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A word identification strategy for middle and high school students.


This action research project was conducted with nine students currently served by the special education program at a rural high school in south Alabama. The Word Identification Strategy, DISSECT, was introduced to sixth grade struggling readers who were experiencing failure in their general education science class. The results of the project demonstrated that with a relatively short time, disabled readers could be taught a simple way to unlock multi-syllable words without the public assistance of a teacher. The word recognition gains made by the students were considered to be substantial. The gains in self-esteem were even more dramatic.


Students with demonstrated disabilities in grades six through twelve encounter much difficulty with traditional content area learning. This difficulty seems to be expressed in their inability to obtain information from the basal text used in the general education classes (Rivera & Smith, 1997). Dr. Ed Ellis (2002) states that adolescents who have difficulty with independently identifying words in their content area text seem to prefer failing than to seek the assistance of their teacher. This bold move on their part would risk highlighting their shortcomings and open them up to ridicule. During the elementary years, they had the safety net of teacher intervention and assistance; they do not feel this is an option at the middle or high school level (Lebzelter & Nowacek, 1999).

The reality of today's school programs, finds students with mild to moderate disabilities, not in self-contained classes, but in inclusive classrooms with limited support from a resource room. Bryant and colleagues (1999) found that adolescents with reading disabilities in an inclusive classroom need assistance in meeting the demands of the content specific classes. Likewise, Lenz and Hughes (1990) found this student population had difficulty meeting the demands of content area reading and comprehension because the text may be written at several grade levels above current independent reading level. They discovered that this population of at risk learners lacked the necessary early reading skills (phonetic analysis, structural analysis, and the use of context clues) to unlock unknown words and derive meaning from the content specific text.

In 1980, Warner and colleagues stated that word identification is a significant problem for many middle and high school students who are reluctant and struggling readers. The daunting task of meeting and conquering multi-syllable words in content specific text sent this population running in retreat because they did not possess the necessary skills to read the word (Perfetti, 1986). This lack of resolve prevents the disabled reader from being successful in the inclusive classroom. The investigators of this action research project observed the students in this resource classroom struggle with maintaining even minimal success in the general education science class. The students demonstrated their inability to deal with words not immediately recognized or how to approach these words without opening themselves to public exposure. This lack of ability seemed to reinforce their already low self-esteem and learned-helplessness.

With a sense of urgency, Mrs. Corley sought a way of giving her students skills to be more successful in the general education classroom. This investigation team sought to teach the students a skill that would lower their word reading errors and, allows them to compete in the inclusive classroom with non-disabled peers. The selection of this learning strategy is supported by Lebzelter and Nowacek (1999).

Learning strategies are based on the premise that learning is an active process. Deschler and Schumaker (1988) stated that strategic instructional models should incorporate three elements: assisting students to problem solve, make a conscious commitment to learn and be an active participant in the learning process, and provide both guided and independent practice. This being the basis for the selection of a learning strategy, DISSECT, a word identification strategy, developed at the University of Kansas Center for Research in Learning Disabilities in 1984 was selected.

Strategy Description

DISSECT is a word attack strategy for reading unknown, polysyllabic words. This strategy has been successful in reducing the number of oral reading errors by students using this process (Lenz & Hughes, 1990). A seven step process, DISSECT, requires the reader to pay attention to the context of the unknown word, break the word into parts, and use other resources to successfully read the word (Lebzelter & Nowacek, 1999; Lenz & Hughes, 1990). The steps are taught using a mnemonic that identifies what is to take place in each of the steps. Bryant and colleagues describes the following steps:

1. Discover the context

Students are told to skip the unknown word and continue reading. They are to use clues found in the sentences and/or passage to guess the word.

2. Isolate the Prefix

When the word guessed is not correct, the student is directed to isolate the prefix by dividing off the prefix letters from the rest of the word. Lessons are provided to teach the student what a prefix is and how to recognize them. (Example: di vest)

3. Separate the Suffix

The student is directed to divide the suffix from the unknown word. Again lessons are provided to teach what a suffix is, its purpose, and how to recognize them. (Example: loveable) Students are directed to read the root word. If they are unsuccessful, step four is next.

4. Say the stem

Students are asked to read the stem, or root word. The root word is what remains after the prefix and suffix are removed. If they are not successful at this step, students are directed to proceed to the next stage.

5. Examine the word

If reading the root word without the prefix and suffix is not successful, the students are taught to divide the root word into easy to pronounce parts following three short roles for syllabification. The Rules of Twos and Threes are introduced. These simple rules direct the students to divide the word off into two letters if it first begins with a vowel or by three letters if it begins with a consonant. They are to proceed through the root word following the Rules of Twos and Threes until they have reached the end. (Example: man nan im ous)

6. Check with someone

When the students are still not able to read the word, they are advised to seek the assistance of a teacher, parent, or a peer with an appropriate reading level.

