School Committees

Promoting Literacy for All Students

Image used with permission by Dr. Fumiko Hoeft

Issue 3: Addressing Reading Challenges

The graphic below, called Scarborough's Reading Rope, describes the sub-skills involved in reading. When students struggle or have deficits in the sub-skills of reading, students will struggle to comprehend text. Dyslexic students struggle with the lower strands initially, but over time can also have problems with the upper-strands because they are not reading as much as their peers because of decoding struggles. Students who are multilingual students or students with language disabilities often struggle with the upper-strands of the rope. It is important to have data that identifies the sub-skills of reading so students are getting targeted and appropriate reading interventions. All students learn to read the same way, the reasons they may struggle will vary. A robust screening and progress monitoring system is important.


Lack of teacher preparation in the science of reading, which is a body of research that explains how children learn to read, has been a contributing factor to stagnant reading proficiency rates across the country. Curriculum alone will not be the solution, there are no silver bullets; however, instructional practices that align with evidence increases the chances of a child becoming a proficient reader. Instructional practices that align with belief systems, will make reading a privilege, especially for our most vulnerable students. Please view the Assessing & Addressing Dyslexia Section to understand the profiles of struggling readers.


  • Schools are not screening effectively for sub-skills that can be predictors of future reading challenges.

  • Many schools use weak curriculum that does not align with cognitive science. This will only increase the number of students in need of reading interventions and can be devastating for children with reading disabilities. (Note-this is changing in RI!!!)

  • Watch this short video to understand more about dyslexia and why it is important to identify students on the dyslexic spectrum.

  • Reading interventions do not align with identified needs. For instance, a child with decoding deficits is provided LLI reading intervention from Fontas & Pinnell

  • All students reading below grade-level are required to have a Personal Literacy Plan (PLP). Too often, parents are not informed about the progress monitoring data outside of a letter stating their student has been provided a PLP.

  • Response to Intervention is a process schools use to provide interventions for students with learning and behavior needs. MTSS is a framework that provides targeted support to struggling students focusing on the "whole child" (academic, social-emotional, and behavioral). RTI/MTSS frameworks are not using evidence-based interventions for students with word-level reading challenges/dyslexia. Many unidentified dyslexic students cycle in and out of the RTI/MTSS framework as a result. Any student demonstrating weaknesses in foundational skills deserves to have a structured literacy intervention.

  • Districts fear identifying dyslexic students may be too costly. Schools also fear increasing the number of students identified with a specific learning disability.

  • Districts may also be aware that they lack the ability to provide appropriate reading interventions (reading specialists and special educators are not trained in structured literacy or Orton-Gillingham), so they avoid using the term dyslexia because they fear lawsuits.

  • Schools have a legal obligation under IDEA to find and identify students with a learning disability, this is called Child Find. If teachers are sent the message from administrators in the district not to say dyslexia or mention characteristics of dyslexia, children will not be identified early.

  • Parents should not have to spend money on lawyers and private tutors to ensure their child can learn to read. This is not equitable and contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline. Schools do not diagnose dyslexia, but schools can identify characteristics of dyslexia and decide if a child's needs rise to the level of special education services.

  • Avoiding early intervention and waiting for a child to fail in later grades has many consequences. Research shows, that screening, reading instruction that aligns with the cognitive processes involved in reading, and evidence-based reading interventions can reduce costs (see graphic on top of the page). Catch all struggling readers and intervene at the start! Schools should not wait for a child to be diagnosed with a reading disability. This is not equitable.

  • Teachers were not taught that dyslexia is on the lower end of the literacy continuum. The strategies dyslexic students need are the same that all students need to attain automaticity with word-level reading, dyslexic students will need more exposure and greater intensity to map words like typical readers. The trouble occurs when a student experiences a literacy curriculum that does not include a structured literacy component.

  • When students are not identified early, it becomes difficult to find appropriate intervention time and students may lose out on other subjects like electives.

  • Districts buy a boxed intervention or program without investing in teacher training and knowledge.

  • Waiting for children to fall behind impacts a student's social-emotional well-being.

  • Parents are being told dyslexia is a medical diagnosis, this is false.

  • Schools may not use the term dyslexia and they do not explain to parents that dyslexia falls under Specific Learning Disability (SLD) in basic reading and/or fluency under the federal IDEA legislation. By avoiding the term, parents may not have access to important resources to help their child.

  • Special Education programs do not train teachers in Structured Literacy, yet dyslexic students are the largest group classified as having a Specific Learning Disability (SLD). When students do get an IEP for a specific learning disability, they are placed with a teacher who is not trained to meet their needs.

  • Not all schools have a reading or literacy specialist. Some schools have reading specialists, but they are not trained in Structured Literacy/Orton-Gillingham approach for word-level reading instruction.

A meta-analysis comparing intervention studies of at least 100 sessions reported larger effect sizes in kindergarten and first grade than in the later grades. Furthermore, a meta-analysis across six studies revealed that when at-risk beginning readers received explicit and intensive instruction, 50 to 90% of these children reached average reading performance levels (Torgesen, 2004).