Improving Older Students’ Reading Skills

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It can be very difficult to improve the reading skills of older students. The general trend is that with intervention these students make slow, incremental improvements, but the gap between them and their peers typically stays the same, or widens.

Kilpatrick (2021) discusses research by Torgensen et al. (2001) whose aim was to discover if there were specific interventions that could effectively accelerated the reader of older severely struggling students so that their reading skills were ‘normalised’.[divider]

Torgensen et al. found that students with word-level reading problems had two key areas of deficit:

  • They tended to guess unknown words based on the context of the passage, usually because they had severe weaknesses in phonemic analysis and phonic knowledge.
  • They were unable to automatically recognise a significantly large number of words (sight words using the technical definition of this term) encountered in grade-level texts compared to their typically developing peers. This was also true of orthographic units.

Torgensen et al.’s analysis of previous research highlighted four key instructional elements leading to significant improvements in reading:

  • Intensive phonemic awareness instruction
  • Explicit and systematic phonics instruction
  • Practise connecting phonemic awareness skills and phonic skills
  • Text reading practice.

These key instructional elements were used in two intensive (1:1 tutoring for 67.5 hours over 8 weeks) interventions that distributed the instructional time for each of these elements differently.

Reading and comprehending text Learning high frequency words Phonemic awareness & phonics activities
Group 1 5% 10% 85%
Group 2 50% 30% 20%

All 60 participants had been receiving special education intervention and had severe reading disabilities (average word reading was in the 2nd percentile). Following the intensive intervention, on average, all students gained 14 standard points on a word identification subtest, with group 1 participants gaining 27.8 points on a nonsense word reading assessment and group 2 students making a 20 point gain. The first group made a 17 point gain in passage reading accuracy, while the second group made a 12 point gain. However, on average, students only made a 5 point gain on word reading efficiency which is a timed test, indicating small gains in ‘sight word’ vocabulary.

At the 1 year follow up, nearly 40% no longer required special education reading assistance, although this means 60% continued to require assistance. At the 2 year follow up, the participants on average showed a 12 point (group 1) and 10 point (group 2) gain in word reading efficiency. This suggests that students continued to improve, relative to their peers, long after the intervention finished.

Kilpatrick noted two disappointing findings from the research:

  • There was no comparative improvement in reading fluency.
  • Only about a quarter of the students maintained about half of their intervention gains at the two-year follow up and showed no improvement in comprehension or fluency, even though they had made significant post-intervention improvement.

Torgensen et al. suggested that narrowing the gap between typically developing peers and struggling readers in reading fluency is particularly difficult because poor readers have relatively limited text exposure and minimal word-reading practice. This fluency lag is an important reason for early intervention. It is also possible, that if the intervention had continued for a longer period the skills may have become more well-established.

Key points

  • Poor readers can improve given an effective intervention.
  • Central to this intervention is intensive instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics.
  • Reading difficulties should be identified and addressed as early as possible.

The Cracking the ABC Code Multisensory Reading programs provide an intensive intervention program that meets all of the criteria addressed in this study.

  • Multisensory Reading Level 3 programs are designed for students with reading accuracy ages of between 6½ years to 10 years.
  • The Multisensory Reading Level 4 program is designed for students with reading accuracy ages of between 10 years to 13/14 years.

If you are not a member already, I would recommend joining the Reading League.


Kilpatrick, D. (2021). Can older struggling readers improve their word-reading skills? The Reading League Journal, 2 (1), 23-29.