7. Try the dictionary

This final step directs the students to use the dictionary As a guide when others with an appropriate reading level Are not available. This is a last resort effort on the part of the student to read the unknown word when a teacher, parent, or better reading peer is not available. (Bryant, Ugel, Thompson, & Hamff, 1999; Lenz, Schumaker, Deschler, & Beals, 1984).

This article describes the results of the word identification strategy on a group of nine cross-categorical students who were struggling to meet the demands of the general education science classroom. The special education teacher describes her simple way of teaching the strategy and the results of the project are shown in graph form.

Subjects & Setting

This action research study was conducted in a rural K-12 public school in south Alabama serving 677 students. The student body is 90% Caucasian, 4% African American, and 6% Native American. Twelve students began the DISSECT strategy training, however only nine completed the training. Two students moved to another state. There were seven males and two females. The students were classified as specific learning disabled and mildly mentally retarded with Intellectual Quotients ranging from 95 to 67, according to Alabama and Federal regulations. These students received special education services for math, reading, and language. They were mainstreamed into the general education classroom for science, social studies, and physical education. It was in the science and social studies classes that these students began to demonstrate difficulties with content specific reading. Grades collected for the first nine weeks ending in October 5, 2000 were below average to failing grades.

Classroom Conditions

The students were scheduled into the special education classroom for spelling and basic skills instruction during the 7th period class. Students received spelling and basic skills instruction on Monday and Friday. The special education teacher collaborating with a university professor decided the DISSECT strategy would be taught for 50 minutes each day on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. The students enjoyed learning the strategy, as much as the teacher enjoyed teaching it. The students stated that they would rather practice the strategy than engage in other academic work. By the end of the second nine weeks ending December 14, 2000, the students were experiencing better grades in the science and social studies classes. The progression of moving from Step One through Step Seven took approximately ten weeks. Following the ten weeks of strategy instruction, students were given a three-week Christmas break. Upon their return in January, the strategy was reviewed, because the Generalization step had not yet occurred.

Research Methodology

Following the procedures outlined in the DISSECT manual, the special education teacher began the study by having the students tell what they found the most difficult in their general education science class. The investigators then obtained permission from the school system and parents to conduct this action research study. The Word Recognition subtest of the Peabody Individual Achievement Test-Revised (PIAT-R) was used as the pre and post-test evidence for the study as was an authentic reading passage and comprehension questions from the grade level science text. The pre-test was the spring 2000 administration and the post-test was administered in December of 2000. This was accomplished during Stage 1 of the study.

The science passage consisted of 400 words and the investigators developed ten comprehension questions for the passage. Table 1 shows the pre and post DISSECT average word reading error rate of 42.5 and a comprehension passage rate of 4.5 on the science reading passage pretest. Table 2 shows that the PIAT-R Reading Recognition pretest average number of words read by the group was 34 (range 16-65; median =31). See issue's website <>

In Stage 2 the DISSECT strategy was introduced to the students. The teacher began the session by telling the students that they were going to learn a strategy that would help them in reading the long words they encounter during the reading of their science and social studies books. The students were provided with cue cards listing the steps of the DISSECT STRATEGY and encouraging them to use the cue card until they committed the steps to memory.

During Stage 3 the teacher modeled the strategy both orally and visually for students and dissected several words independently and with the class. Students took turns coming to the board and dissecting words written on the board by the teacher. The students were encouraged to use their cue cards if they had not memorized all of the steps.

Stage 4 was used to commit the steps of the strategy to memory. This step was the most difficult for this group of students. Learning the Rules of Twos and Threes also proved to be difficult. However, after six days of verbal rehearsal using rapid-fire exercises with a "Koosh" ball outside, the students were able to demonstrate 90% accuracy for both the steps of the strategy and the Rules of Twos and Threes.

Stage 5 involved controlled practice and feedback first with independent reading material and then gradually moving the students to grade level materials they would face in the general education classrooms. The special education teacher also used small group or paired practice sessions for students who demonstrated a need for additional practice. After two weeks, they were ready to move to the next step of the strategy.

Stage 6 concentrated on using grade appropriate materials. This step in the strategy allows the students an opportunity to continue practicing the strategy while orally reading timed passages from classes they are presently attending. Passages were again selected from the students' science and social studies classes. Students were moved to the next stage when they could independently read a passage with six or fewer oral reading errors.

Stage 7 requires the teacher to post-test the students and determine if the goals of this project had been achieved. The students were again asked to read the original 400word passage and answer the 10 comprehension questions. The students were also administered the Word Recognition subtest of the PIAT-R. After discussing the results of the post-test with the students, the special education teacher obtained a commitment from each to use the strategy in their science and social studies classes as well at home when completing homework. All students made the commitment.

