of reading and talking to children and babies to increase their oral vocabularies and lay the foundations for print concepts and literacy.


Dyslexia is a brain based disorder with language processing.  Its cause is not known but it makes reading and writing difficult and affects academic achievement.  According to the International Dyslexia Association, as much as 15-20% of the population as a whole suffer from some degree of dyslexia.  About 85 % of the students diagnosed with a specific learning disability in literacy have dyslexia.  We know that it runs in families and has a genetic component, and we know there is no cure for the disorder.  The brains of dyslexic learners function differently than the brains of capable readers as revealed by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).       

Learn More about Dyslexia

The International Dyslexia Association has a wealth of resources about dyslexia.   Please click on the following links to learn more:

The University of Michigan provides a list of strategies for teachers who are working with children with dyslexia. Please click on the following link:


Interventions and Reading Programs for Struggling Readers

According to Hiebert, Pearson, Taylor, Richardson, & Paris (1998), the key features of successful reading programs include:

• A firm foundation on oral language instruction and communication

• Extensive opportunity to practice phonic analysis and word recognition

• Early instruction in letter names and sounds, concepts of print, and phonemic awareness

• Repeated use of high frequency words in authentic reading and writing activities

• Scaffolded instruction with comprehension strategies

• Many opportunities to write for meaningful purposes and audiences

• Classroom activities that engage children’s interest and support positive self-perceptions of themselves as growing readers and writers

School-wide and Individual Intervention Programs

Multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS)

Multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS) is a board approach across a school to support all students in learning.  Beyond just an academic focus, it also incorporates behavior, attendance, and social-emotional components.   Although often used interchangeably with Response to Intervention (RTI), MTSS focuses on system-wide changes to support students.   You can review the Kansas Fact Sheet on MTSS. In Kansas, RTI is a component of MTSS.

Response to Intervention (RTI)

Response to intervention (RTI) is a framework to help schools identify and support struggling students before they are diagnosed with learning disabilities. This approach, enacted into law in 2004, allows schools to use 15% of their special education funding to implement RTI programs and practices.   Typically in includes four components:1) Universal screening, 2) Teaching with evidence-based practices and curriculum (data-driven instruction), 3) Progress monitoring, and 4) Tiered interventions. 

There are three tiers to the RTI pyramid. Tier 1 is the high quality, evidence-based instruction that occurs in the classroom. For approximately 80% of children, regular classroom instruction provides them the opportunity to succeed.  However, some children need different or additional instruction to success and this is typically done in small groups at Tier 2.  Through progress monitoring, children’s needs are identified and flexibly grouping is used to target instruction. If a child is still not making adequate progress in Tier 2 interventions (about 5% of children), they may be moved into a Tier 3 intervention which would provide more intensive support. 

School districts have a wide-range of choices when designing their RTI program. Some use commercially produced programs or train their teachers in a particular framework, others design their own program.


The above video provides on overview of the RTI model and the major components.

The following intervention programs may be used by schools implementing RTI. The RTI Action Network has resources for teachers and parents.


Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies (PALS) is a peer-tutoring instructional program that supplements the primary reading curriculum. Pairs of students work together on reading activities intended to improve reading accuracy, fluency, and comprehension. Students in the pairs—who alternately take on the roles of tutor and tutee— read aloud, listen to their partner read, and provide feedback during various structured activities. Students are partnered in high low duos allowing each to play the role of teacher and student.

The Evidence-Based Intervention Network from University of Missouri provides an overview of PALS lessons across grade levels.


The above video shows a kindergarten PALS lesson.

The above video shows a PALS lesson in math, highlighting the three steps.

Reading Recovery

Reading Recovery was developed by literacy researcher, Marie Clay as an early intervention program for the bottom performing 40% of first grade students.  In reading recovery, individual students work one-to-one with a specially trained teacher for only 12 to 20 weeks and receive daily 30-minute lessons. After a full series of lessons, about 72% of students achieve grade-level standard.  A typical lesson features practice writing sight words, rereading a familiar text, taking a running record, writing sentences and cutting them up, and introducing a new book.

The above video shows a Reading Recovery Lesson.

Success For All

SFA is is a school wide reform program that seeks to improve the literacy and language skills of at risk pre-k through 2nd grade students.  It is a comprehensive literacy program that emphasizes cooperative learning and extensive professional development for teachers to implement the literacy lessons with a strong phonics emphasis.

What Can Teachers Do to Help?

According to Allington (2013) there are several research based practices we can implement in our classrooms to help struggling readers achieve and progress.

1. Give strugglers equal time spent reading as their more confident peers

In the average classroom, proficient readers are given more time engaged in reading text, while struggling readers are given more worksheets and skill instruction and less time engaged in reading text.  Research says that the best way to help strugglers improve is more time spent reading.  In our classrooms, we need to ensure that all students have an extended period of time devoted to reading texts.