Intervention Results

Table 3 shows the pre and post DISSECT word recognition level as measured by the Peabody Individual Achievement Test-Revised (PIAT-R), Reading Recognition Subtest. The results are reported in raw score points, a reflection of the number of words correctly read during the administration of the PIAT-R. Raw scores were chosen as a way to communicate progress with the student, their parents, and the school administration. All students were administered the Reading Recognition subtest as part of the annual assessment in the Spring of 2001, and again at the end of the DISSECT instructional period in December of 2001 under standard testing protocol. Post-test results show that the group average for words read on the PIAT-R was 54.7

Following a nine week period of training on the DISSECT strategy, students were again given the PIAT-R Reading Recognition subtest. The raw score for each of the nine students are shown in the Post-test section of Table 3. The average difference between the pre and post-test raw score was 23.3 words. When one examines the percentage gain, one can dramatically see the increased proficiency by the student in reading unknown words. The average percent gain for the group was 56.8.

The subjects in this study also made excellent progress in reducing the number of word reading errors in the science reading passage and in comprehension of the passage. The pre-intervention average reading errors was 42.5 and the post intervention average error rate was 14.3. This represents an average reduction in errors of 33.7 percent. The subjects had an average comprehension rate of 4.5 questions answered correctly on the pretest and a post-test average of 8, or a 56.2% gain. (See Tables 1 and 2)

This group continued to work on Stage 8, Generalization, during the remainder of the school year. The teacher continued to provide examples and circumstances in which the DISSECT strategy would be useful and helpful. The students' regular classroom teachers were asked to encourage the students to use the strategy. The special education teacher also provided driver's education, hunting, boating, motorcycle license manuals, cookbooks, newspapers, magazines, and a book "Hatchet" during Phase 1: Orientation of this stage. Students liked and benefited from reading the driving, hunting and boating manuals.

The feeling that no matter how hard I try, failure will result, or as Hallahan and Kauffman (2000) defined as "learned helplessness", seemed to have been diminished. The statement heard frequently by the teacher, "This word is too hard for me ..." has almost disappeared from their vocabulary as they gained skills and confidence in the use of the strategy to read unknown words. The teaching and learning of this word decoding strategy was successful with this group of students. Not only did their individual grades improve, but motivation and self-esteem also improved. Regular classroom teachers reported that students were more confident and began to participate more in the science and social studies classroom.


The special education teacher reported that one student's mother, who was also a struggling reader, came to her and thanked her for helping both her and her son to improve their reading skills. Her son had gone home each day and shown his mother what they had learned that day in class. He and his mother practiced the strategy together each evening. Both investigators feel this was justification enough for the time spent teaching DISSECT.

The reader's attention is called to the results of this group as compared with the results reported in The Word Identification Strategy training manual by Lenz, Schumaker, Deschler, and Beals (1994) and those reported by Lenz & Hughes (1990). Lenz and colleagues demonstrated a gain in comprehension level by their subjects of approximately 30 percent. This research project exceeded the Lenz study gains and demonstrated the effectiveness of the DISSECCT strategy.


Bryant, D.P., Ugel, N., Thompson, S., & Hamff. A. (1999). Instructional strategies for content-area reading instruction. Intervention in Schools & Clinic. 34. 293-305. Retrieved 01/30/02.

Ellis, Edwin (1996). Strategy instruction for problem-solving unknown words. In D.D. Deschler, Edwin S. Ellis, & B. Keith Lenz, Teaching Adolescents with Learning Disabilities: Strategies and Methods. Denver: Love. Retrieved from LDOnline, 01/29/02.

Hallahan, D. P. & Kauffman, J.M. (2000). Exceptional Learners: Introduction to Special Education. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Lebzelter, S. & Nowacek, E. (1999). Learning strategies: Reading Disability. Intervention in Schools & Clinic. 34. 212-220. Retrieved 10/30/02.

Lenz, K. B. & Hughes, C.A. (1990). A word identification strategy for adolescents with learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 23, 149-163.

Lenz, K. B., Schumaker, J.B., Deschler, D.D., Beals, V. L. (1996). Learning Strategies Curriculum: The Word Identification Strategy. Lawrence: The University of Kansas Press.

Perfetti, C.A. (1986). Continuities in reading acquisition, reading skills and reading ability. Remedial and Special Education. 7.11-21.

Rivera, D. P. & Smith, D. D. (1997). Teaching Students with Learning and Behavior Problems (3rd ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Warner, M. M., Schumaker, J.B., Alley, G.R., & Deschler, D. D. (1980). Learning disabled adolescent in public schools: Are they different from other low achievers? Exceptional Education Quarterly. 1.27-36.

Pearson, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the department of Curriculum and Teaching Corley, Ed. S., is a special education resource teacher.
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Author:Corley, Wanda
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2002
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