It is also important to allow for choice in reading materials in order to allow children to become invested in texts they find interesting.  Choice is a huge factor in motivation.  Motivation is the key to getting students to want to read at all.

2. Help them select texts at a 98% accuracy level to allow them to practice and experience success

We know that when something is hard or difficult we tend to avoid that thing.  For children who find reading difficult, the act of reading is less than pleasurable.  So it makes sense to place struggling readers in texts that they can easily navigate with 98% or higher accuracy.  This means that they will not struggle with word identification and therefore be able to read with greater speed, accuracy, and higher comprehension.  We can use running records and lexile scores to quickly determine which texts are just right for struggling readers.  When something is easy, it is also enjoyable and likely to be repeated!  At, they have a category of books they code as “high interest, low readability” that are well suited for struggling readers who want books that they can read with ease but still appeal to their interests.

The lexile leveling system is helpful for both students and teachers when selecting books that will be just right for the reader’s ability and interest.

The Lexile codes are:

• AD: Adult Directed: Better when read aloud to a student rather than having the student read independently.

• NC: Non-Conforming: Good for high-ability readers who still need age-appropriate content.

• HL: High-Low: Content to engage older students who need materials that are less complex and at a lower reading level.

• IG: Illustrated Guide: Nonfiction materials often used for reference.

• GN: Graphic Novel: Graphic novels or comic books.

• BR: Beginning Reader: Appropriate for emerging readers with a Lexile reader measure below 0L.

• NP: Non-Prose: Poems, plays, songs, recipes and text with non-standard or absent punctuation.

3. Avoid allowing para professionals to provide primary instruction

Too often children who struggle with literacy are assisted by paraprofessionals in the classroom.  Allington reminds us that primary reading instruction should be at the hands of a highly-trained education professional with the knowledge and skills to provide balanced reading instruction.  All readers benefit from time spent in guided reading lessons where they can practice applying reading strategies under the guidance of a skilled teacher.

4. Engage them in small group reading experiences and avoid whole group instruction

We learned in Chapter 12 that guided reading is the ideal setting for strategy-based reading instruction.  Struggling readers need one to one instruction that is individualized to their needs.  The small reading group is ideal for strategy focused instruction.  In small reading groups, successes can be celebrated and needs can be addressed immediately.  Children also benefit from working in pairs where they can share their expertise and assume the role of teacher/mentor sometimes too.

Questions I Can Ask As I Read

To get the gist of what I am reading:

What is this story about?

What is the problem?

What is the solution?

What do I need to know about?

To predict-verify-decide:

What’s going to happen next?

Is my prediction still a good one?

Do I need to change my prediction?

What makes me think so?

To visualize:

What does this (person, place, or thing) look like?

What makes me think so?

To Summarize:

What’s happened so far?

Who did what?

What makes me think so?

To Think Aloud:

What am I thinking right now?


To Solve Problems When I don’t Understand:

Should I…

Stop and review?

Reread and look back?

Ignore and read on?


5. Make reading lessons meaning focused rather than skills focused

Encourage students to be thoughtful literacy learners.  Allington encourages us to remind students that the point of reading and writing is more than remember what the text said, but rather engaging the ideas, challenging them, and reflecting on them.  Encourage students to make connections and engage in thoughtful discussions around the text.  Book clubs or literature circles are great instructional programs for facilitating the social aspect of book discussions while encouraging thoughtful literacy practices.

Resources for Starting Book Clubs

Literature Circles

Literature circles are student-led book discussions.

Spaghetti Book Club

The largest site of children’s book reviews written and illustrated by kids for kids. Read their reviews or submit your own!

Start Your Own Book Club – ReadWriteThink

Children can enjoy a community-building experience by meeting with friends to choose, read, and discuss books together.

Programs for school-aged kids | Association for Library Service to Children

Pen-Pal Book Club: Children can “buddy read” with a student from a different location. Children can communicate via email, private blog, or if available Skype. Book pairings can be worked out between children off of a pre-determined list based on the locations’ collections.

FlipGrid Bookclubs

How To Use Flipgrid for Book Clubs

Review and Questions to Ponder

Questions to Ponder

  1. What are your preferred learning styles and how do they influence your own instruction?  How can you use your own strengths in the classroom to reach every learner?
  2. What resources can you share with families to promote literacy at home?
  3. How can you get books into your students’ homes?  Research shows that kids from low SES homes have very few books they can call their own.  What community resources exist to help you attain books?



Allington, R.L. (2013). What really matters when working with struggling readers. The Reading Teacher, 66(7): 520–530.

Colker, L. J. (2014). The word gap: The early years make the difference. Teaching Young Children, 7(3): 26–28.

Hiebert, E,H., Pearson, P.D., Taylor, B.M., Richardson, V., & Paris, S.G. (1998). Every child a reader: Applying reading research to the classroom. Ann Arbor, MI: Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement, University of Michigan School of Education. Retrieved November 1, 2017, from


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Teaching Literacy in Grades Pre-K to 2 by Lori Levin and Suzanne Porath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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